A Dusted Review: This World Is Not My Home by Kleistwahr (October 15th, 2014)

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This is going to sound much more disparaging than intended, but the music of Gary Mundy’s Kleistwahr can literally shift a hangover. But I swear on it as a cure for next day alco-flu. A few years back, Mundy (as Kleistwahr) was the first act on the third day of a Festival celebrating the legacy of his influential and much-missed Broken Flag label. The previous night’s back-to-back onslaught of Matt Bower’s Black Sunroof! and Consumer Electronics had been visceral, not just because of the harsh music they threw at the audience, but also because I’d rather unwisely downed what felt like six gallons of beer along the way. It was therefore with painful skull and some trepidation that I approached the stage for Mundy’s solo set, knowing the man’s predilection for high volume.

But instead of making my head pound more, the sonic waterfall he unleashed swept my brain clear, leaving me light-headed, alert and gasping for more. Mundy is capable of similar feats of intensity as one half (or occasionally a third or fifth) of his most famous act, Ramleh, and maybe it was the after-effects of the previous night’s over-indulgence, but on that afternoon, noise had never felt so beautiful to me.

I’ve been desperate for a new Kleistwahr album ever since. 2007’s The Return (Outer Bounds of Sound) was an excellent record, but failed to replicate the emotional and physical catharsis that Mundy provides in a live setting. This World Is Not My Home, which comes delightfully wrapped in a sleeve aping classic Broken Flag releases, feels like a concert recording, 39 uninterrupted minutes of blasted noise, subsumed melodies and aching drone. Armed with a gaggle of his trusty effects pedals, an electric guitar and a primitive synthesizer, Mundy builds up a noise suite of endlessly shifting tempos and form, each phase gracefully bleeding into the next. As if recorded live, This World Is Not My Home seems to kick in mid-way through a drifting guitar solo, with Mundy displaying his dexterity on that instrument via a pained, sweeping motif that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album. Very quickly, however, the noise kicks in, with gritty wall noise vomiting over a sinister vocal sample. At times, with both guitar and noise generators, the saturation reaches a feverish level, straining the very extremes of pitch and timbre.

As brutal and harsh as Kleistwahr can be, however, there is more to This World Is Not My Home than just power electronics. I’ve already mentioned Mundy’s talent as a musician, but more important is his humanity. He probably won’t thank me for writing this, but his approach is atypically sensitive for a genre that relies more often on misanthropy and aggression. In an interview I did with him and his alter ego in Ramleh, Anthony diFranco, Mundy explained to me that the lyrics on their most recent (and astounding) Malediction album include the line “Please forgive me” repeated over and over, like a despairing, self-flagellating mantra.

For all the throbbing gristle and shades of darkness on This World Is Not My Home, its principal feeling is one of melancholy, its title hinting at the despair of someone who feels he doesn’t belong in the world. The album is the expression of Mundy’s attempts to find his space, and as the track draws to a close on a sea of wailing feedback and his inchoate vocalisations, one is assailed by an acute sense of loss, mournfulness and, deep within these static grooves­– hope. This World Is Not My Home is the most emotionally affecting noise album I’ve ever heard, and is therefore somehow positively reassuring, despite the gloom.

It reminds me why I was so impatient for it to see the light of day, and in its dying moments, as Mundy’s voice reaches for a naked emotionality, it becomes hard to stem the tears. That’s not what a noise album is supposed to do to you, but then, as this album makes abundantly clear, there isn’t another noise artist like Gary Mundy.

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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.

A Liminal Live Review – A thousand dark voices: Phurpa, Colin Potter and Slomo at Cafe Oto, June 9th, 2012 (June 14th, 2012)

The second showcase of Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ label at London’s Cafe Oto was markedly different to the first, held back in February. Then, audiences were treated to the delicacy, poise and elegance of Elodie, Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang, but anyone who had listened to Phurpa’s Trowo Phurnag Ceremony album before crossing the threshold this time would have known to expect something a lot darker and louder this time around.

Slomo is a duo made up of Chris “Holy” McGrail and Howard Marsden. McGrail has long been known for his association with Julian Cope, and there was some of the spirit of the ‘Archdrude’ in his use of double-necked guitar, as he patiently coaxed deep, heavy drones from his 18 strings. Meanwhile, Marsden used a large Korg synth to plough a trench of throbbing sub-frequencies around McGrail, the duo combining to edge close to the kind of floor-shaking intensity that O’Malley himself has indulged in over the years in Sun O))) and Gravetemple. There was even a hint, towards the end, that Slomo were, for all the near-industrial murkiness of Marsden’s synth, edging into the kind of spacey post-metal territories of latter-period Earth, as McGrail used an e-bow to coax a single, continuous, high-pitched note out of his guitar, allowing it to drift while he played a discrete harmonium. There is a tendency for this sort of music to drift aimlessly, and maybe some other instruments would have added a bit of variety, but I think to dwell on this would miss the point; Slomo’s music demands that you sit back and let it roll over you.

Like Holy McGrail, Colin Potter is known for his association with one of the UK’s most esoteric underground figures, in his case Steve Stapleton and Nurse With Wound, although, as this performance demonstrated, he is an innovative musician in his own right. Stood behind an impressive array of devices and pedals, he introduced his set in jovial fashion, injecting a dose of eccentric humour and good-naturedness to what could have otherwise been a rather dour, serious evening. Despite some initial technical glitches with a CD player, he quickly got into his stride, conjuring up a dense veil of sound using untethered synth drones, sustained electric guitar and loops. The piece – jocularly named ‘What Could Go Wrong?’- bore strong echoes of early Cluster, who likewise distorted and mangled electric instruments to create heady musical concoctions as hypnotic as they were experimental. With his amiable manner, Potter also, somehow, evoked a folk-singer of the sort hailed in Rob Young’s Electric Eden (this might have something to do with his ever-so-vague resemblance to Ewan MacColl), and his brief but lovely set was a warm and melodic counterpoint to the doomier ones that bookended it. (As an aside, I have since seen Nurse With Wound, opening for Sunn O))) at Koko, and while it is clear the heart of the band is Stapleton, there was no denying that the architect of their multi-faceted industrial music was Potter, as he mixed and arranged what his partners produced while also dropping in key elements of his own).

And then came Phurpa. I should probably kick off immediately by saying that this was the longest set I’ve experienced at Oto, and probably their longest ever for an evening with three acts. After about an hour of the Russian trio’s cavernous, intimidating chanting, I had to make a break for the bathroom, anxious that I’d miss the climax of their performance, but was informed they still had at least another hour in them!

Predictably, some of the audience didn’t really appreciate this bloody-minded approach, and gradually each renewed gurgle and rumble from the trio was met with incredulous whispers and folks heading for the door. Their loss, because as the noisier punters took their leave, something akin to a hush descended on those remaining, providing the perfect curtain of rapt fascination to tune in properly to what fast became a strange, unsettling ritual. You don’t have to be a follower of the pre-Buddhist Bon religion to be able to release yourself into the strange realms of Phurpa. Under a fug of pungent incense, the trio huddled, sitting cross-legged in their black ceremonial robes around their aged percussion and horn instruments, and patiently, doggedly, intoned their harsh, nocturnal mantras, their voices never relenting, never receding, even when they sprinkled their hoarse drones with minimal percussion. The only respite, if you want to call it that, was when leader Alexei Tegin blasted out echoing notes on his colossal horn. It was almost peaceful, although a very different sense of peace to that conjured up by Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang four months previously.

Though the band hardly move and barely deviate from their established sonic formula, the close-up Phurpa experience still resonates more potently than on record. Lying on my back in front of them with my eyes closed, shutting out the occasional chatter of less respectful audience members and honing into their enmeshed alien, my sense of place and time became untethered. And given the intrinsically dark and primordial nature of Phurpa’s music, I found my mind wandering to weird and sinister places on the currents of their tenacious drone, as I pictured myself stumbling into an icy cave under the Himalayas and finding a trio of ancient zombie monks locked in an eternal cycle of chanting. The music is disquietingly beautiful, but at the same time, you fear that if they notice your presence, they might just remember that they require living human flesh to survive. A daft daydream perhaps, but one that seemed apt as I lay sprawled,  quailing beneath the impregnable wall of voices conjured by this most mysterious outfit.

A Liminal Live Review – Never Say When: 30 Years of Broken Flag (May 11th, 2012)

This live review first appeared on The Liminal’s site, but I have added my own photos here.

30 years ago, a tiny record label run out of Croydon resident Gary Mundy’s bedroom was launched on the world, alongside Mundy’s band Ramleh. Although it would always remain an operation ensconced in the underground of British music, it quietly helped shape the nature of that underground and gradually grew in influence until it reached the near-legendary status it holds today, some fifteen years after it was laid to rest. That label, of course, was Broken Flag, and few have defined the Power Electronics and noise scenes in this country more than it did between 1982 and 1995. Broken Flag launched Ramleh, of course, but also Consumer Electronics, The New Blockaders, Ethnic Acid and Skullflower, and, for all its perennial association with Power Electronics, its roster was remarkably diverse, bringing together artists from around the world and across the various facets of noise and electronic music. Listen to just about any modern noise/electro/industrial artist or band operating today, and you can hear something of Broken Flag’s influence amidst their drones, screes and squalls. And what better way to celebrate this astonishing legacy than by organising a three-day festival in a grungy venue in rain-battered north London?

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Skullflower (Samantha Davies)

Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way: it had been announced that Prurient would be part of the bill, but he sadly dropped out. The doors also opened an hour late on each day. The Dome, whilst a nice room with decent enough sound, somewhat undermines itself due to unfriendly staff and ridiculously over-zealous bouncers. But those were small niggles over a weekend of simply phenomenal music. Any fears I had that things would get a bit samey (we’re talking about 3 days of noise and industrial music, after all) proved to be completely unfounded, and with so many great, and I mean truly fucking great, acts on display, I very much doubt anyone left feeling short-changed.

I have already hailed the event’s diversity of sound, but for all-out Power Electronics fans, there were several acts that would have amply satisfied their need for crackling tones and shouty vocals. Swedish duo Sewer Election and Treriksröset had the perhaps unenviable task of opening the event, and proceeded to deliver a brittle and short set full of hiss, fuzz and aggressive arm-raising, taking the novel stance of performing in the midst of the audience, hunched over their effects pedals and contact mics. Like Saturday’s second act, Lettera 22, these two were a younger act designed to showcase Broken Flag’s influence on recent generations. Italy’s Lettera 22 also performed in the midst of the audience, producing seething synth- and tape-based harsh noise that shook the hall so much they caused a pair of amps to crash to the floor. Their set was altogether more potent than Sewer Election and Treriksröset’s, with the kind of sonic construction that has characterised recent works by Mike Shiflet and Joe Colley, albeit with a constant undercurrent of noisy drone (and perhaps less subtlety than those greats). It did drag on a bit, but Lettera 22 showed that newer acts are not scared to push the boundaries of what their illustrious forbears pioneered.

Starting at 7pm (supposedly), Friday’s evening was the shortest, and it was dominated by stalwarts from Broken Flag’s past. Le Syndicat hail from France, and first appeared on the Morality compilation way back in 1985. Their set, another excessively long one, showed some exciting use of techno-ish beats and heavy bass (they’ve obviously spent some time with ears to the drum ’n’ bass ground, and it is good to highlight the sometimes unexpected lineage between early industrial and d’n’b), but mostly lacked focus and direction. Con-Dom, in contrast, was gruelling and confrontational, with Mike Dando stripped to the waist as he hurled scabrous lyrics at the audience and kicked over any beverages on the stage’s edge, backed by brittle old skool power electronics and gruesome film footage. Very much a per se Power Electronics gig, then, and one that showcased the genre’s uneasy balance of pure menace and over-the-top silliness, something that was also the case with the balaclava-clad Grunt, who were beyond cliche with their ugly shouted vocals and stereotypical blasts of uninspired greasy noise. Meanwhile, young Finn Tommi Keränen, who appeared on Sunday, was more sedate, but failed to distinguish his sound from every “pure Power Electronics” act that preceded him, his scraped tones sounding like a carbon copy of Grey Wolves circa 1992.

Consumer Electronics

Consumer Electronics

Of course, the need to provoke and enrage has been intrinsic to a lot of Power Electronics from the genre’s inception in the form of Whitehouse. Whitehouse’s Phillip Best was a key player in the Broken Flag story, as a member of Male Rape Group and Ramleh and as leader of his own project, Consumer Electronics, who headlined on Saturday and who, like Con-Dom, embodied the spirit of shock noise. This was the mosh-pit moment of the weekend, with Best (very much a noise celebrity) striding around with his shirt open, kicking over beer and spitting water as he screamed typically obscene lyrics (though, to be honest, all I could hear was the word “fuck” – it could have been “I fucking love everyone in the world”, in fairness, though I doubt it) and rubbed his body, tongue protruding. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Sarah Freilich and Gary Mundy produced screaming, overloaded machine noise and Anthony diFranco pummeled his bass guitar, the whole lot building into an ear-bashing wall of angry noise. Sure, the theatrics, which even involved holding up pictures of what appeared to be murder victims, were beyond camp, but like his erstwhile Whitehouse colleague William Bennett, Best somehow manages to balance his silliness with an intense aura of acute menace and fierce intelligence; and the music was simply overpowering. The only thing that prevented the set from being a true reincarnation of the mid-eighties Power Electronics scene at its height was the fact that this audience was full of adoration for the people onstage, rather than being on the brink of a riot.

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JFK

As much as I enjoyed Consumer Electronics and even, somewhat against my better judgment, Con-Dom, the most musically interesting acts on show were often those who went beyond noise and industrial and explored different styles. M.T.T., who appeared on Saturday, was a good example, his grimy set featuring delicate interludes and some subtle plucking of what looked like an electric dulcimer, with the ensuing spaces bristling with poised tension and unexpected melodies. In many ways, it reminded me of the recent works by Cindytalk or even BJ Nilsen, who was, coincidentally, in the audience (yes, shameless name-drop there). JFK, a side-project by Ethnic Acid and Ramleh’s Anthony diFranco, featured twin bass and electric guitar, bridging the gap between Broken Flag’s electro-noise origins and the thunderous industrial metal of Godflesh or Ministry. The riffs were heavy and sludgy, the basses rumbled like earthquakes, a drum machine spat out mean beats, and for all of a moment it felt like Laibach and Justin K Broadrick had joined in the fun, albeit drunkenly and with no interest in any concept of song.

Kleistwahr

Kleistwahr

Several artists resolutely anchored in noise also displayed a fearlessness in taking things into new zones, not least of all Gary Mundy’s solo project Kleistwahr. Using basic loops and his inimitable voice (I swear there are few in noise who can hold a candle to him in terms of how he uses vocals), Mundy unleashed a veritable storm of sonic nails, an avalanche of brittle, savage electronic mess that seethed and surged rhythmically with the inhalations and expirations of the breath from his lungs. Somewhere inside the morass, Mundy expelled angry, anguished lyrics that seeped into focus only to disappear as quickly as they appeared. It was a short, fierce set that opened the Saturday in full force, eradicating the hangover that clung to my brain more effectively than a hundred aspirin pills. On Sunday, Putrefier used a mighty-looking modular synthesizer to craft intricate noisescapes in the manner of Keith Fullerton Whitman, as individual sub-melodies were seized upon, enhanced, exploded and then discarded with effortless, near-scientific, skill. The resemblance to KFW is interesting: was this a case of a veteran taking on new ideas, or a sign that Putrefier’s influence has, like Broken Flag itself, transcended the ages? Sigillum S, meanwhile, delivered a remarkably elaborate set, melding synth patterns over a persistent, throbbing bass drone in front of unnerving video footage. With a density of sound almost akin to progressive rock and enthusiastically menacing vocals, Sigillum S were almost “cinematic”, as if they were soundtracking the grim imagery behind them rather than just using it as a tool, again joining the dots with modern “horror” acts like Raime or Failing Lights. They also highlighted modern noise’s intrinsic link to the late-seventies and early-eighties industrial scene, as incarnated by Throbbing Gristle and SPK. Equally close to those highly conceptual roots was Italian legend Giancarlo Toniutti, who took the novel approach of performing next to the PA. His sound was dominated by metallic rumbles, elastic vocal snippets and claustrophobically compressed drone. Above all, like Sigillum S, a relentless deep drone guided his sound, and Toniutti built his screes and squalls around this immobile metronome, until the resulting chaos came close to the implacable, all-consuming and monolithic beauty of Harsh Wall Noise. What a way to connect the past and the present states of noise. 

Belgian duo Club Moral equally mastered the old and new in their brutal take on what could literally be described as musique concrete. They also were one of only a quartet of acts to feature a woman, and noise’s domination by straight, white, men is something that both intrigues and confuses me, and not just because I was almost certainly the only gay person in the audience for the duration of the festival. But that’s a consideration for another day, so back to Club Moral! From a live stand-point, they were extraordinary: Danny Devos jumped into the audience, rolled around on the floor and dunked his head into a contact-miked bucket of water whilst Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven chucked out 80s-style electro bleeps and zaps and churned out moody, static noise. Once again throwing back to the golden era of Throbbing Gristle, this performance owed as much to performance art as it did to noise or Power Electronics.

Taking a completely different approach were Esplendor Geometrico, a Spanish duo who made an only very brief appearance on Broken Flag back in the day, and one that Gary Mundy highlighted as being very different to the rest of what the label was putting out at the time. This was their first ever live performance in the UK, so their set was predictably long, and, actually, very different from everything else on show. Of course, there was the requisite harsh noise, complete with grinding bass tones and hissing static, but every track was dominated by insistent, driving beats, evidence that noise can quite comfortably process techno and house without losing its darkened soul. Coming on like Pete Swanson’s excellent Man With Potential album, only with more angst and aggression, Esplendor Geometrico’s set felt like club music beamed in from the dystopian future of Blade Runner. Vortex Campaign, meanwhile, combined pulsating, beat-driven noise with fuzzed-out riffs on electric guitar. Dodging around the crackles and hiss generated from a laptop, the guitarist toyed with staples of the blues and garage rock, giving the entire performance the sort of rootsy edge of Wolf Eyes offshoot Stare Case, emphasising Industrial music’s natural, but often overlooked, roots in rock tradition.

Ramleh

Ramleh

Such a diverse line-up was testament to both the good taste of the organisers (again, massive thanks to the great people at Second Layer records and Harbinger Sound) and the genre-pushing nature of Broken Flag. But few bands could ever hope to encapsulate the spirit of the label in the way that Skullflower and Ramleh do. After all, they are probably the two bands that first spring to mind when one evokes Broken Flag. Skullflower were the penultimate act on the Friday, and with their dense clusters of extended guitar noise over monolithic rhythm section pounding, they elevated proceedings into new areas of sonic bliss. Matt Bower, the mainstay of Skullflower, has long abstracted himself from the gristle and grind of basic noise, focusing instead on hypnotic repetition and transcendent drone. His guitar playing, allied to that of his partner Samantha Davies, owes as much to LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad’s minimalist drone as it does to anything linked to noise or even rock, and, to cop a phrase of his, being caught up in the sound of Skullflower live is like sitting under a waterfall. With so much of the weekend’s music focusing on machines and electronics, it was a beautiful escape to be absorbed by the primeval post-rock of Skullflower. On Saturday, Davies and Bower teamed up with Gordon Sharpe, aka Cindytalk, as Black Sunroof!, although what resulted felt more like Sharpe fronting Bower and Davies’ Voltigeurs than anything tied to the original Sunroof! Of course, Sharpe’s presence was a stunning glitch in the uber-macho ambiance of the weekend, the exquisite, ambiguous transgender singer contorting and swaying as he belted out mournful, arresting singing over a blanket of ear-shattering violin and guitar drone provided by Davies and Bower. Black Sunroof! brought a touch of the sensual, the elegiac and -dare I say it?- the queer to proceedings, and were one of the most unexpected acts on display all weekend.

Black Sunroof!

Black Sunroof!

Ramleh, as befits the band that, essentially, made it all, played two sets: one “Power Electronics” version (although I prefer to think of it as “noise drone”) and one full rock band. The former concluded the Friday night, and showcased the intense sound Gary Mundy and Anthony diFranco perfected on their superlative Valediction album: intense, all-encompassing machine noise that enveloped the audience, creating a drifting platform for Mundy to howl, moan and growl into the microphone, his distorted voice (and I’ll say it again – man, what a voice!) lifting what would be intensely beautiful, but near-static, noise into blissful heavens of transformative drone. diFranco did hit the bass at one point, but it only served to add an extra layer to the impregnable wall of sound. On Sunday, they were joined by drummer Martyn Watts and Phillip Best on vocals, although the latter surrendered much of the singing to Mundy, and quite rightly so. Best’s presence seemed to serve as a bit of nostalgia (he was a driving force behind Ramleh from the mid-eighties until the late nineties, and crucial to great albums such as Be Careful What You Wish For), but with Mundy unleashing earthy, ragged guitar solos over diFranco’s hallucinatory bass (I’ve previously compared him to Jack Casady and Billy Talbot), the set felt like a flight of fancy over and away from pure noise and into the sort of realms most notably explored by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Butthole Surfers, Black Sabbath or the Stooges. Of course, as on the Friday, this was loud, mean and noisy, but it was just as potently psychedelic, and truly dominated by Mundy and diFranco’s intense conception of “song”. In a recent interview I did with diFranco and Mundy, they talked at length about how they like to take a melody (normally such an unused word at a noise event!), build it up and then destroy it, only to build it back up… and destroy it all over again. That was evident on their Power Electronics set, but even more so in the heart of their rock maelstrom on Sunday.

The New Blockaders

The New Blockaders

And so, after Ramleh’s ecstatic second set, it was left to everyone’s favourite crass noise band, The New Blockaders, to conclude what had been an exhilarating weekend that took noise back in time before projecting it into the future. Fittingly, it was a conclusion of pure noise, a tidal wave of nasty, enervated saturation delivered by three weirdos in balaclavas. With the way they bang tin drums and other weird objects, The New Blockaders go beyond pure noise and into something approaching, but resolutely sneering at, the avant garde. The best moment was when one of them suddenly materialised in the audience, banging his slab of metal as he marched through the mass of people. Ultimately, with their ferocity and nihilism, the New Blockaders brought matters full circle, back to the roots of Broken Flag’s underground spirit, but without ever dispelling the magic that had gone before, as Ramleh, Kleistwahr, Skullflower, JFK, Club Moral, Esplendor Geometrico and all those others had transcended noise in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible and remained lodged in my mind even as The New Blockaders went about their madcap theatrics. What a weekend. What a fantastic thirty years. What a label. Thank you Broken Flag!

A Quietus Interview – Destroying Structure: An Interview With Ramleh (February 1st, 2012)

With the current upsurge in popularity for noise music, one now-defunct eighties record label has been garnering a lot of retrospective attention: Broken Flag Records, which operated from 1982 to 1989 under the beady eye of South Londoner Gary Mundy. In parallel to releasing pioneering works (usually in the then-nascent power electronics genre) by the likes of Maurizio Bianchi, Skullflower and Controlled Bleeding, Mundy also was the guiding hand of seminal noise/rock/drone/post-everything band Ramleh, which has now existed in a variety of forms for thirty years.

Today, Ramleh exists in two guises: one a power trio featuring Mundy on guitar and vocals, long-time member Anthony di Franco (formerly of Skullflower and the man behind the Ethnic Acid and JFK solo outfits) on bass, and drummer Martyn Watts; the other a power electronics act featuring just Mundy and di Franco. With a massive anniversary festival for both the band and Broken Flag set for 2012, the Quietus sat down with Gary Mundy and Anthony di Franco, after a rehearsal in preparation of last October’s Leeds show, to discuss their unique history. We spoke about why they decided to have two versions of Ramleh, the story of Broken Flag, and how they’re planning to celebrate 30 years of incredible music this year.

How did the rehearsal for the Leeds show go?

Gary Mundy: Pretty good.

Anthony diFranco: Yeah, it was really enjoyable.

GM: The three of us hadn’t played together in quite a while. We have two versions of the band, and this was the guitar-bass-drums version, and Martyn [Watts] hadn’t played the drums for a while so we were curious as to how it would sound [laughs], but it was like we’d never left off, really, wasn’t it?

AdF: Yeah, fantastic.

I can imagine that Ramleh live shows must be very intense and demanding. How do you prepare for that? Is it easy to ‘get in the zone’, as they say?

GM: I’m always in ‘the zone’ [laughs]

AdF: A lot of it depends on the sound of the venue, whether we’re doing the duo or the trio version of the band. You get a lot of variance from venue to venue, in the sound and so on. So generally, we work out the sound and kind of get sucked into it… If we’ve had a good gig, we generally get off the stage with a feeling we’ve been somewhere else, we come off and think ‘wow’. We get a real kick out of performing live.

GM: It’s certainly kind of gruelling, but then the adrenaline gets you going. At the end of each gig, I feel I could quite happily get back on and do it again.

Is your music mostly improvised, or do you come in with a setlist?

GM: We’ve got sets that we work out, which we sort of stick to, but there’s room within our music to improvise. Some of our tracks are quite open-ended, so if it’s going well we can extend them a bit. We have a pretty good idea of what we’re going to do, though. We don’t make it up as we go along.

AdF: It’s kind of improvisation around a structure. Sometimes things turn into something else altogether.

GM: I like it when that happens, those happy accidents.

Tell me a bit more about these two versions of the band. When you’re playing as a trio, I assume it’s you, Gary, on guitar, Anthony on bass and Martyn on drums. When you perform as a duo, is it all electronics? When you’re performing live, do you go back to older material, or do you just stick with new tracks?

AdF: We use guitar and bass as well, as a duo, along with the electronics, but there are no drums, no percussion.

GM: When we first started the electronics side of Ramleh, at a gig in New York, we did do some older material, because it was a 25th anniversary thing, so we did a mixture of both, but we then decided we wanted to do some new electronic stuff, so it’s pretty much entirely new material now. We’re doing these anniversary shows in May next year, so we might resurrect some older songs for that.

AdF: The current setlist contains quite a lot from the Valediction album, mixed with some new tracks, but we have the flexibility to shift around with that set-up.

GM: Yeah, whereas with the rock version of the band, apart from the ‘Switch-Hitter’ single we did, it’s all material from the forthcoming album. If things are going well, I think you should always be happiest with what you’re doing at the moment. If you only want to do old stuff, it kind of suggests that what you’re doing now isn’t any good! We’re generally always happiest with what we’re doing at the time. In hindsight, sometimes you might realise that what you were doing three albums ago was better than what you did two albums ago, but at the time of doing something it’s different.

AdF: The way we’ve worked over the years has been to not reflect too much on the past and always try to look forwards. The sort of tension between our ‘rock’ and ‘electronic’ sides also gives us a lot of freedom to try new things.

How did the decision to have two different versions of the band come about?

GM: It was probably that New York show, again.

AdF: Yes, that’s the simplest explanation. We were asked to do this show in New York in 2007. It was a power electronics show, so we worked on that, and it just worked really well.

GM: It seemed a shame to do it for just one show, so we thought we should carry on with that. But at the same time we wanted to carry on with what we’d be doing before, as the rock band, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we just carry on with both?’ I think we figured that the two could sort of merge in some way in some point in the future, but at the moment they seem to work as two separate things. I like the idea that we could perhaps weave them together, with a bit of guitar-bass-drums and electronics, but we haven’t really done it yet.

Regarding the history of Ramleh, I know you were on Broken Flag as a teenager, Anthony, as Ethnic Acid and JFK, whilst Gary was operating the label and performing as Ramleh.

AdF: I was very young, and Gary kindly released a couple of tapes I did, and then got me involved in Skullflower, on the early albums, such as Form Destroyer. But Gary’s obviously the most long standing member of Ramleh.

GM: I started Ramleh in 1982, hence the 30-year anniversary concert next year. It was me and a friend of mine, who fell by the wayside when I suggested we play live. The first album was also me and someone else, before it became me and Philip Best, from Whitehouse. Stuart Dennison [from Skullflower] joined us afterwards, so we became a four-piece, and now it’s just the three of us, or two. The shifts happened pretty much organically. Be Careful What You Wish For [1995] was something of a concept album, whilst Valediction came out of reviving the whole power electronics thing, but at the same time we didn’t want to do something that sounded like it could have come out in 1982. Hole in the Heart [1987, reissued in 2009 on Dirter] was the one time it was just me, because I wanted to revive the band but couldn’t find anyone to do it with! Listening back to it, I don’t really know where that came from [laughs]. I was trying to do something a bit noisy but also with a lot of guitar, so it felt like a progression from what I’d been doing before. I think the rock band thing kind of evolved out of playing with Skullflower in the late eighties and early nineties. There were ideas coming out of that that I wanted to take into Ramleh, a sort of idea of being a metal band but without drums. And as ever, that idea turned into something completely different, but it got Philip back into the band, and then sort of evolved.

AdF: In the late eighties and early nineties, there were quite a lot people experimenting with rock, but using noisier sounds. There was a real sort of groundswell, a lot of people doing that. Sort of taking a rock idea and destroying it, and then building it back up only to destroy it again.

GM: Of course, in the early Skullflower days, we were all massive Butthole Surfers fans! I just loved the fact that you could take a rock idea and sort of mess around with it. Being a rock band, but a warped one.

What do you think of the current power electronics revival, and how do you look back at the scene from the eighties?

AdF: When I started recording music, in the mid-eighties, I was doing it in a complete vacuum, but Gary was in the middle of it…

GM: Well, William Bennett deserves the credit, really, because Whitehouse sort of sparked the whole thing off. I’d be doing my own things, with, y’know, tapes in my bedroom and so on, but it was seeing Whitehouse that made me realise there was potentially an audience for that sort of stuff. William told me how to get my records off the ground and there was a little cosy scene for a while. And then of course, it sort of splintered, but initially it was really good. I’m not really aware of what’s going on at the moment. I don’t really pay much attention. I’ll hear a few things that sound great from time to time. I don’t really want to be persuaded to do what’s currently fashionable. This may seem big-headed, but I’d rather be the one being followed rather than following, so I like to try and always do something that sounds different.

AdF: I think we probably work differently from some of the other power electronics bands…

GM: I don’t think that what we do is what they would consider to even be power electronics.

AdF: With Valediction, we recorded it as a rock album, but we used different instrumentation. So we did what you might call a power electronics album, but recorded it in the same way Led Zeppelin might have recorded an album [laughs]. Which is probably not how a lot of power electronics acts work. We don’t use laptops for example.

GM: I don’t even own a laptop!

Broken Flag started as a way to put out your own stuff and stuff you liked – do you miss running the label at all?

GM: Not much, no. It was hard work. I did it for seven years, something like that, and it was a real cottage industry, just me sitting at home and not going out as I tried to fulfil all these orders. I was happy to do it for a while, but it got to the stage where I didn’t have a life! I do kind of miss having a label but I don’t miss all the work involved [laughs].

AdF: It was one of the best labels you could be on at the time and, from my perspective, it seemed dangerously close to being a professional operation. I mean, you actually gave me copies of the tapes when they were released! But I should imagine there was an awful lot of work involved…

GM: Yeah, it was pretty much constant. There was a long list of orders that I had to get through all the time. These days, you wouldn’t be able to get away with it, because people pretty much want everything immediately. But if you ordered something from me in those days, it would take you 3 or 4 weeks to get it, because I had other stuff to do first, and had this backlog. But people didn’t worry so much in those days. They expected it to take a while, especially as I did everything to order. I didn’t have boxes of tapes lying around.

Were you aware that the label was becoming a pretty big deal?

GM: With hindsight, as people have come up and said things to me, I’ve come to realise that people did appreciate it. But I didn’t get that feeling at the time, it was just something I did. I didn’t feel I was doing anything particularly special – I mean, there were lots of other labels around. But looking back, people seem to have a lot of fondness for Broken Flag, which is nice.

Plus you launched quite a few careers on Broken Flag: Skullflower, Maurizio Bianchi…

GM: Yes, that’s true. When we started working on the Broken Flag boxset it was quite funny thinking about how long ago that was, and how many of those people are still doing stuff.

AdF: It was a very varied and open-minded back catalogue. From the perspective of someone who used to send Gary stuff to put out, it always used to amaze me that he would release some of the stuff that I did. Because I was deliberately making it far out.

GM: The only way I could work was that if someone sent me a tape, I’d put it on and then carry on with whatever I was doing. If the music caught my attention in some way, and I thought there was something good in there, I’d put it out. If it finished and I hadn’t even noticed, then I’d have to be diplomatic and turn it down. I used to get a lot of really dull stuff, people just messing around with synthesizers, or whatever. I think a lot of people who don’t really ‘get’ noise music just think anyone can do it but you can tell who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t. A lot of it is down to ability.

AdF: You can tell when someone doing noise music has got musical sense. It can be melody, but it can even be something like structure. You can tell if someone has a sense of musical structure.

GM: When I look at our back catalogue, in Ramleh, there are very few side-long tracks, they all hover around that five-minute mark, and come from thinking about things more in a song-like way.

AdF: Which is not to say we won’t do twenty-minute pieces, and we have!

Ramleh obviously had an influence on the modern noise scene. Do you find, with noise, that, after a while, when it’s been building up, it gets to a point where it becomes cathartic as opposed to purely noisy?

AdF: Oh fucking hell, yeah! Absolutely. Sometimes it’s like you’re opening up a black hole, and sucking everyone in. Certainly when we do the power electronics show, it gets to a point where we build up a tidal wave of sound and you get lost in it, but you’re participating at the same time. It’s a bit like having your cake and eating it.

GM: When you’re on stage, obviously you’re performing, but the best gigs for me are when I kind of forget that the audience is there. You just sort of lose yourself in the music, and then you come back to reality and think ‘Jesus, there are people here!’ [laughs].

At the same time, Ramleh’s music is very melodic, even subtle. When you’re playing at such a high volume, can it be difficult to maintain that subtlety?

GM: I don’t know if we’re very subtle. Maybe tangentially…

AdF: It’s quite nice when you have a structure to also have the freedom to destroy it and debase it a bit. Sometimes, it’s nice when things just fall to pieces, and effectively that’s what we’ve been doing for 20 or 30 years.

GM: I kind of like the opposite in many ways, when you’re making pure noise, and you can introduce a melodic element to it. And people aren’t even noticing.

I really like the use of vocals in Ramleh. They’re very much subsumed in the mix, but are lyrics a very key part of what Ramleh do?

GM: Yeah. I’m quite happy to do stuff without vocals, but when they are in there, I do want the lyrics to mean something, even if you can’t hear what they are. I haven’t gone in much for lyrics sheets. With Valediction, it was a case of taking the lyrics, cutting them up and putting them in there.

Is it a kind of stream-of-consciousness approach to lyric-writing or do you work to a theme?

GM: Usually, yeah, it just kinds of comes out. I’ll have a track and think it needs vocals, and then I think ‘What sort of thing is that track conjuring up?’ You hear a track and kind of hear a vocal melody. I did the lyrics for Valediction all in one night, it all kind of came out in one go…

AdF: Sometimes you’ll have a rhythmic thing going on, and find that vocals will match that. As for the lyrics, it kind of depends on what’s buzzing around in your head at the time. It’s a difficult process to describe.

GM: If I’m going to write anything, it’s probably going to be something very bleak. So Anthony has to do the positive stuff! In the early power electronics days, I’d try to do sort of aggressive lyrics, but most of the time it didn’t come easily to me. It was always the sort of down, depressive stuff that came easily to me.

AdF: With Valediction, we were talking about doing a power electronics record, and Gary came up and said he’d written a shitload of lyrics.

GM: I just sat down one night and wrote a few different things that all sort of spewed out. I don’t write very often, so when I do it’s either rubbish or comes out on a roll like that.

AdF: Gary needs to be given a lot of credit for that whole ‘vocal-as-instrument’ style, with a lot of echo. That came out of early Ramleh. Even in the early days of Skullflower, when we had vocals, we used to call it ‘The Ramleh Vocal’, because it was a very distinctive sound.

GM: Matthew Bower asked me to do some vocals with the Voltigeurs for the Leeds show. As before, when I’d sung in Skullflower, and I asked him what he wanted, vocally, he said ‘Your usual wounded elk’ [laughs]. So that’s my sound: wounded elk!

Do you have a thematic approach to each album?

AdF: There are definitely thematic ideas on individual albums. Valediction was quite a concept piece, though I’m not sure anyone got it. The clue’s in the title…

GM: It’s a lot about schizophrenia, of sorts, and depression, and the flipside of that, which is when you feel like you’re king of the world. You feel like you’re invincible and then suddenly you want to just kill yourself. It’s one of the few very personal things I’ve written, whereas generally I write about more general things. I think in power electronics, there’s a lot of that sort of macho posturing and aggression, which is ok to an extent, but there’s not a lot of what I’d call ’emotional’ power electronics.

AdF: Yet there’s got to be room for that.

GM: I think you can use that music and do something more personal and moving, in a way. There’s a bit in ‘Part III’ on Valediction where I’m just shouting ‘Please forgive me’ over and over. I kind of lose myself in that.

AdF: It’s funny, I’d only just noticed that’s what you were singing. [laughs] Valediction had a very dark sound, but what was interesting was the piece at the end, which had a driving feel to it, which turned it on its head to make it almost life-affirming.

GM: Pete Johnson from Second Layer, who put it out and did all the promos, described it as ‘bleak psychedelia’, and I think that sums it up. I like describing us as that.

As you said, next year marks the 30th anniversary of Broken Flag, with a huge festival to celebrate it in May. Is it all ex-Broken Flag people, or are you bringing in some other friends as well?

GM: I was speaking to the promoters, whom I’m letting do all the work [laughs], and they persuaded me that we should have one act each night that’s a modern act who would have theoretically been influenced by what was put out on Broken Flag, so that’s what we’ve done. We’ve got Prurient, as well as Ramleh, Skullflower, Giancarlo Toniutti, The New Blockaders, Controlled Bleeding and many others from the Broken Flag days. Basically anyone who’s still alive!

AdF: It’s very much a once in a lifetime experience, and we’ll have Americans, Italians, Brits and so on.

Does having this big shebang make you look back at the history of Ramleh and Broken Flag in a new way?

GM: I’m kind of hoping this is going to be it, so we can focus on what we’re doing now after all this.

AdF: Don’t look back. It’s very nice to have a legacy to look back on, and we’re looking to re-release a lot of it, but it must not become a millstone around your fucking neck. You do have to focus on what you’re doing at the moment, but at the same time you have to consider that people want to hear older stuff.

GM: And not have to pay £40 on Ebay!