Sunday, 10 October 2010

September on my iPod!!!

A busy month, characterised by lots of rehearsals for my new music project, some business trips, some new noise music done solo and a rather mad holiday in Amsterdam (what a great city, by the way!).

 Picture of yours truly in the 'Dam. Ghosts and canals...

On the domestic front, the cuts are drawing nearer and the arts in particular are going to suffer. Meanwhile, Andy Coulson continues to hold onto his job, despite serious evidence of nefarious practices whilst he was editor of the News of the World. It seems that benefits need to be chopped for the greater good, but sucking up to the Murdoch empire is OK in the Cameron universe. And in America, it looks like a load of loopers are set to get elected to the Senate and the House, further widening the country's cultural divide. If ever there was a cautionary reason for not letting Murdoch take over Britain's media, the failure of serious political debate in the US media is it!

But, whilst the world appears to get madder and madder, music and films continue to provide me with a universe that seems to make some sense. A violent, unpredictable and awe-inspiring universe, for sure, but all the more marvelous for it.

And, to prove I'm a real nutter, I'm gonna start with movies this time! See, I crazy, aren't I?

In my defense, I've been watching a lot of horror films, and they tend to mess with your mind. It's my opinion that, as a cinematographic genre, horror is unequaled in its impact and power. Watching a horror movie is purely visceral, and really, a couple of exceptions aside (notably Kubrick's The Shining), it only works on one level, which, for once, is not a bad thing. For some reason, people like to get scared, and a good horror movie will primarily, even solely, offer pure terror. It's an adrenaline rush that no other film genre can provide with such purity.

Of course, such a condition means that there will always be proportionally more shit horror films than great ones. And once you have savored the true masterpieces of horror, and unearthed the lost or under-appreciated gems, as I have, the chance of sitting through a huge amount of shite becomes more likely. For every Ring, Black Christmas or Carnival of Souls, you're liable to get twelve Wrong Turns or Hostel Part 2s. 

And, just sometimes, a films lands awkwardly between the two states of brilliance and dross. Such an example is Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive (1977), the follow up to what I consider the best horror movie of all time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and the film that cements Hooper as a cinematographic great, despite the umpteen bum-gravy movies he's managed to produce or direct since. Obviously, fans of the latter film would have high hopes for Eaten Alive, in which, in a typically simplistic narrative, a bunch of people wind up at a ramshackle hotel run by a demented redneck who kills a bunch of them with a scythe and then feeds him to his voracious pet crocodile. And, for all its flaws, which I'll come to, it kind of succeeds. The strength of Texas Chainsaw Massacre lay in its simplicity, and in that, Eaten Alive shares the same force. Very quickly, the spectator is dumped into the fearful world of violence and terror Hooper has laid out, and in that it's very effective. The decors are creepy and oppressive, Neville Brand is suitably menacing as the killer, and the shocks are effective, even if they are now badly dated. Which is, of course, the film's biggest flaw. Where Texas Chainsaw Massacre still feels fresh and insidious, Eaten Alive is vaguely camp, not helped by dreadful performances by Brand's supporting cast (a young Robert Englund aside). But something about the haze of mist that hangs over each set, and the sweaty vibe of perverted redneck menace, still works, even after 30+ years. This is no great horror film, but as a slice of pure Grindhouse, I'd still recommend it.

And speaking of Grindhouse, I had a good old laugh at Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's double-billed film of the same name (2007). Divided into two parts, Planet Terror (directed by Rodriguez) and Death Proof (by Tarantino), it's intended as these two mega-geeks' tribute to films like Eaten Alive, that were avidly consumed by drive-in movie-goers across the USA in the 70s. And having these two doyens of modern cinema eulogize so openly about trashy 70s cinema feels vaguely like a vindication for people like me, who have long enjoyed film like Pink Flamingos, Night of the Living Dead, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and the aforementioned Eaten Alive. But how does Grindhouse stand up alongside its not-so-venerable predecessors?
Well, I am in the notable minority, in that I prefer Planet Terror. As a genre exercise (the zombie movie), it feels like it fits the bill a tiny bit better, with nicely twisted performances by the likes of Josh Brolin, Bruce Willis and Freddie Rodriguez and a swampy, murky vibe that seems a fitting tribute to Fulci, Romero, Craven and co. Its major flaw is its descent into ludicrous action/horror territory, with mucho guns and explosions, but the early stages, which are filled with upsetting gore and tension, are great, the whole grainy feel accentuated by the deliberately messy film quality the duo have imposed on the project.
Where Planet Terror is a cheerful-but-gross tribute to vintage horror fare, Tarantino's Death Proof is a long-winded, though no less violent, Russ Meyer mimic. Its best aspect is the way it highlights the pro-women stance of Meyer's lustful, breast-overloaded B-movies, but Death Proof remains over-the-top and slightly too knowing, notably with its in-jokes and awkward winks to the audience (notably a gratuitous switch to black & white for no apparent reason). For all his garishness, Meyer always seemed 100% committed to his films, something that Tarantino forgets in Death Proof's second half, despite an impressive first 45 minutes.
Ultimately, Grindhouse is silly and gauche, but still reminds us of a time when movies were allowed to be twisted, violent, fucked-up and nasty without the Daily Mails of this world coming down on them with so much self-righteous antagonism. Not great films, but somehow exhilarating ones. For some reason, I'd still take Eaten Alive over them, though.

The notion of films garnering cult following outside the acceptance of a wider audience was born in the early seventies with the "midnight movies", including Rocky Horror Picture Show. First and foremost among them was Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo, to this day an unparalleled masterpiece. Closer to the aforementioned world of grindhouse and B-movies was his latter-day opus Santa Sangre (1989). It's a gory and peculiar trawl through many of Jodorowsky's favoured themes, including circus life, physical deformity and religious fanaticism. Plot-wise, it's ultimately confused and unwieldy, but no-one can deny the Chilean master's ability to set up ambitious, outlandish and mind-blowing set-pieces, taking gore and horror into esoteric and mysterious territories. It's not on a par with Jodorowsky's best work, but still frightening and beyond weird.

As I've explored in the past, the notion of the cult movie has become more tenuous as the years, and scientific progress, have advanced. As films are more easily available, via DVD or the Internet, it's harder for a film to develop the small but devoted audience that would constitute true "cult" status. But certain directors, on the other hand, whose body of work has generally been only casually observed by the mainstream, or whose work truly taps into the cultural zeitgeist of their day (Tarantino anyone?), can truly be described as cult figures. David Lynch would be one. Nicholas Roeg, the Coen Brothers and David Cronenberg are others. But perhaps none more so than Jim Jarmusch. From the stripped-down social vignettes of Stranger than Paradise (1984) and Mystery Train (1989) to the more high-budget genre subversions that are Ghost Dog (1999) and Broken Flowers (2005), Jarmusch has established himself as one of America's most offbeat and uncompromising filmmakers. And, as far as I'm concerned, one film of his stands out more than all his other gems, and that's Dead Man (1995).

Like Ghost Dog's re-appropriation of the action movie, Dead Man is a Western seen through the prism of modern society and the complex reflections of its creator. Johnny Depp, cinema's favourite weirdo, stars as William Blake, an ordinary accountant who travels to a remote Far West industrial town called Machine for a job that doesn't exist and them finds himself having to haul himself through the desert on the wings of the peculiar prose of a Native American called "Nobody" (Gary Farmer). Numerous analyses abound as to the film's meaning and message, from critique of the white man's treatment of America's native peoples to psychedelic post-modernist Christian parable, but I personally enjoy watching the film as if it were a dream, as Depp drifts from one murderous encounter to another and "Nobody" muses obliquely on the nature of life and death. The sets are magnificent, particularly the menacing, run-down industrial hell that is Machine, or the grisly underbelly of the ornate Indian camp. Dead Man is a perverse, Gothic fable, as unfathomable as it is beautiful, made all the more powerful thanks to Neil Young's magnificent score. I can't say it'll make sense when you watch it, but I still think you should.

Other enjoyable or arresting films watched this month: David Fincher's engrossing Zodiac (2007), the multi-director art-porn project Destricted (2006) and Larry Clark's disturbing, sexually explicit exploration of untethered adolescence, Ken Park (2002). All worth watching, for very different reasons!

The presence of the latter two sex(ploitation)-based movies in my September list, as well as the abundance of gore and violence that assailed my senses via Santa Sangre and Grindhouse, at least acted as great -albeit disturbing- accompanying images to the music I have been gorging on. Indeed, the noise does not recede, far from it.

Noise music could even be the auditory companion to exploitation and experimental cinemas' most savage moments. Like the best horror, it works on a truly primeval and purely emotional level. Our response to noise is, as Paul Hegarty notes, a form of rejection, as we define our experience by what it is not. Noise intrudes, noise interrupts, noise perturbs. To subject oneself to it is to surrender a part of one's sense of pleasure, to allow it to be subverted, challenged and assaulted. Entertainment through pain indeed...

In modern noise, two figures stand taller and more imposing than most of their peers. In America, it's Dominic Furnow, aka Prurient, a child of Providence, Rhode Island, and a remarkable figure, all tattoos, rippled muscles and upfront angst, like a noise music Kurt Cobain or Henry Rollins. Furnow's reputation has grown and grown, thanks to his electrifying stage presence and use of violent, sadistic imagery. I don't really care to comment on his public persona, but if we're sticking to appreciation of music on a purely emotional level, then he strikes noisy gold on Pleasure Ground (2006, Load Records). Like most Prurient albums, it's not an easy listen. Few artists have explored the value of high-pitched white noise in the way Furnow has, and from the very first "notes" of "Military Road", Pleasure Ground's first track, he's at it again, as an ear-defiling squeal rends the sound-space and attacks the listener like a bullet. On "Roman Shower", a track from his more famous Black Vase (2005) album, he takes such experimentation in digital feedback to ridiculous levels over 15 minutes, but here it's a deceptive feint. For large parts of Pleasure Ground almost live up to the expectations of the first word of the album's title, with Furnow toying, almost lovingly with ambience and symphonic drone. Not that the opening squall should be ignored. It's a warning that this guy, even when experimenting with Tony Conrad/Takehisa Kosugi-levels of minimalist soft noise, will never relent from the violence, aggression and paranoia that make his work so claustrophobic and oppressive. Indeed, "Military Road" is pure noise, Furnow's vocals being particularly unhinged. But the later moments on the albums -which are still loud, fear not, Prurient purists- hint at a subtlety and majesty that Black Vase and his earlier material seemed to make impossible. Prurient is about more than screaming and audio assault, even if he does both really well. He's also about emotion and musical exploration, never more so than on Pleasure Ground, his great, unheralded masterpiece.

If Prurient is the USA's dark prince of noise, then the king is Japan's Merzbow, or Masami Akita, to give him his real name. No-one casts a shadow quite like Merzbow when it comes to noise music, For starters, he's been going for bloody ages, successfully straddling the early days of experimental found sound, before moving into power electronics and finally culminating with a hoard of computer-generated noise albums, EPs and compilations. But if some of the harsh noise the Japanese master has done knows no parallels, then the mutant sounds of Door Open at 8am (1999, Alien8 Recordings) is from another dimension altogether! Coming on the heels of such harsh, uncompromising and near-sickeningly-loud albums such as Venereology (1994, Release), Pulse Demon (1996, Relapse) and 1930 (1998, Tzadik), Door Open... probably came as something of a surprise for fans expecting more screes, roars and brain-rupturing saturation. Which is not to say that it's not a noise album, far from it. Opener "Intro" is 90 seconds of pure digital mayhem, a buzzing, relentless mess. But, where other albums simply followed this sound pattern until they had aurally pummeled listeners into delirious submission, Door Open... throws a massive curveball with the second track, "Tony Williams Deathspace", as thumping drum machines surge into the mix, creating a driving force that, for all their power, most Merzbow records never seemed to include (or maybe need). And these are not mere power beats, but rather Cabaret Voltaire-inspired patterns that owe as much to the hooks of pop and funk as they do to all-out industrial mayhem. But, in Akita's hands, the oddly funky beats and surges of bass throbs turn subtly away from their origins in Detroit funk and latter-day Eurodance and into something owing more to free jazz. Door Open at 8am is therefore his most experimental and challenging album, which is saying something when you consider the gruesome power noise of Venereology and Pulse Demon!

Japanese noise is weird, unrelenting and as mysterious to Western ears as Butoh dancing, despite the familiar background in industrial music and power electronics. A good example would be the two-headed hydra that is Incapacitants and their sister band Hijokaidan. Despite employing common members, and using similar instruments, from fucked-up guitars to blaring electronic noise generators, and existing at the same time, they remain separate entities, almost confusingly so, at least for us dopey Westerners.

As far as I can tell, Incapacitants stand closer to the avant-garde, whilst Hijokaidan are the more "rock" outfit. Though I may be talking out of my arse. Either way, both acts are fucking LOUD! And unrelenting, in a way that the Japanese seem experts at, connecting to a long-standing tradition that includes Les Rallizes Denudes, Mainliner and High Rise. Uncompromising to a fault, the music on two of their (many) classics, Incapacitants' As Loud As Possible (1995, Zabriskie Point) and Hijokaidan's Noise From Trading Cards (1997, Alchemy Records) is harsh, powerful, loud and monolithic, as whatever instruments the guys use converge into walls of musical soup. Tracks go on for an age, the noise subsuming the listener's senses in almost sadistic fashion. If you listen to either album, be prepared to lose your mind in the most surreptitious manner, as sound swallows you whole in a way that even the most cosmic rock bands, from Funkadelic to Ash Ra Tempel, could only dream of. It's not necessarily pleasant, but it will be unforgettable. As for the differences between the two? Well, they are numerous and yet, somehow, unimportant. Hijokaidan use voices, like failed rock stars yelping to be heard over a din of modernity that no longer makes sense to them. It's as if Prurient had forgotten the reasons for his angst and was just moaning futilely because there was nothing left to do. But voices or no voices, guitars or power electronics, the music of Hijokaidan and Incapacitants seems like a jester hovering over modern noise music - one half of its face grinning, the other drenched in tears. No-one knows which side of its face carries its true identity, but both are stunning.

Before going about my merry way, and switching to less harrowing musical territory, please allow me to send a final "word up" out to three other truly great noise recordings.

First up, John Wiese's Soft Punk (2007, Troubleman), is a real anomaly in the field of modern noise. Where most noise acts go for long, punishing tracks, Wiese here opts for short bursts of digital mess and staccato rhythms, in keeping with the references of the album's title. High irony, of course, for Soft Punk is more ferocious and painful than any punk album, as brittle computer-generated sounds fly into walls of compressed beats. Most electrifying is the Missouri-born artist's unconventional approach, juxtaposing found sounds, remote radio recordings and samples with his traditional screes and squalls, to deliver unseemly post-digital noise collages, like sonic equivalents to Frankenstein's monster as created by Bill Gates. The perfect meeting place of noise and the avant-garde, Soft Punk is a true work of menacing genius.

Altogether less subtle is Medusa (1990, Deadline Records), the only album by Flesh Puppets, a short-lived project by Houston, Texas, noise legend Richard Ramirez. Simply by choosing the name of one of America's worst killers, Ramirez of course sets his scene as one of borderline tastelessness and disturbing imagery. And boy, Medusa does not disappoint, given that it's an homage to an underground gay S&M magazine. An acquired taste, the album kicks off with "Breathe Deeply", the centrepiece, that basically features several interminable minutes of recorded, well, deep breathing, turned into some indistinguishable drones, which suddenly explode into a miasma of vicious harsh noise, before the deep, menacing breathing returns, almost unperturbed. As a metaphor for violent, subversive sex, I would challenge anyone to find a track more unpleasant, scary, effective and, ultimately, beautiful. I doubt you could. The rest of the album veers more into musique-concrete-meets-grand-guignol territory, with samples of men climaxing, but as a document of the transgressive musical companionship to subversive sex and dark underground cultures, Medusa is a rare and essential find.

But if any album this month has had a profound effect on me, it has to be Hair Police's Constantly Terrified (2005, Troubleman). Since acquiring it, I've been playing it non-stop, reveling in its mix of harsh noise and elegiac beauty. At their inception, Hair Police were seen as a sub-Wolf Eyes noise-rock act, something undoubtedly not helped by the fact that Police leader Mike Connelly is also a member of Michigan's finest. Already known for thei emphatic live performances, it seems to have taken Hair Police until Constantly Terrified to emerge from the shadow of Connelly's other band and take their place amongst noise music's greats. Which they do with aplomb, it would seem. Where Wolf Eyes seem to maintain a certain knowingness, a sly wink accompanying even their most menacing tracks in the manner of a musical Tarantino, Hair Police wear their collective hearts on their very talented sleeves. They may be set up like a traditional rock band (guitar, keyboards, drums), but the way the trio pour every ounce of their very dark souls into Constantly Terrified takes them beyond any form of tradition. They're almost too earnest for noise, their naked pain and vulnerability betraying an affiliation with post-rockers and shoegazers like A Silver Mt Zion or Slowdive. But rest assured, noiseniks! Constantly Terrified may display pure, unfettered emotion, which will always strike a cord in a wayward soul such as myself, but it remains fiercely, punishingly loud, a molten lake of bile and noise so dark it will drown you if you aren't prepared for its thumping tunes and painful vocals. That it can also make you weep and cringe is a bonus, but one that elevates Constantly Terrified among the great albums of the last ten years. 

It's not been all screaming noise and unremitting pain, mind. Through the constantly excellent reporting of The Wire magazine, I was drawn to a relatively new record label based in Brooklyn called Wierd. Amidst the endless stream of revivalism that has made the modern musical landscape so porous and unrewarding, Wierd's own brand of nostalgia stands out as refreshing and, dare I say it?, original. Their genre of choice? European cold wave and minimal synth, darling. I'll admit that, for me, cold wave meant the dark, post-punk musings of Magazine, Joy Division and Section 25, but it apparently applied solely to an unnoticed strand of synth music made in France from 1980 until 1985 or so, and which was quickly picked up on by other countries wanting to establish their own answer the Britain's Human League, Soft Cell and Duran Duran superstars. So sue me, I didn't know. Either way, in order to demonstrate the importance of European cold wave/minimal synth, Wierd have overseen a compilation called, well, Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics vol. 1 (2010, Angular Recording Corporation).

Let's get a couple of things straight. The music on Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics vol. 1 is insanely good. Some of the acts are German, some French, some Dutch and some Belgian. Some sing in their own languages as a considered way of differentiating themselves from similar British pop. But most sing in English, their offbeat accents adding to the romantic, Mitteleuropa feel of the tracks. But, equally important is the need to stress that these tunes are not as removed from the similar British artists of the time, the OMDs and Royal Family & The Poors of this world. There may be a greater sense of romanticism and sexual ambiguity in these tracks than in their British counterparts, a sort of "Rimbaud-meets-the-moog" attitude, but this remains synth-pop, and, as much as the label's (American) owners would like to separate "continental" synth music from its British equivalent, the fact is that it was all part of a common strain to appeal to sensitivities that were far removed from the stadium rock and loutish punk that was all the rage in 1977-1980. Surely the synth could represent the ultimate cultural crossover, at least for Europeans? Whatever the political/cultural ramifications, Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics vol. 1 remains a wonderful compilation, full of superb lost tunes, and ultimately, that should be the be-all and end-all of its existence. Merci Wierd!

Merci indeed, as, as well as releasing this great comp (via their mates), the Brooklynites have been encouraging artists who share their vision to go out and accomplish it. Among their proteges is Xavier Paradis, the brains behind Automelodi, whose self-titled debut album (2010, Wierd Records) is one of the true gems of the current year. It's not perfect - I think an extra year, or some months, perfecting some tunes would not have gone amiss - but with superb tracks like "Schema Corporel", "Airline", "Pression" and the superlative "Buanderie Jazz" (literally one of the best pop songs I've heard this year - and to think all we'll get exposed to in any serious fashion is X Factor covers and over-produced faux-rap drivel. Quel monde!). Paradis mostly sings in French, a refreshing change, and his songs carry a romantic vibe that can only really be carried out in that language. It's sexual and passionate, despite the avalanche of synths. Above all, if Youtube videos are to believed, the Quebecois is quite the showman. The sooner Wierd start really promoting their acts beyond North America, the better!

So, another month rears its ugly head, and a new year creeps surreptitiously closer, hoping we won't notice its moribund death rattle. The dying leaves and spitting rain of autumn will inspire me to dig out my Durutti Column, The Sound and Section 25 albums to revel in the encroaching darkness. Let's enjoy it whilst it's only a cloying shadow, eh?

Peace and silence!