From the Vault: Live from a rusted-out garage – the (un)holy triptych of the 68-70 underground (Unpublished)

Live from a rusted-out garage – the (un)holy triptych of the 68-70 underground

These days, with “indy” apparently meaning more that a band sports skinny jeans, Converse and floppy hair, as opposed to any statement on said band’s financial status or musical style, it’s easy to forget that there once was a time when bands would scrape out an existence well out of the spotlight. These days, in truth, “indy” should mean the multitude of acts that don’t make into the pages of the NME and either remain internet phenomena or aren’t signed to anything more than a Type-like micro-label. The Libertines, Blur, The Kooks, Kings of Leon, The Killers? Not independent, no matter what the aforementioned toilet paper rag may claim. But between 1967 and 1970, it appears certain visionary bands were able to make real waves whilst flying very much under the mainstream radar. The internet has allowed a similar train to gain some momentum of late, but compared to those halcyon days, it’s very much hit-and-miss, with most promising oddballs eventually getting swallowed up by the corporate monsters.
Much of this was due to the psychedelic explosion that took America (Britain not so much – blame it on the domination of the likes of Decca, Polydor, the BBC and so on…) by storm. Suddenly, even more so than in the post-Beatles period, American youth had a true musical movement that reflected its values and tastes. Bands that could barely play, or had spent months noodling away on electric guitar in their parents’ garages suddenly became hit acts, and, in comparison to the age of “Love Me Do” and “She Loves You”, this music was louder, harder, wilder and more experimental. The term “acid-rock” became a staple way of describing the likes of Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. It didn’t have to be perfect. But it generally had to be loud. In an attempt to cash in on this new phenomenon, record labels big and small began scrabbling around and signing every West Coast band in sight, meaning the ’66-’71 period would see prodigious amounts of records hitting stores and radio stations all at once. Of course, some of it was dross. Some of it would be era-defining, multi-million-dollar-earning statements. And some records, whether on big labels or tiny indies, would go completely unnoticed, and yet end up having a more lasting effect on most of what came later in rock than the Beatles and even The Rolling Stones. Combined!

The Lenny Kaye-assembled compilation Nuggets is a great way to get a glimpse of this effervescent and overlooked explosion, from a more singles-orientated perspective, and it is an essential purchase for all lovers of garage-rock (as this nebulous sub-genre is perhaps best described – just), but there were also a handful of albums released in the immediate post-Surrealistic Pillow period (i.e. 1966 to early ’67) that also merit mention, none more so than the debut album by The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground & Nico, which came out in March 1967 and was promptly ignored. Much had been made of the band’s association with Pop-Art guru Andy Warhol and the mad, multimedia shows they put on. And let me just say this now, whilst I haven’t included The Velvet Underground & Nico in my titular triptych, it is nonetheless the most important album I will mention in this feature. The birth of art-rock, and a wondrous, terrifying and mind-blowing musical snapshot of the seedy underbelly of New York City, The Velvet Underground & Nico is quite possibly the most influential rock album of all time. That it sold so poorly only underlines its status as the underground album par excellence.

And yet… Maybe it stands too far apart and ahead of all competition, being almost impossible to categorise in its scope and vision. It also feels intrinsically linked to Warhol’s vision, and his desire to respond to what was coming out of California at the time. Not so much a garage-rock (loft-rock, maybe?) album but a dirty, sophisticated, New York version of Monterey Pop psychedelia (its closest cousin maybe the deceptively sunny psych masterpiece by Los Angeles quintet Love, Forever Changes, released the same year). The Velvets would take their vision into even more noncommercial and extreme directions, meaning The Velvet Underground & Nico is more an amuse-bouche of the underground rock genre (after all, it was intended to be a big deal, and only shit promotion from MGM, coupled with Warhol’s increasing disinterest, that caused it to sink), even though it set the scene.

Sitting awkwardly alongside such a magnum opus were the much less ambitious trio of The Seeds, The Deviants and The 13th Floor Elevators.

The Seeds were one of L.A.’s typically ramshackle acts (somehow, the San Francisco bands always seemed more starry-eyed, musically competent and politically-charged, whilst their L.A. cousins seemed more angst-ridden, mean and rough), propelled by lopsided organ and fuzzy guitar riffs. Above all, they had the sneery-voiced Sky Saxon as their leader, someone who could out-weird the likes of Jim Morrison and Arthur Lee. Saxon’s paranoid lyrics and high-pitched snarl reached their apex on A Web of Sound, released nearly six months before The Velvet Underground & Nico in October 1966. It’s a nasty, druggy album that was always doomed to fail, but which in many ways points to where rock would go ten years later with The Sex Pistols and The Clash: short, snappy rock tracks with nasty vocals and warped lyrics (meanwhile the artwork announces The Cramps). Even more immediately prescient was the side-long opus “Up In Her Room”, a gorgeously incompetent garage version of the endless jam epics that would characterise much of where psych-rock would go in the next two years. See? Even in 1966, garage-rock was ahead of the curve.

Even better were Texan band The 13th-Floor Elevators, a barmy, drug-fueled outfit who supposedly coined the term “psychedelic” (at least in rock terms) via the title of their debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th-Floor Elevators. Where The Seeds were so unkempt, and Sky Saxon so unnerving, that they were never going to trouble the charts, the inability of The 13th-Floor Elevators to crack the top 10 is a bit more of a mystery, were it not for the drugs at least. In Rocky Erikson, they had a singer who could match Mick Jagger for vocal ability and personality, and their songs were just the right blend of belligerent rock and hook-laden psych, with “Fire Engine”, “Roller Coaster” and the absolute masterpiece “You’re Gonna Miss Me” being nearly peerless. Of course, I’ve answered my own question, as Erickson’s legal troubles and the general vibe of menace and excess that surrounded the band would ultimately be their undoing. However, more than The Seeds, and almost as much as The Velvet Underground, The 13th Floor Elevators have become a bona fide cult band, their murky sound and sinister, warped riffs inspiring a generation of rock bands, including those that immediately followed their first flash in the pan.

The Deviants, meanwhile, hailed from England, which had remained remarkably un-edgy in its psychedelic explorations, especially once Hendrix returned to his homeland. English psych bands often had a pastoral vibe that has rarely aged well (except those that went all the way, such as Fairport Convention and Comus), but The Deviants, part of a Ladbroke Grove/Notting Hill scene that would produce future members of Hawkwind, The Edgar Broughton Band and The Pink Fairies, were an altogether more abrasive proposition, with darker lyrics and harsh blues licks that made Cream look positively twee. Addled by excessive drug-consumption and general incompetence, The Deviants would never make many waves, but their debut album, Ptoof! was released in 1967, long before the freak-rock of Hawkwind would become a proper money-spinner, putting these guys right up there with the aforementioned bands as proper pioneers of the underground sound. “I’m Coming Home”, in particular, is a demented, blues-inflected slab of nasty stalker rock, whilst “Nothing Man” predicts the darker, sci-fi-influenced direction psychedelia would end up embarking upon, at least in some circles.

These three uneven, often musically basic records would have a lasting influence on punk and grunge, but ultimately seem like glorious (and gloriously weird) failures, hamstrung by drug excess and a lack of proper musical talent. But then again, that is part and parcel of what defines garage-rock, and by extension the sixties/seventies underground in its entirety: the low budgets make getting something truly transcendent that much harder to attain, with attitude being far more important than chops and virtuosity.

Back in America, one San Francisco act was stepping out of the trippy, flower power vibe of its peers and making up for its lack of musical nous ladle-fulls of attitude and volume: Blue Cheer. Forget Cream, Blue Cheer are the perfect power trio, and they practically invented hard rock on their January 1968 debut Vincebus Eruptum. Vincebus Eruptum is definitive proof, should you need it, that being able to flick out a Jimmy Page-esque solo for twenty minutes whilst simultaneously referencing Robert Johnson, Son House, Chuck Berry and Bach means fucking jack shit compared to being able to scream like a possessed devil and punish your six-string at full, ear-shattering volume. This Blue Cheer, especially their demented axe-man Leigh Stephens, twigged with bells on, and Vincebus Eruptum contains some of the most extreme and heavy metal you will ever come across, with old classics like “Summertime Blues” and “Parchman Farm” (retitled “Parchment Farm”, for some reason) given overload treatment, whilst “Doctor Please” must be one of the most overtly drug-influenced monstrosities released in the sixties. It’s a decidedly over-the-top and belligerent album, and all the better for it. You can be sure Iggy Pop and Mark Farmer were listening. And in my opinion, Vincebus Eruptum kicks the first 3, even 4, Led Zeppelin albums into the dirt. In fact, only Black Sabbath were doing stuff this heavy in the late sixties. And Blue Cheer got there before them all!

In the UK, the aforementioned Edgar Broughton Band delivered something similarly fucked-up and nasty and loud in the form of their 1969 debut Wasa Wasa, that took the Sabbathian doom-folk-blues vibe and added a dollop of acid-drenched fuzz and Broughton’s Howlin’ Wolf vocals for good measure. Wasa Wasa possibly has too many delusions of grandeur and hippy notions to really equal the underground vibe of Vincebus Eruptum, but it is just wicked and fucked-up enough to warrant mention here, and like the concurrent records by Hawkwind and Man, show the better side of the UK scene in the post-Beatles, pre-Bowie void years. It’s certainly more interesting than what Led Zeppelin (I’m not picking on them, I swear!) and Pink Floyd were doing at the time!

Volume and darkness seemed to be the going trend in the rock underground by this point. The idealism of the Airplane and the Dead, and the commercial triteness of Pink Floyd and the Beatles had become stifling, especially in the wake of Manson and Altamont, and those bands on the periphery of the “scene” were duly responding with bile and fury. Even some of the mainstream was going that way, with the Sabbath acting as a grim shadow to Led Zep and Deep Purple’s more fey strands of metal, whilst sinister and sophisticated King Crimson emerged as the most exciting band of the nascent progressive rock scene. And let’s not forget the dark turn the Rolling Stones’ music took in the wake of Brian Jones’ untimely passing. Hippiedom was in its death throes, commercialism was rearing its ugly head, but the underground was somehow making itself heard, and its vibe was permeating everything.

The MC5, a Detroit-based quintet of ex-hippies, pretty much distilled these divergent strands of rock music in 1968 on their live debut Kick Out The Jams. In many ways, it represents the apex of the hippy movement, in that, unlike the mostly passive Woodstock-ites, The MC5 were properly militant, directed with a fierce hand by John Sinclair, founder of the White Panther movement, and with songs expounding communist and revolutionary views and promoting a generally all-or-nothing ideal of social change. In these cynical times, it all seems a bit silly, but luckily the 5 backed such political ramblings with some fucking amazing hardcore rock’n’roll, with the twin guitar attack of Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and Wayne Kramer ripping into your ear drums, equally influenced by the punishing crunch of Blue Cheer and, more subtly, the blazing free jazz of Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler. Meanwhile, Rob Tyner was a vocalist extraordinaire, exhorting the crowd at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom with the energy and charisma of a religious preacher. There are times when listening to Kick Out The Jams that you actually feel rock’n’roll could change the world. Of course, the MC5 would burn out spectacularly, and the dream of a hippy revolution out of Detroit died, but again, the scream of those guitars did not go unheard.

One thing about Kick Out the Jams (and indeed the heavy blues of Blue Cheer and The Edgar Broughton Band or the basic formula of The Seeds), is that the structures and styles of the music are at heart nothing more than a modernisation, at maximum volume, of those of the r’n’r pioneers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Eddie Cochran. Once again, this predicted the trend of a few years later, when the UK’s proto-punks and pub rockers like Dr Feelgood updated old-school r’n’b to the general acclaim of the press and public. But, of course, this trend for such overt nostalgia (as that of Dr Feelgood) was predicted in an even more overt way by yet another celebrated garage-rock outfit, San Francisco’s Flamin’ Groovies. Their masterpiece was 1971’s Teenage Head, a veritable proto-punk classic, but they set down a marker even earlier with 1970’s Flamingo. A former jug band, the Groovies were rocked by seeing the MC5, as well as their psyched-out West Coast brethren, and responded by upping their amp volume exponentially. But at their core, they were ecstatic fans of Lewis, Cochran, Muddy Waters and Little Richard, and their main appeal is that they could rock out in true turn-of-the-decade fashion, with menacing Manson vocals and lyrics, but also had the jerky energy and camp of early rock’n’roll. Sadly, it never caught on, and whilst the Groovies would manage to go one step further with their follow-up, they would remain an influential footnote in the history of garage rock, and little more. Although, for the record, they left behind one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded: “Whiskey Woman”, which manages to out-Stones the Stones.

So what of my triptych? For whilst all of the above are excellent, ground-breaking albums, three masterpieces for me sum up what it means to be a proper, unfettered underground (or independent, or garage – you choose) band.

Of course, I could not let The Velvet Underground slip by with such a complimentary but only cursory mention of their first, superlative, album. For, as I have said in the past, The VU are the greatest, most important rock band that ever walked this timid earth, the only band to truly capture, in all its depraved glory, what it means to fucking rock, not just with a guitar but as a way of life. If their debut established that a rock band could also be smart and artistic, then once they had dispensed with the beautiful but intrusive presence of Nico (who would go on to create wonderful albums on her own, I must say, before Nico fans get on my back; I just think the best Velvets moments mostly happened after the German chanteuse had left), they truly flew, albeit in the face of what it meant to be a popular pop-rock band.

The result was White Light/White Heat, which erupted into the world in January 1968, the same month as Vincebus Eruptum. Talk about a double conflagration! Both The Velvets and Blue Cheer played at deafening volume, but where Leigh Stephens and co went for the bludgeoning effect, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker took the distortion, fuzz and clatter of their hard rock, and married it to probing, intellectual, humorous and sardonic lyrics, mostly written by Reed at his best. Meanwhile, the Tucker/Morrison rhythm section pound out relentlessly steady beats whilst sudden, piercing guitar lines, or shimmers of electrified viola arc out of the murk like rockets, joining the dots between Reed’s doo-wop/pop-rock roots and the avant-garde minimalism of Cale. Every track on the album is a wonder, from the awkward grooves of the title track and “Here She Comes Now”, to the manic, off the wall noise mess of “I Heard Her Call My Name”. Meanwhile, “The Gift” is an hilarious spoken word horror story delivered in hysterically deadpan fashion by Cale. But if any track defines and encapsulates the spirit of fucked-up, heroin-drenched New York punk-rock, it’s “Sister Ray”, possibly the best rock song ever recorded. As Reed mangles his guitar in a way that could make your hair go grey, for 17 blissful minutes, Cale punches out a daft series of moronic riffs on organ whilst Tucker pounds away on a single drum like she’s trying to tear apart the San Andreas fault and bury Californian rock for good. No band was doing rock like The Velvet Underground in 1968, and it’s fair to say quite a few people were listening, even if MGM, and the public at large, were not.

Luckily, Mo Tucker’s drums, as powerful as they were (and there have been few better drummers in the history of rock music), didn’t sink California into the sea, for if they had, we would have been deprived of the majestic garage-country of Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Such has been the Canadian’s celebrity (Artist of the Decade in the seventies, according to Village Voice), and the unparalleled success of his mellow 1972 country-folk album Harvest, that it’s easy to forget that, after the demise of his sixties band Buffalo Springfield, Young was a bit of an unknown quantity, much in the shadow of his Springfield acolyte Stephen Stills and with only a failed debut solo album to his name.
His meeting with L.A. garage rock quintet The Rockets was a moment of rock serendipity that has rarely been equaled. The rhythm section of The Rockets was made up of Danny Whitten on rhythm guitar, Billy Talbot on bass, and Ralph Molina on drums, and they combined unbelievable funkiness with unbelievable levels of incompetence, in a way that only Neil Young could love, and led to one of the greatest albums of the Canadian’s career: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969). The magic of Crazy Horse was that they allowed Young, a disturbed, fragile and angry folk-rocker, a platform in which to make his sound loud, without putting the kind of pressure on him that the Springfield did. Talbot and Molina were minimalist, but built rock-solid bases for two of Young’s most elegiac pieces: “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”. On these lengthy masterpieces, the drums and bass become a blank canvas for his guitar and voice. And what a guitar! What a voice! At one time, Young’s voice was considered so dismal that he wasn’t allowed to sing on his own tracks for the Springfield. Yet his sensitive, fragile warble elevates “Down By The River” or “Running Dry” to elegiac heights, the vulnerability adding to the doom-like vibe of the tracks, as if they were sung by a kid stuck in a closet whilst untold demons roam the corridors outside. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere brought soul into garage rock, adding an emotional depth that transcends the raw power and sturm und drang that characterises most of the above-mentioned music. Neil Young, especially with Crazy Horse, will break your heart. As for the guitar, well I have heard enough guitar solos to elevate a million souls to heaven, but no-one can beat Neil Young in his pomp, and he has rarely bettered “Cowgirl in the Sand”, as delivered to an unsuspecting world in 1969 on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Fuck Clapton, Page and Gilmour – no-one beats Neil Young when Crazy Horse let him fly.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere brought the hippy Topanga Canyon vibe into somewhere darker, more abstract, jazzier and grungier. Indeed, the look Young sports on the album cover would become the style of Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and other grunge icons nearly 30 years later. Less than a year after this album, Young would embark on a lucrative, but frustrating, path, as he joined the ego-fest of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, exposing his wondrously underground sounds to a wide -and appreciative- audience, and perhaps already showing how the “indy” rock world could be easily and tackily absorbed into the mainstream. Luckily, Young would be too slippery to obey market concerns, as his controversial mid-seventies output would emphatically prove.

Neil Young, when associated with Crazy Horse, took hippiedom out of flower power into the rusted garage, and made the Woodstock vibe loud. The Stooges took loud music out of hippiedom. They were less intellectual than The Velvet Underground, but songs like “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog”, from their debut, self-titled, album, demonstrated a similar interest in depraved and violent sex. But any subtlety, as encapsulated by Lou Reed’s lyrics or John Cale’s avant-garde leanings, was lost with The Stooges as a miasma of guitar noise and punishing rhythm engulfed any of singer Iggy Pop’s potential pretensions in a deluge of exquisite noise. The Asheton brothers, Ron and Scott, on guitar and drums respectively, were long-hired rednecks, with a vicious undercurrent that helped make The Stooges so violent and punishing that, no matter how their second album, Fun House (1970) strayed from the mainstream, it couldn’t help but get noticed. It’s that good.
Much of The Stooges appeal will always be down to front-man James Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, who, for all his bonkers stage antics (self-harming, nudity, swearing at the audience…) was very much the thinking man of the band, the lyricist, jazz-lover and friend of Bowie and Reed. But never underestimate Scott Asheton’s ability to hold a beat like a heavy metal metronome, whilst Ron’s scything, ever-soloing guitar (he had that remarkable talent of being both lead guitarist and rhythm) is like a coiled snake, scooting around Pop’s voice as he moans, roars, sneers and yelps. The Stooges defined a rock dynamic that moved away from the twin-guitar-with-vocals approach of the sixties bands, and back to pioneers like James Brown and Little Richard, where the voice and guitar don’t so much duet as duel. On “Dirt”, the pinnacle of Fun House, The Stooges lay aside their high-octane, full-throttle attack in favour of a dirty blues groove, whilst Ron Asheton’s guitar, with its peppering, never-ending solo, comes across like John Coltrane‘s sax. Yes, it’s that gorgeous. Iggy’s lyrics of self-harming and self-loathing are just the icing on the cake. “Dirt” proves that The Stooges could be subtle and smart, whilst the rest of Fun House saw them flexing muscles and battering the senses in all their garage-punk-metal glory. The Stooges were well ahead of their time, a true punk outfit, but with the personality of a post-punk band. They managed to predict both The Sex Pistols and PiL. Need I say more?

If anything, my (un)holy triptych perfectly demonstrate just how intangible “garage”, “indy” or “underground” rock can be. Lou Reed, Neil Young and Iggy Pop are all now mega stars, who have eased, perhaps reluctantly, into elder statesman territory. Such is life. The Stooges, Crazy Horse and The Velvets are now often the first bands on the lips of the latest band to be signed to Universal or Sony. The underground is now so vast as to be incomprehensible, whilst our old idols only make sense in reverse. Again, such is life. Or at least music. And with the endless horizons come new artifacts from decades long past: true underground and lost gems, such as Alexander Spence‘s Oar or Tangerine Dream‘s incredible debut, Electronic Meditation. Both came out in the period I’ve been describing in this feature, and in so many ways they go beyond even the heady heights of my triptych. But the trio I have ultimately chosen bridge the gap between noncommercial music and the mainstream, tearing angrily at the fabric of popular trends to take things, whether they knew it or not, to new levels. It would happen again with PiL, Joy Division, The Cure and Television, amongst others. The underground won’t leave the mainstream alone, and for that we should be eternally grateful, even if it makes no sense.

My ’66-’70 Garage Playlist:

1. The Seeds: “No Escape” (from The Seeds)
2. The Seeds: “Up In Her Room” (from A Web of Sound)
3. 13th Floor Elevators: “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (from The Psychedelic Sounds Of…)
4. 13th Floor Elevators: “Roller Coaster” (from The Psychedelic Sounds Of…)
5. The Electric Prunes: “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night) (from Nuggets)
6. The Velvet Underground: “Venus In Furs” (from The Velvet Underground & Nico)
7. The Velvet Underground: “Heroin” (from The Velvet Underground & Nico)
8. The Deviants: “I’m Coming Home” (from Ptoof!)
9. Blue Cheer: “Doctor Please” (from Vincebus Eruptum)
10. Blue Cheer: “Parchment Farm” (from Vincebus Eruptum)
11. The Edgar Broughton Band: “Death of an Electric Citizen” (from Wasa Wasa)
12. MC5: “Kick Out The Jams” (from Kick Out The Jams)
13. MC5: “I Want You Right Now” (from Kick Out The Jams)
14. Flamin’ Groovies: “Heading For The Texas Border” (from Flamingo)
15. The Velvet Underground: “The Gift” (from White Light/White Heat)
16. The Velvet Underground: “I Heard Her Call My Name” (from White Light/White Heat)
17. The Velvet Underground: “Sister Ray” (from White Light/White Heat)
18. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Cinnamon Girl” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
19. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Down By The River” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
20. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Cowgirl In the Sand” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
21. The Stooges: “Dirt” (from Fun House)
22. The Stooges: “1970” (from Fun House)
23. The Stooges: “Fun House” (from Fun House)
24. Tangerine Dream: “Journey Through A Burning Brain” (from Electronic Meditation)
25. Alexander Spence: “Grey/Afro” (from Oar)

From the Vault: 2011 in Review

My appraisal of the 30 best albums of 2011, from http://www.rateyourmusic.com.

1
Through Glass Panes

Ellen Fullman

Through Glass Panes (2011)
2
Afro Noise I

Cut Hands

Afro Noise I (2011)
3
Eager to Tear Apart the Stars

Leyland Kirby

Eager to Tear Apart the Stars (2011)
4
Man With Potential

Pete Swanson

Man With Potential (2011)
5
Tryptych

Demdike Stare

Tryptych (2011) [Compilation]
6
Confessions of a Sex Maniac

Werewolf Jerusalem

Confessions of a Sex Maniac (2011) [Compilation]
7
Surface of the Earth

Surface of the Earth

Surface of the Earth (2011)
8
Hold Everything Dear

Cindytalk

Hold Everything Dear (2011)
9
Severant

Kuedo

Severant (2011)
10
Fucked on a Pile of Corpses

Skullflower

Fucked on a Pile of Corpses (2011)
11
Amplifying Host

Richard Youngs

Amplifying Host (2011)
12
Application à aphistemi

Vomir

Application à aphistemi (2011)
13
Floating Frequencies / Intuitive Synthesis

Eleh

Floating Frequencies / Intuitive Synthesis (2011) [Compilation]
14
Consecration of the Whipstain

Indignant Senility

Consecration of the Whipstain (2011)
15
univrs

Alva Noto

univrs (2011)
16
How the Thing Sings

Bill Orcutt

How the Thing Sings (2011)
17
Trowo Phurnag Ceremony

Phurpa

Trowo Phurnag Ceremony (2011)
18
Pinch & Shackleton

Pinch & Shackleton

Pinch & Shackleton (2011)
19
Red Horse

Red Horse

Red Horse (2011)
20
Ersatz GB

The Fall

Ersatz GB (2011)
21
Ghost People

Martyn

Ghost People (2011)
22
Benacah Drann Deachd

Dalglish

Benacah Drann Deachd (2011)
23
Re: ECM

Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer

Re: ECM (2011)
24
Life Is an Illusion

Annapurna Illusion

Life Is an Illusion (2011)
25
Ravedeath, 1972

Tim Hecker

Ravedeath, 1972 (2011)
26
Drawn and Quartered

Deadbeat

Drawn and Quartered (2011)
27
Our Blood

Richard Buckner

Our Blood (2011)
28
Elemental Disgrace

Hive Mind

Elemental Disgrace (2011)
29
Looping State of Mind

The Field

Looping State of Mind (2011)
30
An Empty Bliss Beyond This World

The Caretaker

An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (2011)

A Liminal Interview – Just Moments: An Interview with Richard Buckner (November 29th, 2011)

Richard Buckner is an American singer/songwriter (though he’s not much fond of the term!) who has been ploughing a beautiful, lonesome furrow on the fringes of the “alt-country” scene (another term he’s not keen on) for nearly two decades, delivering nine albums of intense, often dark, yet hugely melodic music. His latest, Our Blood, was released this year on Merge, and may just be his best yet, a poetic collection of sparse songs dealing with life and the passing of time.

Buckner was in London on the 7th of November for a wonderful concert in the gorgeous surroundings of St Pancras Old Church. Aided by a tight backing band, Italians Sacri Cuori, Buckner stood tall and strong, his elegant, fragile voice bolstered by the pristine acoustics as he ran through highlights from Our Blood such as “Traitor”, “Escape” and “Collusion, interspersed with older gems like “Amanda Barker” and “Loaded at the Wrong Door”. He even made time to perform an excerpt from his gorgeous score for little-known film Dream Boy and peppered the set with amusing one-liners.

If the venue was perfect, Richard Buckner was a match for it, his aching poetry boosted by his unique, buzzing acoustic guitar style. Before the concert, The Liminal caught up with Buckner to discuss Our Blood’s troubled genesis, the album’s theme, performing live, opening for Townes Van Zandt and his forthright political opinions.

This is the second date of your current European tour, how did the first night, in Winchester go?

I always get first night jitters, but I’d had a couple of rehearsals with the band, Sacri Cuori and it’s been so easy with them, so I wasn’t as nervous as usual. They know the songs, they’re really good guys, so it’s been rather easy. It wasn’t like here, it was in the back room of a pub, so we’re going to be changing the sound dramatically from night to night!

Of course. What made you decide to perform in a church?

Chris from the label was looking at other venues, which were all sold out, and we just found this place and added it to the schedule. This is what I like about being on tour, I love mixing it up, playing in clubs, art galleries, places like this. Though I can’t believe I’m getting to perform in a beautiful church like this one!

I would expect, however, that the acoustics present a bit of a challenge…

Yeah, but these guys (indicates Sacri Cuori sitting nearby) really know how to work that sound, and I think I’m going to play with the reverb myself as well.

You’re something of a cult figure as a singer/songwriter over here, do you that Our Blood, which may be your best album yet, and this tour, could bring you more attention and to a wider audience?

I’m not sure… I’m not a fan of songwriters, to be honest, really. I like mainly instrumental or written things. I don’t know how Our Blood would hit someone because I’m on the other side of the mirror, in a way. Personally, I don’t want to hear the record again. It took me so long to put out, and it really screws with me to hear it. I can’t listen to my records for usually five years or so after they’re released. It’s a weird mental state you get into! (laughs). By the time a record comes out, you’re too used to it, but I’m just happy Our Blood came out and I’m really happy that people are taking the patience to listen to it. In my mind, it’s a record that needs a bit of patience, things don’t really pop out all over the place. I appreciate records like that where I don’t hear it all right away. So, if that’s the case, then I think it’s a success and I don’t care what the numbers are.

Well, I’m a noise fan, so I love records that you have to be a bit patient with!

I’m a noise fan too! The minimal stuff, like drone, y’know, Vibracathedral Orchestra and all that.

As has been documented, there’s been quite a gap between Meadow and Our Blood. Has that hiatus allowed you to road-test the material and fine tune the new songs?

Actually it’s the exact opposite. Usually, what I’ve done is that I’ve had the song ideas, I collect them at a certain point, make some songs, take them on the road, then record them. This album was the first where I wrote the songs whilst I was making it. It just happened because, after my last album was finished, I immediately went to work on a film score, so I’d kind of changed my method of writing, I was coming in through the side door, rather than the front door, if you want to see it that way. So, when I finished the film score, and came to this, I was approaching music from a more instrumental side, as I’d done on the film score. Also, I wanted to leave the writing til last because I was doing a lot of my non-music writing separately and for me I thought it would be good to keep the words as a very separate thing from the music for as long as I could, to try and be as disciplined as I could with my non-music writing.

So, it just turned out that I was constructing the music and melodies as I was recording the album, not knowing if they would become the record or not. As I was writing, I was filtering the words, and trying to fit them onto the songs, and since it was a definite period of time, I was trying to make sure that some of the images weren’t overlapping and that the storyline I had in my head from song to song fell into a certain place, that the emotions of the melodies fell in with the words, and in the way the songs fit together in a certain order before it was even finished.

I’ve never done a record in this way, and not sure I want to again, but I think it’s healthy to change your method, it keeps you from going on autopilot with certain habits you don’t know you have.

Coming back to the upcoming concert, do you approach live performances differently to how you go into the studio?

I’ve changed over the years, live, and it’s not as easy as it used to be for me. I used to be young and brave and be able to just step up there and do anything. And now, I’m a lot more vulnerable onstage, and I get scared about sound and stuff. Also, I’m just coming out of this period, which lasted the last five years or so, where I went from being someone who was just standing up on stage singing songs, speaking a little between songs, to someone who was sitting down, using loops, and making an hour-and-a-half one long set with no breaks between songs, just shutting myself down from the audience, to go, not so much “into the zone” but to the basement of the zone! And I’m just coming out of that now, I’m standing up again, I’m actually saying things while I’m onstage. It was a period I went through, and I can’t even really say why it happened, but I think I just became a little worn down, socially. A lot of artist friends that I have, and I only just realised this in the last six to nine months as I was coming out of this cloud, had entered the cloud at the same time, about five or six years ago, and are also only just coming out. And I don’t really know why it happened at the same time. I mean, we know what’s been happening in the outside world, in the US and elsewhere, and I wonder if some subconscious collective wet blanket has been dropped on a bunch of creative people (laughs).

Is that reflected somewhat in the almost fragile or frail feel of your lyrics and songs?

I think that a lot of my artist friends and me, we’re all around the same age, between mid-thirties and late-forties, and it’s a period where people around you start dying or disappearing. A time when people start wearing out, be it mentally or physically, and I think it’s been happening a lot in my world, and other people’s worlds. I’ve been very aware, I think, not so much of the actual act of that, but maybe of the idea of that.

I think of the songs on Our Blood as going in a certain order, with a certain story going through, a thread, and to me it’s about waking up and thinking “Ok, here I am.” And the songs sort of follow on from that “Oh, man where have I been?” moment and realising that life is just gonna keep going. La la la life (laughs).

Do you find audiences very receptive to new material or do you get a lot of calls from people to play songs they’re familiar with?

I’m definitely sensitive to that. My first is that I want to play the new record from start to finish because I’m still discovering the songs. I did that for one tour. I was opening for Sebadoh, and we only had 45 minutes, so we did the whole record, we’re just an opening act. Who cares? But for this tour, I was sensitive to the fact that some records didn’t really have a strong distribution in Europe. So I was looking for songs that could break up the set. We’re doing most of the record, about seven songs, but we’re breaking them up with older songs that also maybe help the new songs flow into each other in a different way. So I’ve shaped the set in that way.

Our Blood is your 9th album, which makes you something of a veteran! Can you tell me how you got into music, your history?

Arts weren’t really encouraged in my house as a child, and we moved around so often, about two or three times a year, that I never had the chance to be in a music programme or really spend time doing that, even though I was obviously headed in that direction from an early age. So I didn’t start playing guitar until I was at college but the thing is, when I was 17, a friend of mine bought one of those early Fostex 4-track recorders and it blew my mind, and I wouldn’t even be a musician today if it wasn’t for those things, because it wasn’t about writing songs, it was about making noise and realising these happy accidents happen. It’s more about recording and sound to me. Writing songs is a way for me to make music but I just love being in my studio and just making noise and making sounds happen, and hoping some happy accident happens and I’ll discover some new use for my one cheap Casio in some way I hadn’t thought of.

When I went to college, I studied creative writing. I love writing, so when I was in college I started putting the writing and the interesting sounds together. I knew nothing about songwriting, and didn’t really care about it. I guess it was kind of punk, not like wanting to be like Townes Van Zandt or something…

Yet you get compared to him quite a lot, which is no bad compliment in my book…

No, he’s one of the few songwriters that I think not only wrote interesting songs, but also some of those seventies records had beautiful strings on them, and I think he made very interesting choices with his songs, and has a very interesting catalogue. I actually got to do one show with him, when I first started out, at an old speakeasy from prohibition days. It was quiet and dark, and it was amazing. It was interesting because it was the first time my parents, who weren’t really into music, saw me play, and not only did they come and see me play these whatever songs, but they also saw Townes Van Zandt. And I think it ruined them! (laughs).

Our Blood had a very difficult genesis. I read something about a headless body in a car? Can you take me through all the difficulties you had in making the album?

Yeah, I’ll try to cut it down. I did a film score after my first “real” record, so I thought I do a strange tour that would mix old songs with bits of the film score. But like with a lot of films, it didn’t really hit the theatres and kind of disappeared…

Dream Boy, right? I’ve got it, it’s beautiful. And your music is perfect for it.

I still haven’t seen it (laughs). I’m so glad. I read the script about 5 years before I made the score, it took [writer/director James Bolton] a long time to get the funding, but I’m glad he did and I’m glad a story like that’s been told, especially in America, given the kind of society we’re in…

I was so excited about working on this script that I did all the music before it was even filmed. I got a lot ideas from just reading the script, thinking about the situations and the way I kind of feel about these kind of things anyway (writer’s note: Dream Boy deals with a romance between two teenage boys in rural America in the seventies). I sent [Bolton] the music so whilst he was making the film he was listening to the music, which is a good experience because that way I didn’t have to re-do anything.

So I finished the film score, and moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York to bring tension levels down, and I had a bunch of material left over from the film score. My idea was to have these instrumentals with these written short stories and have some new songs, and kind of go back and forth like that on the record. But when I moved upstate, I don’t know if it was cat hair or dirt in the machinery, but the machine broke down and I lost all the extra film score material that I hadn’t turned in.

I thought “no big deal” and got the machine fixed and went to writing the songs. But it took me a couple of years to write the songs because I was also working day jobs because I wasn’t touring. And when I did get the songs together, the machine broke down again!

About this time, the cops knocked on my door, saying “where were you yesterday because there was a murder”. Luckily I had a day job – the one time I’ll say I was glad I had a day job! They took my information, made sure I was where I was and told me that this road near my house was a popular road for dumping bodies! Meanwhile, one of the newspapers said that a body had been found in a burning car, and when I went to work the next day, one of the truckers I worked with said “Did you know they can’t find the head?” (laughs). So I had this kind of privy information to this.

Anyway, I got my machine fixed and went back to work on the record. Four months later my landlord calls me at work and said the cops were looking for me. They said I might be a witness to something, so took me down to the station, into the basement and started talking about the body from a few months back. I said “Oh, that headless body?” and they go “Headless huh? What do you know about that?”. This is how stuff like Paradise Lost happen! They talked to me for a few hours, good cop/bad cop, took my photo, took a photo of me and my truck, called my employer, xeroxed my management log and I haven’t heard back, and it was 4 years ago, so I guess I’m cleared… But when I got out I called my music attorney and said “I know this isn’t your field, but am I in trouble?” (laughs). So I was questioned about a murder, but I haven’t heard back…

So that ends, and I figure I have to finish this record. I hired some guys to do some overdubs: pedal steel and percussion, recorded it… And the machine had another problem. I couldn’t believe this was happening! I got it fixed and was able to keep most of the data, but by the time I got it back, I’d decided I wanted to change keys and tempos and how I approached the songs, so I ended up not using a lot of the overdubs. By then I was at a point where I had an over-familiar piece of furniture for a record, so I told a friend to take the record into a studio and just mix it so I could see the album in a new light. He brought it back and of course I had decisions I needed to make on it.
So I recorded it a fourth time, using some of the old stuff and recording some new stuff, and decided that if I set a mastering date I wouldn’t be able to tinker with it. And I found a guy, two blocks from where I live in this small town, named Malcolm Burn, and he was able to remix it in a week. And I decided that this record was going to get done, and be this moment in time, even if I hated it, otherwise I’d never do another record again. It was starting to pollute the other areas of my life: I had started to not write fiction, or draw, or read, or think. And lo and behold, about a month after I’d finished the record, these things started to come back. I think it had started to become a burden. Sorry for the long-weighted story (laughs), but it was something of a journey!

Do you think those travails coloured the slightly dark atmosphere on the album?

I think the performances certainly reflect that, because I was freaked out!

Your voice is the most beautiful I’ve ever heard it, but it does sound fragile…

Oh thank you. A friend of mine lent me this very old, expensive microphone. It was the star of the album for me. But I was super freaked out, not only by all the stuff that was happening in the world, but because I couldn’t finish the record. The pressure was building. I would call my record label and say “Hey, the record’s done!” and then have to call back and say “You’re not going to believe this, the machine broke again”. I felt like a liar, you know, or a scam. So, I think performance-wise that was probably coming out.

It’s also a musically very stripped-down album. Was that a conscious decision?

I gave myself a handicap. I decided I wouldn’t use any standard six-string guitar strumming. I had a bunch of tenor guitars strung upside down, and I wanted to use those because when you layer two or three oddly-strung guitars playing the same chord, the octaves within the chord interact in a different way and you have these different final chord reactions. Because I knew that those accidental harmonics would challenge what I was doing vocally and with the melodies. And these ghost harmonics spring up from octaves hitting each other in a way they don’t do normally, and you hear melodies that aren’t really there.

Do you aim for all your albums to have a set theme? I know Impasse (2003) was a sort of poem set to music…

No, it just happens sometimes. Before Impasse, I made an album called The Hill which definitely had a thread, and I was going through a marriage break-up and there were certain things that just seemed the feed into each other along the way. Impasse was similar to Our Blood, it was the last album I made at home, and after it I’d said I’d never make an album at home. Lo and behold – Our Blood caused me as many problems. Impasse is the first record that I can feel comfortable playing the songs from. So they’re kind of similar records to me, in a way.

Reading a lot of interviews with you, I note a certain political side to what you do. You’ve mentioned in the past that you’re part Native American, and Dream Boy was a gay-themed film, and you’ve commented on the state of America in this interview. Do you think a political stance is important to your music?

I don’t think it has appeared in the music. I’m a believer in human rights. It’s not about Native American rights, or gay rights, or whatever, it’s about human rights. It’s completely appalling to me -and I’m going to get upset (laughs)- the things that are going on in this world that people don’t see. You know, denying someone a basic human right. It’s appalling to me that we don’t see [gay rights] the same way that we viewed the civil rights movement in the sixties or the women’s rights struggle in the first half of the twentieth century. I can’t believe what I see in the world…

Your guitar sound has a very “buzzing” quality, and you mentioned drone earlier on. How did you develop that sound?

You know what? I love cheap instruments! My favourite guitars in the world are Harmonies. And they chug and they buzz and they sound like the cracks they have. The guitar I’m playing tonight, that’s the nicest guitar I’ve ever used, it’s the kind of guitar lawyers buy (laughs). I didn’t have an acoustic for the tour, my usual one has broken down, and this is a very fancy guitar. But it still has a buzz. The sounds on Impasse and Our Blood are reflective of that. Please don’t give me a clear-sounding guitar. I’ll never own a Strat! (laughs)

To finish up, how do you think you have evolved as a singer and musician over the years, and with the difficult genesis Our Blood had?

I never set out to write songs with verse/chorus/verse. I wasn’t against that, it was just uninteresting to me. Even in college, when I was turning in my writing to my professors, I was very deconstructive. I wanted to record my experience how it came out of my head, right there. I wanted it to be like life is: the momentary things that happen. They’re just moments. Things happen and only later do we think “That was the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard of – and it just happened to me”. I’ve always wanted to keep that kind of spirit, in music. Where things pop up where you weren’t expecting them to pop up. I strive for those kind of surprises, and I don’t want to come out of a record not learning something during the process. For me, the happy outcome of a project is having enough room to be deconstructive about it where you come away feeling “I’ve changed a little bit and I feel like I hit a new plateau in the way I approach creativity”. Because the approach is where the real satisfaction comes from.

A Quietus Review: Severant by Kuedo (November 28th, 2011)

kuedo_1322482409_crop_180x180In 2005, Degenerate by Bristolian duo Vex’d managed to comprehensively upset the apple cart of dubstep that was, by that point, racing away into the top 20 lists of every journo on these shores. Degenerate was utterly transgressive in the way it took the deep bass grooves that characterised dubstep, and then ploughed them into the dirt via a deluge of aggressive synths and excoriating percussion lifted straight out of harsh techno and EBM.

Fast-forward six years and Vex’d is, sadly, no more. But if the duo’s harsh industrial approach has been sacrificed, you can’t say as much for the spirit of exploration that animated Jamie Teasdale and Roly Porter. For whilst the latter has carried on exploring the heavier reaches of dub and dance music, Teasdale has morphed into one of the most adventurous producers of the last few years, taking his Kuedo project far beyond the confines of dubstep and into fresh, exciting and innovative zones.

Last year’s Dream Sequence EP was already a sign that Teasdale was keen to move beyond the claustrophobic constraints of Vex’d. Embracing the garish aesthetic of Joker and Zomby, with their references to video games and 80s movies, Teasdale’s centrepiece on Dream Sequence was ‘Starfox’, a sumptuous post-dubstep romp propelled by rainbow synths and infectious Nintendo-inspired beats. It retained the aggression and head-banging qualities of dubstep, but was resolutely ‘other’. Despite that, nothing prepared the world for Severant.

In many ways, Teasdale’s debut album as Kuedo has a lot of precedents, yet, weirdly, it seems to stand alone, a bright fusion of scattered beats and clear synth patterns. Somewhere beneath it all, you can feel the dystopian pulsations of dubstep, with sudden surges of anonymous vocal lines and unexpected bass eruptions. But, essentially, Severant is in thrall to the mystique of vintage science fiction. Remember those sweeping brass synths that defined Vangelis’ iconic score for Blade Runner? Well, Teasdale revives them with brio on Severant, marrying the resultant emotionally affective melodies to insistent drum patterns to deliver a wide-screen vista that comprehensively breaks the straight-jacket of conventional electronic music.

Kuedo has described Severant as a vehicle to explore notions of escapism and futurism and, from the opening mournful synths of ‘Visioning Shared Tomorrows’, there is strong emotion at play here. It’s a deep melancholia that once again brings up memories of Blade Runner’s murky romanticism, but which equally haunts a lot of the music of late-period Tangerine Dream. Teasdale’s melodies are hesitant, like waking dreams or elusive memories, and you can almost draw a parallel between these wistful future fantasies (track titles include ‘Ant City’, ‘Onset (Escapism)’ and ‘Reality Drift’, fer crissakes) and the world-weary ambience of Leyland James Kirby.

However, Teasdale hasn’t left his dubstep roots behind completely, and where Severant really shines is in the way he so masterfully melds these elegiac synth patterns with driving beats. Eschewing – mostly – the heavy bass and rhythms present on Dream Sequence and Degenerate, he instead turns to the loping patter of Chicago house, as well as hints of the syncopated nervousness of hip-hop production. As such, tracks like ‘Onset (Escapism)’ and ‘Scissors’ have a nervous, almost glitchy energy, albeit one where the intensely beautiful synths mould and shape the edges into something bordering on the cinematic and elated. ‘Salt Lake Cuts’ is the closest Severant comes to standard dubstep, although it’s of the subdued, wee-small-hours variety favoured by the likes of Burial and Darkstar, as disconnected vocal lines penetrate a wall of shuffling beats and bass grooves. ‘Seeing the Edges’, meanwhile, draws out the sound of a remote drum, with reverb and echo making it sound like a lost metronome pounding away in the heart of a labyrinthine machine, as crisp synths and elusive tinkles swirl around in the ether.

With its emphasis on atmosphere over rhythm, you could almost draw a line between Severant and the underground, post-New Age sounds of Oneohtrix Point Never and Emeralds across the pond. Like them, Kuedo has turned to the past as a way of re-interpreting the future in wistful, escapist terms. But his background on the harder edge of modern dance music means that, for all its delicacy, Severant never feels retro or overly derivative. Instead, Teasdale may just be pointing to a new future in electronica, one that doesn’t so much yearn for a better future, but rather drives for it.

You can also read this review here: http://thequietus.com/articles/07486-kuedo-severant-review

A Liminal Review: Pinch & Shackleton by Pinch & Shackleton (November 22nd, 2011)

Dubstep seems, much like noise music, to have been going through something of a consideration of its identity and direction as a genre of late. Both are genres that evolved from the underground, garnering a rabid cult following, before finding themselves increasingly popular and even mainstream as the years went on (an evolution which, obviously, was faster and more pronounced in the case of dubstep). Exposed to a wider audience, and an increasing familiarity on the part of punters with the archetypes of the genre, both have seen artists try to broaden their horizons by integrating new sounds, in a bid to remain fresh and relevant.Such an approach is a bit of a double-edged sword, and for every new listener you bring to the table of dubstep by playing with more “mainstream” elements, there are bound to be eminently more purists who decry such attempts as self-serving and reductive. If such a conundrum was moderate in noise, with a quick return to the roots of the genre via the extreme Harsh Noise Walls of The Rita and Vomir or the highly-acclaimed experiments of Kevin Drumm and Joe Colley that quickly eclipsed attempts to bring noise into more accessible terrain (aided no doubt by the genre’s natural obtuseness), in dubstep there appears to be a more uneasy balance, as the likes of Magnetic Man were forced to compromise a lot of dubstep’s initial sound in a bid to crack the popular charts. Then again, as a genre that grew out of the dancefloor, surely it was only natural for dubstep to embrace more “accessible” sounds in a bid to draw people to the clubs and the record stores? It’s an interesting question, and one that has been explored, with varying musical and commercial success by everyone from Kuedo (aka Jamie Teasadale of Vex’d) to Zomby, via Ikonika and Joker. House, prog, drum’n’bass, hip-hop, stadium-sized electronica – all have been mines to dig at in an attempt to make the murky urban sound of traditional dubstep more palatable to the masses, and the debate will probably rage on as to whether or not it’s a valid means to an end.In such confusing times, however, it is reassuring to have two of the “old guard” rear their heads in such emphatic fashion as Pinch and Shackleton do on this, their debut album as a duo. And, unlike some of the names mentioned above, the British pair have decided to focus on the initial aura that set dubstep apart from all other electronic genres in the early noughties. Much like the music of elusive Mercury Prize-nominee Burial, the sound of Pinch and Shackleton is anchored in the detached atmosphere of urban dystopia, the kind of nocturnal hinterland in which suburban and inner city malaise collide with the dancefloor in disconcerting and infectious ways. If anything, Pinch and Shackleton enhance this dark aura, delivering one of the most disconnected “dance” albums ever released.

Musically, the pair shy away from the kind of dense, overpowering bass lines that characterises most dubstep, preferring to focus on the percussion. Alternately brittle, hesitant and fierce, the drum lines on Pinch and Shackleton are the dominant force on most tracks, driving the pieces forward even as the uneasy atmospherics threaten to drag things down to subterranean levels of menace and disquiet. On ‘Jellybones’ and ‘Burning Blood’, the duo takes a leaf out of William Bennett’s Cut Hands book with samples of African percussion that, whilst not as overtly abrasive as the erstwhile Whitehouse frontman’s mutant techno, still lend an uneasy edge to proceedings. This is no Dust + Blackdown-esque embrace of the myriad cultures that make up modern London, more an attempt to explore every facet of percussive sound in a modern context, and the results are exhilarating, especially as they refrain from pitching headlong into mutant Africana (in the manner of, say, T++), instead blending the organic percussion sounds with ice cold synth lines and distorted effects to create something almost alien in sound.

Elsewhere, on ‘Selfish Greedy Life’, the duo go all Steve Reich on us, looping and deforming a female vocal sample until it becomes part of their disjointed rhythmic pallet, another way of bringing forward motion to music that could be decidedly detached. Yet, for all the appeal of Pinch, and especially Shackleton’s transgressive approach to rhythm, what ultimately shines on Pinch and Shackleton is the emphasis on atmosphere. The comparisons to Burial are not cheap when it comes to this album, for there is a wide-open feel here that the enigmatic producer would have loved. The synth lines on ‘Torn and Submerged’ and ‘Levitation’, for example, are insistent and infectious, redolent of the kind of sounds Cabaret Voltaire and the like were unleashing in the eighties, only filtered through nearly three decades’ worth of minimal electronica. Opener ‘Cracks in the Pleasuredome’, by its very title, but also by its hesitant mix of atmospheric synth and dismembered vocal snippets, feels positively futuristic, a vision of future societies where human interaction is non-existent and technology, both brutish and elegant, is omnipresent. The spectre of Vangelis and Blade Runner rests strongly over Pinch and Shackleton, making the album an overt evolution from the post-garage urbanism of early dubstep (and I come back to Burial here) into something more cinematic and ambitious. Just check out the opening synth loops of ‘Rooms Within a Room’, not to mention its Kafkaesque title: you could be caught in the middle of one of Philip K Dick’s nightmarish fantasies.

This deliberately forward-looking, yet somehow traditional, angle on dubstep is what lends Pinch and Shackleton its unerring force. Drum patterns and vocals are drenched in warehouse-level reverb, as if untold ghosts have populated the machines of the future, making each track echo and extend beyond the simple parameters of its melodic structure. Everything is familiar, yet somehow elusive, and, ultimately, this gives the album an emotional punch that isn’t immediately apparent when compared to Burial’s heart-wrenching melancholia. But it’s there, and it’s potent.

As with noise, I have nothing but respect for artists that try to push back the boundaries of a certain genre, even if it means compromising on some of the elements that made that genre so beguiling in the first place. Long live Skream and Benga, if they can get more people to listen to the bass-heavy mulch that is dubstep. But there will always be something more exciting in the extremist and uncompromising approach of guys like Pinch and Shackleton. This album is dense, dark, atmospheric and untamed, and I doubt many DJs will be spinning these tracks behind their booths in Fabric and the likes. But it offers up a night-time vision of dance music that will stretch into the future long after most wonky/purple sound/dancestep (delete as applicable) acts have disappeared into obscurity. There is a composerly grace to Pinch and Shackleton, and the fact that it’s dark, foreboding and weird shouldn’t deter you from exploring its nebulous grooves. Ultimately, this is where the heart of dubstep, and urban music in general, still lies.

You can also read this review here: http://www.theliminal.co.uk/2011/11/pinch-shackleton/

A Quietus Interview: Skullflower (November 16th, 2011)

Sitting Under A Waterfall: An Interview With Skullflower

Skullflower recently released their self-professed ‘most extreme album yet’, Fucked On A Pile Of Corpses. Joseph Burnett met up with Skullflower’s Matthew Bower, to talk about his varied musical history, and the genesis of the new album

For nearly three decades Skullflower has been lurking at the periphery of British rock music, a darkly beautiful shadow that emerged in the heyday of Power Electronics – and even debuted on that scene’s most illustrious and ambitious label, Broken Flag – before traversing metal, free rock and noise to wash up, still roaring and soaring, on the shore of the 21st century underground. Driven by erstwhile Sunroof!, Total and Voltigeurs head honcho Matthew Bower, Skullflower has seen many changes in both personnel and musical styles, but always remained true to an ethos that combined elegiac majesty with unrelenting power. As their name suggests.

This year saw the release of Fucked On A Pile Of Corpses on Cold Spring and it may just be the most extreme album under the Skullflower moniker in years. Overtly referencing the band’s past as a pioneer of both electronic noise and extreme metal, whilst also looking forwards and embracing the modern Harsh Noise Walls scene (that in itself owes much to Skullflower’s trailblazing), Fucked On A Pile Of Corpses is a potent reminder that, whilst decades may have passed since his 1988 Broken Flag debut, Birthdeath, Matthew Bower’s uniquely refusenik spirit and sense of adventure remain undimmed.

The Quietus caught up with Bower to get the lowdown on Fucked On A Pile Of Corpses as well as the band’s unique history and remarkable evolution.

You’ve just launched a blog. Is that’s shaping up ok?

Matthew Bower: Don’t get me started, I can’t look at it at the library for some reason, but I’m sure it’s fine. I think I’m going to have get the Internet at home to work on it.

Are you not a fan of the Internet?

MB: It’s a bit of a double-edged sword (laughs). I’m rather leaning towards the negative camp…

Fucked on a Pile of Corpses is the latest in a veritable torrent of albums, both studio and live, you’ve released in the last 5 or 6 years, coming less than a year after the two discs of Strange Keys to Untune Gods Firmament. Seems like you pretty much live in the studio, though I assume you record at home. Do you find it easy to keep the inspiration and ideas flowing, to keep coming up with new things to record?

MB: I’ve recorded at home, on and off, forever, really. It’s certainly the main method of recording since about 2006, so around the time of Tribulation.

It’s a totally natural speed to work at. I’m essentially a one-man act, so it’s probably problematic to compare me to a band that consists of people who need to get together to make an album. But I don’t analyse how I record. Most of the time, I’ve been working a full-time job, which I’m not doing at the moment, so to be fair, I’m not having to make up for time that may have been taken away from me. I used to have to force myself to be as productive as possible, whereas now it’s very natural. But the whip’s never had to be cracked hard.

I don’t really have inspiration. I generally just start working and figure out what I’m going to do. I might plug in with no more intent than somebody who’s just picked up to just practise. I don’t play without having the means to record if I feel like it.

A lot of your albums have a consistency of sound or a theme. Do you start with an idea of where an album’s going to go, or do you let it evolve organically?

MB: I let it evolve organically. I might have an idea, but I don’t think I’ve successfully straight-ahead converted an idea into actuality, it’s always just been a starting point, and it’s usually forgotten immediately and turned into something different.

How does that work in terms of the different acts you’re involved with, either Voltigeurs or Skullflower? Do you know when you start recording whether it’s going to be a Voltigeurs or Skullflower album?

MB: I only have Voltigeurs and Skullflower at the moment. Usually, when I’m playing with Samantha (Davies), we’ll focus on Voltigeurs, and if I’m working alone it usually becomes Skullflower. And I record live, so that would divide that, really. They’re getting a little blurred, perhaps, when we start doing some overdubbing.

Voltigeurs is really centred very much on the guitar sound, whilst Skullflower, which is also a guitar band, includes a lot of electronic elements, especially on Fucked on a Pile of Corpses, notably on the opening track. Again, was that just a natural decision to add those elements?

MB: Between the monolithic expanse of the triple and double Skullflower CDs [Circulus Vitiosus Deus and Strange Keys to Untune God’s Firmament], which are probably 95% guitar, it just made sense to move around a little. Fucked on a Pile of Corpses had a very strange germination, a lot of shapes before it assumed its final shape. The inputs are very diverse, and a few tracks are a few years old, but it all sounds very similar because I re-processed everything with a similar set-up, which gives it a kind of homogenisation. It became like a row of pictures that had all been treated in the same way. So they may be a bit more disparate than usual, but they’re all held together by the same kind of sound.

It’s probably one of your most diverse albums. Was that a deliberate attempt or something that developed as the album evolved?

MB: I started working on Fucked… using Samantha’s eight-track reel-to-reel, rather than my four-track, with her engineering, and did about four pieces that are represented in the bits towards the end of the album: ‘Tantric Ass Rape’ and ‘Fairy Knife Hell’ are both from those pieces. At that point, I started dragging in some old pieces, rough rehearsal pieces, to make it a kind of collage with those whilst at the same time doing the extra treatments.

The styles that are there are all things I’ve worked with in the past. I think track three was started a couple of years before. And it became apparent that it was close to the kind of Power Electronics stuff I did in Total years ago. And I really liked that…

Fucked on a Pile of Corpses has been promoted as your most extreme album yet. Would you agree?

MB: I’m afraid I’m actually guilty of writing the press release! There’s no great store to put by it. I was asked if I would do it, I thought I’d do a bit of a parody, a sort of Now That’s What I Call Music! 23 (laughs). “THE BEST ALBUM EVER!!” sort of thing. I’m happy to go with it, but it’s really more of a little provocation or something than a true statement of intent.

At the same time, the sheer volume of Skullflower has always been a key factor. Do you see brutality and volume as having a blissful effect, for listeners and for you as a performer?

MB: That gets you part of the way there, yes. There are a lot of comparables, but there’s an idea of something meditational taking place, and of being able to empty yourself in the music. I’ve always been operating in that sort of area, you know. Sitting under a waterfall.

That’s a good image! In a piece you wrote on your website, you mentioned Georges Bataille, and I’m aware of his philosophies of the God-like being twinned with the baser aspects of human nature. Do you reflect that in the title Fucked on a Pile of Corpses?

MB: I think it does. Some of his texts I find a little bit hard to connect with. But I think he encourages approaching a meditative state where things can happen that are beyond you. I think he approaches an ecstatic level from different angles, be it sexuality or overload or whatever. I think I picked that up early on, but I think there’s a lot of effort needed to understand those ideas. I got re-introduced to Bataille recently, around 2005, reading texts that were in a way shorn of the sexual side and focusing on the ‘God’ notion.

So is there a thematic background to Fucked on a Pile of Corpses?

MB: Yes, yes. It could have gone out under the title Flowerstrewn Charnelground, which means exactly the same thing, but stretching it a little bit. It’s a sort of tantric thing, but being slightly profane with something rather holy. Eros and Thanatos, which is there on the cover. The pictures for the cover are ones I’d had lying around since the mid-80s…

Are they designs you came up with?

MB: No, they’re all things I collected, or things I copied out of books. If you drew a circle, it would go from Japan to Tibet, right to left.

Do you design or have a lot of input on all your album covers?

MB: Well, the early ones, on Broken Flag, I completely did myself. Pre-computer years, so I’d send in artwork to be reproduced. I don’t work for record companies, so I just art direct, sometimes using artists that we bring to the table. Otherwise it’s pretty much all me.

Fucked… is also very short by your standards, about 36 minutes. Again was that a conscious decision to go for a short, sharp kick after the length of Strange Keys…, or did you feel the album just didn’t need to be elaborated on?

MB: It’s certainly the natural length for the album. As I was listening back to what I recorded, I became aware that it worked better as a shorter album, with the top length being about six or seven minutes, as opposed to, say, 20-minute workouts.

When you tour, which you’ve been doing a lot of recently, is each show an improvisation, or do you go in with pre-prepared tracks from an album or rehearsal?

MB: It’s pretty much totally improvised. The ones we do with George (Proctor) drumming, which you saw when we shared the Werewolf Jerusalem bill, usually are made up of the same couple of tracks every time, but I don’t think it really works live that way. Typical Skullflower shows over the last couple of years, with me and Samantha, we usually go for the ‘one piece, one tuning’ set, where we only work out the tuning in advance, to some degree. We work with probably five different tunings, and work with them until we find the right one.

That focus on tuning over actual pieces is really interesting. Are you influenced by ‘just intonation’ and ‘militant tuning’ composers such as LaMonte Young or Tony Conrad?

MB: I’m not sure I’ve ever really ‘got’ just intonation, I’ve never really properly understood it. Those splits are a bit like Freud with his Id and Ego, which I’m not sure really exist in the real world. I think I was more influenced by the idea of LaMonte Young rather than his actual music. By the time I actually heard his music, in my early twenties, I’d already done my first drones, one note/one chord pieces. I had his Well-Tuned Piano album, from the eighties, but only really got into it last year… I always preferred the stuff he was doing in the sixties.

One thing that was important with Skullflower at the beginning is that our tuning was lackadaisical, but I always had a problem with digital tuners, because the problem was that everybody sounds the same. I’d rather exploit the natural out-of-tuneness of my own intuitive tuning. It makes it difficult at times, but at other times it really works.

Skullflower has been through a lot of changes, from your early days when you were almost a metal band, with a drummer and bassist; to the more free-form or relaxed sound you have now. Can you take me through that evolution?

MB: ‘Relaxed’ is an apt term for what we are now. I think we reached our limits of relaxation around the time of Argon, or something like that. It was most similar to what sort of hippy rock becomes in the avant-garde. And I’d always had a wide range of influences, such as free jazz, but which I’m pretty closed to now. In the early days, we’d done the whole Power Electronics thing, and there was this whole American noise-rock scene, which we felt closer to at the time than to the Industrial thing. So we were reclaiming some territory there, in a way.

And then, we got more noisy and freeform, but it’s not going back to the Industrial thing, it’s closer to that seventies, Faust and Can sound, that had been an influence on Skullflower in the eighties. Then we had the hiatus, and I started getting heavily into metal music, and that powered me re-starting the band in the 2000s.

On Fucked…, you have a track called “Anubis Station”, and past tracks and album titles have seemed to evoke various pre-Christian religions, without being simple Pagan revivalism. Is this a reflection of a folk tradition that has often populated English metal, industrial and noise music?

MB: I only really got into folk retroactively, down the line, and there’s a lot of it that I fucking hate, that sort of pipe or drinking music. But the sort of wistful, mystical songs, like ‘Tam Lin’, that exist in the canon, and a sort of melding between Viking music and Egyptian music, all get interwoven, and it supplies a sort of muscular yet beautiful framework that’s not actually Blues based. My problem with the Blues thing is that it leads to a kind of stoner rock inevitability about the riffs, and what I like about folk-based music is the suspension. The psychic element can be a lot less obvious.

It’s not just a simple case of trying to re-establish Paganism, or whatever, it happened rather naturally. We kind of choose, magpie-style, from various world religions, though hopefully in a more extreme way.

A couple of tracks on Fucked… are very dense and noisy, and you of course appeared live with Werewolf Jerusalem and The Rita. Do you relate much to the current noise scene?

MB: We’ve always done noise music, so I feel a certain sense of comradeship with those guys, and I find what they do very refreshing and beautiful, but no more now than before. I listen to a lot of the Harsh Noise Walls guys, and Surrounded by Fangs by Werewolf Jerusalem is a great CD-R. A lot of people can’t understand it, but I find it practically impossible to listen to pop music these days. You have to educate yourself to something like Werewolf Jerusalem. ‘Challenged’ isn’t such a wrong word. Part of the enjoyment is being ‘pushed’ in a way. The entertainment is in the difference engine.

We’re very fortunate that we have a close working relationship with George Proctor, who lives close by, so we have something of a local scene. We also know guys like Hal Hutchinson, who was at the Werewolf gig, so I’m aware of other artists, but we’re separate from the whole time and tide…

What are your plans for the rest of year and beyond, for Skullflower or otherwise?

MB: I’m doing a split with a black metal band called Mastery, though I’m not sure when that’s coming out. There’s a bunch of stuff coming out on Turgid Animal, which will be the Total re-releases, and if we’re lucky a Voltigeurs triple CD, which was put together across last year and was the main work of last year. We haven’t got any live dates planned until the Broken Flag 30th anniversary shows next year, I think, but we’d like to tour Europe and are trying to put something together. Although a comet could hit the earth between now and then!

You can also read this article, and watch a video for “Anubis Station”, here: http://thequietus.com/articles/07403-skullflower-interview

A Liminal Review: Consecration of the Whipstain by Indignant Senility (November 15th, 2011)

Indignant Senility is one of the many projects of Portland, Oregon artist Pat Maherr, who initially gained some recognition with his Chopped & Screwed hip-hop experiments Expressway Yo-Yo Dieting and DJ Yo-Yo Dieting. But where those projects displayed a -perhaps involuntarily- amusing, yet definitely progressive deconstruction of the archetypes of modern hip-hop, Indignant Senility is an altogether more unfathomable beast.

Maherr’s first album under the IS moniker was Plays Wagner, on which he took used and over-used LPs of the great German composer’s work and pushed them through a waterfall of effects, resulting in an unsettling drone soup out of which sudden bursts of classical melody were rare rays of light in a torrid catalogue of shadows. Inevitably, such a focus on vinyl drew often unfavourable comparisons with Philip Jeck and The Caretaker, so it’s reassuring to find that on Consecration of the Whipstain (surely a strong contender for the title of most peculiar album title of the year), Maherr has put all that behind him and found his own voice.

If anything, Consecration of the Whipstain sees Indignant Senility tracking back slightly to take in a bit of the DJ Screw attitude (Screw-titude?) that made Expressway Yo-Yo Dieting’s Bubblethug (2010, Weird Forest) such a triumph. The clearest indication of this lies in the murky, incomprehensible vocal snippets that crop up here and there across the album, from the creepy muttered utterances on ‘Waking Extirpation’ to the ghostly choirs that hesitantly punctuate ‘No One (Elapsed)’. Rather ironically, Consecration of the Whipstain seems to hone in on the haunted vibe that characterises the best Caretaker records, whilst simultaneously and completely throwing off the sense of derivation that dogged Plays Wagner. As such, on ‘No One (Elapsed)’ – a truly evocative track title, it must be noted – Maherr’s dense clouds of digital murk recede to make way for elusive swirls of distant strings playing melancholy melodies before disappearing back into the ether. Rather than focus on them, Maherr lets them dissolve, making them truly ghostly. The track packs a potent emotional punch, yet also remains tantalisingly intangible, like memories that refuse to stay in focus.

Despite allowing such nostalgic fare to fade in and out of his album, Pat Maherr is no sentimentalist. Consecration of the Whipstain may have its moments of elegant mystery and impalpable emotion, but when it does surge into focus, it’s one scary beast. Type Records, surely on of the best labels around at the moment, has made a habit lately of releasing material that taps into the dark pits of the world in ways that Ian Curtis or Boyd Rice could only have dreamed of. From Xela’s In Bocca al Lupo to William Fowler Collins’ New Mexican nightmare Perdition Hill Radio, via the icy claustrophobia of Svarte Greiner’s Kappe, Type have given free rein to artists wanting to explore the nocturnal, the histrionic and the funereal with morbid abandon. In this context, Consecration of the Whipstain feels like another chapter in Type’s glorious book of horrors. ‘Color Absolution’, for example, is dominated by a dirge-like organ tone that drifts along underneath Maherr’s fog-like drones, as if the Phantom of the Opera had upped sticks to Oregon, organ and all, and was playing a dismal solo lament from on top of an abandoned building in downtown Portland during a rainstorm. Ok, so that’s a rather contrived image, but it does go some way to conveying the way the music of Indignant Senility can so expertly balance the forlorn and the nocturnal. Towards the end of the track, Maherr comprehensively dispenses with any banal comparisons with hauntology by dumping a hideous (in the best possible sense of the word) lump of crackling noise all over the track, submerging the hesitant melodies under a shovel load of gravelly mulch. When the elegiac strings and ambience return, it’s as if they’ve been definitively perverted, their grace coloured by unavoidable nightmarish hues. If hauntology has seemed a tad saccharine of late, Indignant Senility drags it back into the post-noise underground it emerged from.

So is Consecration of the Whipstain a wondrous slice of “memory music” or a terrifying avalanche of “horror music”, in the vein of the aforementioned Xela or Svarte Greiner? Thankfully, it’s both and neither. For sure, there are moments on Maherr’s latest that will leave you unsettled and even afraid, but at the same time there’s something elegiac in the way long lost tunes seem to fight their way to the surface of the mix, in the same way that the submerged notes of ‘Autumn’ on Gavin Bryars’ Sinking of the Titanic somehow manage to turn that album’s sense of sadness into hope. Consecration of the Whipstain is a strong, unflinching statement by an artist increasingly on top of his game. Whilst it may be a troubling listen, it’s also unerringly moving.

Stream the album on the Type website.