Thursday, 23 February 2017

Mex - Intense Living (1981)

Mex should require no introduction, but then by the same token the Annoying Orange shouldn't be president, so if he does then I refer you to the reviews I wrote as reproduced here and here so as to avoid having to repeat myself.

Intense Living was the second album and it's a huge pleasure to have it remastered and on a fancy compact disc and everything. As with Alternative Pop Music, it's still a little rough around the edges and I suppose might be termed lo-fi if you want to make a virtue out of the fact - which always struck me as a bit pointless, personally speaking; but the material and the sheer joy and punky spirit of the whole enterprise - or possibly post-punky spirit - should compensate for how difficult it is to hear Cliff Silver's wristwatch ticking away during the quiet parts. Where the first tape was mostly just Mex, so far as I recall, this one was Mex aided by the aforementioned Cliff Silver from Sad Lovers & Giants, and with a live drummer - or possibly a tape of a live drummer - and it's very different. In fact, it was very different to every other tape I bought that year.

I seem to recall my corner of 1981 involving a lot of long coats, many of them worn by myself, some sucking-in of the cheeks, and a fairly austere embrace of the return to year zero proposed by punk, or by some elements of punk. In the mean time, Mex had added shameless disco to the ingredients of his pop perfectionism, and not even the studiously cool kind of disco favoured by chiselled Mancunians with trumpets. I'm talking walking basslines, wah-pedal funk, flares, glitter balls, and a synth borrowed straight from the Open University Department of Television Signature Tunes. Add to this Mex's occasional Duane Eddyisms and somewhat whispy - at least on this occasion - vocals, and the result was a tape which just didn't sound like anything else in my collection, and didn't even seem like it was trying to sound like anything else.

Some of it has dated, I suppose - the short-wave radio twiddling of Alien Transmission - but not in a bad way, and the whole nevertheless sounds as great now as it did back then. If you require references, it might be argued that the first Denim album had something of Intense Living about it, and there are bits which remind me of LCD Soundsystem; but I'm reaching, because neither of those were ever embedded in my consciousness quite like Sea of Green, Full of Eastern Promise, or Keith in America.

Genuinely wonderful.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Ghost - Opus Eponymous (2010)

You've probably seen the pictures - a sort of demonic skeletal pope fronting a band of five identically anonymous guys in devil masks known only as the Nameless Ghouls. You may have wondered what they sounded like, or not as the case may be. I didn't because I assumed it would almost certainly be some guy throwing up into a food mixer as a thousand overdriven guitars thrashed out grunting riffs at five-hundred miles an hour; but a regular reader suggested I might like to give this a listen, and so I did, partially due to feeling a little guilty about all the fun I've had taking the piss out of Al Jourgensen whilst knowing said regular reader to be quite the fan; and partially out of a slightly craven sense of gratitude for the fact of my now apparently having a regular reader.

Amazingly, aside from a general enthusiasm for Satan, Ghost sound nothing like I expected, and I mean not one single box ticked - not even the same ballpark. Death metal seems a little bit of a stretch, as does black metal when you consider the names ordinarily associated with the genre; really it's more like the sort of thing which would be arbitrarily labelled heavy metal back when Black Sabbath were still something new. Ghost seem to recognise the musical arms race which has resulted in bands like Marduk and other church-burning types as a bit of a mug's game. It seems to have begun with the pursuit of pointless widdley-widdley guitar solo virtuosity - the sort of thing which only a complete fucking bore could ever appreciate - then going from one extreme to another until you end up with what may as well be someone grunting whilst stood next to a cement mixer. Ghost have wound it all back to a time predating even the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, resulting in hard rock with a few proggy touches invoking the Glitter Band at least as much as Strapping Young Lad. The customary grunting and growling is eschewed in favour of a beautiful, clear voice, not quite so operatic as to be annoying but more in that direction than you might expect from a guy dressed as a demonic pope. Musically, it almost touches on Queen or even the Who from around the time of Tommy; and it really is pop - all the darkly chugging riffs and the vocal harmonies and the pseudo-psychedelic swirl of a church organ. Once you start listening to this thing, it's difficult to stop.

Of course, the raw pop appeal contrasts dramatically with both the subject matter and a bizarre image amounting to a metal equivalent of the Residents. Thematically, it's Satan all the way - Antichrists, Elizabeth Bathory, omens, witches, the black goat with a thousand young, and all that other good stuff which once kept Hammer Films in business. I'm mainly accustomed to Satanism as a sort of intellectual game played by slightly inadequate misanthropes who took Ayn Rand too seriously, so I've never given much thought to the possibility of it being an actual religion as an inversion of Christianity - as opposed to just kids flashing their arses from the rear window of the coach during a school trip. If it is an actual religion in some sense, then I suppose Ghost might be its representatives. They sound serious, but then they would do, I suppose. It could be the genuine thing or it could be Spinal Tap, and for me that's their great strength, thematically speaking - there's just no knowing beyond that we're clearly expected to have a blast listening to it, which we do.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Skids - Days in Europa (1979)

With hindsight, I wonder if it was this album which pretty much finished off the Skids. I don't particularly recall any widespread public reaction against the initial release of the record sporting a cover looking one hell of a lot like Nazi propaganda, but then I was fourteen at the time so maybe I wouldn't. The Absolute Game, the album which came after, sold better, but they otherwise seemed to have disappeared off the mainstream radar by that point. It can't have helped that Richard Jobson was clearly fascinated by the period of European history between the wars, and particularly the art. There seems to have been quite a lot of it around at the time, what with Bauhaus and then various New Romantic types invoking that whole cabaret thing. Jobson dismissed suggestions of Nazi sympathies as nonsense, as of course he would, and I have to say there's nothing on this album suggesting the sort of dubious nostalgia peddled by Death in June and the like. Mostly it seems to be about the contrast of the optimism and even idealism of that era - regardless of the thrust of at least some of that idealism - with how it all turned to shit, so far as I can make out. Thematically a lot of Skids material seems to have been about beautiful losers by one definition or another.

And the memory shall linger,
And the memory shall fall,
It was a day in Europa,
My regression recalls.

Hail to the mighty, the ritual begins,
Hail to Apollo, the cleanser of sins,
Hail to Europa, she always wins.

So far, so Von Thronstahl, but the key is probably - at least hopefully - in the delivery, which is more the ruined decadence of Diamond Dogs than Laibach. I suppose it's possible that someone might genuinely have been simply exploring contentious ideas and images, and given Jobson's parallel obsessions with Busby Berkeley and Wilfred Owen, I'm going to assume that was the case for the sake of argument; but also because we've all forgiven David Bowie, and musicians are by definition mostly idiots who do stupid shit without any appreciation of the consequences; and as an optimist I'm applying this to any subsequent records which may or may not have had the word joy in the title.

The Skids were musically a massive glam stomp scored to what seemed like the world's biggest guitar - the late Stuart Adamson's somehow characteristically Scottish riffing which can't really be described without mentioning bagpipes - big slabs of sound bisecting each bar like the abstract forms of constructivist art. It invokes a certain Celtic cultural identity although thankfully expressed without being at the expense of anyone else's cultural identity; and it's given form by Jobson enthusiastically hooting away like a big, happy modernist bloodhound - ever a champion of style as substance. Away from the Skids, Adamson's music donned a traditional fisherman's sweater then deteriorated into folksy homilies about women called Morag forlornly awaiting the return of Johnny from the wars, but let's not dwell on that.

Aside from the kerfuffle invoked by albums with pictures of Aryan sporting personalities on the cover, and the unfortunate patronage of national socialist wingnuts like Von Thronstahl, Days in Europa is actually not so good as it really should have been with Bill Nelson at the desk - amazing singles and then some other tracks, but really nothing like so convincing as either Scared to Dance or The Absolute Game. I probably could have saved myself a lot of trouble had I dug out one of those for a spin, but never mind.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Placebo (1996)

This may have been the last decent vinyl album I bought before farsighted music biz Nostradami declared the medium dead and forevermore fit only for saaad mylar-bagged trainspotters with creases ironed in their underpants. I say decent vinyl album here to mean one which played fine and which hadn't been pressed on vinyl distilled from recycled squeezy bottles - as was the case with albums I bought by both Nine Inch Nails and the Spice Girls which sounded like they had been mastered on a Woolworths C60 found at the bottom of an old suitcase; and there's probably some kind of poetry in there somewhere, Placebo being a cross between Nine Inch Nails and the Spice Girls, a bit.

I understand Brian Molko to be something of a tool - according to the testimony of at least one friend - and I additionally have the problem of trying hard not to recall their subsequent transformation into one of those turdy indie festival mainstays beloved of Jo Whiley and similar vessels of corporate spontaneity, particularly with that fucking abominable friend with weed single, whatever it was called; so I'm restoring my ears to an earlier setting, back to when they played Nancy Boy on Top of the Pops causing me to flounce down to the record shop and nab this before the place was converted into a branch of Iceland. I may be remembering wrongly, but mainstream rock had spent the previous couple of years turning itself back into bumfluff heavy metal but without either the tunes or the sense of humour - an endless parade of shuffling Barrys wiping their noses on their sleeves and jangling out a few vaguely baggy chords during the metalwork lesson. Rock was succumbing to testosterone poisoning and this seemed momentarily like an antidote - not only joyously faggy, but joyously faggy with a terrifying attitude problem.

Placebo's strength was in wringing something so catchy and hooky from what, on close inspection, was actually kind of self-involved and cranky, a glam post-grunge drone of oddball guitar snob chords with more than a whiff of Albini about it; and doing it without the lumberjack shirts or BO. In other words it was the contrast between hard and soft - the bruised intensity of Albini's Shellac, yet unashamedly effeminate. As an album, this one feels like some sort of emotional breakdown with tunes. It's all over the shop and yet remains beautiful and elegant from start to finish.

It was downhill from this point on, from what I heard, but it probably doesn't matter. Not many bands start off this well.