I wish the ape a lot of success.
Stereo Sisterhood / Blog Graveyard:
- After The Sabbath ; All Ages ; Another Nickel ; Bachelor ; BangtheBore ; Beard (R.I.P.) ; Beyond The Implode (R.I.P.) ; Black Editions ; Black Time ; Bull ; Cocaine & Rhinestones ; Dancing ; DCB ; Destination:Out (R.I.P.) ; Did Not Chart ; Diskant (R.I.P.) ; DIYSFL ; Dreaming (R.I.P.?) ; Dusted in Exile ; Every GBV LP ; Flux ; Free ; Freq ; F-in' Record Reviews ; Garage Hangover ; Gramophone ; Grant ; Head Heritage ; Heathen Disco/Doug Mosurock ; Jonathan ; KBD ; Kulkarni ; Landline/Jay Babcock ; Last Days (R.I.P.) ; Lexicon Devil ; Lost Prom (R.I.P.?) ; LPCoverLover ; Midnight Mines ; Musique Machine ; Mutant Sounds (R.I.P.?) ; Nick Thunk :( ; Norman ; Peel ; Plan B (R.I.P) ; PSF ; Quietus ; Science ; Teleport City ; Terminal Escape ; Terrascope ; Tome ; Transistors ; Ubu ; Upset ; Vibes ; WFMU (R.I.P.) ; XRRF (occasionally resurrected). [If you know of any good rock-write still online, pls let me know.]
Thursday, June 06, 2019
An Evening with
Roky Erickson & The Explosives
(no label / year unknown)
Price paid: £5 from a record fair in a gymnasium in Leicester, circa 2004-ish.
At the time I spied this LP, Roky Erickson’s solo career was still very much an unknown to me. Of course, I already knew and loved the work of The 13th Floor Elevators (I have a budget two-fer CD package bought from a Borders clearout sale at an impressionable age to thank for that one), but beyond that…? I was vaguely aware that the guy had made some scattered recordings subsequent to his release from Rusk State mental hospital in the mid-70s, but – to their eternal shame - none of the sources I relied upon for musical guidance at the time had clued me into the fact that this music might be worth tracking down and listening to.
Since then, both reissues of Roky’s ‘official’ discography and his surprise re-emergence as an active presence in the world circa 2007 have helped to raise the profile of his solo work to some extent, but if you ask me, it STILL doesn’t get its due, and, back in the early ‘00s, this disc felt like some way-out, marginal shit, lurking on the fringes of the cult-rock canon; a shrugged off footnote to the litany of collapse and mental illness that ended every potted Elevators biog.
As such, I had no idea what I was getting into. “Oh, that guy from The 13th Floor Elevators who went crazy,” I remember thinking to myself. “I wonder what he got up to after the band broke up?”
Even in those pre-vinyl revival days, £5 seemed like a strikingly low sum to fork out for an answer to that question, so I took the plunge, returning to my dusty, rented garret and only to drop the needle and discover THE BEST ANSWER I could possibly have imagined.
I had been expecting, I suppose, merely a curio – some damaged, acid casualty folk meanderings would have been my best guess. So, you can imagine the joy I felt being hit full on by the raging, high energy distorto-choogle of ‘The Wind And More’, and realising that Roky Erickson had actually spent the decade following his incarceration crafting an awe-inspiring catalogue of raw, punkoid heavy rock songs dealing with vampires, zombies and the wiles of Satan, and indeed had performed them with raucous gusto, backed up here by what sounds like the most shit-hot bar band in the entire universe. Holy cow!
Why didn’t anyone TELL ME he was this great?, I remember thinking. As I proceeded to dig deeper into some of Rykodisc’s CD reissues, discovering the sinister, synapse-blazing wonders of Two Headed Dog, I Think of Demons and I Have Always Been Here Before, my disbelief at the fact that Roky Erickson wasn’t enthroned amid the highest pantheon of weirdo rock’n’roll royalty only grew. I mean, whichever way you approach it, this shit is just amazing. These records are raw and uncouth and mind-bogglingly strange, but, through all his travails, the guy’s aesthetic vision remained pure, whilst, in terms of melodic song-writing, he just knocked out hit after hit after hit.
All these years later though, I still think that this shady bootleg, of uncertain provenance and unknown recording date, remains one of the strongest Roky performances ever captured on tape, and one of the best possible introductions to his particular thing.
As his fans will be painfully aware, Roky’s tempestuous mental health made the quality of his live appearances pretty hit and miss, to say the least. I was lucky enough to see him perform on three separate occasions following his surprise come-back in 2007, and, though he was by all accounts experiencing a greater degree of personal stability than he had enjoyed in decades, it was still pretty eerie to hear him perform his songs in perfect, note-for-note fashion, dutifully recreating every slurred line and vocal tic of the studio-recorded versions, before staring vacantly into the middle distance once the applause died down, not saying a word, and often relying on his band members to prompt him by whispering the title of the next song in his ear. (Those who have attended Brian Wilson concerts during the 21st century will quite possibly have noticed the same phenomenon.)
By contrast, the performance presented on ‘An Evening With..’ finds Roky on absolutely top form, sounding sharp, energised and clearly in the mood for some ad-libs and improvisation. (I STILL don’t know where and when this album was recorded by the way, but The Explosives began acting as Roky’s backing band from 1978 through to the beginning of his “lost years” in the early/mid ‘80s, so… probably sometime around then.) (1)
“The Hells Angels at the Mick Jagger concert…. stabbing the girl at Altamont!” he exclaims, apropos of nothing, during the instrumental coda to opener ‘The Wind And More’ (basic fact checking = not a Roky specialty). This song, apparently written in celebration of Luciferian powers of telekinesis, has incidentally become one of my favourites in Roky’s horror-rock repertoire, and it gets a great extended work-out here.
“The forces of evil are in full sway!”, he cheerfully declares as the ominous, opening chords of ‘Night of the Vampire’ kick in, and indeed, the old boy seems to have been having a whale of a time, his rhythm guitar ringing our rude, loud and in perfect time. Encouraged perhaps by this, the band seem to be at their ease and proceed to play a veritable blinder. (2)
Lead guitarist Cam King is, it must be said, very dominant here. Building on the tricky lead lines devised by Duane Aslaksen of Roky’s prior backing band The Aliens, King takes things to what I think can be safely deemed “the next level”, packing every available second of these recordings with grandstanding, soar-with-the-eagles shred. Crucially however, he never steps on his boss’s toes, and remains in sympathy always with the spirit and melody of the songs. A perfect “church key” accompanist, he brings a variety and excitement to the sound that keeps even the gruelling, mantra-like repetition of the eight minute ‘Stand For The Fire Demon’ sounding fresh.
At the end of the side one, goaded on by shouted requests from a woman in the crowd, the band even take a shot at ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’. “This is a song they play in old Baptist church houses, on the old wooden organ..” Roky rambles by way of an introduction, before being cut off by The Explosives, who proceed to transform the song’s immortal four chord stomp (one of the first things I ever learned to play on the guitar, incidentally) into a punkoid juggernaut so joyous it almost succeeds in eclipsing the original Spades and Elevators versions in my affections, aided by King’s valiant attempt to recreate the inimitable sound of Tommy Hall’s “electric jug” by means of some high velocity, tremolo neck-tapping.
I believe it was Jad Fair who once said that there are only two kinds of songs that matter, love songs and monster songs, and rarely has an artist taken that ethos to heart quite so thoroughly as Roky Erickson. Another thing then that helps make this bootleg so great is that it’s track list takes the time to highlight the oft-overlooked former aspect of his catalogue. In between the scarifying odes to gremlins, ghosts and demons, each side of the LP contains a beautiful example of Roky’s gentler balladry, reminding us that, in a kinder, less weird world, he could easily have enjoyed an alternative career as a romantic pop troubadour, slotting straight into the specifically Texan tradition of Buddy Holly and Bobby Fuller.
‘For You’, on the A side, is in particular a wonderful song, and Roky’s stuttering declaration that “the other girls were around / but I never tried to score” [because] “I'd stay completely true / I who would wait forever / wait for you” is incredibly touching – a disarmingly sweet flip-side to the kind of swaggering, travellin' band machismo we’d reasonably expect from this brand of OTT ‘70s heavy rock, and a reminder that, in a weird sort of way, Roky also often feels like a spiritual precursor to the oddball, heart-on-sleeve stylings of the aforementioned Mr Fair, or to his sometime movie buddy Daniel Johnson.
(Insofar as I’m aware, this was ‘For You’s first recorded appearance, although it was reprised in slightly altered form on Roky’s excellent 1995 ‘comeback’ album All That May Do My Rhyme, a beautiful set which concentrates primarily on his love songs, and is well worth tracking down.)
At the complete other end of the scale meanwhile, Side B also contains what I feel is one of the best available versions of the oft-recorded Bloody Hammer, arguably the definitive statement of Roky’s post-hospital era, and a singular landmark of post-traumatic outsider art / heavy metal damage. It’s impossible to fully compartmentalise the disorientating rush of mixed emotions embodied in this song, but, like the very best of the horror movies Roky loved so much, it is a pretty overpowering experience, both exhilarating / empowering and sickeningly disturbing.
Marking what I think is the only instance of Roky explicitly addressing the nightmare of his incarceration and electro-shock “therapy” in his lyrics (“I am the doctor / I am the psychiatrist / to make sure they don’t hammer their minds out”), the song’s implications of real world abuse swiftly dissolve into a terrifying melange of incoherent horror imagery (“the baby ghost in the 1900s says, beat it with your chain!”) that, paradoxically, feel far too much like a raw wound for its public airing as a rock n’ roll freakout to seem at all comfortable.
For all that some may see a bottomless, Mansonite black hole at the heart of Roky’s music though, he – and, by extension, we – can take strength from the fact that, in spite of all the ugly obstacles placed in his path, he never went fully over the dark side. For all the shrieking demons he conjured on stage, he never lost his natural gentleness, or his stuttering, schoolboy naivety. As he is determined to tell us, even in this darkest corner of his songbook, “I never have that bloody hammer”.
Throughout his life, Roky Erickson treaded a harder road than most of us can imagine, but by embracing his demons and inviting them out to party, he came through it smiling, with his amp roaring, ready to entertain, and may God and Satan alike bless him for that.
Throughout the halcyon years of file-sharing, I searched in vain for a ripped mp3 copy of ‘An Evening with Roky Erickson & The Explosives’, longing to carry it around with me and plunder it for mix CDs. After much frustration, I finally discovered that the exact same recording is in fact far better known under the seemingly arbitrary title of ‘Casting The Runes’, and that it first appeared in 1987 (see footnote below), and subsequently on CD during the ‘90s.
You can listen to it in its entirety on Youtube here, and you know what? If anything I’ve written above remotely interests you, you REALLY, REALLY should.
After that, you will naturally want to hear more, so I would recommend atoning for your bootlegging sins by buying some of the official Roky Erickson reissues, from which his family and estate will hopefully receive some royalties. (Gremlins Have Pictures would be my number # 1 pick for beginners.)
An Evening with Roky Erickson & The Explosives gets the square root of a zillion kaleidoscopic thumbs ups, and an eternal, three-eyed love triangle stare.
(1)Whilst researching this post, I have finally ascertained that the tracks on this LP were recorded at the Soap Creek Saloon, Austin TX, on November 27th 1979, and at the Rock Island club in Houston on December 22nd 1979. The recordings were made by David Hough for use in a planned documentary entitled ‘Meeting with an Alien’, and Edwin “Savage Pencil” Pouncey provided sleeve notes for the first LP release under the title ‘Casting the Runes’, which appeared in 1987. Thanks Discogs!
(2) We should put in a word here about Erickson’s fondness for excessive volume and full spectrum guitar distortion when playing in a band context – an element that lends a hair-raising proto-punk kick to his earliest solo recordings. Throughout his post-hospital years, Roky reportedly used blaring noise from TVs and radios as a kind of DIY therapy, and his maximalist approach to guitar-playing (pretty rare in children of the ‘60s) seems to have reflected this, to the extent that, during a series of ill-fated Elevators reunion gigs in the early ‘70s, the other band members were forced to rig up a system that allowed them to covertly turn his amp down, because otherwise he’d just crank all the dials to ten and deafen everybody. (This story is recalled from the book ‘Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and The 13th Floor Elevators, Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound’ by Paul Drummond, which came out in 2007 and is a *great* read, albeit a rather expensive one at the time of writing (reprint please!)).
Saturday, June 01, 2019
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
For you, I cool the streets with the wind at night
In the day I beat with the sun on the cobblestones
And cool the wind of the Nile at night
The earth, I fill with diamonds, plus light
To say they never, ever bite
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
With you, god shows me his wife
Lucifer and the mother of witches
In marriage they unite
My gremlins, color purple after light
To say they never, ever bite
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
May ninth, 1976, Satan came to earth on a May night
Gremlins have pictures, of the anniversary of Christ
The square root of zero, is something smaller than zero
which keeps getting smaller, keeps him out of sight, his soul
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
Unfortunately I’m not really in a position to compose a proper obit post right now, but watch this space—appropriate tribute will be coming soon.
To jump on the line that will no doubt figure in about 98% of social media obits - we’re gonna miss him, baby.
Sunday, May 26, 2019
Not Quite So Old EPs:
Louder Than a Thousand Deaths
(Me Saco Un Ojo, 2012)
Price paid: £7 (Rat Records, Camberwell)
A long-standing – if rarely applied – rule of my record shopping exploits is that any record featuring a picture of some Space Marines or other Warhammer type fantasy battle characters on the front will be automatically purchased. (Yeah, I know, keep me away from those Bolt Thrower reissues…)
In part, this is a childhood nostalgia thing (just leave it, please), but at same time I have faith that any heavy music (and it WILL be heavy music, let’s face it) that seeks to evoke the spirit of… this sort of thing… is liable to be pretty cool. (Yeah, those Bolt Thrower reissues.)
As such, the beautiful rendering of some copyright-skirting DEFINITELY NOT Chaos Marines on the front of this 2012 release from Swedish/Hungarian band Megatomb (you’ll need one of those after a Megadeth, presumably..?) made it a no-brainer.
With only six song titles listed, I was hoping Megatomb might be a doom band, but no dice. Turns out this is actually a 45rpm 12” EP kind of deal. Bah!
In the great crap-shoot of contemporary metal sub-genres, I’d probably peg these guys as blackened thrash, with touch of death on the side. Which I suppose makes them yet another nice example of the boundary-blurring “bit of everything” / “it’s just METAL, FFS” approach that has become increasingly widespread amongst metal bands in recent years, and that, from my POV at least, seems like a very positive development vis-a-vis making the genre more fun and accessible to outsiders.
Specifically, things here lean toward entry level teen thrash riffs abetted by down-tuned/compressed DM low-end, drums that alternate between aspirant blast-beats and leaden, ‘ominous’ breakdowns, and, most prominently, BM style “vokills” executed in that “sneering troll-vampire ranting in his slime cave beneath the ice” type manner that can’t help but sound at least a little bit ridiculous when – as here – it is combined with music anything less than monumentally intense and terrifying.
If Megatomb’s name and artwork betrays the band’s almost heroic disinterest in innovation, a quick scan of their lyrics sheet seals the deal, confirming that the interests of “Kobra” (vokills), “Skull” (guitar), “Kommando” (bass & vokills) and “Fist” (drums) lie entirely in offering a comforting, paint-by-numbers reiteration of extreme metal’s founding aesthetic principles. (Song titles: ‘Dealing With The Cross’, ‘Forbidden Altar’, ‘Nuclear Violence’.) Drop the needle on side A and you'll even hear a “bring out yr dead” type atmospheric intro with half-speed triad riffs and a big, tolling bell; cozy as a teapot on a doily, so far as this genre’s concerned.
Vocals (sorry, voKILLS) are far too dominant in the mix for my taste, but the guitar sound is still suitably thick n’ gnarled, with the bass in particular sounding in-the-red filthy during the chord riffing segments (which certainly puts a nix on the ‘80s nostalgia angle). In fact, the whole thing benefits from a great, raw, black-paint-peeling-from-rehearsal-room-walls kind of sound, which blends in well with the kind of four-beers-in, punk-spirited mid-fi attack that I tend to like from my thrash/death/black/whatever.
The main problem here is probably the drumming, which sounds uncertainly executed (by metal standards), and often gets a bit lost in the mix, preventing the band from ever really hitting a solid groove and leaving us kinda floundering where we should be headbanging. Nonetheless though, this is jolly good, spirited stuff and it gets better as it goes along. If for some unaccountable reason you’re forced to choose in fact, side B is definitely the one to go for here.
The way that the pummelling bass drum intro on ‘Dealing With the Cross’ gradually speeds up is awesome – in fact, both this song and the following ‘Forbidden Altar’ have a dementedly enthusiastic, clod-hopping brilliance to them that I really enjoyed. Sounding like the likely results of a “learn to be Slayer in a day” masterclass designed to keep delinquent teens off the street, these tunes ace it on sheer enthusiasm alone. Reading the lyrics sheet along with them meanwhile is a Venom-level hoot (“Darkness and evil and power from hell / twisting the flesh! / Beasts of death feast tonight / revel in doom!”), and old Mr Kobra’s “Cor, I’m knackered” retching type noises at the end (and frequently the start) of each track are hilarious, particularly given the extent to which they’re boosted into the foreground.
Sadly, a quick internet search tends to suggest that Megatomb have not been very active subsequent to the release of this record in 2013. Perhaps a legal team jointly representing Dave Mustaine and Games Workshop caught up with them and had a quick word…?
Nonetheless, ‘Louder Than a Thousand Deaths’ at least exists, and, though it will change NOT A SINGLE THING about your life, beliefs, or tastes, if you like metal and you like pictures of space marines, it will make a fine addition to your home. It’s a whole bunch of fun to listen to, it looks great and the printed sleeve & vinyl pressing from UK based label Me Saco Un Ojo is of an admirably high quality.
‘Louder Than a Thousand Deaths’ by Megatomb gets a THUMBS UP.
Friday, May 17, 2019
Devadip Carlos Santana –
Oneness: Silver Dreams, Golden Reality
Price paid: £3 (Rat Records, Camberwell)
I can’t say for sure readers, but I’m guessing that if you too enjoy browsing in second hand record shops, you’ll be used to seeing this album pop up like a bad penny on a fairly regular basis.
On at least 147 separate occasions, I have seen it in the racks for a fairly low price, and thought: “Wow, what the heck is that? Looks pretty far out!”
Due to the cover design and the record company’s infuriating refusal to actually acknowledge that this is a Santana record, it generally takes me at least thirty seconds of squinting at the text on the spine before I realise that it is, in fact, a fucking Santana record. At which point I tend to think, “ugh! A fucking Santana record,” and send it back from whence it came, my hopes of a crazy psychedelic bargain dashed, and a crucial minute or so of browsing lost.
When I fell into this trap once again on a visit to Camberwell’s estimable Rat Records earlier this year (most varied and unpredictable stock (& pricing) in London, guaranteed) I thought, y’know what, I’m sick of this – I’m actually going to just BUY the damned thing and settle the matter once and for all.
Thinking back further, I’m not really sure when my instinctive dislike of Carlos Santana first originated. I’m pretty sure that I recall hearing ‘Black Magic Woman’ on the radio as a teenager, and feeling as if my ears were folding up and trying to tunnel their way back inside my head from sheer embarrassment. So, there’s that. I also remember (and, I should stress, quite possibly MISREMEMBER) reading an interview quote from him somewhere in which he was carrying on like a right chauvinist arsehole, boasting about “balling chicks” in some back street brothel or something. So I was all like, man, fuck this bloke and his holier-than-thou cosmic bodhisattva bullshit.
Although the idea of fusing psychedelic rock with Latin rhythms ostensibly sounds like an admirable project to undertake, the bits and pieces of Santana music I’ve subsequently encountered over the years have similarly failed to impress. Heard in passing, his / their stuff just comes across as bland and slightly cheesy, with an unappealing ‘cabaret crooner’ vibe to it, and a whiff of smug, hippie entitlement so stifling it makes The Eagles sounds like Discharge by comparison. Is that fair? I dunno. Just my fleeting first impressions.
In recent years however, I’ve vaguely begun to consider the possibility that I might have written old Carlos off unjustly. After all, I love forward-thinking, jazz-inflected ’60s rock, I love twiddley guitar-playing and I love pseudo-mystical psychedelic hoo-hah. There’s got to be at least something here for me, right? I mean, a guy who was friends with Alice Coltrane surely can’t be all bad, and think I recall reading an interview with Nick Mitchell from the excellent Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura, in which he stated that he liked nothing better of an evening than to pour a big glass of red and jam along with some Santana albums [again, could be a total misquote – I should check]. (1)
Contemplating the copy of ‘Oneness: Silver Dreams, Golden Reality’ as it sat before me in the shop, I figured that, well, if he’s going to be doing cool, psychedelic stuff anywhere, it must surely be on this mysterioso, spirituality themed gatefold LP with a never-ending rank of gigantic, alien Buddha statues disappearing into the eternal horizon on the front, right…?
So I paid my £3 and took my choice.
This ostensibly being a music review, you’ll naturally want to know what I thought about it.
So, let’s get to that, shall we?
‘Oneness: Silver Dreams, Golden Reality’ is terrible.
Well alright – it’s mostly terrible. It does have its moments, which I will outline below, but the bad far outweighs the good, so far as I'm concerned.
Taken as a whole, this album speaks of how completely lost the hippie / new age generation had become by the dread year 1979. Almost every creative decision on it feels like a blunder, a bad move, an awkward “ooh, sorry guys – not sure about that” moment. I can’t speak for their earlier work, but by this point I’d venture to suggest, Santana and his pals were up an aesthetic shit creek sans paddle. Even taken as pure kitsch though, it’s difficult to find much to enjoy here.
Overall, feels like a relic of some *other* 1979 that our parents and cultural guardians tried to protect us from. They probably thought it had been taken out the back and shot long ago by some gaggle of NME / Village Voice writers, but here I am, all these years later, senselessly subjecting myself to it for the sake of three small pound coins.
Actually, I was disappointed right from the outset when I realised that this record is made up of lots of little bits and pieces, immediately nixing my hopes for some meditational / long-jammin’ kind of stuff, but I’ll at least admit that the first part of side one – recorded live in Osaka! - is fairly ok.
There are some bells, some keyboard that sounds like the accompaniment to an ice-skating demonstration, and some slick, Mahavishnu-style fusion jamming – great drumming and super lively bass, and there are a few nods to ‘Bitches Brew’ here and there, but the overall feel is disappointingly bland. Carlos’s tone just sounds horrible here, as if he were playing through some kind of cheap midi guitar emulator or something, and his up-and-down-the-scales type chops ain’t exactly knocking me out either.
Thereafter, the same performance briefly takes a sharp left turn toward what I can only describe as a kind of Copacabana supper club cod-calypso vibe, as the big S duels with a jaunty boogie-woogie pianist and the dungeons & dragons keyboards continue to work their dubious magic in the background. Ye gods.
You’ll appreciate that I speak as someone whose tastes have shifted primarily toward the appreciation of pre-1975 music and modern derivations thereof when I say: THIS is why punk had to happen – these few minutes, right here. It’s almost enough to make me cry ‘uncle’ and go back to glowering away with my Au Pairs and PiL records for the rest of eternity, like all those journalists said I should.
After some “atmospheric interlude on a Dio album” bombast, our tour through the darkest realms of bad taste continues with ‘Silver Dreams & Golden Smiles’, a vocal ballad – Greg Walker on the mic, ladies & gents – so monumentally awful it frankly beggars belief that anyone would think to present it as part of a suite of purportedly spiritual, consciousness-expanding type material. It’s cocktail hour at the Holiday Inn, folks!
Thankfully, ‘Oneness’, which opens side two, is actually pretty great – a gentle organ drone, layered over the sound of waves lapping at the shore, over which Carlos drops some smouldering, controlled licks, gradually building up into a convincingly impassioned, over-driven wig-out, followed by a startling interjection from some wailing, fire-alarm-on-venus synths. Definitely the album’s highlight, and very much worth a punt, if you can find a way to enjoy it in isolation.
Perhaps buoyed by this, I also quite enjoyed the next track, ‘Life is Just a Passing Parade’, another vocal song with a muscular, Stevie Wonder pastiche funk arrangement. It’s a bit of the OTT side, with all kinds of gross, unnecessary flourishes from the players, but it’s lively and interesting enough for me to give it a pass. Ripping solo too. If Prince had recorded this a decade later, we’d all be worshiping at its feet, most probably.
Of course this upswing can’t last, and it doesn’t. Routine ‘Laguna Sunset’ acoustic meanderings, then we’re back to the Greg Walker cocktail hour for some overcooked, string-enhanced Latin vibes that feel about as authentic as a junior clerk in the CBS accounts department rocking a sombrero.
Next up, we have a reading of a poem composed by Santana’s guru, Sri Chinmoy, performed by a woman who sounds about as enthralled by this prospect as I am.
More jaunty, hi-fi demo fusion noodling follows. My god, will this thing never end?
Yes. Ok. It just ended. I feel as if I could have listened to ‘Double Nickels on the Dime’ about seventeen times in the time that took, but it’s finally over.
So ok – in retrospect, I’ll freely admit that it might well have been unfair of me to try to introduce myself to the work of a ‘60s era musician using an album that he recorded at the dawn of the 1980s, having changed his name whilst apparently in thrall to the teachings of Jamaica, N.Y. based spiritual leader.
I mean, let’s face it, there were precious few stars of Santana’s generation who were really keeping body & soul together and producing vital work at this point in time. Compare this thing to the sorry plight of some of his contemporaries in fact, and his fans might at least have taken heart from the fact that their hero was apparently living clean, feeling happy, and playing painstakingly accomplished virtuoso noodling to beat the band. CSNY fans should be so lucky.
At the time of writing, I’m kind of torn as to whether or not I can really afford the two centimetres of shelf space that this LP will take up in my collection, or whether it goes straight to the charity shop bag. If any readers would like to point me in the direction of some Santana stuff that I might actually like however, or to generally make a case for his defence, or whatever else – the floor is yours, friends. Comments box below.
For the time being though:
‘Oneness: Silver Dreams, Golden Reality’ by Devadip Carlos Santana gets a THUMBS DOWN.
(1) The interview I was thinking of is here. Mitchell says, “Santana's early groups have been a big tower of joy for me,” but he does not explicitly say the glass of red n’ jamming thing I wrote above. Not sure where I got that from. Apologies, anyway.
Wednesday, May 08, 2019
Herbie Mann –
Price paid: £10 (Peckham Soul).
I’ll confess, I was hesitant about dropping a full tenner on a common-or-garden ‘70s Atlantic LP in less-than-stellar condition, but the recently opened Peckham Soul record shop (‘round the side of the Bussey Building for any South-East Londoners in the audience) has a really nice atmosphere, and I didn’t want to leave without buying something .
Several factors caused me to zero in on this particular platter by smooth jazz flute overlord Herbie Mann. Firstly, the track times. 8:52, 10:42? Nice. Having spent the past few years digging deep into Isaac Hayes’s similarly expansive productions of the era, the idea of hearing a crack team of Stax/Atlantic session guys stretching out across semi-side long jams on stuff like ‘Chain of Fools’ and ‘Hold On I’m Coming’ is an extremely pleasing one to me, irrespective of whatever Mr Mann happens to be getting up to over the top of ‘em.
Secondly, a cursory glance at the featured players pretty much ker-chinged up the “SOLD” bar on my internal cash register. Roy Ayers and Sonny Sharrock on the same session? *sharp intake of breath* Nuff said. Larry Coryell? Isn’t he that goofy muso-fusion guitar guy who looks kind of like a wigged out Hank Marvin? Well, I don’t know much about all that, but as regular readers will be aware, I don’t think I’ve ever actually been able to even conceive of the idea of a record with too many guitarists on it, so hey, why not.
And finally, that great photo of the band in the studio on the back cover pretty much propelled me directly toward the very friendly Peckham Soul man’s external cash register, and the deal was done. And, in short, I’m very happy it was done, because ‘Memphis Underground’ is fucking brilliant.
The title track on the A side kicks things off pretty much as I hoped it would, with the band (credited here as “the Memphis rhythm section”, in that old fashioned use of the term that includes electric piano, organ and rhythm guitar) delivering a nice, almost Bobbie Gentry-ish country-soul feel, over which Mann gets stuck into some of his mellifluous, bird-songy magic.
Truth be told, I’ve always liked a bit of jazz flute, so ergo, I like Herbie Mann, a chap so supremely in control of his eminently pleasant art that one imagines a renegade surgeon could sneak into the studio and cut his feet off mid-solo, and still he wouldn’t drop a note that was anything less than an agreeably melodic, harmonically appropriate addition to what the backing band is playing at any given moment.
Free-ranging variations on a central riff is the name of the game here, with gentle touches of fuzz creeping across the background – courtesy of Coryell, I’m assuming. Upping the ante slightly, he proceeds to drop some swampy washes of overdriven sustain into his otherwise controlled, ballroom rock-styled solo spot, before Ayers exorcises this minimal quantity of menace with a few bars of his transcendently nice vibe tinkling. A few errant bits of feedback can be heard as the boss man swings back in round things off, but Sharrock seems to be keeping his powder dry for now.
After a transitional ‘New Orleans’ (rhythm on this is great (that bass!), but I recall little else, even after 10+ listens), ‘Hold On I’m Coming’ is where things get really good – I mean, really, REALLY good.
Imagine a tightly drilled band of pros running through those choppy, hard-riffing verses and hair-raisingly thrilling horn blasts again and again and again. Sounds pretty good, right? Indeed, I could probably just listen to that for eight (or indeed, eighty) minutes and feel entirely happy with my place in the universe, but wait up, here come our featured players, stepping up one by one in a delightfully well-mannered, old school jazz type fashion.
First spot of course goes to our esteemed band leader, shifting into higher gear to match the more energised nature of the track (would it even be POSSIBLE to make this particular composition sound “laidback”?). At one point, he drops a dazzling tangle of sweetly, salubrious confusion over a kick-ass break from drummer Gene Christman, and the moment when the rest of the band comes back in, organist Bobby Wood hitting this kind of unbelievably-fucking-funky low-end thrum on the far end of his keyboard, is just so damn cool.
Next up is Coryell, again wrangling a thick yet mannered fuzz-tone for a series of careful, gimlet-eyed ‘psychedelic cowboy’ type licks. Simple, restrained but stone-cold class, it reminds me (both in terms of tone and content) of some of the lead playing on Creedence’s early albums. Great stuff.
Cue Roy Ayers, wielding his mallets with a level of intensity pretty much unheard of in his usual chilled out universe.
By now, we’re about five minutes in, already cookin’ like… hell, I dunno, insert your own overblown chef/kitchen metaphor here… as the stirring spoon passes to Sonny Sharrock, who promptly bites it in two and spews splinters into the heavens. Friends, I can’t even tell you how exhilarating it is to be listening to an extended jam in this general vein, and to hear a kamikaze guitarist crash in with a hurricane of full bore, slide n’ scrape, screwdriver-under-the-strings dissonance that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Sonic Youth bootleg.
Presumably Sonny was at the mercy of the session engineers here, so he’s pretty much clean-toned, unable to harness the rich, distorted overtones that characterise his best-known solo work, but still, he’s ridin’ bareback across the fretboard like an out of control dodgem car running a suicide mission through the Kentucky derby, and it’s amazing, particularly when the rest of the featured players return for the track’s conclusion, sliding in around the maelstrom he’s kicking up with a new level of joyous abandon. Wow.
I realise that some readers might be finding my prolonged muso reveries here pretty insufferable and/or ludicrous, but seriously, this on of the most monumentally satisfying pieces of music I’ve heard in ages, and I would urge you to make it part of your life by any means necessary.
Nothing on the B can quite equal this scorcher, but the expanded rhythm section certainly excel themselves on ‘Chain of Fools’. Both bass and drums are, uh - ‘right on the money’, I believe is the terminology – and we get another welcome blast of both Coryell’s sweet swamp-fuzz and Ayers’ tiptoeing through the tuned steel tulips, too. Having taken he roof off the joint on the preceding cut meanwhile, Sharrock seems to have collected his cheque and dragged his amp back to the station, leaving these other fools to it.
(Actually, Sharrock seems to have played extensively with Mann, appearing on no less than *nine* LPs released between ’68 and ’71, as well as touring as part of his band (thanks, Wikipedia). Were ALL his spots on Herbie’s records this incendiary? If so, I’ve got some digging to do. I don’t really know the history here, but I’d be fascinated to know whether the two men – icons of melodicism and dissonance, respectively – shared a genuine musical / personal bond, or whether Sharrock just took on this work as a paying gig, keeping it at arms length from his own, considerably more challenging, music.)
The decision to end ‘Memphis Underground’ with a version of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ (you know, “glory, glory hallelujah” etc) is certainly a weird one. Largely a Mann solo excursion of subdued and melancholic character, gradually blossoming into sunnier and funkier territory as it goes on, the reclamation of this bulwark of white, American historical chest-beating within the context of the multi-racial, genre-blending gumbo of this LP adds a certain, strange political tension to proceedings, and it was this spirit that likely accounts for the fact that ‘Memphis Underground’ was repeatedly cited by the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson as one of his favourite albums.
I was unaware of this factoid when I purchased the record, but as a lifelong admirer of the Good Doctor’s writing, I’m happy to find myself inadvertently following in his footsteps - just as, in fact, more or less every single thing about this album makes me happy. If you’re looking for the dictionary definition of a keeper, here ya go.
‘Memphis Underground’ by Herbie Mann gets a big THUMBS UP.
Wednesday, April 03, 2019
Cowboy Music: Winners, Losers
& Eccentric Voices.
The track list for this mix CD began to coalesce way back in 2016, when, partly inspired by the extraordinary God Less America compilation LP, I started throwing together a mix of my favourite country songs with lyrics concerning death, murder, crime, suicide, substance abuse, imprisonment (or, in the case of Chuck Wells’ remarkable ‘Down & Out’, all of the above compressed into three minutes between choruses).
The plan changed somewhat however when – much to my delight - my brother asked whether I could compile a mix of “cowboy music” for him (emphasis on the pedal steel). So, I began widening the scope to cram in some classics from country’s ‘big names’, and various cuts that I felt neatly demonstrate the pleasure of the genre’s trademark sounds.
I’ll admit, the polyglot mix that eventually resulted doesn’t really serve as an effective ‘starter kit’ for exploring country music (where’s Dolly / Patsy / Tammy / Buck / Willie / George / Waylon for chrissakes?), and neither does it work very well as a collection of eccentric/bizarre narrative country songs. You will also no doubt note the presence of a number of artists whose inclusion within even the widest definition of the genre is extremely questionable.
But, nonetheless, I believe that this compilation succeeds beautifully in encapsulating the things I love about country music.
High on the list of those things, I think, is verses. Far more-so than choruses, I’ve always loved a f-ing good verse or two, and (for English speakers at least) country gives better verse value than any other popular music genre I’m aware of, excepting possibly hip-hop.
So, if you feel similarly, and if you’re unfamiliar with these songs, all I can say is - please take the opportunity to give them a listen, because every single one is a marvel.
00:00 Hank Williams – Ramblin’ Man
03:00 The International Submarine Band – Folsom Prison Blues / It’s Alright Mama
07:22 Jonathan Richman – Since She Started To Ride
09:53 Loretta Lynn – Bargain Basement Dress
11:32 Boxcar Willie – Truck Driving Man
14:21 Dave Dudley – Operation X
16:40 Jimmie Rodgers – Frankie & Johnny
19:27 Merle Haggard – The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde
21:30 Chuck Wells – Down and Out
24:35 Harry Johnson – It’s Nothing To Me
26:58 Gram Parsons – The Streets of Baltimore
29:49 Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra – Jackson
32:36 Arkey Blue – Too Many Pills
36:09 Bobby Gentry – Fancy
40:22 Lee Hazlewood – Pray Them Bars Away
42:57 Merle Haggard – Sing Me Back Home
45:44 Laura Cantrell – Lee Harvey Was A Friend of Mine
49:41 Tom T. Hall – It Rained In Every Town Except Paducah
52:32 Townes Van Zandt – Pancho & Lefty
56:12 Emmylou Harris – Wayfaring Stranger
59:38 The Band - The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
63:08 Dave Van Ronk – Hang Me, Oh Hang Me
66:18 Johnny Cash – San Quentin (live at San Quentin)
70:11 The Flying Burrito Brothers – Sin City
74:21 The Mekons – Lost Highway
Download links for mp3 version: one / two.
Monday, March 25, 2019
Ever since I started weblog writing all those years on, I’ve felt a kind of responsibility to mark the passing of musicians and sundry other creative types whose work has had an impact on me. These things always flit in and out of showbiz news feeds far too quickly for my liking (when they make it into them at all), so it behoves me to at least pay tribute before my own tiny audience.
Increasingly though, they are periods when they come in such a flurry it’s impossible to keep up… in addition to Dick Dale (see below), the past couple of weeks have seen the loss of Hal Blaine, who basically played drums on everything (seriously, I used to joke about instigating a drinking game based on how long you could spend reading allmusic.com or a mags like ‘Mojo’ before his name came up), Yuyu Uchida of Flower Travellin’ Band (also a fine actor and a wonderful, eccentric figure within Japanese pop culture across the decades), garage-punk affiliated r’n’b belter Andre Williams (think of him as, like, the ODB of the retro soul circuit), and now, suddenly staggering from a double heavy blow on this sunny Monday morning.
On the movies side of things, looks like we’ve been forced to say goodbye to Larry Cohen (one of my favourite directors, and one of the wildest and most gifted figures ever to labour in the trenches of commercial genre cinema), and on the music side... the last few minutes of the Today Programme as I finish by breakfast and run out the door (late as usual) brings the news that Scott Walker is no longer with us. (Nuff said.)
Though I’ve always loved his music (who else in the pop music realm can heft such a mad combination of awe, absurdity, fear, melancholy and simple, rockin’ pleasure?), I am not in a place right now where I feel like I could bang out a proper Scott Walker obit, and I can’t really bring myself to just fudge it with a few bits of career recap and personal anecdotes. So, I dunno… watch this space, I suppose. Maybe I never will feel I can write one. I mean, I’ve probably spent over fifteen years intermittently wondering how in god’s name one can properly respond to something like ‘Scott 4’ (never mind his later work), so I’m unlikely to figure out the answer in the next few hours. I know it’s a cop-out, but it just speaks for itself really, doesn’t it?
(Ok, one random anecdote before we move on: many years ago, back when all the critics were going ga-ga over ‘The Drift’, I had a dream in which I attended a secret Scott Walker concert, which took place in a small, classically decorated university seminar room, lined with book shelves and suchlike. Various musical figures and writer/critic types were present, and Walker sat at the piano with his face hidden by some kind of African tribal mask. He began to play and sing in a grating, formless, out of tune sort of fashion that (somewhat surprisingly, given his avant garde rep) offended the audience so much that they began heckling and trying to disrupt him. In response, he physically picked up the piano, and threw it, Incredible Hulk style, at the wall, where it destroyed a bookcase. The audience tried to flee, but found that the doors to the room were locked, whilst Scott meanwhile charged into the crowd and began violently attacking people. That’s all I recall. Perhaps there’s a dodgy ‘career overview’ level metaphor buried in there somewhere – thanks, my 2006 sub-conscious! - but I’m not desperate enough to need to go that route right now.)
The faster these deaths being to pile up, the emptier sections of my music & film collections become of still-living souls, the more I’m drawn to muse upon the horrible, banal inevitability of mortality and generational shifts.
It’s no secret, I suppose, that my cultural tastes remain rooted – presumably forever – in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I do my best to plug into contemporary stuff from time to time (still got a toehold at least in rock/noise music and ‘cult’ movies), but I always feel a bit of an outsider in the present, and it’s the time before my birth that I inevitably head back to for comfort. And, like the proverbial college lecturers perpetually grousing that their students don’t know who Humphrey Bogart is, it saddens me terribly to see this era, which still felt just-round-the-corner whilst I was growing up, fading inevitably into the mist of the historical past.
There’s nothing to be done about it – it’s simple maths, and the brutality of the ticking clock. The late ‘60s were now over 50 years ago, and most people who were doing stuff then would at least have been in their early ‘20s. Most people, basically, die in their ‘70s. Twenty plus fifty, equals. We are entering the phase in which that era – which still feels so alive, so relevant to me every time I put my headphones on or watch a movie – is beginning to disappear from living memory, just like the Second World War and the First World War have before it. Before too long, if we want to know something about the 1960s, we won’t be turning to the active participants anymore, we’ll be going straight to the history books and the newspaper archive.
To me at least, this realisation just hurts too fucking much. I’ll name no names, but there are certain people whom I’ve never met face to face (well, I have met one of them actually, but that’s another story) whose continued good health I cross my fingers and pray for almost every day – yet I know I’ll be here, trying to write about them, sooner or later.
That’s life, of course (particularly when you choose to live in the past), but it still stinks. And always, generational time ploughs on. People who were the-age-I-am-now when I first got into music are now just a few years away from being officially elderly. How long ‘til I’m writing about them? If time’s supposed to be relative, can’t it give us a break now and again? I mean, we’ve already got the punk obits coming almost as thick n’ fast as the hippie ones, as we hit the thin end of that generation’s mortality scatter graph.
I don’t know where I’m going with this, or how to segue it back into something that’s not utterly bleedin’ obvious, so here you go – it is what it is.
I could end flippantly and say, well, I bet The Rolling Stones will still be touring, and I still won’t bother going to see them – but a few years ago we could have said the same about AC/DC, or Motorhead. As we get older, new rituals and certainties become harder to identify and hang on to, as the old ones vanish. Or something. I don’t know.
Monday, March 18, 2019
“Listen to The King of the Surf Guitar,
Listen to The King of the Surf Guitar,
Listen, listen, to The King”
- sound advice from Dick Dale, The King of the Surf Guitar, on his 1963 vocal single, ‘King of the Surf Guitar’.
As witnessed by this classic recording, it is fair to say that Dick Dale was not without an ego. But, like the caricature of an all-American astronaut or pioneering surgeon, his energies were pushed so completely in the direction of positivity, productivity and general human dynamism that it really didn’t matter.
Harder, faster and more physically demanding than anything that preceded it in the popular realm in the early ‘60s (and pretty much retaining that distinction on his ‘roided up 90s comeback albums [see the awesome artwork for 1996’s ‘Calling Up Spirits’, reproduced above], the overdriven, bass-heavy, double-picking guitar style he made his trademark was wholly original, and remains instantly exhilarating to this day, whether it comes via the man himself or any of his countless successors in the field. To state the bleedin’ obvious, he is up there with Hendrix, Iommi and Chuck Berry in terms of his full spectrum influence upon the sound of electric guitar as we know it today.
Like those kids in “poor L.A.”, I was lucky enough to see Dick Dale play, about as far from the pacific surf as it’s possible to get, at the Luminaire in Kilburn in, I think, 2010 (I remember it was the night before I moved house). It was totally awesome, anyway. As was often the case, his backing band comprised former members of So-Cal punk legends Agent Orange, but it was definitely Dick who was large and in charge, like some Strat-wielding Colonel Kilgore, seemingly pushing his younger band-mates to play harder, faster, for longer. Plugged into a full stack in the small room, he was helicopter gunship loud, as we might reasonably have hoped.
I recall it being one of those shows where the headlining act are having such a great time that they just keep playing and playing, way beyond their allotted set time, seemingly oblivious to the audience thinning out as people duck out to get their last train home or relieve the babysitter. He played some numbers on the trumpet (just in case we didn’t believe he was a PROPER musician, he made clear), he sang ‘Peppermint Man’ at the piano, and delivered numerous thinly-veiled tributes to his own greatness.
No disagreements from this quarter. Slapping down the long term health problems that eventually got the better of him and touring the world kicking several hours-worth of ass on a nightly basis into his seventh decade, he gave every impression of being unstoppable back in 2010, endlessly roaring on like one of the super-charged vehicles his music so frequently evokes, and he could celebrate himself as much as he liked so far as I was concerned. Learning today that the engine has finally spluttered to a halt brings me great sadness. R.I.P.
Tuesday, February 26, 2019
First Quarter Report: Jan/Feb Listening.
What better way to move on from all the dreadful crap below than by laying down some brief thoughts on new or re-issued things that have caught my ears in the first six weeks of 2019?
These blurry-eyed winter months are always a bit weird when it comes to music-listening. I’m not sure why, really. Does anyone else find that? They tend to find me scrabbling around here and there in the wake of the big, end-of-year cut-off point, grabbing hold of bit and pieces of sound that seem to appeal to me, but without really having the time to fully unpack anything before life steamrollers it out of the way and I find myself crawling back to something familiar instead. Maybe it’s just me?
Anyway, on the rare occasions that I haven’t been falling back into the comfort zone of ‘80s Bevis Frond, Motorhead or ‘70s James Brown, I’ve found myself willing to cautiously commend the following to your attention.
Pye Corner Audio.
After giving a tentative thumbs up here to some of his earlier records a few years back, I’ve subsequently lost track of Martin Jenkins’ recordings as Pye Corner Audio, but his new ‘Hollow Earth’ album finds me back on the case, simply because these Ghost Box LPs with the Julian House design work are so pretty and reasonably priced, it almost seems a crime not to buy them. After all, they won’t be around forever.
In a sense, Pye Corner Audio strikes me as the hauntological electronica equivalent of, say, a mid-table thrash metal band, or a jazz group who play at local pubs on a Sunday afternoon, or something like that. By which I mean, his music doesn’t send me off on ecstatic reveries or leave me slack-jawed with instant revelation or anything, but it’s solid. It’s there when you need it, it ticks the boxes and does what it does. It’s reliable, like that super-strong wood glue from B&Q.
Listening to the woozy, out-of-sync synth line that opens this LP, you might be inclined to think, well, we already have one Boards of Canada, how badly do we need another? But, as things crack on and Jenkins gets stuck into his trademark MO – essentially stripping the BoC idiom back to its strongest core elements, replacing their somewhat dated break-based drum programming with some throbbing 4/4 mutant techno and adding a heavy dose of John Carpenter style dystopian sci-fi dread – I think you’ll be hard-pressed not to give him the nod. Bits of this even remind me of Goblin’s music from ‘Tenebrae’, which I love, and the whole thing sounds great through my amp and speakers for whatever reason [“PROBABLY BECAUSE I MASTERED IT PROPERLY,” yells the underappreciated mastering engineer somewhere in the distance]. So, yeah – awesome.
Durand Jones & The Indications.
Although the revival of classic soul / jazz / funk sounds that’s been picking up steam over the past few years has undoubtedly been a happy thing to witness, I’ve not fully engaged with it thus far, simply because, well…. there’s still no shortage of actual 60s / 70s soul records available at competitive prices in the second hand record shops I frequent, so why would I feel the need to dive head first into what is essentially a retro reconstruction of those sounds, when there is still so much of the “real thing” I’ve yet to become fully acquainted with..?
Which brings us neatly to my experience of turning on the radio one Sunday lunchtime a few weeks back and hearing ‘Morning in America’ by Durand Jones & The Indications, convinced that I was listening to the best, most f-ing epic, socially conscious ‘70s soul jam I’d heard in years. Real “HOW have I not heard this before?!” territory, y'know. Just, wow. In truth, by the time the (excellent) fuzz guitar break kicked in toward the end, I’d twigged that this was probably one of those new, fangled retro soul groups, but, for a few minutes there, they had me fooled pretty good.
Although I am currently only able to listen to three tracks from the band’s forthcoming ‘American Love Call’ LP on the Dead Oceans label, they are so good that I’m willing to consider the possibility that they mark the point at which the retro-soul movement not only matches but actually threatens to surpass the benchmark set down by Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack et al, officially breaking the back of recorded history and causing 2019 to blur straight back into 1972 as if the horrible, intervening years had simply not happened.
Given that it has basically been life-long dream to live in a perpetual replay of the early 1970s, this is fine with me I suppose, and, given the intimidating level of technical and vocal expertise required to make good soul music, I think we can hopefully be reassured that we won’t be looking at a repeat of the Great Garage Rock Collapse of the early ‘00s a few years down the line, with a cut-price version of the Detroit Spinners sloppily banging it out on every street corner, expecting us to be knocked out by their vintage threads and dues-paying cover versions.
Basically I think, it feels churlish in these dark times to turn yr nose up at sounds as essentially good and wholesome as these, regardless of vintage, so why not take this opportunity to get on board? (With apologies in advance is the unlikely event that the other nine cuts on the record turn out to be rubbish.)
One of the more exciting new bands I’ve scoped out recently on London’s DIY punk scene, Farce bravely move beyond the doggedly grooveless, second-practice level bleating h/c that sadly seems to form the inheritance of so many of these one-word-name, mayfly lifespan ensembles. Naturally this means embracing the grind, which they do in earnest, punching and tearing their way toward something approaching a multi-gendered, multi-ethnic reclamation of the early Napalm Death / Extreme Noise Terror sound – which is just as much of a fucking brilliant idea as it sounds, to be honest.
Well, I say that, but -- I’m not sure that that feeling, which I took from watching the band live, is quite captured on their demo, which takes a more of a straight-down-the-line crust / hardcore approach (not to mention some weird separation on the recordings, vocals are too high in the mix for my liking, and that bass sound on the bits where the other instruments drop out – jeezus). But, still, the sheer energy on this thing just kills, and the more grind adjacent tracks (‘Another Lie’, ‘Death By 1000 Cuts’) get where they need to go and then some.
True to form, the lyrics (as dutifully transcribed on the tape insert) sure ain’t subtle, but they certainly hit hard, getting straight to the point with a raw fury that snaps the neck of my middle-aged condescension. Great stuff. I hope this lot manage to hang around long enough to develop their sound and make a bit of an impact. Catch them playing amid the tear gas on a flatbed truck near you, should things really go Worst Case Scenario later this year [nervous laughter].
On the reissues front meanwhile, I’ve been very much enjoying this exceptionally nice example of what I suppose you’d call early electro-acoustic improvisation, in which analogue synth, flute, bassoon and cello find themselves playing side by side with ‘harmonic responses’ generated by a series of sound-generating algorithms programmed into whatever passed for a ‘microcomputer’ in 1977. (Just imagine the quantity of Bakelite involved!)
As Behrman evocatively puts it in his sleeve notes for the current reissue on the aptly named Lovely Music label, the ‘On the Other Ocean’ sessions grew from a collective enthusiasm for “..homemade electronics with its mysterious knobs, its lexan enclosures with the screw holes drilled not quite in the right places and its hand-wired circuit boards inside; for idiosyncratic brews of electronic timbres that were not trying to imitate the sounds of the real world.” Nice.
Regardless of the processes that brought these recordings about however, the results are serene, oceanic and absolutely delightful, veering away from academic, pure tone minimalism toward what I suppose may have been seen as the more cerebral end of the ‘new age’ spectrum. Drawing on my own listening experience, they certainly put me in mind of Emerald Web’s silicon valley laser show conjurations, Arthur Russell’s neo-classical ‘First Thought, Best Thought’ recordings, and some sort of perfect, shimmering dream of driving down through the hills to San Francisco harbour in a silent, pastel-coloured Cadillac powered by sunbeams. Rare and mirage-like 20th Century American Utopian vibes can be found here in abundance – an impossibly precious dream of compassionate, technologically-mediated progress, shining forever on black wax.
Speaking of which….
Headroom was formerly a solo project of Kryssi Battalene, lead guitarist of New Haven, CT’s Mountain Movers (see review in my botched end of year list below), but it has seemingly been expanded to a full band line up for ‘New Heaven’ (see what they did there?), a new 12” of sprawling, loose-limbed psychedelic rock on the Ever/Never label.
Reviews I’ve read have all pulled Bardo Pond out of the bag as the go-to reference point here, and, though I would contend that Bardo’s approach is significantly removed from anything found here (cf: far thicker guitar textures, flute, structured / dramatic song construction etc), I can nonetheless see where they’re coming from.
I mean, there’s (sadly) very little else in the canon of Great American Rock Music that you can reach for to get a bead on this sort of thing, wherein slo mo bass and drum hits groove away in perfect, quaalude-fucked unison whilst a small fortune’s worth of dearly beloved pedals are fed to the gaping maw of Battalene’s speaker cabinet, conjuring weirdly bucolic, green-tinged swathes of fungal, feedbackin’ magnificence, occasionally accompanied by breathy, wordless delay/reversed vocals, like music to accompany the sensation of gazing at bacteria through a microscope in Biology class, a day or so after your first ever acid trip, whilst the sun is shining outside, and really you just want to go and run around and stick your face in the grass.
Or, that’s what I get out of it, anyway. I could listen to music like this forever basically, so I’m happy to have it. For all the excess inherent in this kind of guitar-playing, there’s an admirable avoidance of bombast here, a sort of laidback, accidental feel, and a warm, analogue distance to the recordings, which feels very appealing to me, coming as it does at a point in time when all forms of heavy music seem to be constantly upping the ante in terms of volume, compression and general mind-buggering immensitude. As with the Mountain Movers albums, it feels a bit old fashioned in that regard. In a good way, I mean. It’s just a nice record to hang with, if you like psychedelic guitar music. No expectation, no pretence. Just enjoy the sounds, cos they’re pretty sweet.
Thursday, February 07, 2019
….Three Times and it’s Enemy Action.
Update, 11/2/19: If some of my accusations in the post below seem a little obscure, I refer readers to this helpful article posted this morning on The Quietus, which is far from obscure. Please read it and draw your own conclusions.
When I composed the post below, I was still reeling with disbelief to a certain extent. On reflection, I'd like to put things even more clearly: even in the extremely unlikely event that Matthew Bower were to offer an apology and disavowal of his actions and associations, I still have no place in my life for anyone who could even get within spitting distance of these hateful ideologies.
Personal forgiveness - sure, why not, it's possible, but I don't know the guy personally and neither do I wish to at this point. Artistically speaking, this music is tainted - he's off the creative register so far as I'm concerned, and I'd encourage all readers to reflect this in their future listening & purchasing choices. It has long been my belief that the best way to deal with fascists, racists and the like is to let them know that their views place them outside of any civilised discourse or culture, and that they have no one to blame but themselves when they are excluded from it.
Following this public 'outing', I'm sure that Bower's assorted band names will continue to flourish in the nasty far right subculture he increasingly seems to have been moving toward in recent years. So be it, but it's up to the rest of us to stay strong and ensure that the numbers willing to support this subculture remain sufficiently small to prevent it's denizens from, say, making a living or gaining any wider recognition through their activities.
Of course, in respect to the Bower issue, I feel like a complete idiot for failing to put the necessary pieces together to get the full picture until now. They've all been there, hiding in plain sight. I'll have to try to be more careful in future.
I'm sure there must be other fans, promoters, label owners and fellow musicians who feel the same. Now that everything is pretty much out in the open, I hope that they will have the strength to act appropriately and to let him and others like him know that their presence is no longer welcome in any self-respecting music scene or record collection.
Unlike some sick fantasists on the far right, I'm not keen on re-writing history, so, after some reflection, I've decided to leave the words I've written about Skullflower, Sunroof, Hototogisu etc in the past on this blog untouched. I've removed all links however, and have added a link to this post, just to clarify matters.
That's my final word on the subject for the moment - my original post from last week is below.
Ack. I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth this evening.
With typically horrid timing, less than two weeks after I christened Skullflower #1 in my 2018 records list, I’ve been appraised of some fairly regrettable evidence concerning Matthew Bower’s political associations – ironically via the man himself, who has chosen to reproduce images of an email containing said evidence on his band’s weblog.
Now – I don’t want to be the kind of person who permanently writes off an artist just based on their use of an ‘improper’ phrase or image or something. As any fool knows, there’s enough space in art for reinterpretation, reclamation, differing understandings and legitimate provocation concerning just about anything, and where possible I like to give ‘em enough rope. Aforementioned evidence however suggests that, in this case, Bower has been quietly fashioning a pretty swell noose for himself in recent years. (I’m not posting any links here, but I’m sure you can probably google up all the gory details, should you wish to.)
As the author of the reproduced email readily admits, any of the presented exhibits, could, if taken alone, amount simply to a mistake, a misunderstanding, a “we’re apolitical and don't judge other people’s beliefs, man” black metal-style cop-out, or a snarky attempt at humour, even allowing for the fairly vile character evident in several of them. But, as another hoary old racist once observed: once is a happenstance, twice is a coincidence…. and you know the rest (see post title, above).
I take no pleasure in writing this – it both upsets and angers me. Bower’s music is unique, and I have enjoyed his recordings for many years, under many different guises – moreso than ever recently. I don't like the idea of cutting it out of my life, but what else can I do; I don’t want to hear those sounds congealing like rotten fruit.
As to anger meanwhile, it pisses me off immensely that I’ve given the guy money, and have encouraged readers here to do likewise. I don’t like giving my money to people who are dicks (and, being a UK tax payer, I’m obliged to do so quite enough without bloody noise guitar players getting in the way).
I dunno man….. sometimes I wonder. I’ve always taken comfort from the fact that the vast majority of people involved in underground music are basically Good Johnsons, in the parlance of a hoary old (alleged) misogynist, but it increasingly seems that, the further we venture Beyond The Fields We Know, the more likely we are to encounter people like this, with affiliations of the most pathetic, hateful, puerile, lunatic variety hidden away in their back pocket – kept ambiguous and out of sight lest they hurt the knob-twiddling careers of these brave ary*n mystic warriors. (Seems as if that ‘Hidden Reverse’ David Keenan wrote about way back when has been developing some really nasty warts.)
But, I’m getting rhetorical here, so I should reel it in. I could go on, but let’s just say that it’s a stone fucking drag, and leave it at that.
Monday, January 28, 2019
2018: BEST NEW RECORDS.
(Part # 2 of 2)
In view of the top # 5 selections below, I would like to clarify that I did not actually spend 2018 listening exclusively to psychedelic / noise rock from the North of England. Sometimes I listened to psychedelic / noise rock from the Midlands or the West Country too!
But seriously folks, what can I say… with regard to the multifarious other musical itches I need to scratch, it’s been *old stuff* that’s been providing the goods in recent years (which is to say, *newly discovered by me* old stuff, rest assured I’ve not just been blubbing over my old CDs in the attic), and, this is a list of NEW RECORDS, so… what can I say? By and large, it has been the amplifier-abusing denizens of the North who have still been doing the business re: regularly producing music that’s caused me to sit up and take notice. I have no personal connections whatsoever with these musicians, I’ve never visited most of their home towns, and I’ve never even seen many of them perform live – but there it is, take it or leave it, they are the ones who are currently allowing me to maintain a slight toehold on post-2010 musical culture.
Note, 7/2/19: If you're reading this post, please also read this one. Obnox is now honorary number one. It's positive discrimination, motherfucker.
1. Obnox – Templo Del Sonido LP
Much like his fellow garage-punk survivors in Midnight Mines, Thomas seems to have responded to the creative deterioration of the scene that supported him by embracing noise, deconstruction and torturous DIY experimentation of one kind or another – but with very different results, needless to say. As difficult to hang with as the band name implies, Obnox mixes torrents of unapproachable, pedal-borne industrial skree with a chopped n’ screwed gangsta rap sensibility, each cutting through the remaining bones of some kind of blown out, rust-belt blues-punk aggro. It is heavy, unsavoury shit, whichever way you want to cut it.
At some point in the recent past, some bright spark at the Astral Spirits label seemingly asked Thomas to record a “free jazz album”. Rounding up a motley bunch of local collaborators, he seems to have gone about this task with gusto, and, if the resulting recordings veer so far from what one might reasonably term a “free jazz album” as to miss the mark entirely, they nonetheless made a really fucking good album, which I'm sure we can all agree is the main thing.
‘America in a Blender’ sets the tone for what follows, with a solitary horn dropping a mangled field of skree deep in the mix beneath Thomas’s earth-shaking, digitally-fucked distortion and disjointed drum tracks, as his bad-phone-line vocal bristles with barely comprehensible fury as he exhorts his fellow citizens to “..wake your punk ass UP” – the perfect opening to a characteristically punishing LP that frequently sounds like a demented, apocalyptic gutter-punk counterpoint the recent up-tick in socially conscious black music repped in the mainstream by the likes of Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar.
On several tracks here, a guy named Morgan Phelps is credited with playing “warr guitar”, which as I understand it is some kind of twelve string bass. Needless to say, he gets far more convincing results from it than the guy from Cheap Trick ever did. On the instrument’s seven minute showcase ‘War Guitar’, extreme low end frequencies roar and shake alarmingly against Thomas and Chuck Cieslik’s equally damaged, killer wasp treble fuzz and wolf howls of pure feedback, exploding dangerously against the top end of the frequency range, resulting in a track that sounds like some strung out, alcoholic Transformer with earth-quake pounding arms tearing down a liquor store, crushing the bricks to dust.
After this, it’s mighty relief when Thomas & co temporarily nix the noise for arguably the album’s stand-out track, ‘Names’, proving they’ve got the chops to knock out a convincingly muscular slice of shimmering, cosmic funk – an exquisite backing track for poet Kisha Nicole Foster and vocalist Ngina Payola to do their suitably furious thing as guest artistes, calling out for spirits of those left dead or crushed by the accelerating inner-city turmoil reflected in the head-against-wall anxiety attack of Obnox’s more aggressive material – a more reflective POV shared by the exhausted and fragmentary ‘Gotta Keep Fighting’, which sounds like the ghost of an early ‘70s Norman Whitfield production being received second hand through an EVP radio séance.
From there, ‘Templo del Sonido’s second half heads back to the grind, like the sound of a city tearing itself apart; lingering fragments of rationality or comprehension are blown to pieces by incendiary bombs of jagged, speaker-toppling mayhem, each instrument suffused with a hellish miasma of effects-box carnage, as Thomas’s voice rants and seethes almost subliminally, like some hi-jacked police radio band spewing abuse on the last day before everything goes up in smoke. As an aural reflection of the kind of desperate shit that has presumably been going down on the ground level during the USA’s current cluster-fuck, Obnox feels right on the money.
Listen & buy via bandcamp.
2. Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs – King of Cowards LP
I’ve been lucky enough to see this band play live three times over the past few years – most recently a dangerously crammed sell-out at the Moth Club in Hackney – and on each occasion, they haven’t just been good, they’ve been verifiably awesome. Genuinely one of the most thrilling live rock bands around, they bring an exultantly positive spirit to the stage that, until recently, has perhaps been lost in the doomy murk of their recordings, scooping up the audience like so much rice from the metaphorical barrel. (And they play like absolute group-mind bastards too, needless to say.)
Seriously - sneer all you like, but catch these guys live and you will be floored. Likewise, if the recently acquired Radio 6/Guardian vibes put you off, I’ll simply ask you to play through ‘King of Cowards’ and point out the bits that do not legitimately rock.
Seemingly realising that it the brief Sweet Relief was the track that most connected with people in-between the two mammoth wig-outs on their previous album, the band’s decision to compress their sprawling jams into a series of more pointedly structured, battle-ready Sabbathian scorchers has proven an extremely wise one. Less an aesthetic sell-out (and let’s be honest, if you think the idea a rock band recording sub-ten minute songs constitutes some kind of betrayal, you probably need to check your head and/or weed intake), the move to shorter material feels more like a natural progression, allowing Pigs to lay down an album that more convincingly reflects the energy of their live performances.
None-more-classic influences are, as ever, easy to spot – Black Sabbath’s elemental riff henge, the pulsating, afterburner dirge of Hawkwind, and the increasingly frequent moments in which Matt Baty’s voice breaks and rasps as if he’s channelling Lemmy himself - but [sorry, cliché alert] the band are really growing into their own identity here too, establishing a cross-genre sound that’s purely their own and driving it as hard as it’ll go before the engine blows.
THAT particular groove that presumably succeeded in getting ‘em on the radio (cf: ‘GMT’ and ‘Cake of Light’)? I mean, I’m not quite sure how best to put this in relation to an ostensible doom/psyche/whatever group, but… it’s a bit, dare I say, glam? A bit Glitter Band / Slade? You know, that kind of platform-booted “stomping-down-the-street” feeling? Or am I going crazy? It sure seems to be getting them places anyway, so stomp on, boys. The way they ‘tease’ the riffs, building ‘em up and knocking ‘em down again, on ‘GMT’ and ‘Shockmaster’ is similarly inspired – a move perhaps inspired by playing to live audiences? - and when the full band proceeds to hit it full force… oh boy. We’re talking Panzer Divisions of Love, ploughing through the barricades, or whatever.
Keeping their recording process ‘in-house’ was, I’d venture, another great move, and guitarist Sam Grant’s production here is f-ing fantastic, mustering constant, edge-of-feedback bombast that sounds simultaneously crystal clear and brutally gnarly, ripped with muscular Oh Sees-ish contempo psyche signifiers and crushing, compressed-metal burn; heavy as a warehouse full of Relapse overstock, yet more fun than a B-52s tribute night.
Quite where Baty’s anguished lyrical reflections are supposed to fit into all this, who knows, but, like everything else about this band, it nonetheless just seems to gel so well, the longer tracks (‘A66’ in particular) cutting through the fun & games with a suffocating, Viking funeral intensity, the frontman howling through the maelstrom, driven to some kind of mad, impassioned excelsis. His climactic cries of “hold on” on closing track ‘Gloamer’ come on like Ahab rallying his crew as their harpoons pierce the hide of the white whale – and, for anyone still missing the fifteen minute numbers, let’s just say that if eight whole minutes of that shit doesn’t leave you satisfied, you should probably seek help.
Listen and buy via bandcamp.
3. David Terry – Sorrow tape
“Conjured up primarily from voice, keys, Fursaxa-esque accordion drones and a touch of distant, thumping percussion to keep time, there is a carefully wrought sense of slow mo melodicism to these pieces that set them apart from the vast majority of Terry’s lonesome tape droning contemporaries. The layers he builds come together with a more deliberate intent than the kind of accidental / circumstantial methodology that often governs such things, sometimes sounding like the moment of sublime tonal union when everything comes together in some grand classical piece, stretched out and extended across a 20+ minute duration. It’s pretty great.
Emotionally-speaking, ‘Sorrow’ belies the expectations of its title and cover art by neatly side-stepping the over-bearing affectations of woe and world-denying misanthropy that ensnare so many metal bands, instead evoking a more honest, more hopeful field of melancholic drift, suggestive of a deep immersion both in the contemplation of nature, and in the gleaming spires of the distinctly old school, capital ‘R’ Romanticism that so often accompanies it.
Far from the blackened deep space explorations of Bong’s earlier career, the feel Terry conveys here recalls the band’s inspired use of Turner’s ‘Thompson’s Aeolian Harp’ on the cover of their We Are, We Were and We Will Have Been LP from 2015, and – for me at least – it is a very good feel to find oneself on the receiving end of.”
Listen and buy download from Opal Tapes.
4. Bridget Hayden –
Pure Touch Only From Now On, They Said So LP
A set of home recordings united only by their raw, analogue fidelity and creative use of structure-dissolving distortions, ‘Pure Touch..’ finds Hayden working in a mode somewhat reminiscent of the early (and I would now consider, best) work of Charalambides, or the sublimated song forms of Grouper, but with a considerably harsher edge than either cutting through the reverb.
Led by a voice wraithed in a hill-smoke shroud of effects, ‘Don’t Knock on Your Door’ merges Hayden’s wordless lament with a tangled web of gnarled electric guitar, whilst the brief ‘On Your Way’ is senselessly beautiful, a time-stopping folk spirit ripped from the unlikely plastic guts of a four-track. Piano-led lamentation ‘Fires For Sorrow’ is nigh-on unbearable, touching on a graveside melancholy strong enough to ward off any hint of cliché or sentimentality; just devastating stuff. This leads straight into ‘Cold Steel Rain’, which largely follows suit, stretching this same feel into another extended string n’ voice meditation on weird, sub-lingual grief, its gently overdubbed choral reflections interrupted by disorientating, blown out bass frequencies that butt in rudely, like ghosts at a particularly lurid feast.
Elsewhere, malevolent, Vertical Slit-esque noise-rock rears its head, with the lengthy ‘There Was a Branch Breaking’ in particular standing out as a spirit-sapping downer, the light of glowing, witch fires only just creeping first toward the end of it’s nine minute moorland trudge. In fact, there is often a hostile, depressive kick to these recordings than scratches hard against their corresponding ethereal tendencies.
Reflecting Hayden’s apparent disdain for sullying her music with language, it is difficult to convey in words quite what a remarkable record this is. If anything I’ve written above strikes a chord with you, I would highly recommend spending some time with it.
Listen and download from bandcamp; vinyl available via Early Music.
5. Earthling Society – MO: The Demon LP
The Boxer’s Omen [known to Hong Kong audiences simply as ‘Mo’], there is probably not much I can say that will adequately prepare you for the experience of watching it. If you can find a copy, you’re probably best advised to just take a deep breath a dive in. It’s sink or swim territory, for sure.
If you’re unfamiliar with Fleetwood-based psychedelic rock band Earthling Society meanwhile, well… that’s a slightly easier one to get a grip on. A quick listen to their superb 2014 LP England Have My Bones should do the trick rather nicely.
To my great personal delight, 2018 saw these two unlikely cultural touchstones coming together, as the admirable Riot Season label [three separate entries on the this here Top 20 makes them Stereo Sanctity Label of the Year with a bullet – congrats!] presented the world with the vinylised results of a 2017 recording session that saw the aforementioned band blagging their way into a well-appointed studio at Leeds College of Music to record their own alternative soundtrack to the aforementioned movie. So… what more could the adventurous listener possibly need to know? Let’s dive in and try out our best astral front crawl within the psychotropic tide-pool of fire-gargling racket that must surely have resulted!
Well, I say that, but actually, whereas one would have imagined Fred Laird and his band-mates taking the opportunity to unleash a raging cacophony of molten, tentacle-slashing fuzz guitar chaos to match the hair-raisingly outré content of Kuei’s film (and to be honest, I’d probably have been fine with that), the band instead spin their interpretation of ‘Boxer’s Omen’ off in some entirely unexpected directions, perhaps riding some heroic contrarian impulse or other, perhaps taking inspiration from the film’s date of production, or perhaps simply taking advantage of the vintage gear lying around in the LCM studio.
Whatever the case, the LP is a real side-step of a third eye opener, mixing up familiar heavy psyche tropes with a lively smorgasbord of repurposed ‘70s art-rock / ‘80s mainstream tones, the prominence of which presumably led the band to throw shout-outs to stuff like Berlin-era Bowie and Magazine into the album’s press release.
And indeed, opener ‘Theme from MO – The Demon’ inaugurates a beautifully crystalline, clean-ish guitar tone, seemingly ripped through some kind of holy, Taoist chorus pedal, surfing atop Fairlight shimmers and strange, quasi-Asian riffs picked out on some synth bell thingy. Driven by a propulsive, upbeat groove from rhythm section, it sounds suspiciously like the kind of thing that theoretically COULD grace the opening titles of some neon-glazed, atmospheric ‘80s horror movie – if admittedly one that would have you leaping out of your seat to frantically try to google up details on who the hell composed this extraordinarily rockin’ music, especially once some slightly more contemporary, delay-wracked noise textures start creeping in toward the track’s end.
Both noise and groove continue to build across ‘King Boxer’, with E.S.’s highly rhythmic, multi-layered approach to instrumental psych creating a joyous, kaleidoscopic kung fu soundtrack of MDMA-addled dreams, summoning images of flipped out fighters flipping and kicking their way through a bottomless Shawscope vortex or mylar-textured deformities. As is only appropriate under the circumstances, I suppose.‘Inauguration of the Buddha Dome’ takes a darker turn, nixing much of the groove for an unanchored sinister noise exercise, more redolent I suppose of the film’s frequently foul and disturbing imagery, leading the way into the tangled, narcotic tendrils of ‘Mountains of Bliss’.
Soon enough though, the positive vibes are back in spades and the good guys are kicking ass again, ending Side A with the self-explanatory ‘Super Holy Monk Defeats Back Magic Motherfucker’. Here, gong-like synth washes drift back and forth across the stereo field as Laird dons the funny hat and goes full on Mr Vampire, coaxing a glowing morass of multi-layered eterno-riff ectoplasm from his axe. Thank you and good night, Black Magic Mofos - mission accomplished!
Given that the print of ‘Boxer’s Omen’ I watched does not conclude with a thirty-minute coda in which the surviving boxer chills out and gets high whilst recuperating at an Alpine ski lodge, I’m going to assume that this where the movie soundtrack stuff ends, because Side B here brings a different vibe entirely.
Initially, echoed spoken word fragments from actual Asian person Bomi Seo accompany passages of glacial, Eno-esque synth drift, leavened by some blissful, Philip Glass-esque slow mo melodies, like music for a particularly far-out documentary on movement of ice floes in the North China sea, before E.S.’s monolithic psych reasserts itself once more, the band sounding a little more relaxed and free-form than on the A, with Laird’s lead lines sounding particularly majestic, before the first of two lengthy tracks simmers down again for a quitter, more experimental conclusion, as unglued vocal fragments and meandering xylophone improvisations gradually fade away over a fairly long period of time.
Further surprises grace the final track, with an unexpected outburst of sitar-driven, Glastonbury fayre psych-pop, featuring the album’s only real singing, as Laird repurposes a chunk of Fred Neil’s ocean-skippin’ stonage for a brief, delightful bit of ‘Revolver’/Traffic bed-head reverie, before the full E.S. sound once again fades back in, fuzzed out SF ballroom stasis dancing us way out to the merry end of whatever the hell this thing is now the movie’s finished, to triumphant effect.
Listen and buy via bandcamp.
6. Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso UFO –
Reverse of Rebirth in Universe LP
BUT - and you probably saw this one coming - I would urge those who feel themselves in sympathy with the viewpoint expressed above to give ‘Reverse of Rebirth in Universe’ a spin before getting to work on the AMT vinyl bonfire.
Having inaugurated a “new generation” line-up for the band in 2017 with the recruitment of a hot new rhythm section (AMT Juniors?), Kawabata and equally venerable founding member Higashi Hiroshi now seem to have been further energised by the addition of a full time vocalist – one Jyonson Tsu – and ‘Rebirth..’ sees the newly-minted five piece returning to some of AMT’s signature riffs with a spirit of spring cleaning freshness, resulting in a work that anyone who ever dug the band’s golden age recordings should be able to appreciate.
Eschewing the cyclopean heavy metal cacophony that tended to characterise many previous iterations of ‘Dark Star Blues’, the tune’s distinctive, Arabesque riff is here picked out on bouzouki as a kind of gentle, string-tanglin’ folk groove swings into effect, shaped and led by Tsu’s wordless(?), rhythmic vocalisations. It’s pretty much impossible to avoid comparing Tsu’s drifting, spaced out glossolalia to Damo Suzuki’s work with Can all those years ago, but regardless, he makes for an extremely appealing addition to the AMT sound, managing not to outstay his welcome even across 10+ minutes of churning, wigged out riffage. Of course, the expected torrents of strangulated feedback guitar and knob-twisting UFO synth abuse make an appearance later on in the track, but there’s a sense of purpose and a degree of subtlety at work here that’s great to hear from a band who have for so long dwelt at the furthest edges of self-indulgence.
An equally beautiful recording (Kawabata’s production here is especially superb), ‘Black Velvet Blues’ drags AMT back to some extent to ‘90s PSF territory, establishing a rarefied, shadowy atmosphere that perhaps even Keiji Haino wouldn’t turn his nose up at in one of his mellower moments. Slow, brooding tremolo chords crash headfirst into knotty clusters of strung out noise before the rhythm section manages to establish a mournful, head-nodding groove upon which Tsu makes his entrance, his vocals lending an eerie, oneiric feel to proceedings that really sends me. Where exactly, I’m not sure (a deserted, autumnal island if some kind, perhaps?), but so long as it’s SOMEWHERE, I’m happy.
On the flip meanwhile, ‘Black Summer Song’ takes a more experimental path, opening with string-chiming temple vibes and gnarly fragments of amp detritus, before Tsu’s ‘Future Days’-esque muttering rise alongside a swathe of beatific synth and drone textures. Drummer Nani Satoshima’s busy, burbling chops soon help initiate us into the realm of pure tape-choppin’, radio dial-spinnin’ Candemonium, with Kawabata riding the waves as is his want, dropping fried solos hither and yon – but, crucially, this session finds him feeling considerate enough toward his new bandmates to bow out before he goes completely overboard, leaving us to enjoy lengthy, guitar-free segments of weirdly blissful, perma-stoned Cologne-via-Osaka ambience.
In short then - if you can ditch the baggage and get with it on its own terms, ‘Rebirth..’ proves to be an intensely rewarding slice of long-form psychedelic rock; largely devoid of goofery or excess, it is arguably the best AMT record in years.
(And, it has absolutely fantastic artwork too, as any fool can plainly see. Mine has a different coloured background to the jpg reproduced above, and I like it more, but whatev.)
Listen and buy via Riot Season.
7. Greg Ashley – Fiction is Non-Fiction d/l
For better or for worse, ‘Fiction is Non-Fiction’, an album length grab-bag of recordings quietly dropped onto his Bandcamp page in November, certainly doesn’t pull any punches in this regard, with Ashley taking his lyrical hatchet to such matters as the U.S. / North Korean nuclear stand-off (‘Thick Red Line’) and the moral bankruptcy of the “post-truth” era (“if fiction is the truth, let fiction try”, sneers the title track).
As well as expanding the range of his subject matter though, this collection finds Ashley stretching his legs a bit musically too. ‘Dissociative Pills’ marks a striking return to the kind of haunted, baroque garage-psych that he used to proffer in his bands Gris Gris and The Mirrors. A doomed lament for the love of a lady who seems to be a French school teacher, the song mixes some lyrics that border on brilliance with others so wantonly egregious they might have had a late period Serge Gainsbourg reaching for the tippex (I’ll leave it to the reader’s discretion to determine which is which). But, the fuzz-enhanced arrangement barrels along so persuasively, and Ashley spits out his verse with such depth of feeling, it’s difficult not to surrender and let yourself get drawn in to the unsavoury drama of the whole affair.
Elsewhere, the musical approach regresses further, arriving at the level of pure, snot-nosed drunken punk for the self-explanatory ‘Fuck The Army’ (a definite highlight), and then there’s ‘Blondes & Cyanide’ - a PC-baiting, POTUS-threatening outburst, positively writhing with disgust (both inward and outward-looking), that unexpectedly succeeds in delivering the best bad taste punk rock chorus of the decade. (Seriously, check it out.)
In between all this impotent rage meanwhile, things get pleasantly weird. ‘Indian Summer’ briefly recalls the shimmering, psychedelic reveries of 2007’s ‘Painted Garden’ album, ‘Karen and Catalina are Drinkin’ in Heaven’ is a doggedly repetitive waltz commemorating a pair of suicide victims (it’s one of this album’s surprisingly rare returns to the “drug addiction as pathetic abdication of human responsibility” themes that dominated ‘..Saint Paul Street’ too), and an acoustic cover of Sonic Youth’s ‘Schizophrenia’ makes one wonder at the uncanny extent to which the song’s opening verses sound like the kind of thing Greg Ashley would probably write.
Doubtless many listeners will be apt to deem some of the stuff Ashley sings about here tasteless, poorly thought out or just plain unappealing. There are moments when I’d agree with them, but hey, at least he’s never boring (which by my count puts him one up on every other human being who still persists in singing whilst holding an acoustic guitar), and there is an unfiltered grit and mad beauty to his music that is all too rare in these dark days, and that keeps me coming back for more. Somewhere in The Great Beyond, Warren Zevon and Laughin’ Len raise a glass to his efforts.
Listen and buy via bandcamp.
8. Melting Hand – Faces of Earth LP
Hitting a pretty much perfect middle ground between all the instrumental heavy psyche stuff that has tended to dominate my ‘best of…’ lists on this blog in recent years, ‘Faces of Earth’ is a whole ton of fun. Opener ‘Dust’ spins out on a great, propulsive groove from Mr Fug, a sweet silver surfin’ guitar riff gradually leading the band to an exhilarating, free form white-out, wrenching acres of sweet fuzz from the miniature city of flashing lights arrayed at their collective feet.
The decision to cover ‘Earth’ from the Joe Henderson / Alice Coltrane album I reviewed here meanwhile also proves an inspired one, sitting alongside Earthling Society’s epic reimagining of ‘Journey in Satchidananda’ in the extremely rarefied sub-genre of contemporary British heavy psych bands getting to grips with cosmic jazz classics. Hearing Vest force Henderson’s central sax riff through his everything-on-all-the-time guitar set up is a joy, and if the track’s subdued middle section, featuring a spoken word intervention from Lower Slaughter’s Sinead Young (reworking Kenneth Nash’s stoned incantations on the original) initially feels a bit awkward, repeat plays see it settling in nicely, preparing the ground for a thunderous full band return to the riff; both Andrau and Adams make their presence felt here beneath Vest and Watson’s characteristic maelstrom, sending skittering, neck-scraping noise and electronic echo trails ricocheting through the mix.
Back down to “earth” (ha), side B opens up with some seriously punkoid, uptempo riff rock on ‘Terra’. Recalling the maximalist stoner-fuzz moves of Vest’s recent work with Blown Out and Dodge Meteor, the track even accelerates to the point where it begins to sound like some weird, mutant cousin of ‘Jesus Built My Hotrod’ for a few bars. Wowza. ‘Giaia’ is more laidback, relatively speaking, functioning as a great work out for the rhythm section, with the pedals and amps of the noise-makers growling and hissing behind them, before the closing ‘Dirt’ kicks in with a monolithic, doom tempo trudge, its simplistic, two-part riff pushed to the edge of oblivion, lumbering under the weight of what sounds like about a hundred delay-addled, feedbackin’ guitar overdubs. It was this one, I think, that really blew my mind when the band drove into total oblivion during the Desertfest set I wrote up here. Much like Vest’s Haikai No Ku project, it’ll prove an endurance test for some, but a city-crushed-to-dust bliss for devotees such as myself. After thirteen minutes of that, well – job done, needless to say.
Listen & buy via Hominid Sounds.
9. Mountain Movers – Pink Skies LP
(Trouble in Mind)
Admittedly, this approach does lead to the impression of second guitarist / vocalist Dan Greene being rather side-lined here, especially given that much of ‘Pink Skies’ remains instrumental, but his presence as an oft-silent partner still proves important, lending structure to what otherwise feel like a fairly directionless bunch of rehearsal jams, particularly on album highlight ‘Snow Drift’, in which his spoken word tale of trying to make it home during a blizzard allows the song to really take flight, with Battalene’s feedback whiteout crashing in to ecstatic effect after a trudging, slushy build-up.
Though of a considerably rougher hue, the song reminds me of simple pleasures I used to experience in simpler times, zoning out to Galaxie 500 or Yo La Tengo’s noisier moments as if they were the first, last and only music on the planet to touch such heights. I thank them for the memories.
For a band vaguely located somewhere on the indie-rock spectrum to still push quite so much electrifying racket into the atmosphere circa 2018 seems little short of miraculous. Perhaps the relative isolation of Newhaven, CT helps? I dunno. Anyway, it’s spiriting to know that bands like this can still attain escape velocity without having to front like they’re anarcho-punks or folkies or psychedelic warlords or metalheads or jangle-pop fundamentalists or whatever. Just playin’, man, that’s all it is. It can get results.
(Really not sure about that cover art though, I’ve got to say.)
Listen & buy via bandcamp.
XXX. Skullflower –
Werecat Powers of the Crossroads at Midnight LP
Nashazphone label (this is the second, following last year’s The Black Iron That Fell From The Sky, To Dwell Within) are working on a whole other level, presenting some of the very best material that has ever emerged from beneath the auspices of this storied band name.
‘Werecat Powers..’ may cut down somewhat on the aggression generally expected of a Skullflower release, but it loses nothing of the project’s traditionally overwhelming scale. The A side’s ‘We Move On Points of Shattered Mirrors’ verily crow-bars open the third eye, with vast-immensity-of-the-universe-opening-up-before-you stomach-trembling synth walls reminiscent of Alice C’s ashram recordings echoing off ancient stone tomb walls; a bead curtain made of motherf-kin planets swinging hither and yon, leaving milky way trails of star debris. Benign oceans of horizontal laser arcs spreading across a grid-like sky of angelic, treble overload, as if Bower’s Sunroof! project calmed down and had a nice cup of some ancient Tibetan tea, whilst his amps shrieked on with an impossible immensity of cosmic light. But, the desert winds still howl and shrill their assault upon a much-abused prayer bowl lost somewhere in the mix, bringing shadows of shambling, parchment-gangling sharp toothed mummies much like the one glimpsed in Ahmed Nosseir’s cover illustration. They of course are the ones who are gradually gonna take this cut over, as knobs are twisted right and overtones accumulate; sand swinging in a hurricane, downing choppers as the ghouls feast on dead soldiers in exultant, dictator-crushing slo-mo, their voices all the while singing mightily from dust-choked, formless spectral throats.
And that’s just the bloody A side! The B (comprising ‘Charnel Ground’ and ‘Departure Lounge’) has more of a glass n’ chrome frippertronics kind of feel to it, but is equally blissful. Mirrored airport glide sucked down a wormhole of cult ritual and black static; obscene UAE air terminals collapsing in upon themselves as ancient giants rise.
That abrupt shut-off when each of the album’s three pieces ends, volume dropping to zero without warning, is a killer. Wherever you’ve been whilst the transistors were squalling and the amps pulsing, the crash back down to The Real is unbearable.
There are a lot of people around offering “psychedelia” these days. Eh – some of them are alright. If you can still find a copy of this LP though, plug in the headphones, get loose and enjoy a dose of the real thing.
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