Wednesday, 13 December 2017

SPK - Machine Age Sessions (2014)


I've seen SPK described in reverent terms defining them as untouchable pioneers of harsh electronic noise, and at the other end of the scale, as comical industrial chancers. On the one hand, those first two albums still take the paint off the walls like not much has done since, but on the other, SPK probably did more to inspire misuse of the letter k than even Porridge, and one of their early tracks was called Germanik, presumably on the grounds that Hitler had been German and that Germans like to march around and bark orders, so that's quite scary when you think about it. I suppose, there's also the fact of their signing to Elektra and turning into Level 42…

The way I heard it - as related by a friend who knew Graeme Revell through having spent his youth hanging out with Throbbing Gristle - was that Graeme Revell really, really, really, really wanted a sampler when they first came out, and thus reinvented himself as leather trousered metal-bashing popster so as to sign a ten album deal with Elektra for a ton of money, or something along those lines. He bought his sampler and recorded Machine Age Voodoo - which is the one that sounds like Level 42 - and then decided he wanted out of the contract; which he effected by recording the other nine albums in a couple of days. They were too shit to be released, and so Elektra let him go. That's what I heard anyway.

For what it's worth, I actually like Machine Age Voodoo. It's a bit too louche for its own good, could do with rougher edges, and is a lousy follow up to Leichenschrei, obviously; but aside from that, it's not a bad album on its own terms. In fact the worst thing about Machine Age Voodoo is that it failed to deliver on the promise of Metal Dance and those earlier forays into synthpop recorded for a John Peel session around the same time.

I've been waiting for that album for about thirty years, so it was a nice surprise to discover that it does actually exist, sort of, albeit as this bootleg - one side of Peel tracks, with a Kid Jensen session on the flip. The labels are black due to having been sneaked out of some naughty pressing plant in the dead of night, and the sleeve is minimal and underwhelming, but the quality of the pressing is wonderful.

This is the version of SPK which turned its metal-bashing to more musical ends, borrowed a sequencer from DAF, and pretty much invented all of those Front 242 types in the process. This was what Depeche Mode thought they sounded like, an adrenaline rush of frenetically grinding synth contrasting with Sinan's surprisingly beautiful, even ethereal voice while someone pounds seven shades of shit out of an oil drum. The Peel tracks are as electrifying as they were at the time of broadcast.

Then we flip over the disc to find the sessions recorded for David Jensen, or Kid as he liked to be known, the stuff which everyone seems to have forgotten. Jensen's show was broadcast exclusively on medium wave, and that's where these recordings come from, straight off the wireless - big fat muffled mono with a ton of hiss and Jensen talking over the fade out, channelling his inner Michael J. Fox like a good 'un. It would be a pain in the arse but the tracks are actually better quality here than on the thirty-year old cassette tape I still have somewhere or other, and they're also probably the worst thing Revell ever recorded so I'm not sure it matters. SPK seemed to be gearing themselves up for making a ton of money and were smoothing out their sound. The sequencers were a bit less frantic, more like something you would hear on a Karel Fialka song, the metal had been replaced with fashionable roto-toms; and yet somehow this material is difficult to dislike because it's the sound of SPK selling out as hard as they could, but not quite able to get there without sounding sarcastic. But, Can You Dance To It? - on which Revell raps like a jolly English master at a boy's school - resembles one of those local charity records which would occasionally garner five minutes coverage on a regional news show. The rest of the tracks patently represent a warm-up for Machine Age Voodoo, halting impersonations of bland synthpop hits, not quite achieving the balance and as such resembling some sort of Situationist appropriation which didn't quite work. The strangest thing is how, despite its peculiar blandness, the Jensen session is weirdly engrossing specifically because it's the very last thing you'd ever expect to hear from SPK. Strangest of all, despite its flaws, this album which never was is actually better than the soundtrack stuff he did later.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Cravats - Dustbin of Sound (2017)


The return of the Cravats with a brand new album in 2017, a full quarter century after the last thing you could describe as such - which I suppose would have been Grimetime's Spirit of Disgust, sort of - probably qualifies as improbable, but perhaps not so improbable as the possibility of said brand new album being as good as it is; and it's very fucking good indeed.

The Cravats revivification looks a lot like some old spiky tops getting back together for one of those nostalgic festivals of which there suddenly seem to be so many, working out how to play the old hits, and in doing so noticing that the spark is still there; except that I'm guessing, and that this isn't quite the Cravats as were. The Shend is naturally still present and correct, or as correct as he's ever likely to be; and there's Svor Naan, with the rest having been reconstituted from remnants of the Astronauts, the Bevis Frond, the Joyce McKinney Experience and others. At first the thought of the Cravats without Robin Dalloway seems peculiar, and given the passage of time it all adds up to something which shouldn't work; and yet work it does.

The new lads are so well suited to the job at hand that it feels as though they've probably been there all along, at least in spirit, and thus Dustbin of Sound could never, ever be mistaken for anything other than a Cravats record; and if the absence of Dalloway is discernible in any shift of emphasis, then it's only because this is a different record, just as Motortown was different to The Bushes Scream, and The Bushes Scream was different to Toytown. This one's less jazzy than they've been, more of a growling motorbike beat, but still taking your ears places few other bands will tread through the magic of saxophone squiggles, angular guitar, and the Shend opening up your brain to reattach the wires to all the wrong nodules.

I'd pick out the best tracks, but they're all great with not a dud in earshot, although I suppose All U Bish Dumpers deserves some special commendation as the one which brings a tear to my eye.

The squirrel's role was to goad idiots
toward an unidentified trestle montage.
Chemical biscuit in Neptune franchise,
oh yes.
The mud and worm college closed for good in the 1440s
with the loss of hundreds of jam jars
Look at that rocket.
Look at that rocket.

Yes, I know, and yet it feels somehow like a protest song sung with genuine feeling, the sort of thing U2 would have given their collective left bollock to have written, but which will forever be beyond them because they lack imagination. Like everything else on this record, it's - not even round, but a toffee-hammer-mammoth-bassoon shaped peg in a world of square holes. With the levelled playing field of homogenised juxtaposition as entertainment, with our ever-shrinking imaginations responding to Lady Gaga momentarily pulling a face as sooooooo random LMFAO, the Cravats remain very much a liberating cry of genuine unreason, something too weird to ever be sold back to us as a Happy Meal, and this may even be their finest album.

You should order this one from Overground Records. In fact you should probably order everything from the Overground catalogue because they're fab.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The KLF - The White Room (1991)


My suspicions were aroused way back in the eighties when an interview with the lads in some music paper revealed how they had taken to calling themselves Rockman Rock and King Boy D, just like the rappers you see on the telly, and which seemed to carry a faint stench of trying too hard. At some point I was slung a tape of 1987 (What the Fuck is Going On?) by someone who assured me it would blow my mind, which it didn't, and in fact I thought it was fucking awful. Then there was Doctorin' the Tardis which was also wank, unless you regard everything which makes a reference to Doctor Who, no matter how ham-fisted, as a work of genius. It was big, bold, crass, and populist according to theories set forth in their book about how to have a hit single, but it sounded exactly the same as their supposedly philosophically cunning underground material to me. Finally they became the KLF, most of which passed me by, excepting a version of What Time is Love? which I had on some compilation album, and which was okay, I guess.

Surprisingly, I didn't have high expectations for this record. To be fair, I didn't have any expectations, not really. The above impressions were fleeting, and there must surely be some reason for their popularity, I told myself. The White Room seems to be in all sorts of lists of best things ever, so fifty cents in a sale seemed like a risk worth taking.

Except I get the thing home and find I've bought me a fucking hip-house album, and whilst hip-house may not have been an entirely worthless genre because there are always exceptions to any given rule, it sort of was when you really think about it; and this is hip-house fused with whatever you call music recorded by middle-aged white guys utilising the voice of a black man suggesting we put the needle on the record when the drum beats go like this. Underneath it all are a couple of nods in the general direction of acid, trance, or whatever title it had been given that week. They're decent enough tracks, but as with everyone else who ever knew better through having been to art college, the KLF can't let anything simple work on its own terms and have to throw a shitload of once trend-setting tech at it as a self-conscious distraction from the fact that they might have felt more comfortable rocking out as a traditional Hawkwind covers band. Thus did we end up with stadium house, which in this case can be equated to Trevor Horn's idea of dance music, which can in turn be equated to the proverbial unidexter at an arse kicking competition in utilitarian terms. Naturally the KLF hired a bunch of marginally funkier helpers so as to keep the thing from bearing too close a resemblance to a school geography project, not least being Tony Thorpe of 400 Blows; but ultimately the best which can be said of The White Room is that it isn't quite as funny as Porridge's attempts at house music.

Excepting things involving Ken Campbell and the novels themselves, has anything good ever resulted from thematic overinvestment in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy? I'm struggling to think of anything. It might be argued that Drummond and Cauty eventually redeemed themselves with their worst artist of the year award and the spectacle of Rachel Whiteread puckering her mouth into a dog's bottom of disdain as she grudgingly accepted all that lovely lolly whilst loudly announcing that it would of course be given to starving artists, because it matters that they shouldn't have to get real fucking jobs like normal people; but that came after and as such provides little consolation as one struggles to get through the full, terrible forty-three minutes of this bollocks.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Boomtown Rats (1977)


Many years ago I was in the habit of regular posting on a Doctor Who forum, but packed it in because it got too depressing with all but a minority of fans apparently suffering from a form of arrested development leaving them bitter, surly, and tending to fixate on the things of childhood to the point of Fascism. Weirder still was how self-important so many of them could get about shit which just wouldn't matter to anyone sane, necessitating the forum imposing draconian rules - no pun intended - regarding personal attacks of such rigour that somebody was actually banned for insulting Adolf Hitler; and I really wish I'd made that up. Unfortunately this only inspired the membership to find ever more devious means by which to troll their fellows, resulting in what might conceivably be the most concentrated region of passive-aggression on the entire internet. Anyway, to get to the point, I held my ground in the music section for a while, that being where the people I've bothered to stay in touch with tended to hang out; but even that got to be a bit too much in the end, as each week brought a whole new selection of extraordinarily dispiriting thread titles hinting at the ruthlessly conservative psychology of the majority of the membership. There was Sonia's Back!, and Oh My Gosh - it's Mika!, and the one which still gets me, Best Boomtown Rats Album? presumably complete with a poll.

This last one bothered me partially because it belongs so firmly to that part of the world in which people haven't yet realised that Alan Partridge was a parody, but partially because it's hard enough liking the Boomtown Rats as it is without a bunch of hopeless wankers stood behind you wearing clothes their mum bought for them, grinning and giving you the thumbs up to show that you're one of the gang. Just half an hour ago I happened upon a YouTube clip of unexpected praise for punk rock from numerous establishment popsters of the late seventies, and there's Cliff fucking Richard heaping praise on the Boomtown Rats. I'd actually forgotten how much I hated Cliff Richard.

The Boomtown Rats came along at just the right time, at least from the viewpoint of selling records to kids of my admittedly impressionable age group. They were a bit of a mess, like a gang of Irish Bash Street Kids, and they pulled faces on the telly; but there was nothing to which one's parents could legitimately object because they were never really a punk band, despite spiky hair and one of them dangerously wearing his jimjams on stage. They were actually more or less a Rolling Stones tribute act and as such could be enjoyed on the strength of their musicianship and finely crafted songs by old farts, or indeed anyone who'd never quite understood the point of the Damned. Listen close enough and you have to wonder if someone hadn't been listening to Queen, what with the call and response and those vocal harmonies.

I didn't have a telly between 1984 and about 1993, and nor did I share a house with anyone who did have a telly, so I missed most of the stuff which might have tainted my already conditional regard of Bob Geldof, meaning I'm still able to listen to Boomtown Rats albums without too much baggage getting in the way, beyond their having been treasured amongst certain Doctor Who fans who really wish it was still 1973, back when everything was better than it is now; which is probably why this one still sounds pretty fucking decent, at least to me.

Of course, it's nothing surprising, nothing you haven't heard elsewhere. The Boomtown Rats debut album is essentially a Rolling Stones tribute act at the height of its powers, the right selection of familiar rock 'n' roll hooks, and a singer vaguely impersonating Bob Dylan, but doing it all in such a way as to enable suspension of disbelief, or at least as to enable the suspension of my disbelief when I was fourteen and Dean Howe flogged me this because he'd discovered either Iron Maiden or AC/DC or something which sounded a bit less like Bruce Springsteen; and it still sounds good, even exciting on more pumped up numbers such as Kicks, Looking After Number One, and so on. The one with the hairbrush allergy may have given his kids stupid names and pissed on his chips more than once in recent years, but he once made an album so good as to prove impervious to subsequent associations; and let us also take into consideration that he presently annoys the living shit out of Jonty UKIP Lydon, which has to count for something.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

400 Blows - The New Lords on the Block (1989)


It all seemed so promising when they first showed up with Beat the Devil, and then reviews hinted at influences taking in both Chic and Throbbing Gristle, and then there was Andrew Edward Beer's declaration of intent in the booklet accompanying Larry Peterson's Sudden Surge of Power compilation tape.

What I strive for in the confines of each piece of music is something which is best described by a term I apply to music and sound which can reach a level of perfection, and which I call universal sound and rhythm. It is rather like watching a tape level read out. I try to hit the peak of music and reach that same plateau of perfection which is so evident in the best of Sun Ra, Fela Kuti, Steve Reich and Erik Satie; and similar is another type of music which has incorporated these peaks and perfected them over centuries of improvisation, the folk music of Great Britain and Eire.

Like much of the work above, it is more an atmosphere which is created about the piece than actually trying to get from A to B and back again, then quickly fade the song. As the composer Charles Ives said, 'individual notes do not matter so much as the spirit'. This is why we use tapes so much, for they can express in a word or sound experiences and things which would need much explaining in lyrical form before the listener would begin to understand the significance.

We do not only want to reach a musical purity, for individual sounds can mean as much; but we are wary of a perfect form of music, for nothing should ever be perfect, the ultimate, the masterplan...

Although we are still a small band, we record in large twenty-four track studios and use some expensive equipment because these facilities need to be there so that we are not restricted, and all channels of sound and rhythm can be at our fingertips. Even so we may end up using very few tracks and performing on maybe only one or two instruments. We go into the studio with a minimum of information, but with many ideas and begin from there. We are as much manipulators of sound as players of instruments*.

Then they released The Return of the Dog, still one of the greatest singles of all time so far as I'm concerned - beat driven, sophisticated, luxurious, and resembling nothing else I've heard before or since. 400 Blows were funky, but an entirely different concern to all those Sheffield dudes parping away on their trumpets in Bundeswehr vests. There was something legitimately jazzy about the Blows, and with hindsight their early outings make me think of a sort of northern soul equivalent to what 23 Skidoo were up to around the same time.

They followed The Return of the Dog with Declaration of Intent, a single which, if not quite so astonishing, nevertheless succeeded as postscript to a record which otherwise made everything else released that year sound shit; and then the album came out and it was all over.

If I Kissed Her I'd Have To Kill Her First, wasn't terrible, but it was massively underwhelming and as such the last thing anyone could have expected from a band capable of coming up with The Return of the Dog. It sounded like they were pissing about in an expensive studio, which I suppose was exactly what they were doing. It sounded as though they'd ran out of ideas.

The Return of the Dog seemed rich, exotic, and even expensive in 1983, particularly through vague descent from a parent genre then busily following the New Blockaders down an unusually noisy rabbit hole full of tape hiss and distortion. They achieved a reasonable impersonation of Shakatak and the like with the next few singles, and an arguably efficient cover of Movin' by Brass Construction, and then inevitably they discovered house music contemporaneous to every other white guy with a Yamaha drum machine deciding that it looked easy and that he could do that, no sweat. So by the time The New Lords on the Block came out, possibly as some sort of New Kids related pun, that once expensive sound was now churning forth from the bedroom or garden shed of every other midi-fixated post-industrial disco boy; and it seems not insignificant that Concrete Productions, originally their label, had taken to releasing Funky Alternatives, a series of compilations which - like 400 Blows themselves - began well before devolving into a series of generic orchestral stabs over sampled beats with tapes of American televangelists wailing away in the background. I mean, Pop Will Eat Itself were on one of the later volumes, for fuck's sake…

I owned a copy of If I Kissed Her I'd Have To Kill Her First at some point but got rid of it on the grounds of being unable to remember why I'd bought it. I still own a copy of this one, although I can't actually remember buying it, but I guess I held onto it because it never sounds quite as bad as I expect it to be. There are no less than two remixes of The Return of the Dog, nearly a decade old by this point, neither adding anything worthwhile to the original; and there are a couple of what I suppose were intended as atmospheric pieces, just tapes of film dialogue with a few effects which sound as though they were included mainly for the sake of using up some studio time which had already been paid for; and then there's the house music resembling everything else recorded in 1991. Listening close, it's possible to discern a few unique polyrhythmic touches which seem to recall the luxurient imagination of their glory days, or possibly day; and although the album grows with repeat listening, the best that can be said about it is probably that it gives a decent account of how good the record should have been, but wasn't.

Shame.

*: This text has been fairly extensively edited for spelling, grammar, and an approach to punctuation which seems to have been undertaken in homage to Hugo Ball.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

23 Skidoo - The Culling is Coming (1983)


I have no excuse for not having bought this at the time, barring - I suppose - being skint due to having bought other records or paid rent or whatever. As promised in vaguely remembered reviews, it's nothing like Seven Songs, except actually it sort of is, but mainly in spirit. There was a period of about six months when 23 Skidoo were seemingly regarded as a sort of baby Throbbing Gristle, partially by association in a social sense, but also sharing some areas of interest. The Culling is Coming reminds me of Second Annual Report to a much greater extent than anything else they ever recorded, whilst also representing an affirmation of 23 Skidoo as very much a unique proposition in its own right.

The Culling is Coming comprises a couple of live improvised performances and, being awkward buggers, the lads punctuate one of these with a lock groove halfway through side one, requiring that the listener get up and move the needle on; so it's a little like having a three-sided album. The music derives from loops of rough sound - some treated, tapes, atonal thigh-bone trumpets, and Gamelan instrumentation - or possibly percussive objects found laying around in the days before anyone had heard of metal bashing. It should be a complete fucking racket in the sense of the New Blockaders being a complete fucking racket, and yet there's enough tonal contrast from dark to light, heavy to soft, that it has a definite musical sensibility, or at least a sense of progression; and this is why The Culling is Coming reminds me of Second Annual Report. There's not much you can actually hum on the way to work, but after a couple of spins it all gets ground into your inner ear in a way which sticks.

The album has the same sort of beauty one might find staring at a plate of rusted metal for a couple of minutes; and it's really not such a leap of imagination to recognise this as a relative of the same drone you will have heard in the undergrowth of Seven Songs and Urban Gamelan. In some sense, it's almost an inversion of what much allegedly industrial music has done, in that it goes beyond the powerplay of noise, texture, shock, and awe to reveal a delicate perfection in the detail; and apparently I've just turned into Paul fucking Morley. Still, this was one of the absolute finest records of its admittedly nebulous genre, and it should be remembered as such.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

J.J. Burnel - Euroman Cometh (1979)


I had some reservations. Much as I've loved the Stranglers, they had distinct periods of experimentation with being macho shitheads, and more recently I encountered Hitler salutes delivered in praise of Euroman Cometh on a peculiar blog constituting an assemblage of quotes of far right inclination. Mostly it was excerpts from interviews in which various members of Killing Joke proposed which demographic groups they would like to see sent to a hypothetical gas chamber, mainly referring to fairies, effeminate types, nancy boys, anyone who likes Boy George, people who listen to pouffy music, other fairies who have somehow eluded the initial sweep, over and over - what larks! It was hard to work out whether the author of the blog had compiled all of this material as evidence for the prosecution, or because he too wished to see fairies sent to some hypothetical gas chamber, but the suggestion of Euroman Cometh being cut from the same jackbooted cloth was troubling, particularly in the wake of certain fat folky fuckers who just happen to be stood on stage in black uniforms singing about how they quite like Europe.

Thankfully I was mistaken, as I probably would have realised had I bought this at the time. Burnel's Crabs sounded great on the Strangler's Christmas EP, but apparently not so great as to inspire me to buy the album, but never mind. Euroman Cometh is thematically a call for European unity as a progressive and essentially inclusive entity, a refutation of American influence and the more unpleasant episodes of recent European history; and even Burnel's motorbike fixation is turned to a restatement of this ideal on the cover:

The Triumph Workers Co-operative at Meriden have proved that personally motivated enterprise coupled with group interest is a necessary ingredient in successful socialism and the sham they call national socialism could only be suggested and perpetrated by enemies of the people.

See, Dougie - that's all it fucking takes, you goose-stepping wanker.

Musically speaking, Euroman could almost be a Stranglers album, albeit one with a subtle shift of emphasis in the direction of the European sensibility it strives to communicate, so it growls and swaggers just as you would expect whilst somehow invoking Metal Urbain, Grauzone, and other cold wave types who added grumbling bass to one of those primitive rhythm machines which was usually just a wooden box with a button marked rhumba on the side. Strangely, the only minor disappointment is that the studio version of Crabs isn't quite so convincing as the live version which accompanied the release of Don't Bring Harry; but this is otherwise a fucking cracker.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Spandau Ballet - Journeys to Glory (1981)


We read in the weekly music paper about how they were all the rage down in that London, but it was difficult to hear them over the sound of Judas Priest, Saxon, and the Wurzels around our way, so their impact was reduced. We smirked at them in their tartan blouses on Top of the Pops, but truthfully we weren't that bothered, and I bought The Freeze because it sounded a bit like Joy Division; and a handful of approximately decent singles followed before they turned into Val Doonican's warm-up act. Toes were tapped but ultimately it was hard to care, meaning that I'd never really thought about Spandau Ballet for longer than five seconds - excepting periods of meditation upon my hatred of Robert Elms which probably don't count; and thusly over a thirty-year period didst Spandau Ballet eventually accrue mystery sufficient as to warrant my noticing this in the Half-Price racks and wondering what it was like.

The thing which surprised me most is how pedestrian they sound, some new wave band you might have heard rehearsing in the village hall beefed up with a big production and - oh - looks like Santa brought someone a synthesiser for Christmas; and yet this was once thought to be what comes next. We had seen the future, and it was a little bit like what you hear when you turn over to BBC2 and watch the test card for a while. With hindsight, it was all very Alan Partridge.

Okay, that's a little harsh. Journeys to Glory is not without its qualities, and there was probably a point at which it sounded important and forward looking when played in some self-involved club or other; and musically it's fairly decent, but the problem is that Tony Hadley is simply a fucking awful singer. Technically he's wonderful but, to paraphrase my friend Andrew J. Duncan, there's nothing wrong with his voice and that's what's wrong with his voice. He sounds like a million other technically perfect bellowing and hooting Brentwood's Got Talent contestants, but that's all he does. There's neither range, subtlety, nor soul, regardless of how closely he sonically resembles the somewhat superior Alison Moyet. If they revised this with all of the vocals re-recorded by some guy caught having a poo in the alley outside the studio, it might be remembered as a classic, as opposed to the first album by that New Romantic band who weren't as good as Duran Duran.

I'm still going to buy the second one if I see it though. Instinction was mint.

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.