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LOOKBACKS – album reviews – Cindytalk’s ‘Wappinschaw’, 1994 (“one of 1994’s most intense, perverse and unusual lost albums”)

30 Aug

Cindytalk: 'Wappinschaw'

Cindytalk: ‘Wappinschaw’

For almost fourteen years now, Cindytalk have been forging a lonely path through the ever-changing styles of modern music. Despite the soft pink flush of their name, Cindytalk’s music has always been so out-there, so much a music of violent extremes, that they have (more or less by default – how much could you change when you touch both ends of the spectrum?) stayed the same – no bad thing – while refining their sound on each album.

Gordon Sharp, the mainstay of Cindytalk’s many line-ups, is perhaps best known as the voice of three haunting tracks on the first album by 4AD art-collective This Mortal Coil, which also spawned Elizabeth Fraser’s honey-drenched version of Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren in 1983. Yet 4AD-ethereal was never really Sharp’s bag. Cindytalk operate in the same dark areas that Michael Gira and Swans did before they transformed into doom-laden acoustic hippies (no more titles like Raping A Slave, then, Michael? cheers, love!), or The Birthday Party before Nick Cave mellowed out into Satan’s crooner.

They’ve wilfully, awkwardly, pursued music of extremes. Their first album, ‘Camouflage Heart’, must rank somewhere alongside Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’ for sheer unlistenable music for (dis)pleasure, that has to be owned simply to piss people off. And the mammoth ‘In This World’ was a double album of contradictions – one record of near-industrial rock with razor-sharp guitar sounds (varying between tooth- extraction by electric power drill or sheet-metal white noise), and one record of near-ambient instrumentals and songs, mostly played on very soft piano like Erik Satie on Mogadon.

But it’s been a long time since any new Cindytalk material; perhaps because of artistic reclusiveness, perhaps through being a true cult act. Having already had a protracted recording between 1990 and 1992, this album took a further two years to emerge on a record label in 1994. A lone concert aside, we’ve heard nothing from them since (that’s what y-o-u think.. – ED.). Hence this five-years-after-the-event review: cults can always do with getting bigger while they wait for the resurrection.

So, ‘Wappinschaw’; one of 1994’s most intense, perverse and unusual lost albums…


 
It opens deceptively simply, with an a-capella reworking of Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, reflecting Gordon Sharp’s interest in folk idioms (especially his own native Scots). He’s singing solo, without echo or reverb, up close, right there in your darkened room. His voice – one of the most expressive at conveying rage, pain, fear – displays power here yet, somehow, also insecurity. A Song Of Changes is leaden-paced at first, but David Ros’ guitars are more blurry and hazed than previous industrial strength Cindytalk noise. Suddenly the guitars hit an almost bright riff around which Sharp fluctuates and soars. A song of changes, indeed – light is breaking into Cindytalk’s dark world: “Within the heart of everything, there is you…”


 
It doesn’t last, though. Return To Pain (hah!) lurches in on a mix of barely-scrubbed electric and slide guitars, creating an empty and menacing atmosphere as Sharp emotes through wordless high vocals. It’s nightmare swamp music, midnight in the Mississippi plains accompanied by the scariest of companions, before the tension explodes into a barrage of noise. Drums, shotgun guitars, and Sharp wailing that “everybody is Christ.” Y-e-e-es; whatever you say, Gordon.


 
Whichever expectations are set for them, Cindytalk trump them on this record. Wheesht is introduced by a tape of Alisdair Gray reading an extract from his mammoth Scottish psycho-epic ‘Lanark’: a story of a young boy dreaming about what lies beyond the clouds. Recorded over the sound of a ticking clock and a ghostly musical box, this exercise in unsettling atmospherics chills the spine and sets us up for Wheesht itself: a brutally short, non- musical violent collage of bass drones, sonic interferences, sampled voices, blood-curdling screams and other genuinely unnerving sounds.


 
To the looping, echoed scrapings of a low-tuned violin, Snowkiss restores some sense of calm with more of Cindytalk’s music for winter nights – Gordon’s vocals imploding out of their rage into delicate lines and wordless harmonies sung over the gentlest of chiming, raindrop pianos. The lyrics of Disappear evoke a painfully trapped life: “You’re in heaven now, / Inside your head. / No thoughts of flight, / Your wings are clipped…”, while a strongly martial beat provides the tracks only propulsion as guitars and sampled interference compete with each other in a swirling eddy of sound. The lively, echoing trumpet on Traumlose Nacht, mingled with delicate piano and evocative waves of rolling drums, provide some relief and a different sonic vocabulary – it sounds like incidental music for the dark magic and oppressive heat of ‘Angel Heart’.


 
The final track, Hush, starts as an guitar-and-solo-vocal acoustic lament (back to the folk singing of the opening track) but then gives way to influential voices from the heavens (including samples of Orson Welles and Joseph Beuys) before everything fades to leave a long passage of bagpipe music that is, after the tumult of Cindytalk in action, strangely beguiling and soothing… but wait. After a long pause, a final hidden track, Muster. An incendiary, veritably Napalm-Death’s- worth battery of hideous thrash-noise, over which Sharp’s passionate ragged voice issues forth evocations to notable spirits: “The Wappinschaw is an invocation of the spirits of Shiva: Rise, William Wallace, rise! Rise, Arthur Rimbaud, rise!” He goes on to summon the spirits of Pasolini, Sitting Bull, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, amongst others. So unearthly does Sharp sound, so compelling, that I have no doubt that the spirits responded. Quite the most disturbing sound heard on CD for some time.


 
I wouldn’t like to hazard too close a guess at what kind of emotional traumas Gordon Sharp purges from himself to make this music; all razor blades, blizzards and crow feathers. It’s enough to say that, after fourteen years on the extremes, Cindytalk demand your rapt attention, your horrified fascination…

(review by Col Ainsley)

Cindytalk: ‘Wappinschaw’
Touched Recordings, TOUCH 1 (5 021958 432021)
CD-only album
Released: 1994

Get it from:
(2018 update) best obtained second-hand

Cindytalk online:
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November 1994 – album reviews – Laundry’s ‘Blacktongue’ (“a scuffed, brooding black-iron hybrid”)

26 Nov

Laundry: 'Blacktongue'

Laundry: ‘Blacktongue’

Pity the aging hardcore punk purists. They’ll talk about the punk wars they fought in order to kill off prog rock, but they forgot that little pockets on each side of a war have a tendency to learn each others languages and swap cigarettes during lulls in the battle. Or that invaders tend to crossbreed with the invaded. In Britain at the beginning of the ’80s, the likes of Magazine and Cardiacs drew prog rock ambition back into punk energy. Over in the States in the ’90s, the second coming of punk was spearheaded by Kurt Cobain – a Robert Fripp fan. You can shout and proclaim your Year Zeroes all you like, but you can’t kill knowledge or the desire to grow.

Hence, in the here and now, the appearance of bands such as Laundry. Like the lunatic punk/prog/funk/freak metal band Primus (with whom they share their astonishing drummer Herb Alexander), they hail from the fertile Bay Area scene in northern California and have roots in art punk bands Grotus and Sordid Humor. But they’ll just as readily admit to drawing from European prog and art rock such as Can and King Crimson as from the usual suspects; the terrifying electro negativism of the likes of Nine Inch Nails, plus strange post-punk/psych experimentalists like Butthole Surfers. Laundry’s deep black, forbidding music (using similar instrumentation to the later, stripped down versions of King Crimson) plants itself in that dark and hellish area in which “alternative” and “prog” seem must suited to meet and surprise each other.


 
Musically at least, it’s an unselfconscious blend – a scuffed, brooding black-iron hybrid of ‘Discipline’ rock gamelan, gruff Nomeansno hardcore force, and Pearl Jam histrionics. The latter comes courtesy of former Sordid Humor drummer Toby Hawkins’ snarling Vedder esque baritone, while guitarist Tom Butler chops out minimal metal riffs or a Fripp-like mixture of metallic rending noises and compellingly ugly solos. The real strength, though, is in the rhythm section: Herb swaggering around his drums like a funkier, fluider Bill Bruford and the remarkable Ian Varriale playing phenomenally dirty, polyphonically funky basslines on the Chapman Stick (which has so long been considered an instrument for jazz technicians and art rock eggheads that it’s a revelation to hear it sounding as raw as it does here).


 
Despite the strong musicality of the players, this is far from an airy prog trip. This Laundry seems to be where the darkest, dirtiest stains on the soul are scoured out, or are wrung out by the mangle. The oppressed, threatening, dissatisfied feel of grunge, which forced a seething dysfunctional contemporary rage into the mainstream, still casts a long shadow over contemporary American rock; and Laundry are very much part of that.


 
And how. Toby Hawkins (although he seems to have escaped Trent Reznor’s pathological need to actively shock or destroy the sensibilities of his audience) is consumed by the sort of fuck-up negativity that even the most confrontational of hardcore bellowers or the darkest of grungers would find difficult to relate to. Recurrent images of disgust, physical and mental sickness pervade ‘Blacktongue’: Alice in Chains were a barrel of laughs by comparison. The harsh, paranoid sexual fable of the title track and the grinding depression/sedation rant of Misery Alarm are just two examples: the fantastical psychosis of Monarch Man (prefaced by colossal distorted cat purring) lays colourful musings of twisted beauty over a tortuously funked up Crimsonic march, while the angel messenger in Skin brings only word of freezing, disease, and sexual loathing.


 
Not light-hearted stuff by any means, and the unremitting bleakness of the album does tell against it. While the music draws on fury and darkness to swell its compulsive strength, the lyrical content – reading like notes from an agonised, hopeless therapy session – displays an unrelenting despair, misery and withdrawal from human life, without the leavening of humour and compassion that make such thoughts palatable. Consequently, many a ferocious burst of taut musical excitement is dragged down by the millstone of Hawkins’ suicidal roar.


 
There are some moments of relief, however. If you’re into the pattern side of Laundry’s music, there’s the disconnected Stick geometries of Monkey’s Wrench. If you’re looking for redemption in song, there’s Canvas, in which Hawkins (backed by Butler’s lilting arpeggios) breaks out of his doomy caterwauling to discover the possibilities of art therapy and achieve a measure of peace. “Try to make sense of your shadow, paint a picture of the way it should be, colours arranged carefully…/ Inside the frame on the wall, paint your heart under a waterfall / paint your world the way it should be, so you can understand what you see.”


 
Generally, though, Laundry are more interested in dysfunction than healing. And despite Hawkins’ self-flagellating attempts to build significance out of the topic, it takes the wit of a guest to really get things moving. “I can’t stand it for anyone to be more awkward, self hateful, stupid, or inappropriate than I am” crackles the sardonic, telephone relayed voice of Bay Area artist Don Bajema on 19. Over a marvellous brooding thudding riff (a slower, darker Thela Hun Ginjeet), Bajema unwinds his cynical but concerned ideas: deliberate awkwardness, withdrawal and self humiliation may be his only logical response to and defence against a sick and ridiculous world, but it’s simultaneously an unwanted mask against those he truly loves, “the last people I would want to see me like this…” A disturbing confession, but one that rings so true that it’s easily the moment that makes the album.


 
Will Laundry clean up? Dubious – even deep-dyed grungers will have trouble with their uncompromising grimness and suspicion of anything approaching a tune, and Toby Hawkins’s obsession with depression and psychosis comes across all too often as self-indulgent droning and ranting without the redemptive melodies of Nirvana or Pearl Jam. What draws the band out of this trough of misery is their brutal power, their brooding energy and the masterly rhythmatism of Varriale and Herb: the powerful spine of the music which tugs them towards the darker, unforgiving end of progressive rock, towards Hammill-esque heart-crushing and 21st century schizophrenia. Flawed and muddied by defeatism it might be, but ‘Blacktongue’ is still a potent (if still no more than potential) statement from a band in waiting.

Laundry: ‘Blacktongue’
Mammoth Records/Prawn Song Records, MR0098 2 (35498009822)
CD-only album
Released:
22nd November 1994
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Laundry online:
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October 1994 – mini-album reviews – King Crimson’s ‘VROOOM’ (“like a gigantic work-worn machine developing a telling fault”)

31 Oct

King Crimson: 'VROOOM'

King Crimson: ‘VROOOM’

The first new music from King Crimson in a whole decade rolls in with a yawn… or the sound of a hitman’s car tyres slithering quietly past your house. I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s subliminal – a dark, stretching, barely audible ambient sound. Reverbed and resting right on the edge of the listener’s attention, it’s something which creeps in and cases the joint, maybe clears it of distractions. The last set of King Crimson albums, back in the ’80s, went straight in with clean, pealing, bell-like guitar patterns. Perhaps there’s a big clue to current Crimsonizing in that this one doesn’t.

Although the band’s known for its high turnover of disparate personnel and fresh starts, ‘VROOOM’ unexpectedly reunites that stable-against-the-odds 1980s Crimson lineup (Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Tony Levin and Bill Bruford) but augments them with two new members: Trey Gunn (a graduate of Fripp’s Guitar Craft course, doubling Levin’s 10-string Chapman Stick) and Pat Mastelotto (a jobbing, dextrous rock drummer best known for being part of American AOR act Mr Mister). Historically, when Crimson’s added members it’s been for as much for specific sonorities as much as personal approach. Perhaps a jazz or military saxophonist to break up a beat group, or a violinist to bring in classical textures. Maybe a Stick player to replace, fan out and reshape the bass chair; maybe, to upset the whole applecart and reboot the other players’ brains, an avant-garde improv percussionist with a thousand-yard stare and a junkyard armoury, or a master of cartoonish sound-effect guitar. Conversely, this is the first time Fripp’s apparently hired people mostly to thicken out the existing sound. This might be another clue.

What emerges – after that scouting roll – does and doesn’t sound like King Crimson. The New York brightnesses of the ’80s lineup (those circular Steve Reich and Talking Heads echoes which so thoroughly rebooted Crimson’s former Anglo-prog approach) have been banished. The title track is a descending, angry staircase of screech – simultaneously in synch and slightly ragged, like a gigantic work-worn machine developing a telling fault. If there’s a template for it, it’s the sound and structure of key ’70s Crimson track Red (the frowning, minimalist/totalitarian march which announced that Fripp had honed his once-florid instincts to a fine metallic economy).

The difference is that the big bare bones of this follow-up are fletched with additional details; disruptive flams and spurs, heavy digital processing resulting in analogue splurge, gears splintering but carrying on. A second huge instrumental track – THRaK – lurches forward in angry displacements, a blind giant hammering at a wall. In both tracks there are breathers which aren’t breathers – sighing passages where instruments fall back and Fripp’s misty ambient drones come in; or where a clambering bittersweet arpeggio makes a bed for a solo passage of wracked and pearly beauty before the hammers come down again. Throughout, there’s the sense of highly-stressed engineering precision just one slip away from disastrously throwing a rod, or a kind of hellish chamber music electrified to breaking point.

The band’s nervously sunny human face during the ’80s, Adrian Belew has been sucked backwards into this bigger, blurrier ensemble (predominantly providing a battery of guitar shrieks, leftfield lunges and rubbery solo lines). He still sings; is still the go-to song guy; but it’s clear that the songs have been almost entirely subverted by the new approach. On Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, King Crimson rattles through a bluesy lurch; Adrian sounding like an animatronic waiter covering John Lee Hooker, delivering sub-Dada wordplay in murmur-to-scream builds before the band explodes into barely contained passages of full-on percussive chaos.

A little of the ’80s Crimson is allowed into Cage, with Fripp’s cackling speed-arpeggios making it a close cousin to ‘Discipline’s breakneck Thela Hun Ginjeet. Like Thela, it’s a neurotic street cry, but what was once simply threatening has now turned actively murderous as Belew’s prissy paranoia is taken up to international level (“walking down the street, do you stare at your feet / and never do you let your eyes meet the freaks, / the deadbeat addicts, social fanatics, / they’re a dime a dozen and they carry guns. / Halloween every other day of the week… Holy smoke! somebody blew up the Pope!”) while didgeridoos yelp and Fripp provides a barrage of his most jarring, churning guitar disruptions.


 
A third instrumental – When I Say Stop, Continue – mingles both King Crimson’s old knack for doomy improvised sound-pictures and the band’s puckishly dry sense of humour. Over an ambient creeping horror of a Fripp Soundscape, the band knock, shrill, drill and build up a swelling industrial noiseuntil Belew yells “Ok, come to a dead stop. One, two, three, four!…” only for the band to wilfully drift on without him, trailing ghostly shrouds of presence, until the drummers slam and nail the doors shut.


 
Only with One Time do both King Crimson and Belew emerge from this deliberately uneasy fug. Here, the sextet drop delicately into perfect synch and sweet restraint, a softly-mutated post-bossa pulse and Levin’s springy bassline coaxing along Belew’s lapping reverse-rhythm guitar and gentle vocal melancholia. It’s a reminder that King Crimson also have a knack for the beautiful offbeat ballad alongside the harsh upheaval. This is no exception, grasping wistfully and tenderly after a fleeting sense of centredness, throwing what’s come before into a more human-scaled relief.

King Crimson: ‘VROOOM’
Discipline Global Mobile, DGM 0004 (5 028676 900016)
CD-only mini-album
Released:
31st October 1994
Get it from: (2020 update) some original copies still available from Burning Shed – also reissued, along with the material from its companion volume ‘The VROOOM Sessions’, as part of 2015’s 16-disc ‘THRAK BOX (King Crimson Live and Studio Recordings 1994-1997)’, also available from Burning Shed
King Crimson online:
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September 1994 – album reviews – The Milk & Honey Band’s ‘Round the Sun’ (“pollen-soaked brightness”)

30 Sep
The Milk & Honey Band: 'Round The Sun'

The Milk & Honey Band: ‘Round The Sun’

Life in Levitation appears to have been pretty intense. It wasn’t just the careening violence of that band’s supercharged stew of indie-metal and psychedelia (which usually brought to mind eerie and sickly dawn comedowns, or bloated nebulae savaging each other in a chilly night-sky) but the personal cost as well. Five equally creative underground rock musicians – each with hungry histories behind them – yoked together into a single band and choosing an open-ended approach, then unexpectedly exploding into semi-celebrity across the British indie-rock circuit.

Excesses of talent and volatility (and too much “too much” in general) inspired Levitation, but also wore it down. In particular, the sudden and very public departure of the band’s doggedly wayward frontman Terry Bickers in summer ’93 seemed acrimonious enough to raise blisters. Perhaps this is why whenever Levitation’s keyboard player Bob White stepped away from the band for a breather of his own, the music that he produced had such pollen-soaked brightness to it. Compared to Levitation’s soaring, guttering galactic frenzies, The Milk & Honey Band feels more like waking up in a warm barn in the woozy heat of an August afternoon, knowing that there’s just enough of the summer left for you to relax into.

Collected together as a full album, these songs float together gracefully and lazily. Despite the communal, homespun suggestions of the name, Bob is on his own here – producing and playing absolutely everything from the shakers to the luscious layered guitars. He seems more than happy to be carrying all the weight. Of course, he’s made it easier for himself by making Milk & Honey Band music so softly buoyant: an easygoing psychedelia with a nostalgic undertow. ‘Round The Sun’ is pervaded by a sunny West Coast feel, with banks of multi-tracked Bobs murmuring in cloudy harmonies.

There’s an illuminated sting to Not Heaven’s punchy rhythm, but listen to that glorious coda as the guitars slide deliciously over each other – a sensual Moebius strip of sound. A trio of pastoral guitars in Raining, set against a gentle downpour, recall Peter Green. Mandolins ring tenderly on Out Of Nowhere. The slow, sleepy, rumple of the title track builds on rich and majestic layers of spliffed-up guitars and harmonium; Bob lovingly croons “feels like life has put the world in your arms” amidst touches of melodica and tingling vibraphone. Even a digression into pelting distorted rock-out for Another Perfect Day (which sounds like an agreeably tranquillized Bob Mould) is haloed with positivity.

West Coast syrup and sunshine aside, the Milk & Honey Band is also as English as chips in newspaper. Often it could be a never-was memory of imaginary childhood holidays. Something remembered by a happier Syd Barrett, perhaps – saved from drowning, and lost in a contented swirl of dope smoke as he hangs out with an equally relaxed Andy Partridge.

Two rogue Milk & Honey Band instrumentals also anchor themselves to an endearing shabby gentility, like fading Edwardian seaside pavilions going quietly to seed in the dying sunlight. The first of these, Tea (sweetened with organ, glockenspiel and fake clarinet), summons up sepia memories of elderly swinging dance-bands. The snatch of elegant minimalism on Pier View (shifting interlocking waltzes of piano and synth oboe) isn’t a million miles away from the  more mannered moments of  Penguin Café Orchestra’s chamber-music joys.

Still… beyond the simple humming pleasures, there’s a subtle tinge of melancholy. It’s intangible, like a barely-there sense of the mistakes you’ve not yet realised that you’ve made. On Puerto, hazy recollections from family holidays – train journeys, shapes made by a father’s hands – are just flakes of memory, snapshots of times that are gone. Only the cavernous darkness of Light – slow drums booming, guitars like giant creaking girders; a smudgy, apprehensive fog of vocals – points back towards Levitation’s broiling stress.

Yet there are hints that the warmth in which The Milk & Honey Band sits is a resting place which must be eventually left behind; or a long-ago photograph in which the colours will eventually turn wan and wear away. Listening past the folky, bluesy cats-cradle of clean-picked guitars (recalling the Stones in wasted lament on Wild Horses) you’ll hear Bob singing softly about blood on his hands that won’t wash away. Elsewhere, he gently pleads “Take a lot of stupid noise / and try to understand the words that I say.”

It’s as if he’s aware that the time available for understanding is short: circumscribed by circumstance, and with far too much human frailty getting in its way. Presumably, fraught energies will be beckoning again sometime soon. In the meantime this album is here, as floaty and comforting as a hammock-ride – and as vulnerable.

The Milk & Honey Band: ‘Round the Sun’
Rough Trade Records, R3572 (5022781203574)
CD/vinyl/download album
Released: 29th September 1994

Buy it from:
Download from Burning Shed; CD is long-deleted and best looked for second-hand.

The Milk & Honey Band online:
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