Saturday, 17 October 2009

October on my iPod!


Hello, my non-existent readers! This is my latest scheme for this most redundant of websites: every month, I will give a little overview of the music I have been listening to thus far that month. I can't really claim any credit for originality, of course - Julian Cope's been doing it in his monthly "Drudions" for years now!

But hey, it wouldn't be a good idea if it wasn't worth nicking, so I'll claim it's me paying homage to the great Arch-Drude.

As with every month, October 09 has seen me swallowing up ever more music, and so
me of it -nay, most- has been downright amazing. Whether I've been saturating my senses with high-octane noise, or settling down on a rainy autumn day to the soothing tones of some vintage ambient, the thrills and chills and excitements have been numerous. So, um, here goes!

First up, let's pursue the Cope kissing and shout out to the immense Elegy for Native Tongues (Subvalent) by new Japanese outfit Tetragrammaton. Cope has made it his album of the month and as often his judgment proves impeccable. The man has a great word for good music: he calls it "useful", and it definitely applies to Elegy for Native Tongues. This album will take you on journeys, fuck up your system and have you yelping with surprised delight with every shift and turn of its improbable evolution, from experimental and rock-ish on the first studio disc, to the wonderful melding of pagan drone and scattered free-form fire music on the live CD. I'm sure there have already been albums that mixed free jazz and drone, but I have yet to hear one do it this convincingly. The live CD is the clincher. Tracks start out like early Taj Mahal Travellers psych-drone, before manic chanting, rabid percussion and blasted white noise seep in to fuck things up in the most beautiful way imaginable.

Two bands I've grown very keen on also released new stuff in October. I was most keenly looking forward to Fuck Buttons' follow-up to their superb Street Horrrsing album from last year. On first listen, barring the stunning opener "Surf Solar", I wasn't that taken with Tarot Sport (ATP Recordings). The harsh and distorted vocals that defined tracks like "Sweet love planet Earth" and "Ribs Out" on the debut are completely absent to be replaced by a greater emphasis on highly compressed electronics and trance-like grooves. And it has to be said, Tarot Sport isn't as good as Street Horrrsing. But it grew on me, and now I find I'm listening to it pretty much every day. "Surf Solar" is literally amazing, a seriously groovy psychedelic techno monster, whilst the middle two tracks "The Lisbon Maru" and "Olympians" display a soaring, fragile grace close to that of Shoegaze masters My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, with the same inherent sense of melancholy. The rest is less arresting, but "Olympians" in particular is amazing.

I was not quite as excited by the release of Tortoise's new album Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey), mainly because you can never be sure what you're gonna get with this most unpredictable of American bands rather foolishly lumped under the banner "post-rock". Actually, scrap that - few other bands have gone so far beyond traditional "rock" as Tortoise, so maybe they, as opposed to Explosions in the Sky, are the true embodiment of post-rock. Beacons is a weird little album, not as immediately stupendous and radical as their magnum opus Millions Now Living Will Never Die, but it does present a band in constant evolution, completely unafraid of pushing themselves and taking their music into new places, in this case, a strange, pent-up hybridization of rock, kraut-funk and buzzing electronica. Check out the fabulous "Prepare Your Coffin", surely one of the tracks of the year.

People who know me will tell you that I'm rarely up-to-date with new releases, preferring in general to scour the annals of popular musical history to unearth gems from decades past (or more recent, but still old releases). This month is gonna be no exception, although the first non-October 09 release I'm gonna now talk about only dates back to 2008! A Silver Mt Zion (here named Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band to add some confusion) are one of the most-loved and also most-criticized of the numerous Godspeed You! Black Emperor offshoots. And 13 Blues for 13 Moons (Constellation, March 25 2008) was particularly vilified. But as I was never massively taken by their earlier, mostly acoustic chamber music sound, the fierce energy of 13 Blues for 13 Moons was a very pleasant surprise. Sure, it's pretentious and overblown at times, but unlike most, I like Ephrim Menuck's ragged voice, it adds a sense of high drama to the band's already fierce vibe. This is a weird and hard-to-classify mix of metal and post-rock, and it's actually very effective.

But, quite weirdly, the focus of most of my musical consumption
has been a country that I rarely find very good at providing the world with useful and mind-bending rock: France. But then again, that may be because when it does, no-one, especially in France it appears, seems to take notice. So imagine my shock upon discovering that two amazing artists recently discovered, Dashiell Hedayat and Catherine Ribeiro both hail from the land of frogs' legs and camembert.

In Hedayat's case, I should have known better than to be suspicious. After all, his backing band is fucking Gong! I don't understand the bad press Gong get. I would have thought the likes of Julian Cope (him again!) would love their primeval psych jamming, but apparently they get strapped with an unfair "silly" tag, whereas I see them more as a wigged out, slightly untamed garage-psych gang, witha rather sinister undercurrent. Differences in perception, maybe. Either way, on Obsolete (Shandar Records, 1971), Gong lay down a series of psychedelic blues grooves and wild jamming over which Hedayat intones weird spoken-word lyrics. Influenced by William Burroughs' cut-and-paste writing technique, Hedayat's words are odd, funny, even creepy, making him the perfect foil for Gong, a band I've always found to perfectly balance wackiness and edge. Closer "Cielo Drive" is 21 minutes of molten freak-out that would make Acid Mothers Temple proud. Probably my album of the month.

Catherine Ribei
ro, with her fantastic backing band Alpes, provided a similar melding of psychedelic rock (albeit of a folkier vein) and metronomic rhythms inherited from German bands such as Can, Neu! and Ash Ra Tempel. But, where Hedayat delivered his lyrics in a clipped spoken word style, Ribeiro was blessed with what may be one of the most powerful voices in rock music history! Her first steps came in the folkier Catherine Ribeiro + 2Bis, whose self-titled debut (Disques Festival, 1969) was at times fierce and expansive, but more often owed too much to the prevailing folk-pop French music style called "Ye Ye" (and which is majoritarily vile).
However, when the slightly sprawling +2Bis was disbanded and the core retained as Ca
therine Ribeiro + Alpes, a huge sea change occurred in Ribeiro's sound. Her voice was pushed forwards, the sound was stripped down to a vicious garage-psych-kraut thunder and her lyrics became more intense and profound. Their first record, N.2 (Disques Festival, 1970) was a huge leap forwards from Catherine Ribeiro + 2Bis, and one of the most powerful French albums of the early seventies, rivalling Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson in sheer intensity. Some of the guitar rivals Edgar Froese's mental slide bursts on Tangerine Dream's debut Electronic Meditation and Ribeiro's gothic wail is simply stunning, particularly on the 18-minute monsterpiece "Poeme Non-Epique". Only the rather vacuous instrumental "Preludes" stop this album from being a true classic. But no worries - Ribeiro and co. got it absolutely right on their third album Paix (Phillips, 1972), a four-track epic of almost titanic proportions. It's a genre-defying, unpredictable and overpowering album, where repetitive rhythms (the drums sound like a drum rhythm machine) and fiery droning folk-rock melodies create a huge canvas for Ribeiro to scream out her manic lyrics like a truly fucked-up opera singer. It's punk before punk, much in the same way Yoko Ono or Neu! were.

Speaking of fiery and intense music, I also heavily recommend Joe McPhee's wonderful Nation Time (CjR, 1971 - superbly re-released by Atavistic in 2000), a 3-track live album I recently discovered thanks to Philippe Robert, a French author who writes awesome books tracing seminal underground, black music and experimental albums. Joe McPhee is a little-known free-jazz saxophonist who here uses his intuitive meld of hard-bop and free-form experimentalism to mirror the recent civil rights struggles that had been gripping America. And "gripping" is a good word for this tight, powerful and inventive jazz masterpiece that has managed as quickly as Art Ensemble of Chicago's Les Stances a Sophie (Pathe, 1970, recently remastered by Soul Jazz) to hoist itself into my top 10 jazz albums of all time. And if you can get Les Stances a Sophie as well, you'll be truly blessed, because it is also a classic display of super-competent musicians mixing fire music into catchy jazz and delivering pure gold. Pluss, you get to hear soulful Fontella Bass howling "Your eyes are two blind eagles/That kill what they can't seeeeeee!". Wild.

But, for all my love of jazz and weird French folk-rock, I have to admit that what has mostly been assaulting my ears in October was post-punk, that most nebulous and far-flung of musical genres. First I gorged on the magnificent -and mind-bogglingly extensive- compilations of No-Wave acts DNA and Mars. I'm not usually a fan of comps, but neither of these two manic bands ever left a fully-fledged album behind them. Which is a real shame, as both were perfect examples of this short-lived late-seventies fusion of extreme noise, avant-garde and fiery post-punk. In both cases DNA on DNA (No More, 2004) and 78+ (Atavistic, 1996) showcase just about everything these two hard-edged, arty acts laid to tape, and for every "What the fuck???" track there are three or fours masterpieces of dark, untidy and fantastic adrenalin rock. DNA were something of a no-wave power trio, with either spongy bass or pounding (and pounded) keyboard lines thudding away behind Art Lindsay's razor-sharp guitar riffs and howling vocals. Mars, though, remain my favourites from the movement. Their primeval riffs and driving percussion make them some sort of perverse blues band, the nastiest bluesmen (should say women -3/4s of them were female!) ever to lay their chops (if they can be called that!) on vinyl. A much welcome collection.

My othe
r post-punk obsession these days has been the lesser-known acts that graced Manchester's uber-famous label Factory, home to Joy Division and New Order. After A Certain Ratio and The Durutti Column, the next most important band on Factory's roster was Section 25, an outfit from Blackpool centered around the Cassidy brothers, Larry and Vincent. On their excellent debut Always Now (August 1981), they channeled a similar dark vibe that their buddies Joy Division had, but with a more stripped-down, funk-tinted sound and, if possible, even more detached vocals. Of course, the Cassidys didn't have the songwriting talent of Ian Curtis, but tracks like "Friendly Fires" and "Dirty Disco" join the dots between cold wave and PiL's dark experimentalism, making Always Now an essential album.

Crispy Ambulance were also unjustly compared to Joy Division, despite not actually sounding much liek Curtis and co. Their debut, The Plateau Phase (1982) actually owes more to Van Der Graaf Generator and other experimental prog outfits, except that Crispy Ambulance also inject throbbing cold wave bass and Eno-esque dark ambience. They probably lacked a truly great singer, a la Curtis or Devoto, but The Plateau Phase remains seriously underrated.

But perha
ps trumping them both was The Temple of the 13th Tribe (November 1984) by least-known Factory act The Royal Family and The Poor. Essentially a one-man band centered around esoteric singer Mike Keane, TRFATP was influenced by the writing of Aleister Crowley and occultism, as well as Durutti Column minimalism and Joy Division's dark meanderings. Opener "I Love You (Restrained in a Moment)" is gentle and mysterious, but tracks like "Voices" and "Radio Egypt crackle with moody tension and dark fantasies. Meanwhile, "Discipline" is a great dance-punk track, like Eurythmics jamming with New Order.

And, lest we forget, let me highlight Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's superb debut, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1980) also released on Factory (complete with a lovely Peter Saville cover), which remains to this day one of the defining synth-pop albums, a bubbling, effervescent and experimental triumph that perfectly melds punkish energy and futuristic wistfulness. "Electricity" and "Julia's Song" are electronic classics, hoisting this debut to the rank of one of the most underrated early synth-based pop albums, alongside Japan's Quiet Life and The Human League's Travelogue.

Just quickly before I give this rambling a rest, just a quick note on a trio of movies that have also graced my grateful consciousness over the last 30 days (you can watch movies on iPods, now, apparently, so this is not quite off-topic). First up, in theatres. In the lovely Curzon Soho cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue, I was given a lovely treat in the form of Andrea Arnold's hard-hitting and bittersweet sophomore film Fish Tank. Featuring a superb central performance by newcomer (and bona fide estate lass) Katie Jarvis, it's a biting, harsh, but ultimately humane and uplifting look at one girl's struggles to deal with her upbringing in run-down Dagenham. Arnold confirms the talent she already displayed on Red Road and sets herself as one of Britain's best ever directors.

No less gritty, but much more fanciful, was George A Romero's Martin (1977), which I acquired on DVD on a whim. Damn - if only all my whims were so reliable! Martin is a dark and urban take on the vampire myth, turning the whole thing on its head by injecting more than a little doubt as to whether or not the anti-hero is truly a vampire. He certainly thinks so as does his uncle, and he likes to kill women and drink their blood, but he can go out in the day, doesn't have fangs and is indifferent to crosses and garlic. A smart and disturbing exploration of illusion and psychology, Martin is actually one of the best horror movies ever made.

And again, I then made a rather radical leap, turning from creepy gore horror to one of the most celebrated gay-themed movies of recent years - Sebastien Lifshitz's Presque Rien (2000), an intense love story focusing on two very different teens who fall into a steamy romance whilst on holiday. The premise is simple, and allows Lifshitz to focus on the chemistry between his two excellent leads (Jeremie Elkaim and Stephane Rideau). It's very sexy and uncompromising, and as far removed from the cliches of queer cinema as you can get.

Well, so ends my first monthly blether. So far, as November has got underway, I've been indulging my industrial and psych tendencies, so expect to hear about Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Einsturzende Neubauten, Zappa and Soft Machine next month!

"Life's a game where they're bound to beat you"