Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
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Friday, May 12, 2017
Fugues From a Darkening Island:
First Quarter Report (DELAYED).
Given my by now expected tardiness when it comes to producing new content for this permanently-on-life-support blog, I found it frustrating that, whilst I was slowly ploughing through that best of 2016 list earlier this year, the first quarter of 2017 was simultaneously hitting me with a wealth of great new(ish) music – all of which helped cheer me somewhat whilst trudging through one of the most dire and baleful winters this ship-of-fools planet has experienced within living memory.
Though my burning need to tell you about all this was forced into hibernation as a result of other life commitments, I’ve FINALLY found a few minutes to bang something out for you before a big trip to Japan later this month puts things on hiatus again, so let’s get cracking.
As it happens, what follows is almost exclusively gnarly guitar stuff, and exclusively from within the night-haunted shores of the British Isles, so if that doesn’t sound like your cup of teeth, well… sorry. Things are looking pretty grim around here at the mo, so if you’re looking for something a bit more laidback and nuanced, might I recommend, say, Philadelphia in the 1970s? I mean, those guys seemed to know how to put their troubles in perspective and kick back in style. Here in 2017 however, the clock appears to be ticking, so we’ve got to take advantage of all this electricity and sweat-shop produced ‘gear’ and moan about it whilst we still can.
Grey Hairs’ 2nd LP ‘Serious Business’, out now on Gringo, is the band’s best recorded statement to date. At this point, they can pretty much be considered national standard bearers for the virtues of keeping it real and making excellent rock music on a sustainable/local level, and I hope I will remain in the spirit of the “shit, suddenly we’re middle aged” aesthetic they have been rocking since their inception if I state that the pleasures of this album largely arise from the opportunity to hear group with enough of a collective track record behind them to know how to do things right, just doing things right.
A big, ol’ reeking mess of a record in the best possible sense, the essence of ‘Serious Business’ is difficult to capture in a few glib sentences (an undoubted strength, although a bit of a pain in the arse when it comes to writing this sort of thing). Swinging from Melvins/Black Flag level heft on the one hand to a cannier, more sprightly approach that puts me in mind of the much missed Eddy Current Suppression Ring on the other, the ‘Hairs strong suit here is a solid & considered approach to song-writing that matches painstakingly hewn-from-cliff-face riffs with imaginatively tangled bits of guitar-work, appropriately bludgeoning/dramatic production decisions and vocalist James’s fairly unique approach to rock band front-person conventions.
This sees him mixing scale-climbing alt-rock emoting with a desperate/oddball sense of humour that helps make his tales of collapsing/self-pitying austerity-era masculinity not only palatable, but weirdly enjoyable. A shrieked “Sick! / Sick of feeling shit! / Sick of talking it!” aptly sets the scene on the self-titled opener, whilst ‘Man is a Kitchen’ – a definite highlight in all regards – appears to concern itself with the daily torment of cooking dinner (“Meat! Takes! TIME!”). [I realise that, in the context of a rock song, such talk of meat and ovens could be taken as a precursor to some kind of loathsomely ungainly double entendre, but I can’t be the only one who would rather take it at face value in this instance.]
I’m talking a fair bit of shit myself here it seems, and could probably continue doing so for a while longer, so instead let’s cut to the chase here and just say that, in ‘Serious Business’, Grey Hairs have achieved the seemingly impossible by perfecting a form of all purpose, non-denominational “modern rock” that feels valid, exhilarating, non-embarrassing and GOOD. And they’re fucking great live too. Just have a listen, will you?
I somehow missed out on seeing Brighton’s Lower Slaughter back when they were playing with their former vocalist Max Levy (aka King of Cats), but I’ve been lucky enough to catch them twice this year with Sinead Young (ex-Divorce) on the mic, and I have found them to be bloody brilliant, bordering on hit-the-mosh-pit-if-there-was-one inspiring, on both occasions.
Like Grey Hairs, Lower Slaughter are an adaptable, non-retro-fixated modern rock unit that just works. I mean, what can you say? A wrecking ball rhythm section, a rad/inventive guitarist, a charismatic front person with a good set of pipes – it’s not exactly rocket science, is it? But rarely these days are the elements all in place just so. Go see them play, and witness some serious, original, yet exultantly rocking, rock music being made. It’s great.
Only one track featuring their new line-up out in the wild thus far, on a four way split 7”, but it’s a blinder, and they’ve got an LP on the way shortly, so I’m looking forward.
(The photo above is by Isobel Reddington by the way, shamelessly googled up and stolen from The Quietus to cover for the lack of any appropriate record covers.)
Another band sharing that split 7” with Lower Slaughter are Dublin’s Sissy, and I’ve got to admit that, whilst on paper they don’t sound much like a group that would pique my interest much these days, they absolutely “killed it” (as the kids may or may not be saying) when I saw them headlining a night at the DIY Space a few months back.
It’s difficult to really put yr finger on what separates them so definitively from every other ‘songwriter plus rhythm section’ pop-punk three piece in the world, but, after beginning proceedings with a concise “we’re from Ireland, but we don’t like the church”, Sissy played with a sheer… I dunno, ‘confidence’ is the only word I can think of, though it feels woefully insufficient… that is rare indeed, and worthy of celebration.
Lyrics on the band’s most recent EP (released in 2015 apparently… what the heck have they been doing since?!) are straight up feminist agit prop with a particular emphasis on the issues faced by women in the Republic of Ireland, aimed twist-the-knife style at any potential detractors and even getting down to the nitty gritty of such specifics as the lack of female sports coverage on TV at one point – pretty on-the-nose kinda fare, but, they sell it. The concerns are legit, the rage is real, the performance holds up.
Despite the clean guitar tone, watching Sissy put me in mind of what it might have been like to catch ‘Bleach’-era Nirvana, with a nice dose of first wave UK punk directness in the mix, and, at the risk of being hit with the comparing-female-bands-to-other-female-bands stick, a fair bit of first album-era Sleater Kinney too. (Oof, good luck shouldering those expectations guys!) Ignore at your peril, and so forth.
The Suburban Homes.
Speaking both of first wave UK punk directness, it actually took nods from as far away as Japan and the USA to point me in the direction of The Suburban Homes, an outfit based out of Crawley, West Sussex, who put out a splendid 12” entitled ‘..Are Bored’ late last year.
Sound here is somewhat akin to early Television Personalities if they’d turned away from their mod/psyche/cutie fixations and instead ploughed an ever-deepening furrow of punk rock indignation [as if to prove my point, a re-worked cover of ‘Part Time Punks’ is included with the download version], or Billy Childish’s Pop Rivets if they’d done, well, much the same.
To echo a notion that seems to apply to most of the bands I’m writing about in this post, it’s difficult to articulate quite what makes these songs so vital as they rattle through the familiar monotone, three chord Messthetics sweet-spots like an out of control mini-moke careering through a sink estate, but, heaven help us, they hit the spot.
The disgruntled Punk 101 sentiments of screeds like ‘Barbie & Ken’ and ‘iPhone Suicide’ should be any reasonable measure be considered hopelessly redundant – condemned to the realm of Mr Local Bloke, fourth on the bill at the Dog & Duck, who’s been listening to The Clash and decided he’s got a bone to pick – yet somehow here, they still ring true, caustic, disenfranchised and ready for trouble.
I think perhaps the key to it is that, in contrast to the vast majority of other punk rock bands, The Suburban Homes actually sound as if they’re coming from a place where the very act of making this music or expressing these opinions makes them genuine outcasts from the society around them – as lonely and embittered as a mohawked oik dodging rocks in some provincial bus queue back in ’78.
By adopting such a militant “back to basics” approach, The Suburban Homes dodge the retro bullet and instead succeed in dragging punk-as-genre back from the echo chamber of unreadable jacket patches and endless self-referential permutations of badly recorded caveman nonsense, and reminding us why it appealed in the first place.
Unless of course, they are actually just a bunch of urbane metropolitan elitos like myself, pulling this ‘provincial amateur punk’ shtick just to take the piss – which is always a possibility in these dark days.
Either way, my wife bought a copy of their record via bandcamp and the package arrived with “THE SUBURBAN HOMES HATE SOCIAL MEDIA” written on the back in biro, so - truly they are fighting the good fight.
I first saw Casual Nun supporting Bong a while back, and they were pretty good. In the past six months, they’ve released two separate LPs (both recorded on the same day), and they’ve evidently upped their game to the level of ‘pretty great’.
Of the two, Super Fancy Skeleton (hard copy released via Hominid Sounds) is the one I’ve spent most time with, and it finds the band expending on their palette of Heads-style rehearsal room riffola to incorporate distant groans of mechanised insectoid angst, “eastern-tinged”, the-Egyptian-gods-are-rising-to-eat-you style psyche-doom atmos, and even warped ancestral memories of Glitter Band stomp and Quo-ian boogie. It’s a pretty eclectic brew all things considered, with the album’s four tracks anchored only by the presence of a pair of guitarists who sound like they would rather die by the sword than dial down their fuzz. Nice one.
On first approach, Psychometric Testing by.. (Box) seems to venture even further afield, beginning, somewhat unexpectedly, with ninety seconds of punishing, pedal-warped hardcore before another mammoth doom plod gets underway, belying any “Bong on the cheap” accusations with a genuinely massive sound-mix, swallowing all light in the immediate vicinity, much in the way such things should. By the end, there’s what sounds like a whole cell full of unhappy prisoners wailing down a wind tunnel in the depths of the mix, as somewhat gives a distorted theremin a good seeing to in the foreground.
Raw electronic textures of the kind Hawkwind’s audio generators might have belched up get an outing on ‘Truth Machines’, before the track departs for stranger realms of malfunctioning/medicated improv freakout before eventually working its way round to a few minutes of the kind of head-nodding action Endless Boogie might sanction. Then some heavy duty effects plough in again and…. before too long, spoken word starts happening. Blimey. Let’s just say that, more so than its predecessor, this record is quite a trip – a rusty, soggy, dangerous, fungus encrusted, subterranean one, specifically speaking, but well worth taking nonetheless.
As long-term readers will be aware, when it comes to metal (as opposed to doom, for which I apply different criteria), I like it straight up, punk-spirited, unpretentious, beer-sodden and direct from the practice room. So when I saw that Manchester-based Aggressive Perfector had hand-drawn a scary demon on the cover of their debut EP and (anti)christened it ‘Satan’s Heavy Metal’, I figured I might be on to a winner, and verily, they did not disappoint.
Not much to say about this one, beyond the fact that it just fucking rips, with the opening ‘Infernal Raids’ standing out as one of the most kick ass metal songs I’ve heard in years. Though they prostrate themselves before all the expected altars (Slayer, Venom, Cryptic Slaughter, more Slayer, even a touch of Di’Anno-era Maiden perhaps?), Aggressive Perfector aren’t bogged down in nostalgia, and neither to they play like posers – this is a razor sharp, band-live-in-the-room mid-fi blast that as far as I’m concerned represents the spirit of heavy metal at its finest. I haven’t had this much fun since I discovered the Blood Patrol demo. All hail!
Last but certainly not least, I’ve recently found myself reconnecting with the contemporary output of Skullflower [hopefully a no-intro-needed level prospect, but if you do need one, try here]. Still comprising a duo of Matthew Bower and partner Samantha Davies, it transpires that the band (if we can indeed properly deem them such) have recently been unloading a prodigious quantities of new material via their bandcamp page, and simultaneously holding forth on their mystifying yet beguilingly poetical take on spirituality on their blog,whilst, admirably, cementing real world connections in such unfashionable locales as Russia and Egypt.
It is the latter that leads us to the release I would particularly like to highlight here, ‘The Black Iron That Fell From The Sky, To Dwell Within (Bear It or Be It)’, issued earlier this year on Cairo-based Nashazphone label – one of the few Skullflower releases to hit vinyl within living memory, and deservedly so, for it is an astonishing piece of work.
Very much the kind of deal wherein trying to break the music within down to verbal descriptors feels both reductive and somewhat sacrilegious, let’s just say that ‘The Black Iron..’ finds Skullflower expressing the more expansive and less punishing (relatively speaking) side of the nature. I spent some quality time with it a few weeks back, sitting between the speakers with a glass of scotch, and I’ve not been quite the same since. The first side in particular is… something else.
The record is not currently available digitally and Nashazphone’s pressing was limited to 333 copies, but there are still some on offer via Discogs at the time of writing, so please – “don’t sleep”, as the collector bores say. (You can hear some of it on Youtube here.)
Thursday, April 27, 2017
Feral Ohms – s/t 12”
(Silver Current, 2017)
Just a few months back, I was griping about Comets On Fire/Howlin’ Rain guitar-lord Ethan Miller being relegated to bass in the wonderful Heron Oblivion, and lo and behold, my prayers are answered and then some, as he’s back to knock our fucking faces off with his most ferocious band to date.
Oh, but how shall I sing of my love for Feral Ohm’s self-titled debut 12”, as recently released on Miller’s own Silver Current label?
Well, let’s put it this way – you know how the music scene in any given city at any given time is liable to include at least one band who use too many capital letters and exclamations marks whilst claiming to play “TRUE, BALLS-TO-THE-WALL HIGH ENERGY ROCK N’ROLL!!!” or suchlike? And you know how (unless they are Guitar Wolf), those bands will inevitably kind of suck?
Well, Feral Ohms make no such claims (as far as I know), but they succeed in sounding like those bands must sound in the heads of their members, if you get my drift. Which is to say, they sound a bit like The MC5 in full throttle ‘Kick Out The Jams’ mode, bulked up on steroids and 21st century pedal board excess, comin’ at you like a hurricane.
When I initially listened to a bit of the band’s live album (which appeared before this studio effort, awkwardly), I was a little concerned to hear a guitarist as gifted as Miller largely relegated to playing chords in a by-the-book garage-punk power trio, but, thanks to the miracle of multi-track recording, he’s firing on all cylinders here, his trademark lava-spurting, orgasmic volcano freakout approach to the six string molesting almost every second of this splendid record with sweetly hysterical wang bar/fuzz-wah chaos.
Basically, this band just do everything right. ‘Living Junkyard’! ‘Gods of Nicaragua’! These are the kind of things rock n’ roll songs should be called! Admittedly, ‘Teenage God Born To Die’ sounds a bit try-hard, but when you hear the track itself….. you’ll buy it.
My god, I love this record. It plays at 45, clocks in at about twenty five minutes split between nine songs, and the whole thing is just an absolute rampage. It’s sad to think that in this day and age there is probably a limited audience for stuff that sounds like Rob Tyner and Kawabata Makoto guesting on a Supersuckers record, but if you are a part of that audience, I’d advise you to try to keep Feral Ohms off your headphones when passing a tattoo shop, lest you must go through the remainder of your life with a big baboon face inked on your anatomy. Remember: rock music this exuberantly rocking must be treated with care, or blood may go to the head, and decision-making may suffer.
I’d close with a snarky note about how this record eats Ty Seagull’s oeuvre for breakfast and feeds the bones to Buck Dharma’s ravenous huskies, but that would just be petty, wouldn’t it…?
In conclusion: please just get this, it rules.
This 12” can be streamed & purchased digitally via bandcamp, and the vinyl (supplied w/ download code) has gained distribution across the US, UK and probably elsewhere, so seek and ye shall find.
Monday, March 20, 2017
Thoughts on Chuck Berry
(1926 – 2017)
1. Real busy weekend on either side of hearing the news of Chuck Berry’s passing late on Saturday night. We were organising/playing a rare gig on Sunday night, so if he’d been considerate enough to give us another 24 hours’ notice, maybe we could have fitted in a cover. Well, no matter – probably a million feckless guitarists out there right now practicing their rusty little finger / fourth fret business in time for next weekend.
2. Chuck Berry – ala The Beatles – is one of those guys so ubiquitous that younger music fans are almost inevitably going to dismiss and kick against their influence… until they eventually grow up and realise who’s really the boss. Sifting through the “roots of rock n’ roll” biz, it’s all too easy to fixate on the more cultish, wilder figures, whose reputations can still be seen as in need of defence (Bo Diddley, Link Wray, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins), whilst writing off Big Chuck as a cynical middle-aged pervert who scrubbed up r’n’b to make it palatable to white teenagers, and proceeded to milk them for the rest of his/their lives with his sickly High School Prom/Ice Cream Soda kitsch crap.
Then, once you’re broadly familiar with the sound & expectations of American r’n’b/r’n’r cira the late ‘50s, you’ll unexpectedly hear one of his tunes when you’re out somewhere, and think….. holy shit. CHUCK BERRY – yes.
It is a process we’ve all been through. If you’ve not reached the final stage yet, don’t worry, it will come.
3. Just last week, we were listening to this random Chess Records archival comp whilst cooking dinner. It’s got some blues, some r’n’b, quite a lot of doo-wop. It’s all good, all worth hearing. The, towards the end of side # 2, Chuck Berry comes on (Let it Rock), and fuck “worth hearing”, it’s PARTY TIME. The impact of that sound – cutting through the competition like a knife through butter – remains absolutely hair-raising to this day, and, as much as we may dig his contemporaries, it is HIS vision of rock n’ roll – with the REALLY LOUD rhythm guitar, the relentless driving-down-the-highway 4/4 beat, the slurred, conversational vocals and of course the short, sharp solos – that has come down to us over the years through punk, garage and ‘60s beat pop, whilst alternative models (the pianos and saxophones, stuttering, Diddley-ish beats, extravagant vocalisin’) have all fallen by the wayside, applicable to post-’65 recordings only as quaint period touches.
4. Hearing ol’ Zimmerframe trotted out declaring him “the Shakespeare of rock n’ roll” yet again is profoundly unhelpful re: gaining an appreciation of Chuck Berry’s song-writing, which – though absolutely brilliant – tends toward the kind of no nonsense, rock n’ roll shit-talking that crumbles to dust as soon as you start throwing big, poetical claims at it.
As mentioned above, I’ve never really been into the whole High School and Cadillacs “celebration of capitalist American teenhood” shtick that people like Greil Marcus probably bang on about (indeed, it is this aspect of Chuck’s rock n’ roll hits that I like the least), but if you can get beyond that, his gift for casually brilliant lyrics regularly blows my mind.
As well as being a total, dancefloor-filling rave up, I think Brown-Eyed Handsome Man ranks as one of the slyest, funniest, most imaginative songs recorded by anyone in the late ‘50s – and that’s just the bits of it I can understand. For, in one of its final verses, it also provides a perfect examples of Berry’s inspired use of numbers, place names, obscure bits of slang to create stanzas that are pretty much meaningless to the vast majority of his listeners through different times across different continents, but that nonetheless just sound impossibly cool, hitting the rhythm of the song just dead-on, creating that “I don’t quite know what he’s going on about, but I love it” feeling that echoes through so much of the best rock n’ roll. I mean, “two, three the count, with nobody over / hit a high flyer into the stands / round the thirty he was headin’ for home / it was a brown-eyed handsome man, that won the game” – wow. I don’t know a damn thing about baseball (which this is presumably about), but it just sounds amazing – like the live-wire patter of some betting shop hustler immortalised forever on the beat.
5. Whilst we’re talking lyrics, I never been able to get over “..he could play the guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell” either. Absolute genius, especially when one pauses to reflect that a-ringin’ a bell isn’t quite as easy as it’s cracked up to be.
6. Though Berry’s trademark style coalesced in pretty quick fashion, some of the early ‘hits’ where he goes a bit off-message are just raw as hell and stand out a mile. Come On is one of my favourites. It’s just punk as fuck – the backing so minimal, the sentiment so furious, and it’s less than two minutes long too; “..some STUPID JERK tryin’ to reach another number – COME ON!” – a band could’ve played this pretty much identically in The Masque or CBGBs twenty years later and fitted in just fine. (It was also the last single he put out before being sent to prison in 1961, which may explain both its uncharacteristic sense of impotent rage, and the fact it sounds as if it was recorded in one take in an unlit basement.)
And on the other side of the coin, you’ve got Memphis, Tennessee – for all that Berry worked up the image of a perma-grinning Teflon showman, this is just so plaintive, so fragile it’s near heart-breaking – “Marie is only six years old, information please” – who else was singing stuff like this, especially in the form of what is ostensibly an upbeat dancing record..?
I find it very interesting that both of these songs sound so primitive and un-self-conscious – sort of like half-formed, embryonic takes on his slicker rock n’ roll style - despite the fact that they were actually recorded towards the end of his initial, pre-prison golden era, after ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ etc. Listen to all these songs in succession, and the chronological order of their release dates just feels wrong, as if his style was actually regressing into something more primal as debauchery and legal troubles took their toll… but I dunno.
7. Which brings me neatly onto the inevitable note that, once you look beyond the hits, Chuck Berry recorded loaded of really weird stuff; have you checked out all those wonky Hawaiian numbers? Or Crying Steel? Down Bound Train? That one’s spooky as hell – amazing track. Much in the vein of earlier black crossover stars like Louis Armstrong, one suspects that, beneath the safe “iconic” image he played up for his white audience, there was a really strange dude struggling to be heard.
8. Whilst “don’t speak ill of the dead” conventions allow us to some extent to gloss over Chuck Berry’s chequered history of sexual impropriety and statutory rape and instead concentrate on his music, it is my duty to at least note such matters and suggest that they do not exactly reflect well on our man, in spite of the charm and force of personality that comes through in his songs. Anyway, moving on…
9. Though some may see it as a late period (1964 for godssake!) rehash of his earlier successes, Promised Land is one of my all-time favourite cuts too. Kind of a knowingly concocted “best ever Chuck Berry song”, it never fails to get me going, and proves that Chuck can literally sing the phone-book and make it sound exciting: “Los Angeles, give me Norfolk, Virginia, Tidewater four ten-oh-nine” – again, practically meaningless lyrics to anyone not living in the Southern USA in the mid-20th century, but just check out how well they roll off the tongue. Maybe there’s something in that preposterous Shakespeare quote after all?
10. As I reflected in these pages a few years back whilst reviewing this brilliantly shonky Chuck Berry live album, I have nothing but admiration for the fact, after recording pretty much all the material that made his name prior to 1960, Chuck Berry spent literally the next fifty years living what I think must on some level be the ultimate revenge fantasy of every unfairly treated black American entertainment figure – putting in zero effort as he turns up five minutes before stage-time, probably after knocking back a fair bit of complimentary booze, shouts the name of the first song to the local pick up band he’d probably not even bothered to speak to before the how, and proceeds to grind through a set of gloriously cacophonous, half-assed crap – all for an audience of white folks who paid $100 per head to see him, and, hilariously, kept on doing so right to the end. Every time I listen to the aforementioned album, I had just hear his laughter as he pockets the cheque and jumps back in his Caddy, and it makes the shambling, pub band din within sounds all the sweeter.
Friday, March 17, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016:
1. Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura –
The Great Celestial Purge 4xLP
In a sense, perhaps it’s just as well that 2016 has seen me dragging out my “best of year” list through to the arse-end of the following March, because, in an all-time first, my # 1 spot belongs to a release that didn’t actually arrive on my doorstep until February.
I’ve been enjoying the mp3 version of ‘The Great Celestial Purge’ since I initially put my money down in September, so it definitely still qualifies as a 2016 release, but, given that (to my mind at least) this is vinyl music in excelsis, I’m really happy that my own tardiness has allowed me some to time to take it in on wax through the nice speakers before writing this review.
Mention of the box set’s late arrival is absolutely, totally not a complaint by the way. For a band who are still relatively little known, putting out a release on this scale is an example of Thinking Big that I really appreciate, and for the small label like Golden Lab to back them up on it is admirable. Producing a quadruple LP set of exacting audio quality and high aesthetic standards must have been pretty a pretty daunting task, and I’m extremely glad that they took their time and put in the necessary effort to deliver the goods, in the form of an end product that I suspect I will be keeping close at hand through many years to come. Well done everybody!
On to the music then, and, for the uninitiated, Manchester-based Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura are basically what back in the bad old days we used to term a “jam band”, perhaps cut through with hints of what in even worse days we called a “post-rock band”, but with enough shining talent and eminent good taste to ditch the negative connotations of both these pigeonholes.
Generally foregrounding the lyrical, clean-toned exploratory playing of nominal band leader Nick Mitchell, yr average Desmadrados cut features anything up to four or five electric guitars circling around each other, with delicately applied but defiantly weird effects turning one or two of them into pure atmos and smoke, as a loose, improvised groove takes hold, quite possibly featuring bass tone so warm you could hold your hands against it on a winter morn, and minimal, unobtrusive percussion grounding the tempo.
Working in an area of music that often overflows with ego, technical bluster and obscurantism, there’s something just so straight up, and… I dunno, inclusive?.. about the way Desmarcados do business, it’s just a wonderful thing.
I mean, what can I tell you: I’ve always loved the sound of electric guitars and their accoutrements, and I love all the things they can be made to do in the right hands. These guys, to my way of thinking, are very much the right hands, and ‘The Great Celestial Purge’ finds them doing all the lovely things they do on their guitars for literally hours on end, and I love it.
The Grateful Dead (in full-on ‘Live/Dead’ mode, not the country stuff, obviously) are an inescapable reference point here, but, if you’ve ever found yourself unwilling to struggle through endless minutes of baroque sing-songy bits and grunty Pig-Pennery to reach the transcendent ‘peak moments’ on a ‘Dead set, you’ll be offering praises to your dark gods the moment you cue up ‘Defixiones’ on the first side of ‘The Great Celestial Purge’ and find Desmadrados taking us straight to that peak moment from the outset and just letting it build and build across the entirety of the next twenty minutes, endless, nameless fragments of ungraspable melody cascading ever onward into an gilt-edged spider web of dreams. Or something. It was a random online play of this track that convinced me I needed to drop the best part of a month’s disposable income on these records, and I do not regret my decision in the slightest.
Another potential touchstone in the canon of non-embarrassing jam band shit is that of Swedish communal funsters Träd Gräs Och Stenar, whose spirit can perhaps be felt ever so slightly on the equally edifying side B jam, ‘Hogback Shingles’; a more subdued piece that sees the bass gradually taking the lead as flurries of exquisitely reverbed slide guitar detritus drift hither and yon through the mix, this one creates a dense field of valve amp detritus, melting like a snowdrift hit with a shaft of sun, and is perfect just before bed-time.
Completing the triumvirate of influences of course, we need to throw in a mention of electric-era Miles Davis and the wealth of cosmic fusion excursions that followed in his wake – a unbeatable blueprint for the production of long-form, improvised music that Desmadrados fall back on throughout this set, whether consciously or otherwise. And although the general vibe here is too chilled to engage with the live-wire tension and supressed aggression of Miles’s best dawn-of-the’70s sides, the relatively agitated ‘Red-Eared Sliders’ and the grimier abstraction of ‘Iluvia Radioactiva’ do at least hint at the possibility of darker currents within their work, reminding us of ‘The Great Celestial Purge’s loose concept as a memorial for assorted musicians lost during 2016.
The main thing I think Desmadrados take from Miles though is an inherent understanding of one of the key lessons of ‘Bitches Brew’ et al – namely, that the ‘slow-build’ is for suckers. Perhaps in fact, this is the key to what makes the music of Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura so much more mercurial and intoxicating than that of the majority of practitioners of the unpalatable genres I name-checked in the opening paragraphs of this post. Instead of treading water, holding back the pay-off, counting off the minutes just for the hell of it, each one of the cuts here sees the band zeroing straight in on what they want to do, establishing their M.O. for the piece, then building upon it, twisting it, demolishing it, rebuilding it, in a suitably ecstatic fug of group-mind creation, revelling endlessly in the gleaming, multi-faceted detail they can bounce off the walls of their magnificently appointed comfort zone. It’s a sweet place to be.
I know that rock/pop music is supposed to be all about innovation and confrontation and the wild energy of youth and so on, so perhaps I’m about to make myself sound like a worthless, irredeemable old white man, but fuck it. The music on this set is beautifully played and beautifully recorded, and it proves extremely edifying and relaxing whenever I get a chance to put a side or two of it on as I sit on my bed and read my book of an evening (perhaps with an occasional snifter of single malt to complete the idyllic picture). There is an awful lot of music to enjoy across these four discs, and I am looking forward to letting it continue to sink in for quite some time to come. Who knows, maybe I can bend the rules to have it qualify as #1 for 2017 too? If this what middle age feels like, bring it on.
‘The Great Celestial Purge’ can be heard and acquired in either physical or digital form direct from Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura's bandcamp page.
Monday, March 13, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016:
2. Haikai No Ku –
Temporary Infinity LP
Right, more Vestage (Vestism?) here, with what, for me, was Mike V’s best release of 2016, the third LP from his more noise-orientated three-piece, Haikai No Ku.
Far more of a studio project than Blown Out (they’ve never played live to my knowledge, which is unsurprising given the sheer density of guitar/noise tracks stacked up on their recordings), Haikai trades that unit’s head-nodding groove for an exultation of grim, cyclopean excess, and, for those who picked up on their previous LP (Ultra-High Dimensionality) the recipe here is not much changed, with the full-spectrum saturation of Vest’s Matthew Bower-esque guitar/FX conjurations sprawling across the baleful, stentorian lock-step of the rhythm section.
In fact, it’s easy to picture Jerome Smith (bass) and Sam Booth (drums) taking an early bus home from the studio whilst Vest works long into the night on these cuts, crafting an apocalyptic, city-levelling sound that mirrors (in feel, if not necessarily content) the likes of band-era Skullflower (natch), Fushitsusha and other extremist rock/noise outfits through the ages. (I’d also like to imagine the studio engineer staggering from the building after dawn, bleeding from every facial orifice, but don’t want to get too carried away with such fantasies.)
Opening track ‘Saltes of Human Dust’ – it’s title taken from the alchemical quotation that opens H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ (what is it with people from Newcastle?) – is, appropriately, an absolute monster, Vest’s queasy, scooped guitar tones suggesting a sickly green hue, even as the high end white noise torment that gradually envelops the low/mids drives things toward pure black on the synaesthesia scale, a terrifying conjuration of electric obliteration that at one point features a sound almost exactly like a biological electric guitar letting out a strangulated shriek. ‘Temple Factory’, which follows, is if anything even more relentless, the lumbering, two note doom riff presided over by the rhythm section propelling the accompanying FX white-out toward ‘Akira’-level visions of rubble n’ twisted steel demolition.
After the transitional ghostly tumult of ‘Blind Summit’, side # 2 is a somewhat less sadistic experience, reigning in the euphoric overload of the A side for ‘In the Garden of Eclipse’s somnambulant, depressive drift of decaying chords and amp debris, bass and drums treading water in a manner reminiscent of Vest’s comrades in Bong. And, in closing, ‘Sea of Blood’ picks us up again with an almost Rallizes-like bass-line and laser-blast lava-monster guitar, shaking up a monolithic, head-nodding grind before a disappointingly early fade – a brief palette cleanser preparing us for whatever the hell comes next…
I’m not sure at what point in my life I began using the word ‘sadistic’ in a positive context with regard to the critical assessment of recorded music, but, sometimes (and with increasing frequency in my case it seems), we all need an absolute noise-wall white-out - and when that time comes, it’s a god-send (though who knows which god) to have one as pungent and hypnogogic as this to fall back on.
Available to stream and download direct from Mike Vest via bandcamp; the LP still on sale from Box Records.
Thursday, March 09, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016:
3. Heron Oblivion – s/t LP
And so it came to pass that Ethan Miller and Noel Von Harmonson (ex-Comets On Fire), Meg Baird (ex-Espers, solo folksiness) and Charlie Saufley (of some outfit called Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound) got together at some point in the waning years of the Obama administration. Rather than merely reminiscing about the fun they had back at Arthurfest in 2004 or whatever though [how sad that such things are now a distant, historical moment, gone for good], they took it upon themselves to form an absolutely stupendous folk-rock/heavy psyche cross-over band under the improbable name of ‘Heron Oblivion’, and verily, people over thirty who like rock music did rejoice.
At least nine months late to the party, it now comes time for me to craft a written assessment of their debut LP, and to generally celebrate the existence of what is probably the best thing pressed up by the Sub-Pop label since before the birth of some kids who are now starting bands (or at least doing whatever ghastly things it is kids do nowadays in lieu of starting bands).
In short then: ‘Heron Oblivion’ sounds like a masterfully wrought combination of ‘Unhalfbricking’ era Fairport, ‘Everybody Knows..’ era Crazy Horse and a whatever-era-you-like motherlode of PSF-style amp-melting Japanese psyche…. and I probably don’t need to tell you that such a combination pretty much represents pure fucking zen perfection to your correspondent.
All the more so when, as here, the aforementioned antecedents are wrangled with such mellifluous ease as to allow the band to sublimate them into Their Own Style pretty much from the word go, dismissing potential buzzkill re: retro posturing or inter-generational plagiarism for the banal snarking it is, wiping such concerns from their desk with an authoritative sweep of sweet, sweet, indisputably rocking music whose spirit of communal interplay (if not necessarily its core ingredients) place it firmly within the Eternal Now.
One thing that should probably be highlighted here is the recording / production on this LP, which I think is absolutely fantastic. The quieter passages are hear-a-pin-drop glacial, with careful attention paid to dynamics and beautiful, unobtrusive reverb shimmering as if it were taped in a flooded concert hall; as soon as the guitarists hit their fuzzboxes though (which, praise be, they do pretty much constantly), the sound roars in maxed out and compressed like a jet fighter afterburner, the nuance of every string bend, amp shriek and wah-squelch captured in exultantly hair-raising fashion. The result is a fusion of genteel drift and no bullshit heaviosity wherein the two modes seem to be working in unison rather than in conflict – a rare and delicate balance that here works splendidly.
Another thing I should mention is how surprised I was when I checked in with some of this album’s press a few months after acquiring and listening to it, and discovered that Ethan Miller *isn’t* one of those guitarists. Instead, he remains way back in the mix on bass (which is near inaudible at some points) whilst Van Harmonson and Saufley let the sparks fly up front, one or both of them doing such an uncanny impression of Miller’s trademark wang-bar pummelling style from back in the Comets days that… well, I don’t know what to think, really. I guess great guitar players just think alike within the apparently blessed orbit of this band and their circle. Jeez, I dunno.
I just love this record, basically. It does all the things I like – simple as. The only thing that stops me in fact from sending Heron Oblivion to #1 with a bullet, tippexing their name onto the back of my jacket and hitchhiking across the Atlantic to see them play is a somewhat… I’m not quite sure how to put this.... a somewhat overly chilled, self-satisfied feeling hanging over the whole project?
I mean, Baird’s songs are flawlessly pleasant listening, with somewhat of an epic sweep to them, but I’m not sure they’d really make much of an impression without the electric pyrotechnics that surround them here, and, in contrast to my oft-stated belief that good bands should always at least pretend that they are kicking against some undefeatable opposition, Heron Oblivion sound like an easy-going group of professional musicians getting together to do the nice stuff that they do, safe in the knowledge that they are doing it well and that the results are headed for worldwide distribution on a nice label.
Which I realise is a spurious complaint that could reasonably be aimed at least half of the groups I write about here, but, listening to their records shouldn’t make us feel it, if you know what I mean – especially given that circumstances across the globe make it increasingly clear that this laidback/entitled approach to the creation of culture is one that – even for these guys – is increasingly looking like a luxury soon to be consigned to the past.
Never mind all that though - that this album is great is all you need to know in the first instance.
This LP is available in various iterations direct from Heron Oblivion’s bandcamp page, or no doubt from your local vendor of Sub-Pop product.
Monday, March 06, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016:
4. Blown Out –
Celestial Sphere d/l (self-released)
& New Cruisers LP (Riot Season)
As per the City Yelps write-up below, it is difficult to come up with anything new to say about Blown Out at this juncture, given that they seem determined to stick to a schedule of releasing a new LP every six months, all of them basically interchangeable, but each slightly more awesome than the last.
For my money, they’d already pretty much perfected their style back on ‘Jet Black Hallucinations’ in early 2015, but still the jams keep coming, as endless as the expanse of deep space en route to some nameless planet of space-rock dreams, with each release further tweaking the engine; John-Michael Hedley & Matt Baty’s liquid / telepathic rhythm playing becomes slightly more insistent and hypnotic each go round, as Mike Vest’s delay slathered guitar textures in turn become more detailed, more abstract, more exultantly otherworldly.
‘Celestial Sphere’ (a download-only release initially offered on-line to raise money for the band’s European tour) offers a slight dip in fidelity, as befits its practice-room origins, but the playing is superb, as the primacy of the bass is temporarily pushed back in the mix, giving greater emphasis to the gossamer web of Vest’s overlapping decaying notes and endless fried solos, particularly when – as now seems de rigour for Blown Out sets – things crash out into swirling chaos towards the end.
As signalled by the title and Anthony Downie’s magnificent artwork however, ‘New Cruiser’ sees the afterburners roaring on full-power once more for what at the time of writing stands as the supreme expression of Blown Out’s single-minded M.O. If you’ve listened to any of their other records mentioned above, well, suffice to say, this is more of it, sounding bigger, gutsier and more confident than ever, with Hedley’s bass back to the fore, even as the groove slows down to malevolent crawl on second side; engine burn-out dissolving into an ugly maelstrom of neck-scraping noise. Never mind that though. Just ease back in the big chair in the control room, light up a company-issue relaxation stick, drop the needle on side # 1, watch the stars roll by… and what more is there to say, really?
Back on earth meanwhile, I’m already dreading the moment when I’ll have to think up something new to write about Blown Out after they drop their next, and no doubt even better, LP. (That’ll be ‘Superior Venus’ then, out at the end of March.)
Downloads of both of these releases are available direct from bandcamp; the vinyl run of 'New Cruisers' via Riot Season appears to be sold out.
Thursday, March 02, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016:
5. City Yelps –
The City Yelps Half Hour LP
Regular readers (assuming I still have any) will recall me waxing lyrical about City Yelps’ earlier releases (see here, and here), and as such, I’m happy to report that this LP is objectively brilliant, and probably the best thing they’ve done to date.
Beyond that, it is difficult to think of much else to say that wouldn’t end up repeating the content of my earlier reviews, given that the ‘Yelps (if I may) seem on course to become one of those bands who, much like Motorhead, keep on doing that thing that they do, and keep on doing it well, with such exuberance that we will never get sick of listening to them do it, allowing them to continue doing it for the remainder of our (or at least, their) lives.
Further pondering the otherwise spurious Motorhead comparison, one hopes that a similar ‘heritage’ position within the rock canon will follow in due course for City Yelps, and perhaps a similarly ‘iconic’ sartorial style and lifestyle-signifying merchandising range too - but for now, those of us with the good taste to be in on the ground floor can revel in eleven more examples of that Good Stuff that we by now expect and demand.
Recorded once again under the auspices of Mick Flower (Vibracathedral Orchestra, etc) in what I like to imagine is a tinfoil-walled psychedelic dungeon of never-ending reverb, I think this is the best-sounding City Yelps joint to date, achieving a level of gloriously over-saturated analogue cacophony that few song-based acts would even be prepared to contemplate, let alone willingly embrace.
At the same time, Sean’s vocals are also easier to discerning here, easing the burden of ear-strain for those of us primed to enjoy his acid/stoic observational barbs. Subjects broached druing the Half Hour possibly include: walking the streets in the early morning (‘We Like The Hours’), insipid music industry careerism (‘Music For Adverts’) and a characteristic celebration of the power of cheapness (‘11.99’). Or then again, possibly not. It’s still quite difficult to tell, to be honest. Much like Lemmy though, Sean’s grizzled tones are a unique gift and a statement in and of themselves, and whatever he’s on about at any given point, you can be assured he is correct about it.
Also impressive here are the band’s increasingly successful ventures into eccentric, Swell Maps-esque freak-out territory, as exemplified half-way through ‘Canyons’, when an extended ‘solo’ is executed in the form of what sounds like a recording of someone taking a baseball bat to the exterior of a glass-fronted building.
Whilst I sincerely hope that said destruction was not visited upon Mick’s premises, this angry emanation from the streets of Leeds – thematically mirrored in the shattering skree City Yelps produce more conventionally using their instruments – is nonetheless liable to gladden the heart of any Southerner who’s ever had the misfortune walk past a Foxtons estate agents on their way to some grim, employment-related assignation.
Such is the rare reassurance City Yelps offer us that circumstances still exist in which buying a cottage industry LP of indie guitar music can feel less like a Sealed Knot re-enactment of past struggles, and more like an experience that is vital, invigorating, defiant and other such words that are more normally applied to shampoo or community theatre. Take a dose of this on the morning trudge, and get that bloody life affirmed in a shower of bullshit-rejecting, window-breaking dreams.
LP and download options are both still available from Oddbox.
Monday, February 20, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016: Part # 3.
10. Chroma - Cuerpos Dóciles 12''
Of the assorted flash-in-the-pan fads that have increasingly been afflicting internet-era music subcultures over the past few years, one of the most irksome to me personally has been the sudden (perhaps already fading?) rage for “dark punk”/goth revival stuff that seems to have been swept through the world’s punk scenes like a particularly virulent stream of Dutch Elm Disease. I mean, ok - I realise that the world currently feels very much like an accelerated blockbuster re-run of the darkest moments of the 1980s, but does that really mean we have to sound like it too? If quasi-mainstream bands playing Siouxsie & The Banshees rehashes are still being hailed by what remains of the press as if they represent some exciting, new future, does that mean that the underground has to follow suit by launching tepid re-enactments of, I dunno, Christian Death or UK Decay or something? What gives?
Well, I don’t know. It’s just pure, unfettered personal preference speaking here, really. Let’s just mark the fact that it’s a sound I’ve never liked very much, and move on to say that, from my POV, the best thing by far to come out of this ‘dark punk’ moment has been Rakta (see below), and the assorted bands that have followed in their wake or move within their orbit – and chief amongst those is Chroma, a Barcelona-based outfit featuring (I believe) Rakta’s former guitarist, who has now relocated there and plays bass in Chroma. [Corrections to that largely pieced together pile of assumptions welcomed in the comments].
Verily, many ‘dark punk’ signifiers can be readily identified on this 12”, from the wanton abuse of phaser and chorus pedals to the grooveless, martial drumming and some high-end, Joy Division-y basslines, but Chroma’s application here is so searing and purposeful it almost redeems such gestures for all time. Far from snuffling about like not-quite-committed revivalists who got bored of all the other styles of punk music invinted in the ‘80s, Chroma wield their noise with an unflinching, 50 yard stare, as if just DARING the likes of me to fuck with them as they channel rage, resistance and forward momentum into some of the best punk rock I heard in 2016, no qualifiers or sub-categorisation needed.
Dragging riffs out of pure sheets of FX-filtered amp skree, the guitar here is genuine, shiver-down-the-spine exciting, but it’s Rebe’s vocals that are the main selling point here, standing out proud, feral, terrifying and awesome – war-cries from the side of the barricades that I hope I’m also on when our nightmare future fully kicks in.
Sadly I’m too much of a dunce to even figure out whether she’s singing in Catalan or Spanish, let alone understand what she’s saying, but it certainly sounds as if some heavy matters are being addressed, and I’m pretty sure she has my vote on them.
Behind her, the rhythm section Laura and Amy eke out a kind of scaly, dystopian gloom that certainly captures the best and most brutal side of post-punk atmospherics, those familiar snare rolls and eerie, melodic bass bits suggesting a slow march toward imminent, ghastly violence – with the ensuing image of Chroma’s fiery breath melting their enemies kaiju-style expressing everything that makes this great 12” such an enervating and inspiring listen. I may not be looking forward to much in 2017, but I’m certainly looking forward to more of this.
Variously available from different labels in NYC, Barcelona and Brazil, you can check Chroma’s bandcamp for details if you want to track down a hard copy, or get a download straight from the band.
9. Mule Team - tape (self-released)
At completely the other end of the rock spectrum meanwhile -- Mule Team are a great four-piece band from Japan (members split between Yokosuka, Tokyo and Yokahama I believe), who play cool, easy-going rock n’ roll with sweet guitar leads, catchy tunes, a rolling back-beat and a pointed disinterest in self-promotion or online presence, with the latter no doubt contributing to their music’s success in standing entirely outside of the petty concerns and demands of contemporary culture, whilst simultaneously not caving in to any overt retro posturing.
It’s good time music and they have a good time playing it; if you’re anything like me, you’ll have a good time listening to it, and this is all that matters. Over the course of the six songs on this tape (manufactured to cover costs for a Japanese tour supporting Nobunny and long since sold out), the band veer away from their base in Creedence-style choogle to embrace Dinosaur-esque neo-classic rock at some points, Big Star-ish power-pop at others, with just enough of the members’ backgrounds in garage-punk shining through to keep things fast, loud and slightly on edge.
A nifty Eastern hemisphere counter-part to bands like Tennessee’s Natural Child (only minus the stoner humour, Eagles infatuation and terrible album covers), Mule Team remind us that, when it’s done right, rock music doesn’t have to be anything more than rock music, because rock music is great.
One song from this tape can be streamed via Bandcamp (as per the D/i/s/c/o/s tape, please don’t buy it – the price equates to about £600), but otherwise you’re shit out of luck if you want to hear Mule Team’s recorded work just at the moment, I’m afraid.
8. Rakta – III LP (various labels)
The defection of Rakta’s guitarist [see Chroma review above] seems to have pushed Brazil’s finest future-punks in somewhat of a bold new direction if this release is anything to go by, with the slightly more outré sonic palette of vocalist/keyboardist/noiseist Carla now co-existing alongside the dogged, DIY punk beat-down of the band’s rhythm section, without the customary wall of guitar chug to fall back on.
Incorporating everything from ‘tribal’ floor tom pounding, horror movie organs and Indian war whoops to jagged bursts of white noise and masses of Rakta’s by-now-expected Boss delay pedal freakouts, the results are – miraculously - all served up in a manner that remains compelling rather than infuriating, and, as much as I miss the sheet metal distortion of Laura’s guitar, it’s safe to say that ‘III’ represents the band fully taking ownership of the more explorative, unmoored sound that their earlier releases have always hinted at.
Mixing an unsettlingly minimal, martial beat with outbursts of strangulated noise, mangled ‘satellite decay’ vocal fragments and fascistic soundtrack-to-a-barbarian-movie synth-strings, ‘A Violencia do Silencio’ sounds like something Cabaret Voltaire might have come up with in one of their fruitier moments, whilst both of the LP’s longer tracks (‘Conjuração Do Espelho’, ‘A Busca Do Circulo’) succeed in conjuring up the kind of electronic-atavistic sound-fog that puts me in mind of much-missed noise-witch covens like Pocahaunted or Double Leopards – reference points that it is very cool indeed to have the opportunity to throw around in relation to what is still ostensibly a “punk” record.
I guess you could say, much of the time, when a rock band let their yen for ‘creative expression’ hang out as shamelessly as Rakta do here, you’d be apt to write it off as a load of indulgent, difficult-second-album hoo-hah and wish they’d play to their strengths instead, but you could equally say that (certainly in terms of the still pervasive post-punk/’new pop’ critical mindset) successfully making such a leap is what separates groups who actually have something important to add to the equation from the mere chancers or genre re-enactors. As such, it is heartening to listen to ‘III’ and hear Rakta just making it, y’know - work.
It works so well in fact, I find myself willing them to go even further with the more potentially alienating or absurd aspects of their sound, for there is a self-belief to be felt and heard here that reassures me that this band are not messing around. Just as per their first 12” a couple of years back, ‘III’ is just about the most exhilarating and genuinely forward-thinking thing I’ve heard from the quote-unquote punk underground in donkey’s years, and deserves to be celebrated as such.
Variously pressed in different continents by (I’m quoting here) “Iron Lung Records (USA), Nada Nada Discos/Dama da Noite Discos (BR) and Dê o Fora (ES)”, ‘III’ can be purchased in various formats direct from the band, or check with local distros etc if you need it in hard copy but are wary of the postage.
7. Monoliths – s/t LP (Dry Cough)
An authentically mighty Nottingham-based doom outfit (ex-Moloch, Diet Pills etc), Monoliths here heroically reject any hint of ‘genre innovation’, instead doubling back on tried and tested veneration of Sleep, Earth, Burning Witch et al for some long haul, mountain flattening heaviosity that pretty much nails it as far as I’m concerned.
“Monoliths play heavy and slow”, they say. “No plan, no goals, just riffs.” As a few minutes playback of this LP proves beyond doubt, they ain’t kidding.
Whilst there’s nothing “new” here perhaps, doom is a genre that has always thrived upon stasis, and if it’s fair to say that, if Monoliths do indeed “nail it” here, they do so with an extremely large nail, hammered into the centre of an empty field, around which an amorphous black doom-dog circles on a length of chain, snarling and drooling as the cymbals crash, the feedback shrieks between each downtuned ur-chord and the sub-bass distorts so bad you worry for the future of your speakers.
Trad as fuck but still stretched to suitably – sorry – monolithic proportions, the b-side here (‘Omnipresence of Emptiness’) lays down an ‘eastern’ tinged riff that could have come off a Cathedral record at one end of the horizon, or a Bong LP at the other, and canes it to within an inch of its life, as lead overdubs, sweet death metal bellowing and 2016’s most crushing bass tones keeping monotony at bay whilst the band hit a groove so undeniable it should make all right-thinking advocates of this genre fucking weep. Sweet, slo-mo head-banging gnosis of the highest order – if you don’t like this, perhaps doom is not the genre for you, frankly.
Listen and buy digitally via bandcamp; available on vinyl from Dry Cough.
6. Rhys Chatham – Pythagorean Dream
Each year, I need a good drone or two to keep me going, and in truth this LP has spent longer sitting on my turntable than any other on this list.
Scaling back considerably from the intimidating 100+ guitar armies he was operating with a few years back, concerns re: developing a performance that could be toured more economically seem to have led Chatham in entirely the opposite direction, as he has realised that modern delay & looping technology allows him to effectively sit on his lonesome and layer sound to his heart’s content, as he happily acknowledges in the admirably straight-forward account of his aims and methodology that accompanies this release.
(In an area of music that often thrives upon abstraction and obscurantism, I can’t appreciate how much I appreciate Chatham packaging his work with what is essentially a nice little note to his listeners, explaining exactly what he’s up to.)
The results of Chatham’s solo performance endeavours fit this pre-written narrative for this release quite nicely by way of being much, much, much less epic and abrasive than the kind of sound we might have expected of him in the past, seeing him working instead in a far more meditative, self-contained manner, as he starts from near silence, slowly feeding careful phrases of guitar and flute into his no doubt impressive arsenal of boxes with flashing lights, gradually building up an ebbing and flowing tide of overtones and cascading, ever-decaying fragments of melody that, if it is perhaps not exactly burning the rulebook of modern composition and brazenly pissing in the ashes, is nonetheless an absolutely splendid listen for those of us who like to chill with a nice drone on a weekday evening.
And, I don’t have a great deal more to say on the subject to be honest, except to note that, whilst Chatham essentially isn’t doing anything here that any guitar player with a couple of hundred quids-worth of unnecessary pedals hasn’t done (or contemplated doing) in the privacy of their own home, what really shines through on ‘Pythagorean Dream’ is the care and deliberation that his background in composition has allowed him to employ in marshalling these sounds, instinctively honing his every string buzz and knob-twist to enhance the piece, and to add to the listener’s enjoyment of it.
It is an approach, I feel, that anyone approaching this sort of thing from a rock perspective (with its inevitable bias toward self-expression and indulgence) could very much benefit from observing, and one that helps make ‘Pythagorean Dream’ a fine listen that I have returned to frequently throughout 2016.
‘Pythagorean Dream’ is available in assorted formats at a range of attractive price points from the UK-based Foom label. (The LP is a lovely package, and hard to beat value-for-money-wise – three cheers, Foom.)
Friday, January 27, 2017
January Deathblog Compendium.
As I struggle forlornly to find a few minutes to get this stopped clock styled Best of 2016 “count-down” back in action, I have of course been aware that, like some awful annual ritual, a lot of people who fall within this blog’s orbit have passed away since Christmas.
January always feels so horribly medieval, doesn’t it? It gets cold, so the older or more infirm among us start to die. Hospitals buckle under a further escalation of their now-continuous “crisis”, comedic Dickensian undertakers rub their hands together in glee, and even the most chilled of Saturnine cult rock musicians, living (one hopes) in relative comfort, surrounded by the warmth and respect of their peers and loved ones, are not immune to the remorseless progress of death.
(Jesus Christ, always a barrel of laughs on this blog at the moment, isn’t it?)
Anyway. As I like to make a habit here of marking the passing of those whose work has made an impression upon me over the years, there follows a short round up of remembrance for the recently departed – all deserving of far more space than I have allocated them here.
Rick Parfitt (1948 – 2016)
There comes a point in every music fan’s life when he or she will cut through the derision engendered by Live Aid, ‘Whatever You Want..’, slicked back ponytails and that time they sued Radio One for not play-listing their new single, and realise that Status Quo were and are *A-OK*. And, given that the past few years have found me wearing double denim and listening to monotonous boogie-rock as a matter of almost daily routine, this liberating realisation has hit me with hit me particular force of recent.
As John Peel recognised, if ‘Caroline’ and ‘Down Down’ don’t get your dancefloor going, you need to have some serious words with your dancefloor, and indeed, extensive testing has shown that the Quo’s output remained certifiably bad-ass throughout the first half of the 1970s. (If you need further evidence, begin here.)
(As an aside, the band’s perpetual uncoolness has meant that key LPs like ‘Piledriver’ and ‘Quo’ remain among the few first rate, Vertigo-swirl era ‘70s rock records that can still be picked up for peanuts at the time of writing. As such, my PRO-TIP for any cash-strapped record collectors is to head down to Oxfam and fill yr boots before the wind changes. You won't regret it.)
Though Status Quo’s best work relies too much on a collective, unified groove for me to be able to hymn Parfitt’s individual contributions to their oeuvre with a great deal of certainty, he shares many song-writing credits for their best shit, and his unrelenting dedication to the art of high gauge Telecaster hammering should surel;y earn him legendary status amongst rhythm guitar players. As a key member of such a monster unit and (by most accounts) a lovely chap, he will be missed.
William Onyeabor (1946-2017)
A relatively recent discovery for me (and for many others, if the proliferation of the ubiquitous ‘Who is William Onyeabor?’ compilation is anything to go by), Onyeabor was an entirely self-sufficient Nigerian musician, producer, record mogul and “industrialist” whose trademark combination of irresistible disco/funk rhythms, Stevie Wonder-esque keyboard/synth wig-outs and soulful, understated vocals delivering mighty, no nonsense themes of peace, togetherness and humility – delivered in the form of eight self-released LP between 1977 and 1985, at which point he apparently abandoned music altogether and became somewhat reclusive - created just about the happiest, most affirmative and immediately likeable sound I’ve heard in many a year. And apparently he achieved all this whilst dressed like JR from ‘Dallas’ too, which is awesome.
Tracks like Better Change Your Mind, Atomic Bomb and Why Go To War go off like wonky, eight minute smiles of DIY disco ecstasy, and whilst I’ve yet to spend enough time with Mr Onyeabor’s work to eulogise him further, I was very sad to hear that he passed away last week.
Peter Sarstedt (1941 – 2017)
Well if you’re going to be a one hit wonder, this is the way to do it.
I’ve probably written before here at some point about how, before I was “into” music, when my age was still in single figures, the songs that initially captivated me and stuck in my mind during long, Radio Two-soundtracked drives with my Dad tended to be “story songs” with some kind of heavy, dramatic atmosphere – ‘House of the Rising Sun’, ‘Ode to Billie-Jo’, and of course, ‘Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?’.
Just like those other songs, I still love it too, and offer no apology. It would be my first choice in Karaoke, if the machines ever had it (I guess, being primarily lyric-based, it wasn’t a bit hit in Japan), and I could probably recite most of the verses for you straight off the bat.
At one point in my ill-starred past, I had a yen to record some sort of horrifying noise deconstruction of it, but, returning to Sarstedt’s original, I concluded that it remained absolutely great, and as such didn’t deserve to be subjected to any kind of “deconstruction”, despite its comedic flourishes and manipulative melodramatic turnaround.
These days in fact, the song carries more potency for me than ever, as it’s exhaustive litany of mid-century cultural reference points – which all sounded so mysterious and enticing to me as a child, suggestive of the wondrous promise of adulthood – now feel incredibly sad; fading memories of a world of guilt-free, Riviera-tanned European privilege that sat ready for the taking, tempered by just the right amount of quasi-Bohemian aesthetic daring to add substance to the argument that, for the lucky few at least, the time and place hymned by Sarstedt represented the pinnacle of Western civilisation.
In fact, there’s quite a thorny dialogue going on in the song vis-à-vis the way that the excesses the singer chronicles are ostensibly dismissed from the POV of (we presume) a penniless, working class troubadour grounded in a ‘reality’ unmentioned until the final turn-around - but at the same time, the aspirational, near mythical, glamour his subject represents is so absolutely irresistible that he cannot hide his covetous awe.
And, it is this grudging celebration of an era in which, in stark contrast to the conduct of the assorted paranoid shitbirds currently stockpiling the world’s capital, the privileged few still gave at least a surface level impression of being stylish and culturally sophisticated, that I believe most strongly resonates with the song’s audience, then as now.
Meanwhile, I’m sure Peter Sarstedt lived a fine and fulfilling life, enjoyed much happiness, many romantic adventures and indelible friendships, wrote bucketloads of other magnificent songs, and so on….. but I’m afraid I can’t tell you about any of that, because I have no idea. As far as his influence on my life thus far goes, he is The Song, and, whilst it is difficult to imagine that seeing him in concert would have been anything other than the most excruciating hour of “PLAY THE HIT” imaginable, I am nonetheless saddened by the way that his death sends the kind of world he delineated in The Song further and deeper into a soon-to-be-beyond-living-memory past of dry historical record.
Jaki Liebezeit (1938 – 2017)
Well… what can you say? If you know anything of Can, you know Jaki, and if you know Jaki, you know he was one of the most extraordinary drummers ever to grace the “rock” idiom. (And if, conversely, you don’t know anything of Can, it’s about bloody time you rectified that, don’t you think? [Try here for a compendium of good starting points.])
Because seriously folks, there is no way I can talk about the drums on most prime-era Can tracks without resorting to hyperbole – they are just phenomenal. Of all the preternaturally gifted members of that most gifted of bands, I’m inclined to think he was the most so.
(I’ve also always liked the fact that – as was pointed out in the hand-drawn caricatures of Can members that graced the set of Can CD-Rs that an extremely generous contact posted to me fifteen-odd years ago [I really must dig those out and scan them, they were great] – Liebezeit translates as “love time”, which is a sublimely good name for a drummer.)
In essence I suppose, Liebezeit was a key exponent of the idea that, if music is going to break new ground, the rhythm behind it has to break new ground, but that it can only do so by means of a killer groove. So if the killer grooves you’ve done before sound old – find new ones.
He was still playing too I believe, scheduled to participate in some kind of semi-Can reunion this year with Schmidt and Mooney, so…. just a terrible loss. R.I.P.
Mark Fisher (1968 – 2017)
Lastly, and of a rather different character from the losses discussed above, perhaps this month’s saddest and most unexpected of news concerns the death of Mark Fisher, the writer and academic whose tangentially music-related K-Punk blog, and his subsequent books, offered what for many, myself included to some extent, proved a jumping off point into a new realm of critical thought, and a new lens through which to view the troubled era we find ourselves living through.
Although it must be said that I haven’t managed to engage with Mark’s writing quite as deeply as I might have done – reading his stuff purely online, rather than on paper, thus far – I have nonetheless always been very impressed by the directness of his writing, and his pointed avoidance of the kind of obscurantism that often blights such “theory”-based work, even whilst setting out some extremely challenging ideas. The broadness of his approach when it comes to approaching the contextualisation of the present (as opposed to the past) from a variety of entirely new directions is likewise remarkable – a difficult and potentially dangerous task without the safety net of hindsight, but one for which he possessed a uniquely sharp aptitude.
Now more than ever, as the slow descent into entropy and social collapse he often discussed seems to be picking up speed at a terrifying rate, Fisher’s absence over the next few years will be painfully felt in many quarters.
Whilst I never met Mark face to face, my day job sometimes entailed my contacting him in regard to some entirely tedious administrative matters, and I always meant to follow up one of those emails with a “by the way, love your writing” type note – but, hating the awkwardness of those “uh, I’m a big fan” type conversations, and aware of the fact that I had very little of use to add by way of commentary on his work, I never did – a decision I now regret.
To be honest, I still have little of use to add, beyond a gnawing sense of one-step-removed sadness of the variety that I daresay Mark may have found time to address in his final book, ‘The Weird and The Eerie’, whose online sample chapter I found extremely interesting, skim reading it between tasks at work in the days immediately before I heard the bad news.
All I can do is point you in the direction of some more worthwhile tributes – here, here or here – and also point out that a fund has been initiated to help Mark’s wife and son keep things together through this difficult time. From my position of one-step-removed abstraction, my heart goes out to them.
Tuesday, January 10, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016: Part # 2.
15. Assembled Minds –
Creaking Haze & Other Rave Ghosts CD/download
Popping up with little fanfare in the early part of 2016 as a download/CD only release (can’t say I blame them for skipping the vinyl, economically speaking) and propagated online via the usual haunts through which one may expect to discover such things, this hefty chunk of folk-horror-y “rave” music could easily be accused of shamelessly pandering to the odd predilections a specialised UK audience whose preferred aesthetic signifiers should in theory have hit the point of creative redundancy some time ago, in the wake of Burial, Hecker, The Caretaker and innumerable other miners of the “sad old ravers get spooky” demographic.
In practice however, there’s still much eerily fluorescent water in the well, and ‘Creaking Haze..’ has stuck with me throughout the year, simply on the basis that, stripped of any theoretical/cultural baggage and taken on its own merits, it is a great listen. For one thing, and unlike the other artists cited above, Assembled Minds have the advantage of making what is essentially still dance music.
Probably not in the sense of surefire bangers for 1am at a provincial night-spot admittedly, and whether or not it could credibly be labelled ‘rave’ music is something I’ll have to leave to disco biscuit historians more confident on the subject than myself, but nonetheless - as a compendium of bass-shuddering, 4/4 beats and reverby electric piano stings, this does the business. And, when said elements find themselves threaded through with kaleidoscopic reveries of BoC eeriness, Simonetti synth blasts and strange, carnivalesque folksy melodic fragments, redolent of maypoles and all manner of pagan cavorting, the results are extremely compelling.
With track titles like ‘Call to the Shining Man’ and ‘At The Hands of the Woodland Governor’ (not to mention the alarming ‘Morris Horror’) displaying an admirable lack of subtlety when it comes to exploiting their chosen aestehtic to its fullest possible extent, the work of Assembled Minds veers constantly toward a heady, mushroom-peaking overload of sensation in which communal euphoria and imminent, bloody terror are but a split second apart, creating a thunderous bacchanal of proudly psychedelic ‘tronica freakout that is assuredly not for the faint-headed.
Listen and buy from Patterned Air.
14. The Still – s/t LP
I might as well admit it, I’m really not sure how to sell you on this one, wherein a quartet of disconcertingly professional, Berlin-based musicians (The Necks’ Chris Abrahams among them) convene and set the tape running, apparently with the aim of jamming out something ‘cinematic’.
Personally, I would contend that they largely fail in this intent (for their work here is just too involved, jazzy and meandering to do much soundtrackin’ in the post-Barry/Morricone realm to which they may or may not aspire), but they nonetheless succeed in summoning up a pile of rich, noir-ish business that more or less functions as a nice, warm bath for tired & discerning ears – letting soothing, conventionally pretty riffs, drifting tone flurries and the simple, unmoored tones of reassuringly expensive instruments played in a manner that is assured, on-point and ‘cool’ to the nth degree tumble by, just the way they should.
I particularly enjoy the way that the players here are not afraid to fall into unashamedly melodic, somewhat sentimental patterns and phrases that would be absolute anathema to most ‘experimental’ or serious jazz musicians, with the “soundtrack” conceit allowing them to give voice to some seriously lovely variations on familiar moods, picked out in taut and muscular fashion reminiscent of the very best ‘60s movie jazz.
Indeed, Miles Davis’s ‘Ascenseur Pour L'échafaud’ might well be a valid reference point, even as Rico Repotente’s guitar echoes the knotty peregrinations of The Dirty Three’s Mick Turner and Abrahams’ unmistakable thinking-mans-drizzle of unresolved piano notes spreads itself across the tracks like some tidal pulse.
Another jazz milestone worth a mention too of course is Alice Coltrane’s eternal ‘Journey in Satchidananda’, whose influence can be most keenly felt in Derek Shirley’s sonorous, slow-stepping bass – particularly when he pretty much rips Cecil McBee’s moves wholesale to provide the backbone for my favourite piece here, ‘The Early Bird’, perhaps inspiring Abrahams to give us his keyboard’s best approximation of Alice’s cascading harp runs, as Repotente journeys ‘cross the fretboard in search of some sweet spot the ‘Dead never dreamed of. In a profound sense, it is all just *really, really nice*.
In fact, the whole of this LPs second side is pretty damn keen – a veritable aural spa day that leaves us centred, refreshed and ready again to face the world and start listening to some god-awful, bleating rock music – particularly given that Repotente is thoughtful enough to get us in the mood for just that on the closing ‘The Ecstatic’, finally hitting the overdrive and letting the feedback ring, the rest of the ensemble holding down a simple, melancholic riff as the guitar man lets it all hang out, double- / triple-tracking himself into the most happily harmonious expression of chaos 2016 had to offer.
As he is the only band member I’ve not mentioned by name thus far, we’ll close by noting that Steve Heather played the drums, produced and provided the artwork, and managed all three tasks extremely well insofar as I’m qualified to tell. Nice work everybody.
Buy from Bronzerat. Listen once you’ve bought it, I suppose. (Old school.)
13. Gate – Saturday Night Fever LP
For all that music may have become a big ol’ post-modern free-for-all these days, it’s still difficult to think of a more gloriously ridiculous wheeze than the idea of a guy from The Dead C recording a disco album and naming it ‘Saturday Night Fever’ – and indeed, whilst I am happy to be corrected on this point, I’m inclined to believe that Michael Morley had only the most nebulous conception of “disco” in mind when he set out to record these tracks.
Certainly, the miasmic clouds of broken electronics, abusive guitar skree, mind-numbing classic rock riff-loops and Morley’s tremulous, death-bed voice (which at one point announces that “you should me dancing” like a message from the beyond) all constitute such far-edge outliers within even the widest possible definition of “disco” that I think it’s safe to assume he missed the board entirely here, genre-wise.
Whether or not he cares is of course another issue though, and the sound of Morley forcing elements of his established MO in both Gate and Dead C through a filter of lo-fi dancefloor backbeat and sampled horn stabs on the opening ‘Asset’ is extremely pleasing – enough so to make it one of favourite cuts of the year, in fact. Somewhat like Jim Shepard hitting Arthur Russell’s mutant dancefloor, it’s an acrid, pale-skinned riot of introverted neon strutting that never fails to cheer me up.
Remaining resolutely drum-free, the following ‘Licker’ apparently chose to duck the disco concept altogether, veering closer to established Dead C territory, but the dense web of rhythmic loops that Morley constructs here (perhaps in naïve deference to the methodology of electronic dance music, perhaps not) gives it a feel of Astral Social Club-esque “exploding sequencer” infinity that likewise remains very satisfactory.
‘Caked’ on Side 2 sounds more authentically “disco”, if admittedly like the kind of disco that a shotgun-wielding basement shut-in might have made, almost daring us to determine how much of the taxi radio fidelity track Morley is crooning over is some genuine Studio 54-era sample, and how much of it originated within his own gear… although, as the delay knobs are cranked and the beat disappears into a lengthy bout of elegiac synth-choir rave come-down, such questions become somewhat irrelevant – which is just as it should be.
Decidedly more entertaining than yr average disc of maximalist electro-noise splurge, Morley’s attempts to stretch a bit beyond his comfort zone pay-off handsomely on ‘Saturday Night Fever’, and if only person amid the massed ranks of humanity ever accidentally puts this on expecting The Bee-Gees, his work will not have been in vain.
Listen and buy via MIE.
12. Dog Chocolate – Snack Fans LP
(Upset The Rhythm)
One of the few (perhaps the only?) contemporary record I actually managed to review in 2016, I wrote quite a lot of rambling nonsense about this one here. I am not proud. Still a great record though!
Buy via Upset The Rhythm.
11. T.O.Y.S – Sicks LP
T.O.Y.S (not to be confused with mersh shoegaze band Toy) are a band I have admired for a long time on the – ahem – “live circuit”, and that I have meant to find an opportunity to tell you about on this blog for just as long.
I recall when I first saw T.O.Y.S, a number of years ago at a small indie-pop gig, my initial thought was “wow, these guys won’t be hanging around on this level for long”, and indeed, I continue to be slightly amazed that they haven’t yet broken through to a wider audience, given the obvious accomplishment and popular appeal of the music they play.
I suppose an inevitable decline in the number of label owners/A&R types ready to reach for their chequebooks after a few pints, combined perhaps with some admirable modesty and/or ethical grounding on the part of the band’s members, must be to blame. Whatever the case though, the mainstream’s loss is “our” gain, and it is splendid to have a band this obviously great and potentially massive still humbly knocking about on the DIY scene.
Whilst “a lo-fi New Order” has long been my go-to soundbite when it comes to trying to sell people on T.O.Y.S’ combination of propulsive bass/drums/keys beat-downs and defiantly melancholy pop song-writing, ‘Sicks’ sees them upping their game to the level of “a punk Pet Shop Boys”, emerging as by far their best recording to date, if I’m any judge.
Readers familiar with the band won’t need reminding that Eddy Lines (real name? – maybe) is an astoundingly good drummer, who could have absolutely cleaned up in one of those early ‘00s Rapture/!!! style dancey post-punk bands. In combination with bassist Adam John Miller (real name? – probably), who must be congratulated for side-stepping the obvious Hook-isms that accompany this style and hammering down distorted root chords as if he was in a straight up punk band, the songs of David Kitchen (real name? – doubtful) are propelled forward here with a power and velocity that many more ostensibly aggressive bands would die for.
Atop this certifiably bad-ass backing, I suspect just about anything would sound good, but, whilst I’ll admit that Kitchen’s nasal voice has proved a bit of an acquired taste on past releases, I suppose I must have acquired it, because his lyrics and phrasing here hit home harder with me than they ever have in the past, suggesting narratives with a few choices lines and shimmering waves of Yamaha chordage that send my mind reeling in a way that precious little song-based pop stuff manages to now that I’m a jaded, emotionally-dead grown-up.
Unaccustomed as I am to finding ways to write about this kind of music in this day and age, I think I’d probably best give it a rest before I drivel off into some kind of PR piffle, but suffice to say – if anything I’ve said above piques your interest, give this album a listen, because it’s *great*.
The first three songs in particular are an absolute knock-out, perfectly capturing the spirit that has always so impressed me in the band’s live sets, and whilst I might initially have advised that the long, slower selections that follow dilute their impact somewhat, repeat listens have found them growing on me until I have become very fond of them indeed, revealing some right proper song-writing suss set to metronomic dancefloor backing.
In short then, this is just fantastic, committed homemade pop music of the best possible kind. Please do whatever you can to help make these guys famous, for they richly deserve it. (If you hold a label cheque-book though, perhaps best keep it to yourself, because it would be lovely if they stayed with Oddbox through their long-delayed ascendancy to whatever the 2017 equivalent of Top Of The Pops is.)
Listen and buy via Oddbox.
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