Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Winter on my iPod!!

Time was when I used to love snow. Now I can't help but feeling properly fucking Grinch-like as I desperately try not to fall arse over tit on my way to work or stand shivering next to my smoker friends outside overcrowded pubs. Whatever happened to just enjoying rain? If you throw in Transport for London's overwhelming incompetence, the excessive cruelty of the coalition's cuts, ongoing nonsense in the tabloids about "Winterval" replacing Christmas, and the fact that my bank account is being decimated by my constant hoarding of CDs, Christmas presents and excessive consumption of alcohol and whatnot, then it is little wonder that my mood has been beyond sombre. 
But as I sit here consuming an entire bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and listening to The Cherry Point's immense "Harsh Noise Walls" album Night of the Bloody Tapes, I am reminded that, for all my grumpiness, there's a lot of pretty amazing shit out there. So fuck the snow, Daily Mail windbags and all the rest of the world's crap, and let's just get trashed and bleed our ears dry with great music!

And it's been a hefty one! First up, let me send out a "hail, hail" to the immensely talented British singer-songwriter Richard Youngs, erstwhile Jandek collaborator, whose brief but unforgettable album Sapphie (1998, rereleased in 2000 on Jajaguwar) has been serenading me to sleep pretty much every night for a month. Youngs' background in experimental music surprised me after I'd heard this, as, whilst it is a dense, peculiar and sparse album, it is above all wonderfully simple, captivating and musical. It's actually a concept album, a reflection in three tracks on the death of Youngs' dog, but despite such ambitions, only features the man himself on vocals and acoustic guitar. It's a brave and audacious move and full credit has to go to Youngs for being able to hold the listener in his spell with such simple means, thanks to the strength of the melodies and his desperately forlorn singing and guitar picking. The result is songs that are desperately sad and mournful, supremely troubling reflections on death, mortality and loss. 

 Perhaps it is down to my far-too-tardy recent discovery of the aforementioned Jandek, but lately I have become fascinated with the stripped-down aesthetic of solo guitar-and-vocals. Indeed, I've spent a long time listening to the vintage solo blues of Lightnin' Hopkins, whose influence looms heavily over many an electric and acoustic solo guitar artist, from Townes Van Zandt to Neil Young (indeed, this year's superb Le Noise could be seen as heavy electric blues) to my next "Winter fave", the great Keiji Haino, who was bound to get a mention here after he rocked my world so supremely at ATP. Right after his set, actually, I sped off to the merchandise stand and picked up a copy of Watashi Dake? (1981, Pinakotheca), his seminal debut opus.
Unlike the monstrous noise/metal miasma I witnessed in Minehead, Watashi Dake? is a stripped-down affair, with just a guitar and Haino's inimitable voice - that pained, harsh interlacing of high-pitched whine and terror-inducing roar. His guitar work is challenging, with brittle picking and fucked-up chords jostling for space and creating a dynamic tension, as if everything is one micro-second away from all-out collapse, something heightened by the live recording conditions. But, more remarkable still is Haino's use of silence, which increases the tension, the listener being at all times unsure of where the man's singular, insular vision will lead next. In this bizarre deconstruction of the solo singer-songwriter model, Watashi Dake? (roughly translates as "Only me?") demonstrates that Keiji Haino is as iconoclastic, inventive and experimental an artist as Jandek or even Derek Bailey.
As an extra little bonus, the PSF Records reissue of Watashi Dake?, from 1993, includes a bonus track featuring 29 minutes of supremely useful guitar pyrotechnics and monstrous electronic noise. Right the fuck on!

Recent readers will know that I hold Kevin Drumm in particularly high regard. What staggers me most about this prolific and mysterious avant-garde composer/noisician, is just how varied and impossible to pin down his music is. Even when he's engaging in a rather distinct genre experiment, as on 2002's seminal noise masterpiece Sheer Hellish Miasma, his approach is slightly out-of-synch with the codas of the genre he's toying with, as if he's staring at the music from behind a pane of glass in a studio-turned-laboratory. It may be vaguely impersonal to some, but to me it just encourages me to want to dig and probe deeper at his music, to try and get closer to the beating human heart behind these wondrous sounds.
His sophomore album, succinctly named Second (1999, Perdition Plastics) is a typically surprising and oblique record, again one in which the personality and emotions of the man involved seem to be dissolved into the sound. Far from Sheer Hellish Miasma's vicious noise, or the cold, distant drones of Imperial Distortion, the music on Second is resolutely avant-garde, evoking such minimalist icons as Charlemagne Palestine or Xenakis, as he uses distorted guitar, sound generators, synth and -fittingly- silence to create rich, impenetrable sound tapestries. The cover, depicting a foggy landscape captured from a distance, reflects the listless nature of the music, but once again there are hints of  the humanity hidden beneath all this sonic extremism (note, I mean by this in the sense of taking music into new extremes of abstraction rather than something noisy or violent - if anything this is the closest Drumm has got on anything I've heard to pure, Eno-esque ambient music). Notably in the track titles, such as "-...we both liked the view...-, the very layout of which seem to suggest a narrrative that Drumm only allows us a glimpse of. There's romance and sentiment in the grooves of this magical album, and if you have the patience to delve into it, the rewards are overwhelming.

Released the same year (1999), Otomo Yoshihide's renowned experimental drone album Cathode (Tzadik Records) actually has echoes of Drumm's opus, serendipitously, of course. Like on Second, the music here is almost deliberately restrained, yet still maintains an air of menace, as if Yoshihide is ready to burst into sheets of noise at any moment (again, knowing a bit about the Japanese maestro's back catalogue of free jazz and turntablist noise helps reinforce this tension). Intriguingly, the title tracks, "Cathode 1" and "Cathode 2" are, to my mind, the least interesting tracks, although both represent excellent examples of live-recorded modern-day experimentation, as Yoshihide samples his collaborators directly as they produce their music (including Sachiko M), toys with strings, voices, pianos and traditional Japanese instruments, and produces a Varese-inspired pair of unusual, jarring and post-modern compositions. But it's the two "Modulation" tracks that bookend the album which really elevate Cathode to avant-garde masterpiece status. On the first, a gently-plucked acoustic guitar duets subtly with a high-pitched sine-wave generator tone, creating a beguiling mix of the atonal and the melodic. Slowly, a droning sho, a traditional Japanese wind instrument, slides into the mix, and the result is something like the Taj Mahal Travellers jamming with Ryoji Ikeda. The final track is even more mesmerising, a perfect encapsulation of jarring drone. Often with minimal music like this and Second, the complaint is that "not much happens". For me, in so many ways, that's a plus. By refusing to kowtow to mainstream sensibilities, and by channeling such disparate strains as minimalist electronica and zen Buddhism, Yoshihide forces the listener to appreciate the music with a fresh perspective. 

As well as Keiji Haino, one of the big highlights of the "Nightmare before Christmas" ATP Festival was New Zealand trio The Dead C, veterans in their own right of the noise-rock underground scene. However, I am embarrassed to admit that I have paid scant attention to their recent output, despite falling head-over-heels in love with their seminal 1992 album Harsh 70s Reality years ago. Their wonderful improvised set at ATP convinced me to correct this and, at the recommendation of guitarist Bruce Russell, I bagged a copy of their latest release, Patience (2010, Ba Da Bing!) there and then. What a great choice (thanks Bruce!!!). Much like the live set, Patience is obviously improvised, and has a lo-fi, ramshackle vibe that instantly recalls such great underground rock/improv acts like Skullflower, Ramleh and even The Velvet Underground. The album's title is meant to be an ironic comment on the "difficult" reputation of The Dead C's output but if this is meant to require patience to get into, I must be pretty adaptable, as I was captured from the off. I love Robbie Yeats' insistent, wobbly back-beats, all Mo Tucker clatter and hints of Klaus Schulze's (circa the first Ash Ra Tempel album, natch!) elegant thrash. Michael Morley's deadened vocalisations are sadly missing from Patience, but that's the only quibble as he and Russell unleash a series of fuzzed-out solos, rampant feedback and stoned riffage. The last piece, "South" is a near-15-minute slab of blissful experimental rock, as trippy as it is fascinating, with weird sounds offset by unfamiliar jazz motifs. Patience is a very "structureless" album but, as with Skullflower's Exquisite Fucking Boredom album, it's also as heady as the Grateful Dead in full Fillmore flight. Bliss!

Talking of bliss, there is literally no other word to describe the album by Canadian doom-metal duo Nadja that has been spinning away on my iPod all month. Seems the band realised it as well, seeing as they named it Bliss Torn From Emptiness! Originally released on Fargone Records in 2005, Bliss Torn From Emptiness was given a remix and stunning new artwork by guitarist/effects bod Aidan Baker in 2008, and was quite simply one of the best albums released that year. Nadja have a familiar but stunningly effective formula, one that also has worked marvelously for "post-rock" acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mono, but which these guys have perfected to unrivalled levels, mainly by avoiding the ruts so many post-rock bands fall into (y'know "let's do quiet-to-loud-to-quiet over and over again"). Inspired by early-nineties guitar bands like My Bloody Valentine, Nadja build up walls of saturated guitar solos, so heavily distorted by effects as to create a weird, hazy total sensory assault. But where Nadja differ from the shoegaze crowd is that, where the latter's music feels urban, with a city-dweller's sense of disconnection and apathy, Nadja's music is anchored in the folk heritage of post-Sabbath metal, especially the droning, amped-up doom of SUNN O))) and Boris. Using crunching drum machines, and sub-Iommi riffs, with a bass that could bring on earthquakes, this music plods and thunders where MBV tried to soar, coming on like primeval forest spirits woken from centuries of slumber. At times, the guitars and synths rise heaven-wards like elegiac angels, but for the main, Bliss Torn From Emptiness is a dark, bleak and harsh epic. Along with SUNN O)))'s White2, Boris' Flood, Orthodox's Sentencia and Jesu's self-titled debut, it's surely one of the best metal albums of the last decade.

Another great treat this year has been the launch of noise fanzine 'As Loud As Possible', the first issue of which came out chock-a-block with interviews, pics, reviews and analyses in November. Among its many insights and great bits of info, there was a lengthy history of the seminal 80s record label Broken Flag, who were run by Gary Mundy, and proved a key player in the development of the "power electronics" sub-genre, releasing tapes and vinyl recordings by the likes of The Grey Wolves, Maurizio Bianchi and Skullflower. Reading through this great article (seriously, a big "hail" to the guys behind ALAP, as well as the lads at Second Layer Records for distributing it here - I honestly can't praise them enough!), I was predictably inspired to seek out the output of Mundy's own band, Ramleh, which led me to the essential album/compilation Hole In The Heart (2009, Dirter). Ramleh were a slightly different proposition to most of their contemporaries (hence, perhaps, their epic write-up in The Wire a while ago), often eschewing the blatant provocation of contemporaries like Whitehouse and Sutcliffe Jugend, to develop something more esoteric and mystical. Hole In the Heart was originally a tape release from 1987 on Broken Flag, but has been augmented in this superb edition to include other tracks from the same period, whilst maintaining a consistent atmosphere throughout its two discs. By the time of the original Hole In The Heart, Ramleh was pretty much a solo project for sustained guitar/electronic workouts by Mundy, who took the template of power electronics acts like Whitehouse and stripped it down, highlighting the drone and atmosphere whilst forgoing the theatrics. Other tracks on this CD edition include members of Skullflower such as Anthony diFranco and Matt Bower, and they therefore had echoes in that band's subsequent releases such as Form Destroyer, Xaman and IIIrd Gatekeeper, with a similar emphasis on a sort of primordial force that feels like it predates modern civilisation altogether. This is particularly prevalent on tracks like "Bite the Bolster" and "Do Not Come Near", where suspended, fuzzy guitar and organ drones swirl around the ether, whilst Mundy chants and moans in a forlorn, subhuman voice. Less directly "metal" than any of the early Skullflower records, with more frequent bursts of harsh electronic noise, Hole In The Heart feels ultimately more desolate and forlorn, and its influence clearly can be heard on acts like SUNN O))), The North Sea and Robedoor.

I can't really sign off on 2010 without bringing up a bit of hauntology, can I? Whatever you may think of the term, and its ubiquity in the pages of The Wire, and on blogs such as this one (I'll admit it - I love the stuff!), there is no denying the impact it has had on modern post-noise music, and the way it has opened even more horizons for modern-day pop/rock/electro artists as they play with new sound sources, effects and influences.

One of the most important acts in British hauntology at the moment is undoubtedly Demdike Stare, who released a trilogy of EPs and albums this year, of which Liberation Through Hearing (2010, Modern Love) is the big highlight (although both the EP that preceded it, Forest of Evil, and the subsequent LP Voices of Dust are also excellent). Differentiating themselves from many of their haunted peers, Demdike Stare have embraced the typically Northern English heathen undertones suggested by their moniker (Demdike was the pseudonym of a famous 16th-century "witch"), as opposed to distorted pop culture references or hints of rock archetypes. In many ways, with its arcane synths and shadowy textures, Liberation Through Hearing feels darkly nostalgic, like a horror movie director imagining sinister historical events the rest of us have long forgotten (which figures, given the witchcraft references, which even extend to a lot of the duo's artwork). Which does not mean Liberation Through Hearing is retro in any sense. If anything, for all its arcane synth use, it's soemthing of a cross-section of modern popular music, the synths at times evoking trance-electronica or ambient music, whilst there are scattered techno beats on "Regolith" and shades of spectral dub on opener "Caged In Stammhein". Such eclecticism harkens back to their 2009 debut Symbiosis, but Liberation Through Hearing is an altogether more coherent offering, with these individual elements getting swallowed into the swirling haze like echoes coming down a darkened passage in an abandoned factory or ruined castle on the Lancashire moors. It makes for an arresting and troubling whole, the elements pieced together like Frankenstein's music - yet another horror reference! Haunted by the landscapes of Northern England, Demdike Stare have managed to encapsulate the mysticism, darkness and beauty of their surroundings, and beyond, in Liberation Through Hearing. It's one of the best albums of 2010.

The North ("where we do what we want!") haunts the grooves of another important release this year, though in a much different way. Darkstar is made up of a trio of Northerners exiled in London, who, after a string of well-received singles and EPs, released their debut album, North on much-loved dubstep label Hyberdub in October. Sadly, it looks like the hype surrounding the aforementioned tasters has caused a backlash similar to that encountered by Salem with their debut King Night, also released this year. Part of this seems to be down to the label on which North has appeared. After all, Hyperdub is firmly at the forefront of the UK dubstep scene, seemingly able to predict every major shift and innovation in this increasingly overpopulated genre with each release. And Darkstar started out by being very much in a similar zone as their peers Kode 9 and Burial, before scaling back the dub, hiring vocalist James Buttery and moving into sparser and more electronic musical territory with their debut longplayer. Many have scratched at the reason for this shift, with nostalgia for their Northern "homeland", birthplace of electro pioneers OMD, The Human League, Soft Cell et al, seemingly the preferred explanation, meaning North is regularly dismissed as being retro-flavoured electro-pop, especially as one of the albums stand-out tracks is a cover of The League's "Gold". But to look at North as just an eighties throwback is a bit insulting to the guys behind this weird little record, and above all displays an inability to look beyond cliches and preconceptions: about dubstep, electronic music and even music labels like Hyperdub. In fact, I'd argue that the company's boss Steve Goodman (aka Kode 9) has once again shown how forward-thinking he is. It may sound very different to label mates Burial or King Midas Sound, but Darkstar's music still inhabits the same nocturnal fringe of isolated post-dance urbanness as they do, that no-man's-land between alcohol-fuelled sadness and the dancefloor. Darkstar's take on electro-pop is not crass retrovision, and honestly, apart maybe from the catchy "Dear Heartbeat", doesn't sound much like the aforementioned eighties acts. Their closest cousins are actually mournful Canadian popsters Junior Boys and, like them, Darkstar produce music that has hooks aplenty, but above all feels emotionally real and touching. As the dubstep wave wanes a tad, and the genre's producers scrabble around looking for new inspiration, it seems Darkstar -and Steve Goodman- have realised there will be a place among those left behind for simple, heartfelt and intelligent post-dance music. As Goodman himself says, music is a virus, and North is probably urban music's latest gorgeous mutation.

My, that's quite an eclectic selection I've gone through! Of course, it's only the tip of the iceberg, but I'd rather not bore the pants off anyone, including myself, by going on too long. But, if you like any or all of the above, I also recommend checking out Ouroborindra by Eric Zann (2005, Ghost Box), The Topography of the Lungs by Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and Han Bennink (1970, Incus), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by Macropnympha (1995, Praxis Dr Bearmann), Philip Jeck's An Ark For The Listener (2010, Touch), 2 by Stephen O'Malley and Peter Rehberg's side-project Ktl (2007, Editions Mego), all the Skullflower and Noise albums I mentioned in my previous two or three posts, plus Blue Corpse and Ready for the House by Jandek, and Lightnin' Hopkins' debut album. All brilliant and all constantly in my ears this month...

Some people have said that I take music too seriously, that it can't possibly matter as much to the world as I seem to think it does. Well, maybe... But then I think of how hard so many people seem to find this festive period, myself included. For various reasons, the hype, jolities and constant glitter can seem to underline a sense of loneliness or despondency. Only last night, as I wound my way through central London from Soho to Charing Cross, I was hit by such a sense of sadness, despite the snow and bright lights, because my path frequently crossed that of homeless men and women, who were huddled under sleeping bags and old newspapers, on park benches or in shop doorways, bracing themselves against the freezing cold and biting wind. I'd already given money to support homeless charity Crisis (www.crisis.org.uk), but the sight of so many people suffering at this time of year was troubling. But then, as I reached Charing Cross station, the melodic, haunting sound of French horns playing "Silent Night" wafted its way to my ears. A brass band was playing Christmas carols, whilst a small group of volunteers were preparing to dispense warm soup to the homeless (might explain why there were so many of them, in fairness). Obviously, the food was the main comforter for these destitute souls, but I like to think that those forlorn, beautiful notes would have brought just a little bit extra warmth to their hearts, as most music does for me when I'm at a low ebb. 

Anyway, just a thought, eh? Whatever the truth in my assumption about "Silent Night" on a cold night, it helped reinforce my belief that music matters. Happy Winterval, everyone (fuck you, Daily Mail!!!) and I guess (hope) I'll be back in 2011.

- J. December, 2010

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Seeing sounds and hearing thunder: All Tomorrow's Parties curated by Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Minehead, Somerset - 03 to 05/12/2010

For Pitchfork-reading hipsters, the return of Godspeed You! Black Emperor to the live stage after nearly nine years of silence must have seemed like the second coming and the Montreal-based band duly delivered with a performance on each of the three days. 

There can be no denying the draw of GY!BE. "Post-rock" is essentially a non-genre, a meaningless term in 99.99% of cases (I can only really think of Talk Talk and, possibly, Tortoise, as being bands thus-defined who actually deserve the tag). Even GY!BE are anchored in "rock" music, both conceptually and instrumentally.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor
But where Godspeed stand head-and-shoulders over the liked of Yndi Halda, Explosions in the Sky or Mono, is that their clarity of vision, and strength of composition is, at times (notably on their seminal masterpiece from 2000 Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven), unparalleled in modern popular rock music. In the two sets I caught over the course of the weekend, their vision was perfectly -if a little heavy-handedly- encapsulated by the stirring 16mm film footage played out behind the band during every song, the soaring violin lines and walls of gorgeous guitar melodies gaining extra potency through the abstract images of fires, ruined cities and blurry landscapes enfolding in the background. And there are few bands out there who can draw emotion out like Godspeed. Their music is sad, mournful, powerful and dramatic in equal measure, raging squalls offset by gentle acoustic passages, sampled voices and that omnipresent violin. During the Saturday set, I sat down on the floor, surrounded by similarly prostrate people, drinking in the musical fountain. At times, it was stunning.

You know what's coming though - a "but". Unfortunately, for all the beauty and emotion, there is something I find very irritating and contrived about Godspeed You! Black Emperor, at least live. For a band that's so static, there's a lot of posturing involved, and a sort of "look-at-us-we're-so-emotional-and-musically-adventurous" vibe reeks from them like methane. In many ways, this is similar in its contrivance to the worst of seventies prog (such as Yes or ELP), but I feel that for some reason, rock's self-appointed arbiters of taste are remarkably more forgiving of GY!BE's excesses and pretension. Such is life, I guess. So, two remarkable and moving sets but, if I'm honest, Godspeed's best contribution was the line-up they assembled for the weekend rather than their own weighted contributions.

But what a line-up! Possibly the best I've ever seen at a (relatively) mainstream UK festival, with a remarkable array of forward-thinking music, from free jazz to modern composition via noise, drone and experimental rock. Such an overload of talent meant I missed Neurosis (not that fussed, really), Tim Hecker, Josephine Foster (gutted) and Wolves in the Throne Room, yet still caught some of the most exciting and breath-taking live shows I've ever seen.

But before any of the pleasure could be taken in, before we could even set out for Minehead, we were hit with the tragic news of the death of Throbbing Gristle's Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson, meaning Friday's set by X-TG had to be canceled, a minor loss when compared to how bereft the musical and artistic world has been left by this dreadful passing. Having been blessed with the chance to see Sleazy live in what turned out to be the last-ever TG gig in London back in October, I can testify to his genius, and it was a real shame to not get to see what X-TG could have achieved as a trio. RIP Sleazy.

But, sometimes painfully, life goes on, and those acts that remained did a good job of (almost) putting my sadness at Sleazy's passing to the back of my mind. Obviously, not all was perfect (as you've probably already gathered), and I was a tad disappointed in both Black Dice and Bardo Pond. The former were the first band I caught on the Friday, and I had high hopes, probably somewhat stupidly given they were based on my love for their Beaches and Canyons album, which came out way back in 2002. Obviously, their style has evolved enormously since then, and they come across as an American answer to Bristol's Fuck Buttons, in that they may have a grounding in noise music, but they have long since moved into more electronic areas, sometimes to the detriment of their harsher edges. Having said that, their incorporation of frenetic Detroit beats and traces of Brooklyn hip-hop were expertly managed, much in the way Fuck Buttons did a solid job a taking harsh noise and trance and somehow making them fit together. However, unlike the two Briton's, I didn't feel that Black Dice had the tunes to really back up their obvious musical knowledge, and most of their set is now a bit fuzzy to me, something I swear has sweet f.a. to do with all the vodka I drank! Good sounds, but nowhere near as memorable as the seminal Beaches and Canyons.

If you have read my blog before, you will know the esteem that I hold Bardo Pond in. I consider their 1996 opus Amanita to be nothing short of a masterpiece, as well as the debut album of side-project Baikal. So I was excited to be catching them again at ATP, albeit rather early on the Saturday. Their heady drones and trippy melodies will always to me be better suited to late-night gigs. And, loud and fuzzy, they delivered as promised, at least at first, as old faves snaked out of the speakers early on to subsume my senses in psychedelic mulch. Sadly, the second half of their set was given over to their new material, and honestly, it does not hold up to what they have done before. The main cause seems to be a clearer, cleaner sound, apparently geared towards promoting Isobel Sollenberger's voice, but which basically caused their songs to drift out of the grunge-meets-Hawkwind vibe of their earlier material, and into something more mainstream and, sadly, forgettable. The tunes simply did not live up to the ambitions they may have, and without the Gibbons' brothers messed-up guitar feedback placed front-and-centre, the whole thing felt a bit by-the-ropes. A shame (especially as they are all lovely people - yes, I got to meet them), and here's hoping they return soon to the vibrant mix of drifting psych and fuzzed-out bile that made them so compelling in the first place. Meanwhile, I'm gonna listen to "Limerick" and down a bottle of absinthe, for the memories!

Chris Corsano
In fact, rock, for me, took a bit of a back-seat, at least initially, during a festival marked by the delirious joys of sonic improvisation. Given the negative perception improv in rock had obtained by the end of the seventies (thanks, Prog, or should that be an invective against the narrow-mindedness of Punk?), it's great to see it back at the forefront of underground rock expression, and the Flower/Corsano Duo, made up of prolific drummer Chris Corsano, and Vibracathedral Orchestra's Mike Flower on a weird mixture of lap steel guitar and sitar, demonstrated this expertly. What a lot of critics, both of improv (those from a rock purist background) and rock (those from a jazz/improv purist background), seem to forget, or not note, is how vibrant the mixture of unpredictability and uncertainty that improv brings to rock can be, in the right hands. Corsano has drummed in noise and free jazz acts, and his rhythms were alternately hard-hitting and subtle, crushing Flower's mystical avalanche of notes under waves of thrashing cymbals and toms, before suddenly pulling back to create space and time for the music to breathe and grow. The result was a summation of the best of Vibracathedral's oddball drone and the unfettered violence of free-jazz noise, as if both were being sublimated by the association of such disparate approaches. An unlikely, and most welcome surprise, early on in the festival.

The Dead C would elevate matters to another level altogether on Saturday. The veteran New Zealanders' sense of improvisation is far-removed from the dexterous, virtuoso approach of many free-jazz/avant-garde musicians or wannabes. The Dead C unleashed a bloody-minded mixture of drone and pure rock that came on like Neil Young, only stripped of even that most obtuse of rock star's sense of commercial nous. But just as with Crazy Horse there was a sense that, even as these three living legends strained towards the stratosphere on wings of distorted guitar noise, moaned vocals and scattered drumming, there was the perpetual risk the whole thing could fall apart and collapse into a seething miasma of ruined, atonal mulch. This lingering feeling of chaos gave their set an undercurrent of dread, tension and edge, something accentuated by the crushing volume and the vicious undertones of Michael Morley's deadpan voice. Far from the intricacies and cleanliness of a lot of jazz or post-rock improvisation, this was a pure sonic overload, as easily indebted to punk as it was to Miles Davis.

A completely different form of avant-garde music came on the Friday night, in the form of veteran turntablist/hauntology pioneer Philip Jeck, long a personal idol of mine, and whose appearance became a quasi-spiritual event for me, and even my friend James, who was unfamiliar with the great Liverpudlian's work. Jeck's method is singular, using broken or aging vinyls and filtering them through a gaggle of effects machines to create haunting and unusual drone/electronic pieces of remarkable simplicity and subtle elegance. Live, his constantly-shifting sounds filled the room with an ethereal haze as he stood hunched over his compact set-up, looking more like a tired accountant pondering some complicated figures. Pieces would start out seeming fragile and intricate, before impromptu blasts of hissing drone would interrupt the flow, dragging the audience into new and unexpected environments, never allowing us to settle into a sonic comfort zone. It was a deeply moving and hypnotic set, one of the best of the weekend by far.

Philip Jeck

Indeed, Jeck set the tone, really. Whilst younger or more frivolous acts left me nonplussed, once again it was the elder statesmen who demonstrated just how to communicate on both intellectual and emotional levels with their audiences. On Saturday we were treated to an exceptional solo performance by highly-regarded saxophonist John Butcher, who must have felt a bit odd to be blasting out his adventurous jazz improvisations to such a distinctly "rock" audience. Butcher's work is astounding: he not only assails you with a wondrous torrent of sparkling, strident or melodic sax notes, in the grandest tradition of Brotzmann and Evan Parker, but he completely reworks the concept of playing the saxophone altogether, going so far as to use his saliva and breathing as new ways of creating and exploring sound, with startling results that transcended free jazz as a genre. His short, beautiful, set was the most unlikely of the festival, and a welcome foray into more subtle and challenging realms of musical art.

Charlemagne Palestine was another wondrous veteran who lit up the festival with a set that was bizarre, unusual and beautiful. Palestine sets are renowned for their ritualistic nature, and this was no exception, with a suitcase overflowing with toys placed in front of him whilst he rubbed a glass of cognac ("the world's first synthesizer") and chanted an impregnable dirge, that seemed to owe much to Native American song. With his outlandish clothes and mannered gait, he could have been comical, but such was the intensity of his delivery that he held the room in his grasp, like Jeck resulting in something heady and spiritual. After he was done with the chanting, he returned to his laptop to unleash a room-shaking heavy drone, displaying the degree to which modern classical composers like him cast a long shadow over latter-day noise music.

Charlemagne Palestine, with cognac!
The biggest disappointment of the weekend, beyond the tragic no-show of X-TG obviously, was the inexplicably short appearance by seminal German duo Cluster. It was doubly sad, as what they did play (all of 30 minutes, tops) was even superior to the monolithic set I saw them deliver at the Royal Festival Hall last year, when they supported -and jammed with- Tortoise. Here, bolstered by an almost Chemical Brothers-like light and with sharp, pulsating beats underpinning shimmering electronics and ephemeral sound snippets, they moved far beyond the minimalist drone of their seventies output and into a hybrid form of techno, much in the manner of exciting current acts like Flying Lotus and Demdike Stare, only with a much greater emphasis on improvisation and towering walls of heavy sound. That it was so exciting only added to the frustration at the brevity of their set. 

But that was really the only real quibble of a really memorable festival. Even the by-the-ropes jamming of Oneida and bog-standard but fun post-punk of The Ex contained some great moments that made them worth catching. But, as with my visit last year, when SUNN O))) effectively annihilated everything that came before, once again my final sets would prove to be the most exhilarating, even taking into account the marvels that had come before. I guess it's as much down to fatigue after three days of constant music (after all, I'm pretty sure Jeck, Butcher and Palestine were easily as good, and at times better than what hit me on the Sunday night), but the effect that both Keiji Haino and Emeralds had on my sense and emotions was electric. 

Keiji Haino
I'd been dying to see Haino, one of avant rock's true great mavericks, and I'm pleased to say he did not disappoint. I was unsure of which Haino I'd get. Would it be the minimalist vocal experimenter? The solo guitar shredder? A Haino fiddling with electronics, inspired by his recent, excellent, collaborations with Pansonic? Ironically, it was all at once, and it was a marvel to see this diminutive Japanese veteran with his waist-length grey hair flailing around as he ripped punishing, post-metal salvos from his beleaguered six-string before leaping to one of three microphones to howl, squeak or wail away in some deranged parody of Buddhist chanting (something that, of course, hints at the spiritual -that word again!- nature of much of Haino's work). When he wasn't giving us some of the best explorations of guitar and vocals (and I could go on for ages about how this saturated, excessive approach to those two instruments is, for all its modernist bombast, a direct descendant of the acoustic Delta blues of the Thirties, but shan't), he blasted away on droning electronics, creating a vicious wall of thumping, sprawling noise. It was the loudest gig of the night, and indeed the weekend, and as I craned my head back to take in the screes, squalls and roars, I experienced true bliss. He's back in the UK in April, and all I can say is that you would be mad not to go and see him, if you can.

Emeralds could, after such a rip-roaring display, seemed pale in comparison. Indeed, when I saw them in 2008 on a double bill shared with Pain Jerk, another bonkers Japanese noisicean, they'd been rather unremarkable, and overwhelmed by Pain Jerk's raucous noise. But the American trio have come on in leaps and bounds since then, releasing a couple of excellent albums, the latest, Does It Look Like I'm Here? on esteemed avant-garde/electronic/noise label Editions Mego. In contrast to the wet new-age of the '08 gig, the sound here was fierce, impossibly loud, and propelled forwards by hard-hitting drum machine beats. Closer to noise music than before, but still anchored in the trippy "kosmische" vibe they've come to master, it was absorbing and surprising throughout, with oddly head-banging moments stirring the ethereal haze and unexpected and welcome moments. I was particularly enthused by guitarist Mark McGuire, who no longer remained seated but instead appears to have ditched the awkward surf-guitar noodlings of his earlier contributions for more, dare I say, "Haino-esque" barrages of saturation and fuzz. A wondrous send-off for a wondrous festival.

Much was made in the programme over a rebuff by ATP's head honcho of The Wire magazine's recent dismissal of the event. In fairness to the organisers, they responded in style with a varied, challenging and exciting line-up. Ironically, of course, most are bands and artists that have regularly been heralded in the pages of The Wire. But really, such quarrels seem silly when you're bathing in the blissful ocean of rapturous music. I may not go to an ATP again for a while (I honestly don't see how they could top this one), and if so, this was a wonderful way to say goodbye. 

- J, Dec 2010


Full credit for the pictures here must go to Andrew Bowman and Scott McMillan of The Liminal (link below). Guys, if you want me to take them down, I will. Great pictures, though!


Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Bring on the noise!!

19/11/2010 - The Rita, Voltigeurs, Filthy Turd and Vomir live at the Grosvenor, Stockwell, London

What an apt venue for a noise concert. The Grosvenor is a cool but slightly dingy pub with a large backroom, nestled down a dark street in a pretty grim part of South London, and the urban jungle surroundings as I walked briskly from the station to the pub, and the worn wallpaper and dim light once inside seemed to intrinsincally reflect and, in my mind, enhance, the intensity of what I heard on this cold November night. Closing my eyes as the noise hit my ears, I found my mind's eye returning to the bleak vista of high rises, council estates and quiet streets that greeted me as I walked down Stockwell Road. Opening them, I would stare at the cobwebbed ceiling in what at times felt, as the volume hit fever pitch during Vomir's opening set, like some sort of out-of-body experience. If anyone doubts the ability of really harsh noise to be both transcendental and transporting, I recommend they go to see any of these guys.

I'm not going to go through the evening's events in a particularly linear fashion, as, whilst all four (a fifth act, Mhlest, failed to appear) were excellent, two of them, opener Vomir and headliner The Rita are united in their artistic and aesthetic concerns, and I feel their similarities and differences are best approached together, especially as I have since delved a bit more heavily into their respective outputs.

Filthy Turd, in comparison to the walls of sound the other three acts unfurled, was a noise act in a more "traditional" performance art fashion, his theatrical approach involving mud, rocks and branches harking back to the genre's unofficial genesis in the performance art of COUM Transmissions, later to become Throbbing Gristle, although with a greater emphasis on harsh tones, deconstructed sounds and staccato bursts of free noise. Whilst the fact that he lathered himself in mud and stuffed sticks down his trousers felt slightly old hat to me, his use of two highly sensitive mics placed on a table that he then proceeded to bash the living shit out of, was startling and jarring, and his incorporation of strident guitar noise represented a welcome injection of musicality into what otherwise could have become an unsavoury faux-provocative vanity piece. What he was trying to express with his antics (dropping rocks, removing his clothes, etc) was unclear, but it added spice to what could have been a slightly cold set of performances, as can often be the case with noise.

Equally evocative was the set by duo Voltigeurs, made up of Skullflower legend Matthew Bower and his most recent creative ally, Samantha Davies, who has also appeared on a few Skullflower releases. Eschewing the aggressive starkness of the other acts, they opted for lowered lights and incense to create an intimacy that bordered on the spiritual, much as they have on Skullflower albums such as Malediction and The Paris Working, where guitar dissonance is associated with a semi-tantric quest for transcendence. But if Skullflower has a core of black metal, industrial and drone that has evolved out of Bower's 25-year association with the UK underground, Voltigeurs is a less forgiving beast, as the duo use their twin guitars to build up an implacable wall of feedback that leaves listeners isolated in sound. The droning quality of the sound -the irrepressible warmth of even the harshest of guitar sounds, if you will-, combined with the incense to create a ritualistic feel to the performance, Bower and Davies swaying gently, heads bowed, as if trying to summon up spirits. It may have actually been the most unsettling of all the performances. 

Vomir and The Rita, meanwhile are possibly the two most famous and outspoken proponents of a noise sub-genre called Harsh Noise Walls (HNW), which The Rita's Sam McKinley pretty much invented back in the late nineties. I actually started delving into their respective oeuvres a few weeks before the gig, which was possibly fortunate, as HNW is a genre that you need to take time to appreciate. As the name suggests, the idea is to unleash gigantic sound edifices that originate in good old harsh noise, but with ideas like dynamics and tempo reduced to the barest of minimums.

In Vomir's case, you could even say that dynamics are so dissolved that the music radiates an impregnable inertia. For all its noise, it is completely still. Romain Perrot, to use his real name, stands stock still with a black plastic bag over his head, his back to the audience, presses a button and then... waits as the noise immediately bursts forth, swallowing everything around it. To my ears (and this music is so loud they're probably not a reliable guide here), the live set sounded much like his latest, superb, album, Renonce (Crucial Blaze, 2010), with white noise generators filtered through a series of distortion pedals to come out sounding like a mixture between a waterfall and an earthquake. But with less variation. It's possible that Vomir's music represents the apex of noise misanthropy, as performer and audience are rendered to nothingness by the sheer weight of the sound. By refusing any shifts or variation in his wall of noise, Perrot forces the listener, be he/she listening to an iPod or at a gig, to absorb the music completely, and then release their senses to it, without expectation or even release (Renonce is an hour long, with one track). It's a sonic purity that few artists can match, as abstract as Malevich's Suprematist Composition: White on White. Perrot has even compared his music to silence, and despite the paradox, it's a fitting analogy. After all, silence can be deafening. By creating music that dissolves the human in such an extreme way, Vomir has come very close to creating the most absolute of musical out-of-body experiences, be it live or on Renonce. As such, for all its extremity, it's also very peaceful and meditative. I was enraptured by his performance, and it was to prove the biggest highlight of an amazing evening.

Thousands of Dead Gods
Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence

Where Vomir unleashes a wall of unfathomable noise, The Rita gets his results using radically different means. Sam McKinley's sound is similarly harsh, probably harsher, but slightly more anchored in a sense of noise history, if only because in performance he stood hunched over a table covered in effects pedals whilst an ecstatic audience moshed away like teenage metalheads at a Korn concert. McKinley's music is probably more brutal than Vomir's, less designed to be absorbing and more to be an assault on listeners' ears, and therefore society as an imperceptible whole. The cover of his second album, the monstrous epic Bodies Bear Traces Of Carnal Violence (Troniks, 2004) depicts sexual mutilation and murder in typical noise style, referencing McKinley's love for Italian giallo films. The music within is as monolithic and dense as Vomir's, with heaps of distorted grunge surging instantly from the speakers and erecting an impenetrable wall of monstrous mayhem. But, unlike Vomir's music, The Rita's features subtle shifts, near-imperceptible accelerations and decelerations. Live, he gleefully interrupted the torrent at random times, using sound devices to create staccato bursts of crackling noise before re-releasing the molten flow of hideously beautiful drone. Almost like an invisible hand trying to clamp down on a wound to stop the flow of blood before being wrenched haltingly away again. Occasionally on Bodies Bear Traces Of Carnal Violence, sampled voices of screaming women bubble out of the mix before disappearing again, which makes this album so much more disturbing than any shock tactics deployed by other noise or hardcore or metal acts, because the sheets of formless, noisy drone The Rita creates are so void of reference, of dynamism or of perspective that any conceptualisation of what you're hearing, and therefore analysis or judgment, becomes impossible. Equally, on Thousands of Dead Gods (Troniks, 2006), McKinley uses recordings of being in a shark cage as the great marine animals swam around him, and sudden unidentifiable sounds will have you grasping around for identification, before your mind relaxes and allows a formless evocation of sharks, water and metal to settle over your senses. The artwork suggests anger and disgust at how these beautiful fish are treated, but in the hands of McKinley such transparent sentiment is deconstructed to the point of incoherence. 

A personal photo from the show
 A fabulous gig all round, a proper sensory assault and big kudos has to go out to the wonderful guys at Second Layer Records shop and label for putting it on. If you want to buy some records, please support them by doing it here: www.secondlayer.co.uk. 

I may have had a preference for Vomir's abstract conceptualism, but there was no denying the power, intelligence and sonic extremism of any of the acts. The Rita held the crowd in the palm of his hand, and I left with my ears ringing and a stupid grin on my face. Pure aural bliss.

As an aside, and whilst on the subject of Harsh Noise Walls, a big shout out has to go to possibly my favourite album in the genre (so far): Masked Spider of the First by Werewolf Jerusalem (Troniks, 2007). One of many side-projects by infamous Houston noisician Richard Ramirez, WJ's concept is to take battered old radios and, as The Rita does with samples of sharks or snorkelling, filter them through endless effects pedals to create a crackling, unrelenting walls of harsh noise. And, as with The Rita, the main beauty of Masked Spider of the First comes when unexpected snippets of radio sounds emerge from the miasma to tickle the listener's ears before then flit away before she or he can grasp and process them. It creates a sneaky sense of forward momentum amongst such awesome static drone, and also evokes the approach of some of hauntology's most prominent artists, such as The Caretaker or Indignant Senility who use old, damaged vinyl to create dense walls of less abrasive sound. Using such old radios gives Werewolf Jerusalem's music a slightly nostalgic context, a wistfulness, as well as haunting sense of unease, as if Ramirez is reviving angry ghosts that linger in the ether. It's quite a rare album, but all of WJ's output, from self-released gems like God Has Shot Himself (2003) onwards, is remarkable. God Has Shot Himself is actually available for free here: http://www.archive.org/det...as_shot_himself, so do yourself a favour and download it. You'll be rewarded with some of the most peculiar, troubling and deep music released over the last few years. Then go and get any or all of the albums I've mentioned above. I certainly have not regretted letting this warped, dense and formidable noise into my life!

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Gateway to Blasphemous Light: SKULLFLOWER!!

Approaching the daunting monolith that is Skullflower's discography would take the patience of a saint and pockets deeper than Donald Trump's (if you want to meet such a hardy soul, check out this superlative list by my online buddy, "Nightwrath": http://rateyourmusic.com/list/nightwrath/the_power_of_skullflower/). So, typical of my general laziness, I'm not going to try to give a proper overview/blow-by-blow analysis/history lesson, just give my take on those albums I have (generally the most easily purchasable ones) and how I have come to regard Skullflower as nothing less than one of the best bands ever to grace the world.

The history of Skullflower is intrinsically linked to the UK underground of the early eighties, which exploded to life in the wake of punk, lurching into more unusual, dark and experimental directions as it did so. The advent of cheaper recording formats, notably cassette tapes, simple electronic instruments and easy-to-use recording methods meant that music was no longer the exclusive domain of classical composers or pop/rock/jazz bands with studio access and lots of ability. Indeed, punk, for all its numerous flaws, had shown that anyone with a good idea and lots of attitude could make a record and even, wonder of wonders, get it released.

Less physical barriers were also coming down. Even as the country as a whole was embracing rabid conservatism, in the form of Margaret Thatcher's government,  the musical underground was getting more radical. Throbbing Gristle, who remain to this day the granddaddies of radical British music, and the scene's eternal leading lights, had led the way, exploring transgressive and provocative themes, and giving birth to a new genre of music they baptised "Industrial". Out of their explorations of extreme sound and lyrical matter, the UK underground would bloom.

I will admit to not being an expert, but, it seems to me that, until these halcyon years from 1977 to 1985, Britain had never had a truly "out-there" act that could serve as a calling card to the rest of the underground. The US, of course, had had The Velvet Underground, whilst Japan had seen Les Rallizes Denudes headline massive festivals, and Germany had given us the freak-out post-everything of Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream's first album. Which is not to say the UK had not had great underground acts (Pink Fairies, anyone?), but the extremism and provocation of those foreign bands had yet to really be mirrored in such conceptual glory in this country. Throbbing Gristle changed all that, and Whitehouse, Ramleh and, of course, Skullflower, took things to another level altogether. In typical British fashion, of course, none of them -past the initial shock value of TG and Whitehouse- caused quite the stir that The VU or The Stooges did among mainstream audiences, even those inclined towards "fringe" sounds. In this country, we venerate at the altars of alien gods, but if the same souls emerge on our shores, we just can't believe it to be real... Or so it seems from the vantage point of youth (such as it is). Otherwise, I fail to understand how The Velvet Underground or The Stooges managed to burrow their way into cultdom among British rock fans, but Skullflower remain mostly unknown. I'm lucky in many ways to have come along decades after much of the music I love hit its heights, but am aware that often my perceptions can be skewed or unrealistic. I'm doing my best to represent things as they were, I promise!

Of course, any talk of Skullflower means nothing if you don't mention the man behind such an illustrious musical entity. His name is Matt Bower, and his shadow soars over the UK underground like some mystical but outlandish eagle, even if his influence has rarely been mirrored in record sales. More than William Bennett or even his buddy Gary Mundy, and perhaps only equaled by Steve Stapleton and David Tibet, Matt Bower is the voice, guitar and effects box of the UK underground. And Skullflower remains, even after such magnificent side projects as Total, Sunroof!, Hototogisu and Voltigeurs, the supreme expression of Bower's vision.

The birth of Skullflower was slow and progressive, growing out of several Uni/high school bands involving Bower, Alex Binnie, Stewart Dennison, Stefan Jaworzyn and others. At one time, Bower was a key member of Gary Mundy's superb power electronics/drone metal outfit Ramleh, and the first Bower albums, first as Total then as Skullflower, would appear on Mundy's seminal Broken Flag label.

Which is as good a place as any to start, given that, having already made a power electronics splash solo as Total, on Broken Flag, Bower would unleash Skullflower on the world via that very label. I remain convinced that the UK underground, and metal/noise music in general, would never be the same again from the moment BFV9 hit the shelves.

Birthdeath (Broken Flag, 1988)

As Skullflower's first proper release, Birthdeath is essential listening to any fan of the band, or any of Bower's subsequent adventures. It's most interesting to listen to in the context of what Broken Flag was releasing at the time. Broken Flag had become renowned as a post-Industrial, power electronics label, with albums by Maurizio Bianchi and Grey Wolves among its numerous tape releases. Extreme stuff indeed. And whilst Birthdeath, with its creepy title and oppressive atmosphere, certainly fit the mold, it was also very different, for a start because it featured "real" instruments, with guitars, bass and drums taking precedence over fucked-up synths or electronics.

And yet, of all Skullflower releases, Birthdeath perhaps feels most consistent with the age in which it was made. The loping bass lines are 100% post-punk, evoking such post-punk luminaries as Joy Division or PiL. Not a bad thing of course, and Bower's vocals are notably brilliant, a Rotten-esque snarl that is nonetheless wrenched back into the mix, subsumed by rampant guitar noise and insistent percussion, therefore taking the music beyond post-punk and into a neo-metal environment that would later give us My Bloody Valentine and Ride. With a darkness and menace that was 100% TG/Whitehouse/This Heat. Birthdeath may be short (it's an EP after all) and very "rock", it remains one of the first indications of where industrial music, as a "rock" derivative, and metal could go. Skullflower would between 1988 and 1995 show just how magnificent such a combination would be.

Form Destroyer (Broken Flag, 1989)

If Birthdeath gave a hint, and tentatively brought metal (I'm talking Black Sabbath/Blue Oyster Cult metal of the darkest kind, here) back into the orbit of the underground, away from the nonsense zone the likes of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest had taken it to, Form Destroyer, and the slew of albums that followed it, would elevate the Skullflower sound into the realms of genius. Dark, metal-meets-industrial-post-punk genius.

Form Destroyer dispenses with a lot of the familiarity that Birthdeath had built up. Fuck the Peter Hook-ish bass and punkish sneer vocals. This is Bower bowing down at the altar of guitar noise, taking the power electronics template of Ramleh and Whitehouse and filtering it through riff-upon-riff of messed up power chords, as if Tony Iommi had shed his hippy leanings and then been given full reign of the Sabbath's musical direction. Opening track "Elephant's Graveyard" is everything that makes Skullflower so special, a non-stop guitar solo backed by ridiculously heavy post-Bill Ward drums and one-note bass whilst Bower limply utters unintelligible lyrics as if he's drowning in guitar mulch. The tremolo and fuzz are obscene, and the track hoists itself out of any noise/industrial context into dark, cavernous realms of new metal. The kind of metal that would have Julian Cope salivating. Where power electronics and industrial seemed to reflect the clunking, metallic, buzzing present/future, here was music that felt older than time itself, as if long-lost gods and angels were rising from centuries of slumber to reclaim the world. This ur-plod echoed that of Sabbath, but stripped away any modern context, becoming the sound of dusty pyramids, creepy barrows and pagan monoliths. And of course, this became the template for the next 25 years (and counting) of metal music, the dots between Form Destroyer and bands like SUNN O))) or Nadja being all too easy to connect.

Xaman (Shock Records, 1990)

Shock Records were owned by Skullflower guitarist Stefan Jaworzyn who was, until he left the band in the early nineties following one too many fall-outs with Bower, the other main creative figure of the band. Having said that, mega fans such as myself will always treasure the contributions of drummer Stewart Dennison at least as much as those of Jaworzyn. There's just something so perfect about Dennison's monolithic plod, and it would drive and animate the Skullflower sound in inimitable ways at least until the band's first dissolution in 1996.

Xaman is, in my opinion, the first perfect Skullflower statement. It's more abstract than Form Destroyer, despite also being more "metal". Its predecessor maintained a tiny, tiny, bit of the post-punk soul of Birthdeath, which somehow made it less abstract than this, or future albums. By releasing themselves into metal and noise, equal parts Sabbathian plod and Rallizes-esque guitar saturation, Skullflower grew into a monstrous beast, whose tracks were built around ridiculous sub-Crazy Horse rhythmic plods whilst Jaworzyn and Bower leaped into the stratosphere via their guitars, endlessly soloing as each piece, from opening pounder "Slaves" to the side-long, 26-minute-long beast "Wave" soared and rumbled like a mythological mountain detaching itself from the earth and taking off towards the heavens (I have no idea what that metaphor means, but it seems to fit).

As someone who listens to a lot of metal music, I have tried to find a comparable album to Xaman, another such premonitory opus that indicates where the genre was going to go, and indeed spend the next 20 years. I can't. Sure, Swans took the Sabbath's slowed-down sound and married it to industrial clanging, but Xaman is something else altogether - its background in industrial is only hinted at through walls of noise, but mostly this is pure doom, primeval and heavier than that lead zeppelin Keith Moon mentioned all those decades ago. Xaman features guitar played as Jimmy Page should have played it back in '68, a non-stop riff-o-mania mixed with basic solos, so insistent that its meaning becomes unfathomable. Guitar as noise. Guitar as drone. Guitar as trance. Xaman is truly overwhelming, and for me feels like the culmination of what brutish heavy metal, as dreamed up by Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath, was always meant to be. I wish someone would hurry up and re-release this motherfucker!

IIIrd Gatekeeper (HeadDirt, 1992)

Until Bower resuscitated Skullflower in the mid-2000s, IIIrd Gatekeeper was perhaps the most famous of the band's albums, and incidentally one of the absolute best.

Essentially, IIIrd Gatekeeper is modern metal in excelsis. Do you like Nadja? The Angelic Process? Hey Colossus? Boris? Here's the blueprint. With the -possible- exceptions of The Melvins and Earth, I don't think any band really set down a marker on the genre in quite the way Skullflower did on IIIrd Gatekeeper. Of course, I've been talking about metal since Birthdeath, so what changed? Sitting here in my living room, my head filled with sound, the first thing that occurs to me is the bass. It's no longer subsumed into the mix - it's front and centre, big, fat, distorted and powerful. Almost a second lead guitar. Imagine Jefferson Airplane's legendary bassist Jack Casady doing metal, and you might just get the sound I'm evoking. If you're an Airplane fan. If not, then fuck me, just go out and buy IIIrd Gatekeeper!

Mirroring this added heaviness, the drums are equally in-your-face, slovenly punches to the skins that inch the melodies along. The whole production is clearer and more typically heavy-metal-ish, with Bower's guitar (he was now sole axeman following the departure of Jaworzyn) creating scything walls of relentless distortion, feedback and fuzz. Again, there are no riffs in the traditional Sabbath/Zeppelin style, just endless, near-formless soloing, taking the format laid down by those bands, and hurtling into something closer to free improv or drone. But Skullflower never relinquishes the violence and heaviness that makes metal such a haven for headbangers. Tracks like "Larks Tongues" (neat King Crimson reference!) and "Saturnalia" are like Sabbath on LSD, twisted, beyond-heavy crunchers that pummel the senses under waves of guitar noise and thunderous drumming. The vocals, meanwhile, are almost a prototype of the kind of harsh, muted growling that would soon become a staple of Black Metal.

Perhaps the overall sound and vibe of IIIrd Gatekeeper is a reflection of the man who released it. HeadDirt was the imprint of Justin K Broadrick, long a devotee of Skullflower, now of Jesu and Greymachine, who at the time was riding high as an industrial metal pioneer via his Godflesh outfit. Like Skullflower, Godflesh was a seminal band, melding harsh urban noises with a vintage metal pummel and bleak lyrical output. It was not any more ferocious than what Bower and co were doing in their Broken Flag days, but perhaps slightly more tailored towards the mainstream. Ever so slightly. In comparison, Skullflower would always be an outsider band, but at least Broadrick was keen to give some time int he limelight. To this day, IIIrd Gatekeeper remains the most common first point of entry for people discovering Skullflower.

Last Shot at Heaven (Noiseville, 1993)

Skullflower goes psychedelic!!! Of course, records like Xaman and IIIrd Gatekeeper were already darkly psychedelic, in a typically Cope-esque manner. But Last Shot at Heaven moves things up a notch in the trippy bliss levels, whilst maintaining an edge of violence and menace, as demonstrated by the cover art depicting a young woman craning her head back, eyes seemingly shut in ecstasy, but which is actuallty a picture of one of the first Muslim victims of the Bosnian ethnic cleansing taken just as she was being shot.

Indeed, one of the great pleasures of being a Skullflower fan is picking up on the subtle -or sometimes radical- sonic shifts they make as they advance from one album to another, and picking up on the understated metaphors in both their music and artwork.

The basic template inherited from IIIrd Gatekeeper, of harsh guitar soloing, pumping bass and earthquake-inducing drums, is retained on LSAH, but where its predecessor focused on the drums and the bass and the mood, this motherfucker is a massive guitar celebration, as Bower rips outlandish warped noise from his beleaguered axe, creating the kind of sonic tornado that, along with the blistering poly-rhythmic pounding of the drums as displayed here on "Rotten Sun li", would later become a key component of bands like Acid Mother's Temple, Mainliner or even Oneida. The guitar no longer incarnates a phallic extension of the macho Jimmy Page-esque frontman, nor is it a means to subvert conventions in the manner of Stoogian riffage. Instead, it's a supremely cosmic weapon of pure transcendence, a beautifully awe-inspiring sound to transport the listener to new-found inner worlds. In that respect, Last Shot at Heaven feels most noticeably "retro" among early Skullflower albums, channeling as it does the spirit of Ash Ra Tempel, Les Rallizes Denudes and Amon Duul II.

Beyond that, however, Last Shot at Heaven is another bold step forwards for Skullflower. As steeped as it is in the post-psychedelia of the early 70s, it doesn't fully deviate from the deep, doomy metal thunder of its predecessor. But, more significantly, it also gives many a sideways glance at the grunge and shoegaze styles that were prevalent in the early nineties. More Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine than Slowdive and Nirvana, of course, but you can tell Bower has heard the merits of adding a sprinkle of catchiness and riffs into the torrent of noise and sludge. Opener "Caligula" may just be the most infectious, and blissful, Skullflower track ever. Ultimately, Last Shot at Heaven gets negatively compared to IIIrd Gatekeeper, a more complete musical statement, but it serves as a great indication of how fantastically consistent in their brilliance Skullflower were by this point. 

Obsidian Shaking Codex (Self-released, 1993, CD-R reissue on RRRecords)

Nothing, even Xaman and IIIrd Gatekeeper, prepared me for Obsidian Shaking Codex. Those albums were great, magnificent even. OSC is on another plane altogether.

Almost literally. Obsidian Shaking Codex sounds like very little out there, and certainly not like anything released around the same time, again testament to how prescient and forward-thinking Skullflower were. I think it was discovering this album that made me realise that not only are Skullflower a fucking awesome band, but that actually they go beyond such platitudes and transcend all stereotypical notions of musical taste and quality. Obsidian Shaking Codex sets up the stall for just about every psych/drone/noise-metal band to have appeared since, taking the brittle exoskeleton of The Dead C and Les Rallizes Denudes, and anchoring it to a wall of post-modern, post-industrial noise before launching into newer, wilder, nastier and deeper sonic lands. Tracks like "Sir Bendalot", the pummeling heavy metal opener, may seem familiarly heavy, in a Sabbath/Blue Cheer vein, but, stripped of coherent vocals and suffused with mysterious flute sounds, soon turn into weird, esoteric and unhinged musical explorations.

By "Circular Temple", the second track, everything you may have been familiar with has collapsed. Not just Skullflower's own sound, but British post-industrial music as a genre. Coil, Whitehouse and even Throbbing Gristle seem so very far away now. The track is essentially, beautifully, formless, an endless dirge of shuddering guitar noise, in which riffs, improvs and meandering solos slalom around each other and drum fills only interrupt the murky flow on occasion, like interjections from a slumbering giant whose rest has been interrupted by the screes and squalls of Bower's guitar. No, I don't know what I'm on about either! Obsidian Shaking Codex does that to you - its awkward grace and deep, dark drones will have you dreaming of windy barrows and Tolkien-esque vistas, but ones that are totally dominated by sinister shadows, gnarled tree trunks and whispering ghosts. By the album's end, the frenetic post-rock, post-fusion -fuck it, post-everything!- 25-minute leviathan that is "Smoke Jaguar", you find yourself drifting in a fog of sound. It isn't quite noise, not quite ambient, not quite drone, not quite metal. It's beyond all of those genres, a true artistic triumph, which Skullflower would often struggle to replicate later in their career, but which would also flash through all their releases here on, and was already hovering like a shadow over previous albums, notably Xaman, IIIrd Gatekeeper and Last Shot at Heaven. Obsidian Shaking Codex is the album they really nailed it on, and the one that would make even great metal-that-aren't-metal acts like SUNN O))) seem slightly derivative. 

A masterpiece in other words.

Carved Into Roses (VHF, 1994)

Skullflower signed to psychedelic drone label VHF for this release, who would also release This Is Skullflower, a mini-trend that perhaps highlights the band's slow shift (already hinted at on Last Shot at Heaven) away from doom-laden noise-metal towards more esoteric, trippy and psyched-up musical shores.

At this point, I am seriously running out of superlative terms to describe the sounds Matt Bower and his acolytes (by now even superb bassist Anthony DiFranco had left, so it was just Bower and drummer Stuart Dennison, plus guest appearances from Whitehouse's Phillip Best, Russell Smith and Simon Wickham-Smith) were coming up with. It seems in fact that each release was purposely conjured up to surpass its predecessor and, whilst Carved into Roses probably had too hard an act to follow in Obsidian Shaking Codex, it at least represents a massive leap forwards from all their other previous albums that it remains one of Skullflower's most important statements. 

Some critics have -erroneously, I think- said that Carved into Roses represents a "mellowing" of the Skullflower sound. Whilst the crunching post-riffage of IIIrd Gatekeeper or Obsidian Shaking Codex's molten noise are indeed (mostly) set aside, the idea that Carved into Roses is more ambient or "quieter" than its predecessors is, frankly, ludicrous.

But it is more sophisticated, more thoughtful and, ultimately, even more adventurous. Five years before Japanese genius Merzbow showed the smart side of harsh noise on Door Open at 8am, Skullflower were doing the same for metal with Carved into Roses, by incorporating the usually intimidating structures of free-form jazz into their monolithic metal crunch. They once again throw a wee curve ball on opener "Pipe Dream", which could be straight out of Last Shot At Heaven with its doom/drone guitar mulch, bursts of feedback and stark vibe, although hints of the mayhem to come can be heard in Stuart Dennison's scattered drumming and some spookily industrial vocal snippets. But by "The Rose Wallpaper", Dennison is conjuring up marching band patterns and, out of nowhere, as Bower excoriates his guitar in masochistic metallic bursts of fury, a lonesome, strangled saxophone blearily attempts a garbled solo. It dips in and out of the mix, in time to the accelerations and decelerations of Dennison's increasingly free-form pounding of the toms, and its intrusion into the world of Skullflower is as startling as it is welcome. The more unstructured nature of "The Rose Wallpaper", "Shiny Birds of Doom" or "Metallurgical King" (all three contenders for the imaginary title of 'Best Skullflower track ever') not only make Carved Into Roses stand out as a truly masterful melding of jazz/improv and metal, but also showcase the increased subtlety and sophistication of Dennison and Bower as composers and musicians. "Metallurgical King", which seems to pick up where "The Rose Wallpaper" left off, is a particularly mighty slab of free-form noise, with bonkers tremolo and the kind of sax mayhem Peter Brotzmann would be proud of.

As for the claims that it isn't heavy... I can admit it is no longer a cruncher, in the Butthole Surfers/Sabbath mold. But the atmosphere on these tracks is easily as choking and menacing as on any of the Obsidian Shaking Codex ones, Best's voice often descending into a tortured primal scream, whilst Bower and Dennison alternate expertly between hard-hitting free-form pummelers and dragging, inching doom plods. Such shifts in pace, power and tempo are mastered expertly and, if anything, Carved Into Roses is one of Skullflower's heaviest albums ever.

This Is Skullflower (VHF,1996) 

This would be the last album Skullflower would release before a 7-year hiatus (following swiftly on the heels of a slightly rag-bag collection of shorter tracks, outtakes and covers called Transformer, also released in '96). Between this and Carved Into Roses, the duo did release two other full releases, Argon (Freek, 1995) and Infinityland (HeadDirt, 1995), neither of which I've been able to get hold of, sadly.

I would be keen to check out both those records because This Is Skullflower represents such a dramatic shift from the sound of Carved Into Roses, that it would be nice to get an idea of what came before to see if there is any continuity.

Essentially, TIS sees them taking the idea of free jazz grasped at on Carved Into Roses, and fucking running the distance with it. It is indeed much mellower and atmospheric than their previous output, even in the track titles - "Lounge", "Creaky Rigging", "Glider"... But don't be fooled into thinking that it therefore is less interesting or arresting. Skullflower continue to step boldly into new territories, bringing in piano and strings, whilst pursuing their exploration of the limitations and possibilities of their established drums and guitars. On "Lounge", Dennison pushes the free-jazz boat out even further, coming on like a latter-day Han Bennink, whilst Bower's searing guitar improv is offset by jarring piano motifs. It's a textured and unusual piece, and things get even better on "Creaky Rigging", which duly lives up to its name thanks to Tony Conrad-esque violin drones set over what sounds like a woozy dobro or sitar and far-off, hazy guitar lines. It's easily the best track on the album, redolent of such great tantric drone/psych bands as Vibracathedral Orchestra and the pioneering work of European bands such as Parson Sound and Yatha Sidhra. Heady stuff indeed, Skullflower going hippy, if you like.

Which may in many ways be the album's only real flaw. The quality, as usual, is phenomenal, in terms of musicality and composition, but some of the dark, paranoid atmospheres of previous albums have succumbed to the experimentation, it seems. Maybe, just this once, Skullflower gave too much to the cerebral where before there was always just enough instinct and spleen to get the absolutely perfect balance. Either way, it's still a fucking good album, but perhaps Bower was right to call it quits for a while...

Though it would have been magic to see where exploring the sound of the album's other stand-out track, the drone epic "The Pirate Ship of Reality is Moving Out..." could have led the band...

Exquisite Fucking Boredom (tUMULt, 2003)

After a 7-year gap, during which Matthew Bower parted company with Stuart Dennison and dedicated his inspirations to a revived Total and his new outfits Sunroof! and Hototogisu, Skullflower returned, like a phoenix resurrected in flames. I can imagine there was some trepidation, and a shed-load of expectation, among fans at the time and so it is perhaps fitting that Exquisite Fucking Boredom is probably the most accessible of the new-look Skullflower albums. Ease'em in gently, eh Matt?

Exquisite Fucking Boredom essentially feels like a dual continuation of what Bower was doing on Last Shot at Heaven, but filtered through the trippier textures and hazy drones of This Is Skullflower. The result is an album that is both heavy, showcasing Bower's relentless guitar assault, and blissfully psychedelic, in a fucked-up, Brainticket way. Most of it is taken up by the 4-part magnum opus "Celestial Highway", which takes a funkily ambling sixties' garage-psych rhythm base (think a more monolithic Doors or Thirteenth Floor Elevators) and runs with it over nearly an hour, albeit one divided into segments. Head music in the extreme, as the drums (credits are hard to come by for much of Skullflower's output, but apparently, this is one of the occasional latter-period albums to feature Stuart Dennison, as well as additional guitarist Mark Burns -for the unusually-prominent riffs?- and bassist Steve Martin) send things cantering metronomically and minimalistically along with bloody-minded determination, much as drummer Werner Diermaier did for Faust on their magnificent collaboration with Tony Conrad, Outside the Dream Syndicate, which leaves Bower and Burns free to belch out dirty, fat riffs that jingle and jangle whilst maintaining their metal edge, before throwing up a miasma of wah-wahing free-form noise over the top. Somewhere in the mix there's also an ever-droning organ, just to ram home the sense of sheer elegiac spaciness, should you need it.

If this is boredom, then I want to be bored more often! It's easily Skullflower's grooviest, sexiest and most liberated album, without any of the intellectual inhibitions of This Is Skullflower, but still maintaining a hazy, psychedelic vibe that means it's not just a throw-back to the early nineties. Its only flaw perhaps is that it would have worked better with just the "Celestial Highway" suite, as the other two tracks, "Saturn" and "Return to Forever" don't really add anything to the album. But that's a small quibble. With Exquisite Fucking Boredom, Matthew Bower announced that Skullflower was back in a big way, and he has not looked back since. Lucky us!  

Orange Canyon Mind (Crucial Blast, 2005)

On the second album since his "comeback" as Skullflower, Matthew Bower followed in the footsteps of Exquisite Fucking Boredom, in that Orange Canyon Mind feels at times like it's a refreshing, or post-digital update, of his previous sound. Exquisite Fucking Boredom seemed to tap into the nascent heavy psych trend of Oneida, Colour Haze and Comets on Fire, whilst still maintaining a darker undercurrent and taste for much more intense, violent and improvised guitar noise, as had been Skullflower's modus operandi since BirthdeathOrange Canyon Mind sees Bower, accompanied by a couple of guests on guitar and occasional drums, incorporate harsh electronic sounds, but not as some throwback to the power electronics scene Skullflower evolved out of, but rather as an echo of the glitch and harsh electronica espoused by the Editions Mego label and artists like Ryoji Ikeda and -more harshly- Kevin Drumm. Of course, whilst still indulging in fuzzed and distorted guitars and deep heavy metal textures.

Orange Canyon Mind is therefore one of Skullflower's most varied and eclectic albums, certainly among their post-2003 output, which is enjoyable, but also possibly undermines its consistency a bit. The exquisite title track feels like Neu! on downers, a pulsating "motorik" back-beat being offset against a dense wall of guitar pyrotechnics. "Annihilating Angel", in which shuddering glitchtronica textures battle with a never-ending wah solo, is another one of the band's great moments, a dense, punishing, unforgiving masterpiece of atmosphere and volume, that shows that Bower has lost none of his ability to oppress and terrify. 

Later tracks seem to jerk between such monstrously claustrophobic drone/noise workout, and more "traditional" (in the loosest sense of the word!) post-metal plodders, with prominent wah guitar and meandering subdued percussion, as on "Vampire's Breath" and "Ghost Ice Aliens", both full-blooded sludgy rockers that again evoke the heavier end of modern psychedelia, such as Serpentina Satelite. "Goat of a Thousand Young", meanwhile, is a creepy industrial-electronic piece, perhaps suggesting in texture, if not actual style, the direction Bower would take on Tribulation.

The eclecticism of Orange Canyon Mind certainly underlines the musical vitality and strength of this singular band, but at times plays against it in terms of consistency. That said, I'd still call it required listening, if nothing else then for "Annihilating Angel", "Starry Wisdom", "Orange Canyon Mind" and the overall atmosphere of doom and darkness (and above all because it's a fucking Skullflower album!).

Tribulation (Crucial Blast, 2006)

When you hit the "play" button on your stereo, Tribulation doesn't start so much as keep going. The opening track "Lost In the Blackened Gardens of Some Vast Star" seems to surge out of the speakers mid-riff, if such momentous noise can be called a riff, and you feel like you have stumbled, unheeded, onto a rehearsal or, perhaps more aptly, some weird, menacing ritual. This is Skullflower (here just Matthew Bower on guitar, occasional electronics and sporadic percussion) reaching heights of extreme sonic mayhem, and the only album Bower has released under this moniker that could more or less comfortably be classified in the "noise" genre.

Indeed, at times, this could almost be the sort of wall noise espoused so eloquently and dramatically by the likes of The Rita, Vomir and Werewolf Jerusalem. Although, unlike those acts, Bower's emphasis remains on guitar and minimal electronics, plus a healthy dose of SUNN O)))-esque doom atmosphere, albeit buried in some of the harshest sounds yet to come from Skullflower. "Lost In the Blackened Gardens of Some Vast Star" is a case in point, a monolithic cathedral of guitar feedback, raging distortion and high-pitched screes. All forward momentum, in the traditional musical sense, is lost, the piece just sits, static and angry, and unloads. It's impenetrable. And the whole album follows this deranged model, from the more brittle rasping of "Saragossa", in which a choked guitar solo is subsumed by a wall of high-pitched distortion, to the feedback overload and doom-laden chords of "Dwarf Thunderbolt", via the chattering electronic screes of "Dying Venice". Tribulation is an ear-shattering onslaught that stretches over an hour before ending as abruptly as it started, and one of the most uncompromising albums in the Skullflower catalogue, and indeed of any band, ever.

But even as the different tracks melt into one another without pause, the shifts I mentioned above, as the guitars recede ever-so-slightly to let in clatters of digital noise, for example, mean that to call Tribulation a noise album would pretty much be as redundant as calling it a metal one. Tribulation can actually be seen as a release from such categorisation, as Bower uses his guitar noise to channel dark, mysterious and occult themes in a purely abstract manner. Releasing the shackles in this way takes Bower's sound and vision beyond the conventions of metal, doom and drone that he had already radicalised from the first notes of Form Destroyer, de-contextualising these genres by unhinging them into pure harsh noise. In Matthew Bower's pursuit of the fine balance between bliss and assault, of the terrifying sublime, something hindsight shows he's probably been working on since the eighties but has been crystallising since Orange Canyon Mind, he quite probably never came as close as he does on Tribulation.

Pure Imperial Reform (Turgid Animal, 2008) & The Paris Working (23/4/2009) (self-released, 2009)

In the wake of Tribulation, Bower would kick into overdrive, with a slew of limited edition and/or live releases, such as Abyssic Lowland Hiss and Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Die, often self-released. Most of these are hard to track down, and, whisper it, probably not essential to the appreciation of the Skullflower story.

However, I have managed to get my hands two of these off-the-cuff releases, both live ones, and, for a purist such as myself, they have a "holy grail"-esque feeling, mostly because I have not yet had the chance to see Skullflower live and worship at the altar of Matt Bower and his guitar (I was fortunate to see him as part of his duo Voltigeurs, which was pretty sublime in itself, and certainly an extension of the Skullflower sound of recent years).

Of the two, I ever-so-slightly prefer the more recent Paris Working (23/4/2009) CD-R, which features a full band line-up, including Dennison, plus fellow guitarist Lee Stokoe (of Culver) and Voltigeurs' Samantha Davis, who appears to play strings and guitar. It was released in the wake of the superb Malediction album (more on it below), which also featured the aforementioned line-up, and of which this is very much a companion piece. As a live experience, I find it captivating. The opening seconds feature the muffled sounds of the band gearing up, but within moments they have gone from this near-silence to a perfect wall of sound, in which muted violin drones line up alongside buzzing, shapeless guitar noise, all underpinned by Dennison's shifting, shaking, scattered back-beat. I am always in awe of the latter's ability to display the deftness of touch of a seasoned jazz man whilst keeping things heavy and manic at the same time. As such, The Paris Working feels very much like a pure improv session, as if Skullflower are channeling the spirits of Derek Bailey and Throbbing Gristle into their darkly metallic drone edifice. It's another hardy reminder of the band's ability to meld volume with elegance and mystery. Oh, to have been in the audience that night!

Pure Imperial Reform in contrast, feels slightly less coherent, though it is certainly no less virulent and soaring. In the grand tradition of Harmonia's Live 1974 album or the likes of Les Rallizes Denudes and Keiji Haino, the audience supposedly present for this show is inaudible, either drowned out by the pure wall of sound, or too enraptured to speak. In the tradition of most recent Skullflower albums, there is no starting point on the album, even in the live setting, the disc just fading into a deluge of guitar feedback, from the twin assault of Bower and Lee Stokoe, his most frequent post-2003 collaborator. Three tracks here, rather unhelpfully merged into one on the CD, which makes differentiation and appreciation of each track's intricacies a bit tricky. Essentially, Pure Imperial Reform follows on from Tribulation, with noisy guitar squalls completely unhinged from any rhythmic or traditionally melodic frame that could allow listeners to contextualise and absorb what they're hearing. Instead, like the best harsh noise, this is music that you are forced to endure, and then lose yourself in, as Bower and Stokoe fumble their way through unending solos and feedback. The Wire writers have made a lot of Bower's apparently bloody-minded desire to conjure up some sort of darkly ritualistic, tantric and cosmic transcendence in his music, the aforementioned "terrifying sublime", which goes beyond the noise and black metal Skullflower originated out of, as if tying My Bloody Valentine to SUNN O))). I still feel he achieved this best on Tribulation, but Pure Imperial Reform and The Paris Working are great examples of it happening before the eyes of an adulating audience (turned followers?). Lucky bastards.

Taste The Blood of the Deceiver (Not Not Fun, 2008)

Taste the Blood of the Deceiver (what a title!) followed hot on the heels of the Tribulation-esque Desire for a Holy War (Utech Records, 2008), which didn't do much for me, seeming to be just a set of outtakes from its predecessor, but which I probably need to track down a CD copy of at some point (the artwork is stunning!). This time, Bower and Stokoe rock up on weird American label Not Not Fun, home of Pocahaunted and, more aptly, perhaps, Robedoor. Recently, the label has become the home of America's foremost hypnagogic pop and neo-New Age artists, but Taste the Blood of the Deceiver sees Skullflower continue to probe at the sublimation of brutal noise that has so preoccupied Matthew Bower of late. The Wire's David Keenan has noted that recent Skullflower works, worshipping at the altar of that most heathen of instrumental gods, the electric guitar, are increasingly tainted by black metal of the sort popularised in Norway in the early nineties, those stark, aggressive, saturated paeans to diseased minds and arcane rituals. As such, even if a lot of Skullflower's music is anchored in a noise tradition, it tends towards a sweeping, dramatic post-goth theatricality.

Such ambition was evident on Tribulation, but the Wagnerian majesty was dissolved into a brittle noise texture that only really found an echo in black metal via the portentous song titles. Taste the Blood of the Deceiver really feels like metal music untethered, like a fire-damaged boat drifting aimlessly through deep, hostile waters. Bower and Stokoe remove the human sense of self that, for all its dark musings and satanic worship, is at the heart of black metal. Taste the Blood of the Deceiver is portentous and dramatic, yes, but Skullflower's take on the guitar sound, equally lo-fi and enveloping, with the simultaneous never-ending emphasis on certain notes and edification of impenetrable sound walls, and the disconnected, abstract and sparing use of vocals elevate the sound on this album to something Keenan has even compared to "magick". Whilst I do not know enough about such occultist things to properly analyze such a take, I remain in awe at the transcendent power of this music. Along with Tribulation, Taste the Blood of the Deceiver is my favourite post-reformation Skullflower album.

Shortly after this, Bower released a monstrous 3-CD set called Circulus Vitiosus Deus on Turgid Animal. A limited edition, it has since sold out and is near-impossible to find, an especial downer for me as I would relish the chance to check out the supposedly beautiful artwork and packaging. Sad face...

Malediction (Second Layer Records, 2009)

Malediction is something of a curve ball, really, featuring, as I mentioned, a full band line-up, which really is not something seen on a Skullflower album since the mid-nineties (previous noughties albums tended to be composed of Matthew Bower + one or more collaborators, and Tribulation was a solo affair). However, anyone expecting Malediction to be a step backwards would be mistaken - for starters, like just about every other Skullflower album since Orange Canyon Mind, this one also starts in the midst of the maelstrom. Bower's tendency to refuse to allow build-up or gradual immersion into his world (even on live albums, as Pure Imperial Reform showed) is remarkable, and a key part of his current musical exploration of late. In many ways, it reflects the misanthropy of noise music, a genre he has neither properly extirpated himself from, yet equally never sat comfortably in. Thus, where Whitehouse or Prurient might articulate said misanthropy coherently and aggressively, Bower's reduction of the human interaction in his music (he often -though not here- refuses to credit himself or others on Skullflower recordings) seems more distant, metaphysical. In a pursuit of something more elegiac, Bower has diffused the humane behind a wall of saturation and feedback, but rather than a rejection of the humane in music, it seems to be an attempt at transporting the psyche of his listeners to somewhere more esoteric, and celestial. Whether he achieves this is ultimately down to you.

It is no different on Malediction, though the heavily-prominent presence of Stuart Dennison's ramshackle drums, Samantha Davies' distorted strings and Lee Stokoe's added layers of guitar; plus a grimly apocalyptic quote from John Webster in the packaging, give this album a warmth Bower had until now seemed determined to annihilate. I do not share The Wire reviewer Nick Richardson's belief that the dramatic track titles and doom-laden ambiance of this album are, and I quote, "silly". I do not know enough about the occult, magick or satanism to properly comment on Bower's approach to them, but my feeling is that this is serious "head" music, the kind of attempt to conjure dark and primordial forces that has long dominated the metal and drone scenes, particularly in the US, but which stems from traditions going back centuries. Skullflower, being British, seem more detached, as they disconnect their sound from clear references, preferring to let themselves -and us- be absorbed by the music. Not silly, try transcendent. A great album, a bit of a UFO, between the free metal of Obsidian Shaking Codex and more recent explorations in black metal doom.

Strange Keys to Untune Gods' Firmament (Neurot, 2010)

The Skullflower formula of recent years has now, you'll have gathered, been well established, as dis-articulated guitar noise is built up into walls of unstoppable, indifferent sound, which are then launched, untethered and unreferenced, on the band's audiences. Increasingly, this has seen Bower blur the lines between Skullflower and his other acts, be they Hototogisu or, more recently, Voltigeurs, his guitar noise duo with Samantha Davies. In fact, Voltigeurs (whom I had the pleasure, nay, delight of seeing live) are very similar in sound to the Skullflower of Strange Keys to Untune Gods' Firmament, but with perhaps a more "wall noise" structure. But I digress...

The concern I have is that Strange Keys to Untune Gods' Firmament feels somewhat like a closing statement, first of all through its incredible length (nearly two hours spread over two CDs), and also because it seems to be an attempt to crystallize the dark ritual nature of recent Skullflower albums to an almost absolutist degree, as tracks meld into one another and any distinction between instruments is rendered impossible. It still retains the grandeur of the black metal that supposedly inspires Bower these days, but he pushes the formlessness, the impenetrability, to the nth degree, making Strange Keys to Untune Gods' Firmament his most difficult album yet. The somber, literary track titles ("Enochian Tapestries", "City of Dis", "Blackened Angel Wings Scythe The Billowing Void") hint at occult arcana, but I am happy to just let the noise absorb and wash over me. I hope that this will not be the last Skullflower album (and have no reason to believe it will be), and, until Matthew Bower next decides to unload a dark, tantrically satanic sonic ritual on my adoring ears, I'll be waiting, clutching my Skullflower CDs, assaulting my senses with the doom-laden metal of Xaman, the hysterical free-jazz-cum-hard-heavy of Carved Into Roses and the sheets of transcendent noise of Tribulation, a senseless grin on my face. ALL HAIL THE GUITAR, THE AMP, AND MATTHEW BOWER!!!


I'm aware that this long, rambling, repetitive and probably incoherent piece maybe does not do justice to the majesty, elegance and fiery fury of Skullflower. I'm aware that there may be historical inaccuracies and gaping holes that all my web scouring could not enable to rectify. I can only hope that, one day, I might be able to meet the people involved in this magnificent journey, and interview them to get the insider's view on the Skullflower story. Until then -and many might argue that the mystery is part of this singular band's appeal- I can only give my honest appraisal of what I know. Which is that Skullflower, for all their familiar references in industrial, power electronics, doom, shoegaze, noise and black metal, are a unique proposition, the sincere, disturbed and metaphysical expression of one man's gloriously primeval vision. And if words like "tantric" or "transcendent" mean fuck-all to you, then whip out a copy of IIIrd Gatekeeper or Malediction, turn the dial up to maximum, and allow the sonic genius of Skullflower to sweep you away on a river of noise. I promise you won't regret it.

Here's a video to demonstrate just what I've been talking about. I hope the Skullflower guys, and Carlos Giffoni of the No Fun Fest, won't mind me using it:


Note: Special thanks to "Nightwwrath" and to Matt Bower himself, for their kind words of advice and encouragement.