Saturday, 27 November 2010

Gateway to Blasphemous Light: SKULLFLOWER!!


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

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

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




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

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



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

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

Birthdeath (Broken Flag, 1988)

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

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

Form Destroyer (Broken Flag, 1989)

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

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

Xaman (Shock Records, 1990)

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

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

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

IIIrd Gatekeeper (HeadDirt, 1992)

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

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

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

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

Last Shot at Heaven (Noiseville, 1993)

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


A masterpiece in other words.


Carved Into Roses (VHF, 1994)


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


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


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


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


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

This Is Skullflower (VHF,1996) 


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


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


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

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

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


Exquisite Fucking Boredom (tUMULt, 2003)


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


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

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

Orange Canyon Mind (Crucial Blast, 2005)

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

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


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


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

Tribulation (Crucial Blast, 2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malediction (Second Layer Records, 2009)

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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




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

 



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

Saturday, 6 November 2010

October on my iPod!!!

Any hopes of a late burst of Summer appear to be well and truly vain, as biting cold winds grip the country and the nights start lengthening, fitting weather given that I will be most reluctantly "celebrating" another birthday with my usual bitterness and alcohol-driven ennui. Lovely times. 

23/10/2010 - Throbbing Gristle - Village Underground

However, if anything was going to put my mind a rest at the prospect of adding another year to my tally, a Throbbing Gristle concert would surely do the trick. Recently reformed again for a series of gigs, the quartet are of course much longer in the tooth, well into middle age in fact, but if anyone thinks this means they have mellowed, they'd be wrong. So wrong! 


In basic terms, it was punishingly, painfully, ear-bendingly loud. I read a disparaging review in The Wire of Lou Reed's recent Metal Machine Trio gig, which was also a celebration of shapeless, improvised noise, as "just fucking noise". Well, I hope that reviewer wasn't at The Village Underground. Throbbing Gristle's sense of subtelty has always been hard to spot at first, subsumed as it is by the total sensory assault that the band "inflicts" on its grateful audiences. Even now, as the decades have elevated the Industrial pioneers to the height of cult-dom, the volume proved too much for some observers, who fled to the back of the hall. So much, so familiar, one might think, even a judegmentally-challenged TG addict such as myself. But this was not a run-of-the-mill ageing rock band reconvening to run through their most familiar songs (Pink Floyd or The Sex Pistols, anyone?). Throbbing Gristle are innovators and artists before being rock stars, and the material presented this evening was all brand new, and at times far removed from a lot of their most famous stuff.

Indeed, for the most part, this was very different to the driving industrial rhythms, angry shouted vocals and theatrical menace of tracks like "Hamburger Lady", "Slug Bait" or "Persuasion". For most of the set, the quartet sat behind desks, Genesis P-Orridge sipping red wine and drawing sustained drones out of his violin, whilst Cosey Fanny Tutti, Chris Carter and "Sleazy" Pete Christopherson stared resolutely into their laptop screens, pouring out molten slabs oof digital noise over the audience, in the best techno-meets-avant-garde tradition. When he did stand up to take to the mic, P-Orridge stood resolutely still, staring out at us with detached indifference, his creepy drawl made even more pregnant with meaning thanks to the deluge of delay dumped on it by Chris Carter and his machines and the fact that he (Gen) appeared to be reciting the words like a priest at a post-industrial satanic cult gathering.

And therein lies the force of this Throbbing Gristle Mark III. They may have spent years apart, but they never stopped moving. The theatrics, costumes, films and lighting affects may have been absent, but if anything their music has gained more depth. Christopherson, for example, looking like a comely uncle, has obviously steeped himself in Oriental music and instruments (he lives in Thailand these days), and he unleashed a wealth of peculiar sounds, weird drones and exotic textures from a gaggle of unusual implements on his desk. Lab coat-wearing Carter has long his hand to the pulse of modern electronic music, from early synth to disco and then on to techno, synth-pop and house. His bleary synth tones and pulsating digital rhythms propelled the music closer to a world of post-Japanoise, taking in decades of power electronics, minimalist ambience and slothful jungle-ism. And what more to say about Cosey Fanny Tutti? She may now look like a stern librarian with her specs and laptop, but she remains in my mind one of the great unsung guitarists of the post-punk era. When she stood up to wrench nasty, jagged riffs and messed-up repeated motifs out of her tiny little guitar, it took over the entire space, filling the ether with its mechanical droning and echoing feedback. As an anchor to TG's "rock" past, Cosey's guitar takes on a role of industrial weapon/instrument supreme.

But with such a forward-thinking band, expectations of anything resembling a rock concert were always going to be misguided. Genesis P-Orridge's pandrogynous appearance, with his breasts, modified lips and Joan Rivers bob, should be an indication of how much this is "art" music. Even their reluctant nods to the trappings of celebrity showed a twisted sense of grim humour. Their closing number saw each member pull out one of Carter's famed Gristleism Buddha Machines, with the looped snippets of previous TG greats ("Persuasion", "Maggot Death", "20 Jazz Funk Greats"...) turning into a sea of audio mulch under the weight the band's many effects pedals, boxes and machines. It was almost the ultimate hauntological joke-turned-art: a famous band dismantling 30 years of its own back-catalogue and refracting it into one noisy, messy, 10-minute track. They then refused to do an encore (to a chorus of boos) before cheekily relenting and actually providing us with an "anthem moment", via a much-accelerated techno-punk version of "Discipline". A naked man jumped on stage to be whipped with roses by an obviously bemused Genesis as the latter screamed the immortal lines "We need some discipline in here!" over and over to a pogoing crowd. I suppose in that brief moment, as the nudist flew into the massed ranks to land painfully on his arse, and Carter and Christopherson pummelled the air with their punchy beats, and Cosey buzzed away on her axe, and Genesis wailed away, we might have been in a swanky version of the Rat Club circa 1977. But it wasn't enough to erase the memory of the preceding hour's worth of music that had made a mockery of 21st-century rock nostalgia with its onslaught of loud, modern and exciting sounds. One of the best gigs I've ever attended, surely.

Good thing too, as Gen has since decided to quit TG once again, meaning the rest of their tour, including their appearance at ATP, has been thrown into doubt. I'm hoping the remaining trio, whose contributions far outstripped the singer's, if I'm honest, and who have offered to perform without P-Orridge at said festival, will be able to continue, as the results may just be astounding.

Amendment, 2011: This review of what would appear to be the last-ever Throbbing Gristle show has been given added emotional resonance for me by the tragic passing, in November of last year, of Pete 'Sleazy' Christopherson, of natural causes. As someone for whom TG has meant so much, I was profoundly saddened by this loss, and of course all thoughts go out to Sleazy's friends and family. The musical world is a slighter colder place since he left us. RIP Sleazy xx

27/10/2010 - Merzbow concert - London XOYO

A more traditional venue this (though still excellent) than the arty warehouse that is The Village Underground. But for my second "doyens of mental modern music" gig in 4 days, its black walls, worn basement walls and cramped stage could not have been more fitting. 

Merzbow's career is as impenetrable at times as a wall of treacle, and anyone who -like me- adores his mid-to-late-nineties harsh noise/avant garde experimentation may well have been baffled by recent excursions into environmental-themed ambience. But this gig could crudely be described as "Merzbow does metal", something well exemplified by the presence of drone/shoegaze/doom icons Nadja as the opening act. Sadly, just as the Canadian duo were building up their layers of superbly plodding and atmospheric guitar-and-bass drone (and banishing the gruesome memories of the previous by-the-ropes hardcore act), their equipment failed, forcing them, after multiple attempts, to abandon their set. I made up for it, at some expense, by purchasing their superlative Bliss Torn from Emptiness album (2005, Fargone Records, re-released in 2008 on Profound Lore).

No such problems from Merzbow, whose very presence onstage seemed to send shivers through the crowd, with his long, lank hair, permanent scowl and librarian glasses. He had recruited the services of a bona fide heavy metal drummer, whose thundering rhythms and fills were occasionally gauche and unnecessary, but at others seemed to help Merzbow's screaming noise into other realms of sonic magic.


Not that the great Masami Akita needed the drummer. Any doubts I may have had that I was going to be deprived of a sheer sonic assault were immediately laid to rest as Merzbow unleashed wave upon wave of sensory destruction using just a pair of laptops, some random effects pedals and a weird guitar-like gadget that he rubbed with a device to drown out even the drums under sheets of demented feedback. The drums, and such wall-of-sound fake-guitar pyrotechnics, evoked the best of bands like Mainliner, Les Rallizes Denudes and Jesu, but pushed to limits even those guys hadn't imagined. Fuck subtlety, this was ear-rape of the most acidic and cold variety, all demented noise, ripped-up structures and crowd-insulting indifference on Akita's part. It had none of the eloquence of TG's performance, but easily as much volume and attitude. 

Hijokaidan - Romance (1990, Alchemy Records)

Paul Hegarty, author of the incomparable Noise/Music: A History book cites Romance as possibly the harshest and hardest-to-listen-to album in the history of noise. I would suggest to him to check out the more extreme output of Richard Ramirez, but I can certainly see where he's coming from. Romance is like a bad dream, an album so uncompromising and excessive it may as well come with the words "best avoided if you like melody" written on the cover. Beatles fans, stay well fucking clear. Unless, perhaps, your favourite Fab Four track is "A Day in the Life".

Nick Cain, in The Wire Primers book, makes a notable point when discussing the work of Hijokaidan and Incapacitants, in that, contrary to many noise acts, their aesthetic is completely divorced from any context. Where Merzbow indulged first in fetishistic fantasies, and then in pro-environmental politicizing; or where Whitehouse and others deliberately looked to shock with violent imagery and provocative lyrics; or where Skullflower and Ramleh carry links to seventies' industrial or evocations of primordial deities/satanic rituals, the work of Toshiji Mikawa's two bands seem to take noise into the mundane, as evidenced by the banal artwork of Incapacitants' As Loud As Possible and Hijokaidan's Noise From Playing Cards, both reviewed here last month.

Romance, released before either of those two albums, feels similar and yet vaguely different. One thing I have noted since becoming a noise aficionado is that album artwork plays a big part, from the aforementioned banality of Incapacitants' and Hijokaidan's albums, to the autopsied penises and faces on Merzbow's Venereology, to the abstract art of Yellow Swans' Psychic Secession. The artwork of Romance is both evocative and oblique, like a deceptive whisper of the sounds contained in the album: the cover shows ancient ruins, probably Greek or Roman, basking in the glow of a setting sun. It's a beguiling, and almost confusing image, for noise music, above all other genres, is associated with such modern trappings as electricity and amplification. Again, the sense of noise de-contextualised, no longer anchored by the familiar imagery of violence, excess and volume, is palpable. 

And yet, and yet... Can anything seem more awesome (in the original sense of the word) than the weight of history, of buildings and memories having survived centuries to be presented to us through musical metaphor? The phantom city on Romance's cover finds full, angry form in the distorted feedback, suppressed wails and fucked-up electronics that churn and rend across the hour-plus miasma that is this album. More than any album, possibly, Romance is a pure wall of sound, forbidding and impenetrable. Loud as fuck and bloody-minded, it will force you to consider the "romance" of the album's eternal cover city, whilst subjecting you to the most unromantic music ever made. Like a concept album handed to short-circuiting robots, Romance no longer makes sense: the context, like on Noise from Playing Cards, has been rendered unfathomable. But the hints are there, if you want to consider them. If not, sit back and let yourself drown in a sea of noise both mysterious and painfully familiar.

Aube - Cardiac Strain (1997, Alien8)

As noise music lurches almost reluctantly in the vague direction of the mainstream, gaining press inches a-go-go thanks to bands like Mouthus, Wolf Eyes, Sightings and Fuck Buttons, who have propelled noise into more accessible, rock- or even techno-influenced realms, it could become harder and harder to remember that noise in music was originally an exploration of the avant-garde. Composers such as Stockhausen, Varese or Xenakis introduced dissonance as part of their continuing quest for new sonic worlds, and this aesthetic was then reprised by masters of free improv like Derek Bailey and, especially, free jazz practitioners like Peter Brotzmann, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Masayuki Takayanagi. This approach saw noise being used to undermine, or at least push the boundaries of, established composition and melodic styles, and it wouldn't really be (bar some infrequent noisy experiments in psychedelia, hard rock, punk and prog) until the advent of Throbbing Gristle and Einsturzende Neubauten that noise would move towards the ears of more mainstream, and youthful, audiences.

The sheer amount of music available, at cheap prices or for free, to the younger (and older) music consumer means that noise is never going to return to mostly being a tool for "intellectual" musical experimentation. Even at its harshest, unmusical and uncommercial, as in the universe of Richard Ramirez, noise music is now mostly the domain of head-banging youths, marginalised by things like sexual fetishes and violence rather than intellectual ponderings. Even the sheers walls of obtuse sound conjured up by Hijokaidan and Incapacitants can attract capacity crowds in a matter of days. 

Aube, however, makes music that is very definitely anchored in the experimental tradition. Another Japanese noise-maker, Aube returns to a musical approach that was rather popular in the golden era of avant-garde composition, as well as during the earliest days of industrial music, and selects unexpected sound sources, which he then manipulates and transcends to create surprising and peculiar works of art. Like Einsturzende Neubauten and Test Dept before him, he's used metal and other machines in the past, but on Cardiac Strain he really shocks by using none other than recordings of human heartbeats to distill his unnerving sonic alchemy. It's a remarkable work, the natural rhythms of the heart being accelerated and distorted to become motorik post-techno pounders on some tracks, or slowed down to become an oozing slime of saturated drone. Like the best of modern composition, its use of noise is almost incidental, linked to a desire to challenge the listener whilst exploring new avenues in music. In this respect, it's one of the most innovative albums I've ever heard.

The North Sea - Bloodlines (2010, Type Records)

I am fast falling in love with Type Records. Already, it is clear that when the time comes for me to draw up my "Best of 2010" list, the British label will be featured a good few times. Bloodlines, by The North Sea, aka Digitalis owner Brad Rose, might just be the best one yet (though Rene Hell, Yellow Swans and Indignant Senility will probably all have me questioning this judgment right up until the end of the year!).

Sometimes, one track will have you falling in love with an album straight off the bat. On Bloodlines, it's the gargantuan 11-minute-long opus "Missed Court Dates", a ceaselessly droning, warbling and lurching doom plodder built up by layers and layers of murky synth noise. Bloodlines is certainly a noise album, but it's one that owes more to the venerable (eh?) tradition of power electronics once popularised to some extent by Whitehouse. Rose does not go for their inherent nastiness, though, having obviously taken in the past threedecades' worth of drone culture, delivering something akin to such heathen acts as Double Leopards, Skullflower, or even SUNN O))), with familiar nods to pagan religions and arcana on the cover, but it replaces the metal aspects of the latter two with overloaded synth excess. Marking a difference from a lot of noise music, such as the albums cited above, Bloodlines often focuses on silence, moments of quietude where the synth and guitar melodies drift rather than broil, like the Taj Mahal Travellers given a post-industrial face-lift.

But the essence of this album is as dark as its cover: subterranean rumbles and unexpected stabs of electronic light. Rose, aided by Zelienople drummer Mike Weis, slowly builds up the moody intensity as the album nears its end, with edgy, almost Han Bennink-esque drum fills darting nervously around Rose's sprawl of noise, an expert melding of freeform chaos and lumbering, doom-laden inertia. A remarkable and atmospheric classic.


Kevin Drumm - Imperial Distortion (2008, Hospital)

Kevin Drumm apparently doesn't do half measures. Anyone familiar with his mind-shredding 2002 masterpiece Sheer Hellish Miasma (reviewed by yours unholy a few months back) will know how hot, violent, loud and uncompromising the Illinois-born guitarist/experimentalist can be. And with a title like Imperial Distortion, one could be forgiven for expecting more larcens, more noise and more viciousness. Instead, Imperial Distortion is something of a shock, as it's a quiet, slow-moving drone/ambient album.


But it seems Drumm takes things to the limits whatever the genre, and if anything Imperial Distortion is even more extreme than Sheer Hellish Miasma. In length, it's a real beast: 6 tracks, only one of which dips under the 15-minute mark, and the longest of which is near 20. Such lengthy pieces allow Drumm to really push his sound, lingering over individual notes and stretching them to breaking point. Deep, throbbing oscillator noise seems to well up from subterranean caverns and recesses, murky shadows of non-melody that are hypnotic as well as impenetrable.


Many have noted the album's bleakness. These murky bass lines and groaning synth hums are cold and impersonal, icy blankets that wrap themselves around your ears. Abstract canvases of snow (the title of two tracks), ice and wintery grey skies are drawn up in the mind's eye, and deep enough immersion will leave the listener confused and emotionally isolated. Like the best of Drumm's noise, this is not for the faint-hearted. But, regardless of the patience needed to allow yourself to be absorbed by its listless ambience, it remains a seminal moment in the progression of drone/ambient music beyond their archetypes and into a post-noise musical culture. 


Swans - Filth (1983, Neutral Records, reissue on Young God in 1990)


Emerging out of the New York underground in the early eighties, Swans seemed to represent a response to the European industrial scene, as well as a reaction to the Big Apple's receding No Wave bands, from whose ranks singer Michael Gira and his acolytes were deemed to have emerged.


Swans are a notably different beast. Simplistically, they could be said to resemble German legends Einsturzende Neubauten, with Filth sharing similar harsh metallic percussion as the Berliners' debut Kollaps. But whilst Neubauten relied exclusively on non-instruments to drive their music, using sheets of metal or chains, Filth was apparently made with the traditional rock set-up of drums, bass, guitars and Gira's voice. And what a voice! As opposed to Blixa Bargeld's vicious, hysterical howl, Gira goes for a fierce, gravelly growl which, allied to the band's doom-laden plod and shearing guitar noise, twists what remains of their punk spirit into a violent, unhinged slab of urban Gothic. Gira is the fearsome narrator of this morose story, his lyrics dripping with post-industrial paranoia and barely repressed aggression. 

The slovenly pace of most tracks on Filth evoke memories of Black Sabbath at their most funereal, but the brittle textures and unhinged chaos is pure New York post-punk, and should have heralded a new age of industrial music. Ultimately, Swans more or less flew the flag for this strand on their own whilst post-punk lurched towards Gothic bombast, new wave commercialism or overblown hardcore; and industrial music got swallowed into the world of gruesome noise and power electronics. To their credit, Swans never stood still, and Gira has continued to explore varied and always challenging territories, though most are far removed from this album's brutality and single-mindedness. Maybe it's time for someone out there to return to the extremes of Filth, given the endless post-punk revivalism we're subjected to. I won't hold my breath. And hell, maybe it's better this way. Filth remains very much a unique terror.

Salem - King Night (2010, IAMSOUND) 



I'm going to round off this month's musical dribbling with notes on two recent albums that have left me rather baffled when trying to define them. Such is the oddly autistic way my mind works, classifying records by genre is almost essential to my inner peace (I did say it was odd), and I am able to happily accept new terms (even if "glo-fi" is pushing it), or the myriad sub-genres that rock music has thrown up over the years, and compartamentalize any new music I hear accordingly. There have been a few curveballs, like Burial's melancholy mix of Dubstep and Hauntology, but for the main part, my mind is happily unperturbed by such traumas as would be represented by an unclassifiable album. It sounds daft, but this has at one time or another been a real concern for me.


Such circumlocationary weirdness is my roundabout way of saying that Salem's King Night is precisely the kind of album that I struggle to categorize. The current ubiquitous trend for "pop" music that plows unexpected or long-forgotten furrows of creativity, from shades of noise to edgy hip-hop beats to old-fashioned MOR (sometimes in the same song!) whilst all the while retaining a core that is truly pop, means that any new record coming out of America that appears to follow a similar vein -in this case a blending of sweeping electronics, pounding rock and dark hip-hop- is liable to be lumped in with Inca Ore, Pocahaunted and Oneohtrix Point Never, as part of what The Wire's David Keenan has dubbed hypnagogic pop, or its usually darker British cousin hauntology. Which in King Night's case is somewhat off the mark.


The clincher would be the aforementioned rock bits, too powerful and all-encompassing to count as the hazy, "are-they-really-there?" aspects of rock hauntology. The nearest possible comparison, through the soaring synths on tracks like "King Night", "Asia" and "Sick", infectious blasts of emotionally overwhelming pop, would be the M83 of Before the Dawn Heals Us, so there's an arresting mix of shoegaze riffs, albeit with synths replacing the guitars, ghostly vocals and driving pop hooks. Only when the MC kicks in does the album shift into a different realm to the French outfit, with subsonic bass, murky raps and jerky beats replacing the keening wails of before. Sadly, this admirable desire to explore is where the album falls down, as the MC is pretty dire, and the band does not display the production skills necessary for what then amounts to nearly half and album's worth of clumsy sub-Burial dubstep attempts. Keep the beats, I'd say, but drop the rapping.


This schizophrenia, combined with an apparently lacklustre appearance at the SXSW festival, mean Salem have received a bit of a pasting in the press. King Night at least suggests a band that have started to sculpt their own sound (dubbed "witch house" in some quarters, whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean), that just needs some fine-tuning. Their dark atmospheres, effortlessly echoed by the excellent album artwork, are absorbing. Not a great album, but one worth listening to.

Ensemble Economique - Psychical (2010, Not Not Fun Records)

There is no such inconsistency from Ensemble Economique, the latest bleakly post-everything opus from Starving Weirdos' Brian Pyles, another quirky and opaque slice of weird electronica, with shades of rock/pop and gloomy drone. 


Again, the instinct these days is to lump Psychical in with the rest of my hauntological albums, such is its retro-yet-modern-yet-hazy feel. That it was released on Not Not Fun, home of Pocahaunted and Sun Araw, only adds to the temptation. But it doesn't feel right. First of all, it feels more European. The artwork evokes memories of cheap sixties and seventies thrillers and horror movies, possibly Italian, and there are certainly echoes of garish set pieces, overwrought synth atmospherics and unsubtle menace. 

But just when you think you have it cornered, like a rabbit caught by the categorisation fox, as with the giallo synth drones and gothic overtones of opener "Hail", Psychical will then baffle, as spoken word or rapped vocals redolent of reggae or dubstep (and therefore showing a hint of similarity with King Night) break through the murk on tracks like "Red From the Sun" and the superlative goth rocker "Forever Eyes", accompanied by rudimentary hand percussion and loping bass lines. The exercise is much more successful here, the voices adding depth, mystery and emotion to what could have otherwise been a stale exercise in genre fiddling. Pyle's mastery of musicality, whether upping the tempo with African-inspired percussion or cranking the intensity through warped guitar solos and hints of robust dub, is exceptional and deeply emotional. 


It all feels so coherent, and, despite the artwork and relatively absurd "horror movie" promotion, Psychical works as a true piece of musical art: a bizarre, slightly frightening, esoteric and psychedelic head fuck, of the kind that few artists, even the best hauntologists, are able to conjure up. I literally can't tell if this is another exercise in modernising forgotten or "non-rock" sounds (in the manner of Oneohtrix Point Never's embracing of New Age, but with Italian proggers Goblin getting the face-lift) or even a weird, creepy sonic joke, the equivalent of a grindhouse movie. And who cares? It's drone, pop, dub and rock. And it's one of the best fucking albums I've heard all year. "Hail" indeed. 


Scanners - David Cronenberg (1981)

Well ahead of its time, Scanners is one of the better alliances of horror and science fiction ever to have graced a cinema screen. As always, I don't want to dwell on the movies with quite the same levels of scriptural diarrhea as I do with music, but there is a lot to be said about Cronenberg's early output. Shivers, his first feature, was a Ballardian nightmare about a sterile apartment building whose inhabitants become infected by a gruesome parasite that induces rapacious levels of sexual desire, in a weird twist on the zombie movie archetype. The Brood similarly mixed social anxiety (a fear of one's own progeny) with all-out gore and grim body horror. What is always great with Cronenberg's early films is the intelligent way he balances shocks with smart ideas.

For let's be honest: for the most part, Scanners is proper exploitation fare, with an implausible plot and ham acting from some of the leads. But the deft way the director builds up his set pieces, and uses his ground-breaking gory effects, allow the viewer to look past any budgetary failings and delve into the twisted, addictive narrative. Like a good metal album (sorry, music is my best reference point), at times Scanners may feel a bit much, but its in-your-face attitude (the notorious exploding head scene is a true masterpiece of film-making), delirious score and an excellent turn by Michael Ironside as the baddie, make it a gleefully nasty underground gem. That it would prove to be Cronenberg's break-out movie is just another reason to love it...

Ken Park - Larry Clark and Edward Lachman (2002)

I alluded to this oddball indie flick last month, after I was able to pick up a Dutch copy on Amazon, but only really have been able to properly re-digest in recent weeks. It's that kind of film.

Larry Clark, director of such controversial films as Kids and Bully, and once a notorious photographer, has long ensconced himself on the margins of American film-making, primarily due to his fascination with, and therefore desire to capture on film, the aimless, often violent, generally sexual, antics of America's disenfranchised, middle class youth. In all their naked, sweaty, bleeding, drug-consuming "glory".

Ken Park, co-directed with his longtime cinematographer Edward Lachman, and written by fellow iconoclast Harmony Korine, scriptwriter for Kids, represents the apex of Clark's often troubling vision. From The Piano Teacher to Pink Flamingos to The Bridge, I have seen some truly algedonic movies over the last few years. Ken Park definitely ranks up there among the most painfully captivating. It is unflinching in its raw portrayal of teenage (the actors were all, I believe, 18, but still...) sexuality. The nudity is frequent and uncensored, and the sex non-simulated. Cocks, pussies, tits and balls are all thrust (no pun intended) in your face. It's a sweaty, wet and honest film. But if you aren't easily shocked by such things, it represents a challenging and emotionally charged viewing experience.

At its heart, Ken Park represents a step away from Clark's usual explorations of teenage life. Which possibly explains why its tone is more matter-of-fact, almost documentary-esque. The key change is in its frequent representations of the adults that occupy, and indeed dominate, these kids' lives. In Kids and Bully, the adults were elusive, indifferent presences, their divorce from the lives of their kids being perhaps the cause of such alienated behaviour in their progeny. Here, the behaviour remains alienated and conflictual, but the parents are more present, gruesome or pathetic figures whose frailties become mirrored in the adolescents. But there is, for all that, a sense of love, whether expressed by a dying grandmother, an impotent mother, or a perverse father. Sick love, for sure, but love nonetheless. And Clark offers a rare ray of hope in the dying moments. Sure, it comes through graphic sex, but there is a sense that these kids, unlike some others seen in the film and in previous Clark creations, may have a life worth living.


Hostel - Eli Roth (2006)


What a nasty, stupid and facile film Hostel is! To be honest, I'll keep it brief. I don't like to condemn the work of others, and have deliberately NOT reviewed frustrating or dull films like Wrecked and Borstal Boy for that very reason. But Hostel left me so angry, irritated and exasperated that it deserves a proper "fuck you, cunt" moment.

Simply put, it's a film made by a stupid American blowhard for the delectation of other stupid American blowhards. I don't want to seem anti-American, but it seems obvious that the only people who would relate to Hostel and its characters are the kind of ignorant frat boys that until I met some I had assumed were not real. But they are, and they do wander around chucking words like "faggot" and "bitch" around whilst simultaneously indulging in a life of privilege that means they remain blissfully oblivious to their own idiocy. Of course, such people are not limited to America, but the degree of ignorance in such an otherwise wonderful country can sometimes be staggering.

And such oafs are the two main characters of Hostel, Yankee students on a backpacking trip around Europe, who end up falling into a nasty world of torture and death in Slovakia. Roth obviously picked the country by randomly pointing at a map. At one stage, a shady Eastern European says "since the war, there are no men in Slovakia, only hot chicks", or words to that effect, with Roth apparently oblivious or indifferent to the fact that Slovakia hasn't seen a war for decades. Maybe he confused it with Serbia? Either way, he's a moron. And the two "heroes" are vile, homophobic misogynists, who seem to think women are best treated like objects (a scene from Borat springs to mind...) for the satisfaction of horny alpha males like them. That Roth indulges in similar ideas (cinematographically) only undermines any notion that these two pricks may have been somewhat taught a lesson by their experiences.

No, Hostel is just a chance for Roth to show lots of tits, blood and torture. The idea may have been interesting, but this is no better that some cheap seventies B-movie. It may even be worse, because it is obviously meant to be taken serious. A fundamental waste of time, money and, in the case of all the cocksuckers involved in its production, oxygen. Avoid!

It's a shame to end on a sour note, so I'll sign off by tipping my hat in the direction of the people who curated the disturbingly wonderful Hell's Half Acre exhibition under Waterloo in South London. A wonderful mix of sculpture, paintings, videos and photography, all exploring the theme of Dante's Inferno, it was superbly challenging and creepy, all the more so for being held in the dank, humid tunnels under the station. Hail, hail to the Old Vic who helped organise it. Shame it was only on for a week.

Other great films and music I enjoyed? Take your pick: Lifestyles of the Laptop Cafe by The Other People Place, Bird Seed by Whitehouse, Richard Young's acoustic heart-render Sapphie, discoverin (at last) Jandek, and the cinematographic delights of The Blood On Satan's Claw and The Crying Game. All worth adventuring into.

Happy November, all. And here's to growing older, drunker and grumpier!