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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.

31 July 2017

D.R. Hooker - 'The Truth' (Subliminal Sounds)

How do you argue with an artist who looks like this? D.R. Hooker's record is famous more for its obscurity than its music, which is unfair. It's Christian psych at its best, not built around heavy guitar crunching like the Fraction Moon Blood record, but mostly flowing pop-rock songs that show Hooker's talent for songwriting -- if only he had gotten a larger audience at the time! And his voice isn't bad either - not enough to stand out against the million other rock voices of the greatest decade (the 70s, of course, with this coming out in '72) but with an expressiveness that's enhanced by the occasional echo/delay flutters applied at the ends of key verses and lyrics. But it's the backing band that excels here. 'Forge Your Own Chains' has a great swing to it, showing a precision of rhythm but a languid pulse, almost funky. Opener 'The Sea' is beautiful, elegant in its vocal melody and accented with sharp guitars. I don't know who these guys were, really - the rhythm section are the Sheck brothers, one of whom is credited on an Edgar Winter recording, but not much else that's recognisable to a layman. 'The Thing' is maybe my pick of the album, with sharp riffs courtesy of Hooker's own guitar, crescendoing into a cacophony with some gurgling analogue electronics and a psychedelic sheen. Or maybe it's 'I'm Leaving You', where Hooker's Jesus-lite persona gets its biggest test, as he becomes a funky soul vampire crooning about the end of a relationship over a wall of screaming flanged guitars. It's pretty fucking secular, but then the whammy of the title track, followed by 'The Bible', is where he really lays down the Word. 'The Bible' builds into an almost orgasmic peak, with Hooker's intoning of 'The bible, the bible' being so hypnotic that when it all gets quiet for a second and revs back up it's a stunning effect. When listening to this I like to stare into the off-centred spiral on the label, and take in the smell of acrid Christ-smoke, wet ferns and sand that this album seems to give off. The whole thing ends with some deliberate, obvious backwards speech, which I'm not going to risk destroying my belt-drive to hear but I assume it's imploring us to praise the Lord, or maybe praise Hooker himself (you gotta wonder about anyone who dresses up like Jesus and self-releases rock music, right?). The big complaint here is the fidelity - I assume this is a bootleg like most of these private-press reissues (supposedly there were only 99 copies of the original) so it was probably mastered from a non-mint original. Or maybe it's supposed to sound like this - this wasn't exactly Abbey Road studios to begin with, and this is lo-fi or rather 'mid-fi' before any such term existed. There's a constant sense of having dust on my stylus, distortion around the edges and a pretty murky mix when things get thick (which they often do!). So I kinda wish there was a properly remastered version out there, but maybe there is, as this has been reissued a zillion times and I just got this '99 repress secondhand. Apparently he made a second album (which I haven't heard) with the promising title of Armageddon - maybe would be a nice pairing with the decidedly anti-Christian Comus?

30 July 2017

The Honeymoon Killers ‎- 'Les Tueurs De La Lune De Miel' (Riskant)

Don't confuse them with the early Jon Spencer band! This Belgian group actually put out an album before this under the band name Les Tueurs de la Lune de Miel, but it wasn't as bouncy or sharp as this one, and the band name was a mouthful, even though it just means 'honeymoon killers' in French. Marc Hollander & Vincent Kenis from the brilliant Aksak Maboul are present here and their influence is felt, surely. These songs are bursting with energy, driven by either the vocals of Yvon Vromman or Véronique Vincent, and there's all sorts of electric energy tracing around the edge. Somehow punk is never very convincing when sung in a French accent but 'Fonce À Mort' comes pretty damn close; there's random dub/echo effects on the drums, broken glass synth lines, and saxophone bleats to keep you on your toes. Every song is driving and dancey without being monotonous; they're not a million kilometres from American bands from the same time like Pylon or Suburban Lawns. 'Ariane' is the hit I always play the most, which is actually instrumental; there's another version of it I heard on the radio once, from a 7", which is even better. The lyrics are printed in French and German for this German edition. I struggle with my high school level French to get what the songs are about, but 'Flat' starts off by talking about listening to Fleetwood Mac and 'J4' seems to narrate a story of domestic life. But I could be totally wrong; it doesn't really matter, since I'm enjoying the whole package. Aksak's more avant-garde tendencies are held in check here, with some straight-up hooks and fun keyboard parts, a goofy version of 'Route Nationale 7' that is practically novelty music except it's just so good, especially when followed by 'Ariane', a spacey anthem of paleofuturism. It's where pop music can be radical and challenging and while this would sound like a post-Rough Trade retro band now, something about the French accent gives it an earnestness that perseveres; like Family Fodder minus the irony, or I guess more like Aksak Maboul with the prog knob turned all the way down. The closing cut ('L'Heure De La Sortie') is the slow plodder sung with a robot voice, yet it's awesome. If they had been on my honeymoon, it would have been enhanced, not killed. Oh yeah, there's a Serge Gainsbourg cover, too ('Laisse Tomber Les Filles'). Fantastic.

29 July 2017

Home Blitz - 'Foremost & Fair' (Richie)

How an artist progresses in just a few years! The first clue is the cover, where typeface and drawing indicate this will should sound like a Fairport Convention spinoff, though that's a bit of an oversell. At first it's a total red herring (though in the keyboard and harpsichord bits initially heard, especially during 'I'm That Key', there's certainly some influence of more regal, courtly music than before) but then side two's 'Tell Me There' appears and we are in some sort of bizarro New Jersey-Shirley Collins hybrid; where power pop meets ragged bedroom punk and British folk too! Another clue is the voice - Mr. DiMaggio has raised his pitch even higher, or at least is breathing harder behind it. When you focus on the tone of his beautiful yelp-croon, his debt to Scott Miller is even more obvious than before. 'The Hall' has an organ crunch which feels like way more than a one-man recording; it's somehow one of the best Home Blitz songs ever, even if it's hidden at the end of side 1. 'Downtown' breaks into a musique-concrete based bridge over which he pontificates in the most 'Watch Who You're Calling Space Garbage Meteor Mouth' manner possible, and otherwise it's maybe all in the affect, but it's a hell of a method I must admit. And then there's 'Why It Cries', the moment of total free-from experimentation that harkens back more to DiMaggio's other band Car Commericals, or to that one time I was left unsupervised in a music instrument shop that focused on medieval instruments. It's a great expanse of space, which would be described as 'fucking around' to the uninitiated, but it's a vision of existence committed to vinyl, and then erupting in a bit of a jig. Thank god for the ability to hear so much music these days; I keep recalling that collection of Jonathan Lethem essays called The Ecstasy of Influence, which is a great title to describe music like this. It's not like no one ever synthesised different influences in the past, but it feels so much more open these days, which isn't to diminish the marvellous leftfield accessibility of Foremost & Fair - just that it's a bit less of a headscratcher when a young musician can discover so much out there via digital means. I guess what really matters is the curiosity, which is here in spades. I can't wait to hear what he'll do next, if he's still active, that is. 

23 June 2017

Home Blitz - 'Out of Phase' (Richie)

Before this album came out, Daniel DiMaggio had already released a handful of 7"s which affirmed Home Blitz as prime progenitors of a new wave of post-indie-post-punk, the mid-to-late 00s explosion of bands that descended more from the Swell Maps than the Sex Pistols. But this LP masterfully merged his more experimental tendencies to carefully selected hooks and home-recording choices, which makes it an extremely fucking satisfying listen. DiMaggio was becoming obsessed with Game Theory and Scott Miller, and you hear that right away in the opening cut, 'Nest of Vipers', but only after it first moves through a patch of Beefheart/Skin Graft skronk. It's all tension and release, and 'Two Steps' hits next as a slice of perfect, ragged lo-fi guitar pop, a 'Box Elder' for a new generation. A as opening gambit 1-2 punch, it's amazing. If I sound hyperbolic it's only because today's listen to Out of Phase comes at the right time; enough years have passed to put this in perspective and show its staying power, and the songs sound phenomenal in 2017. The 'experimental' tracks here, 'Live Outside' (the next descendent of titles that are ambiguous to whether the word is 'live' or 'live', after Joan of Arc) and 'Three Steps', are more than mere filler; they are moody field recordings that put the pop constructions into the context of New Jersey life, and they're essential to the flow of the record, much more than (for example) the jazzcursions on the Tenement 2xLP. DiMaggio's drumming isn't exactly Steve Gaddesque but it works, flailing on the cymbals and providing a bumpy bed for the pop hooks. His guitar playing is like a Dionysian Peter Buck, spazzing chords and frantic arpeggios, which inject the songs with the right amount of nervous energy. 'World War III', 'Nighttime Feel' and 'Other Side of the Street' could be parallel universe classics, saturated in the early 80s DIY aesthetic but married to more contemporary concerns. There's even a Cock Sparrer cover, 'Is Anybody There?', reimagined as a yearning plea for connection. The run-out groove on side A says 'Perpetual Night' but that was released as a separate 7", a shame since it's a great, great song too. Oh, I have an extra copy of this LP for some reason; if anybody wants it, make an offer in the comments!

The Holy Modal Rounders - 'The Moray Eels Eat The' (Sundazed)

The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders is a great record; it's fun, doesn't go on too long, and manages to convert its 60s-drenched anarchy into something that still feels meaningful. That's not to say it isn't clearly a document of its time, but just that the 'fuck it' approach to folk music was already rooted in something much older than the psychedelic rock at the time, and even though this is a heavily psychedelic record, it feels remarkably present today, even compared to classic rockers like Hendrix or Sgt Peppers. Of course, there's nothing like the Rounders being made today, at least not that I'm aware of; the folk-noise hybrid stuff that happened about a decade ago often verged towards absurdity but never with such reckless abandon, and anyway, the context was all different. One of the nicest things anyone ever said to me was years and years ago when I was playing them some of my solo music, which was somber, delicate and spare post-adolescent minimalism. My friend remarked that my personality seemed so different than the music I was making; he then put on 'Bird Song', from Moray Eels, and said that he expected my solo work to resemble something more like that. I haven't seen Easy Rider since before I was in straight-legged pants so I barely remember its moment of fame, but there's no better song to put on and dance around to, flopping my arms and moaning the mostly wordless vocal parts. The overtly drugged out songs like 'My Mind Capsized' and 'Half a Mind' have outlasted their era, and this version of Michael Hurley's 'Werewolf' is so drained and sparse that it's genuinely frightening. You have to squint to hear the residue of the American songbook, but it's there just as surely as I mix my metaphors. 'Duji Song' is like the world's most frightening, inside-out jug band; 'Take-off Artist Song' is deconstructed vaudeville at it's finest. I wish I had a copy of Indian War Whoop to complete the classic Rounders collection but it's been reish'd enough times that I'm sure it will pass by. In the meantime I'll consider this to be the pinnacle; even the cover art is beautiful, magnificent, lush and appropriate. 

7 June 2017

The Holy Modal Rounders - 'Stampfel & Weber' (Fantasy)

This is a mid-70s issue of the first two Holy Modal Rounders albums, originally recorded for Prestige in 1963-64. I was glad to find it because I like this early material of theirs; it's goofy but still relatively sane, at least compared to the later releases, and sometimes it's just nice to listen to. Unfortunately Prestige sequenced these backwards, with record 1 being the less memorable Holy Modal Rounders 2, but that's not the biggest crime, and it's easily solvable. The liner notes here are a gas - Ed Ward writes about the halcyon days of the early 60s NYC folk scene and how these two jokesters came around upsetting the apple cart, but nonetheless with a discipline and understanding of traditional musics that allowed them to break such rules. I don't know Mr Ward or what he looked like but I can't help but think of F. Murray Abraham in Inside Llewyn Davis, a blowhard reminiscing about some mythical era of which he's largely responsible for the myth. Or maybe I'm just sore cause he calls Indian War Whoop and Moray Eels 'close to unlistenable' - hey man, your liner notes are close to unreadable! Even the uncredited/technical notes to this reissue says that 'none of the albums recorded since these ... have been nearly as successful'. Maybe they're just speaking of commercial success but it feels like a cheap shot at the esteemed ESP and Elektra labels. Anyway. The second Rounders album, coming first in this sequence, has some lovely moments - Stampfel's banjo playing on 'I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground' is precise and ragged, and 'Junko Partner', written with Michael Hurley, is one of the only originals and a nice goof. But it is record #2, album #1 that I like more, maybe as it contains a few more original compositions, and the performances sound more fresh. 'Euphoria' could be the Modals raison d'être, capturing the simplicity and spirit of their early approach. 'Reuben's Train' is fierce and the fiddle cuts like a knife. 'Blues in the Bottle' is a great opener, and when Stampfel starts to play after each verse it revs up like a jet engine. 'Better Things for You' is maybe the best original composition on either record. This is only a decade or so after Harry Smith's anthology but these two clearly studied it like a bible. Clarence 'Tom' Ashley's 'The Cuckoo' never sounded so raw, and it's brilliant how the Rounders celebrate American music so joyously, tying it directly to the underculture which birthed it. This is music that takes itself seriously while also being able to laugh at itself; they realised the need to preserve these songs before they became enshrined in the same glass towers that ruined American jazz culture. Music has to live, and Stampfel & Weber found a humour, inherent in even the most serious subject matter, and also injected it with a streak of rebelliousness. I think actually the Rounders sound more radical today, as their quest was unsuccessful; folk music has become sanitised and its conservative tendencies emphasised. Harry Smith surely turns in his grave now, but maybe if enough people play Holy Modal Rounders records simultaneously, he'll stop, or at least pause.

Christopher Hobbs / John Adams / Gavin Bryars - 'Ensemble Pieces' (Obscure)

Not sure why I don't have this in the split LPs section; I guess I file it under Hobbs since he's the most present here in addition to being first-billed, having composed two of the four pieces and performing on Bryars's work as well. Eno's Obscure imprint was a great enterprise I think, and I buy any of them if I'm fortunate enough to come across one and it's affordable. The cover for this really captures my impression of the 1970s British avant-garde, showing some modernist urban building in a manner which seems like it comes from a film excerpt, perhaps some structuralist-materialist polemic. Ensemble Pieces is occasionally a bit dry, as 70s British avant-garde can be, but it's at least democratically dry if that makes sense. The word 'ensemble' is quite relevant as these are compositions in which the players have a great deal of agency, and the focus is on how the group performs, perhaps the only commonality between the three composers. It does raise the question of why, if the ensemble is the point of this record, the composers get the primary credits, but I guess old habits die hard. The two Hobbs compositions open both sides and 'Aran' is the high point of the record, a pulsing melodic work originally for 12 performers but here played (through the magic of overdubs) by Hobbs, John White and Bryars. It's all tonal percussion, beating around a pulse and resembling a Western hackjob gamelan, and I mean that in the most endearing way possible. The toy piano, wood blocks, and small cymbals all fight it out and there's an exuberance that is minimalist composition at its finest. 'McCrimmon Will Never Return' has the same sense of melodic investigation, though being a duet of Hobbs and Bryars on two reed organs each, it has a significantly more restrained sonic palette and takes on a mantra-like feel, like an Indian harmonium devotional except slightly neurotic and with the tonal conflicts being the focal point. John Adams presents three works and his ensemble players aren't credited individually, perhaps because the back sleeve needed more space for the liner notes. They move through three distinct pieces, the most unusual being the slowest, 'Christian Zeal and Activity', which features a strange radio interview tape played overtop. It's a predecessor to 'BBF3' I guess, but decidedly less apocalyptic. 'Sentimentals' closes out the side and apparently quotes 'Sophisticated Lady' though I didn't notice it; it feels the most rooted in academic composition though it's light and moving. 'John Philip Sousa', a tribute, is centred around a motorik snare drum and maybe the one of the three where one can most hear that this ensemble is self-conducting. Bryars' '1, 2, 1-2-3-4' is an odd exercise in genre collage on first listen, and the liner notes reveal the format of the composition, where the all-star cast (including Cornelius Cardew, Derek Bailey, Andy MacKay and Eno himself) are all playing along to dictaphones while wearing headphones. There's a sense of irony here of course, since it's a jazz ballad, but the format makes it sound like its' all falling apart, yet in a delicate way, not like the Portsmouth Sinfonia (though clearly related since this is Gavin Bryars after all). Bryars is the odd man out here as the others can all be connected somewhat to post-minimalist composition, at least in terms of structure, but this iconoclasm, even within the scope of this LP, is welcome.

5 June 2017

His Name is Alive - 'Home Is In Your Head' (4AD)

Because we're so out-of-sync with the compact disc portion of this project, our only dalliance with the great His Name is Alive comes with this LP edition of Home Is In Your Head, the second 'proper' album (a way I like to categorise His Name is Alive's many, many albums - 'proper' used to just mean 'is on 4AD', but that distinction no longer holds). At least for now - if we ever get back to the CDs then there's a whole slew of them and I relish the chance to write about each, so much that I may blow the dust off my CD player and get back to where we left off - Faust, I think it was? Writing about any HNIA record on its own is somewhat weird; merely describing the record would make it sound like a self-contained work, which of course it is, but HNIA only really make sense to me when viewed against the totality of their (or should I say, his) career. On its own, Home is In Your Head is a wonderfully schizophrenic assemblage of haunting songforms, experimental tape constructions, primitive synthscapes and maudlin string-driven work (largely acoustic guitar). Twenty years ago, when I was first exposed to it, I had never heard anything like this, but the above description could pass for any number of rediscovered oddities that make their way around the Internet in a contemporary afterlife. With that in mind, HiiYH does feel like a product of the 1980s home-taping experimental underground, though this came out in '91 so it could be viewed (perhaps) as a cap on the whole thing. Defever was 22 at this time and it's precisely old enough to have a mastery on his earlier ideas, with the studio talent to create something this careful and delicate; the moments of beauty, when they want to roar, are unparalleled ('Mescalina', 'My Feathers Need Cleaning', 'Dreams Are of the Body'). There's something simultaneously sophisticated and teenage about some of these songs; 'Are We Still Married?'  in its simplicity seemed merely wry at first, until I later lived it, at which point it amplified into being totally devastating; 'Chances Are We Are Mad' has youthful bloodrush, yet tempered by a intangible wisdom. And the title of 'There's Something Between Us And He's Changing My Words' says it all. The arrangements occasionally burst into wall-of-DOD pedal distortion, glimpses of heavy metal glory but only in quick flashes. The production is as wet and lush as its label is famous for; Karin Oliver's voice has enough reverb to be haunting without being cheap, and the thin acoustic guitar arpeggios are close-miked to create a wide sort of dynamic ('Very Bad a Bitter Hand', 'When People Disappear'). But I wouldn't call this folky, or poppy, or gothy, or anything obvious; its assemblage is that of a total vision. This was the last of the original 4AD HNIA albums that I came to, first digesting all of the more pop-orientated works (Stars on ESP and Ft. Lake remain my favourites, but they're all great, really) and it certainly feels like the most 'experimental', meaning that it's the least bound to songforms out of any of them. And that's again why I must think about HiiYH in relation to the other albums. Certainly if you take this as a stepping stone in the progression from its predecessor Livonia's dark liquidity through Stars on ESP's cracking sunshine towards the even further gospel blues R&B period into the wholeearth magic soundballs of Brown Rice and the more recent work, then it fits a logical path. But beyond the genre/aesthetic changes, this feels like a touchstone in the whole HNIA mythos, the artistic world Defever created in the 90s. That's what really clicked with me and continues to inspire me -- it's not just the beautiful songcraft but the themes, lyrics and gestures that recur in later albums. 'Are You Coming Down This Weekend?' would seem like a throwaway sketch on an initial listen, but to me it's a skeleton key, one that explains (for example) 'The Bees' on Stars on ESP and certainly informs the backgrounds of many many other songs. The bonus track ('The Other Body' I think it's called) feels like some clue left to be deciphered, and it's a fucking great song too, especially with it's sudden tape-splice ending. 'Love's a Fish Eye', in its own delicate way expresses the general philosophy of His Name Is Alive, if that makes any sense. Well, maybe it doesn't, maybe none of this does; but, maybe that's why art is/can be great - the world-building, the vision mediating reality, which one can define so precisely, and then invite others to explore. A long time ago I read an interview with Defever somewhere and I remember him referring to these earlier albums as adolescent (which he didn't mean disparagingly, and that's probably not the exact quote any but just how I remember it) and sure, those preoccupations are evident. I discovered HNIA at the tail end of my adolescence but somehow at age 37 they feel even more inspiring. I know I've grown with these records and I'm not sure how it would sound to someone hearing this today at age 18, especially given the access they would have, and the lack of obscurity of anything these days. So once again, without this turning into another nostalgia trip, I need to acknowledge that I'm glad to be the age I am, and to have been touched by this music when I was, because it planted a seed or something which continues to resonate two decades later.

Andrew Hill - 'Point of Departure' (Blue Note)

The lineup shifts slightly here for this, the third Andrew Hill album of 1964 - the vibes are gone, but we add two saxes and a trumpet, and a young Anthony Williams replacing Elvin Jones on drums. That substitution is felt immediately, for his touch is a bit lighter, and the album starts with 'Refuge', which gives lots of space for Hill and Richard Davis and leaves the brass instruments silent for long stretches. It's Eric Dolphy on alto (and later bass clarinet) and his playing throughout this record is fairly crisp, angular at times, and even a bit sneaky. Again, I'm impressed with Hill's approach to harmony, as he throws some chords in underneath the saxes that must be diminished or 7ths or 9ths or something, cause they seem to question the direction of the piece as a whole. Davis is great because he knows what to do with this – when to play with Hill and when to play against him. To make a bad analogy to football, Hill is like a brilliant midfielder, occupying the centre of the recording and controlling the flow, moving ideas between the rhythm section (defenders) and the brass (the forwards). There aren't many places where Kenny Dorham, Dolphy and Joe Henderson are all playing together, but when they do it's from a place of balance. What's impressive is how much this tries to extend the melodic, formal language of jazz without resorting to a total breakdown of structure. 'New Monastery', for example, actually swings, but while Dorham is declaring a melodic statement, Hill is colouring each rising trumpet burst with cluster of moody piano chords, which has an effect that is thought-inducing without being disconcerting. There's no reason not to occasionally let the groove carry a few phrases, or to have a solo here or there - but this is forward-thinking jazz, of course, a new avant-garde which seems to have been largely overlooked and one that's lovely because it doesn't need to make such a point of this. Dolphy is a nice presence here but it's not like he steals the album, apart from maybe some of the soloing on side two, and Joe Henderson has a really nice interplay with Dorham, especially on the last cut ('Dedication', which takes a somewhat more somber tone). There's a lot more out there, as his Blue Note career spanned the 60s; also I'm curious to know how his art developed further, and particularly how he may have sustained himself into the 80s and other periods where being a composer's jazz composer wasn't necessarily the easiest path financially. But sadly these are the only two records in the accumulation so once again we have to move on.

30 May 2017

Andrew Hill - 'Judgment!' (Blue Note)

The first thing that really hit me when I dropped the stylus was how fucking rich this sounded for a 52 year old record. I know I babble on here too often about the great sound of the vinyl, which is especially frustrating because words can't convey it, but here I was actually surprised; these Blue Note masters were quality. This is a stereo pressing too and I thought a general rule of thumb was to avoid early stereo pressings, but I tried pressing the mono button on my amp and the soundstage shrunk to a point of almost unpleasantness. Now, I'm not usually into vibes-based jazz, but Bobby Hutcherson doesn't even appear on every track here, and when he does it sounds magnificent, with the tones bright and ringing as a perfect counterpoint to Hill's piano. Elvin Jones sounds so distinctly like Elvin Jones, even though he's also influenced a million drummers in his wake; side one feels occasionally dominated by him, such as the drum solo near the end of 'Yokada Yokada'. The cymbals clatter through like slicing blades of light, and when songs stop on a drum break it's like being transported back to a smoky club in 1964. There's quite a few drum solos here, 'Reconciliation' and 'Alfred' also having them, though it fits in with the style of the record - a post-bop, melodic take that's avant-garde in construction if not a 'difficult' listen in the slightest, unless you're looking for catchy pop hooks. Hill's records interest me more for their composition than any white-heat playing and this is no exception (though the other one has Dolphy on it). 'Siete Ocho', the opener, pushes the vibes and piano against each other, escalating the tension while letting bassist Richard Davis establish a Can-like repetitive groove. 'Yokada' is whimsical, even flighty, and 'Alfred' (supposedly a tribute to Blue Note head honcho Alfred Lion) is the mellow ballad.  Apollonian to the core, the beauty of Judgment! is not incredibly obvious but distinctly rewarding. Davis is also a tremendously underrated bassist who was everywhere in the 60s, including on Astral Weeks which may be unfairly what he's remembered for the most, though his contribution to that is outstanding for that of a session player. I'm a native English speaker but find it very odd that we don't spell it 'judgement'. As great as this cover art is, that title just looks all wrong (but I know it's not).

Kenneth Higney - 'Attic Demonstration' (One Kind Favor)

For a record as legendary as Attic Demonstration, it's not a long listen, but it's pretty satisfying. Thankfully this reissue is easily available, because originals go for a fortune, as this was never actually 'released'. Higney, in the liner notes, explains that this was a series of demos he recorded to show his songwriting talent, and he sang these as drafts, without ever intending to be the ultimate singer or musician. This was pressed up as an LP to make it easier for him to send it to people (as this was the late 70s) but I don't completely buy that explanation. I mean, why would you put a photo of yourself front and centre if you're just trying to sell some songs to others? I think the answer is somewhere more in-between; clearly Higney was operating out of the privately-pressed lineage (though I guess it's hard to declare that as ever being a scene, being so geographically dispersed and also recording-based rather than concert-focused; I guess it's a scene that came together 30 years after the fact with The Acid Archives and all that). Additionally, the music is so fleshed out, a vision of dark ramshackle psych that is so complete (in how bare it is) that I would think a potential 'customer' would be overwhelmed by the flanged guitars shredding solos and the burnout pulse throughout. Well, no one bit. The instrumentation isn't credited to anyone specifically but the reissue liner notes thank a now-deceased musician named Gordon Gaines for the guitar playing; I wonder if he's also the bassist and drummer, or if this is Higney himself bashing around. I don't want to buy into a narrative that Higney couldn't sing or play, but certainly there is a rawness in the vocals that goes far beyond the Dylan/Reed school of the unschooled; at times the melody isn't even remotely clear, lost in a flurry of missed corners -- and you think a clear vocal melody would be the goal if one was genuinely trying to sell songs. Lyrics are printed on the back, which allows the lengthier tracks ('Rock Star' and 'Ley Us Pray') to be examined more thoroughly; the latter of these is the most fragile, and also populated with unclear characters (perhaps allegorical). Throughout all songs, though, the more visceral parts of Attic Demonstration jump out from the recording, burrowing into my mind, and making the lyric sheet feel disconnected anyway. I've always put 'Children of Sound' on mixtapes as it perfectly captures the dream of psychedelia after being watered down through a few years of disappointment. The cadences are often jerky (opening cut 'Night Rider' appears to start on the off-beat; 'Quietly Leave Me' feels like it's being made up as it goes along) and the mix is uneven too; again, I suspect this was meant not to be a serious foray into the music world but were any of these self-released items genuinely mistaken for stabs at greatness? In the annals of broken/outsider greatness I personally think Attic Demonstration comes from a place more primal, more desperate and more authentic than a lot of the others - it's a very male (hairy) attack on songcraft, but a convincing one, and it never slides even remotely close to novelty territory as many others do.

25 May 2017

Hevoset (Dekorder)

Two similarly named denizens of the Finnish early-00s tape underground made this collaborative tape, and Dekorder saw fit to reissue it on vinyl. Jan and Jani (from Kemialliset Ystävät and Uton, respectively) have similar approaches to sound, especially in how they make it, being solo artists who assemble crazy surreal soundscapes from tapes, loops, acoustic instruments and primitive electronics. I was reading an essay over the weekend which pointed out that the phrase 'lo-fi' is misleading, because fidelity refers to the ability of the recording to accurately reflect the actual sound, so therefore extremely overproduced studio albums by Queen or whatever are actually lo-fi, since they sound nothing like what those Queen songs sounded like when the band played in a room. This makes me realise that the Hevoset LP (as well as many, many others from the avant/tape underground) are actually extremely hi-fi music. I never saw Hevoset live, but I've seen Tomotonttu and Uton a few times and I know that what you hear is what you get. Perhaps 'tape-fi' is a better term, as this LP sounds like a cassette tape being played. The untitled tracks move from a variety of moods but it's always pretty thick, even when there's more spacious elements. The opening cut of side two is exactly that - tentative acoustic strings pinging around over a rumbling, narcotic drone, pulsing around a vacuous middle. Here the details are all there is, the central narrative is lost, and it's almost conventionally spooky, absent of the more gonzo elements I usually associated with Anderzen's work. Halfway through side 1 there's some crazy percussive bongos thumping around, a caterwaul vocal straining to get out through it all, and actually a good deal of space there as well. But then other tracks are screaming miasmas of affected keyboard tones, or maybe they are guitars or maybe neither; it's the Birchville Cat Motel school of soundscaping, though rough around the edges. The sound of the tape machine itself is often present, the same motor wheelgrind heard behind early 'bi-fi' (see, there's another one) recordings from the early 90s but here placed into an experimental soundnik scenario. I've always loved Jan's sense of motion and Jani's approach to texture; they combine beautifully on a track about midway through the second side where a melodic string figure is stumbling around a melting synth melody; they dart around each other and never quite converge.

16 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Western Culture' (Interzone)

This is the record for which the 'Thatcher anticipation' tag on the sidebar was invented, the swan song of Henry Cow, reduced here to a four-piece instrumental band and performing two side-long compositions, or song suites I guess. Not only is John Greaves gone, but so is the sock; Cutler's cut-out art (there's some nice alliteration) is actually really appropriate and nicely composed, just like the record itself. 'History and Prospects' is written by original member Tim Hodgkinson, and is one of the more genre-bending Cow compositions, though it's not exactly hip-hop or country music. Its opening piece, 'Industry', references the then-burgeoning industrial music scene, or maybe they weren't aware of that and it's just inspired by proletariat Marxism (or, perhaps by both); either way it's hot shit, with Frith playing a thick, almost dubby bassline between some modal reeds and a thick groove-beat. There's some electroacoustic work here, tapes and other noise, which make a few crashing percussive parts sound like Neubauten. Overall it's one of my favourite Henry Cow tracks, one which seems to look the furthest ahead not just in terms of electronic integration but towards Frith's later work in New York, in the 80s. 'The Decay of Cities' comes next, a bit more textbook perhaps, but that textbook is about labour statistics and urbanism, and it punches above its weight. Difficult music, maybe, but it's spacious and it's still recognisable as modern instrumental rock music, with the free/drone/noise parts used more like icing on a cake. Cooper's 'Day by Day', on the flip, is a little more conventional prog-Cow, or at least more fitting in the continuum of their Virgin-era records. I know now that Western Culture was their Abbey Road, recorded with it intending to be the end, so I can hear resignation in the heavy, ponderous rhythms and the probing, unresolved oboe/sax lines. But I can also hear connections to some of their past and future collaborators, showing them to be a band in the truest meaning of the word 'progressive'. It could be the acoustic guitar plucks here and there, sounding not unlike Derek Bailey, but also the spazzy bits of 'The Decay of Cities' which show the influence of the Residents and Ralph Records - a turn towards surrealist sound, perhaps another way that I see Western Culture more like a beautiful beginning (or collection of beginnings) than a somber ending.

14 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Concerts' (Caroline)

I was watching a really boring hockey game last night, and during the period breaks I read the Henry Cow page on Wikipedia; afterwards, this Wikipedia reading was the most memorable part about the whole experience, if that can give you some indication of how dull the hockey game was. I really had no idea how tense and difficult it was to be in Henry Cow. If you look back at the last three posts, I'm gushing about how confident and lockstep they are in their vision, without any idea that they were not only struggling to survive professionally (well, I may have guessed that) but also challenged internally in terms of the band dynamics. Unrest's brilliant second side apparently came together because they didn't have enough composed material, and they nearly killed each other making it, but it goes to show the power of the recorded output, because to me it sounds like a gang of geniuses improvising with one hive mind. Which brings us to Concerts, in some ways the most 'complete' Henry Cow release as it's certainly the most representative of what you might find if you had been blessed enough to catch them in the mid 1970s. At this point, Dagmar Krause is a full member of the band, sticking around after the Slapp Happy merger collapsed (another fact I learned from Wikipedia - the merger wasn't so easy and the two different approaches eventually tore them apart). And once again, the free group improvisations are placed in the second half of the record (the second disc, as this is a 2xLP set) and the 'songs' are pushed to the forefront. Another Wikipedia-learned fact (sorry, I'm a broken record) is that the unwillingness to integrate vocal-based songs and instrumental/free music led to the formation of Art Bears, essentially a split. It's almost a reverse trajectory from most other bands, because back on the first album it feels like they were totally comfortable with structure and exploration being so well balanced - in a way it would take many other artists years to figure out. Side 1 of Concerts is bookended by 'Beautiful as the Moon', which goes from the structured song into the outro jam, into what is credited as 'Nirvana for Mice', though I barely recognised it. This recording is fantastic - it's easy to forget that it's a concert recording - and the band is inspired. Frith switches between guitar and piano seamlessly and you see how little they actually relied on studio work. We get the beautiful 'Ottawa Song' (as far as I know, never released elsewhere, and it's a touching, distant grass-is-always-greener yearning for another place) and a Matching Mole cover, before 'Beautiful' is reprised. As one unbroken 23 minute piece of music, it's astounding, showing Henry Cow at what they did best. Side two is also fun, though the fidelity takes a hit. Robert Wyatt shows up for Desperate Straights's 'Bad Alchemy' and then sticks around for his own 'Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road'. This is a fairly straight cover, though given a lot of momentum from such a full band and with the thundering piano chords really making a feelgood moment, at least for those who love Rock Bottom as much as I. It's a nice way to cement Henry Cow in a scene of peers, and makes the second record all the more of a contrast. The Oslo improvisation that makes up side three is preferable to the fourth side's pastiche of two jams in Gronigen and one in Udine, but I tend to like mellow soundscape group improv more than when musicians collectively find a melodic structure. 'Oslo' starts off really murky, and while it builds (and provides space for Krause as well), it never stays in one place or forces itself into a song structure. The fourth side is build around some recognisable structures, but still twists and turns on a dime a few times.  Not unlike In Praise of Learning's 'Living in the Heart of the Beast', it starts to feel too immense to keep track of, and also, the sheer length of the record just starts to get to me by this point. The two records work well to be listened to as separate albums, separate bands even, and now that I've read more about their internal dynamics I hear a band starting to fall apart - which is totally not what I ever thought the many times before when I listened to Concerts (or parts of it). So this is surely the bias of what I read, which is why sometimes I'm happier not knowing anything about the background of music which I love. I can't believe no one has written a book about Henry Cow and the RIO scene - or maybe someone did, links in comments, please. The world could definitely use this, far more than we need another Springsteen or Dylan biography.

13 May 2017

Henry Cow/Slapp Happy - 'In Praise of Learning' (Red)

I have a lot of records; some would say 'too many', and I probably must concur, even though I find it hard to part with any. One sign that your accumulation is too vast is when you don't actually remember if you own a record or not. One of the many things I've enjoyed about doing this project over the past 8 years is realising these possessions and omissions, and now I've realised that I do NOT own a copy of Desperate Straights, the one credited to Slapp Happy/Henry Cow (in that precise order of credit, and which I guess came from the same sessions as this LP). I always thought of these two bands as having briefly merged for two albums, rather than merely 'having collaborated', and In Praise of Learning is probably the high point for both bands' careers, though I realise I said in the last post that Unrest was the best Henry Cow record. By now you should know to ignore my superlatives, anyway. But anyway, the distinct sensibilities of each band are perfect in combination, different enough to challenge and pull the musicians in new directions, but unified in their passions and penchant for adventure. This LP is credited to Henry Cow (except on the spine, where Slapp Happy gets some love), and this makes sense as this is much more of a Henry Cow album with Slapp Happy's spin, as opposed to Desperate Straights which is the other way around. Plus it has a sock on the cover, dyed red in case you had any fucking doubt about their politics. The opening cut, 'War', is the most explosive juxtaposition of the two ensembles, opening with Blegvad's voice briefly before Dagmar Krause (credited here by her first name over, a proto-Madonna if there ever was one) comes crashing in. This is the first Art Bears song for sure, with violent poetic imagery and rhyme soaring over a potent mix of musicians. Former Henry Cow member Geoff Leigh returns to guest and Mongezi Feza is also present; it's almost a pop song and a perfect introduction to 'Living In the Heart of the Beast'. This is Tim Hodgkinson's composition, and it's an epic number, taking up the rest of side 1 and moving through an absolute plethora of words, printed on the back sleeve like the polemic/essay it properly should be read as. This piece is hard to grasp, with its title the most memorable thing, but in its density lies many rewards. As it proceeds through several movements, it gradually takes on the role of the anthem, as if Henry Cow has figured out how to write aggressively political music that avoids cheap sensationalism or inconsistent wavering; indeed, 'Beast' finds its own footing by the end, where it comes marching to a conclusion over a what's probably the most conventional "progressive rock"-sounding moment on the record. Side two (as usual) has the free improvisations, though they are just the bread around 'Beautiful as the Moon - Terrible As an Army With Banners'. This sound is a bit more stripped down, with Greaves/Cutler locking into a plodding groove over which Frith's piano arpeggios perfectly complement Krause's rising and falling voice. I guess to some people her singing might be an acquired taste but I love it, and would buy any record of hers sound-unheard; I remember already gushing here about Babble and the Commuters EP, and this is another one of her greatest accomplishments. Her timbre is so uncompromising that it's a perfect match for Henry Cow, one of the most principled bands there ever was (to me, they approach Crass-like territory), and 'Beautiful as the Moon' finally releases in it's conclusion into a cadence that is actually catchy, probably the most hummable part of this record and of Henry Cow in general. The improv tracks on either side are both wonderful and I can only dream of what outtakes there must be; 'Beginning - The Long March' is a little punchier, but 'Morning Star' gets into some truly extended technique'z recalling eastern gong music as much as it resembles rock, jazz, or anything western, really. Cooper in particular shines here, especially over scraped guitar strings that occasionally sound like bowls of water rotating on a giant animal skin. The lyrics are printed on the back, which you really need to follow, and at the bottom is the (amazing) quote by John Grierson: 'Art is not a mirror - it is a hammer'. I find that as inspiring today as I did at 17, even if it feels like more of a struggle to believe it (or to implement it). I don't know much about the personal journeys of the Henry Cow people over the years, but they've at least managed to keep a public image that they have really lived this ethos without compromise. I'm not sure if any young musicians today listen to Henry Cow for inspiration, but they really should.

12 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Unrest' (Virgin)

Maybe their best record, Unrest takes the sock and darkens the hue, which the music mostly does too. Once again, the Cow (with Lindsay Cooper replacing Geoff Leigh) structure their album with the more open, improvisatory bits on side two and the tight, strident rock songs first. 'Ruins' is the highlight of side 1, a long Frith composition that has become one of their signature tunes, but I also love the piano playing at the beginning of 'Half Asleep; Half Awake'. I assume it's Greaves tinkling the ivories (though it's heavy on the black keys – somehow evoking the Paul Bley side of jazz without sounding of that genre at all) since he composed the piece. The piano that closes out the album, a distant yearning underneath some even more distant vocals on 'Deluge' might be Frith, since they're both credited. The more 'out' sounds on side two are really what drives me crazy though; 'Linguaphonie' I've listened to multiple times, trying to make sense of it. It's the Cow at their most electroacoustic, Frith almost stealing the show with the amplifier hum, heavy use of effects pedals, and radio static guitar which sounds almost completely alien; but Cutler is also a force here. It again hints at a jazz without fully committing, ending in a free cacophony that is the perfect lead in to 'Upon Entering the Hotel Adlon', a work so frantic you could tell me that it was a Skin Graft Records outtake from 20 years later and I'd believe you. Cutler is still kicking ass here, showing his hellacious attacking style that is usually hidden behind his spectacled, tea-and-biscuits appearance. This is also the next step in the too-obvious progression through politics that Henry Cow make; here things turn darker, realising the struggle of the intellectual improvisation-friendly progressive musician against a dying European post-war culture. Things get a lot more red soon (quite literally if we're talking about cover socks), and culminate in their last album which actually has hammers and fucking sickles on the cover. My politics mostly line up with these guys and I'm sure, certain actually, that Jeremy Corbyn has a copy of this record. I hope he uses the sprightly progressive bounce of 'Bittern Storm Over Ulm' to motivate his people to the polls next month. I met Cutler briefly when I was an undergraduate, after seeing him give a workshop about sampling, copyright and intellectual property. When we chatted afterwards and I told him how I was just getting into his back catalogue, he told me to avoid the East Side Digital CD reissues of Henry Cow, warning that they were mastered badly and to buy (of course) the ReR issues. I've heard Henry Cow on CD and yes, it did sound thin (though I don't know which version it was, and all CDs sound thin if you're a vinyl snob); but here on original Virgin wax, Unrest sounds fucking thundering. I know I probably go on too much here about how great and resonant these records sound on my Rega, but one of the reasons I kept listening to this over the past few days is just how pleasureable it sounded. The guitars have a real fire to them, but the sax and reeds of Hodgkinson and Cooper are perky and brisk, and give this a really complete, satisfying dynamic range.