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14 December 2017

Kark - 'The Hermit' (HP Cycle)

Time has forgotten Kark already and this, like so many HP Cycle releases, exists in the utterly weird vacuum of mid-00s experimental music which sort of congealed around a 'scene' but also sorta didn't. File alongside the Maniacs Dream record or the Boots/CC/Snake & Remus box - what a great fucking label, and I wish it was still operating. Kark were from Louisville and may have been 100% the same lineup as Sapat, a band which has been kicking around forever and who released two great LPs that also are never talked about. Of course, Sapat was a shifting lineup of just about every weirdo freak who ever picked up a sound-making device within the greater Louisville region, so Kark being 100% overlap doesn't really mean anything. More likely, Kark are just the more jazz-orientated members of Sapat emphasising the horns and the swing or whatever characteristics make one file a record in the 'jazz' section instead of 'pop/rock'. As faithful readers realise by now, I make no such distinctions by genre and only trust the infallible alphabetical order as my organising principle, but I would still call Kark 'jazz' or at least 'jazzy'. The first side opens with a slow, creeping modal workout that is heavily middle-eastern in tone and builds into an explosive cacophony. For a few minutes in the centre of the side every goes at it with MAXIMUM ENERGY which means skronk, squeals, screaming and blast beats underneath it all. When this movement passes, it starts to get really interesting and wobbly; you can hear the big, cavernous space they are all jamming in and the ensemble is large, I'd guess somewhere between six and fifteen people though it's hard to tell for sure. This circling around a pulse eventually takes form as a thick, stomping dirge that's rhythmically so primitive it's brilliant, and around this you hear horns and cymbals and bowed bass finding a centre again. It's a beautiful side of music created by a bunch of outsiders to the jazz context, as far as I know, since the musicians are uncredited (the only liner notes being a cryptic strip of doodle-on paper). By the end it slows down to an ambient whisper, a fadeout drone, which segues nicely into the flip, an unbanded side-long piece that starts from a spare, spooky room jam. This continues the vaguely middle-eastern vibe heard on side 1, but for a longer stretch, with the musicians giving each other lots of space to probe and resonate. It's a beautiful slice of Kentucky exotica, and when it again swells into a huge epic blowout, it's actually a bit disappointing, though surely cathartic for the musicians – but the space is what's so beautiful and unique. This is a live recording, though a pretty clear one, where the echo of the room is very much a part of the music and somehow things don't get too lost once the drums start to rumble. A surprising breakdown into a double-bass driven riff, counterpointed by electric piano or some other form of keyboards, recalls the Art Ensemble/Fontella Bass's 'Theme de Yo-Yo' for a second or two, and an enthusiastic audience is audible during a momentary lull. The Hermit breathes with life and is really fun, fierce in places but neither overly groove-based nor head-scratchingly avant. It seems to assimilate a lot of influences into a group approach that shares a view about music, and it's obscure status relegates this surely to the 'hidden gem' category, after only a decade.

10 December 2017

Pekko Käppi - 'Vuonna '86' (Singing Knives)

Pekko Käppi's Vuonna '86 is a record I forgot I had, but it's absolutely perfect as a way to clear the weekend cobwebs on this Sunday morning. It's also a nice way to inaugurate the Ks of this project. Käppi's a Tampere, Finland based musician who ostensibly works out of traditional Finnish sounds but to say that really that only really makes sense as, to use an annoyingly overbaked phrase, a 'starting point'. This is a glowing, electric batch of songs, saturated in reverb, distortion, and other household effects but each held together by Käppi's confident crafting. There's moments of pure Dionysian hell music like 'Oilin Ennustus', where all kinds of broken, buzzing electronics explode in a total cacophony, yet despite the menacing tone it never collapses under its own chaos, with various soundrings keeping an orbit. Other tracks employ the traditional vibe, in terms of instrumentation – 'Naria Hakkaan' is a bowed instrument, probably a jouhikko, grinding back and forth in a style that is hypnotic and minimal, yet with an ineffable, devilish spark. Käppi's work always has this sense of madness to it, whether he's assembling electronic drones into a dense wall of sound, or performing traditional songs ripped straight from the Kaleva; if you have seen him live, there's always a hint of something that's not darkness, not aggression, but something else; perhaps it's just an off-kilter confidence. This is all over Vuonna '86, heard in his singing on 'Kuolleitten Kuppahan' (which is simultaneously twisted and beautiful) or on the title track, or anywhere else. A lot of these songs feel like they are following a simple back-and-forth structure, a 1-2-1-2-1 that ratchets up the pressure as it goes along but then most cuts end before they wear out their welcome. Of course, the Finnish language is extremely strange to everyone in the world minus about 5 million people, and most of them probably aren't listening to this. 'Vuonna '86' makes that most clear, with a spoken voice anchoring it's outer explorations, something ripped from the radio or media perhaps, but feeling as natural in the bed of static and searing overtones as one could be. Maybe the secret to Pekko Käppi is that he's not a 'noise' artist at all but a master craftsman, and his constructions glow with their own internal logic and harmony.

7 December 2017

June of 44 - 'Tropics and Meridians' (Quarterstick)

I'm going to show my age a bit now by remembering the strange and somewhat maligned sub-genre of late 90s indie rock that we called "boat rock", or maybe it was "nautical rock". This was before Channel 101 made those highlarious Yacht Rock comedy sketches, and it wasn't anything to do with the smooth sounds of Christopher Cross or the Doobie Brothers. This was truly a sub-sub-genre or maybe even a sub-sub-sub-genre, unified by the curious trend of writing songs about nautical life.  I can remember the biggest proponents of this being June of 44 and a somewhat related band called Shipping News, both who emerged after the dissolution of the mighty Rodan. I can also remember a band called Victory at Sea and then some very 'local' bands that never released anything, as well as other regional ones from the same era (1996-2000) who maybe never released anything either and are now mostly forgotten but passed through my town a few times. Or maybe "boat rock" was never such a big thing beyond these few bands, but at the time, it certainly felt like a trend that quickly became tiresome while being somewhat inexplicable as well. June of 44 dropped boat references all over their work; their first album is called Engine Takes to the Water (though I like to think it's about a jet ski), and there's a sailor tattoo on the cover of this one, and they had this kinda annoying, kinda brilliant song called 'Sharks and Sailors'. I watched the Slint documentary a few weeks ago and ever since I've been jamming Tweez a lot; I guess this is the third generation of Louisville bands (Rodan came after Slint, and June of '44/Rachel's/Shipping News/The Sonora Pine after Rodan, though by the time of Tropics and Meridians the band had moved to Chicago. So what does this record sound like? Essentially like a third generation Slint, who took their musical cues from that band's more copied works (cough, 'Washer', cough) than their more innovative ones (say, 'Nan Ding'). You can hear this most evidently on this record's 'Lusitania' (hey, that's a song about a boat!) which propels along with a 5/4 beat and whispered/spoken vocals. It's probably the strongest cut on the record, with a sinewy guitar line that keeps folding in on itself and actually conveys a circular feeling of sinking. I had forgotten all about it, but not about the epic opener 'Anisette', a thunderous and slow jam that builds eventually to a screaming force after about nine minutes. No one ever called this stuff 'screamo' at the time, but it was intensely serious guitar based music with a tendency to explode both musically and vocally. I guess we called this post-rock though it feels pretty straight-forward in places. When there are scratchy, interlocking guitars ('June Leaf', 'Arms Over Arteries') June of 44 sound like a pretty tight, impressive band. The careful, whispered singing on the latter sounds like Bedhead and that's always a good thing. 'Sanctioned in a Birdcage' does everything it's supposed to do, painting by numbers with a powerful punching bass sound, guitar playing that mimics the militaristic theme of the lyrics (shards and muted single notes on one, against ringing arpeggios on the other) and a nice growl on the vocals (which shout 'Where did the birds go?' a few times, which is either brilliant or hilarious or both). I lost interest in these guys so I've never heard their last two albums, because it started to feel derivative and a bit tired by 1999 or so. I still jam the Rodan record a good bit but the offshoots I have mostly forgotten, except the second Sonora Pine record which remains an underrated gem of that whole movement. Yet there's a reason I always held on to this record; maybe it's a bit of teenage nostalgia for me (I was still in high school when I bought this) or maybe because it's a solid document of a time when this music genuinely inspired me; this is a roundabout way of confessing that Tropics and Meridians sounds pretty good right about now. While my tone here is somewhat teasing, I don't begrudge these guys for writing songs about boats; it's better than another album of songs about girls, or cars, or whatever the fuck men normally tend to write rock songs about. And their interest in literature (the band is named after Henry Miller's wife, and their first album has a song about her which is one of their best, perhaps because it's one of their most concise) is also commendable, even if it maybe seems in retrospect like a superficial affectation. I think I used to listen to this a lot, and I've dragged it around for 21 years, so it sounds kinda rough now, beat up and scratched and the victim of years of poor turntable/stylus choices. Which is also a shame; the recording by Bob Weston should sound explosive and thundering, and those drums on 'Anisette' I remember well, though this particular replication of them has suffered. This comes packaged with a beautiful set of art stamps, not legal US postage but lovely nonetheless, depicting, mostly, well, boats. Can you remember some other "boat rock" bands?

JuJu - 'A Message From Mozambique' (Black Fire)

And that message is, loud and clear, 'we are teeming with life and energy'. Except JuJu aren't from Mozambique, they're from Richmond, VA and some form of this band still exists today, still based around saxophonist Plunky Nkabinde. 1972 was a great era for merging free jazz and African nationalism, or perhaps I should say continentalism; the iconography is made clearly visible on the cover and clearly audible throughout the heavily percussive LP of searing jazzjams under review here. If one didn't know better, this photo could pass as the bizarro Art Ensemble of Chicago (from around this same era), but the music is much more built around flow than space, showing that facepaint alone does not indicate sound. Compositionally, A Message From Mozambique is spread across the whole band, and the six cuts here have distinct personalities. Nkabinde's '(Struggle) Home' opens up with 16 minutes of rapid, toe-tapping melodic jamming, creating the sound that I remember the most about this record. It's driving, with two percussionists and fast, thunderous piano runs from Al-Hammel Rasul and much soloing from Nkabinde; free, yes, but the dissonance fits within a widely defined space and the overall motion is harmonic and energy-producing. Rasul's beautiful 'Soledad Brothers' would seem to pull things down a notch, except this open piano framework allows vibes and smaller percussive elements to run amuck between the chords. It's rising and falling cadences are beautiful and propelling, wrapping up the nervous energy into the centre of the soundstage and harnessing the group power in a quieter, more focused form. It's my favourite cut on the record and a tragedy that it's only five minutes long. A more 'traditional' group jam comes with the wonderfully titled 'Make Your Own Revolution Now', which feels most at home against the ESP/skronk scene of the preceding few years. The drums and piano tend to dominate here, but when Nkabinde and flautist Lon Moshe come in, they make their presence felt through fast, dynamic exaltations. The remainder of side two pulls away from western jazz entirely, being drum/percussion workouts that are sometimes deceptively minimal-seeming ('Freedom Fighter') or more explicitly exploring the influences of indigenous music (the traditional 'Nairobi/Chants' which does involve some spirited vocalisations). JuJu's success is in synthesising these genres in such a palatable way - certainly we've heard it before in ways more impressionistic (the aforementioned Art Ensemble, or the work of Don Garrett) or more futurist (later Ornette Coleman), but this is an Afro-jazz record that is remarkably fun and I daresay even 'accessible', at least for a free jazz entry. That JuJu and Nkabinde never became household names, nor even enshrined in the same canon as other figures from this time (Archie Shepp, Frank Wright, etc.) may be due to this balance being slightly more 'fun' that one would expect; yet both the playing and compositional sense are as strong as anything else from the era.

Ju Suk Reet Meate, Oblivia, SIXES, Sharkiface & Loachfillet ‎- 'Dr. Octopuss' (Fish Pies/BOC Sound Laboratories)

Five weirdo outsider types got together and made Dr. Octopuss, two side-long works of fucked-up sound interaction (or I guess it's one long composimprovisiation,  since it's listed as parts 1 and 2, but who knows for sure how it's meant to be taken?). Ju Suk and Oblivia are of course from Smegma and I don't know the others, but this certainly comes from a similar soundworld to Smegma – one that eschews not just all traditional musical patterns (notes, chords, harmony, rhythm etc.) but the orthodoxy of experimental and improvised music as well, if that makes any sense. I get the title mixed up with Dr. Octagon/Dr. Octagonecologyst, though that's about the only similarity beyond the mad scientist, inhuman theme. Actually I think it's the name of a misspelled Spider-Man villain, a mutation human-robot hybrid with scary mechanical tentacles if I remember correctly (no, I haven't seen the films). The hybrid human/machine concept carries over, but perhaps the malevolence is left behind, because this is a pretty fun trip, or maybe my baseline for fun is villanous. This record does have an underwater feel, as many of the layers are surrounded by a slow, encapsulating pulse, holding the rest of the sounds in a sort of permanent stasis. The electro/acoustic (human/machine? too simple, too simple) balance feels roughly 50/50, and with such a layered approach it's impossible to know who is responsible for which elements. It does feel like it was a live take, maybe even in front of an audience, and there are sampled elements (French media speech, other urban sounds) which impose the heaviest themes, even though they are used sparingly. Sometimes the fidelity makes these samples sound like they're coming from an unwatched television in an adjacent room, which is an eerie pathway to postmodernism which I heartily endorse. Whatever sounds were generated by traditional musical instruments, those sources are treated with all manners of household effects, which furthers the sense of otherworldliness. There's clearly keyboard and saxophones, occasionally getting into a dialogue against a mild oscillating background wind. Some moments are delicate and spare, but never exactly silent - an errant keyboard run or bumping bit of static will always poke through. It moves briskly through both sides, a concoction that is at once a unique meeting of some true American outsiders and also another run of the mill jam. This contradiction isn't a blessing but its an unavoidable conclusion when trying to remember the last time I actually listened to this.

3 December 2017

Simon Joyner - 'Songs for the New Year' (Sing, Eunuchs!/Shrimper)

Songs for the New Year is a record of quiet, intense songs; its lyric sheet takes up two full pages and it's not in a large typeface. Joyner often pens lengthy tracts, never at this point in his career content to repeat a simple mantra or let less do more. This isn't a criticism, nor is it meant to convey that he is some radical experimentalist in form – there's still verses and repeating choruses, the basic building blocks of the song. But a tune like 'Parachute' shifts through so many different ideas over a few minutes that it needs to be listened to again to be fully absorbed. And even after almost twenty years I still haven't fully digested Songs for the New Year. The title would indicate that this album has a theme of newness and rebirth, and I suppose it's there, but it's really about winter and coldness taking over. I can imagine the Omaha winters are stark and harsh; here, it's just beginning in Helsinki so it's a perfect soundtrack to watch the snow fall. The album opens with 'The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll', a song that was not on the album of the same name and wouldn't have really fit there anyway, but here it's perfect. It functions as a gateway to the rest of this record, with Chris Deden's echoey piano notes and Joyner's gentle voice providing the foundation for this song of journey and escape. So many of Joyner's songs seem to be about travelling, or at least trying to get somewhere, and this is almost like a meta-tune, a skeleton key to the rest. The song I've gone back to the most over the years is 'Two Friends Take a Bow for the Record', describing just what its title indicates. Distance is again a theme, though here's its emotional distance, and this requiem for an ending friendship is complex without being bitter, grimacing through pain without resorting to irony. It's a feeling we've all lived through, yet has rarely been chronicled in 4/4 (or any other) time. The slow, plaintive pulse of the music allow Joyner to inhabit the narrative, and his voice sounds less warbling than on previous records, driven by the honesty and conviction of what he's singing about. Loss, again, is a recurring concept; these friends are certainly from the same Joynerverse of characters that narrate 'Born of Longing' or 'I Wrote a Song About the Ocean', who yearn to escape from their own memories. 'Disappear From Here' closes the record and is the most stripped down, just Joyner and his guitar, and the way it proceeds through a line of verses reminds me of Neil Young closing On the Beach with 'Ambulance Blues'. The rural themes so prevalent on Heaven's Gate return, with winter explicitly discussed, and the final moments really feels like a man trying to intentionally fade into nothing. This record is so quiet and it's also recorded in an intimate way, with carefully chosen arrangements - the accordion playing that I raved about on the last record returns here, and is just as beautifully understated. I wouldn't call this lo-fi, hi-fi, bi-fi or any other kind of fi - it's merely plain ol' fidelity, and when you turn it up, it doesn't sound richer or more complex; it's like this was meant to be listened to quietly, while a candle burned. Songs for the New Year is the end of an era, for after this Joyner began his more heavily orchestrated Truckstop era, another rewarding period of his insanely prolific career. Unfortunately I never managed to acquire physical copies of any of that stuff so we have to end the discussion of Mr. Joyner's output here, but this is a beautiful and precise place to do so.

2 December 2017

Simon Joyner - 'Heaven's Gate' (Sing, Eunuchs!)

For those not familiar with the music of Simon Joyner, I strongly encourage you to begin investigating. Heaven's Gate may be a good starting point. It's a much more quiet record than Cowardly Traveller, shaking off the ramshackle indie rock residue in favour of an intimate, acoustic folk template. His singing is front and centre, warbling and unpolished, which delivers a special glow to the first-person narrated songs. The other accompaniments are likewise spare, just a few drums here, some organ there, rarely taking the spotlight, but when it happens (as the violin and cello on 'Kerosene') it's remarkable. The title of this album reminds me of the failed Michael Cimino film I never saw, though probably now most resonates with the death cult who became nationally prominent a few years after this was released. But 'Kerosene', rather than being a Big Black cover, uses the literal gate of heaven as a metaphor for a chronicle of a woman turned away from something, full of rural and apocalyptic imagery. As these songs are all reasonably long, Joyner has time to really stretch out lyrically and paint with words. 'Three Well-Aimed Arrows' probes his own subconscious and is the most rickety tune, and 'The Black Dog' gets almost spooky. 'Farewell to Percival' ends the record as a long quest song, ostensibly a farewell but also full of surreal and adventurous imagery, and all prodding along with Chris Deden's simple drums and organ playing behind Joyner's guitar. This is the most unflashy of accompaniments and it's perfect, though only the second best musical gesture on the album. The best would be on Heaven's Gate's pièce de résistance, 'Catherine', a simple and plaintive song about a mother (perhaps Joyner's own? or maybe it's just a song). This is a song of great, unbreakable beauty, rolling along a gentle strum like a wave, and with a subtle, yet pitch-perfect accordion part played by Bill Hoover between the breaths. Hardcore Joyner fans or Joyner himself may be surprised that I find this song so resonant, especially against other more ambitious works ('Prometheus', or the carved-up Bert Janschisms of 'Alabaster'), but for decades now I've gone back to listen to it over and over, wearing out the vinyl, and sometimes I have to fight back tears to get through it. I don't think it was the inspiration for Jenny Slate's web series of the same name, but that would be improved by overdubbing this song behind each episode. Most things would be improved by a bit of 'Catherine'. 

1 December 2017

Simon Joyner ‎– 'The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll' (Sing, Eunuchs!)

My copy actually has a white sleeve, but it's so much easier to steal these images than to scan them. I hope that this brief excursion into early Simon Joyner records is as rewarding to read about as it is for me to listen to; this is an intensely beautiful body of work from a gifted songwriter whose talent only further expanded over the subsequent two decades, though for some reason I only have his early ones. The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll is a nice hybrid of the ragged approach found on his Iffy cassette and the somewhat most contemplative singer-songwriter vibe of the subsequent Room Temperature cassette. This is his first LP release and it's spread across different sounds and styles, with some band work and scarring electric guitar playing, perhaps by Joyner or perhaps with a band - no one else is credited but I'd guess Chris Deden is the drummer. Joyner is a natural with an acoustic guitar but over his career he has resisted attempts to pigeonhole him into the coffeeshop/open-mic genre. Here, electricity brings a darker cadence, especially on songs like '747', 'August (Die She Must)' and 'Fallen Man'. There's a lot of personal pronoun work here, and it's neither intensely soul-baring nor character work, which is maybe one of the reasons that Joyner's never found major commercial success. Instead, he writes songs that are rich in imagery, oblique enough to have an air of mystery, and relatable in fleeting passages. 'Appendix' is a long and somewhat surreal travelogue, which is quite compelling in it's manic strumming; it's the acoustic mirror of side one's 'I Went to the Lady of Perpetual Healing', which seems to describe a mystical experience but is maybe a bit tongue-in-cheek. These are great, ragged indie rock accompaniments, Omaha style, and they perfectly complement Joyner's unorthodox voice; the scratchy violin on 'Cole Porter' can act as a symbol of the whole scene he came from at this time, which stretched to the West Coast to include the Shrimper label and artists like Refrigerator and the Mountain Goats, who Joyner shares an obvious musical affinity with. It comes to a head with the final track, 'Joy Division' (where have we heard that name before?), which is an electric guitar and voice tune, sung to a father and with the same sense of mild desperation that rings through the whole album. It crescendos into a brief moment of cathartic rocking out, before ending with a tape splice. It's sudden, but suddenly moving as well, and there's still a glimmer of teen angst despite the more sophisticated approach to lyric writing. This style of arrangements is right up my alley but it set these artists aside from more commercially-minded songwriters; I clicked with it as an adolescent in the mid-90s because it felt intimate, homemade, and inviting. If the songwriting is pure then there should be no need for big studio production, and I think I still believe that today.

28 November 2017

Joy Division - 'Still' (Factory)

Still is always somewhat maligned by JD completists and I can understand why. It's patchy and thrown together from questionable live tapes; the version of 'Ceremony', one of the greatest songs ever to come from JD or New Order,  is actually pretty poor here. But there's a few reasons I like it anyway. One is getting to hear Ian Curtis sing the lyric 'sucking on your ding dong' during the cover of 'Sister Ray' - anything that de-mythologises a legend, even in a tiny way is welcome, and what value is Ian Curtis if we don't celebrate his humanity? Because half of this is live, it has a much more stripped down feel than Closer, coming almost full circle to Warsaw and making this a nice set of four releases to evaluate sequentially. There's a few songs from Warsaw present on the first half ('Ice Age', 'They Walked in Line'), which makes record one essentially a 'lost album' put together from errant studio sessions. Nothing here feels incomplete, and there's a brash, bold confidence among the best of them. 'Something Must Break' pulls the listener along as if on a leash, and 'Dead Souls' is a classic in its theatrical simplicity. The live cuts are rough, as they should be, and this ragged nature features some great insights, such as how fucking classic the guitar riff on 'Transmission' is. When synths are used in the live setting, like on 'Decades', it's lacking something, at least compared to the studio version - this take is so thin and compromised that I'm surprised it was included. Likewise the live version of 'Digital', a good choice to end the last official release of Joy Division, suffers compared to other versions I've heard, perhaps on that Heart and Soul box or some other compilations. I'm not sure why the raggedness hurts in this particular song as opposed to helping (such as on 'Disorder') but it leaves me wanting more. Perhaps this was always the intent with Still, or maybe it was just to stop bootlegging as Wikipedia claims. It's a curious release and this particular edition may be a bootleg itself, which is a nice absurd ending to the recorded Joy Division story. It took me awhile to get through these records since it's hard to find much to say about them, and I still failed to bring any new insights here in these four posts, yet I must admit I enjoyed revisiting them more than I thought. Whenever I think about culling records like this from the collection I usually listen again and find some sort of pleasure to justify keeping them. And it's times like this I can explain why there are 1600 LPs to the right of me. And now, it's onward to Simon Joyner!

23 November 2017

Joy Division - 'Closer' (Factory)

Closer is probably Joy Division's great statement, a masterpiece if such a title must be awarded, though it's a hard record to grasp. I've listened to this enough times to recognise any second of it, if heard somewhere, yet I probably couldn't hum a single melody in an empty, soundless room. Maybe Closer is a bit schizophrenic, often quickly shifting between different ideas, sometimes juxtaposing moods in an unsettling way. Some songs harken back to the Warsaw days, all grit and gristle ('A Means to an End'), and others are cool, icy post-disco misery ('Isolation'). 'Atrocity Exhibition' starts things off as one of the most challenging works in the Joy Division oeuvre, and it's almost like if Talking Heads had Lee Ranaldo guesting on guitar. The industrial scrapes and howls fit the inspiration (a brilliantly experimental JG Ballard pseudo-novel that is a far more extreme vision of technology and irony gone awry than anything offered here) and the track really separates Closer from the record which came before it. But the overwhelming feeling is that of stasis, that of being trapped in suspension, which makes Curtis's suicide all the more affecting. (This was released posthumously, just, I think). This isn't just repetition or monotony, but the feeling of trying to go somewhere and never making any progress. That feeling is all over this record but probably the most evident in 'The Eternal', whose haunting piano tinkles are pretty fucking harrowing. 'Heart and Soul', 'Decades' and 'A Means to an End' are other highlights, but really it's all pretty solid. The use of synths are again carefully chosen; on 'Decades' the pressing feeling perfectly conjures the Teutonic sensibility that goes in hand with the fascist overtones Joy Division were occasionally accused of wearing. I don't absolve them of this transgression but it fucking works to sell the misery, because if your worldview is bleak and hopeless, then creeping fascism is just the icing on the cake (take a look at a newspaper today for current examples). 

21 November 2017

Joy Division - 'Unknown Pleasures' (Factory)

This is another one of those 'classics' that I'm almost embarrassed to have in the accumulation, if only because a) I rarely listen to it and b) I will certainly struggle to write original thoughts about it in 2017. Coming between the bootleg of Warsaw and the superior vision of Closer, it's interesting as a midpoint, or if you like to marvel at how far bands push themselves in a short period of time. I'm sure this is not an original observation, but Martin Hannett's production is just about everything to why this is a great record, and if you don't believe me, listen to Warsaw. I'm sure that Hannett and the band were working in synergy here, but regardless, the decision to strip out the middle of these songs, rather than filling them with crunchy guitar chords, is what makes Unknown Pleasures such a definitive turning point between punk and post. This introduction of emptiness of course amplifies the lyrical themes but it really opens up the songs and lets mood play a role, a gesture towards what is felt and not heard. Event underwritten songs like 'Candidate' gain so much from this expansion, and it still gets thick and meaty at times. 'Shadowplay' is attenuated towards a wall of sound feeling; 'New Dawn Fades' and 'Day of the Lords' are balanced, production-wise, against their baroque tendencies. It doesn't hurt that Curtis really starts to emerge as one of rock's iconic voices on this record, with the same menace as the Warsaw sound but an increased commitment to emotional delivery, meaning he's actually singing, and his 'When will it end?' is bone-chilling even if you don't consider his ultimate fate. It's a voice that is almost defiantly masculine after the 70s sounds of Bowie and glam, yet implying more than it lets on. This is still Factory rock music, made by cold men in dark warehouses, but it's inching towards a more cybernetic approach, the full-on embrace of synthesisers to come later in New Order but no doubt a concern this early on, already. Morris's drumming is more motorik, and a song like 'Insight' is far from computerised but looking at least in that direction. Synths are used more atmospherically here, swooping into the corners and occasionally roaring. There's a reason university students still walk around wearing t-shirts bearing this logo today, despite the fact that the only two songs even remotely close to being catchy/hook-based are 'Disorder' and 'She's Lost Control'. And there's a reason we still have scores of bands like Protomartyr essentially aping the sound of 'Wilderness', four decades later. 

J.D. - 'Warsaw' (RZM Productions)

The band mysteriously known only as 'J.D.' chose not to release these recordings, which is understandable; they're the dictionary definition of 'raw', in terms of recording, performance and composition. This is punk rock, though - the year '1977' has been mythologised by the mohicans and their descendents, or maybe it was '78 when these were recorded - I dunno for sure, but the anger is sure there. The band that was to follow shed a lot of these influences, making this little more than a curiosity for diehard fans (which I'm not) or for people who revel in early, raw obscurity. As the record progresses it starts to get closer to the Factory sound, but side one has a surprising amount  of chugga-chugga punk rock. The opening cut ('All Of This For You') is great in a primitive way and sets a tone that doesn't sustain itself throughout, as if this is sequnced in the chronological order of how it was written. 'Failures' has a Stooges-like sound, and 'Novelty', though later reinvented as a much more well-known song, is delivered vocally like it's the Descendents or other early 80s American HC act. Reportedly they were unhappy with post-production techniques, but I'm not sure any are evident here - this is rough sounding, maybe because of the bootleg mastering job, or maybe this wasn't actually the album they intended. Omission can sometimes be a good career move; as much as 'Transmission', 'Interzone' and 'Living in the Ice Age' foreshadow what was to come, certainly the myth was amplified by holding these back. The Hooks and crannies are already obvious, the early synth pulses ('No Love Lost') and the overly dour vibe, but the vocals are the main thing that are not quite there yet.  They're angry, yes, and captivated by strange ideas of isolation and collectivity, images of war and order ('Leaders of Men', 'They Walked in Line') no doubt a byproduct of the late 70s British culture and the difficulties of the economic reality of the time. Manchester was a hell of a lot further away from London culturally than geographically; its hard to see this occupying the same stratosphere as the whole Sex Pistols/Vivienne Westwood/Siouxsie aesthetic at the same time, but it technically did. If it reminds me of any London band it would be Killing Joke's first album, which we'll get to soon. But maybe this is a solid document of what they would have been like live - a bit more raw, the drums flailing rather than crisp.

14 November 2017

Gregory Jones & Roy Sablosky - 'No Imagination' (Vinyl)

There isn't much more one could want from a record of experimental electronics. No Imagination does quite a lot across its four tracks, and it's the only release by these guys apart from a new wave band called Standard of Living that they were both in; so this was probably seen as their experimental 'side project' if anything, which is a shame, cause I'd love to hear how their musical relationship may have developed over time. The four cuts traverse fairly different territory for a record that is built around two guys with electronics, though my favourite track is Jones-less, only featuring Sablosky plus James Gable on 'transducer guitar' and Marianne Fraenkel on vocals. It's a 15 minute long dirge called 'Intro (Summer Names)', perversely not the first track, but coming after 'No Moon No Mirror' (which is a proper intro). But 'Intro' the song consists of a heavily repetitive guitar strum, firing ecstatic overtones in conjunction with Sablosky's electronics, and the faint intonations of Fraenkel's spoken text. It's just there to feel more than listen to, obfuscating the urge to interpret verbal meaning. Her delivery reminds me of the voice on Blue Gene Tyranny's 'A Letter From Home'; this, to me, is an aesthetic device that I associate with the American avant-garde circa the time of my birth, when this was made. It's a beauty, a real storm of a musical work that feels romantic, adventurous, warm and cold all at the same times as it howls along. There's no acoustic presence on the other three tracks, but they're no less impressive; 'Diverted to Frankfurt (for Twelve Pulse Generators)' is, unsurprisingly, written for 12 pulse generators and the stark palette of their timbre makes this an active, complex convergence of sound. 'No Moon No Mirror' is an ethereal piece for synthesiser where the two musicians tease each other through space, sounding like something from the Kranky records catalog two decades later. It's marred only by a very audible scratch on my copy, which if it were on 'Diverted to Frankfurt' might not be so noticeable but here it shocks the stillness between the synth pulses. 'Forced' is the final cut, another long one, and it resembles the 'Amazon rainforest' approach to electronic improvisations. There's not so much a tonal basis as that of a swarm of insects, and it's as manic and active as the previous two tracks. It's best played loud - the whole record is - so the juxtaposing staccato bursts of static and square waves can get the resonance they deserve. This is a great record for turning your head slightly while listening, to change the way the overtones interact with one's hearing - the best minimalist/drone records have that, and it's nice to be achieved on something so compositionally distinct. Totally great and singular!