Friday, 21 May 2010

Africa, Japan and the oldies steal the show - Matt Groening's ATP, Butlins, England, May 7-9 2010

To think I almost didn't go! When my mates Tim and Mark floated the idea, the line-up wasn't yet as fleshed-out as it would prove to be, and I was certainly less adamant I had to go than for the 10-year Anniversary edition last December (SUNN O))), Bardo Pond and OM, for chrissakes), or indeed than I am for the upcoming Godspeed You! Black Emperor edition this year. But this ATP, curated by Matt Groening (who is, a soft spot for irritating whining female singer-songwriters aside, a man of exquisite musical taste), exceeded all expectations. The weather was mainly shite, and ridiculous levels of whisky and beer consumption on the Sunday made most of that day a write-off, but my ears got a phenomenal pleasure assault and fucking hell - I GOT JAMES MOTHERFUCKIN' CHANCE'S MOTHERFUCKIN' AUTOGRAPH!!! Ahem, sorry about that, but I needed to get it off my chest.

As per the last time, Tim, Mark and I, accompanied by our wonderful "token female with a mooncup" Harri, rocked up on the afternoon of the 7th, our car loaded with booze and cheap food, ready to overindulge, it turned out, in a weekend of jovial debauchery. The excellent planning meant that hardly any bands overlapped, and we luckily had a nice hour to settle in before the first set I desperately wanted to see, Birmingham haunt-pop duo Broadcast, who had produced one of the more beguiling albums of 2009 with their collaboration with The Focus Group, Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (Warp Records). My friends left halfway in, one later describing the pair as "shit". Certainly, the first 30 minutes were a challenge, with the influence of The Focus Group evident as Broadcast attempted a live collage piece that was weird, off-beat and, a shame given Trish Keenan's lovely voice, mostly vocals-free. It didn't always work, but I for one admired the attempt and felt the roughness of it was more due to the sound problems that would hamper a number of acts. Besides which, almost immediately after my trio of buddies departed, the band switched to standard Broadcast fair, with pulsating dance beats and shimmering psychedelic synth ambience acting as the perfect platform to launch Keenan's delightful, reverb-drenched voice at the audience. Highlighting the duo's place at the forefront of the new "hauntology" scene, their set was wistful and mysterious, as weird images were projected onto a canvas over their heads. In fact, it was probably the only one that suffered from a planning perspective as, like Bardo Pond in December, they would have been much better suited to an early morning appearance when every one would have been drunk and stoned enough to really get into their oddball sound. A shame.

I had to grab a bite then, so skipped Built to Spill, whose sound left me rather indifferent from what I heard in passing, but I was back at the Centre Stage for Cold Cave, whom I only knew from The Wire's end-of-the-year top 50 (at 49, I think). They were a pleasant surprise, performing atypically in near-total obscurity and featuring a sound halfway between the driving electro-pop of early Soft Cell or Human League, but with a suitably mournful/stroppy-sounding lead singer, some heavy post-industrial beats, and a general air of sexualised modernist decay. Plus, they have Prurient on synths!

Iggy and The Stooges were next, on the Pavillion stage, but I'd seen them a few days beforehand, and I really don't like the cavernous, impersonal feel of that setting, so after a couple of songs, where the band played almost the same set as at The Apollo and Iggy confirmed he still has enough energy for 12 men despite playing to back-to-back gigs less than a week earlier, I headed back to the chalet for a nap and a beer, returning to the Centre Stage in time for Toumani Diabate and his band, who were one of the best acts of the weekend. Far from the delicate, pastoral sound of his New Ancient Strings magnum opus, this saw the great man taking on groovy African funk, with scattered polyrhythmic percussion, electric guitar and two energetic singers. The unshackled enthusiasm onstage quickly filtered through to the crowd and soon it had become a foot-pounding, hip-shaking mass of humanity, for one of the most joyful scenes I have ever witnessed at a concert. Watching my buddy Tim in particular lose himself to the groove in a completely unfettered way was something I won't forget for a while. At half-eleven I also caught half a set by Japanese pop-punk band Shonen Knife, whose simplistic guitar riffage and cheesy shouted vocals were charmingly (if rather insubstantially) offset by their uber-sexy demeanor and amusing in-between-song banter ("Do you like sushi?").

Beer won over the rest of the acts on the Friday, but Toumani Diabate in particular had proved a phenomenal entry to the festival, and the dancing had drained me somewhat. Saturday would prove to be the big one, kicking off with Deerhunter (the two previous acts were the very uninspiring Danielson and Lightning Dust - the latter were simply dreadful) on the Pavillion stage. Bradford Cox and his band have become staples of ATP and showed themselves to be a properly well-rounded and hard-hitting rock band, somewhere between Flaming Lips at their most wistful and My Bloody Valentine, as sheets of noisy guitar jostled with sad, high-pitched voices. Cox is a charming performer, all the more so for his obvious frailty, and they were fittingly loud, with a ragged drone finale. There was a slight "going-through-the-motions" feeling at times, but I was charmed enough to grab a copy of their Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. album (4AD, 2008). Weird Era Cont. is superb, I must say.

Next up were Konono No.1, one of the most exciting bands currently emananting from Africa. You probably know the drill - they're essentially a wedding band back in their native Democratic Republic of the Congo, playing amplified finger piano's through rough-shod amps created by salvaging bits and pieces of electrical appliances. And good lord, they're loud! The rough sound and repetitive motifs they play create a massive wall of trance-like funk, somewhere between German motorik electronica and traditional African dance music. Shouts of "Bougez! Bougez!" punctuate their native tongue lyrics whilst the singers shake and grind to the furious, outlandish sounds emanating from the finger pianos. An insane live presence, and another feather in Africa's cap. The joyfulnous, energy and raw power of both Konono and Toumani Diabate's sets put a lot of the formulaic rock bands to shame.

I dutifully skipped She & Him, Zooey Deschanel's band (they sound a bit wet and dull to me), but was back in action for The Residents. I know - how mental to be seeing America's most enigmatic band performing live? The stage set the tone - a rundown TV and moth-eaten sofa had me feeling like I was staring into a warped parody of a typical American sitting room that had been visited by aliens for tea, who had left some futuristic instruments behind. And then the aliens were there! "Chuck" and "Bob", faces hidden by massive goggles, spiky dreadlocks and mouthless balaklavas, both wearing shiny red jackets and staring impassively (I guess) at their instruments as they took the stage. Then came the mad old man of this bonkers house/stage - "Randy", leader singer and storyteller, dressed in a Christopher-Lloyd-in-Back-to-the-Future mask and wearing a ratty old dressing gown and oversized bozer shorts. The Residents remain true to form - no clues as to who these guys are, or even if they are the same Residents that gave us Not Available and Eskimo. For the music was very different to those experimental pre-yet-post-punk gems, mostly a raging mix of disturbed techno, seething noise and skewed old school rock'n'roll, mashed together into an unholy, ear-shattering whole, with lyrics (either roared, mewed or screamed by "Randy", who also peppered the song intervals with creepy/funny stories of ghosts, imaginary siblings and violent accidents) so bizarre they could have been lifted from the mind of Flannery O'Connor after an all-night amphetamine binge. In many ways it had me thinking that The Residents could be the original precursors of hypnagogic pop, their madcap take on the last 100 years of American culture, filtered through noise, drone, punk and psych, being a ragged, rather scary template for the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never and Gary War. Sort of.

Sticking to the weird, next up, on the Reds Club stage, was Ruins, now a solo vehicle for madcap drummer Tatsuya Yoshida. His energy is astounding and whilst there are limits to this solo drumming + vocals + tapes doing the rest, it remained awe-inspiring just to see his sheer bravado, guts and power. Stumbling raucously between noise, free jazz and progressive rock, including a finale that seemed to include snippets of King Crimson and Soft Machine, it was a stirring moment of wild avant rock that didn't make me regret missing the impromptu jam session between Jason Pearce, Konono No1 and Boredoms, which filled up startlingly quickly and apparently was something of a dud. 

Ruins 45-minute set ended just in time for me to haul ass over to the Centre stage to catch The xx, also only on 45 minutes but playing twice over the weekend. As much as I enjoy their excellent debut album, as a live entity, particularly shorn of the presence of keyboardist Baria Qureshi who recently departed the fold, they still need some work. Having all keyboard parts pre-recorded meant they had no room to stretch out and any faltering on the rhythm side of things was glaringly obvious (and there were bound to be, given how tough it is to play on a drum pad at speed). But both singers are sexy in an offbeat way, with their voices strong and sultry, and it's always nice to hear songs you like in a live setting, especially as they were quite obviously very popular with a buoyant crowd. They also did a good job of twisting the end of "Basic Space" into a tetchy jam, whilst "Fantasy" featured one of the heaviest bass lines I've ever heard, including Skream and Benga! Shame "Crystalised" was a bit untidy, but they have masses of room to improve, and they remain the only band recently trumpeted by the NME to actually be worth the hype.

But the best of Saturday was saved for last, as I ducked back in to Reds to catch James Chance & Les Contortions. Anyone who knows anything about post-punk music will know James Chance, whose original Contortions took the raw, alienated, unsophisticated sound of New York's seminal No Wave scene and dumped in jerky funk, hints of disco, and even sophisticated free jazz courtesy of Chance's squalling sax. The Contortions per se didn't last that long, but at the forefront of every incarnation of the band has been this sax, plus Chance's unique vocal style, part-sneer, part-scream, part-rasp, part-yell, part-cry for mercy. His debut album, Buy, remains a classic of unruly funk-punk defined by the aforementioned sax and vocals, plus jagged lines of distorted slide guitar, and it was great to hear James Chance returning to these roots with this French incarnation of the band. When they ripped in to the opening chords of "Design to Kill" and the great man blurted out a molten sax solo before slinking up to the mic, I was in heaven, and the bastards didn't let up for the whole set, which blissfully stretched well over the alloted hour. Whether taking on James Brown-ish funk, the pure No Wave of his earlier songs, or vintage r'n'r, the attitude remained the same - fierce, ballsy and belligerent. Rock at its purest. That I the next day got to meet Chance was the cherry on a pretty substantial fucking cake.

It's possible that such a high was indirectly responsible for Sunday being such a write-off. So enthused was I by Chance's performance, and then at having met him (and also chatted to Matt Groening - do I get any cool points for that?) that I was more interested in savouring the joy, and, in true hippy fashion, sharing it with others via many a shared bottle of alcohol, than in seeing many more bands. But I did give it a shot, I swear!

Proof: I got my mind melted in the best possible way by Boredoms! In fact, a second shot of genius performing probably did it for my poor synapses, meaning the "love factor" probably got out of control (I think I later snogged a 42-year-old woman!). Boredoms were performing Boardrum, their suite for multiple drummers, bashed guitars, electronics and some guitar, with a -for Boardrum- relatively stripped-down number of drummers (7, sometimes 8), including one of my faves in Oneida's Kid Millions. The show was insane, with one of the drummers being lifted to the stage, complete with full kit and soloing in call-and-response fashion with the rest of his bandmates! But the real focus was Boredoms' insane dreadlocked frontman EYE, who danced around on stage, leapt from drums to bashing a wall of fine-tuned guitars or yelled into a range of distorted microphones, all with the energy of ten men. And all the while the 7 drummers kept up their constant, insistent, ever-shifting pounding, orchestrated by EYE's shouts, raised hands and gestures. Truly bizarre, wondrous and excessively brilliant stuff.

And what about the rest? A bottle of forgotten Jack Daniels put paid to most of it, but I did stumble through a few shows, mostly snippets:

Viv Albertine - terribly dull singer-songwriter meanderings from the former Slit. Had to leave.
Spiritualized - again one I left mid-way through, despite it being a full rendering of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Fatuous, overblown and self-important. Blech.
Joana Newsom - Great voice and presence, but my memory lets me down a tad here
The Raincoats - I had actually sobered up a bit for this, but they started late, took ages to get going and ultimately the bar proved a more reliable companion. I'd like to say they've still got it, but such shenanigans proved tiresome.

Ok, I'll admit it - missing most of Sunday due to inebriation was lame. But damn if James Chance and Boredoms didn't make it worth it. My only true regret was missing most of The Raincoats, but at the same time it kind of preserves my image of them, which my few recollections of their set suggest might have been damaged otherwise. James Chance and The Residents at least showed that the old-time post-punks haven't lost any of their edge or ability to surprise, whilst more nuggets of pure gold came from such far-flung parts as Mali, The Congo and Japan. A fitting epitaph for one of the most eclectic festivals I've ever been to. Well done, Mr Groening! 

Friday, 14 May 2010

March and April on my iPod

Such a mad couple of months, with gigs, new albums, work and flat-hunting all combining to mean I have to combine them both this time for an iPod extravaganza! Which means you all (sigh) get a bit longer to absorb my recent post on memory music. Lucky you!

Obviously, given my recent blurb on "memory music", hauntology and hypnagogic pop have been major aural focuses for me this month. I won't re-elaborate on the artists and records I gave detailed appraisals of previously, but must say that March's album of the month has to be Sadly The Future is No Longer What it Was by Leyland Kirby (History Always Favours The Winners, 2009). A titanic 3-hour monolith that sees Kirby echo his work as The Caretaker, but using Basinski-esque piano loops, rumbling synths and crackling noise in lieu of samples to carry across his sense of mournful nostalgia. Sumptuous. Also note that The Caretaker's Persistent Repitition of Phrases (HAFTW, 2009) has now been given a CD reissue, well worth picking up (this is a good opportunity for me to laud the excellent Manchester-based indie record store, Boomkat:, where you can grab this masterpiece, along with many others).

Altogether more immediate in its approach is Gary War's Horribles Parade (Sacred Bones, 2009), one of hypnagogic pop's stand-out albums, along with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill by Grouper (Type, 2008), Island Diamonds by Pocahaunted (Not Not Fun, 2008) and Rifts by Oneohtrix Point Never (No Fun, 2009), all mentioned in "Memory In the Grooves". Horribles Parade is a fast-paced, totally warped and psychedelic rocker that sounds like very little out there. Under the deluge of weird sonic effects that drench his guitars and synths, you can just about detect some retro grooves, equally evoking brittle 60s garage-psych (such as 13th Floor Elevators and The Seeds) and icy post-punk in the Joy Division/Magazine vein. The rhythm patterns, bashed out on crude drum machines and supported by clouds of muffling synth noise, are overlayed by War's bleary guitar riffage, half-way between the Neil Young of Year of the Horse, and Manuel Gottsching's psychedelic solos on Ash Ra Tempel's debut, but recorded in a run-down student bedsit on cheap 8-track recording equipment. As for the vocals, it may take you a while to identify them, such are the watery effects that weigh them down, making it sound like they were recorded in a swimming pool. But concentrate and you will hear the dreamy leitmotivs and rhyming notes that highlight that, for all the effects and processing that he uses to soup up his songs, Gary War is really something of a pop songwriter. It's singular and unwieldy, but still classic pop-rock. A great introduction to hypnagogic pop's weird delights.

Also on Sacred Bones, and released in 2009, was the second album by Wisconsin-based band Zola Jesus, called The Spoils. Truth be told, The Spoils sits only at the edge of hypnagogic pop, it's backward-glancing haze owing less to Oneohtrix Point Never's ectoplasmic snatch and grab style than to the retro-nostalgia of indy rock's top acts who turn to the 80s to make up for their own lack of inspiration. Zola Jesus, however, are inspired, and let enough lo-fi spectrality permeate their record to make it sit nicely, if not always accurately alonside Horribles Parade or Island Diamonds. Their influence is the Gothic rock of the early 80s, a feeling mainly reinforced by the close similarity in vocal style between Zola Jesus' Nika Roza Danilova and such heathen chanteuses as Siouxsie Sioux and Diamanda Galas. The music is also dark and oppressive like the best Goth, but comes at you through a haze of lo-fi production values and stripped-down electronica, instantly channeling the gloomy forests and ramshackle backwater towns of Danilova's home state rather than towering Mittel-Europan castles or industrial cityscapes. Films like Silence of the Lambs or the dank prose of Cormac McCarthy's The Road are mirrored in the brittle riffs, crackling effects and monotonous beats, taking The Spoils beyond simple retro, by-the-ropes rock'n'roll and into something elusive, ghostly and mystical.

Equally evocative -oddly- of fog-laden forests, grim trailer parks and crumbling colonial houses in America's hinterland is Indignant Senility's Plays Wagner (Type Records, 2010), a monolithic slab of scratchy drone that owes a huge debt to the work of The Caretaker, whilst still managing to sound rather unique. As the title suggests, Indignant Senility's Pat  Maherr has taken the bombastic "classical" music of Richard Wagner and "played" with it. The result couldn't be much further removed from Wagner. Using old vinyl recordings of the German's music, and then twisting, turning, distorting and pummeling it beyond recognition, Maherr has created a massive gothic soundscape, where snippets of the old master's strings or orchestras seep into the mass of electronic drone like shafts of light, or ghosts of long-dead German aristocrats, heroes and princes trying to muscle their way back into reality. It's an exhausting listen, at 78 minutes in length, but a truly troubling and haunting one.

Closer to home, Manchester duo Demdike Stare have also been communicating with troubled spirits, as displayed on their peculiar debut electro gem Symbiosis (Modern Love, 2009). Their background is in turntablism, dub and techno, but Symbiosis only hints at such modern considerations, as it is one of the most oblique and troubling techno albums around. The pace is slow, sinister, starting with the insidious drone of the aptly named "Suspicious Drone", in which cracklng electronics seep around you like liquid knives, before segueing driftingly into "Haxan Dub", a slow-burning bass rumbler. Other tracks, such as "Jannisary" show an influence from Iranian music, but as with the techno and dub, this influence is ghostly and hard-to-grasp. Symbiosis is ultimately the product of England's haunted North-West, the sounds evoking, for all their modern synths and computers, the desolate Lancashire moors and dilapidated former industrial towns. They also betray their fascination with the grimmer side of English mythology: ghosts, haunted houses and witchcraft and similarly sign-posted, not least with the duo's name, a reference to one of the most famous witches in English history. Dark and impenetrable, Symbiosis does not have the immediacy of Broadcast's work, its closest hauntological cousin being Eric Zann's windswept epic Ouroborindra (Ghost box, 2005). 

Of course, none of this "Hauntology" is really -really- that original, and it owes a large amount to the experimental turntablism of Liverpool-born composer Philip Jeck, a maverick genius whose odd, experimental and ambitious records are benchmarks for anyone wanting to explore the possibilities of found sounds, old records and modern technology. His modus operandi appears consistent: he uses old, broken vinyl records and plays them old two dilapidated turntables, filtering the result through a gaggles of effects boxes to create powerful and disorientating sound collages. On Stoke (Touch Records, 2002), the results range from drifting ambience to epic avant-garde sound experimentation, the untiting factor being the endless crackles and hiss of his ageing vinyl. Some contain found sounds (could they be field recordings?), others hint at long-forgotten melodies and tunes. On "Pax", possibly Stoke's high-water mark, the fiercely manipulated voice of an anonymous blues singer is twisted into a mournful, disembodied loop, all traces of his or her words long gone, but the deeply affecting meaning preserved and even enhanced. That each of his albums is culled from live performances only enhances the sense that Philip Jeck is a singular genius in modern experimental music.

Also only on the fringe of modern hauntology (in fact, the clearest link is the fact that he is currently signed to Mordant Music, home of, well, Mordant Music) is Vindicatrix, aka David Aird, whose Die Alten Bosen Lieder album gets the "Best Album of April" award, even though it was released at the tail end of 2009. Compared to most hauntology, which takes pop culture and filters and distorts it into some sort of weird experimental soup, Vindicatrix doesn't even bother with the "pop" side of things. As the title suggests, this album sees Aird indulge his love for traditional German lieder, and translated into English it means "The Old Wicked Songs", which is pretty evocative! But do not expect dry, earthy folk tunes with traditional arrangements. Die Alten Bosen Lieder is a constantly surprising and unsettling album. What it shares with Mordant Music and other hauntologists is its breadth of influences and sources, as well as a basis in electronic music. At its core, it could even be seen as a stripped-down techno album, although not one that would be played in Fabric anytime soon. The first track, "Dein Schwert" is a modernised cover of a Schubert piece, reshaped to fit to a pulsating electronic beat, oppressive synths and futuristic effects, whilst Aird rasps and moans in German like Blixa Bargeld on downers. It is direct and dramatic where Mordant Music are elusive and cheeky, the sinister undertones of their Dead Air (Mordant Music, 2006) being pushed right up front. At times Vindicatrix evokes the "sound blocks" of Scott Walker's recent The Drift (4AD, 2006) album, but filtered through shades of dance, industrial punk and trip hop. At others, notably the three central tracks, "Lack of Correspondence", "Rubbing Pages Out" and "Insulinde", calm ambient passages are juxtaposed with brittle sonic experiments, much like David Sylvian's Manafon (Samadhisound, 2009), but perhaps with a greater sense of urgency and menace. Throughout the album, there is a sense of drifting through a dystopian urban wasteland, with the only sounds coming from a clapped-out transistor radio that randomly spits out half-formed tunes beamed from a decaying antenna lost in the fogs of time. As such, whilst Die Alten Bosen Lieder doesn't have the the clear nostalgia of vintage hauntology, it still encapsulates the spirit of half-remembered memes and musical cross-pollination that has made the genre so enthralling. And with its twisted humour and decayed post-modernist aura, it stands as one of the great albums of the last decade.

It wasn't all hauntology and backwards-gazing American oddball pop, though. I also -finally!- discovered the brilliant drone of Phill Niblock, one of the modern masters of minimalism, alongside Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros and Tony Conrad. On the superb and awe-inspiring Touch Food (Touch Records, 2003), Niblock doesn't play, instead bringing in the likes of Zeitkratzer's master saxophonist Ulrich Krieger to give life to his deceptively simple compositions, the first three of which revolve around the adventurous manipulation of three staple instruments of modern music: sax, piano and violin. Under Niblock's direction, the instruments are double-tracked, distorted and reverbed almost beyond recognition, creating massive drone canvasses where each shift in tempo, volume or effect, even slight, becomes a flash of golden light in an all-envelopping cloud of sound. The images that come with the CD (one of the best booklets ever) show pictures of Chinese chefs at work, a weird contrast with the slow-paced, minimal music, but one that enhances the strangeness and disorientation of the music. This is an extremely long -and deceptively loud- album, but it's well worth letting it subsume your senses.

Also operating in the realm of minimalist drone is/are Eleh, a completely anonymous act who, after several limited vinyl-only releases, have/has finally released a debut CD album on Touch, Location Momentum (2010). This is not some sort of Residents-esque elaborately-orchestrated elusiveness. No-one, even the guys at Touch know who Eleh is or are. Could be a woman. Could be a man. Could be a band. Could be one person in a basement with some equipment. All we know is that Eleh use(s) vintage analogue equipment to create subtle drone epics of remarkable originality in a genre already over-saturated by countless sub-par releases. The first track on Locomotion Momentum, "HeleneleH", which may be a cheeky clue as to Eleh's identity, is the heady wine of drone music, and one that encapsulates the crafty sense of humour behind Eleh's mechanical obscurity, as a single unending drone note on a sine-wave generator is sustained for the best part of 20 minutes. Just as you're getting frustrated with the sheer bloody-mindedness of the piece, it suddenly shifts to a note, catapulting the listener into a new aural environment. These drones, whether the high-pitched white noise of "Circle One: Summer Transcience" or the rumbling organ distortion of "Observation Wheel", which evokes the best of early Klaus Schulze, are all-encompassing and drift imperceptibly into your synapses, enslaving you to their unexpected rhythms and shifting sound worlds. I don't care who Eleh is or are, so long as he/she/they keep delivering such superb CDs!

No such gentle disquiet from Venetian Snares, the peculiar moniker taken by Canadian techno producer Aaron Funk. His superb Rossz csillag alatt született (Planet Mu, 2005) is a classic of modern drum'n'bass, proof that the genre can still evolve and explore new territories. For Rossz csillag alatt született (which I still can't pronounce, despite getting taught how by my Hungarian flatmate) sees Funk exploring his Hungarian heritage in a most startling way, as he samples sounds from traditional Magyar folk tunes, twisting the sounds of violins, plucked cellos and full string quartets around ferocious breakbeats and driving synth noises that clatter along at hundreds of beats per minute. It shouldn't work but it does with some aplomb, especially on the magical "Öngyilkos Vasárnap", where Billie Holliday's sampled voice singing "Gloomy Sunday" (originally written by Hungarian composer Rezső Seress) adds a sense of melancholy and gloom, perfectly enhanced by Funk's doom-laden beats and distorted string samples. If you're not a fan of hardcore junglism, it's probably best to avoid Rossz csillag alatt született, but be warned, you'll be missing out on a truly unexpected techno gem.

Ending on a movie note, I want to send a big "you da man!" out to Michael Haneke, whose brilliant films Funny Games (1997) and The White Ribbon (2009) rattled my world one rainy Sunday in April. The former is one of the most disturbing pamphlet movies on the subject of violence you will ever come across. The principle is creepily simple: an upper middle-class couple and their young son rock up to their lakeside holiday home for a nice summer break, only to have their home invaded by two creepily polite and sadistic young men who torture them psychologically and physically with chilling detachment. Using "unallowed" film-making techniques such as breaking the fourth wall, Haneke highlights the sense of voyeurism and the dehumanising effects of violence in movies. Here, it is mainly off-screen, but the cold cinematography and lack of any sensationalisation make it seem all the more brutal. But that asks a fundamental question: why do we like our violence to be sensationalised?

The White Ribbon may just be Haneke's most perfect statement yet. Filmed in colour which was then digitally converted to black-and-white, it's a beautifully-crafted masterpiece of subtle disquiet, as the inhabitants of a German village in 1914 watch their daily lives descend slowly into chaos as random acts of senseless violence start to punctuate the well-ordered calm of their puritanical society. Haneke deliberately piles on the doubt and mystery, never allowing us to truly know who is commiting these acts, whilst also unveiling the hypocrisy and perversion that lurk continually under the well-mannered exterior each character projects. It's cold and studied, and deservedly won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, a just reward for one of the world's most enthralling directors.

Phew! What a slab! I'll avoid mentioning the dismal election result here in the UK which sees us foisted with the most unpopular and uninspiring government in decades, simply because it's just too dire for words. Proof if ever that voting in this country means fuck all. Still, it was worth it just to see Lembit Opik and Adam Boulton's meltdowns. Almost...

Thursday, 13 May 2010


It's been a ruddy good couple of months for them, and things are set to get better, with ATP, Boris, Teeth of the Sea and Ben Frost still to come!

 note: the pictures below are not mine, but are, I believe from the gigs in question

Skream and Benga - Fabric, London; March 19 2010
Boxcutter, Kuedo and others - Corsica Studios, London; April 9 2010

Two club sets just a couple of weeks apart were the perfect introduction for me to the dubstep live experience. I'm glad I was prepared for how loud it would be, especially at Fabric where the pounding drum patterns and sub-sub-bass hit crushing volume levels.

Skream and Benga are the genre's two young superstars, a deserved reputation as they are also two of the most talented producers out there. I do have my reservations about the whole experience, though. Fabric is a pretty vile place, a club "superstore", soulless and brimming with tourists. The average age of the audience must have been 20, making me feel somewhat out of place. To top things off, Skream and Benga didn't come on until 3am, meaning I had to drink my way through the boredom of a number of other, less enthralling performers.

I would like to say it was worth it. Certainly, they are a talented duo, and I loved that they decided to perform side-by-side, taking turns to release their respective riffs and tunes, and supporting each other with much arm-waving to the crowd when not at the decks. But 6 hours is a long time to wait with only inaudible chats with friends and lots of beer as company. Plus, their set was partly spoiled by the irritating presence of a couple of MCs whose only vocal interventions seemed to be to repeat the words "Skream and Bengaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!" ad infinitum. A shame, as both Croydon lads are excellent tunesmiths and when they were flying, the crowd's reaction was unlike any I'd seen in a club, even Berlin's cathedral-like Berghain. Benga was the hero for me, his pounding rhythm tracks setting a monstrous groove under industrial synth lines. But, by the time the set ended at 5 I was weary, and the MCs had driven me to the back of the room to lean against a pillar grumbling into my umpteenth bottle of Budweiser. Still, the experience of seeing hundreds of 20-somethings bouncing up and down to the thudding bass lines of two of of dubsteps most exciting stars was memorable, and proof perhaps that the genre has finally entered the mainstream. Where it goes from here remains a mystery...
The Corsica Studios are an altogether more intimate venue, with two small-ish rooms linked by tunnel-like corridors running under the dingy archways of Elephant & Castle in gloomy South London. A perfect setting for a dubstep evening that was cheap, good-natured and blessed with some amazing music.

I don't remember all the artists I saw, but even those I was unfamiliar with were able to get the young, arty crowd bouncing. I had come to see Boxcutter, whose excellent Oneiric album (Planet Mu, 2006) has been a recent fave of mine, and Kuedo, aka Jamie Vex'd, one half of the sadly now-defunct Vex'd, whose Degenerate (Planet Mu, 2005) remains one of the true must-have dubstep albums. 

Boxcutter's style has evolved notably since Oneiric's IDM-inflected indo-dub, moving towards more house-y synth patterns and graceful pop. For this set he added a live electric bass to his programmed patterns and whilst it didn't always work, lurching into wanky noodling occasion, there were times when it hit a spacey electro groove reminiscent of The Field.

But if Boxcutter was good, Kuedo was amazing, cranking up the volume and the thumping beats and mixing the best of Vex'd's post-industrial dub with the retro synthetic approach that has made Joker and Joy Orbison the new darlings of the UK club scene. Like them, Kuedo's synth riffs evoke a cross-section of 80s and 90s pop culture, from cheesy movies to old skool hip-hop and garage to video game soundtracks. But Kuedo's beats are that much more massive and thumping, whilst heavy basses churn away underneath the mix. Industrial dance at its best, Kuedo is an artist to watch, especially as his new EP Dream Sequence (Planet Mu, 2010) is also excellent.

Lou Reed's Metal Machine Trio - Royal Festival Hall, London, April 19 2010

The Metal Machine Trio's album The Creation of the Universe (Sister Ray Records) was one of the best surprises of 2008 or 2009. Which is not a slight on mister Reed (although his post-Songs for Drella output has been patchy at best), but rather a testament to how exciting, raw and adventurous the new album was. The Creation of the Universe saw Reed crowbar-ing free improv into his own curmudgeonly musical philosophy, delivering something that was unpredictable but concise, noisy but efficient. An essential album, but one that sat uneasily in any category, be it improv, rock or noise. 

So, the news that the RFA's Ether festival was going to give Reed a chance to unleash this particular brand of free "fuck you" on a London audience was quite welcome, and this was not an opportunity to miss. I figured most people would assume it would be a rehashing of Metal Machine Music, his unfairly lambasted noise album from 1975, and one the greatest "fuck you"s an artist has ever addressed to his or her own audience, and therefore steer well clear.

Instead, it seems most of the prats in the auditorium hadn't read the script, hadn't wondered what the "Metal Machine Trio" could possible imply, and had turned up expecting a run-through of hits, from "Perfect Day" to, um, "Walk on the Wild Side". As far as I'm concerned, these middle-aged dipshits got what they deserved. A good 30 minutes of feedback greeted everyone as we filtered our way into the glorious main hall, and already some of the grey-haired biddies around me looked troubled. When their enthusiastic applause at Reed's eventual appearance was drowned out by a wall of guitar feedback, electronic noise and strident sax, most decided, after a few minutes of very Britishly polite consideration, to head en masse for the exit. 

For those of us who stayed it was a true monument to free exploration of sound. The error here would be to expect Reed to play the improv game by the book. No, Lou Reed is Lou Reed, and even when improvising, he controls everything, with his usual sour temper. As such, you could see him bossing electro wizard Sarth Calhoun as to how to pound out his electronic drones, whilst sax genius Ulrich Krieger always deferred to the New Yorker, even when in full squalling flow. And why not? It's Lou Reed, for chrissakes! It's been a while since we were privileged to hear the great man's singular take on feedback virtuosity, and I for one one was enthralled, as rumbling drones made way for high-pitched saturation and then back again. At the end, the aging (he's 68, for fuck's sake) rocker waddled over to the giant gong behind him and gave it a resounding bash that woke up the old man beside me and brought this tumultuous, rapturous set to a close. All I can say is, fuck those dozy cunts that walked out (and I've never seen so many people head for the doors at a gig), and I am glad I got to see a grumpy old fart do what he still does better than most - make a fucking racket!

Iggy and the Stooges + Suicide - Hammersmith Apollo, London, May 3 2010

I think I was probably the only person in the audience who preferred the opening act to the main guys. As part of the interesting "Don't Look Back" series (organised, I believe, by ATP Recordings), Iggy & The Stooges were playing the entirety of their seminal Raw Power album, whilst Suicide would assault us with their complete debut. An evening of pure sonic bliss would surely present itself.

Ah expectations. I'm pretty sure they are the mother of all fuck ups. Which is not to say the gigs weren't great. They were. But maybe after dreaming of this moment for years, those damned expectations were bound to put the cat among the pigeons.

Suicide have the advantage of having a reputation built on a talent for making music difficult for their audiences. When they first appeared in London supporting The Clash, someone threw an ax at them, after all! As such, I was prepared for them to be challenging. I was not expecting it to be so loud, though! It must be kept in mind that Alan Vega and Martin Rev, the pioneering duo that makes up Suicide, are old. Vega is 71! But Rev's thundering drum machine patterns and warped synth noise roared out of the speakers at ear-shattering volume from the off, as they smashed "Ghost Rider", the album's amazing opener into the ground. Vega looked his age in a ludicrous yellow beanie, no longer able to jerk around stage whilst hitting himself in the face with the mic and starting fights with the audience. But he has traded in such antics for the mother of all "fuck you" attitudes, slouching around the stage and growl-shouting his lyrics as his voice is twisted and mauled by ridiculous amounts of reverb. At one pointm in true bastard rock curmudgeon style, he lit a cigarette and smoked it onstage, before apparently getting signalled that he would be in some shit if he didn't stub it out. Not really punk rock, but a nice little bit of grizzled, ageing defiance.

But Rev was surely the star. He barely looked at the audience as he hid his face under weird fluorescent wrap-around shades, instead banging on his fucked-up organ like a petulant two-year-old. It was hugely messy, untamed and the mix was all over the place, but with every pounding thud of electronic percussion I slipped deeper into a woozy swaggering dance, captivated by the duo's monstrous noise. They may no longer have the edginess of yore, but at least they still steadfastedly refuse to play the rock star game, skulking off with barely a glance our way after just 30-odd minutes. One of my friends was suitably outraged at what she heard, and sometimes it's nice to see that music can still incite that kind of anger and bile.

But what of Iggy? I think a lot of it has to do with how I enjoy live music. I no longer have the energy to cram myself into a mosh pit and bounce up and down like a Masai warrior on speed whilst some eijit crowd surfs over my head and the singer jiggles about like a whirling dervish with inner ear problems. These days I much prefer to sit at the back of the hall and observe such shenanigans from afar, which ultimately says a lot more about me than the quality of what's going on onstage. So, let's be clear: Iggy rocks like a motherfucker. He has always trodden the thin line between being ridiculous and being a genius, a feeling that is only reinforced as he nears 65 years of age. But for sheer charisma and never-ending energy, he has few peers, and I was seething with jealousy at the site of his amazingly ripped torso.

My main quibble was with the sound. In a bid to make as much noise as possible, and keep as tight as possible, The Stooges (with James Williamson back on guitar and the groovy Mike Watt in lieu of the late Ron Asheton) cranked up the volume and ultimately sounded a lot more like a thrash metal band than they did even on the super-violent Raw Power. Williamson's steamroller riffs were the main cause for this, with the guitar drowning out everything else and seeming to overpower Scott Asheton's Motown-y drum patterns and the occasional sax bursts from Steve Mackay. For me, songs like "Penetration" and "Gimme Danger" lost a lot of their subtle menace and sly sexuality with such an onslaught, as the over-amped electric guitar replaced the slender acoustic one from the album. Other tracks suffered less, particularly the blit-krieg versions of "Search & Destroy" and "Raw Power", but it spoke volumes for me that the best songs were the ones in the second half the set that were lifted from Fun House (still Iggy and The Stooges' best moment), the in-your-face onslaught becoming something more free-form and jazz-inflected, even at such cacophonous volume. And "I Wanna Be Your Dog" was a beauty as well. Throughout, Iggy Pop was constantly dancing, moving, leaping into the audience and showing his arse, as unfettered and untamed as ever. I may be a bit too old for this kind of show, but he sure as hell isn't, which is perhaps the best thought to retain from a rather intense but slightly anticlimatic evening.