A Quietus Review: Games Have Rules by Function and Vatican Shadow (October 1st, 2014)

This isn’t the first time ambient music has been used to present a musical tableau of a city, but it’s certainly a surprising choice from these two artists. Function, aka David Sumner, was after all one third of acclaimed electro deconstructionists Sandwell District, whose abrasive take on techno and dance provided a timely–and uneasy–injection of energy to familiar forms back in 2010 and 2011. Vatican Shadow, meanwhile, is an alias of Prurient’s Dominick Fernow, a man who may have transcended his noise background some time ago but who is still associated with words like “harsh”, “brutal” and “angry”. How is it possible, many may ask, that they’ve turned away from their familiar edginess in favour of ambient music?

It’s a dumb question, of course. Fernow and Sumner are experienced and talented producers, so they can do whatever they like with us fans, safe in the knowledge that the results are likely to be at least interesting and more likely exciting. Having said that, it still comes as surprise that Games Have Rules is quite so quiet. I mean, the album is a sonic reflection of the duo’s current city of New York (at night), and in my experience, it’s not a particularly quiet place. But by dropping the volume levels, Fernow and Sumner hone in on the minutiae of their city at night, the background textures of their experience and the intricate details that mostly go unnoticed by the masses. The album is imbued with a sort of listless melancholia, as if recorded in the witching hour between midnight and dawn after too many hours of excess and clubbing. Despite having only the faintest esquisse of thematic and sonic similarities, the mournful music of Burial immediately springs to mind when listening to Games Have Rules.

Set alongside the main body of both artists’ work, Games Have Rules therefore feels like a withdrawal, the title hinting at a reluctance to engage with dynamics of late-night social interaction, which would hardly be surprising given how little their austere musics are linked, even at their most beat-heavy and danceable, to the standard night out requirements of revelry and jollity. Most of the tracks drift and linger like the wisps of smoke emanating from vents in the Big Apple’s pavements, with rhythm seemingly surrendered to the sort of brooding ambience you’d expect on a Tim Hecker album. Listen closer (this album massively rewards listens on the headphones) and sullen sub-techno beats emerge like caterpillar tracks running under a vehicle. Jittering sonic eructations, bleeps and bloops are scattered over most of the tracks, lingering, inchoate like distant sirens and machinery heard through a hotel room window. There’s an emotional strand running through Games Have Rules but–perhaps because distinguishing who is doing what is impossible–it’s subdued and ambiguous, something which adds to the album’s crepuscular nature.

Games Have Rules may represent a shift for both Fernow and Sumner but it’s far from the dramatic change many might think. Instead, it represents an intriguing evolution by two artists who seem to delight in tweaking electronica to elicit fresh impressions of modern urban dystopia. It might not be an essential statement by either artist, but it lingers in the memory like a troubling dream in the small hours of the morning.

A Quietus Interview – Altered Head Space: An Interview With Anthroprophh (January 31st, 2013)

“The intention was to create music in [a psych-rock] vein, as it’s a genre that dominates my record collection, but I wanted it to be a bit more sparse and minimal as the record went on, and not just sketches.” Paul Allen, erstwhile guitarist with Bristolian heavy psych band The Heads, is discussing his new solo project Anthroprophh, whose debut self-titled album has just been released through the ever-reliable Rocket Recordings, home of Gnod, Goat and Teeth Of The Sea. Anthroprophh essentially encapsulates the sound of modern psych-rock, as espoused by all those bands: it’s heavy but subtle, driving but fleet-footed, taking in a range of moods and atmospheres, the kind of music you can head-bang to gleefully in a mosh pit, or be serenaded by as you while away a sleepless, hash-hazed night. It’s a style anchored in the rock traditions of the post-’67 era, but equally one that’s keen to look forwards as well as back.

While roughly half the album’s tracks are laced with the sort of fuzzed-out riffs and pounding percussion that will be familiar to devotees of Allen’s parent band, there’s far more going on than a simple re-wiring of The Heads’ earlier successes. “I think it has similarities to the Heads for obvious reasons,” he says, “and isn’t necessarily a break or reaction to the band, it’s a kind of a continuation of what I would have presented next to them.”

In particular, Anthroprophh finds him fully succumbing to his love of krautrock, which he readily cites as an influence. “There’s an Ash Ra Tempel and Achim Reichel influence in there, along with Hawkwind,” he reveals. “For me the thing that had the most impact in relation to that genre was when Julian Cope published the Krautrocksampler book back in the mid-nineties. It opened up a new world of musics I mostly didn’t know existed due to it being in the pre-internet days and those sort of records never really turning up in record shops.” And despite the sturm und drang that dominates tracks like opener ‘Hermit’, Allen’s initial point of departure was in fact the kosmische drone sounds of Berlin’s Cluster, something that quickly becomes apparent on spacey, almost ambient tracks like ‘Precession’, with its minimal percussion, and ‘Ende’, which feature drifting synth lines and moody organ textures. “I think some of my favourite pieces of music are quiet these days, so it was nice to do something that was like that, that almost crumbles towards the end. I think sometimes it’s easy to cover stuff with heavy noise, especially in a live situation.”

This varied approach comes to a glorious head (no pun intended) on the 16-minute ‘Entropy’, which evolves gradually across several phases, taking in the cosmic ambience of Cluster’s Zuckerzeit or A.R. & Machines’ ‘Einleitung’ (from the wonderful and sadly obscure Echo album) before stretching into free-form percussion and distorted avant-rock, evoking Klaus Schulze’s deranged polyrhythms and Manuel Göttsching’s acidic guitar with Ash Ra Tempel. “‘Entropy’ was based on just one basic riff on an old Futurama guitar which I just added layers and layers to as it went on,” says Allen. “I had some problems with the percussion on it and had to get Jesse from [Bristol band] the Big Naturals to add the main bongo and snare. It nearly didn’t get completed because of these issues and the track drove me a bit crazy!”

The same kind of influences have been present throughout Allen’s musical history, especially during his tenure in The Heads. The latter are the living, breathing definition of a cult band, drawing praise from the likes of Julian Cope while casually influencing a whole new generation of wannabe tripped-out rockers and sailing cheerfully under the radar, seemingly unaware of their many admirers or any backlash against psych-rock, which is often viewed as mere fodder for doped-up stoners. “I think for the most part the critics have been favourable of our sound, or maybe I have just ignored them”, Allen muses. “Except for the first Heads LP which got zero out of ten in the now defunct Vox magazine. I don’t think we ever felt connected to the stoner rock scene really, but a lot of those so-called stoner rock bands didn’t want to be called stoner rock either. It’s difficult to feel any connection with other psych rock bands when you are in that strange little microcosm that is a band. Only from the outside looking in can you see definable links.”

It does seem, however, that with fellow Heads guitarist Simon Price also making solo forays as kandodo, now is the time for members of The Heads to start flying solo. Allen admits he’d been considering doing so for a while, even going so far to send some demos in Rocket’s direction, although they initially declined. “Most of the music I recorded was experimental analogue keyboard music with occasional guitar based sketches. Some of these I managed to sneak on Heads LPs, like ‘Assault on BS3’ on Under The Stress Of A Headlong Dive in 2006. After buying some new recording and editing equipment I started working on the album in Christmas 2011.”

For Allen, working on Anthroprophh material proved to be something of a creative shot in the arm. “I had just become obsessed with record collecting instead [of being creative], and although it’s great and expands your musical vocabulary it can become overwhelming,” he says. “Too much stuff, and no time to listen or absorb much of it. All other bands had become infrequently active or had ceased to exist (like Fuzz Against Junk). Also I had really enjoyed Von Himmel’s Space Communion album and wanted to create similar krautrock-inspired music that had a primitive rhythmic quality that sounded like it was created in a cave. Also to try and avoid the Neu! drumbeat approach which has been over-used.”

Anthroprophh differs from Price’s kandodo in that, on several tracks, it features the aforementioned Big Naturals in addition to Allen himself. The latter are a remarkable noise-rock duo consisting of drummer Jesse Webb and bassist/electronics whizz Gareth Turner, whose self-titled debut was released last year on their own Greasy Truckers label. An appropriate hook-up, then, and one offering yet another clear sign that Bristol is one of the places to be to get your fix of heavy psychedelia – but it also indicates that there’s more to the local scene than noise and fury. High-octane thrills might be supplied on tracks like ‘Hermit’, but there are deeper layers to peel back when delving into the album’s Cluster-inspired mood pieces. It’s all likely to coalesce most effectively when Allen takes Anthroprophh onstage as something of a power trio alongside Webb and Turner, something he’s planning to do imminently. “I do have a few gigs in the UK in the early part of this year with Big Naturals that will cover all aspects of the heaviness and more spacey stuff,” he reveals. “We are up for doing more when the offers come up – it is like starting all over again really. I need to get out there again and play before the agoraphobia kicks in.”