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11 September 2017

Idea Fire Company - 'Anti-Natural' (Swill Radio)

This is a two-part manifesto, being both language and sound. All sound is a form of language of course and Anti-Natural is a clear example that even the most conservatory-trained traditionalist could understand. Karla Borecky and Scott Foust's synth interplay, accented with reedy guitar and tape loops, stakes out a universe that redefines musical concepts such as metre, pitch, and duration. With all of the tracks on Anti-Natural, it's really one complete work, the concept of the 'album' being probably the most traditional music-industry one being adhered to. Shorter tracks tease out pinching tones, a murky ambience that breathes and pulses, and these support the longer explorations, for example the 13-minute 'Magnetic Fields', which glows with an organic repetition that feels so attuned to the human body that while listening to it carefully, closely, I feel a change in my own breathing. This LP feels like a complete statement of intent even without the printed manifesto included, but that is an intense and I'd say recommended read, especially for me over today's morning coffee. No one in academic art history circles is even aware of the 'Anti-Natural' manifesto, a fact that serves to prove the manifesto's own points about the conspiratorial blanketing of capitalist commodification, Judeo-Christian morals and positivist scientific thought. It's a convincing work, one that should be taken seriously and applied to this and all future Idea Fire Company recordings, for it stakes out their aesthetic position and radicalises a music that should be already radical, were it not for the context of the music industry which de-radicalises by definition, and of course the LP (pressed and sold by IFCO themselves on the Swill Radio imprint) is a commercial product. Anti-Natural, not music you'd listen to with Grandma, is a vital document of sound exploration that forms around a much larger context than simple electroacoustic experimentalism. And thinking about this as an aesthetic, one that a younger version of me would have happily summarised as an 'alien' one, really raises the question about how to live our lives through art, uncompromising and true. Some of the shorter tracks have great titles like 'We Are Nothing and We Want to Be Everything' or 'On Your Toes, Intellectuals!', which could be seen as jokes or as serious provocations, and somehow I vote for the latter, though the Anti-Natural ideology doesn't feel heavy or dogmatic. The music is ultimately what matters and over the last 25 years or so, IFCO has tended towards lightness, with sounds that are lifting, expanding, and evolving, generating a sensation of a world to explore. It starts here for me (though there are a few earlier records that I haven't heard) and as a statement of purpose, it's marvellous.

6 September 2017

Ici La Bas (Black Noise)

A prized possession here, Ici La Bas would be normally filed under H for the Homosexuals, or maybe a bit deeper down in the Is for 'Les Incroyables' (credited as the producer), but I'm going with the Discogs.com hierarchy here – they have it as a self-titled release by the artist Ici La Bas (their only release, of course).  All six of these tracks appear on the indispensible first disc of the Homosexuals Astral Glamour compilation, though most are pushed towards the ass-end of the sequence. And this is a prime slice of the experimental side of these guys, with 'Regard Omission', 'Galore Galore' and 'Cause A Commotion' all experiments in reverbed guitars and other studio assemblages. I mean, it's all studio assemblages - 'Nippon Airways' is a dub song, getting away with it in the way that so many UK artists of the late 70s were able to do. The middle cuts from each side are the most coherent songs; I've listened to 'The Total Drop' so many times that it feels like a part of my own heartbeat, though it's a bouncy and bubblegummy entry for the Homosexuals canon and probably not one many others adores as much as I do. 'Flying' is a bit more on the jagged, sneering side of things but it's propelled with a beautiful momentum. In many ways, the genius of this broken collective only comes together when compiled as a larger body of work. Had I only this 12" to go from, I would find it occasionally brilliant and slightly frustrating, which is of course exactly what the Homosexuals were, but hardly anything to build a religion around. There's no 'Hearts in Exile' or 'False Sentiments' here, but knowing those cuts from the other releases it congeals into something magnificent, work that inspires not just in the mysterious nature of their public identity, but in the music itself, which is timeless and brilliant. Tiger makes it better.

4 September 2017

Dick Hyman - 'Moog: The Electric Eclectics of' (Command)

I've never had an amazing charity shop find - no rare private press Christian psych originals for $1, or even a decently obscure classic or anti-classic. About the best I can do is this, which was only $0.25, many years ago and has lingered in my collection even though I rarely listen to it. Moog is pretty good though, moving between novelty/lounge exotica sounds ('Topless Dancers of Corfu', 'Evening Thoughts') and pure synth fuckery ('The Moog and Me', 'Tap Dance in the Memory Banks'). 'The Minotaur' is the true killer jam, with an addictive pulse that reminds me of Can or some motorik Kraut thing, and noodling, melodic solos with huge tone sweeps that remind me of British (perhaps Cantebury) prog. Hyman's compositions have a lot of air in them, allowing the high and low tones to really reverberate. This record sounds beautiful, even when the vibe is a bit too goofy to fully enjoy. 'Four Duets in Odd Meter' is a sparkling adventure through ecstatic electronics; the titular odd metre gives it an unsettling feel that somehow is still inviting, drawing me into its imagination. I situate this as coming from the final wave of mid-century Americana, where there was some strange fantasy that this could be the music of the future - where machines and computers were distant dreams, rather than tools of enslavement or at least narcissism. And marketed, of course, through pop/sci-fi ideas as the album artwork indicates, but with a rather commercial (or perhaps a better term is accessible) musical edge, at least if you were to compare this to, say, Luening & Ussachevsky. And I suspect that as time passes, this will sound increasingly interesting, in a paleofuturistic way; we are definitively in an era where we cannot dream of a future any longer, unless it's cast as some Silicon Valley-driven capitalist bullshit. Aesthetically, we're stuck, which is what Mark Fisher wrote a lot about before he died, so this Dick Hyman record could be Exhibit A from the final generation of imagination, and inspire us to once again dare to dream.

Hüsker Dü - 'The Living End' (Warner Bros)

We skip ahead to this posthumous live album, the only other Hüsker Dü vinyl I ever accumulated, and quite recently as I came across it in a discount bin earlier this year. This is a great document of the band's final tour, and it's masterfully assembled to sound like one concert, even though it's culled from a variety of recordings. You'd never know - the opening two cuts mirror the opening cuts of New Day Rising and the segue is seamless, even though one was recorded a week before the other. No one ever thinks about this record, much like the Minutemen's Ballot Result, but it's a worthwhile listen, as the recordings are clear, with audible lyrics and a heavy bass thump. Mould is really focused on clear enunciation, especially during the batch of Warehouse songs that follow the opener. It's a great live sound, with some echo thrown on vocals when needed - 'Ice Cold Ice' sounds totally psychedelic during its chorus, and while their dynamic never really lets up from fast and loud, it still provides some variety. As this was the Warehouse tour, it's not surprising that the song choices weigh heavily towards that record and hardly from Candy Apple Grey which was probably a bit played out then, or Zen Arcade. But there's a nice selection from Everything Falls Apart, including 'From the Gut' and 'In A Free Land', broadly spanning the band's career and giving those songs a nice fresh take. What's crazy is that Everything Falls Apart and Warehouse are only separated by four years. Greg Norton also has a song here, 'Everytime', which I guess was a B-side from the time. LP #2 dives into a bit more older material, including a version of 'Books About UFOs' with a scorching guitar solo, and a take on 'Celebrated Summer' that's of course more raw than the studio version, but with Hart's background vocals, attains transcendence. This is still a punk rock band, heard more clearly in 'What's Going On' than any of the earlier material. And that means there's a directness, a fury, and a purity that you can really feel in these live recordings; they're a tight band, but not overly precise, and the crowd is felt more than heard, except between songs a few times. The strangest thing about The Living End (beyond the cover version of 'Sheena is a Punk Rocker', an odd choice for the final cut of a final Hüsker Dü album, though it proves that it's pretty much impossible to cover the Ramones without affecting Joey's accent) is how the songwriting split is almost a perfect 50/50 between Mould and Hart, unlike the records, which were more 75/25. Hart has some fine songs for sure and many of them are represented here, but I think the balance is better on the records. This was done probably to placate the tensions between the two after the split, but even still Wikipedia claims that Mould claims to have never heard this record. I hope the time passed would heal some wounds and he might actually enjoy it now.

Hüsker Dü - 'New Day Rising' (SST)

This is imperfect perfection, a joyous contradiction. Your surroundings are still a wall of screaming, distorted electric guitar, and the speed is always above average. Yet comparing this to Metal Circus is like comparing adults to kids. Of course, in between came a 70 minute double LP concept album which I don't have a copy of to discuss here (but I wish I did); that may have been a conditioning exercise. On the other side, well, it's a new day. The voices are a hell of a lot higher in the mix here, and it's like all of the screamy angst gets out during the title track. Mould's first song here is 'I Apologize', a great and catchy song that deftly analyses communication breakdowns in a relationship. Such mature territory! I don't like to oversimplify the intention of a pop song, but one of the things I love about music is how it can be so simple and so complex in a four-minute package. And what I love about albums is how they assemble to a narrative, even when not a concept album. This one has a really cohesive first side and then a messy, blocky second side. It starts and ends with almost abstract ragers, the title track a focused, monotonous banger and then 'Plans I Make' at the end, a total jam-mess with guitar that sounds like Lee Ranaldo is playing it, and a false ending too. Hart's songs are more schizo in tone; 'The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill' is a perfect minor key pop song while 'Books About UFOs' has a lurching rhythm and even some honky-tonk piano in it. Mould is incorporating more arpeggios and chorus into his guitar sound than the earlier work, and understandable as the pace slows down a tad so there's actually space for it. 'Celebrated Summer' is a slice of gold, weaving together nostalgia and regret into something still uplifting, and with a beautiful acoustic outro. On 'Perfect Example' and '59 Times the Pain' he's mumbling, even moaning, as if Michael Stipe was crossed with a Beluga whale. It's a mid-LP mood slump, a vocal delivery that absolutely suits the songwriting, and by the end he crawls out and screams again to great effect. I've been listening to Mould for so long that I kinda forget how uniquely odd his voice is; his background vocals behind Hart's 'Terms of Psychic Warfare' are the secret ingredient that makes it click. It's amazing to me how far this band progressed in such a short time; I always think they broke up at the end of the 80s, but Warehouse came out in January '87 and they were kaput soon after. This is the first of two great albums in 1985 alone, and that's coming off Zen Arcade. This may be the peak, but it's a tiny peak among a long, high plateau.

Hüsker Dü - 'Metal Circus' (SST)

My copy of this classic has a really bad warp, the kind that sends the stylus flying with each of the 45 rotations per minute. It's so bad that it renders the first song on each side unplayable - in fact, unstartable, as the constant pushback of the skip means it can never get into the opening groove for tracking. So 'my' Metal Circus begins with 'Deadly Skies', and an already short EP becomes a bit unsatisfying when two songs shorter. Serves me right for buying this so eagerly at a weird cheap punk shop in Copenhagen - we should always inspect the vinyl, right? 'Deadly Skies' is a fucking great song though, where the lead guitar lines and Bob Mould's voice work perfectly together. I never thought of the title of this record in terms of 'heavy metal' as this sounds properly like early mid-period Dü, but there is a way that lead guitar/voice combo sounds like a banshee screaming, plus the shredding on 'Out on a Limb' has a few pinch harmonics inside. Grant Hart bats 1.000 here, with 'It's Not Funny Anymore' and 'Diane' being two of his greatest songs. The latter of these may actually objectively terrible, if music could be objectively anything, but I love it; it's creepy, built around a simple, plodding rhythm, and with a strange violence that definitively ties this to the earlier, more adolescent period of the band. The drumming throughout this record is mixed really high, and something feels really imprecise about it; I don't think Hüsker Dü would ever again sound (at least on record) like a bunch of midwestern freaks jamming in a garage, and that's another reason to love this. Minus two songs, it's a shame, really just like a good 7". It's almost hard to believe that Zen Arcade was about to follow, but that's also part of the charm of this.

30 August 2017

Human Investment (Rotten Propaganda)

I didn't remember this was in my vinyl accumulation; ah, the glorious days of the late 90s punk/hardcore scene. I was always a fly on the wall here (or fly in the ointment?), discovering this subculture in my own hometown and finding it equally curious in terms of lifestyle/community as with the actual music. These people lived in big houses and spoke a shared language built around historically overlooked (by the mainstream music press) records from the 80s and had their own weird Xeroxed cookbooks and a whole code of ethics that was more inviting than intimidating. I remembered this being a long record of thick, dense songs that were almost prog-leaning in their duration and parts, but my memory was wrong. It's really a mini-LP, eight songs that are certainly dense and thick but not particularly long; there aren't any solos or long instrumental sections here, just hardcore delivered between mid-tempo and fast, and totally angry. Human Investment was a local 'supergroup' and this record is all they have left us; it was a side project for everyone involved, though they were popular and certainly had the pedigree. I know I saw them live once, but I can't remember where or when. I wish I remembered enough about the hardcore field of the time to be able to situate their musical stylings in relation to the other names of the time: Born Against, In/Humanity, Assfactor 4. Guitarist Dan Goldberg tends to favour minor interval riffs, and when he switches instruments with bassist Andy Wright, his bass playing takes an active, riffy element under Wright's more wall-of-noise guitar shredding. The dominating figure is vocalist Dave Trenga of Aus-Rotten, who wrote the majority of the lyrics and delivers them in that ridiculous-if-you-think-about-it hardcore delivery style, where they are mostly unintelligible without the accompanying lyric sheet. Trenga's approach is interesting, or perhaps quotidian - he's throaty and angry but it doesn't veer towards metal as so much hardcore is always tempted to. I would describe his approach to phrasing as 'whatever makes it fit', and while there's often rhyming couplets, the concept of metre is completely jettisoned. Do you like topical? Cause Human Investment tackles the death penalty, corporate media, the American two party system, imperialism, prescription drug addiction, hunger, nationalism, and veganism. I'm amazed at how there can be so many words without saying anything really concrete, just outrage and slogans. This isn't anything against Trenga personally, but a product of the genre; no one comes to records with artwork like this seeking nuance and introspection. There are samples from films or other media where appropriate (particularly chilling before 'Capital Punishment', under which the musicians improvise an apocalyptic soundscape before the song starts properly) which is another product of the time, and one that I sort of miss. I'll never understand why hardcore records from this time are recorded so poorly; this is an 8-track recording done by a competent engineer so it's probably as good as it could sound, but these records are always muddy and murky. I guess the genre is partially responsible - Human Investment, like many of their ilk, weren't exactly interested in creating space in their songs, and the mix is always loud and thick. I know for a fact that these guys used nice tube amplifiers, yet somehow it still sounds like scratchy solid state, the rich dynamic of a powerful band being somewhat dampened by the compression of the recording. The songs have hooks buried in them  ('A Life For Meat' is bouncy and almost sing-along) but like the artwork, forever black and white, there isn't enough colour in the songcraft. Still, it's more than a curiosity and was fun to revisit; maybe in a few years I'll try again and see if it ages like a fine wine.

23 August 2017

Howlin' Wolf (MCA/Chess)

Re-released posthumously after his death, this second Howlin' Wolf record is one of those classics that has the iconic cover and the iconic sound, and I'm not sure what I can write here that would really do the record justice. If this project is in many ways about my personal feelings on a record and my relationship to it (which is certainly more interesting than hearing someone write about how great Pet Sounds is for the 60000th time, I hope) then I have little to say here. Every time I have ever played this record, which is culled from a bunch of disparately recorded singles between 1957 and 1961, I've enjoyed it immensely. And that's all I can really say about it - I like Howlin' Wolf, really who doesn't? - but he's never been someone I made a personal connection to. His voice was always what I latched onto, but listening today I'm really appreciating the space in the recordings and how, for 'electric blues', they really take their time to get places. 'The Red Rooster' is barely there, shuffling along with guitar bursts only as Mr. Wolf seemed to feel like it; it's Hubert Sumlin who I think does the really sharp leads on most of this record, and some of them are pretty fucking cutting. 'Wang-Dang Doodle' is the obligatory dirty sex entendre that all late 50s blues records have (well, that and 'Back Door Man' and probably all of the other cuts too), and on this the repetition of the rhythm section is remarkable, as they seem to hang back from the 12 bar progression or at least give it a pleasantly monotonous feel. 'Spoonful' has a real trashcan sound, again quite spacious and the surface noise from this repress might as well be part of the mix, as I couldn't imagine this without it. Surely for as much as I'm a fan of Captain Beefheart I must recognise Wolf's influence on him vocally - there's parts on this record where his vibrato is so extreme that it sounds like he must be singing into a piece of waxed paper. I'm also really into the piano playing on this record, which is noodly, all upper register, and sometimes just a series of trills punctuating between the 12 bars. It's true that this is definitively 'urban' in comparison to the 'country blues'/pre-war sound that is so collectible, and I don't think it's just because the instruments are electrified - there's something about the feel, like you can imagine the hot city air when it was recorded, and maybe it's just the group nature as opposed to a solo artist. So yeah, I've just done the exact thing I said I wouldn't do - blandly described this record instead of trying to find a personal connection to it. My father's record collection is all either classical music or blues from this style/era, though I'm not sure if he's a Howlin' Wolf fan or not. I guess there's a feeling of some sort of connection to him when listening to this, though it's a grasp, to be honest. Actually, listening to this makes me think of Little Howlin' Wolf, whose music has little to do with this besides the name but is truly indescribable and (I think) inspiring - but we're still a looooong way from the Ls. And by the way, this is the 500th post!

The Housemartins - 'London 0 Hull 4' (Go Discs)

When I lived in the UK (about a decade ago), Kingston-upon-Hull was the punchline of the entire country, a once-respectable Yorkshire city that had fallen into such decline that it had become synonymous with the idea of hopeless post-Thatcher devastation. One could apparently buy a flat in the city centre for as low as £20,000, and I often suggested that it should be colonised by weirdo artist types since it was affordable and (I assumed, probably incorrectly) somewhat lawless. I didn't know what I was talking about then, so Hull became some sort of symbol to me. I understand that things have picked up somewhat since then, making Hull if not exactly a hotspot of Northern culture certainly an option for people looking to set out and create their own universe. I'd be curious to visit now, as I've only ever driven through the city en route to Zeebrugge (by ferry) and it looked like an interesting place. Certainly it's produced a fair share of notable musicians over the years - Throbbing Gristle, Mick Ronson, Luke Poot, Aby Vulliamy - and of course the Housemartins. Now I suspect they're almost forgotten, just a footnote to the career of bassist Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim aka a million other things, or the precursor to the Beautiful South, a band I never listened to but always imagined were pretty good. This is 1986, the year of the famous C-86 compilation which the Housemartins are not on, but could be. This is indie music with a folky, white soul edge, and the band was aggressively independent and aggressively socialist. The inner sleeve contains some handwritten words to inspire the masses, with 'Take Jesus - Take Marx - Take Hope' at the bottom, and these are the majority of the lyrical themes. 'Flag Day' is the most memorable song, an anti-patriotic ballad which stretches Paul Heaton's voice to its most emotive, drawn over it's slow pace. It's probably the classic cut from the album but it's not my favourite - I prefer the Housemartins when they're more uptempo, such as 'We're Not Deep' or 'Get Up Off Our Knees'; the latter is a stomping attack on the ruling class, with the necessary inspirational chorus that makes pop music great. The Housemartins lyrics are a little bit superficial, but thats not really a problem - it's probably one of the reasons this record ages so well. And maybe that's what 'We're Not Deep' is about, but the anger is cut with a healthy dose of sunshine (and some ba-ba-bas). London 0 Hull 4 (a great title, though illogical, since there is no football team just called 'London', and the score would be more accurately written as 'London 0 - 4 Hull' anyway, a nice away win for Hull City A.F.C, unless it just refers to the number of musicians from Hull vs the number from London) definitely sounds like it's from the 80s, but the decay of the North is felt more than explicitly discussed, and there's a driving optimism throughout. 'Happy Hour', which bears a bit of resemblance to 'Sheep' (and each start the two sides of the record), is another unforgettable pop song, though over the years I've enjoyed it (about 20 now) I never have been clear what it's about - a female immigrant bartender putting up with sexual harassment is my best guess. A cover of 'Lean on Me' (but not the Bill Withers tune, another one) and 'Flag Day' are the only two really slow songs, and thus where the soul aspect comes out the most, and these white Northerners are pretty convincing. The piano playing on 'Lean on Me' particularly exemplifies this, as it leans into the dramatic builds and Heaton's soaring voice reveals a depth not often found in late 80s British jangle-pop. There's not a dud on London 0 Hull 4 and I always think this surpassed their followup album, with the brilliant name The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death, though weirdly I've never found a cheap copy of that so we'll have to move past it.

21 August 2017

Hotlegs ‎– 'You Didn't Like It Because You Didn't Think Of It' (Philips)

I think it was 10cc we started this whole thing with, way back in 2008, but Hotlegs is where 10cc started and I've always loved this collection, in whichever form it might be packaged. I'm not completely clear on the recording lineage, and if this is everything recorded under the Hotlegs name or these are alternate versions or whatnot. I know the proper album release had the amazing title Hotlegs Thinks School Stinks and, come to think of it, Hotlegs is an amazing band name, but so was Frabjoy and the Runcible Spoon and they never really made it out of the gates. You can totally hear the early genius of these guys here, and just because they can master pop-rock production and songwriting with heavy traces of irony doesn't make them a novelty act. I mean, sure, 'Neanderthal Man' is the classic example of the British one-hit wonder generated by a studio team, but 'Fly Away' actually touches me and 'How Many Times' was the followup single that should have even been a bigger hit. I'm not a diehard Godley/Creme fan (and let's not discount Stewart who was also equal partners here and in 10cc) but I know spatterings of their career and there's so much joy here, as in How Dare You, as in L. Some of the songs here are less memorable - not exactly throwaway, but more like genre romps with a weird twist ('The Loser' and 'Desperate Dan' for example) – and of course it's a long way from the experimentation that Godley and Creme specifically would get into later (I've never braved Consequences but maybe I should try it). I'm a sucker for power pop made by weird nerdy white guys (which I guess is all power pop) and Hotlegs has it in spades. Hotlegs, even more than 10cc, loved the thick acoustic guitar strum with soaring vocals overtop, and the three-song 'Suite F.A.' which closes this record makes great use of that technique. This is not about the English Football Association (sadly) but some epic quest story of someone going off somewhere and then returning. It's all done vaguely enough that you could read anything into it, so maybe we could imagine it to be about the football FA if we think it's about a young centre-half off to get his first cap for his country and then going back to play for his second division side after. Oh, I'll even defend 'Neanderthal Man', because you can hear how it was made by fucking around in a studio one night with a leftover drum beat; it's the 'Rock and Roll (part 2)' of its day but I don't feel icky hearing it because it wasn't made by padeophiles (as far as I know). Great, great stuff; proof one can indulge in irony without the resulting product being an empty shell of phoniness, without being a joke. 

19 August 2017

The Hospitals - 'Hairdryer Peace' (no label)

Sonic Youth already released an album called Washing Machine, but that's a more apt household appliance than a hairdryer for reflecting the music of the Hospitals. The floor tom is the most prominently used drum and it's used in a way that sounds like when you accidentally put a shoe in your washing machine and it bangs around on every rotation; it's not quite the same as Moe Tucker, as it's usually supporting a thick wall of mid-range distortion, which I guess could describe White Light/White Heat which is definitely an antecedent, but, no, it sounds like something else. I don't know anything about these guys but vaguely remembered this record getting a bit of buzz when it came out, so I grabbed a secondhand copy for a few bucks when I saw it and don't think I ever listened to it until now. I'm not sure if the Hospitals were connected to the American noise underground or the garage underground, as the sound is halfway in-between. The fidelity is terrible, but there's a commitment to that terribleness that is somehow admirable and it makes this a compelling listen - well, that and that there are some well above-average song structures behind it all. It took a few songs to emerge - at first I thought this was the missing link between Wolf Eyes and the Not Not Fun/Night People style of homemade lo-fi psych. But then 'Rules For Being Alive' came on, a prominently surf-influenced song that made me guess a few things right - that they're a west coast band (hard not to be when you sound like this), that they might have some connection to Sic Alps (Discogs tells me that Mike Donovan was once a member), and that this record was made far more carefully than it might sound at first listen. The lyrics are clear and audible in places and seem to usually describe getting high, fear, or other states of altered consciousness. Everything else is really buried but it's a pleasure to pick things out; these guys step on the DOD pedals always a bit too early and there's some great vocal sea/sweeps, like if Phil Spector blew his budget on rancid tacos and had to make do with what he could. This is so obviously made for a cassette release which makes the vinyl pressing beautiful and ridiculous at the same time, and there's some really catchy songs ('Scan the Floor for Food', 'BPPV') if you can strain through it. Somehow while listening to this I smelled burnt charcoal, felt a musty wind, and kept thinking of The Bachs. Yet the ragged nature keeps this from being a retro trip, and like many great records it feels like an amalgamation of many underground rock currents circa 2008, when this was recorded. I'm not saying it's the Deceit of its day, but it's an exemplary case of white Dionysia of the time and I think it will stand up to future scrutiny.

Hugh Hopper - 'Hopper Tunity Box' (Compendium)

The catalogue number on this record is 'FIDARDO 7', what does that mean? A few years after 1984 we find Hopper leading a band through a number of compositions that much more closely resemble the jazz-rock fusion which Soft Machine was known for– especially at this point in time (1977). There's still elements of the warbly, underwater vibe of 1984 here, especially on the second half. The high point is a cover of 'Lonely Woman', which is undercut with an uncertain echo - a real beauty of a track, and the main reason I hold onto this record. There's even a reprise of 'Miniluv', the opening cut from 1984, though it doesn't resemble the original in any way, thanks to the fleshed out band - Gary Windo, Mike Travis on drums, a little Mark Charig (but not enough!), fellow Soft Machiner Elton Dean on sax, and some hot piano/organ playing by Dave Stewart or Frank Roberts, depending on the track. The fusion numbers aren't amazing but they're fine, which is how I feel about post-Third Soft Machine for the most part. Dean and Charig play nice together when they're there; 'The Lonely Sea and the Sky' is a lovely composition with a nice, rolling vibe. 'Gnat Prong' is a hard rocker, akin to Area at their most bombastic. No vocals, and good production, so it's a nice example of the era, while being somewhat forgotten against the bigger names and main projects from this scene. I somehow ended up with a lot of records that have this style/sound, far more than anyone should own, and while I like progressive rock (in theory) I far prefer the tracks here that use 'progressive rock' as a starting point rather than an example. I think there's a reason people will hunt down copies of 1984 but there's not much interest in Hopper Tunity Box.

2 August 2017

Hugh Hopper - '1984' (CBS)

'This is a very angry record,' starts the liner notes, though I don't really hear it - I hear something exploratory, cautious, and with great moments of drama. Maybe Hopper's found a way to process anger, to work with it and churn it into something beyond piercing bile. Hopper's the bassist from Soft Machine and on this first solo record he really goes into the outer limits, taking the (then-)sci-fi theme of 1984 as a starting point and really running off to create something otherworldly. There's a lot to be said about CBS releasing a record this experimental in 1973 - all of this from the corporation who would later bring you Kevin Can Wait! Hopper spends most of this record attacking his bass guitar from a gestalt angle, generating soundscapes with additional percussion and something called a mellophone. The long, moody opener 'Miniluv' sets the tone, consisting of deep bass drones that slowly explore the available space - it's a track very rooted in physical existence, reminding me of Maryanne Amacher's drone installation pieces, or something that would be on the French Futura label in the same decade. The second side's 'Miniplenty', also a long one at 18 minutes, picks up where this leaves off and incorporates some weird percussive sounds. There was an occasional twitchy, staticky sound that kept making me jump, mixed in a way suggesting that there's something happening on the other side of my flat and not in the record itself. It's a great effect and it adds to the nervousness of the buildup, which eventually gets resolved at the end of the record in a cacophony of sounds. There's some thick synth riffs, sound a bit like square waves, and other parts that you swear could be lifted from a Wolf Eyes cd-r circa 2004. There's only one track which stops this from being a total new age, dark psychedelic abstraction from start to finish, and that's 'Minipax I', which resembles a bit of a jazz-rock thing. It's not bad and has some sharp soprano saxophone playing by Lol Coxhill, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. I don't know if this was pressure from CBS to make something that would be more palatable to Soft Machine fans (and could actually be played on the radio) or if Hopper really wanted to include this - the same band works out more extended techniques later. And I suppose the only thing that makes it so identifiably 'jazz-rock' is that the instruments sound like the traditional instruments they are, and not like a Heldon outtake; as a composition I guess you could say it fits the mood of the record, with crunchy guitar chords and a slightly motorik beat. It's a minor quibble; 1984 is a great fucking record and doesn't really need those few extra minutes but they're not without their pleasures.