Writer. Sub-Editor. Punk. Red and black. Columnist at The 405.
Written for Open Democracy, Fight Back: A Reader on the Winter of Protest, Sabotage Times, Student Times, Noize Makes Enemies.
Co-Hosted an Avant/Noise radio show.
Studied Multimedia Journalism @ Bournemouth University.
This week, the Graun attempted some Daily Mail style Twitter-trolling by running a feature asking if guitar music is dead, and for readers to submit a coupla hundred words in the affirmative or negatory.
Guitarist, Scotsman and all-round hero Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai responded by pointing out the obvious gaping chasm at the very heart of this; an atrocious attempt at crowdsourcing masquerading as music journalism, by tweeting the succinct, four-word question that is: “What is guitar music?” Bra-fucking-vo, Stu. My cap is doffed.
So this put me to thinking about the place of the humble (and according to some, ‘past it’) guitar in the context of this column. A hell of a lot of what I have written about in the past few months has been orchestral, or field recordings, or heavily synthesized in some way. Aside from the occasional mention of an obscure hardcore band or two I’ve laid off it. This must change. So here are three musicians who, in my mind, are taking the guitar to the limits of what it can be used for, with spectacular results. Pushing boundaries like Ween be Pushin’ Daisies. Or something.
Oren Ambarchi is a Sydney-born guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. His approach to music is to transcend conventional instrumental approaches. I know this because it says so on his website. His solo work often revolves around stretching out longform pieces, often live, and completely blurring the boundaries between what is guitar and what is electronic. In doing this he forces us to re-evaluate how we perceive these two tools for creating music, and we are challenged to lose any notion of how either should sound, by focusing on how he is making them sound. Cool, huh. Check out this semi-live take from 2007 (yeah, that’s all guitar – apart from the percussion), it’s a great example of his work.
Another great thing about Ambarchi is how prolific he is as a collaborator, having made records/played live with Fennesz, Sunn O))), Damo Suzuki, Jim O’Rourke, Boris… I could go on. But won’t. As a collaborator, Ambarchi exhibits some of the most complementary aspects of live musicians playing together – he gauges moods, tempos, feelings, and enhances what is happening simply by being there. ‘Onya, Oren.
Mark Morgan (Sightings)
Now for something a little more… Horrifying. Sightings are an NYC noise rawk band seven albums deep, and vocalist/guitarist Mark Morgan creates the kind of murky squall that gives Steve Albini a tremble in his boxers and the rest of us lucid nightmares. Think unnatural pitch bends, clanking industrial sheets of feedback and buzzsaw fuzz. It’s wonderful.
In my mind (and probably the mind of other lazy hacks like me) Morgan’s guitar work is the logical conclusion of Blixa Bargeld’s (Einsturzende Neubauten/Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) trebly power-drill slashes with the aforementioned python-hider Albini’s impossibly metallic dissonance in Big Black. It’s a sound that reminds us just how far past the use of pure volume, distortion and aggression we are to make a guitar sound deathly. I mean, he obviously uses copious amounts of both those things, but it’s the extra-attention to textural detail that makes him sound just that bit more forward thinking, and makes you want to shit your kecks just that bit more.
I promised some Japanese stylings on Twitter a while back, so here it is. Boris have genre hopped and transcended quite a bit over their 20-odd years and 17 albums (not to mention collabs, splits, bootlegs, live releases…), even going a bit J-rock in their latter years. I feel I should talk about how that represents how diverse they are as a band, and how adept Wata is at adopting styles and making them her own. But fuck that, I want to talk about Feedbacker.
Now, In terms of guitar playing, for most of Feedbacker Wata isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel – a downtempo slowcore-esque intro period gives way to some high-camp and melodrama that is never lacking in Japanese rock, and this goes on for an enjoyable headbang of a half-hour or so. But then, when everything finally implodes (and I mean really implodes) the listener is left to bare witness to some of the most phenomenal uses of guitar-as-sonic-warfare as you’re ever likely to encounter on record. The harsh, brittle, blanketing walls of noise emanating is almost crippling, and if it wasn’t for the unbelievable build-up, you would be able to escape it, but you can’t. Then follows the most bitter-sweet use of noise-as-melody, as Wata coaxes not-quite-pitch-perfect squeals to play the track out. Uh, right. Now I’m going to stop before I sound like I’m pitching this article to Mojo.
So there are just three that I wanted to highlight. There are many more, and I want to write about them all, but can’t – Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Ichirou Agata from Melt Banana, Eluvium, Michael Morley of The Dead C etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc… And to return to the beginning, the Guardian question could almost be answered with a terrible Schrödinger’s Cat metaphor – is guitar music dead or alive when no one can see it? Well, plenty can see it, all it takes is the simple task of opening the fucking box.
I write a column for The 405, doncha know?
This month I’d like to talk about politics in music. To most, that means a middle-aged lefty with a guitar, or Bono rimming every world leader he can get close to for world peace (but a tax break on his millions would be an acceptable second). No, I have a theory – it’s a simple one – that there is a positive correlation between music and politics, in that the more extreme the music, the more extreme the political ideas and ideologies expressed within that music will be. Imagine an infinite line graph heading straight and true at a constant 45 degrees between the axes of ‘muzik’ and ‘politik’. And, even though we’re believed to live in an age of greater peace than ever before (no, seriously, someone said that) and it is supposedly a post-historical and post-ideological age, things remains to be a bit of a cluster fuck.
In certain areas of extreme music, there are artists who have flirted with ideas and imagery that are incredibly uncomfortable to most. Fascism, domination, totalitarian views and imagery have all been used by many in industrial, noise, neofolk, punk and metal circles. And it’s because of the recent presence of fascism in Europe (okay, so it’s not goose-stepping down your road this very minute, but it’s there), that I think it’s good time to discuss this.
Shock tactics in economics are old. In the modern sense, they stretch back to the free-market-is-god teachings of Milton Friedman in the 1970s. Shock tactics in art and culture go back way further. What both devices rely on is for the shock to put the sniveling serf/culture vulture into a state of submission so severe, that they might be more suggestible to things they were previously staunchly opposed to. Like, a Fascist dictatorship, say. Or Stockhausen.
And it’s Fascism I want to talk about now. Or, more accurately, the role nationalist, racialist, homophobic and misogynist (basically all the abhorrent shit that comes under the umbrella of Fascist) ideas are used as elements of shock in music.
Recent European elections have seen a significant increase in the number of votes for ultra-right parties. In the first round of the French Presidential election, Marine La Pen of the Front National won 6.4 million votes – 17.9 per cent of the total turnout. It wasn’t enough to see her through to the next round (which would see Socialist Francois Hollande win), but the sheer scale – nearly one-fifth of the voter turnout – putting their faith in her anti-Islam and anti-gay dogma is staggering. Almost more terrifying is the popularity of Golden Dawn in Greece. An openly neo-Nazi organization, who only allow those of Greek birth and ‘Aryan blood’ into their ranks (their logo looks hella like a Swastika too), they won 21 of the 300 seats that make up the Greek parliament, with 6.97 per cent of the vote. That’s roughly what UKIP, the Green party and the BNP received in our last general election put together. Furthermore, you only need to see drunken skinheads treating Luton and Bradford’s respective high streets as catwalks to see it in our green and pleasant land.
But what about those musicians who have used Fascist iconography? Looking at the mainstream end, an early incarnation of the Clash were called ‘The London SS’. Sid Vicious once wore a t-shirt with a Swastika on it. Siouxsie Sioux was often seen with a Third-Reich armband, and the Banshees song ‘Love in a Void’ even had the line that there are ‘Too many Jews for my liking’.
The shock was strong with these ones. All of these people grew up in a society that was irrevocably shaped by the Second World War. Anti-German sentiment was still very strong, and what better way to announce your rejection of a conservative society you don’t belong in than to flaunt the one terror it still holds fresh in its mind? Anyway, Strummer was a rich hippy, Sioux is Jewish herself, and Vicious was just thick as pig shit.
No, what’s more interesting are the bands that really took it to extremes. Musicians-cum-artists like Throbbing Gristle, Whitehouse, Boyd Rice. The Industrial music scene pushed boundaries in many ways – the most obvious of which was sonically – ugly sounds; unlistenable, harsh electronics and clanging sheet metal. Discombobulated voices and formless, dirge-ridden soundscapes. Music that takes you from the Orwellian factory to the mass grave; through a mental labyrinth of creeping anxiety. Visually, iconography was rife. Whether suggested (TG’s lyrics) or actual (Rice’s Nazi regalia worn onstage and the Wolfsangel as his logo) – there’s nothing Fascists like more than veneration of symbols.
But then you creep into less ambiguous territory. Oi!’s links to the far right, with Skrewdriver being arguably the UK’s most famous Fascist band. Then there is the incredibly fucked up path some Norwegian black metal bands took, with white supremacist ideas being the catalyst for murder, church burnings, and gigs that resembled something akin to the Nuremberg rally.
But the question really is, what’s the difference? On the surface of it, the ideas being put forward are the same. The general vibe is hatred and terror and suppression; and at their core, they are ideas put forward to illicit a response, to create a reaction and provoke; using music as a medium. There are more similarities too – fears are played on, the dark thoughts that people rarely admit to having are put out into the open – forcefully. Then there’s the obvious sonic abrasion. It kinda goes without saying, but none of what I’ve mentioned is exactly… Pretty.
So what I am proposing is that the difference be recognised between the provocative and the preposterous. And it’s a semantically simple one; it is just the difference between shock, and shocking. Musicians using fascist themes to shock, and fascists making music whose ideas are shocking. And if there is no one there to shock you with that which you’d hope were no longer, it’s easy to forget what shocking things can be done in the name of ideology.
And whereas the economic shock gives rise to the ideologically shocking, the artistic shock reminds us that it hasn’t gone away – those things still exist, and people who are proud of believing them still exist; and looking at the Front National, Golden Dawn, and the EDL; they aren’t just lurking in the closet anymore.
Now, as someone who could broadly be labeled as on the extreme of the left myself, it’s hard to say these things. To defend (I’m not apologising for…) the use of Fascist ideas and imagery in music still causes massive reservations. Christ, sometimes it’s hard to listen to. But if you do not keep an open dialogue, or effectively shun the notion of Fascism by refusing to accept the legitimacy of any artist that uses it (as opposed to promoting it), then it will not go away – it will not be ignored into submission. You are merely giving breathing space to those who want to use it to recruit, not repel.
Listen: gauge for yourself. Are you being asked to think? Or told what you should think? If it’s the former, I think that’s great. If it’s the latter; the only way forward is to oppose.
More Black Vase japery. Find it all over at The 405 – it’s where the cool kids hang out.
This month I’m going to focus on my three favourite recent releases. And boy-howdy-got-milk are they really quite nice.
Coincidentally, as a kind of nota bene, I should point out they soundtracked an epic eight-hour rail journey between Barrow-In-Furness and Bournemouth really well. The dusky coastal sandflats morphing into rolling middle England hills, with the occasional low-lamp-lit commuter town cropping up, modulated the effect of each record with really interesting (and in some cases moving) results. Make of that what you will.
First up is the debut S/T release from The Eye of Time. It’s the solo post-industrial moniker of Marc Euvrie, a veteran of the French DIY hardcore scene. Euvrie is an angry man. An angry man is Euvrie. Over the course of two disks and three parts he manages to channel this withering nihilism into some of the most brutal clanging percussion, chainsaw-yelp vocals and dissonant sound forges that side of la Manche. Certainly, there are moments where looped piano refrains lock in so tightly with the motorik rhythms and unsettled washes of noise that you know the man, as an artist, has found a creative zenith. However, there are also troughs the mapped drums are gnat-tinny, and the instrumentation has a faint whiff of ‘hmmm, I’ll bung this in here for a few minutes…’ But, It’s nearly two hours long, y’know?
The use of rather disparate influences assimilated into his artistic leitmotif could have killed ‘The Eye of Time’ – not many people can mash together earthy ambient drones that morph into sheet-metal industrial techno by way of dead end power electronics. But somehow, it just about manages to be done. The passage I felt that really hit an angsty sense of ascension came late, in ‘000007091981151723031994’ (I know…) It was eerily reminiscent of Content Nullity’s ‘With these two bare hands…’ with that creeping ambience finally tearing the mind out of its tormented creator, leading to a vocal explosion of complete. Raw. Anguish. Parfait.
Then we come to Leeds trio ‘A-Sun Amissa’. Another debut, from ex-members of Glissando, ‘Desperate in Her Heavy Sleep’ combines experimental neo-classical tendencies with immersive, blissful drone.
The five tracks on ‘Desperate in Her Heavy Sleep’ explore subtle variations on a similar theme. The string passages avoid the saccharine by often playing at odds with the music, and the occasionally prominent guitar adds texture like on ‘Dislocated Harmony: Into Small Cold Eyes / Several Miles Above’ – something solid and corporeal, like a body in the mist. When the music swells and morphs into something larger and more urgent, it never feels orchestrated (boom tsh), it just feels right – it needs to be happening, it is happening and now my brain is trickling out my ears and I can’t move because I’m in a codependent relationship with sweet, sweet catatonia.
On listening to the album’s more moody passages, you can imagine that it is of a certain space. It’s hard not to think of the chip-wrapper strewn streets of a northern city, the sky as grey as the architecture, and the dead march oppression evoked by the strings in ‘A Hungover Whisper: Thin Light Failure / Decay’ Not to say there isn’t beauty to be found here; the chaotic spree of ‘Speechless Turns: Hung Up/Rejoice Me More Than Mine’ is almost joyful, with shrieks erupting from the bright, peppy sounds.
The final album we’re getting ear-deep into this month is ‘Rolling Bomber’, Another debut, this time from feted avant-garde drummer Erland Dahlen. Dahlen has played on over 130 releases since the mid nineties (cool), for acts such as Mike Patton (cooler), Hanne Hukkelberg (way cool) and Serena Maneesh (Über-cool). ‘Rolling Bomber’ is named after the kit he uses on the record, which dates back to World War II (so fucking cool I just lost my shit).
‘Rolling Bomber’ is a heavily percussive affair (duh…), which really does showcase quite how talented a drummer Dahlen is. His rhythms are novel, fresh and interesting, often propulsive and even when sparse – compelling. But, treasonous as it may be to say this, the most interesting aspects of this album lie not in his drumming, but in the chiming, buzzing and bowed accompaniments to said drumming.
It takes someone with a special affinity for sound to make such hyper-electronic noisy glitches sound quite as organic as Dahlen does, and doubly earthy when matched with what I think is a musical saw (on opener ‘Flower Power’) and the plaintive sine-wave buzzes on ‘Dragon’.
Over the course of these seven tracks Dahlen shows just how broad in scope music can be with percussion at its core, and by embellishing it with very complimentary textures and sounds, just how fascinating (not mutually exclusive from ‘enjoyable’) it can be. It also makes you realize exactly what more mainstream ‘experimental’ artists are trying to achieve, if only they could shake their perverse love for U2 (*cough*, Radiohead…. *cough*).
This is the second column in a series for The 405
First off, I would like to apologise for the tardiness of my second column, I’ve been a bit busy sorting out a schlepp 350 miles southwards with all my possessions. But ne’er a worry, I still managed to hunt down some sick sounds for you lot to check out.
Before I start though, I want to point out that not everything in these columns is going to be completely current. As is the way of hunting down the types of music I’m writing about, it was probably released on ‘One Man and His Dog Records’ by one man and his dog on C90 limited to about 17 and a half copies. It’s not specifically a news-y column (and if you want up to date info, Twitter exists – just sayin’), just a place where I can hopefully turn some people onto some of the incredible and mind bending stuff people have turned me onto.
Secret Pyramid were brought to my attention by a friend who spent some time down and out in Vancouver, and I’m really glad he did. Their two current releases – ‘Ghosts’ and ‘The Silent March’ are a bitch to get hold of, yet readily available to stream and download online – with the artists’ consent (here, for example).
The solo project of Amir, from Toronto’s dream pop overlords Solars - Secret Pyramid occupies that unreal place in between consciousness and sleep. The intense drones almost feel corporeal, so breathy you could imagine them escaping like vapour on a frosty morning and so shrouded in reverb it envelopes all around it. It also made the post-war fittings in my mum’s house rattle, which is hella cool.
Moving away from the organic to the, ahem, completely un-organic, another happy find this month has been Alteria Percepsyne. AP is Oxford native Emily Griffiths, who has been producing electronic music of varying forms since 2004 – with the more familiar minimal techno sounds you can hear now beginning in 2009.
Taking inspiration from the cyclical repetition of Steve Reich, old school dub techno like Basic Channel and Gas - and a bit of post-punk and shoegaze – Emily/AP creates submersive pad sounds and hypnagogic beats that really stir the porridge (that’s a real saying, honest). In her own words, ‘…with [AP] I try to create an immersive atmosphere and open a dream-world to the listener, whilst inducing deeply emotional experiences’.
There are currently two AP releases - Intangible Flutter (2010) and Cloaks of Perception (2011) – with plans for a 12” release some time this year. Good.
Moving on to something a bit more between the lines, ‘You Are Genius’, the second album by Berlin five-piece Condre Scr is due to drop February 24th via Oxide Tones. As a newcomer to the band, I was put off by what I at first perceived to be sub-Mogwai post-rock circa 2004. But perseverance proved fruitful, as tracks like ‘The Excellent Cook’ evoked the same static head-fluff as Eluvium’s ‘Lambent Material’. Largely though, this is instrumental post-rock that sounds a bit like Mogwai circa 2004, and should be treated as such. If you like that, you’ll like this. Etc.
Another bunch of posthumous props this week goes to Tampa, Fl. sonic terrorists Neon Blud. Thanks to those wonderful folk at Maximum Rock’N’Roll, I went from having never heard of Neon Blud to realising they’re the best thing ever (hyperbole alert), to realising they are on ‘indefinite hiatus’ as of last August in the space of about five minutes. Doesn’t matter though, as there is still a remote chance that a shelved album will be coming out via Cult Maternal soon.
In the meantime, nab the out of print ‘Whipps CS’ here and revel in its snotty-as-fuck Teenage Jesus meets Polvo mess. And then cry, because you will never see it live.
On the live front, there are two particularly exciting events happening in the near future. First off is the sixth and final British Wildlife festival at the Brudenel Social Club, Royal Park and Oporto in Leeds. It’s criminally cheap (the Friday and Sunday nights are donation only, and the Saturday all-dayer is £8) and features some of the UK’s finest noiseniks. Particularly exciting is a chance to catch the eight-piece sturm und drang of Hey Colossus, legendary UK underground psych-heads Ashtray Navigations and the hardcore-meets-bonkers psychedelia of Zun Zun Egui. British Wildlife runs from the 2nd to 4th or March, and you can get tickets here.
And finally, in news that should please everyone, everywhere, Liz Harris (AKA Grouper) is to bring a completely new live project to the UK. ‘Violet Replacement’ is a set of tape loops and field recordings due to be performed live in specially selected locations. Anyone who has encountered Grouper’s particular brand of echoplectic, keys and guitar driven drone-folk before will know what a treat it will be to hear a new project from her. A CD of the material is also due to be released early this year. The UK dates run through mid-March and can be found over at The Wire.
This review is part of my ongoing ‘Black Vase’ series for The 405.
From the off, there are several interesting things of note about this release, so I’ll start at the bottom. Just think of it like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, with the label at the bottom and the music at the top.
Not Applicable is not so much a record label, as a framework for producing music (I know that that, by definition, is what a label is, but bear with me). It is a label insofar as it is a tool for music to be transferred from the domain of the people creating it, into the domain of the listener. A monetary transaction may, or may not occur to enable this.
However, since its conception in 2002, the label has acted more as a way of documenting audio and visual collaborations between a collective of influential musicians, artists and film makers. This documentation comes in the form of performances, CD’s, DVD’s, installations and on the web.
Another key nugget is just how many of the releases are collaborative (the majority of them) and improvised. To me, this means there can be a level of fluidity present in what the label produces that the traditional framework could not, by design, attain. In other words, the polyamoury within the collective means that new ways of working and creating music are found because the same formula between the same people is not overused.
Any road, the current release I’m reviewing is ‘Long Division’, a ‘suite for autonomous electronics’ performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival and again at NK in Berlin as part of the NA Festival. The release is a collection of recordings from both of those live actions.
The musicians performing on the recording are Tom Arthurs (Trumpet, Flugelhorn), Ollie Bown (Autonomous Electronics), Lothar Ohlmeier (Clarinet, Bass Clarinet) and Isambard Kroustaliov (Autonomous Electronics).
Before delving into the whys and wherefores of the record, I feel I should offer a disclaimer of sorts about my personal feelings of live and improvised recordings. To me, much as the outcome of the music depends largely on the in-the-moment headspace and feeling of the musicians, the enjoyment of the recording can depend largely on the in-the-moment headspace of the listener. Suffice to say, there are times when listening to this album I have been bowled over by its instrumental symbiosis, and times when I have wanted to stick a pencil through my eardrums so that I may never hear anything like it again. Such is life.
All that aside, the first thing that struck me was the relationship between the two types of instrumentation on display. At times, they represented polar opposites – the electronics of Bown and Kroustaliov providing juddering static crackles, and the brass and woodwind of Arthurs and Ohlmeier its counterpoint. This is especially apparent on track two, where Ohlmeier’s Clarinet runs long, fluid, breathy passages over a mixture of squelches and digital wind.
And then, as the pieces develop, the line between the organic and the synthetic is blurred. What sound like distorted field recordings become an otherworldly imitation of an organic environment, while Arthurs and Ohlmeier evoke strangled, glottal spasms from their instruments. This is where, to me, the beauty lies in this set of recordings – when preconceived ideas of what roles certain instruments should play are challenged to the extent that you’re not even sure what instrument is what. It feels as though they are reveling in the lack of limitations improvisation presents to them as a musician.
Interesting that may be, and surely the basis of many-a music undergrad’s dissertation, but there still remains whether or not ‘Long Division’ is an enjoyable listen. Certainly it is challenging, and often thought provoking, but there are many moments in its 50-minute running time where the bursts of improvisational inspiration are outweighed by passages that feel like filler.
Luckily, these are rescued by passages where the interplay between electronic and organic is positively hand-in-glove, an essential relationship.
‘Long Division’ is due to be played Monday 30th January at King’s Place, London. If you are interested in improvisation, I urge you to go along, as ‘Long Division’ is almost a blueprint for everything it can be – both good and bad.
When Oliver tweeted asking if anyone would like to write about ‘out there’ sounds, I thought, ‘yeah, why not. I like a bit of that.’ But what exactly is ‘that’? By proxy it’s usually a fool’s game to try and categorise, but for the sake of simplicity, lets just say we’re talking about music that pushes boundaries to the extreme.
Now, pop music often pushes boundaries (usually those of taste…) but rarely does it cause you to question your own perception of what music actually is. I remember hearing Whitehouse’s ‘Why You Never Became A Dancer’ for the very first time, and having every preconceived notion in my tiny little mind turn into a fine pink mist. It was both terrifying and revelatory, and very much in-at-the-deep-end.
Pontification aside, 2011 was an excellent year for experimental music. You only have to look at the scores of end of year lists to see musicians who have come straight out of leftfield placed relatively highly. The much maligned micro-scene of witch house/drag has matured away from its drab drones to produce sumptuous chop’d and screw’d works like Oneohtrix Point Never’s ‘Replica’, and Patten’s ‘GLAQJO XACCSSO’ – a gorgeous piece of work where shuddering breaks collide with analogue-y blips.
Also to be found bothering top 50s everywhere was Tim Hecker’s ‘Ravedeath, 1972’. My first listen of this album was on a solitary beach walk between Bournemouth and Sandbanks – it was windy and cold, but Hecker’s lush, dusty textures created an ambient warmth – the perfect antidote to the cold, static fog of say, Fennesz (and the south coast in February.)
Heading further through the looking glass, the intimidatingly prolific output of Alva Noto (stage name of Carsten Nikolai, he of Rastor Noton records fame) reached a creative zenith with the release of ‘Univers’ – a hypnotic set of work that flits between minimal tech one second and the sound of your very own technological nightmare the next. If ‘Kid A’ is supposed to explore the landscape of an apocalyptic technological age, ‘Univers’ is the malfunctioning microchip that sets about triggering the singularity.
Elsewhere, drone metal pioneers Earth returned with ‘Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I’, which saw their continued distancing from ‘Sunn O))) Amps and Smashed Guitars’ culminate in glorious freeform folk, and the misleadingly-monikered Master Musicians of Bukkake completed their totem trilogy with ‘Totem Three’ – in which the Pacific Northwestern collective are on particularly fine psychedelic form.
Another turn up for the books was ex-Whitehouse Wasp-botherer William Bennett’s ‘Afro-Noise’ project, Cut Hands. Bennett has explained in many interviews how the continent of Africa has inspired him since the conception of Whitehouse and continues to this day. ‘Afro Noise I’ succeeded in that it’s combination of tribal rhythms and harsh power electronics toned down the relentless assault of Whitehouse, while still sounding intense and claustrophobic.
Outside of releases, it was great to see Supersonic Festival return for a ninth year – it’s no stretch to say that the contribution the Capsule ladies make to experimental music in the UK is invaluable, and as an event, Supersonic is inimitable. Also worth mentioning are the great nights put on at London’s Café Oto and GV Art gallery.
But now, as I should, I shall re-start as I mean to continue and tell you about some of the awesome-as-shit stuff I’ve heard over 2011’s death knell.
Firstly, I was gifted a copy of Aidan Baker’s new monsterpiece ‘The Spectrum of Distraction’. At 97 tracks and just under two hours, listening in one fell swoop is a daunting task. Luckily, the idea behind the project is to listen to it completely at random, thus making each new listening experience pretty much alien to the last. Now, I really enjoyed the album as a piece in itself. The obviously mapped drums playing havoc with Baker’s trademark fuzzed-to-infinity guitars (though admittedly, not so much Nadja wall of noise as singular gut punch). But on shuffle, it sounded a hell of a lot like someone had given Mike Patton a copy of Garageband for the first time. Oh, and Patton’s a toddler. Not my cup of tea. ‘The spectrum of Distraction’ is out now on Robotic Empire records.
Then I checked out Petrels - the solo project of Bleeding Heart Narrative’s Oliver Barrett, and his debut long player ‘Haeligewielle’. A stunning piece of work, ‘Haeligewielle’ (old Saxon for ‘holy well’) transports the listener over a multitude of textures and terrains, from echo-drenched and urgent string sections, to fathomless wells of glorious noise via layered chants and a scintillatingly rhythmic culmination. ‘Haeligewielle’ is a true journey of an album that awards the listener with the smother of climax at its end.
Our final mention this time goes to Birds of Passage, otherwise known as New Zulland experimental musician (and tree-climbing enthusiast) Alicia Merz. Camping in a not-dissimilar field to Grouper, Alicia’s second album ‘Winter Lady’ is the most perfect antithesis to saccharine singer-songwriters. Musically, its field recordings, sparse drones and even sparser piano blanket her spider-web soft vocal delivery in ice, only for her to thaw the sound around her with emotion. Wondrous stuff.
‘Haeligewielle’ and ‘Winter Lady’ are both available on Denovali Records.
The Twilight Sad are a strange beast. They arouse fervour in their fans, the bulk of whom (myself included) don’t understand why they aren’t selling out headline slots at academies nation wide.
Since the arrival of their debut, ‘Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters’ in 2007, the Sad lads have toured with Mogwai, been awarded many ‘Album of the Year’ plaudits, and are due to release their third long player, titled ‘No One Can Ever Know’ on February 13th, on Fat Cat records.
Leaked previews and the release of single ‘Sick’ show a band moving on, away from the Mogwai/MBV-esque wall-of-noise and towards whip-crack synth-drums and the kind of pads Cab Voltaire and Depeche Mode made their name with – and Cold Cave are currently running with.
I sat down for a chat with jocular (boom-tsh) vocalist James Graham at the Mad Ferret (again, boom-tsh) in Preston - rehearsing rockabilly band to the left of us, sirens to the right – and asked him about their place in British music, working with Andy Weatherall, and supporting their long-time heroes Arab Strap.
What was it like supporting Arab Strap?
Well pretty mindblowing to be honest with you. I’m good pals with Aidan [Moffat] and Malcolm [Middleton] now, and for them to be a fan of the band is just… They were what I grew up listening to – even though they’re pals and they like the band, to be asked to do that… it was just a wee acoustic set we did, but it went down really well and the crowd was amazing for us, deadly silent.
Aye, even though I kinda think their fans could like us as well - we’re like them in some ways but in a lot of ways we’re not. It was brilliant, a good laugh, and I got to stand at the side of the stage for the whole Arab Strap gig, and I think I just stood there with a big smile on my face. I’m usually a miserable bastard but that night was definitely a career high highlight instead of a ‘this year’ highlight, it’s one of the best things we’ve done.
Mogwai and them, that’s the two bands that I wanted to support and so…
Well you’ve been on tour with Mogwai a few times haven’t you?
Yeah, and they’re good pals as well so it’s all a wee bit of a mindfuck for us. But it’s the biggest compliment to be paid. Nobody’s forced our band on these people; they went out of their way to befriend us and to like our music.
Do Mogwai feel like father figures?
They say to us that we remind them of them when they were our age. We’ve definitely taken a lot of advice from them and they’ve tried to help us along as much as they can, but they really don’t have to, but they do. And if I’ve got a question – say something about the business side of stuff I’ll email Stuart [Braithwaite] and he’ll help us out. I dunno about father figures ‘cos they’re bad role models, taking us out and getting’ steamin’!
The new Album’s out in Feb. You had a really signature sound before. How did the departure come about?
It was never… For us it doesnae seem to be a big departure to be honest. I still do it the same way. I didn’t change anything about what I write about, and I did that and Andy [MacFarlane, Guitar] gave me the music straight back. It was just a case that we all started writing songs and using instruments that were interesting us. And if we’d just repeated our first album or repeated our second album, there’d be no point. We’d have called it a day after a while.
[rockabilly band starts playing in background]
…that’s what we want to be playing! But the erm… I would probably have called it moving forward. I love our first album and I love our second album and I love our third album. But the second one didn’t sound like the first and the third one certainly doesn’t sound like the second. We are just going to keep going, and interesting ourselves so…
Would you say it’s more of an evolution?
Aye, aye. I hate using the words ‘Natural Progression’ because everybody bloody does it and it’s so wanky it’s unbelievable, but it makes sense that way.
You got Andy Weatherall on hand, and he’s a pretty big name. What did he do? How did he contribute? Did you want him on board?
The records he’s been involved in recently have been great, like the Warpaint album.
I didn’t know he had anything to do with that.
Aye, aye, I don’t think he did the whole thing. And I like what he did to them, and we knew he was a fan of the band, and they gave him all the demos and he said ‘shit, this is right up my alley this’. And then, by the time we got down to London we’d done all the pre-production ourselves, he kinda went ‘d’you know what? Yous have produced this’.
He was just there as a… reassurance. He’d be like ‘aye, that’s cool, that’s cool – this is pretty much exactly how I’d do it anyway’. He was there as an ‘anti-producer’. It was just good to have him right there, to bounce stuff off and at the same time to reassure us that we were on the right track. And we kept a lot of the vocals, and the sounds on it and stuff. We produced the album, but we definitely wanted to credit him because we felt like he’d helped us.
For the second album, I remember reading that you were in a very dark place, has anything changed?
Erm, the weird thing is that I think… I gave the album to Stuart and Aidan and they were like ‘man, it’s fucken darker than the last one!’ I was like ‘what, really?’ I thought I’d lightened up a wee bit! I mean, I always focus in on the darker side of things a bit - it interests me more. I like darker films and I like darker music myself so, I find that side’a life more interesting. And I always kinda write about that stuff as it can help you think everything through in a way, so you can get through that.
Yeah, totally man. I think I spoke too much about the last album, I usually keep what everything’s about to myself, and I was a wee bit annoyed with myself for talking a wee bit too much. So with this one I’ll just keep it all to myself this time. I think ‘cos also the fact that people can take what they want from it, and me explaining what the songs are about could spoil it for them in some way. But I’m just gonna keep it to myself this time. I mean, with a title like ‘No one can ever know’, what the fuck didyae expect? The thing is, we’re all of us in the band pretty easy-going guys, and we’re not miserable fucking mops. We just take that side of life out in our music. Apart from that, I just have as good a time as anybody else. Aye, aye. This one’s no’a barrel o’ laughs.
In terms of production and the music… I don’t wanna say retro obviously, because it sounds like you in 2011 - but it says in the press release you were listening to Depeche Mode, Cab Voltaire… Do you see the theme of the record as tying in what what’s happening in the country at the moment? Because the way I look at it it’s like we’re living in the 80s right now.
I’m the least political person goin’, I don’t even know what’s happenin’ in the day-to-day of my own life so… [much laughter] I dunno, eh, we just… Angry young men, I suppose that’s what we are. Even though the country’s fallin’ to piss, we’ve been in a band for 7 years living off absolutely nothing so it’s just the same for us – we’ve never had any money to live.
We’ve probably felt it as a band touring, and things like that – people are still coming to gigs and that but the merchandise situation… If you’re gonna pay to get into a gig and then have a few drinks, and if the merch is pretty expensive - even a tenner’s quite a lot of money - and especially people coming to see us as well. We’re feeling it that way, I suppose. But yeah, I dunno about it tying in with that…
I heard a rumour from a friend, that you wouldn’t go on stage before drinking 8 pints.
Ah I definitely like a drink before I go on, I’m not a… natural front man in that way. I don’t want to be, either. I just wanted to write songs. So a wee bit o’ encouragement from the old booze definitely helps me out. I’ve tried to cut back on it a wee bit now, but I still like to tan a few before we go on, cos it just loosens me up a wee bit and all my nerves will be gone. The more we do it… I’m getting used to it. I wouldnae say I’m all [adopts wankery voice] ‘hi guys, we’re the Twilight Sad…!’ that’s still not me, but I certainly like a drink, aye.
Not that I’m judging!
Hahaha, don’t care! The thing is, there have been points where I’ve been drunk on stage and I feel stupid for that, because people come to the gigs, and they pay money, and they don’t have to come, so if I’m going on stage absolutely plastered it’s not fair and it’s bullshit, basically. But at the same time, I need a drink to boost myself up. I always try and loose myself in my own world, sort of pretend that the audience aren’t there… Well sometimes they’re no’! So yeah basically I kinda just try and think about why I wrote the song in the first place, and just try and bring that out in that.
How have line up changes affected the band, if at all?
Craig, the old bass player leaving, it was a surprise but we’re all still really good friends with him. There’s no animosity. In fact, I was out with him last night. He didn’t come to the gig, he was at some kind of opera about a packet of vegetables or somethin’. We all got on really well. But Johnny [Docherty, Bass] coming into the band breathed some new life into us cos he’s a different kinda player – he’s more aggressive. Um, cos, like he’s in a few hardcore bands as well and he’s a more aggressive player, but it just breathes more life into the songs it’s like he’s harder and it’s more… it’s as intense as it’s ever been. Plus he’s a maniac as well. Him coming into the band has improved us. And Dok [Guitar, Synths, Vocals] on keys has given Andy a bit more space, ‘cos he was playing 5 parts.
He was creating a one-man wall of sound.
Basically, he’s still pretty much doing that, but it’s given him more freedom to be a bit more experimental in some ways. Dok’s basically… without him the band wouldnae be happenin’. I’m more confident about our band now than I’ve ever been.
How are you dealing with space in the sound now?
There isnae any! I never have space. We’ve done a few acoustic gigs recently and it’s been good to show people that I can actually sing. I’ve enjoyed that, but I enjoy doing the full band more because it’s just this massive thing, y’know? But no, I’ve never had any space.
And finally, going back to drinking, I’d define Twilight Sad as being music to the eternal hangover. How d’you feel about that?
I would never listen to us with a hangover! Aye, it will definitely wake you up. Even though there’s differences to it, it’s still in yer face, it’s still very intense, just because there may not be the wall of sound, doesnae mean… You know what I mean? I think it’s a different way of putting the noisy element of the band… more creatively, instead of just going BANG BANG BANG. We’ve just developed our songwriting like that.
I’m not going to use a rounded number just to fit in - if I have to think about putting it in to get to say, ten or 50, then it’s obviously not a favourite.
So here they are, in no particular order.
Except EMA. ‘Cos EMA is tha best.
EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints
Josh T. Pearson - Last of the Country Gentlemen
Cold Cave - Cherish The Light Years
Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat - Everything’s Getting Older
Witch Cult - Witch Cult
Zola Jesus - Conatus
Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972
HTRK - Work (work, work)
Mayyors - Deads EP
The Men - Leave Home
Wugazi - 13 Chambers
Sleepingdog - With Our Heads In The Clouds and Our Hearts In The Fields
Hey Colossus - RRR
Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica
Balam Acab - Wander / Wonder
run,WALK! - Peekay EP
Enablers - Blown Realms and Stalled Explosions
Pariso/Kerouac - Split
PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
Bit of a work in progress this, will most likely add and take away. Slightly worried that everything on here is vaguely depressing.
Article due to be published in Ghost Fuck #2
For the eighth, and reportedly last, time, Hugh Laurie has returned to screens as the womanising, drug addicted, socially repugnant – but most importantly – heroic, Dr. Gregory House.
The success of House has canonised the eponymous character; placing him amongst a group of elite (and mostly male) characters known for their complexity as much as their moral ambiguity and ability to just get the job done, no matter what the cost. The rough diamonds. The antiheroes.
You know who I’m talking about: Cracker, Jack Regan, Carlin - and more recently Jack Bauer, Tony Soprano, Dexter, and of course, House. These characters often aren’t particularly nice – nor do they do nice things; but for some reason we are drawn to them. We lionize their masculinity, their power is sexualised and their vices are sympathised with as a mere byproduct of being a top geezer.
TV Tropes is an exhaustive Wiki-style ‘…catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction’. Their section on the antihero proved particularly illuminating, shedding light on not just our bog standard antihero (‘…a protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero.) But also the ‘Nineties Anti-Hero’ (‘Not only are they flawed, they may lack any heroic attributes’), the ‘Heroic Sociopath’ (‘He differs from most Anti-Hero archetypes in that he’s never ineffectual or angsty - he loves what he does for a living.’) And the Femme Fatale.
Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the excellent Feminist Frequency ran a special series of Vlogs in partnership with Bitch Media focusing on certain female Tropes, especially those that she thought to be especially demeaning or oppressive. After a quick browse of TV Tropes, it’s hard to see how she narrowed it down to six.
Anita defines the Anti-Hero Trope thusly. “The Anti-Hero usually has a questionable moral compass and the Anti-Hero tends to… shift a little bit one way or another toward the end of their character development.” Anita identifies two strong female examples of the Anti-Hero to be Starbuck, Battlestar Gallactica’s maverick Viper pilot, and Faith – the wise cracking Black Dahlia to Buffy’s (she who slays Vampires) Valley-girl Rose. I myself offered Misfits’ kiss-your-mother-with-that-mouth Kelly.
TV Tropes lists many characters in Film and TV who are perceived as being part of the Anti-Hero trope. Using some rough maths (some of the characters listed are bunched into groups) I concluded that in films, roughly one female character for every six males is listed. In television, it is one for every seven. Naturally, some are disputable – such is the nature of a Wiki-style source. But even with a shift of two or three either way, the results would still be overwhelming.
Tentatively playing devil’s advocate, I proposed the idea that there could be something inherently masculine about the Anti-Hero. Anita deconstructed my theory with a weary and disinterested sigh, proposing that the construction of ‘good versus evil’, or ‘hero versus villain’ were molded around male characteristics – and that the issue lay with writers, directors and producers (or just the behind-the-scenes bankrollers…) merely trying to stick women into this framework.
“Like, what does a female hero look like, one that’s not just emulations or duplications of the male heroic type?”
Maybe we can look to Dame Helen Mirren as an example for a strong, whole female character? In her paper, ‘‘A Good Body’ – The Case Of/For Feminist Media Studies’, Sue Thornham looks at Mirren’s role as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, and claims that instead of being allowed the traits of the male antihero, she is instead placed alongside the predominantly female victims, herself made part of the display. It’s hard not to imagine that a male character would have been shown with cool detachment – their Holmesian mind a-whirring.
With a recent US reboot, Prime Suspect has been given the plastic-people-guns’n’violence treatment. Also, ‘Tennison’ is replace with ‘Timoney’. Americanised ocular torture aside, the program shows subtle advances in a more complete representation of a female character – a step closer a character that is what Anita would call ‘a full and complete human being’.
“[The writers] actually allowed us as the viewer to see why she’s so tough and emotionally closed off, but we also see her facing the difficulty of being in this heavily patriarchal space, having them call her out on only making it to the position she’s in because she slept with someone.
“She [Timoney] has to be tougher than all of the guys and smarter than all of the guys and you see her struggle with it, and you also see the emotional ramifications of that on a personal level”. This is no real revelation for British fans of the program, but it does represent the snail’s pace at which complex female characters are being introduced to our screens.
So how will this happen? What will it take for women to be represented as ‘full and complete human beings’ on our screens?
“In terms of creating some sort of gender parity in Hollywood - in TV and movies - it’s just gonna come down to having a more feminist lens inside of these writing rooms and being able to write more characters with deep complexity.
“If we have gender parity it makes sense to have more antihero female charaters, more villainous female characters, more questionable female characters. But until then – when women are on screen and they are shown as manipulative and shown as using their sexuality to seduce men, those become stereotypes that are placed onto real women in the real world.”