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Live reviews – The Sea Nymphs @ The Falcon, Camden Town, London, 13th December 1998 (“a long curving wave of sea-songs, swimming keyboards, children’s play-rhymes”)

18 Dec

In reality, the music room at The Falcon is a tumbledown concrete box shoved out onto a bit of waste ground. Right now, though, we could easily imagine it transformed by our collective warmth, enwebbed with flowered arbors and the hum of big lovable insects.

This is good. The air’s alive with a warm, fireside excitement and the sound of a zillion Christmas triangles. Up on stage, Tim Smith has just flicked us one of his weird little opening-envelope smiles. Bill Drake – goateed and woolly-hatted, somewhere between pharoah and trainspotter – settles in behind his keyboards, half-in and out of the parallel universe he normally inhabits. Someone bleats like a sheep. Everyone laughs. Sarah Smith – unreservedly sexy and wholesome, like a fairytale milkmaid – readies her saxophone, smiles mischievously.

As they make a showing for the first time in years, The Sea Nymphs bring us the same sense of unguarded wonder that we’d get from watching some obscure and exquisite little beast uncurl itself from hibernation or hatch out of a chrysalis. There’s that, and there’s their uncanny ability to awaken the sort of love that I haven’t felt sweep through a concert for ages. We’re crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder – on any other day, we’d be the usual indie-rock cattle, and we’d feel it. This time, it feels more like being a step away from holding hands.

It’s as if we’re all buoyed up on a long curving wave of sea-songs, swimming keyboards, children’s play-rhymes; of twinkle-fingered piano, folk fragments, and pale running saxophones; plus Edward Lear, Edward Gorey, and all the other unguarded wistful subconscious flickers that may (or may not) inform The Sea Nymphs’ music. Somehow, they’re managing to remove the tarnish that’s caked onto the joy that we’ve almost forgotten: that straightforward joy at being alive. Because this is music that disarms and rebuilds somehow – it’s ducking aside from the panicky hurtle of London neurosis that’s going on outside, and taking us with it.

This may seem a woolly cop-out; as if I’m just burbling. The truth is that The Sea Nymphs, in work and in performance, seem to be offering a mystery of creation that doesn’t bear too much thinking about. Too much breakdown won’t break the spell – it will just ease you out of it, painlessly, like a splinter; into the cold again. And that’s something which you don’t want to happen. Within Sea-Nymphs-space, we’ve all found a place in which we very much want to be. We want to rest in the anchoring embrace of Tim’s warm and rounded basslines, to cotton on to how the querying melody-hop of Little Creations sounds like a baby making its very first connections. We want to enjoy the unselfconscious way Sarah rejoices in striking a gong, as if she was dusting a clock.

As the tipsy near-waltzes sway around the air, as Tim, Sarah and Bill’s voices twine and alternate (from naked and frayed harmonies to scratchy yelps, to impossibly sweet helium coos) we’re given the opportunity to pig out on a different kind of instinct than that triggered off by the standard lash of rebellious rock noise. There’s something baptismal in that sound – the little lilts of Shaping The River, the cries of “sponge me clean again” vaulting over a chunky acoustic strum. Maybe it’s something to do with a natural, maternal comfort. The key line of Blind In Gaiety And Leafy In Love is “she smells just like you and she smells just like me”, while Appealing To Venus stretches out a begging hand to an absent goddess, pleading “dwell among the people. / Come back to us, we need you.”

Maybe – behind the celebratory music and those rosettes of voice and exhilarated sax, lofting toward the ceiling – the vulnerable flutter at the heart of it all is the fears. Fears at the treacherous terrain of potential fuck-ups and traps, opening up like a dirty promise before newborns as they begin their blundering pilgrimages onward from birth through a childhood and adulthood of busts and confusions. “Back to square one… / large as life and twice as natural… / Let’s not reinvent the wheel; open that can of worms…”

Still. Here and now Sea Nymphs restore our openness – our willingness to ride our curiosity. For a brief time, at least, it becomes our strength again; and when, in Mr Drake’s Big Heart, the band tell us “something’s going to happen today”, we all feel as if we’re a part of it. After tonight, at the very least, we’ll have been able to say that we were together for a while, and it was good.

The Sea Nymphs online:
Homepage MySpace

The Falcon, Camden online:
Homepage

Album reviews – Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’ (“unsettling beauty with an element of wild and joyous fear”)

20 Nov
Cloud Chamber: 'Dark Matter'

Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’

A cloud chamber is a device for measuring the existence of the intangible. Physicists use them – mapping out the paths that subatomic particles trace through a vapour, studying nuclear reactions and inferring the presence of other particles. There’s something about that last bit I particularly like: inferring the existence of something. Something you can only detect, or believe in, by seeing how it affects something else.

Cloud Chamber (with the capitals) is an improvising group allowing the convergence of several other exotic particles – these being guitarist Barry Cleveland, space-age bass guitarist Michael Manring, cellist Dan Reiter, percussionist Joe Venegoni and Michael Masley, who coaxes sounds out of a more esoteric set of instruments (panpipes, gobek, gobeon and the cymbalom dulcimer). Having come together as part of the Lodge improv evenings in Oakland, California following stints with employers as diverse as Michael Hedges, the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, Ry Cooder and Garbage (plus exploits in journalism and dance theater), Cloud Chamber’s collective past suggests that what they’re likely to condense together will be suckling blissfully on an inspiration of mind and music, devoid of barriers.

More accurately, outside of barriers. When listening to improvised music you’re all too often shoved back on your arse by the force of several musicians protesting their individuality as forcefully as possible, and playing off each other with all the subtlety of dodgem cars. Cloud Chamber, on the other hand, have nothing to do with ego. The fivesome’s music emerges like the interplay of ocean currents; a process of continual organic movement to which the musicians respond as if they’re no more than implements of a guiding force.

And that’s how it needs to be – the compound music that Cloud Chamber produce is as precarious and demanding as improv demands, but to release the life in that music it’s necessary for the musicians to let it play through them. Manring (a driving and devastatingly gifted bassist, as his solo records and work with Sadhappy testifies) keeps any hero-glitter under a bushel of humility here. He takes a step back, becoming just one of many element in the condensate: no more dominant then Reiter’s troubled, graceful cello or Venegoni’s poised rattlebag. Cleveland lurks in the background with his chameleonic guitar (playing a skeletal pattern of notes, a swarm of bees, a steel-shack sound, or an unknown language). Masley strokes and strikes gorgeously glassy shard-notes out of his cymbalom with his bowhammers and thumb-picks.

Patterns and presences take shape out of nothingness, drift around on the edge of perception, then suddenly and deeply solidify, impressing themselves on you as if they’ve been there for years. Half-familiar fragments of music (bits of Eastern European string quartet, Chinese and Asian music, a riff from King Crimson’s The Talking Drum) reveal themselves with an enigmatic smile while they’re well on the way to becoming something new.

This is also very beautiful music: though it’s a strung-out, unsettling beauty with an element of wild, joyous fear. The exquisite Blue Mass manifests itself like light twisting through a stained-glass prism, anchored on Reiter’s perplexing, precariously emotional cello calls above which the group fashion a soft, high night-sky of singing steel sounds. Radiant Curves is all looping contrails.

On Solar Nexus, singing bass guitar and cello interweave as Masley plucks and bows his cymbalom overhead: Cleveland’s guitar flies in out of left-field over popping, sliding, shadowy bass shapes, and everything ends in glittering, mirror-surfaced screams. As a listener, you become increasingly spooked and enchanted at the presences these sounds suggest. It feels like being stalked by the Easter Island statues in a swirling fog; or like hearing the sudden ring of an unknown voice in the haunted wind that cuts through high-tension wires overhead.

This disquietude doesn’t come from conflict. These musicians don’t battle each other. The thoughtful interview they provide in the booklet, and the watchful grace they exhibit in their interaction, amply proves the opposite. But something in the music that comes out of their alliance seems to suggest a rapt, fearful awe at the size and diversity of the cosmos; and that’s not just in the astronomer’s titles which the pieces sport.

Some music changes the way you see the world, and this is a full hour’s helping. Not so much a Big Music as a small music, something retreating into the details and filaments of unconfirmed suspicions. This could be in the rhythmic imperative of the baleful four-note Pink Floyd-ian riff in The Call, worried at by the rat-scurrying strings, space-gypsy fiddling and Manring’s anxious Jaco-in-retreat fingerwork. Or it could be in the cat’s-cradle of scrapes and rockets on cello, mingling with cymbalom mantras, on Full of Stars. Here, a tangle of miscellaneous alien squawks is surrounded by collapsing glassy percussion, fractured-tree bass noises and Cleveland’s guitar-talk, finally washing up on the shores of Chinese classical music.

The most obvious Cloud Chamber ever get is on the sketchy world-funk of Dithyramb. This is like an exploded version of the fake ethnography crafted by Byrne and Eno on ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, or by Rain Tree Crow, and passes into a high, stretched-out passage of cello and bass sustain. Travelling alongside, Cleveland’s mounting guitar journeys from sketching out cirrus cloud to lovely Vini Reilly-esque pointwork. But this is a rare moment of innocence and cheer. Much more characteristic is the air-on-a-G-string improv that bedrocks Ursa Minor, setting up tensions between pluck and sustain, between the percussive cello and phased, rapping bass; between the ominous restlessness of free open passages and the querulous, demanding blue notes of the cello solo.

The final (and untitled) experiment leaves no tone resolved – winding cello, seagull distortions and an irregular, antsy wash of noise. You’re left feeling that Cloud Chamber have dismantled the scenery between us and the infinite, leaving us losing track of time, of solidity. Falling through the world. Suddenly turning around to find the whole colossal starry wonder of the universe at your back, and thrilling with a terrible flinch of delight.
Somehow Cloud Chamber are picking up on something that most of us miss: revealing something unseen by reacting to it. Hearing ‘Dark Matter’, you feel as if you’ve been allowed to watch the ambiguous wonder of something changing, and changing decisively – a presence inferred – and that you’ve been allowed to be part of it.

Science, or magic? Doesn’t matter. Live within it.

Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’
Supersaturated Records, SUPERSATURATED 001
CD/download album
Released: 11th November 1998

Get it from:
CD Baby or iTunes.

Cloud Chamber (Barry Cleveland) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

Live reviews – ‘The Sound Of Satellite’ (featuring Sand, Lucha Libre, Yossarian, Karamazov, Heavy Q) @ Notre Dame Hall, London, Friday 9th October 1998 (“The Young Gods meet ‘Rugrats’…”)

13 Oct

This time, I’ve done it.

For once, I’ve arrived on time… and Notre Dame Hall is so empty that I reckon I’m going to be outnumbered by the bands. Above me, a glitterball spins very, very slowly. Off to stage-right, a slide is projected onto the wall back-to-front. Smoke drifts across from the other side of the stage, as if one of the boxes of gear has quietly caught fire. Horace Andy plays over the sound system. I’ve never noticed that squirmy edge to the sweetness of his voice; or how well it suits embarrassment.

No. It doesn’t go on like that. In fact, and independently of tonight’s acts, it ends up as one of the friendliest concerts I’ve been to in ages. But that first half-hour – of me as the lone non-label person in the house – gives me an idea of the risk which labels like Satellite take on whenever they put a night like this together. If you’re a mainstream label with a nice little crop of pushable guitar pop bands, and you want to hire out some dedicated pub for a concert party: well, fine, you’re probably onto a winner. If, alternatively, you’re a small label best known for fringe electronica such as Fridge, Rothko, and Add N To X (one of whom is DJ-ing tonight) and you’re hiring this big cinematic ballroom… then you must be trying not to sneak nervous, sidelong glances into the looming face of failure.

When I befriend Pete, the Satellite house photographer, he tells me that as soon as tonight is finished they’re taking the whole thing – lock, stock and barrel – over to Paris, to repeat the concert. Within the day. Gluttons for punishment. Or people who believe in what they have to offer.

* * * * * * * *

What they offer (or unleash) first is Heavy Q, whom I know from a single truly bizarre piece of experimental vinyl. He/she/it/they?… He. One Japanese guy, Lee Young Sin, in a glitterscaled wrestlers mask, hunched over a pair of samplers as if preparing to split them in half by sheer willpower (one of them, appropriately, is labelled “Quasimidi”). We’ll see him later as part of Lucha Libre, the other members of whom are tracing his every move with Handycams.

What he’s up to right now is squeezing out slice’n’dice anti-dance music as the hall begins to fill up; a scary dead-funk cyborg strop interspersed with cut-ups of Japanese telly chatter and cheering. At one point a sampled announcer burbles a bit of plain English – “breaking the earth for us tonight” – with the cheesy enthusiasm of someone who knows the next bit of hype which they can stick in their arm will be along in another few minutes. That same hysterically enthusiastic announcer will be weaving in and out of Lee’s music like a persistent hiccup; a glassy, untrustable ringmaster to his sonic circus.

Heavy Q’s second piece is a randomised assault of backbreaking drum sounds; drum’n’bass minus the calming balance of the bass. His third is a children’s chant, slapped up against a deathly brutal industrial tom rattle. As he moves over to rummage on his table of electronic debris, the sound runs on without him, mutating into Bollywood singsong, strangled by tortured electronics. By the end of it, Lee has turned himself into a vast, vulgar techno-god statue on top of the table. Arching back and moaning a deep thick bass vocal into his microphone, he’s almost at one with his sampler. He drinks from a sparkle ray-gun; he adjusts his electronics like he’s tying his shoelaces. Throwing a sarcastic cock-rock pose, he waves a theremin aerial around at phallus height.

Is this the answer to the problem of the personality void in electronica? Living up to the gigantic sonics by taking onto yourself the aspects of a monster movie?

* * * * * * * *

Talking of the personality void… things are working out contrary to expectations. At any given unpretentious, good-time indie gig, I’ll be out in the cold, a blip on the doorlist among self-satisfied strangers. Here, on a night that ought to smack of exclusive club, a night which you’d expect to exclude, I’m making ceaseless cheerful conversation. Buoyed by camaraderie, I and my new friends agree that, in contrast to Heavy Q’s theatrics, Karamasov have the slightly bored, stiff look of too many art-scene bands.

Perhaps it’s that old cliche of Teutonic cool: half of the band is genuinely German (guitarist/cellist Johannes von Weizsacker and stately blonde percussionist Berit Immig), while the London half (bassist Harry Rambaut and synth player Adam Stewart) aren’t exactly Essex ravers. Certainly their music’s lodged in European post-rock cool rather than Pacific rim commercial frenzy, their set opener wheeling along on Harry’s sproingy pre-jazz bass, Jonathan’s phased guitar scrub, and a lonely, farting-Dalek riff on Moogbass. They look at each other as if they’re setting up lab equipment; or preparing John Cage’s piano, like good little acolytes. Their second piece is something from the chillier end of Stereolab‘s science school, albeit with a few sniffs of quiet humanity appended. Echo-slapping cello effects, and skinny Moog squirts something like Philly soul strings, sketched and autopsied. The cello scrapes like a worn wheel; Berit’s oddly heavy-metal drumming is rookie-tense, but snaps tight regardless. On the beady-eyed Roadsnack, she switches to spiky organ against Jonathan’s piano-ping guitar.

Out on the floor, meanwhile, we’re waiting for them to enjoy themselves. I know, I know; there’s a certain credibility to that kind of icily unmoved, Euro-scientific music creation. But… Karamasov come across so much better when they drop it, hang out, and just play. It’s probably not intentional, but Uneven Surface sounds something like Genesis’ Watcher Of The Skies filtered through Faust. Hmmm. ‘The Wire’ would have a fit; but the bass stabs and drum riffs are received with joy by the Satellite audience. Happy Hour ain’t the Housemartins (which would’ve been interesting, come to think of it), but sounds more like Neu! reinventing lounge music, as Berit tinkles out melodies on the vibraphone. Most welcome of all is a piece I didn’t catch the name of, in which the increasingly impressive Berit sings in a detached Nico murmur (not unlike Elizabeth K.’s interjections for Eyeless In Gaza) over a tune not unlike a relaxed cross between Levitation and A.R. Kane (with a bit of the brisk arty hoppiness of a warmer German band, F.S.K).

During the next interval, the DJ plays Egg and Soft Machine rather than some fearsome tranche of blunt improv. A definite feeling of thaw is in the air.

* * * * * * * *

Yossarian turns out to be both a band (two keyboardists out of a ’50s B-movie and a drummer) and a bald mad-scientist character, looking not unlike Alan McGee. This is Tim London – Yossarian’s prime human body. In a previous life, he was the slightly warped pop brains behind Soho (if you remember the Smiths-sampling ‘Hippychick’, not that there was much else).
These days he’s wrapping his cortex round far artier pop shapes. One piece – all drones, cymballine drums and organ – sounds like Mark Hollis knitting together Labradford and Spiritualized; a chorus of “I will call, and you will come” and an unexpected blaze of harmonica. Other pieces sound like late ‘60s Scott Walker sitting down hard on late ‘80s Pet Shop Boys, and others…

Vocoders, yet! Those pained machine voices are back, along with Air-style pretty melodies served with an avant-garde hiss and a cheesy Bontempi beat under the flagrant detail. What is this nut trying to morph into and sell to us now? E.L.P.? The Glitter Band? By the time I’ve decided that it’s a sort of electronica ‘Parklife’ with car-crash keyboards, he’s exploring bleak Bowie ‘Low’-ies and hitching them up onto Prodigy-style wall-of-fire beatoramas like an erupting Las Vegas volcano.

All of a sudden, I see Tim London revealed as electronic art’s own John Shuttleworth, and relax a bit. It’s an impression carried in his archness, in his taste for a classically creaky lounge-pop tune, his self- conscious anti-cool (“I’ve never played in that time signature before”, he drawls), his total deadpan approach to the ridiculous or to any intimations of hubris, and most of all in the way that, having thrown electronics at us all evening, he encores by – get this – playing the spoons. Respect is due. My old man’s a Cyberman an’ all that.

* * * * * * * *

Osakan noisefreak-fusioneers Lucha Libre have bigger hats than anyone else. They also have bigger presence, taking the stage like EMF used to do. They possess a double-brass frontline – one capering trombonist leader (Teruhiko Heima) in a Kiss ‘Destroyer’ T-shirt; one surreally dignified sax player (Akifumi Minamimoto). There’s also a transplanted heavy metal core in the shape of Takashi Sakuma, a sampler-wielding guitarist with long tartan shorts, a serious Van Halen fixation, and one of those hilariously literal Japanese sweatshirts. This one reads “Pretty Tough Sport”. Finally, they have a digital heart on frantic overdrive – everyone except drummer Jun Tsutusui seems to be doubling on synth.

By their seventh number their bassist (Lee Young Sin, back in a different guise) is walking on his hands and playing the synth with his head amidst a hurricane of Coltrane-meets-Black-Sabbath saxophone. Before that, we’ve been privy to a Donington’s-worth of heavy-metal axe abuse; a swelter of industrial goofing and salsa horns; and a stage act best described as The Young Gods meet ‘Rugrats’. We’ve also, as a responsible audience, totally turned around received notions about arty label nights by absolutely loving it to bits and yelling for more, as the twit from ‘Melody Maker’ shakes his head and frets about missing ‘Friends’. Lucha Libre continue their delightful murder of cool regardless.

Now they sound like ships coming into a drunken docking on Mars – big trombone blurts, the rattle and squiggle of electronic timepieces, and phenomenal yowls and divebombs from the metal kid. Now they’re on a big, spacious, tricky funk beat: Akifumi an oasis of reedy calm as a funky harpsichord riff pops up from keyboardist Soichi Murota and the band head into the slabby, tottering, Theremin-ized jazz-funk of the ‘We Have No Our Groove’ single. Next, they pull out in order to plait Led Zeppelin into the ‘Mission Impossible’ theme.

By the encore, Teruhiko is hammering out a torn tom tattoo on a commandeered chunk of Jun’s drumkit. Stuck horn drones giggle at him; the sax thrashes – squalling and wailing – in a cauldron of frenzied bop, and Takahashi fires Heavy Q’s abandoned raygun into his guitar pickups. It’s like seeing a particularly extrovert software virus trash your screen, in blazes of grinning colour. As they settle into a long final lope, razzing trombone carrying the melody over the clipped sax and Durutti guitar picking, the air inexplicably fills with a powdery scent of flowers. This is some sort of Lucha Libre Japanese magic, I guess: the sort of thing which that passionately confused nation throws up so well.

* * * * * * * *

With a massive wall of dry-ice fog and a sound like Satan belching (it’s some sort of conch, in fact), Sand prepare to close the evening. A massive mound of frizzy dreadlocks hoves into view and starts growling Andean death-metal at us. Crops wither within a three-mile radius.

This thing is – to stretch the Trades Description Act a little – Sand’s singer. Whether it’s possible to declare a force of nature part of your band is a matter for Sand and their lawyers. They used to be called Germ, which is an understatement and a half. They should have been Epidemic. To put Sand into perspective, they are something of a return to normality after Lucha Libre’s mad playground display, even if they do both feature upfront trombone. Sand are also, by far, the most assured band on tonight – elastic harmonic bass from John Edwards, the precise touches on Rowan Oliver’s looping drums, the wash of ravishing electro-gale off Tim Wright’s keyboards: a bit like Rain Tree Crow with a trombone, but only if they’d been fronted by David Sylvian’s monster-from-the-Id. This is something which the Sonic Youth-style drumsticked drone guitar and the ‘Bitches Brew’ mute on Hilary Jeffery’s trombone only accentuates.

The monster on vocals – whose name is, apparently, George – evidently knows harmonic overtone chanting. His reverberating rasp blends in with the trombone’s blare, the slipping geological sample and the Bruford threes which Rowan is now shooting off the top of his kit. The mike slips deeper into that mane of dreads. From the unseen mouth the Devil pukes noise, sprawling and rolling: echoes of Diamanda Galas, balled’n’bassed up, or of Magma. If many of the smooth dream-rock tones of Sand suggest a vigorous muscle-flexing tone-up, that voice feels like being rolled hard in the gravel afterwards. Among other things, Sand offer a crushing world-music for the ever-so-slightly masochistic.

“You can dance to the next one,” comments band spokesman Hilary, draining the spit from his trombone as John brings on a double bass to play… well, some salsa from hell; the guitar and keyboard filling up the spaces in the music with an inspired patina of drone-trash. As another Sand piece forms (a reedy melodica, skullclick percussion, a lost wail from Mr Mountain as the band traverses a flat, disturning plain of atonal movement) you wonder whether this band would ever really make you want to dance. Why should you want them to, when instead you can suffer the perverse enjoyment of feeling Sand twitch the crust of the earth from under your feet?

* * * * * * * *

I don’t care. The liberating, socialising force of dance was the one aspect of electronic music that was ignored tonight; possibly because it was redundant. In between writing my notes I’ve filled my ears, had a doughnut, leafed through vinyl stalls, and spent an evening in the belly of the art-beast, chatting away to some of the nicest people I’ve met in ten years of making up gig numbers.

I finally let my tired eyelids swell, and turn my weary ankles homewards. Satellite are packing up, engrimed with cigarette smoke and fired up on the warmth of the evening, making ready to ship it all across the Channel to the City of Light.

This time, I don’t fear for them.

Sand online:
Homepage

Lucha Libre online:
Homepage

Yossarian online:
Homepage

Karamazov online:
Homepage

Heavy Q Connection online:
Homepage

Satellite Records online:
Homepage

(2018 update – after twenty years, it’s no surprise that most of those bands and projects have long since ended. Post-2001, Satellite Records was mostly reabsorbed into its ongoing parent label, Soul Jazz; and the Satellite, Yossarian, Lucha Libre and Heavy Q links above connect only to discographies. Yossarian’s Tim London (a.k.a. Tim Brinkhurst) now works as a film-maker, as a music lecturer at the British & Irish Modern Music Institute in Birmingham, and as producer, most notably with Young Fathers. The members of Karamazov are still friends and collaborators, working together in various combinations in The Chap and Omo. Sand also continues in various forms and names, generally helmed by Tim Wright and Hilary Jeffery. It’s unclear what’s become of the members of Lucha Libre, although saxophonist Akifumi Minamimoto did also put some time in with “jazz/R.I.O. progsters” Djamra. Meanwhile, Notre Dame Hall ended four decades of musical history covering beat pop to punk to avant-gardery in 2001, when it became first the Venue theatre and then the Leicester Square Theatre.

Oh – and sorry about the lack of pictures. When I got friendly with Satellite’s photographer, it clearly didn’t include me blagging post-concert photos out of him.)

Live reviews – Holly Penfield’s ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’, Downstairs @ The Washington, Belsize Park, London, sometime in 1998 (“calling back the family”)

3 Oct

Usually, the stage is festooned with objects. Antique candlesticks, mutilated dolls, little aliens and masks and stuffed rats. Inflatable replicas of Munch’s ‘Scream’; drapes and toy guitars and candles and mirrors. A travelogue of places been, of people touched and gifts given and received. It’s like walking into a voodoo shrine when you go to one of Holly Penfield’s shows, with a Kurzweil keyboard synth as the altar and a most singular priestess creating sympathetic magic.

Tonight, though, it’s not like that – and, to tell you the truth, it hasn’t been for some time.

When I knew it in the early ’90s, the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ Show had set itself up as a Kilburn cult: blazing and guttering as a shredded star in the Black Lion’s lofty function room, an intense piece of performance art sitting oddly on the schedule among the jazz nights and the inevitable country and Irish bands. I used to be a regular, travelling an ungainly “v”-shape by Tube from Highgate to Kilburn via Charing Cross every few weeks to take in this precarious celebration of the outsider’s turmoil. I’d be hearing new audience members mutter “I’m absolutely fucking gobsmacked!” and “she’s a shaman, that’s what she is!” as Holly hauled her exhausted self offstage after the climax of every show, to meet the cluster of new converts. Or watching others sitting bolt-upright in their seats, uncertain as to whether they should move or breathe yet.

Kilburn has a long-standing reputation for nurturing street-fighters, poets and geniuses, but no-one was ever entirely prepared for the sheets of tumultuous emotion that blasted off that stage, winding the audience in out of their cloistered London selves. It was no crowd-pleasing assemblage of easy pieces. It was an exorcism, sung out of the psyche of an unstable California songwriter come to earth and berth as North London’s answer to Tori Amos, whose self-appointed mission was to celebrate the glorious awkwardness of being alive and being human.

She did it in style and with her whole heart, exploring our contradictory and troubled natures with her bag of striking songs and her full-on keyboards and singing. Part synth-pop diva, part 1970s rock siren, she came across like a full-throttle Stevie Nicks or Grace Slick invading and overwhelming a Laurie Anderson show-and-tell, and she brought a brace of personas with her. At times she was the enigmatic seductress, at others the knowing child or the wise fool, the little girl lost who sees with the clearest eye. Sometimes – especially in the wilder second half of the show – she was the liberating hysteric, encouraging the whole pub into primal screaming with her, or delving into the world of the compulsively needy in the sonic barrage of Cuddle Me.

Being a member of Holly’s audience meant being enticed into shedding those cloaks of cynicism and reserve we use to insulate ourselves, and opening your heart up to the rawest kind of sympathy and honesty. The show became a part of us, as much as we were a part of it, the church of the misfits she embraced. We dropped our guard, she sang: a voice for our odd angles and our visceral fears. OK, it wasn’t always successful. If you didn’t buy into her stylings and sounds, or suspected her for the years she’d clearly spent grinding away and trapped in the Los Angeles pop factory, you’d have been left cold from the start. Holly’s whimsical song-stories of peculiar goings-on down at the ranch burbled where they should enlighten. Her savage onslaughts on her inflatable Scream dolls did look like kids’ TV for psychos; and some songs fell across the line dividing the inspired from the self-indulgent. If you led with your sense of cool, or your cynicism, there was no chance.

But at full tilt, it was unmatchable. Banners unfurling, defining the nature of the misfit – and, years later, inspiring the name of this blog. The keyboard was caressed and hammered, abused and enchanted, responding with waves and roars of sound, chimes and ripples as those melodies cascaded out of it. Inevitably, the show would climax in a crash of sound and fury as Holly’s rage and passion reached a colossal peak and she smashed at keyboard and walls with terrifying fervour. Some evenings she’d pull herself up from the floor to let us off the hook with a song of redemption. Some evenings she’d given out so much that she couldn’t…

And eventually, it died a death. The show’s welcoming inclusiveness coagulated, and shrank to one woman’s neurosis replayed again and again on stage as a stubborn loop. Locked into her ritual of combat and confrontation, Holly became unapproachable: stopped listening. People, reduced from being family to being just punters, felt that; they stopped listening themselves; drifted away. Eventually, one evening (watching Holly run through a show that had become no more than a process, a jukebox for the disturbed) I realised that everything that had drawn me to attend the Fragile Human Monster Show – to be a part of the show – had slid out of Holly’s hands as they contorted on her keyboard, and drained away.

Quietly, and unmissed, I left. I heard that it ground on for maybe half a year longer – until Holly’s compulsion to keep performing it had finally ebbed – and then faded out. Radio silence.

That was then. Now… a tentative return to action. Holly’s show is no longer a monkey on her back, no longer a vampiric therapy devouring its own subject. And – by word of mouth, by phone – she’s calling back the family. There’s a new, one-off venue, in a more genteel neighbourhood. And there’s a gentler, shorter ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’. Less of a pitched battle this time. Testing the waters, for sharks and for soothing.

So… no decoration tonight. No Screams either. Just the keyboard, and Holly: still wand-slim, wispily blonde, petite; still looking as if you could break her between a couple of fingers. And, tonight, apprehensive as she works her way back into performing the show. When she takes the stage, however, she’s anything but insubstantial. That voice, that playing, those songs… are still intact. Little miracles of warmth and tension, instantly memorable as her astoundingly expressive voice curves little bluesy, jazzy curves round heartbreaking corners.

Penfieldia is a place to hide and be inspired, inhabited by characters like the homeless poet living in a box in Over The Edge or the unravelling lovers in the hollow urban landscape of City Of Lights. There’s familiarity to them, yes. These songs could conceivably have sat in the charts – or in piano bars. But, just as it all seems to be getting too straight, Holly twists it and it’s off in a different direction, or barbed with something unexpected that sneaks in and turns your heart like a doorknob.

Parts Of My Privacy unwraps the fears of the distrusting recluse. In Stay With Me slow coils of piano reach into the depths of loneliness, still the sound of a woman slowly sliding into the dark. Sea Of Love offers us respite with a slow sated love ballad and Don’t Hide sends out a rousing percussion call to faith. And Voices – a slow, winding sleepy version in which Holly leans on every note to push it home into the air – has the audience gently thrumming, always on the edge of a breath.

The clincher was always going to be the climactic ‘Misfit’ finale, the explosion which always blew the cork out of the frustration raging in the original shows. It still has that drama, that rage and stubbornness… but now it seems content to rest on its own worth, not to burst into hysteria and hallucinations. She’s keeping us guessing. Or, maybe, questioning herself about what her misfit resistance should be doing now and how its battle cry should sound, now that it’s escaped from the torments of the hall of mirrors.

Tonight, though, was something more important than just songs. It was the night that this most involving of shows gave itself back to the people who’d buoyed it up and who’d lived it as much as Holly Penfield herself. A collection of fragile human monsters found themselves, once again, with the sweet shared ache along the same shared faultlines.

No matter how much she could’ve dressed the show up, it would have been immeasurably poorer without that.

Holly Penfield online:
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The Washington, Belsize Park online:
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Album reviews – Bill Nelson: ‘Atom Shop’ (“freefalling away with the breakbeat imprint stamped onto the songs”)

20 Sep
Bill Nelson: 'Atom Shop'

Bill Nelson: ‘Atom Shop’

Compare and contrast. A while ago, Bowie – in a last-ditch attempt to prove he’s still relevant, still the musical chameleon of old – clambered aboard the drum’n’bass gravy train. That music’s normally made by lone bedsit technoheads; Bowie tried to do it with a bloated old rock band. Oops. Still, being Bowie, he could always pick up the phone and request the services of Goldie or some other jungle luminary. The end result sounded clumsy and desperate and – pointedly – as if Bowie had no real interest in drum’n’bass, since he kept dragging the music back towards the ever-more-familiar Bowierock. Not good.

On the other hand… Bill Nelson, him from ’70s Bowie contemporaries Be Bop Deluxe (and a man who mostly holed up in an ambient hermitage in Wakefield during the ’80s and ’90s) has also discovered drum’n’bass. A year before Bowie, too, with 1996’s rattlin’ good ‘After The Satellite Sings’, which sounded – unlike Bowie’s studied “so-how-do-I-do-jungle?” approach – like it had been a revelation and release to him, and without surrendering his own musical personality. Call me romantic, but I could imagine the middle-aged Nelson huddled over his radio each evening, tuning through the FM jungle pirate stations, listening in awe to the complex rhythms and then rushing to his music room to apply what he heard.

‘…Satellite…’ was a suave salvo of smartly retrofitted ’50s-accented art-pop with a bloodstream of “quintessentially English” drum’n’bass, if you can imagine such a thing – Nelson’s laid-back vocals (like a cross between David Sylvian and Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder) topping a very compacted sound, curiously lacking bass oomph but loaded with frenetic drum patterns, beatbox-assaulting jungle snares, burbling electronics and witty speech samples, including someone sounding suspiciously like Maggie Thatcher exclaiming “absolutely dazzled!” over the rush of beats. It was cheeky, it was damn cool, and it had a heart beating under its sharp starched creases.

‘Atom Shop’ is the follow-up; a boxload of demos that failed to get enough funding for the full studio treatment. All the better, ‘cos we know that that way lies ‘Earthling’, Bowie lumbering into a clumsy three-point turn and spilling his load. This album’s rougher edges help – not enough to convert a hardcore junglist, but evading the slickness of most crossover efforts. And it continues ‘…Satellite…’s so-quaint-it’s-cool eccentricity, from Nelson’s memories of being in hock to American glamour during his ’50s childhood and art-college ’60s in Yorkshire.

Pulp fiction, Beat writers, cartoons, natty bebop and cars with silver fins are all part of Atom Shop’s dream fabric. It kicks off with Wild & Dizzy’s swirl of trumpet mixups, dry drum’n’bass pulse, chill synths and blue guitar, peppered with ’50s dude voices. And one of the other songs is called Viva Le Voom-Voom, baby. There’s a lot of fanboy energy here: he’s knocking on 50, but Bill Nelson still sounds naïve and sparkling with enthusiasm, bless the old goat.


 
Though one thing you notice pretty fast is that ‘Atom Shop’ doesn’t have the hurtling clubby drive of ‘After the Satellite Sings’. Train With Fins looks back towards the more drum’n’bassed ‘…Satellite…’ songs like Flipside – fast and clattering upfront snare drum patterns, with a techno twang and banks of horn-like guitars calling up the ghosts of Stax – but, though speedy, it never breaks much of a sweat. Which is also true of Rocket Ship’s sliding jazz/d’n’b snake rattle and Trevor Horn stabs, or Popsicle Head Trip’s Ferry smooch and tight heavy-metal riffs – all mingling through the drum’n’bass dryness, but the beats ain’t so obvious as they could’ve been.


 
Magic Radio has a light d’n’b push to it, but ends up like The Orb doing Somewhere Over The Rainbow. ‘Atom Shop’ sounds more touched deeply in passing by drum’n’bass, rather than grabbed by it; as if it’s freefalling away with the breakbeat imprint stamped onto the songs, a teacher’s kiss. Here you’ll more often feel the pathways of d’n’b rather than the punch; the points where space has been prepared, the dynamics of the beat, waiting for the kick that never quite comes.

Oddly, though, ‘Atom Shop’s a much blacker album than its predecessor, even if it does sound less like a session on Massive FM. ‘…Satellite…’s most awkward point – the strafing, Fripp-like guitar solos – have been phased out for a bluesier approach. Nelson’s guitar is busy everywhere, and if there’s some of B.B.D.’s fluid finickiness to it, he can also sound like a sample-era John Lee Hooker, or the subtler detailing Hendrix of Little Wing and Up From The Sky. All this is dovetailed into the minimal trip-hop feel taken to the top of the charts by Garbage, Sneaker Pimps et al (especially for the more ominous Girlfriend With Miracles), but Nelson’s got a more developed musical sense.


 
So everywhere you look, there are things going on: elements of electronica, samples and live instruments in a complex, but never fussy or muso, interweaving. Dobros and slides are all over Pointing At The Moon’s sleepiness, little bits of rural blues and gospel organs jostle into the arrangements; and so do probably all the “s”s in Mississippi too, if you can find ’em. And jazz dances wherever there’s room; trippy Dizzy Gillespie trumpet cascades, cheeky clarinets, even a bit of scat. Bill Nelson’s found, and gone into, the future we’re starting to guess at from our Portishead records and big-beat singles. A glittering, malleable, disorienting wonderland built out of chewed-up scraps of our past and ghosts in the record players. Something which he pins down in the sizzling hip-hop/jazz hybrid of Spinning Dizzy On the Dial when he sings “I’ve seen the luminous stuff of dreams, / I know what’s going down… Awake to all eternity / with the jazziest ghosts in town.”


 
It’s about a sensibility, I guess, a feeling. Which leaves us with the preoccupations of Nelson’s sighed, sometimes stoned vocals through an album of songs that are mostly poised in dreaminess. ‘…Satellite…’ celebrated the liberation Nelson’s kinetic d’n’b exploits offered him, poked fun at those who thought he might be a little old to join the jungle massive (“I had my sonic youth / When you were lost in ether… / I’ve got nothing to say, and I’m saying it. / Yeah, that’s the stuff for me.”) and had an undercurrent of suspicion at the American dream (“Whither thou goest, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”). But ‘Atom Shop’s more content to bask in sighs about “the way things swing”, “moving stars spun from mirror ball”, “Chet Baker on the lo-hi-fi”, trippy kittens, glamour girls from Mars, and Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Perhaps he made his point the first time around.


 
Rest assured that it stays on the right side of Austin Powers, thanks to things like the Beat-rapping on Billy Infinity, the shuffling shoe-drag balladry and springy guitars of She Gave Me Memory, and the way in which My World Spins cooks everything together best – gospel emphasis, lucid little guitar and electric piano strums, pitter-pat drum’n’bass velocity, a Cars-style creaky hipness and Nelson’s determination to keep his head clear: “now everybody’s got their information / but none of it matches mine. / Saints preserve my reputation and keep my thoughts sublime.” The sense of a mind open to new sounds and influences pervades. Before the closing Jetsons-style supermarket jingle, Nelson’s declared himself to be “sending signals and leaving clues / from the hymns of history to the far-future blues.”


 
And aside from the excitement for the listener, part of the greatness of Nelson’s current trajectory is hearing a rejuvenated art-rocker enjoying exploring startlingly new musical forms and weaving them into his history. Doing it for himself, without a style guru or scenester shoving a batch of 12-inch white labels into his hands, saying “Sample some breaks from this – it’s what the kids are into.” Keep flicking through those FM stations, Mr Nelson…

(review by Col Ainsley)

Bill Nelson: ‘Atom Shop’
Discipline Global Mobile, DGM 9806 (633367980625)
CD-only album
Released: 15th September 1998

Get it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

Bill Nelson online:
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EP reviews – Blowholy: ‘Psalm 666’ (“a very young Trent Reznor chasing Tony Iommi down an endless cobbled alley”)

11 Sep
Blowholy: 'Psalm 666'

Blowholy: ‘Psalm 666’

For all the wild promo bluff (foaming descriptions of “’70s hell-riffing axe-gods having lo-fi nervous breakdowns whilst being sodomised by Satan’s own sampler under a layer of time-warped filth and modulated interference waves”) it’s easy to pin this one down. It was only a matter of time before someone copped on to the possibilities of fusing the rhythmical extremity of drum’n’bass junglism with the punch and theatrical flair of heavy metal. Strangely Brown (Blowholy’s one-man noise army) aims to be at the front of the queue to mate two musics more obsessed than most with extremity and big bangs.

If you can imagine a very young Trent Reznor chasing Tony Iommi down a narrow, endless cobbled alley, you’re halfway to imagining Blowholy. Knife-life guitar-riffs – pure Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, cored from their early ’70s pomp – ride on glittering junglist axles with a witchy, wiry vocal wound over the top. Electro-rattle meets bludgeon riffola – simple as that. Ministry did something similar with industrial techno at the start of the ’90s, and it’s fair to say that Blowholy owe them something. However, much of this EP springs from a distinctly British brand of humour and resentment.

Some of this is pulled from punk, some from the anarchic spirit of resistance in the free festivals, and some from the brutal rained-on sarcasm of the English cynic. Riding way back in the mix, crushed and distorted to a thin buzz, Strangely’s tones have a lip-smacking relish to them. He’s a rebellious and gleefully smart-arsed underdog, spitting out slap after slap to familiar targets, but with a engaging vigour. On the titular Psalm 666, he tears straight into consumerism (“Just buy what you’re told, / you are what you own. / Just do what you’re told and you’ll never be alone,”) and its pernicious work at frightening individuals into conformism. As with the metallic riffing, the song’s righteous punk disdain is tinged with Sabbath-style heavy-metal demonics (“Strip away the inane and just one voice remains. / It’s so subliminal, the devil’s own marching call: / ‘Come on, come on, come on, come on now, / fit in, fit in, fit in with the crowd’…”).

While Do As You’re Done By initially sounds more like personal revenge (“God, it gets me high to see the realisation dawn. / At last you’re facing someone you should really not have scorned!”) it’s more of a general roasting of the brainwashed – “I’ve had you here a year but you just never seem to learn. / So now it’s time to find out just what makes your flywheel turn. / If I open up your head I’ll see your tiny poisoned mind / I’m not expecting much, but I will see what I can find.” Beneath the occasional dungeon lyrics, it isn’t schoolboy sadism that drives Strangely: it’s ire at the smug, or the sheeplike, or the pretentious. ‘Dig Your Own’ (which mixes in some Mike Patton-style brat-rapping and a fistful of psychotically wiggling sax samples from Naked City) rips enthusiastic holes in some swell’s ballooning ego. “Claiming to bring the ultimate coup, / only to say what we already knew. / You’re going on so fast that you bring your own disaster. / En route from god to bastard, / so big; could not be vaster. / You’re going on so fast that it could never, ever last you…”

Scene & Herd charges back to the big unison Black Sabbath riffs, taking a sniff at speed-garage while it’s there. The dance elements are better integrated, wrapped in a grinning, glistening embrace with the guitars. This time, Strangely takes his knife to bandwagon-jumpers whose opportunism outstrips their knowledge or sincerity. “In all you do, it’s only you that you want to please… / There is no credence to the so-called words of wisdom that you sell. / But who can tell?” With great pleasure, he pronounces sentence: “It’s your fate to emulate / the world you think you have escaped / but merely aped.”

All well and good, but once the trick of drum’n’bass/metal fusion has become familiar, you do start hankering after some new tricks. Luckily, there’s Iconoplastic (Tzawai), in which Blowholy take a step on from the initial hybrid and produce something much more interesting. The power-riffing electric guitars are gone this time (occasionally replaced by scrabbles across a dislocated acoustic) and the stripes of waiting vacuum and rushing, balefully-textured noise stretched across the shuddering beat are more along the unrelenting sampledelic lines of Moonshake, Muslimgauze or The Young Gods than anything that finds its natural home in ‘Kerrang!’. The ominous Arabic samples (courtesy of Chalf Hassan) merge with the lo-fi percussive impulse, a jihad strike-force speeding across the sands. Meanwhile, the sardonic word-dancing has reached new levels of acidity. “Here we go again, with your self-important jive / about how you made a difference filling empty lives… / Well, it’s such a bed of roses with your collection of pet psychoses. / So tormented, like you meant it. / Oh, such a sensitive man!”

Blowholy are halfway there – they’re on the right track, but if they’re to become as musically interesting as the Naked City and Mr Bungle tracks they sample, they need the courage to consistently extend their own envelope. In other words, more Iconoplastics. But at least the drum’n’bass/metal crossover floodgates have been thrown open. That shaggy, long-in-the tooth rock monster has grown itself a new skeleton and is about to road-test it.

Blowholy: ‘Psalm 666’
Ketamine Leper Music, KETCDS 01 (no barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: 1998

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand, although CD versions will be extremely rare. Some tracks can be downloaded from Soundcloud as part of the ‘Church Bizarre’ album.

Blowholy online:
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EP reviews – no-man: ‘Carolina Skeletons’ (“loaded with meaning, swollen thick with suppressed tears”)

29 Aug

They claim it as “a totally new approach” for the band, but thankfully, this time they’re wrong. After the diverse experimentation of the ‘Wild Opera’ and ‘Dry Cleaning Ray’ albums, it’s more of a look back to their roots in the deceptively simple, poignant flush of ambiguous romance. no-man are going home. And as they do, this falls – as if from a worn-out pocket – into our hands.

Carolina Skeletons could just be the finest single no-man have ever released. A rhythm track like a weary hubcap rolling its way home; Steve Wilson’s lovelorn, restrained piano and sleepy, teary guitar touches. A simple, unchanging dynamic evoking both a state of grace and a state of stagnation. A set of chords that fall, question and resolve – heartbreakingly – around Tim Bowness’ quietly yearning vocal. A distant almost inaudible organ, hovering like a night scent. And a short glimpse of a few moments of a trapped life.

It’s a snapshot of a lonely woman paralysed by inertia, watching as time “strips the tinsel from her hair” and the mingled forces of gravity and grief tug her down. It has the same sketch-like quality of American Music Club or The Blue Nile – a few lines loaded with meaning, swollen thick with the suppressed tears – and breathes out, with its eyes closed, the same ineffably bruised air as Mark Hollis’ melancholy reveries. You get a feeling that for its solitary anti-heroine, Cowboy Kate, time is slowing but history has already halted.

So much for the lead track. But the whole EP shivers with an underlying, understated tension; the sort of slight ache that nags and means that at best only a flawed and brittle peace is possible. Caught up in the acoustic guitar webbing of Something Falls, Tim’s words are entangled and shivering in the anticipation of a shock to come: “You’re far too near it to feel it… / You’re far too near it to fear it…”

In Close Your Eyes (a swoonier, more grace-inspired take on their old Desert Heart epic) Mellotron strings hover near or retreat over rolling slot-drums: elegant stalkers on the uppers of their nerves. Twinkles and illuminations come and go like soft offshore lights – halfway through a guitar screams alone in the middle distance. Caressed, Tim sings a beatific, burnished chorus while the verses hint at love, violence and dependency: “His hands were hard, your face was soft. / He kissed your heavy head – and then you lost your strength…” It ends on a poised and prolonged outbreath, with Tim wailing passionately into the void up ahead: “You break, you swim alone, like a child…”

To close – a reverberant, distant, Budd-like reprise of the Carolina piano line in all of its beautiful worn-down dignity. The dust blows forward and the dust blows back. Sometimes all there is to do is to carry on, face set to the wind and tears stroked back towards where you’ve come from. Beautiful.

no-man: ‘Carolina Skeletons’
3rd Stone Ltd., STONE037CD (5023693003757)
CD-only EP
Released: 1998

Get it from:
Best obtained second-hand. The title track (and a different version of Close Your Eyes) ended up on no-man‘s ‘Returning Jesus’ album in 2001: all of the EP tracks were also reissued on the triple-vinyl release of ‘Returning Jesus (The Complete Sessions)’ in 2006.

No-Man online:
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