Monday, 25 August 2008

Great Underappreciated or Obscure Albums 4: PYGMALION by Slowdive (1995)

Slowdive are what I like to call a 'blank-look band'. Y'know, you're at a party with friends, sitting around with beers and too much pot, talking pretentiously about music, and someone asks what your favourite album of the nineties is (among other world-defining subjects). You say Pygmalion by Slowdive and your friends frown mildly and say 'what by who?'. Then someone puts on 'Karma Police' by Radiohead or some mindless sludge by Muse, all your friends all cry 'All right!' in unison and leap up to start swaying drunkenly in a dazed parody of dancing. And you're left to wonder how it is possible for these people not to know who Slowdive were.

Not that it's surprising. Slowdive belonged to that much-maligned musical current of the early nineties that was shoegazer. Like their contemporaries, they blended soaring, effects-drenched guitars with swirling keyboards and inaudible lyrics that created dream-like aural universes possibly best appreciated when going though a heroin come-down. The press hated them. They were called pretentious, charm-less poseurs. It's actually possible that much of this was backlash from My Bloody Valentine's
Loveless, the album that defined shoegazer, but ultimately was it's undoing as Kevin Shields and co. needed 18 engineers and 250 000 pounds to make the album, just the kind of excess and perfectionism that was seen as totally anti-rock in the early nineties of grunge and brit-pop.

In truth, everything about shoegazer to me is the epitome of rock: it's nerdy, introverted, and so fucking loud! It's also the only genre of the day, apart from grunge to really tap into that particular vein of angst that characterised the youth of the day. What the grungers expressed via ragged guitars and unkempt rage, the shoegazers translated into mournful, melancholic guitar drowning out ghostly voices strangled by emotion. 15 years on, shoegazer sounds more relevant than anything that appeared in it's wake, as evidenced by the recent recrudescence of similar guitar noise and stoned-out vocals.

Slowdive were definitely no strangers to the singular middle-class pathos of the time, as evidenced on their seminal and genre-defining opus Souvlaki, from 1993. But the music press of the time savaged them each and every time. Sensing a change of trends towards the emerging brit-pop movement and it's beer-drenched, oafish, unimaginative Beatles rip-offs, label owner Alan McGee had grown disinterested in the likes of Slowdive. 1994 saw them forced to finance part of an American tour out of their own pocket. Realising they were about to be dropped by McGee, the band's two leaders Neil Halsted and Rachel Goswell decided to make an album as introverted and un-commercial as possible. They succeeded in producing a masterpiece.

Be warned,
Pygmalion is oblique beyond description. Slowdive distilled the expansive aural atmospheres of Souvlaki to perfection. Immersing himself in techno music, Halstead incorporated the vocal, synth and guitar loops, double-tracking and digital effects of that genre, but you sure as shit can't dance to it! But it single-handedly gave a much-needed facelift to ambient pop, paving the way for Sigur Ros, Boards of Canada and Labradford, and freed up the band to create scintillating atmospheric soundscapes that were as disturbing and sombre as they were hypnotic and catchy.

My frustration at this album's anonymity knows no bounds, because from my very first listen of the very first track, 'Rutti', I was entranced. It sounds like an outtake from Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden, with it's hypnotic guitar, slight percussion and echo-drenched voice. But far from Mark Hollis' cries of hope and redemption, this is sparse, morose and deliberately sombre. It builds up layer-upon-layer of whispery sound, leaving the listener on a knife's edge, expecting an explosion of chorus and noise (à la Talk Talk). Instead, it just… doesn't. It continues to swirl, creating a trance-like atmosphere of veiled emotion and subdued paranoïa. It's the sound you get in your head at the end of a long night spent on too much music and too much coke. 'Rutti' sets the tone: there is no light, just dark, scattered noises and ghostly, haunted voices. Occasionally, rays of blinding sunlight pierce the veil of darkness and dust, as on the luminous 'Crazy for you', before we're dragged back into some psychic abyss or into a dark, sparsely furnished bed-sit somewhere in the London suburbs.

It all comes to a head on the deliriously beautiful 'Blue Skied an' Clear', the sort of song that most of us can only dream of writing. Like all of Pygmalion, it builds up slowly, trancelike, gloomy and obtuse. Then suddenly (as sudden as a quiet ripple of water, mind), it bursts into a surge of synthesizer, and Rachel Goswell can be heard chanting mournfully before Halstead joins in with a desolate, world-weary hymn to the lost cause that was the ecstasy generation. The whole song soars to the heavens, a heart-rending nocturne of the aimlessness of the nineties, the decade when we realized hippy values were dead for good, that our parents had become reactionaries and that there was really no way out. That's the crux of
Pygmalion: with it's dance influences, druggy atmosphere and listlessness, it's the perfect incarnation of disaffected nineties youth, as powerful and as fatalistic as anything by Nirvana, Depeche Mode or Alice in Chains. It's the soundtrack to drugs, drink, emotional withdrawal and too much soulless money, and it's the only one that really captures those elements to perfection.

Not that anyone got that. The press hammered it, so the public ignored it. Pygmalion became Alan McGee's excuse to drop Slowdive, who promptly split, Halstead and Goswell going on to form Mojave 3. Luckily someone thought to take the time out to re-release this shimmering, cryptic masterpiece. It stands as one of the few albums that ever really "got" my generation, and encapsulated our spirit in 48 oh so short minutes. Thank you Slowdive!

Blue Skied an' Clear: The magic of Slowdive

Shoegaze was a brief, ephemeral and fascinating period in British rock that in my opinion has never been equalled. Born in the aftermath of post-punk, it melded super-saturated guitar noise with ghostly vocals and soaring melody lines, inspired by the punkish noise-pop of The Jesus and Mary Chain and the dreamy, ethereal sound of Cocteau Twins. Those two bands pioneered the use of noisy guitar in gentle (though not always), elegiac pop-rock, on monumental albums such as Psychocandy (by the former, 1985) and Head over Heels (by the Twins, 1983). By 1988, Irish band My Bloody Valentine had taken things to a new level, with their seminal Isn't Anything album. It was an artistic and critical triumph, as the screaming guitars and barely audible vocals of Bilinda Butcher and Kevin Shields, allied to heavy metal rythm patterns launched a new, totally original sound. And the critics quickly picked up on MBV's (and others') stage presence (or lack thereof), dubbing this new genre "shoegaze" in reference to the bands' tendency to stare fixedly at their effects pedals.

My Bloody Valentine went on to seal the genre's place in Rock history thanks to their 1991 masterpiece Loveless, but that opus took up so much time, energy and money that they have yet to follow it up. In their "absence", Slowdive became the main poster boys (and girl) of shoegaze, just in time to get the flack.

Slowdive are the perfect epitomy of shoegaze: nerdy, awkward, floppy-haired, middle-class Englishmen (and one woman), with a love of The Smiths and Cocteau Twins, who played delicate pop-rock graced with soaring, loud guitars and occasional melancholic keyboard effects. Their voices were often buried deep in the mix, obscured by their instruments, and on-stage they hid reolutely behind their long fringes, eyes glued to their feet. Their first album, Just for a Day, came out in 1991, just in time for the Loveless-inspired euphoria, when any band that sounded remotely like MBV was guaranteed a rave-up in the press and a place on Alan McGee's Creation label roster. was an excellent slab of powerful shoegaze, closer perhaps, however, to the more energetic style of Ride or Pale Saints than to MBV's almost cosmic lumber. As such, it doesn't really stand out among the more impressive shoegaze albums out there (Ride's Nowhere, Lush's Split, Chapterhouse's Whirlpool, and of course, Loveless).

It wasn't until 1993's magnificent Souvlaki that Slowdive would really find their voice and identity, and in some style. Put simply, it's the definitve shoegaze album, featuring all that made the genre so distinctive (and so magical), and the band's most immediate, arresting songs. It kicks off splendidly, with the single 'Alison'. A burst of guitar, insistent drums and bass, and soaring noise effects kick out of the speakers and launch the listener into the track, a weird tale of a woozy relationship centred around drugs, drinking and wearing ladies' clothes. 'Alison' is the perfect shoegaze anthem.
Shoegaze was the weird, awkward cousin of electronica: it was druggy, woozy and hedonistic, the music of middle-class nineties Britain, disinterested in politics or social issues (unlike their predecessors of the hippy, folk or punk ages, or their American grunge cousins). But where Depeche Mode and New Order and other dance kings had Britain's disaffected, spoiled youth dancing their way through the ecstasy years, the music of Slowdive and their noisy contemporaries seemed to be about the come-down. The chiming, sad guitars and shimmering effects seemed to evoke the first rays of
sunshine pushing through the curtains at the end of a long, sleepless and drug-fueled night. You can imagine lonely highways, deserted streets, bleary eyes and the shuffling gait of people who've been out all night and are feeling down, lost and strangely melancholic. It's often some of the saddest music around, and it's no wonder Sofia Coppola and Gregg Araki decided to turn to shoegaze when compiling the soundtracks to their movies depicting lost souls in tired, indifferent modern landscapes. 'Alison', despite its (relatively) pacy tempo, holds all of this: the sadness, the wooziness, the casual indifference and the subtle layers of hope underneath. And that's just the first track.

The rest of the albim is of a similar quality. 'Machine Gun' goes a step further, with singer Rachel Goswell's voice drowned and inaudible underneath the majestic guitars and driving effects. 'Souvlaki Space Stations' takes a darker turn, whilst 'Sings' features the quiet atmospherics of ambient overlord Brian Eno himself, surely an indication of the album's quality. Meanwhile, on 'As the Sun Hits', the album's cornerstone, songwriter Neil Halstead delivers his greatest lyrics, with images of desolation, death and glaring morning sunlight (what did I tell you?). The songs creeps along slowly, almost mutely as Halstead intones numbly "Sweet thing I watch you/Burn so fast it scares me", before bursting into life, and screaming guitar noise, with the line "It matters where you are". Every
time, this never fails to give me the shivers, as the locked guitars of Goswell, Halstead and Christian Savill reach for the heavens, their ghostly voices washed underneath, yet united in a strange, subdued and druggy version of Crosby, Stills and Nash's famed cristalline harmonies.

The album closed* with the delicate, heart-breaking ballad 'Dagger', played solo by Halstead, his voice crystal-clear and beautiful, accompanied by some of the saddest acoustic guitar chords ever laid to disk. The lyrics of loss and destructive love are a fittingly bleak conclusion to a dark, wistful and depressingly beautiful album, where gentle melancholy and quiet vocals are thrown up against the band's raging guitar noise and use of saturation to staggering effect. Souvlaki is unforgettable, and should have gone down in history as one of the great pop-rock albums of the nineties.

Unfortunately, by the time Souvlaki came out, the British press had decided it was time to move on. Shoegaze was given a similar short shrift as prog rock had been in the late seventies: it was "pretentious", "self-indulgent", "nombrilistic" and "boring". Brit pop was all the rage: out went the misery and darkness of the past decade (after all, shoegaze's doomy vibe owed a lot to the goth and post-punk waves of the 80s), and in came catchy, Beatles-inspired (stolen?) melodies, crystal-clear voices, pretty-boy singers with short hair and bags of ego, and a celebration of all things British, like football, beer and festivals.
Druggy party aftermaths and ecstasy comedowns were not in keeping with this all-joyous vibe, and Slowdive could not compete with Blur's chirpy songs about houses in the "countr-aaaaaaaayyy" or boys that love boys that love girls that love girls that love boys; or with Oasis' arrogant sneer; or Suede's sexual ambiguity. Here were five Reading-ites wearing heavy sweaters and floppy hairdos, drwning out their voices in waves of moody guitar saturation. They were declared obsolete, Souvlaki was savaged by the British press, and pretty soon they were losing the backing of their label, Creation.

But Slowdive still had one great card up it's sleeve, one of the best, most beautiful "fuck-yous" addressed by a band to its record label. As two successive tours failed to re-ignite the shoegaze euphoria of '91, and with the band about to be dropped by Creation (rumour has it under the influence, nay, demands, of Oasis, as if I needed another reason to hate those James Blunts), Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell immersed themselves in dance and ambient music, and delivered their greatest album, and one of the most triumphant artistic statements of the nineties, Pygmalion, an album so un-commercial it beggars belief, and yet one which today sounds more modern, vital and immediate than 99% of most music produced since, in any genre. But more of that later. Pygmalion had the desired effect: the press hated it, the public ignored it and Creation told the band where to get off. Halsted, Goswell and drummer Ian McCutcheon founded Mojave 3 and became the darlings of the rock underground, sort of like modern-day David Sylvians.

In recent years, the music of Slowdive has slowly been rehabilitated, with heavy metal bands like Isis, Jesu and Nadja happily citing the band's influence on their own noise-scapes, and pop artists such as The Delays, Guillemots and Death In Vegas also taking their cue to deliver ghostly vocals behind walls of elegiac guitar saturation. Meanwhile, songs like 'Alison', 'Dagger' and 'Blue Skied an'Clear' (off Pygmalion) are gracing film soundtracks and all of Slowdive's albums have been re-released on CD. Rediscovering them now is like being let into a world you automatically feel you belong to, and they open your heart to deep and meaningful emotions, with a grace, yet also an edge, few other bands, even other shoegaze ones, can match. With shoegaze suddenly back into fashion, Slowdive will soon, I hope, be given the place deserve, that of producers of some of the most enduring, heart-warming and affecting music of the nineties. Sure, you can dance to 'Girls & Boys', but you can cry, laugh, dance, kiss, fuck and sleep to just about any Slowdive song, and it will always have some meaning for you. Or you can just put 'Dagger' on at 6am on a Saturday morning after a long night out, and watch the sun rise. I guarantee you will never hear a more beautiful sound.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

A little light, but very true look at the British papers

Russell Howard is one of the UK's top young comedians, and here is his hilarious, but very true, take on the British press. I couldn't agree more!

Thanks Russell!

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Great Underappreciated or Obscure Albums 3 - THE FITZGERALD by Richmond Fontaine (2005)

Jumping up the decades, here, I guess. I seem to have been gripped by "rehabilititus", and feel the need to give some bands/albums I love the credit they deserve. Slowdive is next on the list, I assure you!

With this review, I'm hoping to correct one of the worst musical oversights of the last few years. The truth is, Richmond Fontaine should be huge. They should be as big as Wilco. They should be bigger than the Kings of Leon or the White Stripes. We should be reading so much more about them than The Shins or Ryan Adams. But we're not. Instead, their music is restricted to a few very, very lucky souls. Such as me. And maybe now you as well.

RF hail from Oregon, and descend from a long line of bands that blended Rock music with folk and country. The first were Gene Clark, Gram Parsons and The Byrds. Then came Uncle Tupelo, followed by The Jayhawks and Whiskeytown. Who were in turn followed by thousands more, all churning out sweet –but perhaps overly familiar by now- songs of drink, loss, roads, love and, um, gravel. RF are not much different, to be honest, but they just do it with a sense of poetry and emotion that is pretty much unparalleled today.

Their previous opus, Post to Wire, was already pretty majestic, chock-full of gorgeously-produced songs about travelling the roads, lost and alone and blue. A vignette of modern-day American country life, it features the breathtaking turns of phrase and pained vocals of singer-songwriter Willy Vlautin, and the tight rhythm and strong musicianship of his band mates. But, if it has one defect, it’s that it’s a tad long, and seems to struggle to accommodate all its country, pop and rock sensitivities comfortably.

The Fitzgerald shares no such problems. It’s probably the most cohesive album to have been released in years, along with Antony and the Johnsons’ I am a bird now. The themes the guys explore are similar to those developed so well already on Post to Wire: financial strife, drinking, domestic violence, restlessness and death. Typical country/alt-rock fare, really! However, The Fitzgerald delves even further into these dark depths. When writing the songs for the album, Willy Vlautin locked himself in a crappy hotel in the dingiest part of downtown Reno, Nevada. Drawing on the experiences and stories of the bums, down-and-outs and lowlifes he met there, he delivered a masterpiece, a set of songs tackling the trials and tribulations of these lost souls with a stunning mixture of empathy and raw emotion.

The resulting album is therefore understandably raw and uncompromising. The opening song, ‘The Warehouse Life’, starts with a quaint portrayal of a narrator and his friend getting wasted in a bar and ends with the friend getting beaten up and robbed. ‘The Incident at Conklin Creek’ sees a man and his son discover the body of a murdered teenager in an old mineshaft. ‘Casino Lights’, set to delicate violin and deceptively jocular chords, is a tale of an abandoned child and an alcoholic uncle. All these songs are delivered in Vlautin’s deadpan, yet haunted, husky tenor. His voice is up-close, personal, like a drunken friend reciting tales of other friends who’ve gone astray. You can’t help but feel affected by these stories; the characters that people them are real, as tangible as anyone you’ve ever met. The whole of The Fitzgerald shares this sense of audio-verite, as Neil Young would put it, a sense of truth, of reality, of unrelenting honesty.

Of course, such dark and gritty lyrical matter is set to fittingly sparse musical arrangements. Unlike Post to Wire, The Fitzgerald is mostly acoustic, with guitars, upright bass and occasional drums accompanied here and there by piano, harmonica, lap steel and fiddle. There are just two rock numbers, both of them relatively forgettable, but more cohesive with the overall sound than on the band’s previous opus.

‘Disappeared’, meanwhile, the album’s cornerstone, is a desperately mournful tale of separation and despair, set to the most beautiful piano chords to appear on a recent pop record (outside of the afore-mentioned I am a bird now, of course). It’s almost overpowering in its sheer emotion, both sweeping and intimate. ‘Exit 194B’ is another masterpiece, a glorious country shuffle that connects the album through the characters (a bunch of young kids sharing a house - imagine flannel shirts, weed, floppy long hair and cheap booze) to the grunge and alt-rock genres. It ensures that, for all its discreet arrangements and country style, The Fitzgerald is as much a rock record as anything by Alice in Chains, Uncle Tupelo or Nirvana. It shares the same themes of loss, pain and salvation that permeated those bands’ better works, yet the intimate delivery is if possible even more arresting, even more in-your-face.

You’ve got the picture, The Fitzgerald is deeply emotional, grim and sombre, easily as dark and depressing as Neil Young ‘s Tonight’s the Night or Lou Reed’s Berlin, and as equally confessional. All three albums reveal artists opening their hearts and souls for the listener, revealing the darkest recesses of their lives and surroundings in the process. But, more so than Young’s deliriously drunken trawl and Reed’s macabre drug-fest, The Fitzgerald contains a ray of sunlight, whether it’s in ‘The Janitor’s’ tale of dogged survival, or the salvation recounted in ‘Laramie, Wyoming’. It’s no Hollywood happy end, but the last track, ‘Making it Back’, sees Vlautin sitting alone in a quiet bar in the dead of night, lucid, alive and determined to, well, “make it back”, even after all he’s seen. The quiet beauty and reflective grace of the album is intoxicating, and stays with you long after the last track has ended. Albums like The Fitzgerald are few and far-between these days. That makes it a rare treasure, but one I’m glad to share here!

Great Underappreciated or Obscure Albums 2 - TIN DRUM by Japan (1981)

Japan are one of those bands that suffer greatly from being lumped into a musical genre that not only is the constant target for derision by critics and the public alike, but that they didn't have much in common with in the first place. In Japan's case it's the New Romantics, that most insufferable of typically eighties ego-fests. Japan got labelled New Romantics after Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes cited them as a huge influence. It didn't help that the typically New Romantic big hair and make-up look had been lifted from Japan's lead singer, the great David Sylvian.

The fact is that Japan's seminal Quiet Life album, with its melancholic synths, supple, fretless bass and crooning vocals was indeed the blueprint for early eighties mournful, self-obsessed pop. But Japan always did everything better that their peers, and Quiet Life is more a tasteful mix of glam-rock posturing and electronic melancholia than actual synth-pop, and boasts some truly stunning lyrics, unlike anything Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet or Blancmange would ever achieve. 1981's Tin Drum would demonstrate to the entire world that Japan were leagues ahead and head and shoulders above nearly all their contemporaries. Hell, it's still ahead of the pace 26 years later.

It certainly doesn't sound like anything else released in 1981. And I just know that it's one of those albums that I'm gonna struggle to appraise correctly, and will probably end this review with a very lame "just buy it and see for yourself how amazing Tin Drum is". Still, you can't blame a man for trying!

In essence, Tin Drum is something of a concept album, albeit a rather disjointed one, centred around singer David Sylvian's reflections on communist China. It's ironic that a band called Japan, and whose music often borrowed aspects of that country's musical and visual styles should base its magnum opus on China. While some songs only touch gently on these themes, others are steeped in popular Chinese culture, from lyrics dealing with the Red Army and rice fields to the use of Asian instruments, voices and time structures on tracks like 'Talking Drum' and 'Still Life in Mobile Homes'. These themes ensure that, from the off, Tin Drum is steeped in a sort of Oriental mysticism and a profound sense of otherness that is just intoxicating. Even at my first listen, when I was thinking "OK, hang on, what the f#!ck is this?", this sense of being transported to another land, not quite China, certainly not Europe, but rather a sort of Eurasian nether land, fascinated me, and it still does several years later.

Tin Drum is Japan's lyrical and musical triumph. It's audacious from the off, as 'The Art of Parties' kicks things in gear with barnstorming saxophone, polyrhythmic percussion and, of course, Mick Karn's wobbly, instantly identifiable (and I do admit, hard to get used to) bass lines. The instruments are varied and exciting, piled on top of one another in a daring tornado of unexpected sounds that manages to be powerful without getting invasive. Then comes Sylvian's gorgeous voice. Liberated from his Bryan Ferry influences, he sounds confident, in command of his words, which is just as well, as these are some of his most fractured and elliptic lyrics yet. Songs like ‘Talking Drum’ set the context – China, or at least Asia, with traditional percussion (courtesy of Sylvian’s brother, the seriously talented and sexy Steve Jansen) and weird chanting, as well as lyrics relating to Chinese life. Yet on the lush instrumental ‘Canton’, icy synths and a driving pop-rock style yank things into the modern age (indeed, in the Oil on Canvas movie, this song was set to images of Chinese businessmen wandering through neon-lit streets). The Asian sound is still there, but it’s allied to a European sense of romance, and the juxtaposition of these two sensitivities -tradition and modernity; Chinese rural life and the Westernised city- is the crux of Tin Drum. The gorgeous ‘Still Life in Mobile Homes’ starts off as a thoughtful musing on the nomadic lifestyles of Chinese river people. It’s a disjointed rocker featuring Sylvian’s girlfriend Yuka Fuji chanting backed by jerky drums and Karn’s omnipresent outlandish bass. Suddenly, as the instrumental pile-up reaches breaking point, with everyone chiming or bashing or crooning away in unison, Sylvian crashes in with a titanic guitar solo that almost rips the song asunder as he wails about voices screaming from heaven. It comes across as a meteorite of technology, a screaming electric machine, yet the lyrics refer to themes of spirituality and God-like presences and the life inside these ‘mobile homes’. The clash of the modern and the traditional, the old and the new is stirring, and in many ways, Tin Drum is prescient in its portrayal of a post-Mao China struggling to consolidate its past and its new ambitions. As China gears itself up to take assault on the global market in 2007 while coming under scrutiny for Human Rights violation, songs like ‘Cantonese Boy’(with its marching rythms offset by futuristic synthesiser riffs) , ‘Still Life in Mobile Homes’ and ‘Visions of China’ (especially that one) sound more than a little prophetic.

However, the two tracks that stand out the most from Tin Drum are the epic ‘Sons of Pioneers’, and the single, ‘Ghosts’. The first is a deeply evocative song of travel. Sylvian conjures up images of Mao’s Long March, of green hills and barren deserts, of ranks of troops and lonely villages; and also of the desperate solitude of these pioneers. A master of melancholy, Sylvian delivers on ‘Sons of Pioneers’ a wondrous vision of a wandering soldier, as vivid as any novel or film. No wonder he later collaborated with Japanese star Ryuichi Sakamoto for the Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence soundtrack. In ‘Ghosts’, his European sensitivities kick in. It’s a more personal song, the heart-felt portrayal of a man plagued by shattering doubts, set to mournful synths, creepy xylophone and peculiar sound effects, and remains the band's most memorable track.

It’s also another deeply prophetic song, although not for the same reasons as the rest of the album. ‘Ghosts’ was the song that finally delivered Japan into the big time, as it became a top 5 hit in the UK. After so many failures, Japan finally seemed to be getting the success their talents deserved. Instead, even as they performed ‘Ghosts’ on Top of the Pops, they were already geared up for a split. Sylvian’s doubts appeared to have taken hold, and he no longer felt satisfied with the group format. In 1982, Japan disbanded, and David Sylvian embarked on a luminous solo career.

Never mind, because on Tin Drum, Japan attained musical perfection, one that few bands can compare with. It’s lush but fiery, mystical but strangely groovy, intellectual without being snobbish. It's a genre-defying album, the kind that elevates pop music to a similar level as its rock and jazz cousins. Every listen opens up new aural delights and reveals new insights into Sylvian’s peculiar lyrics. Once again, words just don’t do justice to the depth and range of this album, so all I can do is recommend you go and get yourself a copy and listen to it for yourself.

See, I knew I was going to do that!

Shock! Horror! A post in defence of Emerson, Lake and Palmer!!!

Great Underappreciated or Obscure Albums 1 - TARKUS by Emerson Lake and Palmer (1971)

I shouldn't really like this. In many ways, Tarkus is the antithesis of everything I feel Rock music should be. I'm a punk, industrial, glam, new wave and garage rock fan, and guys like ELP were who we hated. They're pretentious. Arrogant. Bombastic. Over-the-top. Corny. And Tarkus is definitely ALL of those as well. But fuck me, somehow it's a truly brilliant album!

Maybe it's because it was their first stab at something so ambitious. Later albums are not nearly so enjoyable. Tarkus represents one last stab at proper psychedelia, something completely out-there and with an unparalleled sense of reckless abandon. Of course, I'm referring to the 20-minute title track, possibly the defining prog-rock track. Born from Keith Emerson's fascination with a set of paintings (that woul later become the album's sublime cover art), Carl Palmer's desire to toy around with new time signatures, and Greg Lake's musings on war, 'Tarkus' is a mind-blowing ramble, featuring shifting tempos, baroque organ and moog lines, arcane vocals and scattered drums. Musically, like most of ELP's work and a lot of all prog, the main influence is classical music, namely Bach. But rather than the pompousness of 'Karn Evil 9' or 'Trilogy', this immediately brings to mind not the tiring meanderings of the other prog bands, but rather the epic, aventurous and enthralling experimentation of the best of 60s psychedelia. Keith Emerson's keyboards owe a lot to Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix's guitar-playing. You can even feel the spirit of Iron Butterfly and The Grateful Dead, although played at break-neck speed and ear-splitting volume. Even the lyrics are worthy of the West Coast scene of the time: angry condemnations of war and violence that you can almost imagine being sung by Grace Slick rather than Greg Lake (how cool would they have sounded if that were true? Lake's not a bad vocalist, but he does take himself a bit too seriously). 'Tarkus' is certainly a pretentious song, complete with silly cowbells, interminable organ jams and a pretty self-satisfied feel to it, but this is starry-eyed pretention, the boundless enthusiasm of a generation that still feels it can change the world. Which is certainly preferable at times to Pink Floyd's self-absorbed arrogance or John Anderson's self-indulgent, know-all lyrics. For just this moment, ELP come across as the enthusiastic, youthful punk-rockers of prog, albeit with virtuoso musicianship and massive egos.

'Tarkus' (the song) opens with the sucker-punch that is 'Eruption'. A wave of synth noise and tape loops, and then suddenly everything bursts, and Palmer and Emerson kick in, with pummeling drums and vibrant organ drives. In all honesty, it's best to listen to 'Tarkus' whilst gazing at the album's superb artwork. The warbling keys and rolling drums perfectly evoke the birth of Tarkus as the armadillo-machine emerges from a torrent of lava. It may have a hippy-trippy tone to it, but this music remains violent and scary, as befits the arrival of Tarkus, the monster machine. 'Eruption' segues staright into 'Stone of Years', a true Lake anti-war diatribe that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the piece. As Emerson and Palmer pummel away, the former King Crimson singer laments the loss of innocence, and the build-up of hatred and violence that has been of staple of humanity since time immemorate. Whilst most prog bands were only interested in displaying their instrumental virtuosity, ELP took time out to turn an acerbic gaze on modern society, and Man's thirst for violence, and 'Stone of Ages' demonstrates this singular trait. There are no magical elves, mystical mantras and lyrical flights of fancy here. ELP aim to hit hard and angry, and whilst Lake is no Dylan, it's mission achieved on 'Tarkus'.
Likewise, 'Battlefield' displays the singer's impressive and passionate vocal range as he rails against war mongers across the world, and treats us to a stupendous guitar solo in the process. Meanwile, Keith Emerson returns to the images of the album's artwork, using his moog and his Hammond to give life to Tarkus' monstrous enemy, the Manticore. Between Lake's political posturing and Emerson's esoteric musical evocation, 'Tarkus' becomes a stirring anti-war messsage, a violent and at times troubling tale of conflict and loss. In the last movement, Tarkus, vanquished by the Manticore, flees to the water in a deluge of warbling synths and rabid percussion. It's a breath-taking conclusion to a stupendously ambitious song. Throughout, Lake rages like a leftist activist, Emerson unleashes a veritable torrent of twisting, shimmering sounds and Palmer pounds away behind, driving the whole fantastic piece forwards with an energy and verve that can only come from being young and fearless and on top of the world! Such boundless enthusiasm is infectious, and ranks the 'Tarkus' suite as one of the most powerful songs of the early seventies.

Apart from the 'pretentious' gimmick, the other criticism aimed at Tarkus is that the rest of the album is a lot weaker than that gorgeous opening salvo. While this is undoubtedly true (they could hadly get any better), I think it doesn't do justice to some of the other tracks. Far from lacking the focus of 'Tarkus', the second half pursues the anti-war stance with 'The Only Way (Hymn)' and its vicious condemnation of Nazism. 'Bitches Crystal' and 'A Time and a Place' are driving psychedelic rushes of energy, carrying forward the sense of outrage and fury from the opening track, with powerful jazz elements reminiscent of the best of early King Crimson. The two 'throw-away' tracks, 'Jeremy Bender' and 'Are You Ready, Eddy?' are the most maligned due to their light-hearted, humerous content. At the same time, ELP are constantly lambasted for taking themselves too seriously. Seems they can't win. These two tracks prove they can have a laugh, and also tapped into the nascent glam-rock and retro trends that were springing up about the time this album was made.

Of course, Tarkus will always be remembered for the title track, and will be used by ELP's (numerous) detractors as just more evidence of the band's vacuousness. But if you open your mind enough, you soon realise just how seminal and powerful Tarkus really is. It's an album that defines an era: the last great age of innocence of Rock, when everything seemed possible and when music seemed the greatest weapon against the evils of the world. Surely that's not a bad thing, even if it was misguided?

PS - I know this isn't a Slowdive critique, but fuck it, I was listening to Tarkus and felt like adding this. Spontaneity, how "rock" is that? And, if this has somehow piqued anyone's interest in much-maligned or little-known progressive rock, here are some bands to check out, in addition to the inevitable (and often great
) Floyd, Genesis, Yes and King Crimson: Caravan, Egg, Soft Machine, Henry Cow, Necronomicon, and above all, Van der Graaf Generator, the very best band that genre ever produced. I'll surely be mentioning a couple of them over the next few eternities.