Friday, 26 December 2008

Great Underappreciated or Obscure Albums 7: Y by The Pop Group (1979)

It may be a cliche, but the moment Punk rock crept into my life completely set my world on its head. Up until then, my music exploration was still -albeit less and less- in thrall to those three God-bands of student idleness: The Doors, Led Zeppelin and, most hackneyed of all, Pink Floyd. In fairness, I had always been more Jefferson Airplane and Love-centric than Jim and co, whilst I always held more admiration for Black Sabbath than for the Zep (much to the chagrin of my Page-loving pals); plus, I had long since become a devotee of Neil Young and David Bowie (all periods), so I guess I can say I was moving away from those student staples, at least slightly.

But Punk slammed into this like someone taking a dump in a Regent's Park lake next to the swans (Sid Vicious, maybe?). It was through a Rock & Folk anthology. Now, that magazine may be France's putrid answer to the UK's NME, with all the sycophantic Doherty-loving to boot, but at least they know their punk (at least of the seventies and eighties, sadly Blink 182 then seems to swindle them). The magazine blew my mind, as I trawled through the history of the UK's most controversial rock genre, with a rest-stop in NYC, taking in -like some musico-literary sponge- The Damned's first New York gig (all capes and gobbing), The Pistols' McClaren-devised publicity stunts, Suicide's literally knife-edged encounter with UK audiences, Siouxsie's first ramshackle gig, Rock against Racism and all the rest. It vibrated unrest, sexual deviance, rebellion and disdain, and I was hooked. I ripped up some of my t-shirts, turned my nose up at my friends' Floyd-and-Morrison adulations and turned from pot to pills and booze. I was never going to be a real punk, but my record collection would. Out went the prog, the classic rock (though I maintained a weird affection for Frampton Comes Alive - should I admit to that??) and the country, in came a list of names that still remain legendary for me, long after I put my dogmatism away and re-expanded my tastes: Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, The Slits, Television, Magazine, The Clash, The Jam, Patti Smith, The Undertones, The Damned, The Saints, PiL...

Of course, Punk would never last, and much of it proved to be a facade. The Pistols, The Clash, The Jam and Buzzcocks all signed to major record labels. The most forward-thinking bands of the first punk wave were met with disdain and hatred (Suicide, Throbbing Gristle, even Television and the Ramones). Ultimately, we all should have paid more attention to Johnny Rotten than to Sid Vicious. For whilst the former ditched the crass commercialism of McClaren's Pistols and turned to more challenging straights with PiL, name-checking Van Der Graaf Generator and Neil Young along the way, the latter burned out in a blaze of silly excess and cheap sensationalism. And Punk died, leading the way for tacky imitations such as Blink, Sum 41, Green Day and The Libertines.

But, what a lot of those who lament Punk's broken promises neglect to notice or concentrate upon, is that, from those halcyon years of 1977 to 1982, we have, despite all I've just written, been left with some of the most sensational music ever made. No less. Typically, the best of it came from 78 (symbolically, the year the Pistols split up)-onwards, and by that time, Punk in its purest, most incompetent, snotty-nosed and brutal form, had made way for bands that were eager to experiment, broaden their horizons and go beyond the confines of three-chord thrashing. Think Siouxsie and the Banshees, the aforementioned PiL, Talking Heads, This Heat, Throbbing Gristle, Magazine, Joy Division, and many others.

What Punk did is wipe the slate clean. The significance of Rotten's praise for Van der Graaf Generator is great. They were the black sheep of that most hated (by Punks) of genres: progressive rock. They were smart, intellectual, long-winded. But Rotten (by then back to being John Lydon) also could see that they were aggressive, nihilistic and violent, propelled by the dark visions of their screaming lead singer, Peter Hammill. In 1977, VdGG played at Punk's signature venue, The Marquee. They played long songs, full of odd time shifts, arcane lyrics (no political sloganeering here!) and lyrical musical breaks. Yet the Punks loved them. Because they had the very same passion, intelligence and sense of adventure that characterised the Blank Generation, and had become the undoing of the moral establishment and the rock aristocracy. Punk was about ripping down complacency and prejudice. Whether it was a singer-songwriter (Young), Glam Rocker (Marc Bolan, who played with The Damned), a prog band (VdGG) or a fast'n'loud punk quartet, if you had the balls, energy and bile, you could play ball.

And play ball they did. In the wake of Punk's first wave, Goth, New Wave, Post Punk, Electro-pop, Industrial and No Wave all sprang up, taking rock music to new heights. And, barely noticed among all this creative euphoria, but creating enough of a stir in their own little way, was a snarling, virulent quintet from the nondescript British town of Bristol. In the ultimate Punk move, they insolently called themselves The Pop Group.

The Pop Group were quite the flash in the pan. They appeared in 1978 and had split just three years later. They only managed two official albums, of which Y was the first, and the only one of much note. But it was a blazing flash, I can assure you. Y sounds like little else in Punk, let alone mainstream rock. Put succinctly, it is one of the greatest of all post-punk albums, easily matching PiL's first two, anything by Joy Division and Magazine's Real Life on all levels. And of the lot, it is the one that maintains the Punk spirit the most, despite being unbelievably forward-thinking and challenging.

Bristol has long had a history of leftist activism (something maintained by the likes of Massive Attack in recent years), and The Pop Group were no exceptions. Y is highly-charges, taught and angry. the perfect railing letter against Thatcherite Britain. The artwork presents gripping and disturbing images, from the creepy pygmies on the cover to the bold red lettering, via pictures of prisoner camps, shady political figures and charnel houses. The lyrics were similarly bold: "I admit my crime/I'm a thief of fire!" screams singer Mark Stewart on opener "Thief of Fire", his voice interspersed by recordings of political speeches. "But who to trust/When you're stealing from a nation of killers" he rails a bit later on. On "Blood Money" he eructs: "Money's a weapon of terror", topical words in this day and age. Other songs mention totalitarianism, torture and colonialism, the whole being so potent it's hard to imagine anything similar ever getting released today. It's just too heavy.

And that's before we get to the music. The sound of The Pop Group borders on the indefinable, which is why it's so memorable, for all it's occasional flaws (some of the more experimental bits feel fumbled, noise for noise's sake). These guys saw no boundaries, and so met none. Produced by reggae stalwart Dennis Bovell, they took in his background of fat bass and stuttered rhythm, threw in some ragged punk guitar and screams, and a fair dollop of rigid funk, and got a sound like no other. Tracks like "Thief of Fire" and "We Are Time" groove like few other punk tracks, scattered through with sax bursts, nutty effects, echoed vocals and stunning bass hooks that would almost sound perfect in a disco or in a Jamaican dance hall. Equally stunning is "Snowgirl", slower (their attempt at a ballad maybe?), but no less weird and strangely catchy, with cabaret piano (!) sneaking out of the weird vocal mixes and juddering percussion/guitar/bass explosions.

And I already mentioned the experimentation. Despite probably not having the required chops, The Pop Group were fearless, and looked to the avant-garde at all times. On "Thief of Fire", for example, this adds even more edge to the dance grooves, with even jazz touches through the saxophone breaks. It's a sensual overload of sorts, and a precursor to the sort of twisted funk the likes of The Streets and !!! would attempt two decades later, only with more convention and much less balls. On "Blood Money", "Savage Sea" "Don't Call Me Pain", it becomes full-blown experiment, with stop-start rhythm, overloads of effects and some crazy scatty vocal eructations. It doesn't always work, but when it does it's stunning, and I will always be in awe of these guys for throwing themselves at their art and their vision with such vicious abandon. All of them are great, be it Gareth Sager with his staccato bursts of distorted guitar or his Brotzmann-esque sax wails; the roaring, crooning or howling Mark Stewart; or soulful, funkadelicised bassman Simon Underwood, the beating heart of the whole thing. And special mention to Bovell for letting his charges run amok like this, whilst somehow also tying them to such a strong reggae/funk/punk vibe.

The Pop Group fell apart quite quickly after Y, managing only a mediocre follow-up and some gigs before Stewart ended up splitting to go solo, staying true to the vibe he helped launch on this masterpiece. Post-punk would continue to evolve in new and fascinating directions, but few albums released afterwards would reach such heights of bonkers fury and innovation. Luckily, the CD format has seen Y get a gorgeous sonic facelift, whilst tacking seminal p-funk single "She Is Beyond Good and Evil" to the beginning of the track-list. The album sounds all the more cohesive for it, and even 29 years on, few records can produce such a heady mix of vicious bile, musical exploration and leg-shaking grooves.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Great Underappreciated or Obscure Albums 6: BAIKAL by Baikal (2007)

If I'm honest and blunt, there is very little of any merit in today's mainstream music scene. Easily 90% is utter contemptible dross. There was a time when a musical event was the arrival of the Fab Four in a country, or the release of an emphatic and relevant protest song, or the Sex Pistol creating mayhem on the TV. The 2008 equivalent is the "comeback" performance on X Factor (obviously it always involves TV these days) of a deluded, drug-addled, white trash bint who doesn't even write her own songs, lip-synching and dancing like a drunken old lady in front of millions of sychophantic viewers and self-proclaimed "experts".

Nowadays, in lieu of truly transcendant rock (not that this is going to be a nostalgia piece. After all, previous decades gave us the Bay City Rollers and Showaddywaddy), we're subjected to album after album of mostly bland, lyrically unadventurous tripe by The Killers, Kings of Leon and Kaiser Chiefs. Nothing intrinsically wrong with those guys, I guess (the first Killers albums is a gem), but nothing special either, yet we are regularly treated to swathes of hyperbole and drivveling praise about said bands in Britain's once-great music press. And I won't even get started on Amy Winehouse...
The fact is that modern mainstream pop and rock music increasingly resembles a decrepit, influenza-riddled old man, whose occasional flashes of brilliance (Arcade Fire's flawed but essential debut, M83, Ladytron, Sigur Ros) are not so much par for the course but rather infrequent consumptive gasps for rapidly-decreasing air. To paraphrase David Bowie circa 1977, "music has become a disgusting toothless old lady", with very little of the life-affirming quality it should have. Not so much music as muzak.

In such dire and dull circumstances, it's nice to know Bardo Pond are out there. The Philadelphia heavy psych masters have been plugging away in the shadows since the early 90s, taking a bludgeoning Krautrock groove but filtering it through the influence of punk, grunge and shoegaze to leave us some of the most heroic and righteous rock this side of Japan.

Baikal is one of their many side projects (flautist and singer Isobel Sollenberger and synth player Aaron Igler are missing -the latter only from one track-, leaving guitarist brothers John and Michael Gibbons, bassist Clint Takeda and drummer Jason Kourkonis). In the past, they've also recorded a couple of stunning albums with Roy Montgomery as Hash Jar Tempo and did splits with guitarist Tom Carter and even Mogwai. Nearly everything they do is brilliant. Slow, heavy, druggy and hypnotic, Bardo Pond's music is the stuff I live for. It's like heroin. Which is probably the effect they're looking for.

At first listen, Baikal doesn't seem massively different. It's psychedelic, but with a bit of grunge and lashings of shoegazery guitar saturation and fuzzed-out bass. But it's also heavy. Much heavier than anything these guys have done before. Don't mean to go on, but this motherfucker is heavy! It seems Kourkonis, Takeda and the Gibbons brothers have been worshipping at the altar of some of rock's most gloriously heathen demi-Gods. Think Vincebus Eruptum-era Blue Cheer, the electric guitar overloads of Ash Ra Tempel's "Amboss" or early Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But heavier even than all of those. And longer. There are only two tracks, yet the album lasts more than an hour! You do the math. More than anything else, Baikal is influenced by those Japanese psych-freak outlaws, Acid Mothers Temple, even down to the Japanese words that Takeda spits out Damo Suzuki-like throughout the 36-odd minutes of opener "I Forgot" (interspersed with some English).

"I Forgot" is a slow-burner. Fuck, at nearly 40 minutes, it'd have to be. This is not Comets on Fire heavy psych. This is pulled from a deep, dark, growling well, ancient and formidable. The cover art featuring a skeleton in shamanic garb tells it all. This is truly pagan rock, the stuff Julian Cope writes about with such glee. It feels, for all it's crackling electricity and volume, like something ancient, primordial. It starts quietly, a smattering of drums, a low bass riff, some guitar noodling that segues in and out. But before long, the volume starts to clamber, Takeda begins his stoned incantations and Kourkonis and the Gibbons brothers start to unleash some of the most righteous arcane noise you'll ever hear. The guitars scissor and shoot aroung each other. Whilst one of the brothers keeps up a marathon of unfettered soloing, channeling the twins spirits of Manuel Göttsching and Tony McPhee, the other bursts in and out of the mix, sputing out some random saturated guitar noise, as if trying to use his guitar to duet with the equally spasmodic Takeda. The whole piece continues like this, a contantly shifting, growling, incandescant miasma of noise, rythm and beauty. Never dull, always surprising. Oh, and did I mention heavy??

The next track, "Hanafuda" was probably never going to match the intensity of "I Forgot". It does bring synths (courtesy of Igler) and extra percussion, showing more of an affinity therefore with Amon Düül II (to keep with the Krautrock references) than Ash Ra Tempel, but still keeping with the Acid Mothers Temple freakout vibe throughout. It's messy and almost jazzy, at times as elegiacally beautiful, haunting and mystical as its predecessor, but at others getting too experimental and freeform to really keep channeling the shamanistic spirit in quite the same way. But it does show just how good these guys really are. Kourkonis is a revelation throughout this album. He can do hard'n'loud. But he is also sensitive, propelling the tracks with heavy jazz grooves and shifting patterns, keeping the other three on the improvisational toes.

Like I said, this is the kind of music I'm most used to hearing from Japanese bands. Not just Acid Mothers Temple (although I do see Baikal as a slower, more Native American twin of the Mothers' recent tantric freakout metal opus Recurring Dream and Apocalypse of Darkness), but also Mainliner, Fushitsusha or Les Rallizes Dénudés. That's the company these guys, whether as Baikal or Bardo Pond, keep. And to return to my opening rant, it's nice to know that an album as dark, heathen, uncompromising and transcendant as Baikal is out there (special thanks to the excellent Important Records label. I owe them, and other labels such as Hydra Head, Southern Lord, Kranky,Fargo and Sub Pop a debt of grattitude for the level of quality they tirelessly put out despite meanial exposure and probably cash). It's a comfort to know that such guys will keep ploughing that furrow, and that I can turn to them when the current mire gets me down. Can I get an Amen?

And here's some irony - "Amen" is the title of one of Bardo Pond's greatest tracks! Must be a sign...