Friday, 19 September 2008

Before I move on...

Here's a few more essential Shoegazer/dream pop albums, some of which I may come back to in the not-so-distant future...

My Bloody Valentine - Loveless (1991): Already mentioned, legendary, but inescapable.

Slowdive - Souvlaki (1993): Another classic by these guys. So underrated!

Cranes - Forever (1993): The epitome of dreampop, and one of the best albums ever made. Listen to those vocals, like a dying baby's last breaths...

Ride - Nowhere (1990): The other emblematic shoegaze record is also a stunning noise/pop classic, all ghostly vocals and hard, beautiful riffs.

Chapterhouse - Whirlpool (1992): Where dance beats were added to the guitar noise to often stunning effect.

Jesu - Jesu (2005): Shoegaze gets a facelift on this hard-hitting, semi-metal, occasionally droning masterpiece.

Alcest - Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde (2007): One French dude takes dark metal noise and adds in the ethereal vocals and airy guitars of shoegaze, for one of the most amazing records of recent years.

Bardo Pond - Amanita (1996): More psych-noise than shoegaze, but the dreamy, lethargic pace and blissed-out vocal style are all there, so...

Lush - Split (1996): Contains the sumptuous 'Desire Lines', a strong contender for best-ever shoegaze song, as well as some of the most amazing vocals the genre has ever provided.

M83 - Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts (2003): Massive shoegaze noise added to majestic electronica a la Air, only even bigger and more powerful. Rivals Loveless for sheer power.

Cocteau Twins - Head Over Heels (1983): More post-punk than real shoegaze/dreampop, but this superb, dreamy album laid the foundation for everything that came afterwards.

The Cure - Disintegration (1989): Robert Smith's dreampop excursion, featuring the band's most melancholic keyboard work and lengthy, emotional tracks of hurt and loss.

Galaxie 500 - On Fire (1989): Again, more precursors than actual genre mainstays, but their high, quavering voices and noisy guitar breaks obviously left an impression.

Mazzy Star - So Tonight that I Might See (1993): Between the slowcore of Red House Painters and the dreampop of Cranes. With such a gorgeous, sad voice!

Asobi Seksu - Asobi Seksu (2004): And shoegaze enters the new millenium, with this pop-laden rock noise record that may be a tad too referential, but still has its moments of pure shoegaze charm.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Two Jewels from Head Heritage

I have already waxed lyrical about Julian Cope's fantastic website, Head Heritage (, and its stunningly comprehensive series of album reviews, band features and political columns dedicated to edifying and illuminating the minds of any "Heads" (or potential ones) that come across it. If you love obscure, psychedelic or loud music, this is the site for you. Hell, if you like just about any music, this is the site for you, and nary a day goes by without me logging on to check out what's been updated.

What I wasn't aware of until recently, is that Head Heritage is also a label, releasing some fascinating and obscure records that mostly fit into Cope's oddly shamanistic/celtic/punkish worldview, and that basically you can only get through the website. In some cases, these albums are so rare that you haven't a chance in hell of finding them on Amazon. In fact, the two below aren't even liste on As far as the (not even that) mainstream is concerned, these albums barely exist.

So, thank God for Head Heritage. As such, it stands not just as a great musical encyclopedia and information site, but as a veritable bastion against the corporate world that seems destined to try and rob as much creativity and freedom from the artists as possible. You can just tell by listening to these two albums, that they were made in total freedom, nay, abandonment, and they represent the kind of experimental attitudes and sonic adventurousness that is so lacking in most of modern pop and rock. These two records channel something primeval, natural, instinctive, bereft of studio tinckering and arrogant sloganeering. Maybe see them as the "anti-Muse", or the "anti-Coldplay". No artifice. Just music. Pure.

1) Urthona - I Refute it Thus (2008)

I have been getting deeper and deeper into Drone music in the last year. After first having my mind blown by Cluster 71, the great, planet-sized electro-drone masterpiece by Krautrock duo Cluster, I quickly found myself craving more. Drone was the new great psychedelic music, as far as I was concerned, and I was hooked. Soon I had moved on to Zeit by Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze's first two masterpieces (staying in Germany), The Taj Mahal Travellers (and their leader Takehisa Kosugi's monstruous voice-and-violin epic Catch-Wave), Sunn O))), Earth and The Dead C. Not forgetting Nurse With Wound and Metal Machine Music (for the noise side of Drone), Stars of the Lid or underground Dutch meister Machinefabriek, whose free-to-download opus Stuip/Staar is well worth checking out (

Yet, if I thought I had seen it all as far as Drone was concerned, after venturing backwards to check out LaMonte Young, Steve Reich and Tony Conrad, I was wrong. I Refute It Thus stands as one of THE greatest Drone albums ever made.

It is shrouded in mystery, even by Head Heritage standards. It's hard to tell who is making this music. Is the man who's picture's on the front cover the sole purveyor of the insane sounds held within the CD's grooves (can we say grooves when talking of CDs?)? Is he really doing all that with just one guitar? We know Cope himself was involved in the creation, conceptualisation and of course release of this album, but it doesn't look like he appeared on it. So, how to describe it? How is it possible to pinpoint the nature of the supreme mind-melting rock that is contained inside I Refute It Thus?

Well, for starters, it's worth checking out the album's artwork: a man with a guitar stands in the distance, surrounded by massive monoliths, overlooking a vast, barren plain. Man and machine, standing buffeted by the winds of time, and in the shadow of nature's splendour. Like I said, this is an album only a friend of Julian Cope could make. It's like latter-day druid music, something old, and powerful. Yet, it also, fundamentally, rock. After all, it's made with a sodding guitar, and, as far as I can tell, not much else. But Urthona knows his way around his six-string, fuck me! Opener 'Urthona Cannot Be Destroyed' kicks off with a staccato burst of guitar noise, like Jimi Hendrix (circa 'Machine Gun') filtered through Lou Reed's amp and extremist approach. It shudders and stutters, before more guitar kicks in, a sort of keening wail that whistles out of the speakers and keeps screaming for the duration of the track's ten-plus minutes. And the crazy thing? It's not long enough. This the kind of guitar pyrotechnics that allowed Jorma Kaukonen, Hendrix and John Cippolina to freak out whole audiences by sound alone back in the sixties, yet for all that it never sounds retro. The absence of drums, keys or even bass (so I can tell) propel 'Urthona Cannot Be Destroyed' either into a post-modern industrial world, or a Moorcock-ian fantasy landscape. Maybe both! It's psychedelic yet hard, natural-sounding yet modern. Decades of history (hence the Whitman and Blake quotes in the package), nature and rock have been channelled into 10 minutes of pure guitar drone. Can there be a more awe-inspiring sound than this?

Well, if there can't, Urthona sure gives it a good shot before the album pans out. Each track is longer than the last. The second, 'The Bright Burst of Morning', has a more industrial-metal feel, echoing Throbbing Gristle at their loudest and most psychedelic, as well as American drone-metal lords Sunn O))) and Earth. The guitars are heavier (more cliched, maybe?), and the piece ambles along at a drak, funereal pace. Sudden sound effects pop up: a babbling brook, the wind, birds, but this one feels less successful than the first track. The third, however, is a beast, twenty-one minutes of droning feedback and long, empty moments where the sound recedes, leaving a microsecond of silence to gorge on before the guitars return, sometimes screaming, often growling, mostly "humming" (for want of a better word). After the pyrotechnics of the opener and the heavy natural/industrial crunch of the second track, 'Sun and Moon So Heavy' seems the perfect synthesis of everything Urthona has been distilling up until then: it's metallic, rock, guitar-driven. But this is also a folk album, of sorts: an album stepped in its natural setting (in this case, the wilds of Dartmoor), an album at one with the elements, transported by rock and tree and fallow. And by guitars. Like early Klaus Schulze, natural elements collide with the machines, and leaves something that will swallow you whole, transcending science, transcending machinery, transcending nature. The sound, I guess of a black night sky that you stare at for hours on end, wholly swallowed by its infinite size. Can I get an "Amen"?

2) Universal Panzies - Transcendental Floss (1998)

Perhaps even more weird are the Universal Panzies, a Newcastle-based group of neo-seers orbiting around the mesmeric personality of their leader, Christophe F, who, as far as I can gather, is a sort of wild, unpredictable underground rock guru with a penchant for cross-dressing and Krautrock (!).

Little more is known of Christophe F, other than the fact that he seems determined never to move away from his familiar North-East stomping ground, and that he has been plagued by ill health for a while, meaning he has had to toil away in almost complete obscurity. Yet, if there is one thing Transcendental Floss demonstrates, is that the man is as close as we have come to a real guitar hero in the last two decades. Fuck Mark Knopfler and his sedate, boring noodling, Christophe F is the real deal!

Take the insane opener, 'Krautrock-lovesong/Hallowedundgallowed'. It starts as a dull dirge, a few lines of feedback with F muttering mutely over the top, like a stoned-out Thurston Moore (or was it Kim Gordon) at the beginning of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation. But then the rythm really kicks in, the kind of monolithic pounding of the tom toms and descending bass lines that characterised the best of Amon Duul II circa Yeti or Ash Ra Tempel at their peak. It's slow, the lyrics are unintelligible, the groove is insistent to the point of being numbing, and over it all, Christophe F flies on his guitar like few others! It could almost be "post-rock" (think Explosions in the Sky, only less restrained), but weirder, wilder and more fun by a country mile.
But, here's the killer: about half-way through, the song gets even better! The drummer and bassist kick into a superb motorik groove, easily as good as any Neu! or Harmonia ever managed, giving F full reign to rip out a continuous, almost-hypnotic solo that goes on for the best part of ten minutes. This is the kind of rock I thought we'd never hear in recent years: the song literally flails, seeming to careen along of its own accord, all pummelling toms, disjointed keyboard effects and forever that uncontrollable, unrelenting guitar. You can hear the references, yet somehow it still sounds fresh and new, as F puts his entire heart, soul and being into his guitar, turning the whole album, an ode to love lost, I should specify, into a rock 'n' roll requiem of sorts, a haunting serenade sung by that ripped-up axe and F's dull, plaintive voice.

Never is this more potent (except on the first track!) than on 'Star-bard and grounded', which adds wailing sax to the sumptuous mix. F sings more here, but mostly he still lets his guitar do the talking as his acolytes continue to bash out a relentless beat that speeds up or slows down as the mood takes them, yet never do they falter, never do they stumble. F just keeps thrashing out chord after chord, solo after solo, until you are left shuddering and shaking in its wake. It's music you can shake your arse to, music you can head-bang to, music you can meditate to, music you can trip to. It's krautrock, but filtered through metal, funk, trance, free-form and electronica. It's stunning, possessing more heart and soul than anything that the infinitely more popular Radioheads and Coldplays of this world were bashing out at the time.

These two albums are the defining indication that if you look to the sidelines, you can find some of the most exciting and innovative music ever made, even in these increasingly creatively sterile times. And you can actually purchase both on Head Heritage (though stocks are pretty limited, so hurry!), plus find Julian Cope's much more informative and extensive review of Transcendental Floss.

This is real music. Real because it is made by passionate people doing it for their muse, not for sales or profile-boosting. Real because it is immediate, instinctive, heartfelt. I defy you to listen to the guitar freakout of 'Urthona Cannot Be Destroyed' (how true!) or the blaring sax/guitar freeform funk freakout and not be stunned at the sheer power and beauty these two artists/bands/druids have managed to meld with such class and energy. Thank you Mr Cope! And thank you Urthona and Universal Panzies!

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

For any Americans out there...

The US elections are creeping up on us fast, with the voters of that great nation about to make a monumental decision that will not only shape their own future, but also that of the entire planet. As a concerned "World Citizen", I'm hoping they make the right choice.

The choice by John McCain to nominate Sarah Palin as his running-mate surprised me, mainly because I'd never heard of her. I duly did some research. I was impressed at her acceptance of her daughter's out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Pretty progressive, for a Republican. She's a woman. She's relatively young. She seemed smart. Could this finally be the election where debate moves away from psychotic religious extremism and actually focuses on real issues like the war on terror and the economy, rather than on a vague "culture war" and divisive "bleeding-hearted, terrorist-loving liberal commies versus true patriotic Americans"-style debate?

Sadly, the answer is no. By selecting Sarah Palin as potential future vice-president, McCain is doing just that: aiming for a simplistic divisiveness that will see Republicans appealing to Americans' sense of "moral values", patriotism and religious zeal, rather than actually debate the true issues that will ACTUALLY determine whether America stands as a true leader of the free world, or as an insular, narrow-minded bully determined to impose its lowbrow world-view on the rest of us.

Y'see, this is the real Sarah Palin: And she's one scary lady!

And here's the deal: she could quite reasonably find herself as President. After all, McCain is old, a cancer survivor. So, what if, should he be elected, he makes an unexpected early exit (certainly not something I would wish of anyone)? We could end up with Palin, a religious, moral and political extremist (if she was European, we would call her at best a nationalist, at worst a fascist) running the most powerful country in the world... Now there's a sobering thought.

So, I do urge any Americans out there to really think about what the Huffington Post's journalist is exposing in the above article. America is a beautiful, magnificent country. It needs a leader that mirrors that.