Sunday, 29 May 2011

Great Unsung or Underappreciated Albums 12: NO OTHER by GENE CLARK (1974)

Here's a thought: what if the best album of 2003 was in fact a reissue? I mean, quite a few bands, including M83 with their superb Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts could probably have a claim to that title, whilst the usual music rags waxed lyrical over The White Stripes and their ilk, but the remastered edition of Gene Clark's 1974 classic probably beats them all. Hands down. The fact that it was unavailable for so long only added to the delight that I felt upon rediscovering No Other.

A little history is in order. Even as the annals of rock history are exposed and pondered by all, Gene Clark comes across as something of an enigma. He was a founding member of The Byrds, the "American Beatles". In fact, ha was their first singer, finest songwriter and most driving early creative force. It's his distinctive warble that graces such classics as 'I'll feel a whole lot better' and, audible despite the three-part harmony, 'Mr Tambourine Man'. Early Byrds fans still look back with fondness as they remember the tall, shy-looking Clark standing centre-stage, banging his tambourine. He looked like an early Neil Young. He could have been a star. But, as his fear of flying took its own centre-stage, he quit the band in 1966, and became a pioneer of country rock and then one of the best examples of the late-sixties/early-seventies singer-songwriter movement. His 1971 self-titled 3rd album, aka White Light, should have been huge. Dylan loved it. The critics gave it good reviews. But the public ignored it, as they always would when it came to Gene Clark. His reluctance to tour played no small part.

But his fortunes appeared to be turning in 1973, when he emerged from a doomed Byrds reunion project as the only one with a bit of credibility and was handed a fat contract by Asylum records to make a new album. Much like Neil Young with Tonight’s the Night, what Gene Clark delivered to Asylum boss David Geffen was undoubtedly a million miles from what the money-obsessed record exec expected. He had probably been hoping of 12 tracks of sunny, Byrds-like vocal harmonies or trendy country-rock backed by delicate picking, the odd electric guitar break and Harvest-style slide. Instead, he got a weird, expensive, 8-track UFO of a record, with baroque arrangements, a landslide of backing vocals, and bizarre, arcane lyrics that were about as far from “moon-June-spoon”as you can get. He pretty much threw it in the trash and No Other disappeared quickly without a trace, despite several positive reviews.

Which is a travesty, because I can boldly state that No Other is unique. Gram Parsons dreamed of making “cosmic American music”, a sort of magic blend of all the great music ever made in the New World: rock, blues, country, gospel… Well, Parsons came pretty close on Grievous Angel, but Gene Clark hit the nail slap-bang on the head with No Other. ‘Life’s Greatest Fool’ kicks off in deceptively familiar fashion, a cheery country jaunt superbly delivered by Clark’s mesmerising tenor (think of a psychedelic Roy Orbison with less style but more haunted). Suddenly, a choir of backing voices kick in and the song becomes a ghostly gospel, with topical (dare I say spiritual?) lyrics to boot. The second track, ‘Silver Raven’ is even better, a track so filled with mysticism, it could have been written by Native Americans or Celtic druids. Clark’s imagery is stunning, deeply evocative yet strangely elliptical. It leaves you guessing throughout the album, despite the wealth of images and reference points that spring up: seventies drug culture, cocktail parties in 1930s Hollywood, the rolling pastures of the Deep South... It seems that all of America is encapsulated in this album, a feeling only boosted by the music: avant-garde effects and warped funky congas on the title track, soothing country folk with mystical overtones on ‘From A Silver Phial’, sweeping orchestration and elegant piano on ‘Strength of Strings’. Clark’s prose hits spectacular heights on the latter track (as he evokes the feeling, not so much of music itself, but of the air that’s filled with music, if that makes any sense!) and on the majestic ‘Some Misunderstanding’. This is seventies psychedelia at its best, the listener is swept up in a tornado of unpredictable sounds, from the sweeping choir to Clark’s unique vocal style.

Analysing No Other is perilous: it has no bounds, so how can you start to pick apart the details? Like blind people checking out an elephant for the first time, you only get part of the picture by clutching at the straws: an instrument here, a line there. This is the kind of record you need to plunge into, to absorb like a vast canvas. It’s not always easy going, but the aura of tortured elegance is fascinating. It’s been years since I first heard No Other on a bootleg CD, but I keep coming back to it. Its twisted, lonely beauty keeps drawing people back to it, another element that puts it on a par with Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night. No Other is just as seminal record as the Canadian’s magnum opus, and it’s influence on everyone from Fleetwood Mac (just listen to Rumours) to REM is obvious. No Other’s reputation, like that of a good indie film or a great restaurant, is creeping from person-to-person by word-of-mouth. I hope this helps a few more people get on board. There literally is no other album like No Other!

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Lonely tears - thoughts on depression

"Though my problems are meaningless/That don't make them go away" - Neil Young, "On the Beach"

No-one prepares you for the agony of living...

The curse of the middle classes, someone once called it (I'd like to think that was me, but I doubt it). For context's sake, I should mention that someone I know has tried to take his or her life. Thankfully, this person was unsuccessful, and whilst he or she has escaped the worst, he or she will now have to deal with the fallout of that attempt: the guilt, recrimination and incomprehension. Above all, this person will have to continue to fight against one of the most prevalent but misunderstood illnesses in the world: depression.

Let me give the lie to one of the most stupid and harmful of misconceptions about suicide: that it's selfish and cowardly. Can anyone imagine anything braver? I do not believe that such a decision is made flippantly, at least not in 99% of cases. I know first hand of the anguish and despair that can lead to the notion, one that quickly becomes all-encompassing, that one's life is no longer worth living. And these people have stared into the abyss of non-existence and decided that total annihilation is still preferable to being alive. This is the level of despair and pain we are talking about.

Of course, for the family of a suicidal person who has taken this plunge, it's horrible as well. They are left behind to pick up the pieces. It's awful, but that should not be a reason to undermine the agony that depressive people feel, even those who end up leaving their loved ones behind.

For over 10 years now, I have suffered from severe depression and borderline personality disorder. At first, I internalised it, unable to comprehend what I was feeling - surely it was little more than typical pubescent angst? As my teenage years turned into my twenties, I continued this isolation, not confiding in anyone about the fact that I was so miserable so often, for reasons I couldn't understand. After all, what did I have to be miserable about? I had a loving family, parents who had given me more love and financial support than I was entitled to expect. I was wealthy, well-educated, and well set on a path to be successful. As such, the guilt over the dark feelings and implacable sadness was almost as crushing and those emotions themselves. I knew people who had lost their mothers or fathers or siblings at a young age, or who were having to deal with poverty, severe illness or abuse. How dare I feel like shit on a nearly basis? These people had a reason to. I sure as fuck did not, or so I believed (and still do, despite my decade-long struggle). So I kept it inside, and, imperceptibly, became a drinker.

It only came to a head once during my uni days. My drinking spiraled as I fought to keep my inner turmoil to myself. Sure, there were times where I would tentatively confide in friends that I felt mournful at times (a touch of "the blues"). Sometimes there would be tears, dismissed later as drunken foolishness. But one night, as I lay -admittedly drunk after a solo binge on vodka- in tears on my bed in my studio flat, I decided I'd had enough. A voice in my head was telling me that the reason I was alone, and had never had a girlfriend (my depression was so bad during my teenage years that I was totally unable to process the fact that I was gay; something that would remain a source of unidentified identity strife until I was about 21), was because I didn't deserve anything more than this solitude. I had reach depths of self-hatred that I couldn't even put a name to, I couldn't comprehend what was happening to me. All I knew was that I felt awful, that I was in floods of tears for no apparent reason, and that there was only one way I could end it for good.

Thankfully, I failed. Possibly my innate fear of death stopped me going through with it properly. I don't think it was just a cry for help, as I was very much alone, and didn't tell anyone for years. Had it worked, I wouldn't have been found for days. But the pills I took just made me vomit profusely, and I escaped. I threw myself into my university work and, above all, a wonderful relationship, and evaded such depths for a while.

It didn't last, sadly, and, after a few idyllic years during which my mood fluctuated without frequently reach rock bottom, the dark clouds returned, with a vengeance. This time, inspired by a Stephen Fry documentary, I decided to get medical help. My best friend, and then girlfriend, had already explained to me that I had something wrong with me. (Incidentally, she helped me accept my sexuality.) But Fry's brave exposure of a different form of depression - bipolar disorder - crystalised the notion that this was something you could treat. For a while, the combination of anti-depressants, my girlfriend (later friend)'s support, and a diagnosis of depression and body dysmorphic disorder, helped me to gain some perspective on my mind and feel better about myself, and my sexual identity.

But, and this is key, as far as I, and many depressed people I know, are concerned, it never goes away. Ever since that initial diagnosis and slow start to treatment, I have experienced constant periods of catastrophically low mood, where it feels like my mind is turning on itself, rending itself apart in a tornado of evil thoughts: that I'm worthless, ugly, stupid and should be dead. Sometimes things set it off: my personality disorder means rejection is something I can't handle at all, for example; sometimes it comes seemingly out of nowhere. There are times where I wake up in the morning and wish I hadn't. Times where my thoughts are consumed with ideas of death and dying. This has impacted on my work, my drinking, my relationships with others and my ability to experience romance or love. I am currently having to deal with being alone for the foreseeable future as I try to deal with these pits of debilitating depression. It's a sad, troubling reality, and one that is almost impossible to understand if you don't suffer from something similar.

To a lot of people, I seem perfectly happy: good job, good sense of humour, lots of fun times... I've learned to project a mask, as so many others with my condition(s) do. If anything, this is the hardest part: keeping up an appearance of normalcy when everything inside you feels like it is crumbling into chaos and horror.

But I am working on it. It has taken over a decade, but I have finally a proper and, I believe, lucid idea of what is wrong with me. I have a good therapist, and strong medication. Sadly, the sense of guilt about this "invisible" illness, that somehow I should, in the words of the Daily Mail, just "snap out of it", that I have, as someone close to me once said, "so much going for" me and therefore have little right to feel so down so frequently, doesn't go away. There is so much stigma attached to mental illness, even when it's this dramatic. But the bravery of people like Fry, Alastair Campbell and Ruby Wax, who have "come out" as mentally ill and/or depressed, is an inspiration. I now try to not put such a rigid mask up. If people ask, I will talk about this illness. Not necessarily so that they will understand, though that would be nice, but so that I can keep facing up to it, and, to use an Americanism, "own" it.

I don't know if I will beat it. I hope so, as this is not a sustainable way to live. It hurts too much. It's exhausting. My personality is still fundamentally flawed, in ways that I can't control and that make me at times unable to move, eat or sleep. The suicide ideation is never far away, although I've found that channeling it into songwriting helps. Knowing what is wrong with me, and expressing it, has certainly helped, and I'm stronger, albeit more exhausted (10+ years is a long time to carry this stuff) than when I was alone in my studio flat 8 years ago. But I'm still alive. And I like that. If we can continue to break the walls of silence and incomprehension that surround mental illness, maybe fewer people will have to go through the isolation and desperation that my friend and I have suffered. Baby steps are still steps...

This world is a wonderful place, full of beauty and kindness. But some of us can't often see it, especially in ourselves. It's a true disease, a dysfunction of the brain. My heart was broken by my mind. I'm trying to put it back together. As I do, it goes out to my friend and all the others out there who have to live under a heavy, painful cloud. Please spare us a thought. Love really is the answer, as corny as that sounds.

- J Phimister

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

April on my iPod!

Greetings one and all!

So, predictably, the Alternative Vote, the one chance that us Brits will have to change our outdated and unfair electoral system in a generation, has failed, undermined by a lackluster "Vote Yes" campaign, some cynical, misleading and nasty campaigning from the "No" camp, and the fact that the whole country now hates Nick Clegg. In fact, had the aforementioned Deputy PM really wanted it to pass, he should have gone around the country campaigning for First Past the Post. The result would no doubt have been a Yes landslide. Instead, we keep a stupid system that favours the Tories and Labour, the former even more so now that their plans to redraw the electoral map can go ahead. Oh well...

Then, of course, there was the Royal Wedding, between Prince William and the "lower class" Kate Middleton. Such an event, yet I slept through it, something I apparently should be grateful for, as it involved such levels of sycophancy and talk of hats that I probably would have topped myself. Sometimes alcoholism has its plus points.

Luckily, I have more edifying things to interest and amuse me, such as Gerard Malanga and Victor Bokris' Up-Tight; The Velvet Underground Story. Malanga was one of the dancers in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the multimedia show that Andy Warhol put together to accompany the Velvets in the early days when they had Nico as "chanteuse". Poorly edited, the book nonetheless gives some interesting insight into the circus that surrounded this most important of rock bands (the best ever?), from the Warhol-mania of the first two years, through the lackluster promotion by MGM, the departures of Nico, Warhol and guitarist/bassist/viola player, and musical genius, John Cale, to the band's ultimate demise in a cloud of paranoia and drug abuse, usually involving the egocentric other genius of the whole enterprise, Lou Reed. The main protagonists' complex personalities and interactions are laid out in much detail and, whilst there will always be something frustrating about how things panned out, for the musicians themselves as well as fans like me, Up-Tight essentially serves as reminder -were it needed- of how innovative, exciting and creative The Velvet Underground really was.

Hip-hop is not usually a genre I have much time for. Obviously, the prevalent (and generally unchallenged) homophobia, sexism and crass glorification of materialism are massive turnoffs for me, and people can say whatever they like about Eminem's supposed "talent", the fact that he's written songs about physically attacking gay people and calling us "faggots" means he can jump up his own arse and die as far as I'm concerned. But beyond such ethical matters, there's also a sense that rap and hip-hop have lost their mojo, the music becoming shiny and over-produced, the lyrics less interesting the more they focus on cars and ass over political issues. The days of Nas' superb Illmatic album seem far away now.
Which is why legendary, lamented Houston-based producer DJ Screw remains such a truly essential figure, eleven years after his untimely passing. Screw invented a new way of approaching hip-hop, taking existing tracks and slowing them down, cutting them up and reassembling them as off-kilter reflections of the originals, often highlighting the emotive power or humourous undercurrents of the source materials.
Pat Maherr, discovered by me last year under his Indignant Senility moniker, is obviously a keen follower of the DJ Screw style, and gives a wonderful demonstration of the possibilities of this approach -dubbed Chopped and Screwed- on the debut album of his Expressway Yo-Yo Dieting project, Bubblethug (Weird Forest, 2010). The album surges out of the speakers from the get-go, the first of 13 untitled ("Unknown") tracks leaping forwards with a lopsided gait and awkward brazenness. Ugly, untidy beats accompany a voice so slowed-down as to be rendered unintelligible, an untethered moan that is almost hilarious as the other core elements of the track -a shimmer of electronic synths, some ghostly backing vocals- attempt to bring coherence to the unsightly (but hypnotic) mess. In 6 minutes and 3 seconds, Maherr pretty much rewrites the rules of hip-hop, destroying the genre's macho swagger and turning it into something rawer, more unhinged from material concerns and therefore both primordial and futuristic.
Bubblethug is therefore a confusing slab of modern pop, uneasily ghosting between genres, always hip-hop at its core, but unremittingly dark, as the tortured vocals and minimalist music pervert the joviality of the album's parent genre. On the third track, the abrasive, disjointed percussion recalls the metallic crunch of early Einsturzende Neubauten or Test Dept., with track 4 also following a similar industrial path, with an opening burst of tremelo-ed noise that wouldn't sound out of place on a Skullflower album circa Orange Canyon Mind or Taste the Blood of the Deceiver, which leads intot he kind of noisy pounding groove familiar to most SPK fans. By track 8, Maherr whittles down the grooves completely, leaving a shapeless post-industrial ambience, before launching a messed-up, motorik form of driving-krautrock-meets-hardcore-rap on the 9th track, joining the dots between house, ambient techno and pure, krunky hip-hop.
At hip-hop's core are synths, beats and vocals. By untethering them from each other, Maherr allows these parts to dissolve into a post-noise miasma, honing in on the gloomy core of the tracks he's fucking up whilst freeing up the genre to incorporate fresh ideas. Whilst, like Indignant Senility's Plays Wagner, Bubblethug is overlong, it hits more often than it misses and Maherr has managed once again to create something fresh, exciting and rather peculiar.

A word I've seen used to describe such experimental manipulations of hip-hop is "underwater", and it would be equally apt if applied to the meandering drone of Geoff Mullen's wonderful Bongo Closet (Type, 2010). It's an odd title for an album of haunting, whispy, electronic drone, but, as one reviewer noted, you don't have to have bongos in your bongo closet. It also suggests hidden, forgotten instrumentation, and Mullen's elusive use of percussive elements illustrates this rather mysterious approach to sound sculpture. Most of the album, straight from the opening track, doesn't so much advance as drift, weightlessly, with quiet ebbs and flows evoking the best of Thomas Koener, always hanging at the edge of perception as deep bass notes rumble towards your guts and occasional wafts of synth patterns edge into focus before sliding away into the digital haze.
The possible exception is the second track, on which the album's title is given an ironic twist through sub-aquatic percussion that seems to seep into the mix from very far away whilst echoey guitar snippets and occasional flutters of electronics dart and surge like butterflies fluttering around your head. It's a sort of languid take on the motorik krautrock of Neu, but performed with the ethos of ambient kosmische pioneers Cluster, pulsating and oblique. In the end, the album's closest cousin is probably D'Agostino/Foxx/Jansen's classic A Secret Life, sharing that album's delicate sense of urban alienation and detached melancholia. There will always be something vaguely insubstantial to such deliberately vague and transluscent music, but the hidden sensitivities are wonderfully comforting, particularly in the deep of a city night.

As underground music has exploded in a myriad of directions, one rather reliable constant has been the enthusiasm for bass music, from the hugely successful uber-throbbing dancefloor music that is dubstep, to the pop-reggae crossovers that have emerged, mostly from the USA, in the wake of David Keenan's heralding of the hypnagogic pop epoch. In this regards, husband-and-wife duo Peaking Lights are not really plowing a novel furrow on 936 (Not Not Fun, 2011), coming on the back of labelmates Sun Araw and Pocahaunted's success, but it is one of the better example of how underground electronic pop-rock can be threaded into dub and still be accessible, tuneful and hi-energy (ok, not that energetic, this is languid stuff, but it's not as drawn-out as most dub).
The considerable strength of 936 is the duo's songwriting craft, which probably exceeds that of Pocahaunted, even at that band's Island Diamonds pomp. Tracks like "Amazing and Wonderful" and "Birds of Paradise" have a verve, vim and drive that is incredibly infectious, hooking you from the get-go and swimming through your system like cold tonic on a warm day. The balance between the fat bass lines and the synth/guitar melodies is pitch-perfect, whilst Indra Dunis' dreamy voice is used to perfection. There are also some wonderful drum machine beats, notably on "Amazing and Wonderful", which glides along like a wave on a sandy beach. Compared to the deliberately woozy dub-pop of many of their contemporaries, Peaking Lights keep things energetic and anchored in the Slits/PiL tradition that birthed the marriage of dub and western music. An accomplished album.

Fucking hell - I really, truly, deeply, unconditionally, fucking LOVE The Rita!! Ok, so that's a bit mad, but it's hardly my fault given the overwhelming quality of just about everything Sam McKinley does.
The Voyage of The Decima MAS (Troniks, 2009) may be his most extraordinary statement yet, the culmination and sublimation of everything that has thus far been accomplished in the field of Harsh Noise Walls. If giallo film scores and underwater recordings of sharks provided excellent sources to be manipulated by The Rita's devillish hand and turned into walls of unending saturation, on The Voyage of The Decima MAS, he has found his best material yet, as he uses recordings of -wait for it- snorkelling (!) to deliver something so outlandish it could just about represent the apex of this noise sub-genre. I mean, just consider it - this surely represents a stroke of genius on McKinley's apart, something that is apparent from the first second. The album launches with a traditional burst of unmoving, hugely saturated and crackling white noise, but almost immediately evolves into the furious rumble and burble of bubbles whistling through a snorkel. Amplified to the extreme, these sounds become part of the wall of sound, bass-heavy and abrasive, but much more dynamic than anything on A Thousand Dead Gods or Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence. The listener is not so much assaulted as -and surely this is the ultimate aim of most HNW?- submerged, plunged into the sound as if into a vast, turbulent ocean.
Rest assured, The Voyage of The Decima MAS is as monolithic, harsh and implacable as anything done in the world of harsh noise, with the familiar grittiness so frequently encountered in American noise, but the sudden eruptions of swirling, volcanic water sounds gives it a sense of drama (at times you can feel like you're drowning, such is the psychological impact of the sounds) and impetus that elevates it above most of its contemporaries. McKinley's approach is cerebral, an exploration of how a genre as alienating as noise can evoke emotions beyond the traditional anger, viciousness or brutality associated with it, and plunges it (almost literally) into a consideration of nature versus technology, the effect pedal against the roaring ocean. It may just be the best-ever harsh noise album, certainly close, and definitely one that elevates The Rita to similar status -in my eyes- as Merzbow, Hijokaidan and Werewolf Jerusalem.

Hmm, with the possible exception of Peaking Lights, I seem to have gone for a sub-aquatic theme this month. Curious...

 Decidely NOT watery was the wonderful Fred Frith concert I attended on April 28th at the now-ubiquitous in my life Cafe Oto. Frith, formerly of Henry Cow and Art Bears, and who released one of the world's greatest albums of guitar improv, Guitar Solos (1974), delivered one of the best concerts I've ever seen and, coming so soon after Keiji Haino's equally wondrous two-day residency a few weeks earlier, I'm beginning to think that Oto, for all the falafel-and-ginger-beer propensities of its crowd, can do no wrong.
Like Haino, Frith's first set was a solo exploration of the extreme possibilities of electric guitar, as he used a variety of tools, from spinning copper plates to chain necklaces, plus his faithful effects pedals and speedy fingers, to extract a wonderful array of sounds, from punkish sturm und drang to elegant, deeply emotive melodic motifs. It was fascinating to watch, and deeply moving.
For the second set, he was joined by drummer Roger Turner, and there was a sense of gleeful exploration as the two men set about improvising with a delight and humour too often missing from such explorations. Both carried on the exercise of using weird utensils on their instruments, but never for weirdness' sake alone, and never forgot to rock out and deliver tangible riffs and melodies for the audience's delectation.
For the third piece, more abstract, Frith joined forces with genius saxophonist John Butcherb and cellist Hannah Marshall, before Turner returned for a grandiose, powerful finale. These two performances were certainly more challenging than the first two, and perhaps a tad too cerebral in comparison to the raw energy and humour of the first half, but you could not but admire the sheer talent and virtuosity they all displayed. Another fantastic demonstration of the power of experimental music in the live setting, once again sold-out, as if to prove there is hope for avant-garde art in these dark, lowbrow times.

In movies, two films I saw last month were worthy of note, being stand-out examples of the portrayal of homosexuality in film, from opposite ends of the struggle for equal rights.

Released last year, Strapped is an excellent little indie film written and directed by Joseph Graham, which takes place solely within a single apartment building. Hunky young actor Ben Bonenfant plays a veteran hustler who services a john, helping him come to terms with his sexuality in the process, but then finds himself unable to find a way out of the building, leading to more and more encounters with the sad, the fucked-up, the lonely, the old and the repressed of the gay world. It's a familiar theme in gay cinema, is hustling, but in Strapped it is approached from a novel angle, as Bonenfant's character, whilst providing temporary or lasting solace to others, starts to analyse his own life and his own purgatory. The dialogue is smart and intense, and the various characters, whilst all archetypes, have a depth and emotion to them that is testament to Graham's skill as a writer.

As novel as it it may be, Strapped is nonetheless a product of a world where homosexuality, whilst not always completely accepted, is a legally recognised sexual orientation and lifestyle; and was released in the relatively open-minded 2010s. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Basil Dearden's Victim, released in 1962, came out at a time when sexual intercourse between two men or two women was illegal in the United Kingdom, and punishable with a prison sentence. Its very creation was an act of bravery and, as expected, it was wholly controversial, though now cited as one of the factors that led to decriminalisation in 1967. The late, great, nay, magnificent, Dirk Bogarde plays a successful, married, QC names Farr, whose young gay friend, with whom he had a platonic but affectionate relationship, commits suicide after being blackmailed over his relationship with Farr. When Farr attempts to take on the blackmailers, his own homosexual past, and the hostility of conservative society, not to mention the blackmailers themselves, threaten to jeopardise his career and the facade of "normal" life he's built up. In terms of narrative and photography, Victim is pretty standard of its time, and hardly ground-breaking, but the fact that it tackles such a then-taboo subject head-on, not to mention a marvelous central turn by Bogarde, make it one of the most important films ever to deal with gay issues. It doesn't flinch from portraying homosexuality as natural, and gay men as the unfortunate victims of repressive law and evil blackmailers. A brave and stirring film, one that all gay men and women should see, especially as it highlights the struggles and anguish our forbears had to face.

Much as with Cafe Oto, I finally put paid to a glaring omission from my East End cultural landscape by finally going to the wonderful Whitechapel Gallery (website here: I cannot recommend this -usually 100% free- gallery enough, as it combines all kinds of forms of artistic expression and above all gives voice (and canvas and space) to little-known and emerging artists. However, on the day I went I was lucky to visit their extensive retrospective of the 30-year career of photographer Paul Graham.
His earliest works from the eighties, i.e. Thatcher's Britian (the show is chronological), were notable for their political nature. In "The Great North Road", he explores the UK's north-south divide, and social inequality through photos taken along the A1, from "comfortable" north London to Edinburgh via sleepy former industrial cities and rundown backwaters. His pictures have the forlorn weariness of an American road movie a la Broken Flowers or Paris Texas, and shine an unusual light on England's battered roadsides. In "Beyond Caring", he takes his wide, cinematic approach to dole offices, filming those miserable antechambers of poverty and the unfortunate souls who had to trek into them every day in a desperate often vain attempt to find work. The grubby offices and haggard-looking people in them serve as an uncomfortable indictment of the Tory party's ghastly social policies. Given the way they're once again taking the knife to public services and jobs in 2011, "Beyond Caring" is unfortunately still very relevant, although the beauty of each picture's composition goes some way towards alleviating that sense of frustration.
In the 90s, Graham's pictures would become more abstract and poetic, as opposed to overtly political, as demonstrated in his series on Japan, "Empty Heaven", which juxtaposed images of traditional Japanese things like geishas and ceremonies with urban decay and modernity. Less demonstrative, this opposition of images, in bright, lurid coulour, leaves an impression of ambiguity, and even suspense. In "End of an Age", young people in an anonymous city at the turn of this century are photographed in close up, their expressions once again ambiguous as they approach the uncertain future of the new millenium, with a deeply melancholy vbe permeating throughout. Best of all, in "Ceasefire", Graham uses gorgoeus pictures of grey skies, taken in Northern Ireland, to illustrate the frustration and uneasiness of yet another lull in the Troubles, this time in 1994. As history has shown, it would be tragically only a temporary reprieve.
By the last decade, Graham's ambition had grown even greater, and the last series, "a shimmer of possibility" combined the best of his earlier "social commentary" period with the sense of intimacy found in "End of an Age". He travelled the USA, photographing the multi-faceted aspects of American society, from crippling poverty to towering, modern cities, stopping to take small series focusing on particular individuals, as if trying to get more intimate with and close to his subjects' lives. The separation created by the camera of course creates an unavoidable barrier, meaning such closeness is only a vague possibility, and this dynamic creates real drama, and poetry.
Paul Graham was a wonderful discovery for me, and I heartily recommend art lovers visit the Whitechapel before the exhibition ends.

So ends another monthly musing. Peace!

- J Phimiser

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Ecstatic Crunch and Crackle - Werewolf Jerusalem and Skullflower in concert

On April 15th, I returned to the scene of one of my favourite concerts, the Voltigeurs/Filthy Turd/Vomir/The Rita noisefest of last November, Stockwell, South London's wonderfully gritty The Grosvenor pub, with its inimitable back-room performance space.

Once again, I was there for noise, and two of the living legends of the loudest of musics had convened to share another bill organised by the wonderful chaps from Second Layer records: Werewolf Jerusalem and Skullflower. I was predictably as excited as a child given access to Disneyland all on his own.

People who read this blog will know the regard with which I hold the might Skullflower, one of the greatest bands of all time (if you don't, here's my modest history and album-by-album appraisal of the band's output: Skullflower's evolution from post-industrial doom metal pioneers to psychedelic post-noise annihilators is one of the fascinating tales of the UK underground and, whilst I'd seen bandleader Matt Bower in action with his side-project Voltigeurs (twice, both times excellent), I'd honestly imagined my chances of a live Skullflower show, especially in such an intimate venue, were minimal.

Werewolf Jerusalem, meanwhile, is the moniker used by Houston, Texas noise legend Richard Ramirez, whose prodigious output under his own names and various collaborations and pseudonyms has elevated to the rank of royalty among noise aficionados. As an aside, he is also one of the only known gay artists operating in the field of noise, so a personal hero of mine; proof we're not all Lady Gaga-worshiping numpties with the mentality of 14-year-old anorexic girls.
Werewolf Jerusalem is, in my opinion, the greatest of Ramirez's many projects, and one of the four horsemen of the Harsh Noise Walls apocalypse (the other 3 being, probably, The Rita, Macronympha and Vomir). So my excitement was, as I mentioned, unbridled as I flitted through the CDs on sale at the door (promptly spending £30-worth) and leaned against a wall to start savouring some motherfucking NOISE.

First, though, we had to get through two opening acts that I'm afraid I won't dwell on too much. Hal Hutchinson was intriguing, but rather by-the-ropes harsh noise, most interesting when he ran what appeared to be a piece of polystyrene over a pick-up to generate some percussive bursts of static. However, it was mainly a case of all pedals and no personality. At first, I was intrigued by the next guy, Helm, who broke from the mould to work with throbbing low-frequency digital noise, before reaching to a screaming crescendo. Sadly, his lengthy set (annoyingly the longest of the lot, for some reason, meaning WJ and Skullflower's ones seemed shortened) went on for two long and quickly got dull, barely rescued by the aforementioned squealing climax.

And then, onto the good stuff, as a rather unassuming man with long black hair dragged a small table to the front of the stage and began setting up. I quickly realised this was Ramirez himself, and became a babbling idiot, whispering "It's him! It's Richard Ramirez!" to my rather baffled friend Chris who gave me a look as if to say "Well, yeah, he is performing after all".
The first thing that struck me was the modesty of the set-up. Where most noise performers laden their tabletop set-ups with an improbably large gaggle of pedals and noise generators, Ramirez was practically minimalist" a battered-looking small FM radio and what appeared to be two or three distortion pedals. And yet, his set was the loudest and most intimidating of the night, although it started quietly before gradually building into an unstoppable onslaught of crackle, roar and hiss. I read one blogger who reviewed the show musing on why fans such as me would crowd to the front to see a man standing stock still, head bent over a table fiddling with switches and knobs. It's a valid question - noise artists are not known for the interactive performance skills (although I consider Vomir's brand of absolute stasis with a bag on his head particularly potent). However, for me, this was a chance to watch a master of the art of harsh noise in action.
His movements were subtle, the shifts gentle, but potent, as a gentle twist of a knob on one pedal would take the wall of sound up a notch, increasing the bass thunder or the squeal of the high-end. And, as with Vomir and The Rita, I was struck by the sheer artistry involved; that this was not just chucking noise randomly out there, but rather a considered, intelligent sculpture of absolute sound. It's beauty was as towering and overwhelming as a Robert Morris sculpture, or the minimalist cinema of Warhol or Conrad. There is something absolute in the the musical constructions of Werewolf Jerusalem, and to be caught in the eye of the storm was fantastic.

Just stepping away from the concert for a minute, I would like to take the opportunity to review the monstrous Werewolf Jerusalem box set I purchased on the night, that brings together a number of recent and old tracks as, if not a career retrospective, then at least a daring portrayal of the subtle facets of Ramirez's work under this name.
Called Confessions of a Sex Maniac (2011, Second Layer Records), it distills (over 4 discs, so not exactly triple-filtered) the essence of what motivates, stimulates and results from the strange mind behind the Werewolf Jerusalem moniker; namely perverse sex, murder, extreme noise and, oddly, humanity.
When I briefly spoke to Ramirez after his set, I was struck by how soft-spoken and gentle he was, something which again offsets the reputation for brutality and sadism that dogs a lot of noise. No matter how nasty some of the elements and thoughts Ramirez explores are, from sadism to violence, there is a beating heart and intelligence that takes it above the crass exploitation of a lot of the noise genre's other adepts, especially the power electronics crowd. Track titles like "Your Sweet Body For Killing" and "Date for a Murder" may be a tad nasty, even tasteless, but there's a sense that this is not a man reveling in such thoughts, but rather revolting against them, the towering walls of noise being a perfect abstract embodiment of despair, anger and regret. I could be wrong, but that's the feeling I get, and the film dialogue snippet from the start of the excellent "Because of the Cats", featuring a conversation between what appears to be a policeman and a female suspect, reverse the misogynistic approach of a lot of noise artists, with the woman seeming to be both strong-headed and sexually aware, rather than a passive victim of rape or murder.
However, the moral attitudes of HNW music are hard to discern, even with WJ, and so Confessions of a Sex Maniac actually is best-appreciated as a showcase for the genre's evolution and position in the noise world, as evidenced by its prodigal son. Disc one features a series of short (for Harsh Noise Walls) tracks that showcase the genre at its grittiest and most obscenely violent. The second disc, possibly the best, is comprised of one near-hour-long exploration, "The Face at the Window", which is so loud, unmoving and extreme as to come close to swallowing the listener whole. It's the summation of the genre's bloody-minded excess and aesthetic purity, much in the manner of Vomir's Renonce or The Rita's Thousands of Dead Gods.
The third disc demonstrates, to those who would advance that all HNW sounds the same, that the genre can, and does, evolve, being more focused on digital noise, and slightly more subtle textures. The three tracks on the CD evolve cautiously, background hiss evolving gently or brutally into in-your-face mess at the flick of a switch or gradual twist of the knob on a distortion pedal. It's the disc where Ramirez most expertly experiments with the sound source of Werewolf Jerusalem's music: the static between stations on portable radios, and the three tracks are exceptional. The final CD is, in my opinion, the least interesting, being a series of collaborations with like-minded HNW artists. Whilst the idea is intriguing, I think these tracks would be best appreciated if seen live, as it's near-impossible to discern one noisician from another.
Confessions of a Sex Maniac is surely Werewolf Jerusalem's most definitive release, as mysterious and extreme as any album ever released, and the perfect embodiment of this strange artist's unrelenting quest for sonic purity.

It was a full band set-up that then took to the Grosvenor stage for Skullflower's performance, with a youthful drummer and bassist joining Matt Bower and his current partner Samantha Davies, also of Voltigeurs, who had set aside her guitar in favour of some barely-audible howls into the microphone. Bower meanwhile squatted over his monolithic guitar, unleashing the kind of full-on six-string wall-of-sound that he masters so well. The resemblances with the set Voltigeurs performed opening for Keiji Haino at Cafe Oto earlier in the month were obvious, with both Davies and Bower steadfastly keeping their backs to the audience and their heads bowed as they wrestled with the torrent they were producing. But where Voltigeurs' sound is unabashedly inert, a sort of bloody-minded form of amplifier worship that feels purposely like they are trying to summon arcane gods of noise, Skullflower is a more intricate incarnation of the dark spirits that motivate and propel Bower's muse. The presence of drums and bass reasserted the band's beginnings in less abstract forms, hinting at its doom-metal past and albums like IIIrd Gatekeeper. But such has been the evolution of Skullflower in the years following the band's "return" in 2003, that attachment to notions of "song" are vague, and so the rhythm section became a sort of platform for psychedelic flight of the most ear-assaulting kind. It was familiar stuff, but also thrillingly loud, obtuse and elegiac. But sadly too short. After two -admittedly long- tracks of blissful pagan metal, it was up, and Bower scooted off to hide behind the amps, whilst those of us still gasping for more called for an encore. For a brief second, it felt like we might get one, but the moment passed. Skullflower make the kind of music I feel I can listen to, entranced, for hours, so it would have been nice to get a longer set. But maybe sometimes it's just best to savour brief, wonderful pleasures.

On the plus side, I did then get to meet the great Gary Mundy, of Ramleh fame, and founder of Broken Flag records, who was in attendance, and who is a frankly charming fellow. I'm hoping that Ramleh will be back on tour as well soon, especially given the high quality of their recent Valediction album.

So, in all, a great evening, and there is so much to be said about seeing gigs in such intimate venues, where the beer is cheap, the space cramped but convivial, and you actually can talk to the artists after the sets. I've now been privileged to meet Richard Ramirez, Gary Mundy, Sam McKinley (aka The Rita), Romain Perrot (Vomir) and Matt Bower at The Grosvenor, as well as revel in their amazing music. As far as I'm concerned, Britney fans can keep the fucking O2 Arena.