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.

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

A Liminal Review: The Seer by Swans (August 15th, 2012)

“Lunacy! Lunacy! Lunacy!” The chant rises up out of the musical ashes of opening track ‘Lunacy’, the first of many supreme meltdowns that course through The Seer, the latest monolith of an album by the revived and reinvigorated Swans, following on from 2010′s critically-hailed My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. Unlike the legion of cynical rock band reunions currently polluting the festival scene, the return of Swans stems from the ongoing and visceral self-exploration of singer Michael Gira, a man so committed to gazing at his inner demons you have to worry for his health. The Seer is a case in point: at nearly two hours in duration, it stretches the boundaries of endurance, albeit in the most blissful way possible.

At the album’s heart lies the gruelling monster of a title track, a crushing 30-minute epic that initially has the feel of a Neil Young and Crazy Horse stomp, but, with Gira’s background in industrial noise and punk, ‘The Seer’ descends into dark and ominous depths, driven by a band so confident you’d think that these were the original Swans, with 30 years’ worth of time together to gel into such a humongous whole. I may have a preference for the early Filth-era material, just because it’s so mean and misanthropic, but in terms of cohesion and pure musical talent, this incarnation of Swans takes some beating, and few outfits in rock can match their intensity. ‘The Seer’ starts off in widescreen, with bagpipes, strings, horns and rattling percussion, a broad vista that evokes the wind-swept prairies of the Midwest, or, musically, the freeform intro to Van Der Graaf Generator’s ‘Arrow’. Swans have the cohesive madness of a free-jazz combo, and the feedback-enhanced furore of Crazy Horse, and, combined, these two disparate forms coalesce into a towering rock edifice as open as it is dense, gradually building skywards in the kind of patient layers usually associated with prog. Phil Puleo’s polyrhythmic drums motor forward, Klaus Schulze-like in their minimal energy, supported by the patient percussion of Thor Harris, as Gira menacingly intones the grim mantra “I see it all”. For all its darkness, ‘The Seer’ is psychedelic, with labyrinthine guitar solos swooping ceaselessly over the hypnotic rhythms, although, to cop a phrase from Gary Mundy or Matt Bower, this is bleak psychedelia, and when the piece bursts asunder in a shower of post-metal riffage, saturated solos and murderous gong noise, it’s like the heavens have opened and the four horsemen of the apocalypse have descended. Much is made of Gira’s fervent lyrics, but he is far less camp and more lyrically oblique than Woven Hand’s David Eugene Edwards or even Nick Cave, and he in fact forgoes lyrics for much of The Seer, allowing the music to breathe and flow with epic, brutal transcendence.

With such an incredible, righteous centrepiece (one that isn’t all storm and fury, by the way – when Gira launches into a mournful harmonica break towards the end, it’s surprisingly sparse, and emotionally moving), it would be easy to overlook the rest of The Seer, even though it’s two closing numbers are 20-minute-long epics that almost match the title track’s immensity. ‘Mother of the World’, the second track, is creepily melodic, careening forward on the motorik repetition of the drums (this is first and foremost a drum album, I feel, and Puleo and Harris deserve maximum praise for the way they combine precision and wildness) and a loping two-note riff and bassline. Gira really soars as a vocalist here, switching from unsettling heavy breathing to his trademark growl via a haunting yodel that his idol Howlin’ Wolf would be proud of. Again, the range of his talents is on display, with hints of blues and doom-laden folk simmering under the muscular noise-rock. The track’s momentum is implacable, even merciless, a kind of minimal propulsion that can canter along without dropping a beat or suddenly shift directions with any one of Gira’s compositional whims. Again, I can’t say it enough, from bassist Christopher Pravdica to the molten rhythm guitar of Norman Westberg, this is one of the most talented, adventurous bands in the world.

While the album’s length would initially appear to be a handicap, on the whole this is as concise and well-balanced album as you’ll hear, with potential post-’The Seer’ lull rescued by the final three tracks that sign things off with a bang. ‘Avatar’ is a nine-minute psych-out, all chiming bells and insistent polyrhythms, and possibly the most mesmerising Swans track in quite some time, with Gira’s multi-tracked vocals becoming a moody chorus behind sweeping guitar drones and synthesizer melodies, achieving elegiac status as he moans variations on “Your light is in my hand”. ‘A Piece of the Sky’, meanwhile, flows through different musical and emotional states over its nineteen-plus minutes, from crackling Macronympha-like harsh noise to soothing ambience to glistening, post-classical bliss and gnarly folk-rock. As ever, Gira’s iron grip on his vision is what keeps this impermanence from collapsing, with every shift and transformation a beautiful and/or overpowering complement to the passage before.

Whether achieved through intuition or meticulousness, this coherence and control (and I’ve seen Swans live – Gira runs a tight ship) culminate in ‘The Apostate’, the most perfect conclusion to an album I’ve heard in a long time. As a line of guitar feedback drifts and wails in the background, a gritty sub-melody is ground out on drums, bass and guitar, while Harris pounds angrily on cymbals. The mood is that of a funeral march set in the dark dystopia of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, until they suddenly freak out without warning (it makes me jump every time), tearing things to shreds in a tornado of saturation, rambunctious arrhythmic percussion and ear-scraping guitar noise. Every time it feels like they’re building to a crescendo, Swans just climb another level until you’re surrounded and filled at once by the music. Another shift and they are rushing forwards like a speeding train, every member keyed into the heart of the song with telepathic force. And we’re only halfway through. From there, ‘The Apostate’ shifts, swirls, collapses and explodes around your ears, with Gira screaming “Get out of my mind!”. Yes, I will always love Filth, but ‘The Apostate’ is so brutally beautiful, so persuasive in its aggressive grace, that it overwhelms every time.

The era of Swans-as-industrial-band has effectively been buried over the course of the two hours of The Seer (although Gira will contend that he broke away from that history decades ago, I can’t be the only nostalgic). Swans are, despite the 30 years of their existence, still on a journey, guided by Michael Gira’s ferocious dedication and need to push the limits of himself and his audience. To paraphrase another great unsatisfied rock genius, “Long may he roar.”

A Quietus Live Report – Poles Vaulting: The Quietus Salutes Katowice’s OFF Festival (August 8th, 2012)

The Quietus kindly sent me to OFF Festival in Katowice, Poland last Summer, for three days of righteous music. My contributions, alongside Julian Marszalek’s, are below. Just to blow my own trumpet, Swans’ Michael Gira said my review of their set was “one of the best live reviews ever written”! Not sure he’s right, but it’s nice to hear.

The realisation that Poland’s OFF Festival is going to be something special occurs about an hour before the alcoholic tipping point that sends your correspondents into an inebriated spiral so severe that hotel carpets are used for falling and crawling on rather than walking. Having arrived in the Silesian city of Katowice – a grim industrial centre that’s the butt of so many jokes across the nation that it could easily be Poland’s answer to Slough – and partaken of zurek (sour rye soup with ham and potatoes) and bigos (a hunter’s stew made of cabbage, sauerkraut and pork), The Quietus finds itself in Club 54, an unassuming bar located almost underneath the railways tracks leading into Katowice’s main train station.

“Ah,” smiles Quietus scribe Joseph Burnett as the wobbly bass lines penetrate our ears and we raise our shot glasses in a toast. “Dubstep and Zubrowka! This is going to work…”

And boy, does it work this weekend…

The OFF Festival, now in its seventh year, is doing much to counter this as it brings together the cream of domestic acts and the very best in diverse international musical entertainment. Located in the gorgeous surroundings of Dolina Trzech Stawow by the Muchowiec airport, OFF Festival is one that many UK festival promoters would do well to learn from. With the emphasis on music spread across four stages and with only two of them in action at any one time – that’ll be one outdoor stage and one tent – this ensures that bands are guaranteed an audience while fans have the chance to either see what they’re after or encounter something new. Crucially for the audience, OFF Festival isn’t hampered by the ridiculous sound limitations that have dampened a number of UK gigs set in urban outdoor environments.

More than anything, the abiding memory of the OFF Festival is of a friendly crowd that’s totally into their music. They sing, they dance, they move from stage to stage hungry for new sounds and bands and the impression is given that there’s probably never been a better time to be a young person and / or music fan in Poland than right now. Devoid of cynicism, bursting with enthusiasm and fuelled by a genuine love of music in all its forms, OFF 2012 has been one of the best festivals these writers have experienced in recent years.

FRIDAY

16.10 – Nerwowe Wakacje (Scena Trójki)/Snowman (Scena mBank)

The dilemma of clashing domestic is soon made easier for this second generation Pole. Nerwowe Wakacje (that’s the Nervous Vacations to you, sir) is a band very much reared on British alternative rock and it shows. Not that they’re terribly bad but their workman-like indie is as dressed down as the sounds that they make.

However, on the mBank Stage, Poznan’s Snowman is gearing up to be a far more interesting proposition. Fronted by the charismatic figure of Michał Kowalonek, Snowman veer effortlessly from psyche rock to jazz wigouts, and go some way to making the Polish music scene an alluring territory for virgin ears. JM

15.35 – kIRk (Experimental Stage)

As stated, we’d discovered during the aforementioned vodka crawl on the Thursday night that the Poles like and know their dubstep, and home trio kIRk have put a wild spin on the genre’s conventions by incorporating a trumpet into their collections of electro beats and heavy bass. It works better than one might expect! The tunes are all very solid, with the requisite amount of throbbing rhythms and glacial synth tones, but the soaring and spinning horn solos really flesh out the pieces, bringing an elegance that is not that common to most dubstep. Imagine Ennio Morricone soundtracking a club night at Corsica Studios and you might vaguely be close, but kIRk are experimental (in the loosest sense of the word) enough to dodge categorisation, and there is something of the great film composer’s expansiveness in their sound. More importantly, with their novel take on this much-abused genre being more upbeat than the likes of Kode9 or Burial, kIRk are a good introduction to the fun and spirit of OFF. JB

17.00 Colin Stetson (Experimental Stage)

Friday at the Experimental stage is curated by The Quietus, so it seems a good place to spend most of the day, especially with a fabulous line-up including some of the premier acts in alternative music, of all styles. Colin Stetson received rapturous praise for his New History of Warfare albums and, despite appearing solo with just a pair of saxophones (one bass, one alto), cuts an impressive figure, partly because he’s built like brick shithouse, but mainly because the bass sax he flourishes is about a foot taller than him. Melodically, his music, a series of intricate sketches, perhaps owes more to electronic music than jazz, with his looped finger tapping lending a minimal percussive drive to underpin his constant blowing (emphasised by his touching rendition of a track recorded with Laurie Anderson, minus the great woman herself). JB

17.50 – Savages (Scena Trójki)

Given the level of hosannas meted out to Savages in the few months since their formation, it’s not surprising that cynical voices have been raised in their wake. Indeed, here’s a confession: this writer would’ve loved to have hated them but it becomes apparent within the opening few bars of ‘No Face’ that usher in their stunning set that we’re all about to bear witness to something truly special.

Their hunger is palpable throughout this fantastically assertive performance. Their touchstones of gothic drama, chiming guitars and a murderously-locked rhythm section echo the years of the Cold War showdown when mutually assured destruction seemed just a heartbeat away, but there’s more than enough spirit, desire and drive to ensure that the noise Savages make is entirely their own.

Battling and convincingly beating a nasty cough that threatens to derail proceedings, crop haired vocalist Jehnny Beth cuts a compelling figure as her soaring voice is given a dramatic visual accompaniment as she contorts and twists her body in time to the music. Behind her sits the perma-grinning figure of drummer Fay Milton. Looking for all the world as if sharing a private joke with herself, her propulsive drumming is in tandem with Ayse Hassan’s rumbling low end and together they underpin Gemma Thompson’s six string echoes, scrapes and effects.

By the time they reach ‘Shut Up’ the crowd has been in their control for some time. This is material that people are hearing for the first time and it’s a testament to Savages’ vision and charisma that they’ve seduced so many in such a short space of time. Dissenters may tag them as Goths but really, they’re ladies who dress in black and like it or not, they’re going to colour your world. JM

18.45 Demdike Stare (Experimental Stage)

The excellent organisation meana that there are decent spells between sets, allowing for food and drink breaks. Demdike Stare are on after Colin Stetson, a vodka and Red Bull and a burger, and are probably vaguely let down by not appearing later, as their music is so shadowy it seems best suited to night. However, the tightly-packed experimental tent does at least provide decent sound and a closeness that brings Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty’s sheets of noise, reverberating bass and industrial-strength percussion to the fore, the intense volume adding to the way the music fills space and ears.

As ever, their perverse take on dance music is dominated by atmospheres of tense unease and subliminal horror, the fractured beats dislodging any sense of peace whilst abstract visuals play behind them, unnerving by being merely suggestive of something nasty – the Val Lewton school of horror expression. However, to narrow them down to simply being a “horror” band would be to miss the subtle melodicism that worms its way around these grim tableaux, with each piece enhanced by rhythmic flourishes and hypnotic tunes descended from club music, centred on bass and percussion. It may be a sort of dubstep from beyond the grave, but who’s to say ghosts don’t like to dance too?

20.45 -anbb (Experimental Stage)

The Quietus team touched down too late in Katowice to catch Alvo Noto’s Thursday night club set, but he teams up on Friday with Einsturzende Neubauten singer Blixa Bargeld for a live outing of their formidable anbb project. Carsten Nicolai’s take on electronica is instantly familiar, distilling a form of austere minimal techno that causes the room to shake to the tune of bleak austerity. Bargeld is initially restrained, his singing surprisingly soulful, before unleashing that savage snarl all industrial music fans worth their salt know and love. As the tracks progress, his vocals build over themselves, transmogrifying into unsettling futuristic mantras. Compared to the music of Alva Noto, meanwhile, Nicolai’s work in anbb is more anchored in pop music formats, albeit of the coldest variety. There are even moments of pure lyricism, such as when Bargeld moans “One is the loneliest number” over and over on one track, coming on like a cross between Genesis P-Orridge and Bryan Ferry. Does harsh lounge music exist? If not, anbb may have invented it. JB

23.05 – Mazzy Star

The thought of spending a Friday night with Mazzy Star out in the woods is a divisive one. Hardier souls will doubtless be seeking out thrills of a more banging nature but for those of for whom pacing is crucial to lasting the distance of a festival, Mazzy Star provide the perfect soundtrack.

Their opiated cover of Slapp Happy’s ‘Blue Flower’ makes for their opening salvo and it’s a bold move knowing that things are going to be getting considerably more mellow from here on in. ‘Halah’ is a delight but there’s evidence on show that some sections of the crowd have decided to make their own entertainment by the time a stretched out and languid reading of ‘She Hangs Brightly’ is reached. Raising their hands in front of the projector that throws the visual backdrop of Victoriana behind the band, shadow puppets of bats and birds are a constant throughout the remainder of the set. Cheeky buggers, but even they concede a modicum of respect when the hazy beauty of ‘Fade Into You’ has the couples in the crowd getting up close and personal. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that! JM

0.10 – Bardo Pond

As the evening wears on, and blazing sunshine is replaced first by rain, then muggy clear skies, Bardo Pond at the Trójka stage feels like an uplifting option after anbb’s terror noise-dance, despite my misgivings in the wake of a poor concert at Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s ATP a couple of years ago. I shouldn’t have fretted, for they are truly outstanding in Poland, the best I’ve ever seen them. Where that previous show had appeared to see them edging towards glossy (for them) MOR rock, this is like walking through a portal back to 1996 at the height of their Amanita-era freakouts. The riffs are gnarly and fuzzed-out, the drums and bass chunter along at a dirge-like pace and Isobel Sollengerber moans and mutters over the top like a wounded spaniel. In the hands of these masters, such weirdo elements are coalesced into a blissful whole, with an excellent sound system boosting the noise levels into the heavens. It may be obvious to say that the music of Bardo Pond is psychedelic, but that doesn’t make it any less true, or the results any less potent when they’re truly on song.

1.10 – Shabazz Palaces

Back at the experimental stage, Shabazz Palaces deliver one of the best hip-hop sets I’ve ever seen. The fact that Ishmael Butler released Black Up last year on Sub Pop surprised a few, with a lot of the credit seeming to go to the label, but I think it says more about ‘Butterfly”s dauntless confidence and ambition. His flow is elegant and muscular, while on stage he and his percussionist acolyte combine cool street attitude with a certain amount of theatricality, as if they’ve spent as much time listening to Bowie-esque Glam rock as they have Nas and Run DMC – which wouldn’t come as a surprise, in truth. And most importantly, Butler’s got the tunes, with slinky keyboard lines dancing over deep bass and scattered percussion, bringing together a dash of funk, the occasional burst of atonal digital noise and the innate melodicism of Motown soul. No-one will ever equal Miles Davis’ On The Corner as the ultimate distillation of the far-reaching scope of ‘black’ music, and I could never compare Shabazz Palaces to Davis, but I think that spirit is very much alive in a lot of modern hip-hop. Butler, like Flying Lotus, is a perfect reminder that there’s more to the genre than Jay-Z and 50 Cent. JB

Saturday

17.50 – Apteka

Though regarded as old-school in certain quarters, Polish music veterans Apteka (Pharmacy) are just the kind of punk rock band that’s need to fire a rocket up the arse of a baking and hazy Saturday afternoon. Frontman and guitarist Kodym Kodymowski is a man on more than nodding terms with a meaty riff while his left foot is irresistibly drawn to his wah-wah pedal, and the daggers glared at his drummer throughout go some way to suggesting why this band has had over 15 members during its three-decade lifetime. JM

18.45 – Pissed Jeans

Pissed Jeans’ frontman Matt Korvette has a question to ask the sweltering tent that houses the Experimental Stage: “What do Pissed Jeans, The Simpsons and Seinfeld all have in common?” A collective shake of the head soon has him providing the answer: “We all put on a fucking great show at 7pm!” and with that, the Pennsylvanian punks don’t just start, they combust.

It’s not hard to see why. Pissed Jeans are a seething rage of frustration, knock backs and too many nights spent on their own debating the merits of staring at empty pockets or the void in their pants. It doesn’t take too long before their snotty outbursts collide into each other to create one long and painfully anguished “Fuck you!” that very nearly makes the demented audience complicit in their rage. JM

19.50 – Dominique Young Unique

Equally pumped up is this American R&B singer, tipped in some quarters to be the “next Nicki Minaj”, a dubious tag if ever there was one. Once I get over the disappointment of her not being Iceage (whom she evidently switched sets with), I find myself oddly charmed by her hard-edged take on pop-inflected hip-hop and innate charisma. Ok, so the fact she only sings over pre-recorded backing tracks was unimpressive, leaving no room for her to stretch out, and her presence is oddly incongruous given her overt flirtations with dull mainstream pop, but she works the crowd well, and her raps are remarkably aggressive and fast-paced for, essentially, a pop singer. The heftiness of the bass is also striking, a sure sign that UK urban music, from grime to dubstep has percolated into the accepted pop tropes, even across the Atlantic. Nothing to write home about, but methinks she has a bright future ahead of her. JB

22.00 – Chelsea Light Moving

All power to the implausibly boyish looking Thurston Moore – not only is he here on the main Scena mBank stage with his new outfit, Chelsea Light Moving, he’s going to be playing nothing but new material. It’s a proposition that could prove daunting to the less determined fan or casual observer as they wonder whether he’ll be ploughing the more familiar furrows dug by Sonic Youth or whether patience will be stretched with music so experimental that its forgotten what the original hypothesis is.

Augmented by Hush Arbours’ Keith Wood on guitar, drummer John Maloney and Samara Lubelski alternating between bass and guitar, Moore errs more to the sound forged by his alma mater and the closing atonal notes that bring opener ‘Orchard Street’ – totally overhauled from the version that appears on Demolished Thoughts – to a close are stretched out like an elastic band as they induce an almost trance like reaction.

One of Moore’s greatest skills as a guitarist – and not for nothing is he noted as one of the finest practitioners of the instrument – is his ability to beguile and hypnotise with sounds that at first glance appear to be confrontational. The chopping riff of ‘Burroughs’ is lacerated by a deft move up the neck before going down again while ‘Empires Of The Bad’ – tonight dedicated to Roky Erickson – finds Moore moving from more atonal strumming to crunchy riffing and back again and all the while this new material keeps the audience rapt with nary a thought for Sonic Youth. Though Moore plans on releasing new material via free download, there’s more than enough on show tonight to prove that when Chelsea Light Moving’s album finally drops next year, the wait will have been worth it. JM

23.00 – Shangaan Electro

The Quietus hands over curating duties on the Experimental Stage to Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop on Saturday, and he responds by bringing over much-hyped South African electronic act Shangaan Electro, who blazed onto the stage in a shower of blitzkrieg beats and fantastic costumes. They feature two male and two female singers kicking up a storm in front of an enthusiastic producer running through each track at the breakneck pace of 189 beats per minute. Meanwhile, the vocals seem to be lifted from traditional South African folk, a strange and wondrous collision of past and future distilled in the present with colourful afro wigs, fake bellies and outrageous dance routines. As with Retro Stefson, the crowd lap it up, bouncing around like dervishes and impersonating the quartet’s every frenetic move. In mood and style, much of Shangaan Electro evokes the Congo’s Konono No 1, but with a more polished, techno sound. And such was the delight they conjured in everyone in the tent, it barely matters that most of the tracks sound identical. Who cares, when you can dance your arse off this much? JB

00.10 – Iggy and the Stooges

It’s the end of The Stooges’ allotted time and the sinewy and leathery figure of Iggy Pop is standing alone at the lip of the stage. With his arms spread open wide and a huge smile almost carved into face, the thousands in front of him are still screaming for more.

It’s just as well they are, but whether they’ll get to witness The Stooges again is a moot point. By Iggy’s own impressive standards, this is something of a muted performance. A loss of cartilage in his right hip and numerous leg injuries have left punk rock’s godfather with a heavily pronounced limp that curtails the whirling and demented shenanigans that he’s famed for. But fuck it, this is Iggy Pop we’re talking about here, and Iggy firing on less than all cylinders is still ten times more than bands a fraction of his age can manage.

With James Williamson back in the fold, Iggy and the Stooges find themselves traversing territories that the late Ron Asheton wouldn’t have countenanced. So it is that ‘Kill City’ and ‘Beyond The Law’ make welcome appearances while Williamson’s dexterity – coupled with Steve Mackay’s mournful harmonica – makes for a poignant ‘Open and Bleed’. But it’s ‘Search and Destroy’, ‘Raw Power’ and a skull-crushing ‘No Fun’ that really deliver and the unexpected dropping of ‘The Passenger’ has the crowd going ape.

It’s a hard won but thoroughly deserved victory for this group of reprobates who make growing old disgracefully such a delicious proposition and Poland, just like Jesus back in the 70s, loves The Stooges. JM

01.00 – Spectrum

By all accounts, Spectrum’s journey to Poland from Berlin was hampered by a dead rodent in the van’s engine which subsequently led to a loss of horsepower so serious that they found themselves overtaken by not only a slow moving oil tanker on a hill but also a golf buggy. No such worries for this psychedelic delight that takes in cosmic Northern Soul in the shape of ‘How You Satisfy Me’ while the heavy-lidded are treated to a gloriously languid ‘Ode to Street Hassle’. JM

01.15 – DOOM

In contrast to my sheer delight at finally experiencing Shangaan Electro, the presence of DOOM, headlining the second stage, fills me with some trepidation, given some of the homophobic content of past lyrics. But if it is present in front of a sizeable crowd pumped up on Stooges bliss, I don’t notice. DOOM (aka Daniel Dumile) is certainly an imposing figure, heavy set and with his features hidden by his trademark iron mask, but his rhythms and melodies are initially pleasantly laid-back, with slinky beats, the – apparently – now traditional deep bass and busy samples supporting a casual, almost languid flow. And while this approach to rap tradition feels rather old school in the wake of the speedy, quasi-punk deliveries and minimal melodies of early Dizzee Rascal, Death Grips or the previous night’s Shabazz Palaces, Dumile gradually cranks up the intensity, braggadoccio and energy as the set progresses, flexing his lyrical muscles via words that alternate between honest aggression and sexual self-congratulation. It’s hard not to hear Nas and Tupac locked inside the DNA of DOOM’s tracks, but he carries an undeniable presence, one that concludes the night with considerable pomp. JB

SUNDAY

17.00 – Michal Jacaszek

The best stage (in terms of music, if not sound) of the entire weekend lived up to its name with the early appearance of Polish experimental composer Michal Jacaszek, who performs with a reed/horn player and someone on electric harpsichord. In comparison to the high-octane nature of much of Friday and Saturday’s music, this is patient, quiet and elaborate, the various musical elements (sax, electronics, keys) mixed together with intricate grace. Sudden surges of intense noise and crackling drones pierce the atmosphere of patient minimalism, before receding around hesitant rhythmic progressions that evoke a docile form of trip-hop, even as the saxophone in turn hints at the delicate post-rock of early A Silver Mt. Zion or HRSTA. The balance is meticulous, with each element incorporated at exactly the right moment, and when they really begin to take off, such luminaries as Philip Jeck and Hildur Guonadottir inevitably spring to mind. JB

17.50 – Ty Segall Band

“Underwear man! Underwear man!” yells Ty Segall as he points at the sweating figure of a crowd surfer wearing just his Bill Grundys to cover his modesty. “You gotta keep him up!”

And keep it up they do in this overheated tent. It takes Poland, oooh… approximately 30 seconds to fall in love with the Ty Segall Band as they explode from a howling feedback intro into the first of many fuzzed up and demented riffs. For their part, the crowd detonates into a seething mass of flailing bodies, waving limps and an orgy of crowd surfing that refuses to let up once during this hi-octane and almost impossibly exciting 40 or so minutes.

Segall and his band are wonderfully irreverent. Occasional missed cues are met with gales of unrestrained laughter from the players and the band’s joy at creating loud, fast, snotty and ridiculously melodic rock & roll is utterly infectious. ‘Muscle Man’ is a white-hot blast of garage ramalama while ‘I Bought My Eyes’ sends the whole thing sky high.

With pop at its most anodyne and mainstream stadium-filling guitar rock reaching a nadir of dancing-on-one-leg blandness, Ty Segall Band are more than nourishing a hunger for visceral thrills and illicit delinquent delights. Really, this shit could go global…

18.45 – Group Doueh

An increasingly not-so-well-kept secret, Western Sahara’s Group Doueh arrive in Katowice on the back of a reputation that might not match that of the similarly-named Group Inerane, but which continues to grow with every appearance out of their homeland. In the bright sunshine, it is the drums that first hit home, before the keyboard and guitar even become noticeable: a precise, hard-hitting pounding of the skins that nonetheless contains enough funk technique to imbue each track with insistent grooves.

Few contemporary rock bands can boast such a level of rhythmic propulsion and, despite the intrinsically “African” nature of the music, the first name that springs to mind on hearing Group Doueh’s drummer live is Jaki Liebezeit, which is saying something. Then the vocals leap to the fore, via fantastic call-and-response phrasings between the mesmerising voices of lead singer Halima and percussionist Bashiri. Throughout, keyboardist Jamai provides a solid bedrock, replacing the bass as the drums’ rhythmic companion.

Not to be outdone, leader Doueh, impassive behind his black shades, rips Hendrixian solos out of his guitar, delighting the crowd with some wonderful guitar-behind-the-head showboating without ever losing his grip on the molten notes he unleashes. With their concise tunes, driving rhythms, soaring vocals and ragged guitar, Group Doueh produce the kind of blissful-yet-heavy psychedelia that characterised the first Nuggets compilation (The Seeds, notably), mixing it with North African modal sensibility to create a strand of rock music that is almost unique. On the strength of this performance, Group Doueh are one of the most original and powerful rock bands on the planet, and they certainly constitute one of the highlights of the entire festival. JB

20.45 – Kim Gordon & Ikue Mori

Having already lapped up Thurston Moore, the crowd pack into the experimental tent to glimpse his ex-wife Kim Gordon in action with former DNA drummer Ikue Mori, and the duo duly pushed the boundaries of experimentation further than any other act of the weekend. Mori is perched calmly in front of her laptop throughout, seemingly oblivious to anyone other than Gordon, chucking out disjointed, obliquely rhythmic (she is a drummer after all) glitch techno while the Sonic Youth legend mauls an electric guitar in the spirit of the original scene that birthed the ‘Youth: you can hear No Wave, noise rock and punk within her distorted, broiling six-string attacks (it’s hard to think of them as solos).

The videos behind them feature a deranged cocktail of abstract film and Mori’s eccentric puppetry, and such is the set’s embracing of the avant-garde (I’m assuming it was mostly improvised) that it is transformed into something resembling performance art. Gordon particularly shines on vocals, her twisted moans alternating between Linda Sharrock-esque howl and the muted vocalisations of a Keiji Haino or Les Rallizes Dénudés’ Takashi Mizutani. Rock (and for all the glitchy electronics, noise and distortion, the set is rooted in rock) is so often seen as a man’s world, but here two women take it further outside its boundaries and cliches than most men ever will. JB

22.00 – Battles

Battles were forced to cancel their appearance at last year’s OFF Festival thanks to some unspecified “serious issues”. With this in mind, it’s not unfair to say that the audience gathered by the main stage is more than a little expectant while Battles themselves certainly aren’t holding back.

What we have here is something approximating a musical version of the block-building game, Jenga. Beats are built up, instruments are taken away, guitars are then precariously balanced on this seemingly teetering spire yet it all holds together as a thrilling hole.

Gary Numan’s face appears behind the band across two screens that sit on either side of Herculean drummer John Stanier as they plough through ‘My Machines’. It’s a neat touch that circumvents the lack of singer problem encountered by Death In Vegas, and Matias Aguayo’s bearded face ushers in the delightfully twisted ‘Ice Cream’.

The biggest surprise – and indeed, highlight of the set – arrives in the shape of colossal ‘Atlas’. To these ears, at least, it’s the best track of the last 10 years and its re-appearance with all trace of Tyondai Braxton removed and replaced with new, child-like vocals simply increases it muscular potency. And judging by OFF’s fevered reaction, this writer isn’t alone in thinking so. JM

23.00 – Henry Rollins

Now here’s a thing: Henry Rollins’ spoken word show in a foreign country. Yet with so many English-speaking Poles here, Rollins’ brutally forthright and frequently hilarious tales of punk rock, politics and the state of the human condition are as inspirational as they are compulsive to listen to. It’s almost like listening to a motivational speaker but the crucial difference is that you aren’t being moved to make your boss richer via some misplaced sense of what you can achieve; you want your subsequent actions to make a fucking difference to the world. Henry Rollins is a fucking dude, he makes the world a better place and he wants us to do the same. And you can’t argue with that. JM

0.05 – Swans

Even Gordon and Mori’s fabulous, genre-bending set couldn’t help but become an amuse-gueule for the titan of the festival: Swans. Actually, that should probably be Swaaaaaaannnnnns!!!!, because that’s the kind of visceral effect Michael Gira and his band have on the human body and mind: they bludgeon both to a pulp, caress and slap them with noise, chew them up, spit them out, and then turn up the volume some more. Michael Gira has often said that he doesn’t look to attack his audiences, but the sheer volume of Swans live is enough to intimidate the toughest of constitutions, and Gira’s brooding, angry vocal delivery and guitar style only adds to the tension that immediately swoops out of the speakers alongside the music on this balmy Sunday night.

Amazingly, however, despite the loudness, the music remains as beautiful as it can be on record. The speakers are shaking, the ground vibrates underfoot, but Gira’s graceful melodies snake their way into the ether, as if they are air currents drifting under storm clouds. It’s a balance I’ve only ever really seen Neil Young and Crazy Horse achieve in a rock format, and even they don’t crank things up like Swans. The evolution of this unique band from industrial noisesters to their current form of heavy-metal-country-blues-folk-noise has been fascinating from musical and “rock” perspectives, and onstage they connect the dots even more emphatically than on record.

The set is dominated by the mighty long tracks from their latest opus, The Seer, with extended instrumental passages that layer up the guitar feedback, pounding drums, thundering bass and ragged slide, as if the band are constructing a cathedral of sound even as they rip at their audience’s eardrums. When he does sing, Gira somehow is able to elevate his savage roar above the music, until it almost becomes another instrument, Kraftwerk-style. I don’t know how they do it, but Swans can sound both dense and free, the rhythm section creating a wide canvas onto which sound is thrown with ferocious force.

To quote Miles Davis, this was music that got “all up in your body”, taking over every sense until one could only release oneself into what felt like an ocean. Gira directs his band (and what a fucking ace band they are) with the iron will of a dictatorial conductor, but his ability to compose tracks that bridge rock styles, suck the listener in (‘Avatar’ is sheer, over-the-top, bliss) and then deconstruct his music until it’s a raging storm of furious sound, shows the mark of a true giant. As they crank up the volume, ignore their supposed end time and turn The Seer into a molten noise-rock suite, the sky seems to ring with the sheer power of Swans. Consider Gary Mundy’s description of Pink Floyd’s early 70s music as “bleak psychedelia” – on the evidence of OFF, no band in the world right now embodies that term better than Swans. JB

1.40 – Fennesz and Lillevan

Swans’ refusal to end on time means that Fennesz and Lillevan hit the experimental stage a tad later than planned, but it is certainly worth the wait as they deliver what might be the best set of the entire three days (yes, even better than Swans, in some ways). Balancing rock and electronic archetypes has long been a fascinating adventure in modern music, and few have headed into this territory with the dedication of Christian Fennesz. On this occasion, he expertly, even perfectly, balances seething guitar noise in a rambunctious Haino/Dead C style with hypnotic beats and luscious swathes of electronic drone.

Lillevan, meanwhile, “composes” abstract video art to support the performance, taking those lucky spectators in the tent on a wildly abstract journey that, when married to Fennesz’s exquisite tones, absorbing melodies and hypnotic beats, produces a DJ set from a club night that has yet to be conceptualised, but will do so in a future either dystopian or utopian – at this stage, it’s hard to tell, but it’s reassuring to think that this music will be there when we get there. Between the harsh noise of the guitar and the soothing textures of his electronics, Fennesz achieves a form of absolute bliss, both reassuring and intense. JB

3.00 – Forest Swords

It is left to Liverpudlian producer Matthew Barnes, aka Forest Swords, to bring the curtain down on a truly inspirational festival, and, despite the late hour, his moody set is embraced by those hardy souls who’d stuck around to the death. His debut mini-album, Dagger Paths, was a minor triumph, and a positive evolution away from the increasingly stifling format of generic dubstep, especially in the way Barnes injected arch guitar lines and drifting psychedelic textures alongside the standard vibrating bass lines.

Far from resting on his laurels, he appears to have expanded his sonic palette, if this set is anything to go by, with the occasional breakbeat flourish adding a driving, danceable energy to the ghostly and fitful melodies he’s already perfected, with the addition of live bass and guitar bringing a bit of real muscle as well. Meanwhile, his use of excerpts from Maya Deren films as backing footage is a potent touch, somewhere between nightmare and homoeroticism, and it demonstrated that this is an artist worth taking seriously. Throughout the weekend, artists have vaulted over the gaps between dance and abstraction, beats and rock, and Forest Swords is the ideal way to take a bow on this fantastic trend.

As well as providing outstanding, varied musical experiences, OFF is also a hugely successful festival from a “human” perspective. The site is beautiful, and perfectly exploited by the organisers, who deserve huge praise for the seamless way the bands followed one another and benefited – mostly – from excellent sound quality.

More than that, The Quietus salutes the boundless enthusiasm, friendliness and open-mindedness of the Polish fans who fill the place, easily outnumbering any foreign visitors ten to one. Recent British coverage of Poland and its citizens has been patronisingly dominated by talk of racism and, whilst it’s undeniable that the country’s football hooligans are an unsavoury bunch, since when have hooligans been a good barometer of a nation’s population? Every black artist or band performing at OFF was greeted with cheers, celebration and affection, exactly as they would in the UK or America. As a coming together of music fans and artists from far and wide, OFF was a triumph, both musically and as an overall experience. Bring on next year!

A Quietus Review: A Victim of Stars by David Sylvian (March 22nd, 2012)

It’s very easy to look at David Sylvian’s career in a completely linear way, to think that he simply went from new romantic pop star to avant-pop savant to experimental music artist in distinct stages. But, despite being set out in very chronological order, A Victim Of Stars puts the lie to that notion most emphatically.

Consider ‘Ghosts’, the only track by Sylvian’s seminal synth-pop band Japan on this compilation, and the first on the track list. ‘Ghosts’ was Japan’s biggest hit, and effectively the song that elevated them, and Sylvian in particular, onto the highest echelons of pop stardom. And yet it must surely go down as one of the most peculiar top five hits ever: ponderously slow, with burbles of near-atonal synth offset against minimalist xylophone flourishes and Sylvian’s Bryan Ferry-esque croon. ‘Ghosts’ is a masterpiece of understated-yet-exploratory pop, and its inclusion here clearly indicates that this most commercially successful point in the Lambeth-born singer’s career was already signposting the idiosyncratic path he would so doggedly follow.

If anything, A Victim Of Stars is best played on shuffle, as it allows you to absorb Sylvian’s acute vision without the distraction of trying to place each track in some sort of artificial context. As such, tracks like ‘The Banality of Evil’ and ‘Wonderful World’, both taken from the Snow Borne Sorrow album Sylvian recorded as Nine Horses with his drummer brother (and most frequent collaborator) Steve Jansen and German artist Burnt Friedman, sound remarkably similar to the tracks taken from his first solo album, Brilliant Trees, released in 1984. These songs are sensual, exquisitely produced and elegant – slow-paced ruminations on modern life channelled through the eyes of a post-modern dandy. In twenty years, the idea of the disillusioned, be-suited dandy may have evolved, and so there are differences between ‘Red Guitar’ or ‘Pulling Punches’ and the Nine Horses tracks, but still Sylvian manages at every turn to encapsulate the despondent energy of our times.

This may indeed be his greatest strength. I once read an article that described Sylvian’s lyrics as “oblique”. Certainly, if you consider early-80s material like ‘Red Guitar’, or more recent pieces such as ‘The Only Daughter’ or ‘Manafon’, you may at times be baffled or confused by his words. They paint abstract colours, scattered around the music, like the impulsive canvases of Jackson Pollock. Yet, at their core, David Sylvian’s lyrics reflect his voice: they are sad, reflective and mournful, from the heart-rending melancholia of ‘Waterfront’ (“On the waterfront the rain / is pouring in my heart”) and ‘Let The Happiness In’ (“I’m longing for the agony to stop / Let the happiness in”), from his 1987 masterpiece Secrets Of The Beehive, to emotional pop like ‘Heartbeat’ and Blemish‘s understated ‘A Fire In The Forest’. You can ponder over every intricate lyrical detail of this compilation but, if you’re like me, you’ll probably find yourself coming back to the stark beauty of, say, ‘Darkest Dreaming’, a simple, near-ambient ballad featuring mournful, sparse synth lines and lyrics like “I don’t ever want to be alone / with all my darkest dreaming”. With his luxurious voice, Sylvian imbues those lines with such pathos that you find your own heart breaking. And tracks like ‘Darkest Dreaming’ echo back to ‘Ghosts’, with its immortal semi-chorus: “Just when I think I’m winning / When I’ve broken every door / The ghosts of my life grow wilder than before”. For all his intellect and adventure, Sylvian’s lyrics rest in a context of despondent melancholia and profound alienation. Throughout A Victim Of Stars, I was left with a sense that I was being embraced by a man who knew my every doubt and sadness. David Sylvian has that power.

His reach goes beyond the personal, however, and what also jumps out of the lyrics on many of the tracks on A Victim Of Stars is the vivid language he uses to create a mind’s-eye vision of landscape and places. Japan, obviously through their name, but also due to their poised, minimalist aesthetic and the China-focused subject matter of their final album, Tin Drum, were intrinsically linked to the Far East; and Sylvian would return to those geographical contexts as a solo artist, notably through his collaborations with former Yellow Magic Orchestra leader Ryuichi Sakamoto, with the fruits of their entwined sensitivities featuring early on disc one in the form of ‘Bamboo Music’, ‘Bamboo Houses’, ‘Heartbeat’ and the elegiac ‘Forbidden Colours’. The tracks from Brilliant Trees also feel imbued with Asian aesthetics, notably the very Japan-esque slab of pop-funk ‘Pulling Punches’.

Meanwhile, Rob Young, in his excellent book Electric Eden drew a line between Sylvian and preceding purveyors of a very British pastoralism such as composers Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, or psych-folk bands like The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. ‘Taking the Veil’ and ‘Silver Moon’, from his 1985 opus Gone to Earth are dominated by elegant acoustic and electric guitar melodies that place Sylvian’s reliance on synthetic instruments alongside an earthy and pastoral vibe. The former conveys a sense of ancient matrimonial ritual, while the latter is traversed by naturalistic imagery. ‘Orpheus’, taken from Secrets of the Beehive, demonstrates a fascination with arcane religions, and how they reflect in modern-day visions of social detachment. More recent tracks, such as ‘Wonderful World’ and ‘The Banality of Evil’, have distinct political undertones, perhaps bringing Sylvian closer to protest singers such as Ewan MacColl than might at first seem apparent. Of course, with his crisp suits, exquisite hair and make-up, Sylvian also looked very much the Wildean English gentleman to boot.

Both Gone to Earth and Secrets Of The Beehive also saw Sylvian stretching even further out than he had with Japan, flirting with jazz and minimal composition, and this desire to experiment would continue throughout his career, notably when working with Can bassist Holger Czukay and King Crimson’s pioneering guitarist Robert Fripp. By the time we get to the tracks from his two most recent solo albums, Blemish and Manafon, his take on music has one foot firmly in the avant-garde. Bringing in figures like Derek Bailey, Fennesz, Burkhard Stangl, Otomo Yoshihide, John Tilbury and Sachiko M, he toyed with improvisation and deliberate atonality. If his music had always been on the outside of mainstream pop, these two albums took things much further: unlike many other artists of his generation, David Sylvian is unafraid to keep pushing, to keep looking inwards (his lyrics on ‘Snow White In Appalachia’ may be his best ever, a dark, moody tale of morbid tragedy that could have acted as soundtrack to Winter’s Bone – a sign Sylvian’s folk side extends beyond the confines of Britain’s shores) and to keep expanding the range of what his music covers. For all the constants in this compilation, it above all shows an artist that is constantly evolving, despite the immediate familiarity of that aforementioned croon.

As with any compilation, the choices on A Victim Of Stars will divide. No ‘Wave’, ‘World Citizen’ or ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’? Shocking! But as a portrait of a great artist who has never stopped progressing and carving a niche that is equal parts challenging, enjoyable and moving, it does a brilliant job. As I say, I just keep coming back to ‘Darkest Dreaming’, a track I’d not heard before. And it’s exquisite. Here’s to the next twenty years of David Sylvian.