A Dusted Review: Xe by Zs (February 18th, 2014)

It took a while for a simple fact to sink in over the course of my first few listens of Zs’ new album, their first full salvo as a trio: Xe was recorded live in one take, with scarcely more than the barest minimum of studio work after laying it to tape. I’ve always known that Sam Hillmer, Greg Fox and Patrick Higgins are gifted improvisers, but given the layered nature of previous albums such as 2010’s epic, multi-facetedNew Slaves, to emerge with such a free-flowing, hard-hitting work is remarkable.

A fair amount of rehearsal and practice must have gone in beforehand, for Xe is a tight and taut beast, each musician sounding out his fellow brethren in long periods of methodical, restrained rhythmic pulsations with little in the way of soloing or flourishes before the trio breaks into the realms of free-form, sax-driven post-everything one associates with Zs. If there is a degree of free improv at the heart of Xe, then it is carefully marshaled, and the results may be Zs’ most cohesive album to date and proof that this trio format offers a richness of potential that was possibly missing before. After all, as any Neil Young, Dead C or Fushitsusha fan will tell you, there’s virtue in directness.

Musically, Greg Fox stands out on Xe, paradoxically because his drumming is more often than not defined by restraint rather than muscularity. His polyrhythmic patterns anchor the music like a metronome, and this Jaki Liebezeit-esque focus filters to Higgins and Hillmer, both of whom aim for texture over force. From a listener’s perspective, this approach requires rather a bit of patience, as the opening pile driver that is “The Future of Royalty” segues into the more ambient, electronic haze of “Wolf Government”, which is dominated by fog banks of gristly textures, grimy oscillators and the occasional parp from Hillmer. Then Higgins breaks in with a free-form, jazzy solo before embarking on a seemingly never-ending set of pizzicato arpeggios that herald the slide into one of the album’s two centrepieces, “Corps”. It’s a strange track, a looping, slab of waltz-infused, circular motorik with surprisingly soulful, plaintive moans from Hillmer’s sax. Fox again sets the standard with rolling toms and only the most occasional cymbal crash, accelerating or decelerating seemingly at random. For a band supposedly anchored in “math-rock” (I’m still not 100% sure what that’s supposed to mean), it’s remarkably minimal in the Terry Riley/Steve Reich sense, something reflected in the sparse artwork by Tauba Auerbach.

“Corps” is a long listen, albeit an intriguing one, at 12 minutes, but there is release when it finally breaks apart into flutters, then blasts, of sax and noise and abstract rim shots followed by crashing cymbals from Fox. The even longer title track is Xe’s highlight, Zs taking some of the more sparse, minimalist and circular themes developed on “Corps” and the shorter tracks and expanding them into a gargantuan suite one which the trio lurches from restraint to freak-out with telepathic ease.

Xe is a refreshing glimpse of a band captured in its most primordial state, and for all their clinical musical intellectualism, the album also offers snippets of Zs’ odd sense of humour, not to mention each player’s unique talents and virtuosity. It’s therefore a reminder of how difficult they are as a band to pin down, because even at their most stripped down, they never cease pursuing new directions.

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A Quietus Feature – 30 Years On: Soul Mining By The The Revisited (October 23rd, 2013)

One of the most charming quirks of the very early eighties was the unexpected popularity and commercial success of the most enigmatic of pop music. In 1982, impressively-coiffed British quartet Japan were rewarded after years of near-misses when their positively minimalist single ‘Ghosts’ climbed to number five in the UK charts. A year earlier, New York avant-gardist Laurie Anderson performed even better, as her eight-minute mini-suite mixture of pop and spoken word, ‘O Superman’ hit number two. When you think of it, even the likes of Soft Cell or Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark seem quite unlikely as stars, with their peculiar dancing, affected vocals and dry, skittish percussion on singles like ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘Enola Gay’. But, aside from The Fall and the Associates, few “bands” of the early post-punk years were as popular despite being positively eccentric as Matt Johnson’s The The.

I’ve seen The The described as both synth-pop and post-punk, but neither term really seems to fit. In fact, for their first releases, including this debut album proper, they weren’t even an actual band. Only the enigmatic Matt Johnson features on all seven tracks, often playing multiple instruments in a kind of megalomaniacal desire to keep absolute control over his creation. But, given how long it appears to have taken him to make his mark (a first album, Burning Blue Soul, was released in 1981, but under his own name, and he found getting an actual band up and running more than a little difficult), it’s hard not to find some sympathy with Johnson’s determination. In this context, it’s no wonder that Soul Mining is no joyful debut from a confident young whippersnapper, but rather a claustrophobic and cynical slab of self-loathing and barely-restrained fury.

Much has been made of the current generation of synth-wielding artists who appear to have elevated bedroom-composed music to an art form. Well, Soul Mining may have been recorded in a couple of studios, but it crystallises the inner world of the bedroom-based singer-songwriter to perfection. Its opening salvo, ‘I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All Of My Life)’ and ‘This Is The Day’ are two sides of the same isolated coin, the former a despondent musing on inertia, the latter a more upbeat look at potential futures. ‘I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All Of My Life)’ features pounding, almost metallic rhythm stabs, almost of the sort you’d get on a same-period Einstürzende Neubauten or Test Dept. album, aligned with see-sawing bass lines, snippets of radio static and fuzz-laden guitar. Johnson practically eviscerates himself emotionally in lyrics such as “All my childhood dreams/ Are bursting at the seams/ And dangling around my knees” and, in the chorus, “Another year older and what have I done/ My aspirations have shriveled in the sun”. Anyone who has ever felt that their life failed to live up to expectations will instantly connect to such self-laceration, which reaches fever pitch as he closes on a repeated mantra of “My mind has been polluted/ And my energy diluted”, over and over again. It’s quite ironic that Johnson manages to conjure up such a potent and determined piece of deformed pop whilst simultaneously lamenting his own lack of focus.

The response to this attack of self-doubt comes, after a fashion, on ‘This Is The Day’, although it starts out with a bleary-eyed “day after the night before” vibe. Johnson quickly decides, though, that things can only get better from here, as he loudly proclaims, “This is the day your life will surely change/ This is the day when things fall into place.” Accordion and fiddle lend the track a more pastoral vibe that contrasts nicely with its predecessor’s moody rock sound, whilst its catchy melody was surely deserving of better than its eventual chart position of number 71. These two tracks set out the spirit of Soul Mining, which vacillates between a certain forlorn romanticism (‘Uncertain Smile’) and fierce cynicism (the slow-burning faux-soul of ‘The Sinking Feeling’). At a time when pop was aiming for short, sharp bursts of infectious musicality, Matt Johnson’s melodies must have seemed quite alien, with frequent temporal shifts, such as on the loping, hazy ‘The Twilight Hour’ or the multi-faceted title track. There are hints of progressive rock at some points, whilst elsewhere the album nods towards where Mark Hollis would take Talk Talk later in the decade.

It all culminates fantastically with the unfathomable and unexpected dance epic ‘GIANT’, a track that coalesces Johnson’s pop sensibilities with his innate sense of disillusion into nearly ten minutes of p-funk bliss. In his best mix of croon and snarl, Johnson declares “I am a stranger to myself” before going on to lament his fear of both God and Hell, sounding like a man torn up by his terror. Zeke Manyika provides funky African rhythms whilst synthesizers zip and fly in all directions, guided by supple bass and snaking guitar licks. The percussions builds into a storm of pounding beats (courtesy not just of Manyika but also Foetus’ JG Thirlwell) as Johnson wails out “How could anyone know me/ If I don’t even know myself”, his voice seeming to give out through exhaustion to be repeated by a multi-voiced chant. ‘GIANT’ is a weird closer that really shouldn’t be. It’s fun and irresistibly groovy, but this simple pleasure is subtly tainted by the raw angst of the lyrics, and the increasingly claustrophobic repetition of rhythms and voices. It’s Soul Mining and The The in one track: catchy, musical, but also strangely obtuse and unfathomable.

After Soul Mining, The The would grow in strength as Matt Johnson brought an overt political angle to his lyrics, heightening the universality of albums like Infected and Mind Bomb by turning ever-so-slightly away from his debut’s moody introspection. He even allowed The The to become a proper band after 1986 or so, and forged a singular career, often at the same skewed angle away, but never disconnected, from pop music that he started with in 1983. Soul Mining is in every way a perfect starting point, and one of the best albums of the eighties to boot.

A Quietus Review: La Bas by JFK (August 28th, 2013)

Anthony diFranco has spent the past couple of years painstakingly excavating his numerous solo ventures (Ethnic Acid, Ax, JFK) and reissuing them on CD and vinyl. In the process, he has revealed himself to be one of the most striking and significant figures to have emerged, via his Ramleh pal Gary Mundy’s Broken Flag label, from the UK underground. OK, admittedly, he has emerged into slightly less dense shadow than before, but one can only hope that this CD will add to the recent Ax and Ethnic Acid compilations and finally grant diFranco the recognition he deserves. Because, whilst he may have, by virtue of his age, come along after Throbbing Gristle, SPK and Whitehouse had already unleashed the grim and provocative genres that are industrial and power electronics, he can proudly call himself one of those band’s most forward-looking disciples.

That he is still taking all of his various projects forwards with the same verve and talent is testament to his abilities and open-mindedness. Indeed, recent Ethnic Acid live performances have seen him take in both munged-out techno and harsh wall noise, in a significant departure from his brittle, DIY early material, a sign that diFranco will not be content to let these compilations of older material serve as some sort of epitaph.

Of the three projects, JFK seems the most beholden to its immediate forbears, and LA BAS comprises ten punchy, aggressive tracks that distill the murky malevolence of TG and SPK with Whitehouse’s more rambunctious, fast-paced assaults with a hint of Cabaret Voltaire mutant swing thrown in for good measure. And yet, as young as diFranco was at the time (the album covers ages 15 to 20, fer chrissakes! When I was 15, I was just beginning to learn that ‘Blue’ by Eiffel 65, and at 20 was pretending to hate Pink Floyd to annoy my mates), it is never overtly derivative of his better-known forbears, so most comparisons only serve to give an idea of his overall sound, but can’t hope to get to the heart of what makes JFK so infectiously enjoyable, even in its most sinister moments.

From the moment the album (and it feels more like a cohesive long player than a compilation) jumps out of the speakers with grinding instrumental ‘Big Fat Sin’, it never relents, careering forwards with a verve and aggression that is positively punk, and indeed actually reconnects power electronics to its roots in that genre. ‘Omen’ introduces diFranco’s vocals, which rarely crop up on other projects, which is a shame as he has the kind of snotty snarl that the likes of Stephen Mallinder and Mars’ Sumner Crane wielded so effectively. The vocals are mixed low, so deciphering the lyrics is tricky, but diFranco’s delivery conveys an enormous amount regardless, pitched somewhere between menace and youthful romanticism, the voice of someone turned cynical at a young age.

One of the album’s standout moments, ‘Aktion In A 10/6’ crystallises the aura of JFK into seven hard-hitting minutes of frothing post-punk. Over metronomic, stripped-down drum machine beats, diFranco unleashes torrents of blurry feedback and howls dejectedly like an alternately threatening and distraught rejected lover. The abstract lyrics convey the same sort of sexual violence that emanates from The Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus In Furs’, but with an added sense of disenchanted romanticism.

The pace of the track, compared to more frenetic tracks like ‘Omen’ or the almost catchy ‘Sexodus’ (which is bolstered by mad guitar riffage and noise from Skullflower’s Matt Bower), is slovenly and repetitive, the kind of industrial grind that makes the genre so challenging and refreshing at once. The album’s centrepiece, meanwhile, is the 12 minute noise and found sample collage ‘Will To Love’, a work so belligerently obtuse and abstract that it can’t fail to evoke Throbbing Gristle at their most deconstructed.

LA BAS is the sound of a man still finding his feet, yet already so confident in his vision that it deserves to be recognised as an industrial masterwork like those of some of the aforementioned bands. Balancing infectious punk-rock structures with fierce noise, abstraction, drone and atonal textures, Anthony diFranco comes up with something truly hybrid that has endured the test of time far better than quite a number of his better-known contemporaries such as 23 Skidoo and Clock DVA.

Liminal Reviews: Liminal Minimals, May 2013 (May 31st, 2013)

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John Butcher, Tony Buck, Magda Mayas, Burkhard Stangl – Plume (Unsounds)

This lengthy album brings together two trios based around the backbone of saxophonist John Butcher and The Necks’ Tony Buck on drums. The first, ‘Flamme’ sees the pair joined by Austrian guitarist Burkhard Stangl, who plays peppery acoustic notes in a style that evokes Derek Bailey, minus the Englishman’s acerbic humour and penchant for pure dissonance. Indeed, the thirty-minute epic is remarkably restrained, with Stangl and Butcher exploring the outer limits of their instruments’ potential for quietness and diffuse textures, the former plucking abstractly at his strings, the latter releasing bubbly or hissing tones that sound as much like air or samples as they do sax notes. On both tracks, Tony Buck takes as much pleasure in gently coaxing unexpected sounds from his kit using bows and brushes as he does in building up any precise rhythmic direction. The second track, ‘Vellum’, another mighty, sprawling work, is the best of the two, as Buck and Butcher, joined here by pianist Magda Mayas, build up several heads of steam over nearly forty minutes, with Mayas countering Buck’s clatters and shakes and Butcher’s squalls with some righteous manipulation of her piano’s strings. These raucous passages are juxtaposed with several more intricate ones showcasing the trio’s ability to stretch out on each instrument in ways that are always both surprising and expertly balanced.

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Implodes – Recurring Dream (Kranky)

More moroseness, as Implodes follow on from their bleak debut Black Earth with another slab of woozy, despondent post-shoegaze noise rock. As with Vår [see below], the band’s influences are quite clear, nestling themselves as they do in the shadowy corner where gothic miserabilism nestles down discontentedly with fuzzed-out guitars and hushed vocals, a territory previously explored with much success by Cranes. Implodes don’t quite match their forbears for seething, haunted intensity, but there are many moments of true beauty on Recurring Dream, from the bleak, blasted pop-rock ‘Scattered in the Wind’ (surely a potential hit among fans of this type of music) to the seething metal storm of ‘Ex Mass’, which sounds like a Jesu outtake, via the deceptively graceful funereal march of ‘Sleepyheads’ and the towering mast of distortion and Peter Hook-inspired bass thumps that is ‘Necronomics’. On each track, the vocals are folded deep into the mix, imbuing everything with a ghostly, evasive atmosphere, like dry ice rolling over an audience at a rock concert. If you can imagine Sofia Coppola one day making a film that is not quite so obviously self-satisfied as most of her previous ones, she could very well choose Implodes to provide the soundtrack. It couldn’t be worse than sodding Phoenix…

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People of the North – Sub Contra (Thrill Jockey)

This side project by Kid Millions and Bobby Matador of Oneida doesn’t actually feel like one at all, such is the duo’s focus and commitment across the bruising 39 minutes of Sub Contra. People of the North certainly shares a lot of the pair’s parent band’s whacked-out psychedelicism, but, stripped to the bare bones of drums, synths, keys and vocals (with a few additional flourishes here and there from their Oneida pals), their music is more abrasive and minimalist. ‘Drama Class’ kicks the album off at a fractured, unpredictable pace, with Matador’s ramped-up organ weaving a curtain of malevolent drone that sits impassively in direct contrast with Millions’ constantly-shifting, freeform drum rolls and fills. Occasionally, Matador lurches forward to churn out some unintelligible lyrics, but for the most part, ‘Drama Class’ is as monomaniacal and immovable as a brick wall, the kind of intense drone metal perfected in less gleefully contrarian fashion by Windy and Carl. ‘Coal Baron’ is markedly more relaxed, the duo relying on drifting synth patterns, à la Klaus Schulze and low-end hum, with Kid Millions’s drums remarkable by their absence, while the two-part ‘Sub Contra’ suite sounds like Throbbing Gristle jamming with Han Bennink, all jazzy drums and bubbling, industrial drone. To wrap things up, Millions and Matador save the most expansive piece, ‘Osage Orange’, for last, taking the listener on a gruelling journey through repetitive looped electronics and warbling bass frequencies that morph into shimmery synths and a positively martial rhythmic thud before receding into near-silence as the fourteen minutes draw to a blissful close. People of the North don’t really break new ground in psychedelic music on Sub Contra, but they display a refreshingly gnarly take on the genre.

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Vår – No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers (Sacred Bones)

I have to hold my hand up here: I’m a bit of a sucker for moody, monochrome post-punk, and have been ever since I first discovered Joy Division as a perpetually morose 18-year-old. So, even if No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers comes on the back of much publicity surrounding singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s main band, Iceage, and steeped in a wealth immediately-recognisable influences, I can’t help but find myself enjoying nearly every track as if I was actually one of the pale young waifs that make up its target audience. The entire album is coated in an atmosphere of foggy disillusion, as Rønnenfelt and co-singer Loke Rahbek sketch out their mournful vignettes on wispy synths and the occasional pounding march of drum machine beats. Their two voices are nicely contrasted: Rønnenfelt, on the one hand, yelps like a frightened cousin of The Cure’s Robert Smith, whilst Rahbek possess the grimy snarl of a young Adrian Borland out of The Sound. Both bands are among Vår’s obvious influences, but the Danes carefully balance their clear debt to predecessors with a keen ear for melody and songcraft. The NME have got predictably over-excited and proclaimed No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers as the Faith for the 2010s generation but, while that’s more than a little hyperbolic, there are several great moments on the album, especially when the quartet rack up the beats and go (admittedly with downcast eyes and pouty lips) for the jugular, as on the delicious pair of post-punk pounders ‘The World Fell’ and ‘Pictures of Today / Victorial’.

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Jozef Van Wissem – Nihil Obstat (Important Records)

There is something so simple about Dutch lutist Jozef Van Wissem’s music, and yet it is surely this simplicity that makes it so instantly affecting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the instrument he uses, the tracks on Nihil Obstat seem to be beamed in from a time long since passed, but that doesn’t mean they sound dated, quite the opposite. Van Wissem connects with a sort of collective sensitivity in a way that is not dissimilar to the liminal sensations initiated by the music of American primitive artists like John Fahey and Sandy Bull, especially as the latter was an adept of the oud, which carries a similar sound to the lute. Van Wissem’s notes on each of these six tracks are as clear as a mountain stream, and just as resonant, whether he’s unfurling deeply melancholic sentiments, such as on the harrowing ‘Apology’, or playing something bouncy and playful like the ten-minute madrigal ‘Where you lived and what you lived for’, with its hints of ‘Greensleeves’. There is an emotional potency on display on Nihil Obstat, like with fellow “somewhat minimalist” composer Richard Skelton’s electric guitar sketches or the hazy piano compositions on Lubomyr Melnyck’s recent Corollaries album, more proof of just how much one can achieve with minimal means.

A Dusted Review: Enormous Door by The Ex & Brass Unbound (May 19th, 2013)

The Ex may have been making music together for the last 34 years, but they have the dynamism and fearlessness of a bunch of young punk pups. Few of punk’s old guard have evolved so consistently and interestingly as the Dutch veterans, andEnormous Door gathers their multiple facets together whilst taking an exciting bound forward. Put simply, it ranks as one of their best-ever releases, and a high water mark of latter-era post-punk.

I’ll admit, when I saw that the imposingly-named Brass Unbound horn section includes notoriously ferocious saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, I wondered ifEnormous Door might not collapse into a macho slanging match between The Ex’s anarcho-punk guitars and the horn section, or worse, that the brass would submerge the rest of the instruments. That was a fool’s concern; anyone familiar with Gustafsson’s work, let alone that of the other Brass Unbound members (including legendary Chicago saxophonist and clarinettist Ken Vandermark), will know that there’s more to the man than free jazz squalling. Likewise, The Ex are hardly likely to play second fiddle to anyone, as displayed on their many previous collaborations. But, even with that in mind, the cohesion of the interplay on Enormous Door is striking. The horns are deployed elegantly, folded into The Ex’s punk drive to provide flourishes of colour and texture to flesh out the tracks.

“Last Famous Words” starts with a fuzzy, jumping guitar lead that displays the band’s love of North African music, allied to a loping, Mo Tucker-esque back-beat that is ramshackle, yet just tight enough to keep the track from collapsing. The horns combine neatly with Terrie Hessels, Arnold de Boer and Andy Moor’s scything guitar patterns, before kicking out some sharp solos on the bridge in a style vaguely reminiscent of James Chance & The Contortions, only with a greater sense of melody. On every track, Brass Unbound snake and slip around The Ex’s choppy rock tunes, bursting forward and then withdrawing with boundless energy. This comes to a remarkable head on the seven-minute “Bicycle Illusion,” which devolves into full-on noise-rock mode, with Gustafsson’s brittle sax dueling with seething, molten guitar riffs and solos, over the massed ranks of trumpet, trombone and martial drums. A cover of Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed’s “Belomi Benna,” meanwhile, shows the band in a more playful, funky mode, with soulful horn blasts and smoky, sensual vocals from drummer Katherina Bornefeld. The range of styles touched on and collided together on Enormous Door is remarkable, and it’s clear The Ex and Brass Unbound have worked this material into the ground. To top it all off, de Boer’s lyrics still contain enough of The Ex’s trademark anti-establishment ethos, with a touching dose of middle-aged angst thrown in (my favourite line is“Time has taken one of us/but she ain’t been counting right” from the superb “Every Sixth Is Cracked”).

Whether throwing out rambunctious post-punk (“Our Leaky Homes”), embracing jazzy pan-African funk (epic closer “Theme From Konono No 2”) or trying their hand at a bit of bouncy P-Funk, the band is always confident and seems to be having a fucking blast, making for some of the most joyously energetic music you’ll hear all year.

A Quietus Review: Monomania by Deerhunter (May 1st, 2013)

Deerhunter are one of those very fortunate indie rock bands who have managed to achieve a surprising amount of critical and popular consensus. I would imagine that, when all is said and done, there are a good number of NME-fronting four pieces who may have had more hits (briefly) or Glastonbury-fueled hype, but who ultimately would trade it all, now that they have been exposed as being irrelevant and fatuous, for Deerhunter’s less heralded but more sturdy popularity.

As annoying as Deerhunter can be at times, I’d still embrace every one of their shoegaze-meets-pop-rock songs if it meant we could banish every overhyped, moronic, culturally insignificant release by Kasabian, Kaiser Chiefs, The Enemy and Babyshambles into the abyss of non-existence. But, if Monomania signals anything, it’s that, as superior as Deerhunter may be to the aforementioned dogshit, they actually sit much closer to mainstream “indie” than their cheerleaders would have us believe.

It’s all the more frustrating because Deerhunter have often promised a lot, only to fall just short of their much-publicised influences, generally due to a lack of proper filtering. From Cryptograms to Halcyon Digest, you often got the feeling that frontman Bradford Cox lacked the discipline to cut away excess and inferior tunes, culminating in their baroque pop album Microcastle being released with an entire extra album tacked on. Ironically, perhaps, said bonus record, Weird Era Cont. has always struck me as being the band’s most striking release, outdoing its parent in terms of melodies, atmosphere and general bizarreness.

At their best, Deerhunter can reach heady climes of drone-based rock, consolidating their influences (krautrock, drone, punk, post-punk) into crisp, dreamy slices of pop-rock, all driven by Bradford Cox’s melancholic lyrics and fragile voice. They also cast their net wide enough, with the fuzzy shoegaze-meets-punk of Cryptograms differing remarkably from Halcyon Digest‘s monochrome dream pop. On Monomania, they take a reverse turn and move away from their more opulent recent output to reconnect with their more brittle beginnings. It’s possibly their most upbeat and punchy release to date.

‘Neon Junkyard’ is a classic opening track, the kind that seems to immediately set the album’s tone with its choppy acoustic guitar riffs, swirling synth effects, sweeping electric guitar lines and driving drums. Cox’s voice is multi-tracked and distorted dramatically, and the track collapses to a close after just under three minutes. The message is clear: this is Deerhunter unfettered and raw, as beholden to Hüsker Dü and Pixies as they are to their ancestors on 4AD like Cocteau Twins.

‘Leather Jacket II’ continues the trend, at even greater levels of thrash, all distorted guitars and mumbled vocal phrases. If the band had built on this intensity over the course of the rest of Monomania, they might have had a winner on their hands, but most of the remaining ten tracks are slight, like echoes of their previous work, from ‘The Missing”s drifting pop-rock plod, which sounds like a Microcastle outtake, to the dull garage stylings of ‘Dream Captain’. Most of the album sounds like a kaleidoscope of every “indie” rock archetype, to the point that, whilst it’s never debatable that Monomania is a Deerhunter record, you still find yourself thinking of Silversun Pickups, The Black Keys, The Flaming Lips or Arcade Fire, not necessarily with positive comparisons in mind.

Most irritating is Cox’s voice, which is excessively layered with the kind of effects Julian Casablancas favours. OK, so Cox’s wistful yelp is more endearing than the Strokes man’s self-satisfied croak, but over the course of 45 minutes, it rapidly gets tiresome. The hefty title track occasionally flirts with the sort of robust rock of the opening two tracks, scrambling to a sort of overdriven finale befitting its title, but with so many of the other pieces sounding either rough, out of place or uninspired (notably ‘Pensacola’, which sounds like a drab Crazy Horse number recorded during the American Stars’n’Bars sessions), Deerhunter never achieve cohesion of style or energy on Monomania. As ever, there is a talented band at play here, but not one that has the consistency to match the column inches I’m sure it will generate.

A Quietus Feature – Fearful Parties: The Associates’ Sulk 30 Years On (September 18th, 2012)

For this lover of all things gnarled, rock, metal and punk, synth-pop presented a series of challenges and, once these had been hurdled, an even greater number of epiphanies. None of them were as colossal or significant than the moment I fell into the mad world of Sulk and found my appreciation of pop music in its entirety turned upside down. But that’s the effect Sulk will have on sensitive souls.

I actually owe Mojo Magazine a debt of gratitude for introducing me to synth-based music (beyond Kraftwerk, Bowie, Eno and prog) via a special edition on the genre released a few years back, although the love affair had started tentatively before then, via the enigmatic and archly beautiful sounds on Japan’s Tin Drum, a masterpiece of unusual time signatures, oblique lyrics and elegant polyrhythms that, combined with the band’s strong debt to Chinese music and culture, proved that synth-pop could be about more than bouffant quiffs and pop hits (that Tin Drum and single ‘Ghosts’ breached the UK top ten charts is as much a mystery as the album itself). Bolstered by this serendipitous find I slowly allowed myself to put aside my reservations about the occasional “tweeness” of many synth-pop bands, and delve into the strange universe of this oft-maligned sub-genre. Soft Cell, The Human League, Ultravox! (John Foxx era, natch), OMD, Depeche Mode, Visage, Yazoo: pretty soon all of these and more were lighting up my iPod and causing my synth-loathing then-partner to go spare as I danced around the living room, mouthing the words to ‘Fade To Grey’ or ‘Joan of Arc’.

But much as I loved Dare, Travelogue, Violator, Architecture And Morality and Ha! Ha! Ha!, none of the albums I discovered hit me with quite the same potency as the moment I first played Sulk, by Scottish duo Associates. Totally unaware of what lurked underneath its garish cover depicting Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie reclining on chaise longues under a lurid tropical canopy lifted straight out of Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company, I was unprepared for the explosion of ultra-bright synths that burst out of the speakers over high-speed drum patterns and throbbing bass. This was ‘Arrogance Gave Him Up’ and it would actually prove to be the most “ordinary” of the ten tracks on display, mainly because it’s an instrumental, and therefore bereft of The Associates’ greatest tool: Billy MacKenzie’s unbelievable voice. Like Soft Cell’s Marc Almond or Boy George, MacKenzie was an androgynous, sexually ambiguous character, but more than that, he was blessed with an astonishing set of pipes, being able to stretch from a low moan to screeching falsetto in a matter of seconds. As much as the arrangements are wildly brilliant and the tunes fantastic, it is Billy MacKenzie’s singing that makes Sulk.

‘No’ serves as the true gateway into Sulk’s strange netherworld after the gloss of ‘Arrogance Gave Him Up’, and it’s a thorny, frightening nightmare set to grim piano chords and a bass throb that sounds like a faltering heartbeat. “Tore my hair out from the roots/ planted it in someone’s garden/ Then I waited for the shoots” wails MacKenzie, evoking sheer insanity in just three lines before weaving a deranged narrative around the theme of self-harming. “No, no no! […] Tear a strip from your dress/ Wrap my arms in it!” he begs, the kind of lyrical and vocal soul-bearing guaranteed to raise hairs on the back on your neck (and am I the only one to hear a vague reference to Yoko Ono in there?) Even MacKenzie’s “other half” in Associates, multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine, has admitted to being baffled by some of his pal’s lyrics but, no matter how oblique MacKenzie gets, his words always succeed in painting evocative, and often unsettling, tableaux. Indeed, the first half of Sulk is one of the most shadowy and deliberately dark in modern pop history, even as it pretends to be a full-on pop extravaganza, traversed as it is by gloomy synth melodies, bleak lyrics and edgy, jittery rhythm patterns.

From ‘Bap De La Bap’’s bonkers industrial pop clatter and overdriven synths, to the sheer, unbridled hysteria that courses through the fast-paced ‘Nude Spoons’, via a slinky, deceptively upbeat take on ‘Gloomy Sunday’, side A of Sulk represents a suite of songs as brilliantly cohesive as any in rock or pop history. ‘Nude Spoons’ stands out in particular, with MacKenzie hitting unbelievable high notes and delivering a set of lyrics so cryptic it’s hard to know whether to laugh or recoil: “I wrote a note and dug it underground […] It lies there canistered with nude spoons euphoria.” You don’t really have time to ponder the meaning of it all, because Rankine’s blitzkrieg beats and hyper-charged synth riffs, allied to the funky bass lines of ex-Cure sideman Michael Dempsey, swallow you whole, leaving you swirling in a weird technicolour vortex accompanied only by MacKenzie’s untethered ululations. As for ‘Gloomy Sunday’, few singers since Billie Holiday have captured the song’s pathos in as confident a manner as MacKenzie.

Side B is, in the circumstances, a pleasingly becalmed and upbeat affair, although it still canters along at a similarly giddy pace. It also seems to reflect more clearly the legendarily hyperactive conditions surrounding Sulk’s creation. Unlike most bands’ much-repeated legends, the stories of excess and lunacy that quickly attached themselves to The Associates are – if one is to believe Rankine and Dempsey – completely true: they did indeed blow half of Sulk’s advance on luxury hotel suites (including one for MacKenzie’s whippets), top-of-the-range smoked salmon (again, for the dogs) and enough cocaine to give Iggy Pop and David Bowie a run for their money, before throwing the rest into making Sulk as opulent and extravagant as possible. Lead single ‘Party Fears Two’ certainly fits that bill, an oddball elegy to excess, albeit one tinged by a sense that all this coke and booze is so much hot air and empty pleasure. Behind MacKenzie’s cheerful, Ferry-esque croon, Rankine’s orchestrations are positively lush, a smorgasbord of glittering synths, treated horns and slinky guitar lines. ‘Club Country’, meanwhile, is straight-ahead synth-pop bliss, a track fittingly tailored for the dancefloor even as it skewers middle class inertia: “Refrigeration keeps you young I’m told.” Again, Billy MacKenzie reaches impossible heights with his delirious voice, whilst the infectious beats and glossy keyboards would make even the most reticent club-goer get up and shake his or her arse. ‘Club Country’ is easily equal to ‘Fade To Grey’, ‘Poison Arrow’ and ‘Antmusic’ as a slice of pure, catchy synth-pop, and deserved bigger success than it got. Equally, The Associates surely tapped into the genre’s promise of futurism better than most of their peers, with MacKenzie’s lyrics equal parts behoven to Ballard, Orwell and Gibson, all wrapped up in his own glitter-bomb aesthetic.

In 1982, and on the back of Sulk, The Associates looked poised to throw off their “also-ran” status and hit the big time, with Seymour Stein ready to make them huge stars in the US. Instead, all the aforementioned excess – which had probably obscured their image a bit at home – took its toll and Rankine split before a massive tour. MacKenzie soldiered on manfully for a few years, but the memory of Sulk -and the band’s now-mythical appearances on Top of the Pops that accompanied the album – quickly faded into insignificance, reduced to being relics of a “silly” era remorselessly buried by the eighties’ increasingly corporate, slick approach to pop creation. In a world dominated by Madonna and Duran Duran, there was little room for someone as esoteric as Billy MacKenzie, or for The Associates, and he and the band’s legacy would drift into relative obscurity until his suicide in 1997. It’s only now in the current culture of voracious nostalgia, that Associates are finding a new audience, and even getting name-checked by the likes of Bjork.

But such talk is so much hot air. You can wax lyrical about the whippets, the chocolate guitar, the cocaine and the tragedy all you want, the fact is that these are nothing more than snippets of what Associates’ story is all about. The truth, as obscure and outlandish as it is, rests in the psycho-pop grooves of Sulk, so much so that, as oddly “eighties” as it undoubtedly is, it also stands as one of the greatest albums of that or any decade. Bliss torn from madness indeed.

You can find videos to accompany this review on the Quietus’ site, here