Thursday, 28 January 2010

The pain of choice

Happy New Year!! All the best for 2010, and all that crap. 

Ahem. Anyway, hello all. So, in the wake of Christmas, I've been doing a lot of music-gobbling, and January 2010 has been one of the most exciting and fascinating months of my life. Ok, slight exaggeration, but screw it - passion sells!

Before all that, though, I feel I should say a bit on politics (groans all round). The UK general election is getting closer, and mostly greeted with relative indifference, including me. I can't really discern that many differences between any of them, once you eliminate the loonies and the no-hopers. It's enough to make you want to give up on the whole thing altogether. That may just be my slogan every election year. 

It's pretty much a foregone conclusion that David Cameron's Tories will get in. So, who to vote for? Well, I will never vote BNP or UKIP, and whilst this may have been the Conservatives best chance at securing my usually leftist vote, given Labour's iniquities, a cursory look beyond Cameron's waffle and posturing soon convinced me otherwise.

How come? Well, it's all very well talking about cutting taxes, and in this economic climate, who doesn't want to save money? But, as this article outlines:, Cameron's approach is bogus, and the cutting of state spending will only lengthen the recession, as is the case in Ireland. I'm no economist, but Vince Cable does seem to speak more sense on these issues, and the example of China is interesting. As is the fact that the debt hysteria is being oversold by Osbourne and The Daily Mail. Above all, I dislike this talk of tax breaks for the rich at exactly the time when society should be pulling together to help those less fortunate. These Tories strike me as just another old Etonian rich men's brigade, happy to help out its own, less keen on securing the future of Britain's poor. After all, as Hari says, who will suffer the most if taxes are cut? Osbourne's millionaire buddies and foreign oligarchs? Of course not - it'll be working class Britons, whose public services will almost inevitably feel the strain.

On a much more personal note, there's the gay issue. Cameron was at one time one of the Conservative party's most vehement opponents to the repeal of that odious Tory law called Section 28. He voted to keep it in place 3 times. That's three! I am willing to believe he may have had some Road to Damascus-esque conversion to the importance of gay rights, but I'm pretty sure it has more to do with the realisation that 3.5 million or so potential voters are gays or lesbians. Call me cynical... But cynical or not, at least he's talking the talk. Except he's not showing the right signs that we, as a group, will be any better treated under the upcoming Tory government than previous ones, except by virtue of existing Labour legislation. 

The single most important issue facing the gay community today is that of bullying in schools. One of the legacies of Section 28 is that gay or effeminate (or "butch" girls) teenagers and children have little to no protection in the playground, and are regularly submitted to verbal or physical abuse. The statistics are scary: even as we are more and more visible in the media or have better protection at work, gay and lesbian teenagers are far more likely to commit suicide, suffer from depression or self-harm than their straight peers ( And teachers are considerably less likely to intervene if a kid is being called "faggot" than if he is being singled out for his race or religion. 

So something needs to be done.Yet so far, outside of fringe leftist parties, only Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have said they will take any radical steps to fight this problem. Brown and Cameron have been predictably wishy-washy. Whilst homophobic bullying is deemed punishable in schools, nothing will be done to make sure religious schools, where homophobic bullying is particularly rampant (see any report by Stonewall for evidence), comply and crack down on it. If anything, matters will get worse, as both parties are bowing down to the vociferous right-wing religious minority (be it Jewish, Christian or Muslim) and talking about introducing even more faith schools. Clegg has been clear - faith schools, like secular ones, will have to crack down on gay-bashing, and expressly show support to gay teens and children. They will not be allowed to openly teach (preach?) anti-gay sentiments, as many do now under the banner of religious freedom. I may baulk at the idea of telling religious bodies how to behave, but the fact is these schools are paid for by the state, and therefore the taxes of millions of gay people, and my taxes (that word again) should not go towards creating an environment that is inhospitable to gays. What if these schools were teaching the value of slavery and genocide, both allowed in the Bible in the same pages that condemn homosexuality? This is not about free speech, it's about responsible state-funded education. Yet Cameron's stance is even softer than Brown's.

Likewise, the Tory Lords have been doing their utmost to block an Equality bill that would bring Britain in line with European law on this most difficult matter. They want to make sure a religious body can refuse to employ someone, if said person is gay, or of a different religion. As European law stipulates, the Equality laws do not suddenly mean a Catholic church would be forced to ordain openly gay men as priests, or even women (the horror!). It does not mean that Muslim imams would be forced to recognise and marry gay couples. What it intends is to protect people from being discriminated against by employers because of their sexuality or religion. Does a christian faith school's cleaners all have to be heterosexual Christians? What difference would it make were they gay or Muslim or Sikh? It's not about forcing religious bodies to change their way of thought, it's about stopping discrimination. It's one of the few areas I am in line with recent Labour policies. The Tories have not changed their spots so radically on gay issues (was Alan Duncan really the best they could do?). Their recent alliance with anti-semitic, racist, gay-hating extremists in Europe only proves this. Cameron's hypocrisy is vile. It's the equivalent of someone saying "I love black people", then going to a garden party with the KKK. And if you think these European extremists aren't as bad as the KKK, try organising a gay pride in Warsaw. 

All in all, Cameron is as fake as his airbrushed picture (seriously, what the fuck is that?). I don't trust his supposed support of gay rights (it's more a "status-quo-let's-above-all-let-the-religious-nutjobs-keep-discriminating-but-I-love-you-really" stance), and his tax cuts just hide a desire to keep on favouring his rich cronies over ordinary citizens. On top of that, it looks like the BBC, a fantastic institution for all its occasional flaws, will become a major target under Cameron, with his buddies in the Murdoch empire already looking to dismantle Auntie's status and usher in a British answer to Fox News and Sky across the board. Profit over the people - how truly Conservative. Old school Conservative. 

Though, what's the alternative? Another 5 years of Labour's sleaze and incompetence? Visions of them all getting off scot free for the Iraq War? Blech! I suppose that any other vote will be a wasted one, a side-effect of Cameron's rise to power. Well, screw it. I have principles. I will not vote Tory just because I am tired of Labour. And I will not vote Labour simply to keep the Tories out. They both stink. I will agree, The Lib Dems are muddled, and Clegg is as charismatic as a slightly soiled dish cloth. I haven't made up my mind on them, so my vote is not cast. I agree with their policies on gay rights. But I also like what the Greens have to say. And, always nagging away is the fact that voting for either will change jack shit. Argh, the pain of choice. After the BNP loonies, the creepy Ukippers, I have now consigned Cameron's airbrushed Tories to the dustbin of my voting options. But what to choose instead? Seriously, it's enough to turn you off politics forever. Now where have I heard that before?

Phew! Another day, another rant! Back to music, next. That world makes more sense to me... 

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Best of 08 and 07

Well, I'm on a roll, aren't I? Don't worry, there won't be 2006 and beyond. Basically, it's only really since 2007 that I've had the financial resources to dedicate myself completely to expanding my musical knowledge. Until then, I had to mostly concentrate my budget on highly-recommended "older" records, trying to amass the best records of each era, before delving into the rarities, bootlegs and live albums from individual years. Obviously, my recent flush period has allowed me to expand my collections of CDs from lots of different years, not just 2007-2009, but that was still by back-tracking since January 07. Effectively, it's only since then that I've been able to really delve into the music that's been coming out each month, so, whilst I could give my top 10 albums of 2006, 2005, 2004 or even 2000, it doesn't feel quite so "legit" for some reason. So I won't. 

And yes, I realise that I come across as a serious mental case here. I'm used to it by now, to be honest.

Top 10 albums of 2007:

1) Baikal by Baikal (Important Records) - see my review from a few months back. Baikal is a humungous slab of rip-roaring excessive heavy psych from the Bardo Pond guys. Sublime and mind-melting.

2) Untrue by Burial (Hyperdub) - possibly the ultimate dubstep album, a dark, hauntingly beautiful urban album of jittery grooves, melancholic electro melodies and lush, nocturnal textures.

3) Why Don't You Give It To Me? by Nathaniel Mayer (Alive) - veteran soul singer teams up with a bunch of white garage-rockers to deliver a groovy, sensual mix of Nuggets-esque psychedelia, raw r'n'b and free-form garage.

4) Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde by Alcest (Prophecy) - one of the best collisions of soaring shoegaze and hard-hitting heavy metal. 

5) Weighing Souls With Sand by The Angelic Process (Profound Lore) - amazingly available on iTunes, Weighing Souls With Sand, like Alcest's album, mixes elegiac shoegaze guitar noise into a crunching metal template to stunning, and heart-wrenching effect.

6) Hunted Gathering by Robedoor & Pocahaunted (Digitalis) - the haunting tribal folk of Pocahaunted duels with nightmarish drone from Robedoor, and both of them are stunning!

7) Live at Massey Hall 1971 by Neil Young (Reprise) - welcome official release of this excellent archival performance that captures Young at his intimate, sensitive best.

8) A Weekend In the City by Bloc Party (Wichita) - a surprising triumph from the indy-rock faves, a stark, emotional concept album that highlights the angst and confusion of the noughties generation.

9) Live 1974 by Harmonia (Gronland) - a weird and offbeat live album where silence competes with noisy drone and Harmonia's hypnotic grooves are at their most stark and robotic. Great sound.

10) Ghosts Will Come And Kiss Our Eyes by HRSTA (Constellation) - an unusual release from the label of Godspeed and other such noisy post-rockers. HRSTA's style is more mournful folk-rock, but sudden bursts of saturated guitar and off-kilter effects make it a subtle and underrated gem.

Best song:

"I forgot" by Baikal. There is simply nothing to fault in this extreme, outlandish and destructively beautiful masterpiece. Kudos to Clint Takeda for the vocals.

Best reissue:

IIIrd Gatekeeper by Skullflower. Any reissue of their early stuff is a delight, but IIIrd Gatekeeper is not only probably their best album, but a strong contender for best metal album of all time! 

Top 10 albums of 2008:

1) A Semblance of Something Appertaining to Destruction by To Blacken The Pages (Colony Records) - one of the deepest, most world-weary drone/doom opuses of all time, a slow-burning and funereal masterpiece.

2) Elegy For Native Tongues by Tetragrammaton (Subvalent) - perfect fusion of extreme drone, shamanic rock and free-form experimentation, with a particularly superb live disc.

3) The Creation of the Universe by Lou Reed's Metal Machine Trio (Sister Ray) - wherein the former Velvet Underground front man goes back to his experimental roots, ripping out a wall of monstrous drone and free noise over nearly two blissful hours.

4) Street Horrrsing by Fuck Buttons (ATP Recordings) - a triumphant debut of fierce harsh noise, alternatively soaring and groovy electronics and demented, driving free-form percussion. Hints of power electronics and post-rock, but ultimately one of a kind.

5) Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth - Sonic Youth with Mats Gustafsson and Merzbow (SYR Recordings) - Well, it could only be superb, really. One of America's true top-class bands join forces with the Japanese Noise wizard and a wild Scandinavian free-jazzer for one long, abrasive and experimental live improvisation. 

6) Jex Thoth by Jex Thoth (I Hate Records) - It's been a while since rock music had been handed the gift of such a stirring, powerful and evocative vocalist, but Jex Thoth is all that and more, as the voice and head of this thunderous, arcane metal outfit.

7) Tilburg by The Heads (Rooster Records) - they are one of Britain's best-kept underground secrets: a proper fuck-off psych-metal band who, as they display on this wild live set, are experts and plugging in, wigging out and frying your mind. 

8) "I Refute It Thus" by Urthona (Head Heritage) - special thanks to Julian Cope for unearthing this one-man noise-fest from Dartmoor of all places. This is heady heathen noise at its most primeval, and one no drone-head should be without!

9) Nothing to Say by Serpentina Satelite (Trip In Time) - these Peruvians actually having fucking loads to say -or rather play-, and they rival The Heads and Acid Mothers Temple for a place as top heavy psych band on the planet. A band to watch.

10) St Dymphna by Gang Gang Dance (Warp Records) - frenetic angular pop with hints of just about everything in it. This Brooklyn quartet should be huge, as their knack for hooks and catchy energy are the stuff most people shouldn't be able to resist! That they are also challenging and innovative is a delicious bonus!

Best song:

"Sweet Love For Planet Earth" by Fuck Buttons - kicks off their debut with a rumble, some buzzing and then one almighty bang! Pure genius from start until the moment it segues into the equally superb "Ribs Out".

Best reissue:

Between Two Skies & Towards The Night by Ilyas Ahmed - I've already waxed lyrical about this excellent singer-songwriter's debut, and this reissue compiles it with the more experimental Towards The Night, making it an essential purchase. Thanks to Digitalis!

Friday, 15 January 2010

The best of 2009 - Ten Great Albums, One Great Song and the Reissue of the Year!!

2009 has been a remarkably good year for music, and an apt way of bidding farewell to the decade. I am determined not to go back over my "best albums of the noughties" list (see here:, although my recent discovery of Burial, plus great recent albums by Sunn O))), Lou Reed's Metal Machine Trio and William Basinski have made my life more traumatic than I surely need right now!

Not that choosing the top 10 of 2009 has been any easier (I do not have the money to follow Wire or the NME's leads and pick 50). A particular spanner for me was the realisation that Tetragrammaton's Elegy for Native Tongues, the album I have perhaps enjoyed the most this year (old Skullflower and Fuck Buttons excepted) actually came out in 2008. Damn!

But, de
spite that, there have been more than a few classics and nice surprises, so, in order of preference, here goes!

1. Teeth of the Sea - Orphaned By The Ocean (The Rocket Record Company)
Very underrated but triumphant mixture of just about every righteous and useful musical genre out there, from searing noise, to ambient electronics, to stomping psych metal, via some weird and lush mariachi trumpet sounds. Essential and rapturous.

2. Orthodox - Sentencia (Alone)
Orthodox used to be a rather standard -if powerful- Metal band in
the vein of Boris, Melvins and Sunn O))). But with Sentencia, they stripped-down their heavy, heavy thundering to explore free-jazz, experimental and musique concrete sounds, creating one of the most unpredictable albums of the decade, let alone the year.

3. Sunn O))) - Monoliths & Dimensions (Southern Lord)
A go
od year indeed for drone/doom metal, with the genre's standard bearers delivering their best opus yet, and one that, much like Orthodox, sees the masters of sub-sub-bass notes and droning riffs explore new territories and textures, with strings, keyboards, choirs and trombones adding colour and variety to their monstrous roar.

4. D'Agostino/Foxx/Jansen - A Secret Life (Metamatic)
One of my favourite ambient albums of recent years was this often-overlooked little gem featuring some improvised piano/tam tam jams between the evergreen John Foxx and forem
r Japan drummer Steve Jansen, completed by sparse, stark keyboard shimmers from Steve D'Agostino.

5. William Basinski - 92982 (2062)
An excellent and much appreciated return from the man behind The Disintegration Loops series. Again, Basinski uses old tape loops to create odd, gently shifting and highly ab
sorbing ambient atmospheres that manage to evoke images of a sweltering New York skyline on a summer's night. Masterful!

6. Greymachine - Disconnected (Hydra Head)
A su
rprise triumph was this association between Isis' Aaron Turner and Justin K Broadrick of Jesu. Disconnected is much closer to JKB's old band Godflesh with its harsh industrial sounds and extreme heaviness, but also incorporates the spacey, sky-soaring textures of Isis and Jesu, making this a superb meeting of the ferocious and the graceful.

7. Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport (ATP Recordings)
It may not ha
ve been as good as Street Horrrsing, but FB's sophomore effort still showcases this unique duo's absurb talent, as they take the noise-funk of their debut, compress it to buggery and add even more scattered dance/electro beats. The new style of dance.

8. Khanate - Clean Hands Go Foul (Hydra Head)
The swanso
ng of this unique metal outfit shows us just what we will be missing. They are still as harsh as fuck, but were also unafraid to experiment, with vocalist Alan Dubin in particular shining, unleashing his pained, harrowing shrieks over stripped-down, atmospheric, dark ambient metal. Not for the faint-hearted.

9. The xx - XX (Young Turks)
My pop album of the year. XX is a ghostly, sparse album of modern indy rock, tinted by electro gr
ooves and and r'n'b sensibility. Dominated by the superb deadpan vocals of the band's two singers, XX is pleasant surprise to emerge from indy's increasingly dull landscape.

10. OM - God Is Good (Drag City)
Like Khanate, Sunn O))) and Orthodox, Om decided to experiment and play with their uber-heavy base sound, adding droning sitar, electric guitar and synth effects to augment their traditional fuzzed-out bass and scattered heavy jazz drums. Still perfect in so many ways.

Song of the year - "Olympians" by Fuck Buttons. Beautiful, soaring, spine-tingling.

Reissue of the year -
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Still brilliant, forty years on.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Great underappreciated or obscure albums 9: BETWEEN TWO SKIES by Ilyas Ahmed (2005)

About a month ago, I was asked (by myself, and by someone very convincing on Julian Cope's website - not directly, but at least I can pretend!) to name my top albums of the "noughties". In between many vituperative cursing sessions, I actually managed to come up with said albums. And among them was Ilyas Ahmed's Between Two Skies, perhaps the most obscure album of the entire fucking list (see here for more detail:

Ahmed was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but moved to New Jersey, then Minnesota at a young age. Now, it appears he's based in Portland, Oregon. This duality of origin is intrensic to his music, particularly on Between Two Skies. The front cover, after all, depicts a woman in what appears to be traditional muslim/Pakistani garb with her eyes hollowed-out. An odd and troubling image, but one that is perfectly fitting for the disquieting, subtle tones contained within this album. Although lyricless, the ultimate vibe you get from Ahmed's songs is one of a blurred identity, of shadowy unease and lonesome self-reflection. But more of that later.

Between Two Skies was originally released as a CD-R, with packaging hand-crafted by the man himself, so we have to be very thankful to Digitalis records for this re-release (which is coupled with his second album, Towards The Night, also from 2005 and self-released, and which curiously features eyes but no face on its cover - not a coincidence, methinks...). The sound is great for something so lo-fi, and it is one of those aural experiences that is almost immediately rapturous, sucking you in in one go and not letting you go until the record has run its course. From what I can gather (he is after all, a pretty elusive and unknown artist), Ahmed recorded this on his own in a cabin lost up in the dark forests of Minnesota, surrounded by nothing more than the trees. It's mostly acoustic music (only occasional electric guitar drones break from this trend), "folk" for want of a better word, although "heathen" would probably suit better, with Ahmed accompanying himself with delicate acoustic guitar arpeggios, the tinkling of a piano and some vague percussion. Considering he doesn't sing words, his voice is oddly the main ingredient of his fascinating mix. Each track sees him intone soft, wordless chants of such stark, raw beauty that they convey heaps more than any set of lyrics could. Again, you think back to his Asian heritage, with echoes of Sufi or Buddhist chanting, but this has been filtered through his American musical heritage to deliver something pretty much unique, for all the James Blackshaw/Ben Chasny comparisons. His elusive, darting guitar notes, that seem to flit around his voice like persistent flies, echo not the plodding chords of traditional anglo-american folk and rock, but rather the bold, insistent soloing of Coltrane-esque free jazz. It's no surprise that Ahmed names A Love Supreme as a major influence in his musical education.

But trying to decode Ahmed's work in purely musical terms is to miss the point. This is music that functions primarily -you might even say exclusively- on emotional levels. The first melancholic notes of "Black Midas" are enough to get the hairs on your spine tingling, and that's even before Ahmed releases his dreamy, mournful falsetto. When he does, it's musical gold, the kind of primeval, profound sound that can only come from that most elusive and nebulous of human attributes - the soul. Whenever I have doubts as to the existence of such a thing, I put Between Two Skies on.

The centrepiece of the album is the 16-minute masterpiece "To You Soon/Silence The High", an unreal track, where Ahmed's love of experimental music and free jazz comes through most clearly. It's an acoustic and an electric guitar duet (duel?) over increasingly warped wordless wailings, the instruments evoking Sonny Sharrock's staccato solos on 1968's Black Woman, while Ahmed's distant moans come across like a druggier, less directly political, answer to Linda Sharrock's screaming on that record. Midway through, Ahmed introduces jarring percussion, a stunted, halting rhythm that is pure raga, hence re-connecting with Ahmed's Asian roots, although his by now pained vocals come across as much as akin to Native American chanting as they do to Sufi/Pakistani music. But this is not some retro attempt at "World" music, and "To You Soon/Silence The High" also evokes the wordless avant-garde of Yoko Ono's first album. It's electric, even though the actual music is acoustic.

Sitting somewhere between a stripped-down 'Trane (maybe the ambient side of Miles Davis, displayed on "He Loved Him Madly" or In A Silent Way would be the most apt reference point) and the pagan ragas of Ben Chasny, Ilyas Ahmed's music is an odd proposition - deep, dark and meaningful. It's the music of wind-swept steppes, barren plains and snow-laden conifer trees. It's primordial and yet forward-thinking, a music for all civilisations seen through one lost soul's eyes. It's timeless and hypnotic, challenging and emotionally pure. It's essential, simple as.