A Dusted Review: The Ark Work by Liturgy (March 19th, 2015)

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Black metal fans can be a prickly bunch. I was once verbally taken to task by a BM-er(can I use that?) for professing an admiration for SUNN O))). This chap, who is otherwise the nicest person you could meet, was almost apoplectic with rage at the mere thought. I don’t quite remember all the details, but the words “fucking posers” were used frequently, which I found odd from someone who admires people who smear their faces with fake-looking “corpse-paint”. But this aesthetic purity is part of BM’s appeal to its purists, and whilst I am more drawn to the way the likes of SUNN O))) and Wolves in the Throne Room twist its rather formulaic bedrock in innovative ways, certainly much more than the legion of Mayhem-alikes that make up “real” black metal, well apparently that’s misguided or something. It’s all very intense, which shouldn’t be a surprise, really.

Still, I think I will be siding with the BM-ers when it comes to Liturgy, who surely must have been founded predominantly with the ambition to well and truly rile up people like my SUNN O)))-hating friend. The most common description I found for them from BM circles was “fucking Brooklyn hipsters playing at black metal”, and whilst that’s probably true on some of their earlier output, on The Ark Work feels misleading. The BM-ers are right: The Ark Work is certainly not black metal. The problem is that it’s really not much else, either. Indeed, even after repeated listens, it comes across not so much as an album but as a sort of formless mass, which could be a good thing, in the right hands, but here does little more than baffle and exasperate.

Essentially, what you have here is a band acting being too clever for its own good. From the opening trumpet blares of “Fanfare”, The Ark Work feels overloaded, saturated with a non-stop barrage of sounds, from glockenspiels and bagpipes to chimes and bombastic synthesizer patterns. At a push, it could share with black metal the sonic desire to grab listeners by the throat and provide a truly visceral and atavistic experience. There’s also a lot of blast beating going on, although the results sound more like Pelican than Bathory. But the problem at heart is not actually that Liturgy like to throw some experimentation into their black mass — I’ve already mentioned SUNN O))) and Wolves in the Throne Room, but could also point to experimental flourishes in acts like Ulver and Burzum — it’s that the way they do it is bombastic and knowing: there is none of metal’s (of any style) darkness and atavism, both replaced by a smug attempt to outwit and outmanoeuvre both audiences and the bands they claim to share a lineage with.

Then again, maybe the whole black metal thing with Liturgy is a red herring, or a practical joke, despite leader Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s essays that suggest the contrary and much-vaunted philosophy degree. The sheer grandiosity of these tracks, the way the band pile up sounds to a dizzying degree suggests more affinity with the most excessive prog- or post-rock bands (I’ve already mentioned Pelican, but you could even chuck Marillion or Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the there as well), but with any space ripped out altogether. And the vocals, whilst unintelligible in a way that Attila Csihar might appreciate, are so dull and inexpressive that any coherent emotional or intellectual content is rendered unintelligible. All in all, I’m sure there are those who will find something profound behind the morass that is The Ark Work, but just as many might find it nothing more than surreal joke. To be honest, neither situation seems true, it’s more a case that there is nothing much to glean from the album whatsoever. Now where did I put my Leviathan albums?

A Quietus Interview: Jamie McDermott of the Irrepressibles, Alexander Geist, Ebe Oke and MJ Woodbridge (March 18th, 2015)

It’s been a busy couple of years for The Irrepressibles’ Jamie McDermott. The critical and commercial success of the band’s second album, Nude, a celebration of and reflection on male homosexual love, has shot the singer to new heights of recognition, resulting in a series of well-received tours that have taken him and his bandmates around the world, from the United States to Russia and beyond. Last year saw a series of EPs expand on the premise and aesthetic of Nude, often stripping away the album’s lavish electronics and symphonic textures to reveal the heartfelt lyrical honesty underneath. Now residing in Berlin, McDermott will be back on UK shores on March 20 for a one-off spectacle at Islington Assembly Hall, London, which will see The Irrepressibles recreate Nude in all its glory, bolstered by support from genre-pushing queer acts Ebe Oke, Alexander Geist and MJ Woodbridge. The Quietus caught up with Jamie, Ebe, Alexander and MJ in September to discuss what audiences can expect from the show and what it means to be a gender- and sexuality-bending musician in the 21st century.

How are plans for the show coming along?

Jamie McDermott: Speaking for myself, we’re just doing the elements that will make up the main show, because at the moment we’re touring Nude: Viscera, which is more rock-focused with strings, but also doing some Nude: Landscapes. Hopefully, there might be some more videos, so that’s something else I’ve been doing, but I know that Ebe has also been rehearsing for the show.

Without giving away too much, what can people expect from the Nude spectacle?

JM: It’s going to be a full event. We have music that’s kind of part of the arts and culture aspect of music, more acoustic, more symphonic at the beginning. We’ve got Ebe’s music, which he’ll explain himself, but which has elements of classical music and queer avant-garde tradition. And The Irrepressibles’ set will move from moments that are with just piano and guitar and other stuff that’s more rock, more visceral and more sexual, with electronics. It will be audiovisual, so something that’s not only explained through sound, but also through video work and movement. It all helps express the message of Nude, which is my story as a homosexual guy growing up, a discourse on sexuality and art.

It sounds like it’s going to be a ‘big’ show. Is it the most ambitious one you’ve done?

JM: It will be the biggest one since we played Mirror Mirror [The Irrepressibles’ first album] at the Barbican, so this is us bringing the big spectacle of the second record to London, and after that show’s finished, we’re going to the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen for MJ Woodbridge and Alexander’s performances. So we’ve got a lot of different artists who are part of the new movement of LGBT artists in music, or at least artists who happen to be LGBT.

I was going to ask – is there a new movement of LGBT artists in music, or are you all artists who happen to be part of the LGBT community?

JM: For me, with Nude, it was necessary to say something very clear and confident about being gay and working in art, and, with the event, it’s become a beacon for a little moment of artists who are so different, but are able to be honest about their sexuality. There are so many artists around, from Owen Pallett to Antony to Grizzly Bear, and it’s all happening now. It’s a movement, I think, and we’re just one part of that movement.

Alexander Geist: I think, in the queer community, there are people who don’t necessarily have homosexual sexual identities but are still part of that community, and it will be great to have people like that involved.

Ebe Oke: I personally don’t feel as though I’ve fully found my tribe yet. Although I relate to the LGBT community I don’t feel adequately represented by it. My sense of gender and sexuality is mutable. I’m a sky person and lean toward sapiosexual tendencies.

It sounds like it’s going to be quite different to shows you’ve been doing of late, Jamie, with much more stripped down shows…

JM: I think it was really important for me to do that, because a lot of people thought Mirror Mirror was all about flamboyance and things being decadent, which it wasn’t, it was about the European tradition and flamboyance, but more in terms of art’s connection with fashion and how there’s a connection between the visual and sound. With Nude, it was interesting to strip it back and focus on the elements to make it more visceral. When I look at the spectacle, it’s not coming back to something that’s grand, it’s more hearing all of it and it may be one the last concerts of Nude, so it’s a bit like, ‘Here is all of it, and this is what this work was about’.

That suggests you might be working on new material. Is there anything you can tell at this point about that?

JM: I am working on new music, but I don’t know if I want to talk about it yet, because I don’t want to jinx it! I’m not in any way precious or arrogant in any way, but it’s always such a strange process for me, making music…

How many musicians are currently in The Irrepressibles?

JM: It varies. Sometimes there’ll be three, sometimes there’ll be five, sometimes there’ll be eight. When we started doing Nude, we didn’t work with a woodwind section anymore, but it will still be a large ensemble.

How did you all end up crossing paths with Jamie and getting onboard? Who wants to go first?

AG: I’ve known Jamie for a long time, we have mutual friends, and I saw The Irrepressibles when they were a four-piece before the first record came out seven or eight years ago. I opened for The Irrepressibles last summer, and we’ve worked together for some time.

EO: I first discovered Jamie’s music at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s club years ago. He’s become a trusted friend and confidante. His empathy and capacity for feeling is astounding.

I’ve listened to all your musics, but what will your performance involve on the night?

AG: I’m going to have two backing singers and one musician. It’ll be mostly electronic music, inspired by late-70s and early-80s synth music. The lyrical output is inspired by someone like Morrissey, sort of wry and somewhat political and somewhat obnoxious, but sort of cinematic in scope. And you’re going to have a great time!

EO: I discovered The Irrepressibles because an ex-boyfriend took one of their early shows at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Jamie and I became friends and I worked with two of his former band members on my first record. You could definitely say that some of my music is quite minimal, but I think it’s actually quite varied. I don’t think I have one specific style. For the show, I’m going to work with a string trio and some electronics. I’m going to be presenting some music that I’ve written for my next record, which is going to be an electronic record.

MJ Woodbridge: I’m the new girl! A good friend of mine/manager got in touch with Jamie and he invited me for the night. My live show for this is going to be stripped back, possibly acoustic guitar and me on vocals, playing my original songs and some covers of big gay anthems that I turn into my style.

EO: ‘Big gay anthems’?

MJW: I do Kelis’ ‘Milkshake’ and a Britney Spears song and a Mariah cover, which I kind of mash up into one of my original songs.

How do you three feel about this notion of an LGBT musical community? Is that something that was high up on your mind when you got involved with the Nude spectacle?

EO: I’m always excited to discover new queer artists. My understanding of being queer is that it deviates from the traditional stereotypes we’ve been conditioned with. I feel this queerness carries with it a sense of freedom from conformity but not necessarily. I look back at writers like Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, William S. Burroughs and artists like Claude Cahun and applaud them for their bravery in paving the way through such nebulous territory. I like to believe that the queer spirit is at an advantage for being somewhat ill at ease in the world and for often having a broad range of gender identities to perceive from. For me being queer is not limited to homosexual or bisexual people. Heterosexual people can also be queer. Although queerness is becoming more widely integrated into the fabric of our society, let’s not forget Alan Turing and Wilde who were prosecuted for being true to themselves less than a century ago. Let us also be fully aware that queer people are being hunted down and brutally executed in Africa and the Middle East. I want the scope of my conscience to include everyone.

One of the things I find really beautiful about Jamie’s work is how honest and upfront it is. Do you think it’s easier now to be that honest about one’s sexuality?

AG: I don’t feel like I have much choice about being upfront about my sexuality or gender identity. A lot of people decide it for you, but I’m certainly not going to beat around the bush. Things are different from one day to the next, and from one place to the next, you can be hassled or you can be adored, but all that matters is to hold on to who it is you are. Maybe culturally things are opening up, which is great, but you have to be aware of how culture works, and how it always finds something subversive and then gives it a marketing angle. We can be grateful for culture opening up, but be careful because you don’t want to be used to promote nachos or Burger King or something.

JM: I think it’s great, though, when a massive company makes a stand [for equality]. I think a lot of people have big issues with what they call the normalisation of LGBT society, but I think homosexuality is always going to be an anomaly, because we are by default one in ten. But homosexuality is about love, so it’s not unusual. You can be heterosexual and unusual.

When we spoke last, Jamie, you told me about how difficult it was to perform in Russia. Do you still get different reactions from crowds from place to place?

JM: I think now that heterosexual men are more comfortable with themselves and therefore comfortable with there being gay men who fall in love with other men. Things have changed vastly throughout the world but there obviously still are many places where it’s difficult. I just performed recently in Rome and I was concerned because they have recently tried to put a stop on gay marriages being recognised in Italy, which we think of as being a very modern country. So the concert became a bit more political, even somewhere like Italy.

Jamie’s music is very autobiographical. Do you three have a similar approach?

EO: My music is often autobiographical even if it’s not directly about experiences from my life. I incorporate various ways of writing that can include the induction of trance-like states often leading to lyrics reflecting the inner world. It gets fun when you find creative ways to weave the outer and inner worlds together. I’ve written a few character studies of people in my life. For instance, my song ‘Nissa’ is about a very dear friend whose work as a dancer and performance artist has had a significant influence on me as an artist.

MJW: My music used to be based on the whole LGBT thing but now it’s more personal and helps me discover who I am. It’s the journey rather than the end product. I don’t necessarily set out to write about specific issues – although I have – and I think my work is more conceptual.

JM: I think we now have the ability to be more graphic, be it in music or on television or whatever, and the great thing is this reaches a heterosexual audience and not just a gay one. It’s like when Jim Carrey was in I Love You Phillip Morris and he was getting ripped to pieces in interviews [for the graphic content] and he was like: ‘Is this still an issue? How is it still an issue?’

Finally – are you looking forward to the show? Nervous at all?

EO: Yes, I’m nervous. I’ve got some new songs that I am still working out parts for. If they aren’t ready we will perform them anyway and play with the uncertainty. I often throw improvised passages into my set. The setlist has changed a few times but we will perform some piano-led songs along with electronic works that are a nod to my next record. I work with an incredible ensemble. I’m very lucky!

JM: I’m always nervous before every gig! But for me, it’s such an important, cathartic process, so it’s a bit like a séance or therapy between me and the audience. You’re exploring things, some of which may be quite dark, through performance. It helps me find peace.

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 Review: The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? by Nazoranai (December 12th, 2014)

It feels weird writing this about a record that has Keiji Haino on it, but it sounds like all involved in making The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? were having one heck of a ball in the process. I could be wrong, of course, but that’s the vibe you get. And why not? After all, all three of Haino, Oren Ambarchi (on drums here) and Stephen O’Malley (of Sunn O))) fame – here on bass) have done more than their share for the cause of serious experimental rock music (and beyond), so fair dues to them if Nazoranai has become their way of letting their hair down (OK, Keiji Haino’s hair is always down, so that’s a shit metaphor). These are three amazing musicians, but there’s no hiding from the fact that The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? has a silly title and is essentially made up of four unending jams that could have been made by three drug-fuelled hippies getting off on hearing Blue Cheer for the first time. Three hugely talented hippies, I’ll grant you, but they’re still having a laugh.

In many ways, it should come as no surprise to find that Keiji Haino likes a bit of fun as much as the next man, and indeed at every one of the multitude of gigs I’ve seen him perform, I’ve been straining my eyes to spot an indiscreet sardonic smile creep to his lips. Here’s a diminutive 62-year-old man with waist-length grey hair plugging away at his indefatigable muse with nary a regard for trends or even previous musical history. After forty-odd years of it, he must be either mad, a joker or a visionary, and maybe, just maybe The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? proves he’s all three. After all, this isn’t the first album the man’s been involved with to sport ridiculous album and track titles, and I don’t think one can solely put that down to something being lost in translation. When it comes to Nazoranai, they read like cheeky haikus, and The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? certainly abounds with the sort of opaque mystery and brutal musical deconstruction-cum-poetry that has defined the best (read: most serious) of Haino, O’Malley and Ambarchi’s work. Second track ‘Will Not Follow Your  Hoax Called History’ features a slovenly groove and some truly morose soloing on guitar from Haino, whilst elsewhere he hops from his axe to air synths, always producing similar vats of molten feedback. Rest assured, even if this is a bit of a “fun” album, fans of Haino’s singular form of non-rock mayhem will get all their requisite hits.

In fact, in many ways, The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? shares some similarities with the work of Haino’s other trio featuring Ambarchi, as part of which they are joined by Jim O’Rourke. It’s just that here, with O’Malley bringing his particular brand of monomaniacal doom worship as opposed to O’Rourke’s instrumental dexterity, the accent is on heaviness and volume rather than pushing the boundaries much. Effectively, this is a power trio, nothing less and little more, and for all that these three love a bit of improvisation and noise, you can hear the history of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Blue Cheer, Cream, Sleep and Grand Funk Railroad pulsating through these four tracks. And I think there are very few rock fans out there, especially of the harder variety, who haven’t at some point dreamed of being in a power trio. There’s something about the limited format that has consistently led to the most stripped-down, over-amped and gloriously plodding rock & roll you’ll ever hear, even as today technology allows duos and even solo acts to get in on similar action.

So, no, The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? is not a key release by any of these three dudes. But it’s heavy like Mainliner is heavy, Ambarchi’s drumming is like a whirlwind of cymbal crashes and Haino’s guitar could carve boulders out of mountains. It’s a fun slab of obnoxious rock-gone-mad, and sometimes that’s all you need of an evening.

A Dusted Review: Draconis by Skullflower (October 30th, 2014)

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Listening to the music of Skullflower is a psychedelic experience in the same way that staring at a blank wall or ceiling in the dark whilst on acid, drunk out of your skull and/or high on grass (delete as applicable) can be. It’s as overbearing and unwavering as the open-ended violin drone compositions of Tony Conrad or the blasted walls of sound spat out by the likes of Vomir or the Rita. It’s proof that a full-on sonic assault can, in the right context, be as blissful and, I’ll say it again, psychedelic as the tripped-out musings of a Grateful Dead or Amon Düül II. It just takes more patience and a willingness to enter into labyrinthine minds of Matt Bower and Samantha Davies. Bower, in particular, has been ploughing this arcane, extreme furrow for the best part of 30 years, gradually honing it until he’s reached something approaching “tantric noise,” like Pärson Sound with the acoustic circular melodies replaced by unending acidic mechanical bile.

For Draconis, the duo returns to the absolutist vein of 2006’s Tribulation and Strange Keys to Untune God’s Firmament from four years later: this latest album, is impossibly long. The tracks bleed into one another like melting glaciers and the primitive song structures of 2011’s superlative Fucked on a Pile of Corpses are whittled away by saturation and excruciating volume. But compared to those two releases, Skullflower have been given (or gave themselves) license to flesh things out a bit, notably via the lush packaging. The album comes in a six-panel double-digipack, complete with a 16-page booklet overflowing with lush illustrations and bizarre photographs that both detail Draconis’ thematic concerns and deepen the mystery.

Bower has long had a fascination with arcana and mythological lore, although his focus is, as ever, enigmatic. The paintings that adorn these pages are abstract yet sinister, with vivid colours and strangely animalistic shapes creating an unerring sense of moody drama, as if we’re gazing at ancient humankind’s primitive attempts to recreate the legends of the earth’s creation or the epic battles of Norse mythology. Obscure symbols crop up here and there, whilst sketches and texts evoke trees, dragons and pyramids under the stars, drawing lines in myth and science from the north of England to Bhutan via ancient Egypt and the Hindu goddess Kali. Keeping things as vague and mysterious as possible only accentuates the album’s heady form of lyrical psychedelia. I cannot pretend to understand Bower and Davies’ vision, for I do not have their knowledge or imagination, but it sucks you in like a tornado, because you can’t help but try to figure it out.

“Tornado” is also a great metaphor for the music on Draconis. Each track on disc one is a veritable maelstrom of noise with extensive layer of “strings” (live they focus on guitar and violin, but sometimes I swear I can hear synths on Draconis, albeit bludgeoned into abstraction by effects) superimposed and swirling around one another like gales of wind blowing in every direction at once. Disc two is slightly more nuanced, from the two-minute opener “Alien Awakening” (there are aliens in here as well!) that sounds like Keiji Haino recorded in a wind tunnel mid-solo to the epic musical tapestry of 15-minute closer “Dakshinikalika” via “Dresden Spires”’ crumbling blocks of industrial crunch.

These are some of the most epic and evocative tracks ever released by Skullflower: huge slabs of metaphysical noise with the awe-inspiring primeval-ness of ancient stone circles, ice-capped mountains or ruined industrial buildings. In translating nature’s mystery and majesty into noise, Skullflower have thrown a curveball into the genre’s progression, taking out of sweaty club spaces and into somewhere more spectral, contemplative and, yet again, psychedelic. It’s no wonder the band mention Popol Vuh on the label’s website.

But should anyone reading this be tempted to regard Bower and Davies as little more than two slightly unhinged hippies with a taste for noise and post-pagan mumbo-jumbo, I urge you to check out their back catalogue and anything else you can find on them. There’s a vein of sly, sardonic humour that runs through their entire work (encapsulated here by a picture of their cat looking bemused in the booklet), whilst all this sturm-und-drang conceals first and foremost a deep sense of humanity: our past, our present, our future, our emotions and our fears.

It’s hard to tell if this hour and fifteen minutes of noise and drone is a definitive Skullflower statement, but it does what all great music must: it throws open the doors of possibility, asks more questions than it answers, and aims for something beyond the mundanities of reality.

A Quietus Feature: On the Beach by Neil Young 40 years later (September 8th, 2014)

In a curious twist of coincidence, I’m writing this anniversary piece not long after the release of a long-awaited live album culled from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s legendary 1974 tour, which took place not long after On The Beach was released. Together, they encapsulate the creative and personal whirlwind that was Neil Young’s life as the seventies reached their midway point.

The CSNY tour represented in many ways the apex of Young’s commercial resonance amongst rock’s pantheon of giants. Two years earlier had seen the release of the smash hit Harvest, its delicate country-folk catchiness propelling the enigmatic Canadian to the top of the charts amid a wave of popular acclaim. His decision in 1969 to hook up with former Buffalo Springfield sparring pal Stephen Stills in CSNY, rock’s premier supergroup, had exposed his eccentric take on folk and rock to a wider audience, and Harvest represented an almost inevitable conclusion to that suddenly raised profile. Despite previous alternative success in the form of 1970’s After The Goldrush, Harvest propelled Young to the very top of the singer/songwriter pile, with rewards aplenty to boot.

Almost immediately, however, the dark side of fame took hold of Young’s life with a vice-like grip. As he prepared to embark on his biggest-yet tour in support of Harvest, his alter ego in his garage-rock band Crazy Horse, Danny Whitten, died of a heroin overdose mere hours after being fired from tour rehearsals by Young. The concerts went ahead under a cloud, with an increasingly alcohol-fuelled Neil finding himself at odds with his band and his audience, who couldn’t relate to the unhinged, hard-edged songs he took to hurling at them in lieu of Harvest-esque folk-pop. The tour was captured in all its lo-fi glory on Time Fades Away (still unavailable outside of its original vinyl pressing), which served as the first sign that Young was, in his words, “heading for the ditch”.

In the space of a few months, the sunny* outlook of 1972 was erased completely. After Time Fades Away, Young – still grieving the death of Whitten, which was compounded by the similar demise of roadie Bruce Berry – took the remains of Crazy Horse and old stalwarts Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith into an improvised studio to lay down his first masterpiece of the dark recesses of the soul, Tonight’s The Night. Recording at night in a series of tequila-fueled sessions, TTN is bleary-eyed, barely in tune and totally phenomenal, perhaps all the more so because it can still shock CSNY and Harvest fans to the core. And if TTN was acclaimed by all involved as a cathartic experience, there was enough of its morbid malevolence still lurking in Young’s soul by the time the sessions for On The Beach came along in early 1974. As such, the trio of Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night (released tardily in 1975) remains one of the greatest and bleakest sequences of albums ever recorded by a major recording artist.

Just as Tonight’s The Night was guided – for want of a better word – by tequila, so too were the On The Beach sessions dominated by a rather different concoction. Ben Keith had introduced Young to a tubby and wild fiddle player called Rusty Kershaw and, while he only features on two songs, the latter’s influence, notably potent hash cakes named “honey slides”, cast a rather woozy shadow over proceedings. Indeed, one of the producers would report to peering through the glass separating the booth from the recording space in a vain attempt to locate the musicians, such was the pall of smoke and darkness that hung over the protagonists. If the album’s title and gorgeous cover suggested a change from Tonight’s The Night’s blackness, the sessions and what they produced were as gloomy as ever. With his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress (the mother of his first child) in tatters and his booze and drug consumption increasingly rampant, Young poured out his angst and anger over the roughest, most sparse music in his career to date (yes, even more so than TTN).

Consequently, whilst it’s not as punishing as TTN, sonically, On The Beach is not for the faint of heart. The bouncy opener ‘Walk On’ aside, most of the album is given over to bitter musings on the emptiness of fame and relationship breakdowns. For the latter category, Young resurrected an old unreleased song, ‘See The Sky About To Rain’, recorded at snail’s pace and laced with funereal electric piano. ‘For The Turnstiles’, meanwhile, is just Young and Keith on banjo and dobro respectively, striving to sing in tune a cracked exposé of the stadium rock scene and ‘Vampire Blues’ points to another future favourite of Young’s bugbears: the destruction of the environment. This is Young at his most disillusioned, and his fury is distilled into raw viciousness on the third track of the first side, the apocalyptic ‘Revolution Blues’. Over an almost funky rhythmic backing provided by Rick Danko and Levon Helm of The Band (man I wish he’d played with them more often!), Young channels the spirit of Charles Manson, culminating in a harsh incantation: “I hear that Laurel Canyon/ Is full of famous staaaaaars/ But I hate them worse than lepers/ And I’ll kill them in their caaaaars!!!!” In any decade, even now, this would be seen as dark, even controversial stuff; coming from a huge star at the height of his fame in 1974, it could have been career suicide.

For all the first side’s excellence, though, the three tracks that make up side B of On The Beach, starting with the title track, possibly represent Neil Young at his absolute peak. ‘On The Beach’ is heart-rending blues played with absolute anguish as Young contemplates his collapsing world in unflinching detail: “Though my problems are meaningless/ That don’t make them go away”. ‘Motion Pictures’ is another minimal dirge aimed as a last farewell to Snodgress, with Young’s world-weary voice accompanied simply by hand-patted drums, plonking bass and the occasional wurble from Kershaw’s slide guitar. Finally, the album comes tumbling to a close with exquisite emotional potency with the epic, blearily psychedelic song-poem that is ‘Ambulance Blues’, a strange voyage through Young’s past in Canada to his traumatised presence via a few meanderings into the realms of politics and music criticism.

Of all Young’s albums, On The Beach may be the hardest to describe musically, such is the way it sits between identifiable genres. It seems to have emerged, blinking but oddly full-formed, from the darkest chasms of Neil Young’s heart and mind, with Kershaw, Keith, bassist Tim Drummond, drummer Ralph Molina and the other guest performers layering sounds onto his vision and basic outlines with intuitive ease. Maybe honey slides generate telepathy. On The Beach wasn’t a commercial success, as audiences continued to be baffled by its sombreness, and it suffered the same fate as Time Fades Away until 2003 when it saw a belated CD and vinyl reissue, but it now has deservedly earned a place of true favour with Young aficionados. And to come back to CSNY, when Young brought the likes of ‘Ambulance Blues’ and ‘Revolution Blues’ to the almighty party, his erstwhile colleagues were beyond taken aback, with David Crosby begging off having to play on the latter. Yet, forty years down the line, I will find myself reaching for this unrelenting masterpiece far more often than Déjà Vu.

* For what it’s worth, a closer look at the lyrical content of Harvest shows considerable nuance in its supposed cheeriness. Yes, Young was in love and successful, but from the slightly wistful surrealism of ‘Out On The Weekend’ to the anti-racist rant that is ‘Alabama’, via the cautionary and slightly chilling ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’ and the title track’s Southern Gothic chill, Harvest is actually anything but a simple ray of James Taylor-esque sunshine. How could it be otherwise with Neil Young?

A Dusted Review: Commune by Goat (September 4, 2014)

Try as I could, I remained singularly unmoved when masked Swedish psych-boppers Goat first sashayed into the world’s collective conscience about two years ago. I didn’t bite, but as a committed fan of psychedelic music since my teenage years (starting with Jefferson Airplane and Amon Düül II), I was more than willing to give them a second chance. After all, I may not have liked the slightly gimmicky nature of the band, but Goat can certainly churn out an infectious beat.

Goat unashamedly looks into the past to fuel its musical synapses, and, more importantly, the band casts its net fearlessly, drawing in African and Asian influences as well as nods to the traditional music of their home nation. If all that sounds insufferably hip, well that’s because it is in a way, but these are talented musicians and their plundering is never anything less than respectful and tasteful. On Commune, the African inspiration is particularly prevalent with jerky polyrhythms popping and fizzing through tracks like “Talk to God” and “The Light Within” with the energy of the Africa 70 circa 1977.

Which is not to say the music sounds like a pastiche, because Goat is canny enough to emphasize other influences (the brief instrumental “To Travel the Path Unknown” sounds positively Brazilian) and veer off into more straight-ahead rock before sounding like a covers band of whichever influence they’re mining. The band also clearly likes a wah-ed out riff and massed vocals; “Goatchild,” for instance, sounds closer to Woodstock than Lagos. To its credit, the band generally maintains a sense of cohesion on Commune, even as the songs fly off in so many directions.

The album’s title, and track titles like “Talk to God”, suggest a certain religionism, but the two female vocalists’ delivery is so blank and impersonal that most of the lyrics are pretty unfathomable.  As a result, Commune’s religious undertones never feel preachy. They do, however, feel contrived, and this is where the band falls down a tad. I just don’t believe them. They claim to build their songs up in lengthy improvisation sessions, but you wouldn’t gather that on listening to them. They wear masks, but it’s not clear what this anonymity achieves, beyond being a good selling point to the gullible and faddish. Commune is imbued with a certain spirituality, but beyond nabbing the musical traditions of faith music in Asia or Africa (chanting, ritual performance, etc.) and throwing in some rock ’n’ roll, I’m not sure what —if any — message is being conveyed on this album.

The best psych music of recent times (Gnod, Acid Mothers Temple, Vibracathedral Orchestra, Sunburned Hand of the Man, to name four) has been defined by slow build-ups and a true sense of individuals coming together, dissolving their egos for the common good and setting the controls for deep space. Hell, it worked for Hawkwind. Goat are a bit too tight and knowing to be transcendental or truly trippy, for now at least, although the Afro-beat leanings that crop up all over Commune point at avenues rich in potential out-of-body experiences.