Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Invasion of the hooded ones - Ten Years of ATP, December 09

Location - Butlin's, Minehead, Somerset

That title could be a reference to legendary cloaked doom-meisters Sunn O))), who performed twice at this marvelous event, but is actually a note ab
out the curious preponderance of rather unappealing hoodies amongst the 5000 or so festival-goers. I know it's fucking December and therefore cold (so cold!), but surely tastes have not plummeted to the point that alluring polo-necked jumpers and woolen scarves have suddenly become obsolete? Yet, it would seem so, with every other hairy bloke sporting one such grimy, grey or black hoodie to rather gruesomely compliment their skinny jeans and scuffed converse trainers. It bemuses me, almost as much as the apparent lack of desire on the part of most of said hood-wearers to not shower, despite lodging in sodding Butlin's. It's not like you're camping out in a fucking field, stoners!! It's a holiday resort, with full amenities!! I may sound despairingly middle class by writing this, but at least I was the best-dressed person there. Being a rock fan doesn't mean you have to look like you were just dragged out of a fucking bin!

ATP is a wonderful concept for a festival - a three-day indoor rock smörgåsbord, with three concert halls, a plethora of bars and restaurants and on-site accommodation in cheap-but-cheerful cabins. In any other context I'd find Butlin's loathsome -it's so tacky- but when your senses are being gleefully assaulted but three days' worth of high-octane rock, blissful pop and fucked-up electronica, one can't help but ignore the surroundings, and indeed revel in them. Who needs to be in a gross, unhygienic and muddy field when you can have your own toilet? I know, that's an odd thing to worry about, but these issues matter to me!

Putting a little pressure on my three friends to hurry, I managed to get there in time for Bardo Pond, who were appearing at the ridiculously early hour of 4.30 on the first day! Ridiculous mainly because if ever there was a band whose music is best suited for the wee wee hours of the morning when people are drunk and more than a little bit stoned, it's Bardo Pond. Regular readers of the blog (I am aware there aren't any, but I can pretend, can't I?) will know the esteem in which I hold these Pennsylvanians and they did not disappoint, despite seeming a tad rusty (normal, given the hour - I'm guessing they flew straight in from the US that day). The highly saturated riffs, thumping bass and Isobel Sollenberger's stoned voice rang out strong and true, and pretty soon I was banging my head away like a 19-year-old at his first stoner gig. Isobel is a really excellent singer underneath all the effects and volume, and her dreamy swaying and garbled moans were the perfect introduction to my ATP experience. It was a sign: this festival would be marked by the dual forces of bleary mind-mashing and incomparable volume.

As such, Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus and his new band The Jicks were unlikely to impress. They were playing on the rather cavernous Pavilion
stage and his songs failed to ignite any interest in me, being a sort of Neil Young / Uncle Tupelo rehash with few hooks or stage presence. Even worse were The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who showed up late, insulted the crowd and then vomited out a set of rather dull electro-punk featuring some of the lamest post-Iggy moves that I've ever seen from tedious singer Karen O. Thing is, she has a decent-ish voice, in a raw scream kind of way, but everything they do seems contrived and facile, a truly banal excuse for a band. All hype and no trousers.

After a bite to eat, I caught the early stages of Mum, who are a rather trite Sigur Ros-only-cuter Icelandic outfit with two female singers and an unassuming, pastoral vibe. Not exciting, but cute. But my priority that evening was Ben Chasny's Six Organs of Admittance, who were the first great surprise of the festival. I had been expecting trademark drony folk and Appalachian influences, but was instead treated to barnstorming heavy psych in pure Bardo Pond / Heads style! Chasny is a master axeman, a super-saturated descendant of Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix, and he played LOUD. Caught in the front rows, I drank in the volume and the guitar pyrotechnics, and applauded loudly after the all-too-brief set. An added bonus was that I bumped into Bardo Pond's Clint Takeda after the set!

There was just time to dash back to the main stage to catch Fuck Buttons at 11.30. This was perhaps the most packed set of the weekend, with countless floppy-haired indy kids cajoling each other to boogie (showing my age, there) to the duo's blissful electronic soundscapes. As usual, the Bristolians were excellent, with "Olympians" a trance-inducing highlight, as loud sheets of synthetic noise showered down onto us grateful souls from their amps. Deranged vocals, hypnotic grooves and driving beats - these two have the lot!

Sadly, by then, I was pretty much on the way to being well and truly twatted, plus the early start to get from Cambridge to Minehead was catching up with me, so I missed Tortoise's late-night set. Luckily, I had seen them in November (playing with Cluster, if you please!), so wasn't too fussed. Those guys can be trusted to deliver a great show, and I've no doubt they did, if The Royal Festival Hall on the 22nd of the 11th is anything to go by...

I awoke the next morning refreshed, if not really rested (those cabins are a very good excuse to prolong boozing into the early hours without fear of catching a cold or disturbing anyone). After a very late breakfast / lunch, I raced over to the main stage for one of my favourite bands of the moment - the mighty OM. I can't stress enough how much I dig this band / duo. Despite my love of many types of trippy music, I actually hate weed and pot, so am never stoned. But if I did like it, OM would be the soundtrack to my trips. It's heavy, but beautiful, graceful under all that volume, and Al Cisneros' mystical lyrics speak to me despite being very hard to comprehend. So, I was really looking forward to seeing them and, despite a ludicrously short set (45 minutes!!), they did not disappoint. A third member has joined them, at least for gigs, and he added wild tambourine crashes, plus layers of synth and guitar to Cisneros and Amos' bass-and-drums stomp. Live, the primordial vibe of their music is even stronger as they thump out their sky-sailing anthems, taking listeners to the astral planes and back again. I banged my head back and forth so much my neck was aching for days, and the set (comprised mainly of tracks from their recent album God Is Good and sounding even better live), for all its brevity, was a true highlight of the 3 days.

After OM came Shellac, another pleasant surprise. At times their music veers a bit towards juvenile, Sum 41-ish hardcore, but mostly it was heavy, heavy math rock of the most righteous, mind-assaulting kind. They also intersperse their sets with hilarious Q&A sessions and banter, making them an engagingly off-beat act, very much in
tune with the spirit of the event. A quick break for one of the many hot dogs that would be consumed over the course of the weekend (notwithstanding the fact that they were vile!) meant I missed Porn, but got to rest my wearisome ears during Battles' set. They were on the Pavilion stage, very much like an outdoor one, so there was less chance of them deafening me, although I did find the cold a bit wearing. They are energetic and quirky, with some great grooves - surely a band going somewhere. However, I had to scatter half-way through so I could catch the second half of Melvins' drum-heavy set. The veterans, like Shellac, occasionally wander into dull Californian hardcore, and I will always pine for the full-on sludge of albums like Lysol, but there is no denying the charisma of King Buzzo and his cohorts, and their finale was a kind of fucked-up mess that I couldn't help but love. So, again, a very pleasant surprise!

In a pattern that would come to define the weekend, I then took a bit of a break, even missing Modest Mouse and The Breeders. I think the sheer volume of a lot of the acts, combined with the out-of-synch lifestyle (up at 12, lunch at 5, dinner a
t 10.30, bed at 4am) and the copious amounts of beer consumed made it hard to sit through act after act without losing the plot a little. Certainly, by the time I pitched up in front of the stage at the Red's club to see Apse, I was pretty tipsy. But I was yet again treated to a very pleasant surprise. I like their debut, Spirit, but had yet to hear their latest album, nor did I know anything about their live persona. Turns out, they are excellent, scattering strident guitar lines and thumping bass over glistening synths and pounding drums. Their new sound is less tribal, or even spiritual, than on their debut, but it carries definite bite and their intriguing use of multi-layered vocals is a novel touch in these days of tiresome, shouty Brandon Flowers-styled vocalists.

The lure of a party back at the cabin dragged me away from the bands and into the arms of even more booze, meaning that by the time I got back to the main stage for SUNN O)))'s first performance of the weekend, a full representation of their debut, The Grimmrobe Demos, I was well and truly soused. With some shame I have to admit to not recalling much of it, o
ther than that it was LOUD. Gut-pummeling loud. The kind of volume that could make people sick. The massive crick in my neck come the next morning also suggests I was well into their ferocious guitar riffage, and I do recall annoying the people around me by trying to join in on the show on harmonica. Ah, the joys of vodka and tonic...

Sunday would in many ways be even more of a write-off, but in an even more satisfying way! The previous night's excesses meant we lurched out of bed and gobbled down a hearty hangover breakfast just in time for Deerhoof at 3.30pm. There is certainly something arresting about these peculiar New Yorkers with their pretty and hi
gh-pitched Japanese lead singer. Their sound is angular, with effects-laden guitars and jerky bass. They also had the novel knack of getting their least-confident member, the drummer, to introduce the songs, which he did in an endearingly gauche manner. Several tracks were powerful and grooved hard, but at times I found their forced quirkiness a bit contrived. You're weird - I get it. But they at least are original, and I intend to check them out in further depth. I also caught a bit of Devendra Banhart on the big Pavilion stage, who wasn't great -too derivative- but managed at times to unleash some excellent folk-blues stomps nonetheless, a pleasing, if slight, soundtrack to the Liverpool-Arsenal match playing on the telly (2-1 to the Gunners, up yours you scouse bastards!!!).

Lunch then beckoned, and I was done in time for one of my guilty pleasures, Explosions in the Sky, who were simply excellent. Post-rock snobs can go get fucked, these guys are experts at crafting beautiful, melancholic instrumentals that soar on wings of emotion. The Pavilion became a sort of indy cathedral, their dream-like guitar solos drifting upwards, lifting the audience with them. Although I maintain that this particular stage was too cold and cavernous to really capture me, EITS did the best job at overcoming this, and should be saluted for it.

But it was all about SUNN O)))'s second set from then on for me. I was determined to be completely alert for this, a full rendition of their latest -and best- album Monoliths and Dimensions. The album has seen them take their demonic doom to a new level, with hints of jazz, musique concrete and classical music tinting their heavy sludge. Their reputation for extreme volume, coupled with what few memories I had of the previous night, had me feeling an uncharacteristic sense of trepidation as I took my place just opposite centre stage and gazed at the wall of amps that lined up behind the sole microphone. Above all, I knew that they -and OM for that matter- sat a tad uncomfortably alongside some of the other acts of the weekend. How would the lanky-fringed, be-hoodied youfs around me take to what was about to descend upon them? Already, I overheard a veteran of the previous night mutter darkly to his mates, "I hope you've done a shit!"
Then the lights went out and a pall of smoke billowed over the stage, obscuring everything from view. Peering through the gloom, I saw three hooded, cowled figures stride onstage, disappearing in and out of the fog. A couple of guitar necks reared up and then - BOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMM!!!! The loudest, most ear-shattering riff I have ever heard. SUNN O))) were everything I expected and more. Beyond loud. Each shuddering note hit me right in the gut, pummeling my intestines and making me glad I'd taken that man's advice! As Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley riffed away and a third hooded figure extracted sub-atomic bass notes from some machine I couldn't see, another man walked slowly onstage - Hungarian singer Attila Csihar, one of the most singular vocalists in modern metal.
Also wearing a hooded robe, he strode up to the mic and, oblivious to the audience, began what can't really be described as singing, but rather an incantation. Deep, dark and growling, his voice sounds like the echoes of an underground earthquake coming up from a well patched into the heart of the world. As he roared and moaned and chanted and grumbled, grasping the air with his fingers like an opera tenor, I became aware that this was not a normal concert. Not a concert at all. This was a ritual. The other guys barely moved, O'Malley remaining statuesque behind the fog, right up against his amps, whilst Anderson's only concessions to rock "attitude" were occasional waves of his guitar. At one point, a strident trombone pierced the noise, but the player was invisible. The focus was Csihar, the high priest of doom, whose body seemed to be producing the fog and whose voice was shattering my nerves. He then strode off stage, returning only after much more demented, saturated riffage, this time wearing a black suit covered in flashing silver and a monumental metal crown adorned with spikes! Clutching a cast-metal model of a human face (what the fuck? I hear you asking - you had to be there), and with lasers shooting out of his fingers, he continued his screaming incantation, apparently in Latin, coming across as some warped high priest of an old religion, or an overlord of the underworld. I have literally never seen anything like it in a rock context, and between the sheer volume of the guitars, and the hallucinatory nature of Csihar's performances, I was left physically and mentally drained, but so exhilirated. There is only one word for the experience of seeing SUNN O))) live - unique.

But the joy came at a cost. The experience was so overpowering (and loud - seriously, next time I'm bringing earplugs!) that the idea of then rushing off to see the end of The Mars Volta, or any other band, was inconceivable, so I headed back to the cabin, to wax lyrical about what I'd just witnessed and wash down the memories of the last 90 minutes with lashings of beer, whisky and gin.

In my defense, I did try to go and see Lightning Bolt at the death, but couldn't get in due to the crowds, so had to leave my first ATP experience at that, and in many ways it was perfect. The best gig I'd ever seen at a festival that, for all the dress code flaws of some of its participants and general aura of indy arrogance, remains unique. All hail the dark Gods of rock!!!

December on my iPod!

I realise that the last two months' "reviews" were a tad on the long side. Call it beginners' enthusiasm.

Before gettin
g into music, I do have to ask why so many Christians / other religious people quote Hitler as an example of the evils atheists are capable of? As this article:, but also Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, demonstrate, he was no atheist, and used God as a means of propagating his politics of hatred.
By all means refer to Stalin if you want
to use such poor logic to decry atheism, but get your facts straight and admit the truth - that the holocaust was partly a result of Hitler's -and indeed German/European society's- Christian background and of the Church's direct collaboration with Nazism.
As it is, you can no more attribute the evils of Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin to their atheism as
you can to their rotund figures or taste for military uniforms. To my knowledge, no-one has killed in the name of atheism. But millions have died in the name of religion. People in Britain, with the not-too-distant Northern Irish past, should be wary of peddling to this kind of increasing religious fundametalism by undermining atheism so cheaply.

Rant ove
r. On with the sounds!

December coming just after my birthday, and being the month of Christmas, there have been quite a few CDs popped into my iMac's reader over the last few weeks! Greedy!

to Wire magazine's January 2010 issue, in which they feature their top 50 albums of 2009, I've been spending a bit of time checking out some of the last year's most-heralded releases. Typically for The Wire, some are so obscure as to be unavailable even after such a short period, but I was able to find their number one, Broadcast and The Focus Group's Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of The Radio Age (Warp Records, October 2009), a peculiar and fascinating slice of what is apparently called "hauntology", and which is principally based around exploring the sounds created by the gaps between stations on FM radio (!). This has long been the focus of The Focus Group's label Ghost Box (home of the excellent Eric Zann album Ouroborinda) and here they add the shimmering psych-pop and dream-like vocals of Broadcast into the mix, creating an odd little album that is dense (23 tracks over 50-odd minutes), elusive and strangely melancholic, like a folk- and electro-tinged modern answer to The United States of America's superb 1968 debut. Not perhaps the classic The Wire says it is, but one of the strangest releases of the year for sure, and a very beautiful one.

Also on their list, at number 20, was ambient great William Basinski's 92982 (2062, April 2009), for me one of the real triumphs of the last 12 months. Basinski has found his niche, taking old recordings he made in the 80s and then relaying them to digital, recording the shifts and disintegrations of the tape that occur during the transfer and using all this as basis to create remarkable ambient soundscapes that are slow, monotonous and absorbing. This has already given us his marvelous Disintegration Loops series (the third one is one of the best ambient albums of all time), but 92982 is pretty darn fabulous as well, a gentle, drifiting series of mysterious synth drones, tape noise and random sound effects, which filter through the ether due to the fact that the original recordings were made live in his apartment with the windows open. You hear klaxons, sirens, fireworks... And all the time the quiet, sensual, dreamy ambient magic, drifting like a raft over tumultous Brooklyn. But don't for one second assume this is a dull album. It subtly pulsates and fluctuates, dragging you in and it takes a while to get over it. Remarkable, and a welcome return from Basinski.

At the othe
r end of the pop spectrum (and coming in at a surprising number 21 in the Wire's list) were the current indie faves The XX, a very trendy-looking quartet of twenty-year-olds from London. Their debut, XX (Young Turks, August 2009) is a surprisingly superb little gem, and one of the rare times I will ever agree with the NME! The XX certainly have all the indy cool they need: black clothes, pouty mouths, cool hairdos. But they're also a damn smart pop band, taking their lyrical and musical approach from -wait for it- modern R'n'B (they even covered Aaliyah!) and plying it gently onto stripped down post-punk pop. Brittle rhytm tracks limp about over funky bass lines, jangly guitar and subtle synths, at times recalling a slower, dulled (but not dull, far from it) version of Interpol or Bloc Party. But the lyrics are all about sex and intimacy, hence the r'n'b references, and you feel the tracks lurching into robotic neo-funk, like kraftwerk backing Macy Gray. But their voices! The two singers, male and female (possibly a couple?) are shockingly, delighfully deadpan and emotionless, murmuring their lyrics of sex, loss and desire like teenagers reciting WH Auden in English class. As such, they are perhaps the most successful encapsulators of juvenile moodiness in quite some time, whilst their brittle electro tunes will always evoke Young Marble Giants, perhaps the only act they truly seem to ape. A nice, long-awaited addition to the pop scene.

But if The XX were everywhere come September, my discovery of Natural Snow Buildings was far more serendipitous, the result of lazy, semi-awake searching on NSB are a duo of folk musicians from France, who create lengthy folk-drone opuses in the tradition of Double Leopards, but with singing to boot. Their latest album, Shadow Kingdom (Blackest Rainbow, September 2009) is over two hours long, which may be a tad too much, but it still contains some of the most arresting sounds you will hear all year. The album alternates between vast (we're talking 15-to-20-minute pieces) drone epics, all fuzzed guitar and strings; and quieter acoustic ballads that evoke the kind of traditional folk played in medieval times. Singer Solange Gularte has a strong set of pipes, and the kind of gentle, affecting voice that made Linda Thompson so popular. Part dark gothic dronefest, part airy folk revival, Shadow Kingdom is a singular, and welcome release in these days of tiresome stadium acts. Tough to find on CD, NSB remain obscure, although my copy was purchased for me on Ya gotta love Christmas!!

Back in Oc
tober, 4AD finally did justice to Bauhaus' classic debut In The Flat Field (released 1980, also on 4AD), giving it a full sound-lift as well as providing it -and all their other early albums- with some truly lush packaging, complete with second disk of outtakes and a massive booklet. Not that this stellar bit of window-dressing overshadows the music! In The Flat Field may just be the first true "gothic" album, and whilst its legacy may be dubious (most "Goth" music is shite once you get past 1982 and The Virgin Prunes), the record itself is a classic, a dark, theatrical monsterpiece of post-punk insanity, the excessive, truly out-there answer to the austerity of Young Marble Giants, The Raincoats and Talking Heads. Bauhaus weren't subtle, but their excesses were still pretty curbed on this debut, with a monstrous punk drive hitting in at times to balance the pretention in some of the lyrics. And in Peter Murphy they had one of post-punk's most iconic vocalists, a demonic performer whose hoarse and baroque style was easily as genre-defining as Curtis' doomy moan and Devoto's acerbic sneer. A classic. 'Nuff said.

Stepping e
ven further back in time, I've been wigging out with much joy to the infernal doom-prog sounds of mid-seventies King Crimson, thanks to the superb live set The Great Deceiver (Virgin, box set 1992, re-released by EGM as two 2xCD sets in 2002), which showcases the quartet of John Wetton (bass, vocals), Robert Fripp (guitar, effects), Bill Bruford (drums, percussion) and David Cross (violin, mellotron, flute) in all its unfettered glory. This is perhaps the most celebrated KC line-up by fans of the band, the one that gave fans the classic albums Lark's Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and, sort of minus Cross, Red. The Great Deceiver, originally a 4-disk box set, now two separate and nicely packaged 2-disk jewel cases, is two-and-a-half hours of this brutal and elegant band at their height, surfing on the crest of the Larks' and Starless waves, and allowing the music to take them to wild and wondrous places, as they mixed familiar album tracks with exploratory improv pieces. It was this taste for the unknown, the desire to take risks, that set Crimson apart from their prog-rock contemporaries, the Yeses and Genesises of this world. Of course, with 4 full concerts (or so), some tracks are repeated, but never is this collection dull, as each version of each song carries subtle variations and shifts, something that highlights not only the band's experimental nature, but also their tight-knit musical understanding. Required listening for all Crim-heads, but also for anyone who thinks "progressive" rock is limited to grandiose Floydian concepts or ELP wankery.

But by far th
e band of the month has been the monumental Skullflower! Around since the early eighties, Skullflower is effectively the vehicle for Matt Bower, a British guitarist with a taste for free-form music and heavy, heavy noise. I discovered this lost treasure of a band through their third full album, and one of their only early ones to be available today, IIIrd Gatekeeper, released originally in 1992 on Justin K Broadrick's now-defunct indie HeadDirt, recently gloriously reissued by Crucial Blast (2007). This is certainly one of my all-time favourite albums. Thought I'd get that out of the way! If you think the birth of heavy sludge/doom/drone metal started with Earth's Earth 2, then think again! Over some of the most punishingly heavy drums you will ever hear (supplied by the superb Stewart Dennison - heavy as a God but with the necessary subtle touch to give his thudding feeling as well as weight) Matt Bower rips a new arsehole for his listeners with a tidal wave of savage guitar noise, lurching from Sabbathian doom-riffery to Brotzmann-inspired noise. It's the culmination of centuries of heathen rock explorations, touching on elements of Zappa, Takayanagi, Rallizes Denudes and Sabbath, without ever sounding derivative. And everyone from Melvins, to Boris, to SUNN O))) owe Skullflower a debt of gratitude for IIIrd Gatekeeper.
On a high, the band, usually more-versed in power electronics of the Whitehouse variety and unused to such a stable line-up (the Bower, Dennison duo being complimented on monster abss by Anthony di Franco), decided to stick to metal and release an almost immediate follow-up in the form of Last Shot at Heaven (Noiseville, 1993). Not as fully-formed as its predecessor, it is nonetheless an essential record (in fairness, it's hard to equal, let alone beat, IIIrd Gatekeeper). The cover picture shows a girl craning her neck backwards in ecstasy, and LSAH has a soaring, dramatic feel to it, at times evoking the harder side of My Bloody Valentine (think a crunchier "Only Shallow"). Bower's guitar is less bass-heavy and distorted than before, but don't for one second imagine that LSAH is mellow! This motherfucker still crunches, thunders and rages, and at times the gang (the perfect description for these three) unleash the kind of sheer noise that characterised both their earlier and later output.
And the noise was back in fine form for 1994's Carved Into Roses (VHF), yet another monumental album from Skullflower (minus DiFranco now, if I'm not much mistaken). The title does hint at moments of blissful ambient textures, with synths playing a greater -and more subtle- part than on the previous two records mentioned above, but mainly this is about the noise! The sounds are gritty, dark, buzzing and unpredictable. On some tracks, scattered drum patterns and rampaging solos from Bower clearly demonstrate a free-jazz influence, the kind of sophistication and variety that sets Bower and co. apart from the morass of metal and noise bands that formed in their wake. Both Carved Into Roses and Last Shot at Heaven are ahrd to get on CD, but are available to download from iTunes. So, the question remains - what the fuck are you waiting for, cunts???

I know for a fact that there are loads more Skullflower gems I need to discover and a couple are already winging their way to me. Certainly, the free-form noise of their later output, which more closely resembles the work Bower does with Hototogisu, is something I'm less familiar with (though if it's anything like Hototogisu, I can't wait!). Matt Bower (the sole remaining member from the early 90s) is an underrated rock genius and rebel, and deserves as much praise (and money) as geeks like me can sling his way.

So, a belated Merry Christmas to any who happen to stumble upon this blog, and a Happy New Year to you all! With more Skullflower, Krautrock, Jazz and metal to look forward to, I know mine's set to be a cracker!!


Thursday, 17 December 2009


Quick update!! I've started uploading the demo videos of my new project with multi-instrumentalist Niall O'Siadhall and guitarist Chris Gehlen to Youtube.

It's early days yet, and my iMac was shit for recording our sound, but we already like some of the industrial, drone and ambient sounds we've created. Exciting times!! When we have settled on our name, we'll launch a website and record some proper demos.


Tuesday, 1 December 2009

November on my iPod


It's been a month of heathen discoveries, amplifier worship and
industrial revolution for me, as I've delved into some dark recesses of rock lore, and subjecting my ears to a nice racket along the way...

First up, it's an avalanche of decibels and sa
turation, as seminal stoner-doomers OM are back!!! And in truly blissful fashion. God is Good (Drag City; September 2009), despite its dubious (for an atheist like me anyway) title, is a massive step forwards for Al Cisneros' outfit. Many were dismayed when righteous drummer Chris Hakius, whose monumental, non-stop, skin-pounding and cymbal-crashing had been such a key to the OM sound, left the band. How would Cisneros manage to keep the momentum built up by three stunning albums? OK, I'm less keen on Pilgrimage than on Conference of the Birds and Variations on a Theme, but still, OM had defined such a distinct style and sound, it was hard to see Cisneros maintaining things after Hakius' departure. The answer is by recruiting a drummer just as sensitive-yet-fucking-heavy in the form of Grails' Emil Amos. For many, the subtle shift in playing styles between Hakius (more monolithic) and Amos (more of a "licks" player) is tantamount to heresy, for me it allows OM to take themselves to a new level, with a more sophisticated, adventurous sound, incorporating sitar, keyboards and wind instruments. Yet at no point is this to the detriment of the sheer volume and power of OM's sound, as Cisneros' unholy bass ploughs a dark furrow over which his weird, pan-religious vocals take flight on the wings of Amos' polyrythmic drumming. It's at it's most impressive on the titanic "Thebes", but throughout God is Good, OM reach heights that they hadn't visited since the first track off Conference of the Birds. Righteous, I tell ye!

Of a much darker, even evil vein is Khanate's last album, the monstrous Clean Hands Go Foul (Hydra Head; May 2009). Khanate were a doom supergoup, and for purists of that particular (and peculiar) genre, remain something of a holy grail and, since their split circa 2006, a lost treasure. Clean Hands Go Foul is therefore a posthumous release, and one that came at just the right time to satiate lamenting Khanate fans.
Well, sort of. Truth be told, more than a few would have been -and indeed were- put off by Clean Hands Go Foul. Because it's a huge step away from the primeval stomp of the band's debut. A power shift in the band saw prolific guitarist Stephen O'Malley, quite often busy with a multitude of projects such as his main band Sunn O))), black ambient outift KTL, or the simple running of his label Southern Lord, take something of a backseat on this opus. As such, Clean Hands Go Foul is much less immediate that Khanate, with more room made for bassist James Plotkin's glitch and ambient experimentation and Alan Dubin's anguished vocals. So the spaces that were already present on the band's first two albums are stretched out even further, with Tim Wyskidia's drumming becoming more scattered, even infrequent, and Dubin's wild howls and pained shrieks (still among the most stirring and affecting vocals in rock history) are pushed forwards, only intermittently interspersed by bursts of O'Malley's distorted guitar. So, fans wanting more extreme-and-demented-but-still-somehow song-based epics like "Under Rotting Sky" and "Pieces of Quiet" will have been disappointed (though the new direction was already esquissed on their horror-doom sophomore effort Things Viral - also a classic). Things get most extreme and damn-near unlistenable on the 30+ minute long "Every God Damn Thing", where minimalist glitch and drone wash out of the speakers EVER. SO. SLOWLY. while Dubin pierces the hum with burst of high-pitched screams and Wyskidia occasionally wakes up to smatter our ears with jazzy drum patterns. It's definitely too long, even for me, but I keep coming back. I think it's Dubin's voice. He is surely one of a kind, every roar, shriek and rasp containing more pathos than a hundred soft-rock whingers.
So, a tough album, but one I deem es
sential (like all Khanate releases, the packaging is also amazing). This is a band looking beyond the confines of pure metal, taking as many cues, if not more, from Derek Bailey or Evan Parker as they do from Black Sabbath or Neurosis. They'll be missed.

Also assaulting my ears this month was Justin K Broadrick's Jesu, whose latest album Infinity (Avalanche; July 2009) has been getting a bit of a pasting in most quarters. Not me. In many ways, it might just be JKB's most powerful and complete statement to date. The problem is that its qualities can also be its flaws, and plus, most people want music, not statements. Infinity is long. Long. Long. Long. Long. One track. 49 minutes of music. It takes a lot of effort to take in, as JKB, operating alone and playing all instruments, shifts tempos and emphasis throughout, bringing in keyboards and electronics to add to his roaring guitar, moving effortlessly from doom-laden metal crunch to moments of graceful ambience. It's a compelling journey, but just that - a journey. Maybe too much for most Jesu fans, though when I heard it played in concert (in part - he's not a sadist) I was enthralled. JKB is a man of vision, and Infinity is a vital stage of that vision.

After so much crunch and thunder, I was little prepared for what hit me when I pushed Orthodox's latest opus, the wonderful Sentencia (Alone; August 2009), into my CD player (well, my Mac Book - how times change). Their first album, Gran Poder remains one of the best recent doom albums, heavy and morbid, but with touches of jazz subtlety and some of the weirdest, most cavernous vocals ever recorded. Heavy but with brains, and deservedly hailed by the likes of Julian Cope and Dusted. On Sentencia, the vocals are still there, maybe even more so. The singer sounds like he's just been woken from centuries of suspended animation, much like the zombie Templar knights from Amando de Ossorios "Blind Dead" series of Spanish horror films. But here's the thing: the avalanche-like drums and guitars crunch of the first album (I have to confess to not having heard the second) are pretty much gone! Which is not to say that this album is wimpy or, worse, all acoustic (I hate it when metal bands do that; except Tenhi - Tenhi rule). Au contraire, Sentencia is mighty in the most primeval sense. Taking the doom template, Orthodox strip it down, turn to instruments like the piano and the trumpet in addition to bursts of guitar, thumping drums and saturated bass, and deliver one of the greatest leaps forward in modern metal history. It's a fucking shame this album will go mostly unnoticed, as this could be a watershed moment! It's much like Khanate's revamping of their doom sound with jazz textures, only Orthodox haven't even bothered with much distortion or saturation and take the jazz and folk links to the ultimate summits. And the vocals have less to do with Alan Dubin's primal howl than with the ancient chanting of medieval monks. This is metal experimentation, metal by way of David Sylvian or Otomo Yoshihide. Fabulous, truly fabulous.

So, after subjecting my ears to full volume sonic assault at the hands of these dommsters and stoners, I of course decided the best thing to do would be to delve into the no-less extreme universe of Industrial music. I'm like that you see.

The trigger for me
was the double purchase of "Wreckers of Civilisation", Simon Ford's excellent book on COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle, and the band's second live compilation, Live Volume 2, 1977-1978 (The Grey Area, 1993). The book is a fascinating insight into the genesis (pun only possibly intended) and history of this most seminal of British post-punk bands, from their debuts as a provocative performance art group to their notorious career as sonic terrorists and agents provocateurs of the new genre known as Industrial. The live album is just as essential. I plumped for it as a fan of that particular period in the band's career and wasn't disappointed. The audience is, as with nearly all TG live recordings, completely inaudible, either drowned out by the sheer volume of the band's mechanical sound, or dumbfounded into silence by the outlandish non-music being vomited forth from the stage. TG were not your usual band, more a loose collective of contrarian amateurs who used self-built machines or machines they couldn't master to blurt out a sound that was meant to mirror the dark, post-industrial netherworld they felt they were living in (given they were based in run-down Hackney, the sound was apt): harsh, violent and robotic. On tracks like "Tesco Disco" and "Urge to Kill", the musical trio of Peter Christopherson, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Chris Carter propel the tracks forwards on vibrating customised synths and distorted guitar whilst singer Genesis P-Orridge barks out twisted, mean lyrics like some weird cross between Iggy Pop and Hitler. Other tracks are more ambient, lengthy swathes of electronic noise that bludgeon listeners into submission. It's perfectly nasty, or nastily perfect.

This redisco
very (of sorts, I've always been fascinated by TG, just went through a period of preferring Cabaret Voltaire and Suicide) has come at an opportune moment, as late last year the band re-recorded their seminal debut as the The Thirty-Second Annual Report of Throbbing Gristle (Industrial Records; 2008). Not as immediate as its original, of course, but it is certainly more than a lazy re-hashing. The tracks are all drawn out and extended, with the added bonus of better sound quality than Mute / Grey Area's rather dull CD reissues of the band's back catalogue in the early nineties. As such, Carter's pulsating mechanics and Tutti's buzzing guitar are thrown into sharp relief. This is one to be played loud.

I also decided to augment my co
llection of TG-related CDs by investing in their second album, the controversial (the cover pictures a young girl lying on a bed and exposing her knickers, whilst a photograph in the booklet shows the same girl sitting topless and grinning) D.o.A - The Third and Final Report (Industrial Records, 1978). It's a much more mixed bag than either their debut or 1979's Twenty Jazz Funk Greats (Industrial Records, 1979), with each member providing a solo track as well as the bundle of collaborations. The band was collapsing under the strain of their fractuous personal relationships, not helped by the demise of Tutti's relationship with P-Orridge and her affair with Carter. P-Orridge was becoming more paranoid, taking on most of the band's publicity and as such his lyrics, already sombre, became downright ferocious, taking in murder, mutilation, infanticide and the desperation of his newfound loneliness (particularly powerful on "Weeping", loved by Ian Curtis). Songs like "Hamburger Lady", "Hit By a Rock" and "Dead on Arrival" rank among the best the band ever recorded. Others, such as IBM or their 16-second reworking of their minor hit "United" are less interesting and so much filler. And filler is not a word I'm used to using with Throbbing Gristle. Even the less arresting tracks of The Second Annual Report (Industrial Records; 1977 - still their masterpiece) and 20 Jazz Funk Greats could never described as filler or dull.

Plunging into the history of Industrial music has allowed me to discover a whole wealth of bands beyond Throbbing Gristle. There's Cabaret Voltaire, of course, but I intend to do a wee post on them alone, as my big musical love of the year. Suffice to say no record collection is complete in my mind unless it includes Mix Up, Voice of America, Three Mantras and Red Mecca. But beyond the Sheffield trio, there are even more treasures. Take 23 Skidoo's all-too-brief debut Seven Songs (Fetish; 1982). The title's a lie - there are 8 songs, but they are all fast-paced and maximum only 5 minutes long, making this more an EP than an actual album. But it's still a classic. Taking TG's love for powerful and discordant electronics, but adding some funky percussion, 23 Skidoo took industrial into more commercial, but still powerful waters. In fact, at times Seven Songs is the most futuristic of the early industrial albums, echoing the early Human League with its synthetic bleeps and bloops and Kraftwerk with its robotic vocals. But fear not, on tracks like "Porno Base", its industrial credentials ring loud and clear, with dark electronics, mean vocals and a wry sample of famed "morality" campaigner Mary Whitehouse. It's certainly better than the similar Thirst (Fetish; 1981) by Clock DVA.

Altogether more sinister and sombre was Australian band SPK's Leichenschrei (Side Effects, 1982), one of the standout post-Gristle industrial releases. SPK were far darker and more contentious than 23 Skidoo, Clock DVA or even Cabaret Voltaire, with horrific posters and record covers that evoked the nastiest aspects of TG's oeuvre -and therefore human nature- even leaning in the direction of perennial shock masters Whitehouse. But the music on Leichenschrei remains perfect, comprised of brutal power electronics, harsh sounding rhythms and disturbing sound effects. This is music for downtrodden social outcasts, the insane and the lost, its icy atmospheres conjuring images of rain-swept streets in abandoned industrial zones, or run-down surgical clinics in some Miike-esque horror movie. Descriptions of autopsies, illnesses, testimonies by medical abuse victims or the insane (including the immortal line "The manager of the corporation tried to give me syphilis by wiping his cock on my sandwich") and crashing mechanical effects drift in and out of SPK's driving nightmare-scape, as unrelenting as Peter Brotzmann's "Machine Gun" and far more abrasive. For me, Leichenschrei is the true child of TG's Second Annual Report, one of only two records that approaches the masters' magnum opus for quality and force.

The other comparable record coincidentally also features a German title, but we have to zip across the Atlantic to get a taste of it, something actually near-impossible today as this album is pretty much lost now. The band were called Factrix, and are these days the stuff of legend, their influence and mystique far exceeding their sales. In such circumstances, the actual product can often prove to be overhyped and a let-down once finally listened to, but there is not such problem with Scheintot (Adolescent, 1981), which may just be one of the greatest "rock" albums ever made.
Although, to call it rock is one hell of a misnomer, just as The Second Annual Report was a long way from rock tradition, owing as much to the avant-garde and drone as it did to three-chord
r'n'r. Factrix were from America's most out-there city, San Francisco, and, like Chrome or The Residents, reconnected the New Wave's contrarian attitude with the psychedelic spirit that had imbued California's rock since the mid-sixties. I would even go so far as to say that psych was a key component of early Industrial (Genesis P-Orridge would actually name-drop Frank Zappa in interviews), as the sheets of pulsating noise would, like the best psych, mess entirely with the synapses of these bands' audiences. And "pulsating" is the perfect word to describe the sound of Factrix, whose dreamy, ghost-like songs featured montonous, watery (honestly the best word!) rhythm patterns from a clapped-out drum machine, washed down by throbbing bass lines and swathes of distorted electronics and fucked-up guitar drones. As with SPK and TG, the general atmosphere on Scheintot is oppressive and grim, epitomised by the superb cover artwork. The vocals are hushed and snarling and the whole thing is permeated by a sense of dread and menace. It remains one of my favourite albums of all time, and it's a travesty that it remains unavailable to this day.

But Clock DVA and 23 Skidoo were showing the way when they incorporated metallic percusion into the harsh industrial soundscapes of their peers. Soon SPK and the likes of Test Dept. were doing the same and industrial music became more driving, more percussive, even dancey in places (this is the point that Cabaret Voltaire lose me...). Taking this to similar extremes as Throbbing Gristle and SPK did with electronics, German band Einsturzende Neubauten created one of the biggest splashes of the time, with their monumental debut Kollaps (ZickZack; 1981). It's one of my favourite albums of the eighties, and a true masterpiece of harsh, claustrophobic rock at its most extreme. Forgoing traditional "rock" instruments, Blixa Bargeld (a future occasional Bad Seed) and his madcap cohorts used nothing but power tools and sheets of metal to create the unhinged and violent musical backdrops for Bargeld's hoarse and raw primal scream vocals. This is most effective on the opener "Tanz Debil", a strangely groovy track but one that also disturbs and assaults with uninhibited angst; whilst "Steh auf Berlin" is more experimental, kicking off with the screech of a power drill! The title track is equally stunning, industrial blues like Free filtered through Killing Joke. If I'm truly honest, Kollaps gets a bit weaker towards the end, but the force of its first tracks and its general atmosphere of hysterical anger make it essential listening.

Industrial music is a difficult and punishing genre, and one that has evolved enormously over the years, getting simultaneously more extreme and more commercial in parallel strand
s. It has an amazing power to evoke atmospheres of urban decay, twisted mechanics and social angst. The albums I've been listening to this month are just a smattering of the early classics, and I haven't even had time to listen to much Coil, Test Dept. or early Current 93. Maybe for December. For people into this kind of extreme music, I recommend the following blog: Very interesting!

The last album that has been spinning away in my head is Lou Reed's Metal Machine Trio's The Creation of the Universe (Sister Ray; 2008). Available only through Reed's website, it's the recording of a live gig made in LA of this singualr new project that appears to have re-invigorated the former Velvet Underground singer. The Metal Machine Trio is comprised of Reed on guitar, Ulrich Krieger on sax and Sarth Calhoun on Fingerboard Continuum and live processing. Both Reed and Krieger also drone away on electronics. The album is comprised of two near-hour-long improvisations, that segue gracefully from minimalist drone to distorted noise to avant-gardist free jazz. It's a mesmerising concoction, unpredictable but engaging, the kind of hypnotic drone that sends me into raptures. It's a long and challenging listen, but I could not recommend it enough and it could just be the best album of the decade.

Have a great December, and Merry You-Know-What one and all!