December 2002 – album reviews – Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Volume 1: Useless in Bed’ compilation (“happily balanced on the rougher brinks and fringes”)

4 Dec

Various Artists: 'House of Stairs Vol. 1 - Useless in Bed'

Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Vol. 1 – Useless in Bed’

Placing yourself on faultlines, rather than easily marketable turf, brings risks but inspiration – ask a San Franciscan. That the three London art-rock bands who originally set up the House of Stairs label (The Monsoon Bassoon, Geiger Counter, and Ursa) have all now split or mutated into something else is perhaps proof of both.

Regardless, ‘Useless In Bed’ – the first House of Stairs release – is a declaration of brotherhood. Compiling the work of musicians dwelling on various faultlines (though still mostly centred on London art-rock, it also takes in music from Chicago, Atlanta and Bordeaux), it both defines the edges of prog, jazz, art-rock, hardcore, electronica, folk, improv and noise rock, or encourages people to spill across them.


 
Hard-rocking math-proggers Foe – sprung from the wreckage of Geiger Counter – offer the most urgent track. ‘Triangulator’ is full of furious refracting guitar lines over Crawford Blair’s piano-growl of bass. For six minutes it swings, chops, drops down trapdoors, executes perverse King Crimson leaps between mordantly grim chords, and savages minor keys like The 5uu’s on far too much coffee. Geiger Counter’s posthumous statement is ‘Drink Your Milk’ – less obviously wired than ‘Triangulator’, it still carves up its grunge-y math riffs with heavy enthusiasm, embracing sweeter interludes of short-lived luminous peace as it does so. Nouveau Metal is spreading…

The Monsoon Bassoon‘s own posthumous offering is a explosive and complicated song from when their mingling of Henry Cow and gamelan-Crimson art-rock ran full tilt into their love of American alt.rockers like Shudder To Think. The psychedelic squeal of guitars on ‘Stag’ marches from plateau to jagged plateau in a skirl of trippy flute and meshing riffs, held together by the band’s tight discipline.


 
These days various Bassooners have regrouped in Miss Helsinki, who deliver a sparkling piece of progressive pop called ‘I Felt Your Arms Around Me’. Less surreal than most Bassoon confections, it’s still an acid-flavoured love song whose rattling good XTC jangle and tootling clarinets don’t stop it hurtling delightedly into a complex, storm-tossed middle section in which they see just how much you can rock the train without slinging it off the rails.

 
If you’d prefer to stick with the Bassoon’s skronkier legacy, Chicago’s Sweep the Leg Johnny are still juggling that torch. With the superb ‘Only in a Rerun’, they’re obviously on a roll – it’s a rich mixture of harsh Schizoid Man tones and flamboyant jazz-metal attack from the raw husky wail of Steve Sostak’s alto sax and Chris Daly’s bloodthirsty roar of guitar, tossing Sostak’s airy vocal like a bull tossing a skinny matador. Slewing between dEUS busyness and violent post-Slint minimalism, this is a rough bareback ride to put a wicked smile on your face.


 
Manic Glaswegian pranksters Lapsus Linguae provide ‘Olestra (There’s Only One Drinking Fountain in Heaven)’. A stab of theatrical art-metal somewhere between Faith No More and Beck (with a Resident eyeballing it from the director’s chair) it has all you need to storm the castle of pomp. There’s a man called Penelope Collegefriend singing in a rampant bellow like a punk Freddie Mercury; there’s an inexplicable strings break and a rolling piano line continually chopped off with guillotine precision; there are namechecks for Hermann Hesse and Charlton Heston, and choicely bizarre lyrics like “More I eat, the hungrier I feel – / I lick menus, ignore the meals.”


 
Holding up the genteel-er proggie end are the whimsical and witty projects of the Larcombe brothers. With ‘Sand (Blowing About)’, Stars in Battledress provide a beautiful dance of fluent piano and autoharp: but beyond the divertimento prettiness, James Larcombe leads the duo through eddies of suggestive Debussyan chords.

Richard Larcombe goes on to turn in a conceptual tease on Defeat the Young‘s wonderful ‘I’m Ruining Something’ – an absurdist essay on the corruptions of power which blends Gentle Giant with Lewis Carroll and Stravinsky. Larcombe greets his ensemble of actors, trombone, and full-blown operatic chorus as a lounge-lizard lord of misrule, sighing a manifesto of playful destruction in his arch, refined tones. “I’m recognised as your one sovereign Lord Protector / Trust me – I’ve learned of your country by tape and slide projector. / Each day I’ll go out of my way to spoil, deface and tarnish, / like he who ruins carpentry by swapping glue for varnish.” Oboe, piano and hammer dulcimer float in a dreamy arrangement like an August haze. Apparently there’s a whole album’s worth of this story in the Larcombe shed – ‘The Golden Spike’ – and it’s only one of their dastardly plans.

Both of House Of Stairs’ lo-fi electronica boffins seem to grab inspiration from bargain-bucket electrical goods. Desmotabs create an appealing Stylophone fanfare buzz on ‘Gaseous Exchange at the Alveoli’, let their drum machine go nuts and assault a heart monitor, and squiggle some demented Mini-Moog solos before the entire track melts like a Dali model. Max Tundra (the Frank Zappa of the techno world) continues his marvellous and bizarre mission to fuse hardcore dance music with prog rock. ‘Life in a Lift Shaft’ equals Desmotabs buzz-for-buzz while festooning tough and hilariously uptight Tundra beats with jittery robot piano and fat sub-bass from the tar-pits. Alarm-clocks fly past on tiny wings trying to take bites out of the zany, sunny tune.

The free-er bands – as usual – have a harder time. Gnarly bass-and-drums duo Guapo can be the missing link between ‘Red’ and Ruins when they want to be. However, their grinding ‘Pharoah’ – despite Dave Smith’s excellent Brufordian snarework – is mostly as subtle as a flying breezeblock. Dragging large chunks of pyramid across the desert and insisting that you appreciate each tortuous step, they occasionally snap, shoot off the flywheel and go ape with some fearsome tattoo riffs. Hardcore acoustic fusioneers Cheval de Frise hop up and down with impatience on ‘Chiendents’, banging their heads against their own lo-fi envelope, manically coiling up tighter and tighter acoustic guitar scrabbles against the tussling drums. Compression to destruction, breaking out in wild slashes.


 
And finally there’s the hardcore department, with the recently defunct Ursa demonstrating why they’ll be a sad loss to the British heavy scene. Avoiding hardcore’s usual fixed, deafening riffage and reductive howling, ‘The Blooding’ begins with a studied ponderousness and heaviness which gives way to an inspiring controlled demolition. Galloping punked-up Iron Maiden guitar runs charge under giant toppling riffs, the band dodging falling masonry via nifty turn-on-a-dime spins while losing none of their brute power. American Heritage, likewise, execute proggie timeswitches with rapid and brutal thrash flair, their sound a bleak, bare cliff of thick guitar noise. It’s anyone’s guess as to why they’ve called their track ‘Phil Collins’ – it’s an unlikely tribute, whether it’s aimed square at the Genesis drumstool or at the white-soul crowdpleaser.


 
Anyhow… here’s a house of many doors, happily balanced on the rougher brinks and fringes and demonstrating the breadth of personalities camped out in even one small part of today’s art-rock community. Admirable.

Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Volume 1: Useless in Bed’
House of Stairs, HOS001 (5030094077829)
CD-only compilation album
Released: 2nd December 2002
Get it from:
(2020 update) best obtained second-hand
 

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