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REVIEW – G.P. Hall: ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’ double album, 1998 (“grand painterly instincts”)

3 May

G.P. Hall: 'Steel Storms & Tender Spirits'

G.P. Hall: ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’

Despite the luminous loveliness of much of his music, the career of style-hopping guitarist G.P. Hall hasn’t been smooth (even by the uneven standards of the experimental music he dips in and out of). Regardless, ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’ shows that he’s still up for taking a gamble.

A trust-risking double-album package, clearly intended to emphasize his dynamic musical dialectic, it also highlights the tension between his experimental side and his taste for romantic melody. There’s one disc of rough treatment (industrial noise-layering, screaming electricity) and one of ear-stroking pastoralism (the natural sound of wood and air, tickled by occasional breaths of spectral electronics). However, with Hall being who he is, the two ideas tend to bleed back together: in some cases, maybe more than was intended.

The ‘Steel Storms’ half of the set features a wealth of Hall’s “industrial sound sculptures”. Layered compositions played on his stock of prepared-and-processed guitars (via plectrum, fingertips, battery fans, velcro and more), they also make cunning use of assorted noise-makers ranging from scavenged autoharps and scrap metal to oven racks and household bricks. Texture is the predominant element in the music, but a surprising tunefulness and dark melodies often penetrate in the form of solemn classical adagios. It’s these which underpin the clattering chains, metallic rasps and harmonics of Industrial Sights, or the billowing clouds of rolling fragmented piano and wrenching distortion in Eye Saw It 2.

There’s an impressive documentary flamboyance at hand, too. When the insistently ringing, collapsing-steel groan-tones of Tsunami blend with both close-up atonal jangles of autoharp and with distant, skinny guitar-string shivers, the visual qualities of Hall’s music are particularly clear. Some of his work here wanders out to a distant edge. Two tracks in particular, Steel Storms and Steel Landscape, are almost wholly abstract – musical testaments to metal fatigue and the disorientating feel of post-industrial spaces. Grumbling, malignant loops and glittering boils of guitar drown in swills of rattling shard-metal and bass-drum booms. The pieces are laced with elephantine bursts of distortion; and with brief, dying surfacings of chemical-corroded blues playing.

Throughout, Hall’s grand painterly instincts tug the sound closer towards beauty – however twisted – than towards flat and impersonal horror. A whole album of such Hall industrialisms would be something to treasure. Unfortunately, ‘Steel Storms’ is continually gate-crashed by other sides of his musical personality. On River Flow, he revives one of his signature approaches: fluent Spanish guitar over detailed rolls of textural soundscaping. It’s as lovely as ever, but it’s misplaced here; and it’s anybody’s guess as to what Gypsy Gathering (a virtually straight piece of flamenco) is doing on the record.

In cases like these, Hall’s distracted eclecticism undermines the original intent of ‘Steel Storms’. Worse comes when that willing, stubborn naivety which lies at the heart of his music (giving it both its emotional strength and its core of idealism) becomes diluted into reproducing other people’s cliches. Since the mid-’90s, Hall has been an enthusiastic miner of his past work, dicing up his out-of-print albums to recombine their contents in new sequences. Often this has worked out well, juxtaposing his newer, tuneful solo tapestries with older, intriguing avant-jazz duets, trios and quartets (often featuring sundry members of Isotope, Gilgamesh or Nucleus). Unfortunately, on this occasion he’s pulled up some dross along with the gems.

Perhaps Hall’s work in library music during the lean years is to blame. He’s too interesting a musician to produce stock blandness (and even his failures have moments of interest) but on a record with a purpose, these lesser scraps should have stayed on the shelf. Yet several ‘Steel Storms’ tracks come from this lifeless batch, splotched with anonymous moves and tinny keyboard presets. No Man’s Land is drab robotic cop-chase stuff, the kind of thing a particularly cheesed-off Mark Knopfler might clunk out at the dull end of a soundtrack contract. The less said about the appalling Barbed Wire Bop (brittle ‘Seinfeld’ plastic-funk with the tones of a dodgy synth-demo) the better.

Happily, other ‘Steel Storms’ approaches are much more successful, toying fruitfully with the tight blare of fiesta horns, or with a kind of impressionistic stadium rock held together with paper-clips. The rainy-night drive of City Signals funnels determined loose-jointed funk elements through cascades of drumming, a marching-call trumpet leading the tune above Hall’s steel-saw guitar chops. On Docklands, an acoustic guitar explores and ranges over washing licks of soundscape; electric guitars swipe between factory-machine screeches and trumpet blasts; an echoing hip-hop beat – blind, gigantic and mechanical – stumbles through the landscape beyond.

Sometimes, everything comes together. Though centered on the aggressive, questioning rawness of an up-close flamenco guitar, B-E-trayed provides a discreet light-industrial twist to its traditional base, dragging its intermittent sheath of noises back into the realm of the personal. Already bouncing off tricky drumbox beats, it heads into more sinister areas when swarming, echoing drones and bitter laughter flicker across the speakers. At one point, Hall yells cathartically into the soundhole of his guitar.

All interesting, but the industrial theme becomes increasingly tenuous over the course of the record, though it does rally at points. Heavily overdriven cutting-blade sounds return for Fiya, in which blurred polluted riffs meet mournfully defiant Latin horns and gut-strung guitar. On Dancing On Cracking Ice the guitar plays a supporting role to mariachi horns (and to Sam Brown’s exploratory world-rock rattle of percussion), as Hall’s chopping slashing echoes and metal-fatigue string groans lead off into a leisurely Latin funk stretch. Funk is also one of the central elements of Battery Charger, colliding with big-band horns and space-rock as Hall’s snappy twang-melodies and jittering string harmonics are bounced through some serious Ash Ra Tempel echo.

While there’s no shortage of ideas and impressiveness on ‘Steel Storms’, as an album it’s a missed opportunity – too bitty, too unstructured, and not quite ruthless enough to do justice to its theme. You can dive in for the more thrilling patches – and hold your nose at the bad points – but at times it’s the wrong kind of bumpy ride. Fortunately, its companion album compensates for the missteps by being an experience of unqualified and perfectly integrated beauty.

Where ‘Steel Storms’ shows Hall straining after too many things at once, ‘Tender Spirits’ showcases a beautifully focused vision. Dominated by his acoustic playing and by the subtler side of his electrophonic treatments (sometimes heightened by softly resonant brass and drums), it sounds as if it was recorded under a great cool bowl of night sky. It also proves that, however much energy he puts into his experimentalism, he remains a superbly expressive guitarist once the trickery is removed. Here, the wise simplicity and romance at the center of his music come into their own, in full.

Judging by many of the pieces here, classical music lost a fine player and interpreter in Hall when he went left-field, not to mention a fine folk-fusion composer. Listen to those Spanish arpeggios (mournfully meditative on Love Lies Bleeding, restless and subtly unresolved on Slipstreams) or to the singing Irish ballad inflections of Patricia O’Leary. Alternatively, enjoy Hall’s subtle reunion with electricity on Shooting Stars, Ember or Dandelion Clocks. The first two are slow astral wheelers, their notes stroked into long, long, beautifully smudged trails and pining crystalline tubes of sound; the last is chuckling child-music, clean notes bubbled through a sparkling halo of echo.

Hall’s more multi-tracked and constructed compositions fit just as seamlessly into the mood. Some are familiar – here’s another outing for the thrumming bowed-bass winter scenery of Miles From No-Where (White Wilderness), a piece which Hall continually revisits. Similarly, there’s a new version of another favourite, Spirit Sky Montana, in which David Ford’s sleepy flugelhorn and Sam Brown’s slow swish of cymbal pull Hall’s stretched-bell guitar layers and church-music structure up to further heights of passionate serenity. A more ambiguous moment is granted on Incandescence, where a baroque six-string bass is smeared into dark and swollen horn sounds, voicing in shifting minor-key planes, searching for a place to settle.

However, it’s the magnificent Lonely Road which shows Hall at his very best. Loose, hanging drapes of luscious sound, distant detonating percussion, his Spanish guitar upfront again with a heart-tugging melody, and a final DIY touch – this time, a lonely and beautifully frail harmonica part. This is music you could live in. There’s a direct, emotional involvement in G.P. Hall’s work that’s rarely found among experimental musicians – probably because in spite of his gizmos and his taste for modernist expression he connects far deeper with the earthy roots of music than with the narrowed, exclusive intellectual demands of music as a science.

Ultimately, the main reason that ‘Tender Spirits’ is stronger than ‘Steel Storms’ is that in spite of Hall’s fascination with the impact of industrialism on our lives and senses, he knows it’s merely a part of our experience of the world: a relatively recent human-scale derangement overlaying much older terrain and themes. The two superb acoustic pieces which open and close ‘Tender Spirits’ could easily predate the factories, machinery and artefacts that inspire his industrial sound sculptures; both being intimately concerned with human survival within the simpler, starker hostilities of nature itself.

For the majestic impressionist-flamenco study of Sandstorm, Hall’s fingers slither out whips of string noise among the sharp and fluttering notes, conjuring up the flying dust. Sea Sorrow (Lament Of Lewis) is at the other end of the scale: a paean to shipwrecked souls in which Spanish guitar technique merges with a plaintive Celtic air. Within it, bitter bereavement struggles with acceptance and an awareness of continuance. Those who live with the sea are sustained by it and robbed by it, and this feeling lives in the music. As visual as anything Hall comes up with via loops and layers and implements, the plangent tones of this naked acoustic piece shape an image of someone alone and bleak on the headland, staring out at the ambiguous and often-merciless ocean which they must ultimately come to terms with.

It’s true that G.P. Hall’s road is, ultimately, a lonely one – sometimes assured, sometimes erratic, always marginalised. Yet it’s always one which he treads with a stubborn faith – wrong steps and slip-ups notwithstanding – and one that makes him all the more unique.

G.P. Hall: ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (786497264421)
CD/download double album
Released: 1st October 1998

Get it from:
Future Music Records (CD only) or Bandcamp (download-only, as two separate albums, ‘Steel Storms‘ and ‘Tender Spirits

G.P. Hall online:
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REVIEW – no-man: ‘Carolina Skeletons’ EP, 1998 (“loaded with meaning, swollen thick with suppressed tears”)

9 May

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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REVIEW – Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’ mini-album, 1998 (“sample, hold’n’swing”)

13 Apr
Bob Burnett: 'Loops & Lines'

Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’

Santa Cruz jazzer Bob Burnett is an oddity, someone who’s ostensibly extremely straight but gets there in a puzzling way. He loves his semi-acoustic guitar – keeps it clean, plays it with an economical and modest Wes Montgomery twinkle – but he’ll dab in a few colours on guitar synth and is also very much into what digital sampling offers the modern composer.

This you’d expect in somewhere like New York City – hip-hop saturated, with digital cut-up/jazz crosstalk from the likes of M-Base or Q-Tip. Coming from Bob, it’s a little less of an obvious path – a transplanted New Jersey-ite now residing in roots-band heaven, he’s played with world-beat bands Kosono and Pele Juju for much of the past decade. With ‘Loops And Lines’ Bob’s giving his sample, hold’n’swing ideas their first recorded outing.

At root, these are pretty cosy ideas. Don’t come in expecting a cross between John Scofield and Disco Inferno, nor yet The Young Gods playing Gil Evans. That living-in-California easiness initially makes ‘Loops & Lines’ sound like an Acid Jazz comedown pleaser. But although the six pieces on the mini-album are sweet enough to be lounge-fare, they’re also lush enough for a lock-in. Bob’s music is refreshingly innocent of guile, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without a dash of wit: a quality which is a precious balance within sampler culture.

Together builds on a moment from John McLaughlin’s Peace One, as the guitarist skips spider-fashion across his low strings: joining in, Bob swings tastefully over the top while Rhan Wilson’s bells and assorted metals mist the edges. Igor plays a similar trick with a few phrases and deep string chops from Stravinsky’s ‘Soldier’s Tale’, Bob adding some Hawaiian lines over the top of the thudding march of deep strings and drums. For Out West he affectionately samples some local-band friends (Pipa & The Shapeshifters) to craft a little bit of Portishead spy music – Adrian Utley’s breed of Duane Eddy twang, with the big stoned swats at the drumkit and the sound of rain sifting down in the background.

Most successfully, there’s Home James in which Bob stitches together a dream jam between himself, Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Bright and cheerfully funky, it’s close to an Us3 moment. You expect a laid-back rapper to come strolling in at any moment, with rhymes about strolling by Electric Ladyland with a spliff and a sax case. Instead, what you get sounds more like Bob finding all three legends together at the same Harlem party; each in a separate conversation but still meshing, by happy chance, into a common thread and rhythm. The music – and the falls together with a simple eloquence. Trane throws out a sinous four-note tenor wave from Countdown; Bird counters with a acquiescent call from Night In Tunisia. Somewhere in the background Jimi chips in with a reverberant Band Of Gypsies clang. Bob’s sweet and skinny guitar bubbles throughout the whole thing, chatting merrily away on the breaks.

The only things missing are the “yeah!”s and the punctuation of hand-talk. In fact if it weren’t for the tall (and dead) shadows which that all-star trio cast, Home James would almost convince as a genuine studio jam. Surprisingly, it’s a humble piece: Bob never feels like he’s stealing from his three luminaries, nor as if he’s harbouring vain hopes of cutting them in competition. It’s all about making the links, making a might-have-been occasion; being the helpful guy in the middle.

In fact, on ‘Loops & Lines’ it’s not so easy to work out when, exactly, Bob has got his sampler switched on. He has a remarkably subtle touch as a samplist. In contrast to the way, say, Young Gods or Jesus Jones would proudly ride on the back of a blatant parade of loops, he’s more interested in the seamless interweaving of sample and solo, using temporary digital capture to get more musicians and voices flickering in and out of his virtual band. If, via the magic of samping, he can bring the amicable ghosts of the Johns and the Jimis round to his local bar for a few beers and a blow through one of his tunes, he’s happy.

For instance, Decoy might make use of another Coltrane sample, as well as drawing on snippets of American pop TV themes – ‘King Of The Hill’, ‘Teen Angel’ – but there’s no separation between those inserted elements, the light-footed touches of the live rhythm section, and Bob’s mellow-mischievous guitar skips taking centre stage throughout. The reggae-fied ripple of Lower Nile (the disc’s only cover version) brings back a live band, winds soprano sax through North African melodies… and uses no samples whatsover apart from a few jungle chirps and rustles.

In the end, “Loops & Lines’ is an announcement of relaxed intent; short, sweet and discreet. It’s interesting to indulge the thought of Bob Burnett taking it to slightly wilder climes – maybe coming on like Ronnie Jordan playing over found-sound backdrops. But I get the feeling that he’s happier just stretching loops round the barbeque, shooting the breeze with heroes and friends, providing small glows of warmth rather than burning it up with his music.

Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’
Bob Burnett, 9801 (no barcode)
CD-only mini album
Released: 1998

Get it from:
Bob Burnett.

Bob Burnett online:
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REVIEW – G.P. Hall: ‘Marks On The Air’ live album, 1998 (“a rough’n’ready homemade ethos”)

22 Sep

G.P. Hall: 'Marks On The Air'

G.P. Hall: ‘Marks On The Air’


On ‘Marks On The Air’ (an album of live recordings from concerts in London and Wiltshire), the eccentricity and affections of British experimental guitarist G.P. Hall is presented wide open and unashamed.

To make the record, Hall teamed up with binaural recording whiz Mike Skeet. It’s Skeet’s voice you can hear bookending the concert – running up stairs and heading down in lifts, describing his surroundings with the nattering enthusiasm of a ‘Playschool’ presenter, and popping any remaining hopes of arty detachment. Still, it somehow adds to the warmth of the atmosphere which Hall’s live playing induces. Apart for the oddly truncated applause and the removal of Hall’s shy, uncontrived audience chat, it’s as close to one of his concerts as you’re going to get without leaving your home. Skeet’s superb recording techniques (his binaural miking technology directly mimicking the listening experience of ears on a human head) presents this music in the enveloping, directly tactile environment it requires.

Compared to the more assured sonic constructions you’ll find on a Hall album, ‘Marks On The Air’ is less sophisticated and more risky, but it’s equally ambitious. Skeet’s interjections aside, this is a one-man show. It relies entirely on how much Hall can get out of his hands and his immediate music loops while still keeping an audience entertained. With four separate speaker stacks, an assorted collection of guitars and effects pedals, and the armoury of unorthodox guitar-abusing sundries which he uses as playing implements (bows and battery fans, crocodile clips and Velcro, toy cars and electric razors), Hall is at least well-armed to do that, Even the clean, dated, digital rattle-and-thunk of his 1980s rhythm box lends the enterprise an endearing extra dimension of naivety.

Hall’s pictorial – even painterly – approach to music is consistent throughout. New England Woods is cut from the same lambent aural cloth which Hall made his own with Spirit Sky Montana – swelling curtains of sounds midway between country steel guitar and cello parts strolling and dallying in a soft adagio. Docklands attempts to recreate the brazenly lively colourfulness of a polluted industrial sunset – the shambling drums falling lopsided, the whooshing saw-sounds and lemon-sharp guitar echoes pressing out the shape of the skyline.

Live, however, Hall can be tempted away from his more elegant pastoral confections and into heavier statements. The impressionistic heavy metal of City Signals and Uncharted Territory both offer searing and swaggering chromium-blue lead lines, plenty of echoed backings and slow rolling pummels of drum-sound. Rippling, prolonged ambient humming and field recordings of indistinct conversation fill the gaps, like smog pouring into a heat-haze. For the tremendous scrunch of Flying Ants, Hall turns to his six-string bass and his flamenco knowledge. The result sounds like an over-scaled Gypsy guitar played with helicopter blades for fingernails. A delightfully yobbish take on the form, it flicks between tremendous chocolate-y gurgles of sound and (when Hall kicks in the distortion pedal) impenetrable hedges of distorted overload.

Much of this music is punctuated by clipped and plunking programmed synth-bass lines. Outside of mid-’80s chart hits, these ought to sound cheap and unpleasant. Instead, they fit surprisingly well into Hall’s musical sketches of the grubbier side of cities. They can be as brash and tacky as scattered burger boxes at your feet; as the failing neon signs and fly-by-night minicab firms gummed onto and into frowning old brickwork. On Flying Ants, they’re just appealingly cyborg. On Figments Of Imagination – where they’re working alongside metallic wails, hand-pumped stutters of echo and the rattle of crocodile clips – they add to the rough’n’ready homemade ethos of the music.

The hypnotic On Every Life (A Little Rain Must Fall) goes further into the wilderness. Nodding to Native American rhythm patterns, it calls up the feel of a parched Arizonan desert view. The delicate whine and rush of the guitar patterns swap between impressions of the dry, red heat and dust and of the shocking whiteness and colours of the tasselled fragments of cloud. Notes call and repeat, tranced out. Towards the end there’s a moment when it all stops. All but a faint swirling echo, as if the whole desert was looking upwards; and then the mass of sound crams back in again, like a cloudburst.

Best of all, perhaps, is the build- up of The Lonely Road, coalescing sustained, sorrowful coats of sound and small factory noises. Tinges of ambient-blues embrace a tired old worker’s knotted muscles at the end of the day. Part of the human focus comes in via the twanging, Frisell pluck’n’pang of Hall’s guitar. It’s capped, however, by the endearingly rough burst of busker’s harmonica which he wafts over the floating sorrow. Brave and defiant, it’s answered in kind by the elephant-trumpet of a rotary-saw sound.

Despite the odd bit of bluster, ‘Marks On The Air’ goes further towards expressing Hall’s gently appealing emotional nakedness as player and creator. What he sometimes loses in the grace stakes, he gains back in honesty and sympathy. There are a couple of unselfconscious, winning little cameos of “tiny music” which could have come from a children’s theatre. Drum sounds pop and clatter against the clipped melody and zither-blues intonation of Chinese Firecrackers. Suvi’s Little Crickets is built out of simple yet exquisite acoustic child-song patterns, which regularly rests while Hall circles a boxful of mechanical insects, chirping peacefully, around his microphone. Further hints into the private man are suggested by the deep pulsing chant of Alcharinga (in which guitars are abandoned altogether, in favour of throat-singing through an old answering machine mike). Marks On The Air itself is a long, mournful study on classical guitar – swept back and forth in eddies of echo, resigning itself beautifully to its own impermanence.

G.P. Hall manages to be many things. The garage player amongst the avant-garde; the warm-hearted soft touch among the arthouse players. The naive wonderstruck kid in the crowd of post-adolescent posers, the transfigurer of the straight, and the benevolent ghost in the machinery. Not a bad set of credentials, at that.

G.P. Hall: ‘Marks On The Air’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (7 86497 26442 1)
CD-only album
Released: 1998

Buy it from:
G.P. Hall homepage or Future Music Records

G.P. Hall online:
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REVIEW – Blowholy: ‘Psalm 666’ EP, 1998 (“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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REVIEW: Darkroom: ‘Daylight’ album, 1998 (“subtly distressed electronica”)

4 Aug

Darkroom: 'Daylight'

Darkroom: ‘Daylight’

To work out where Darkroom are coming from, you could do worse than take a look at ‘Daylight’s arresting cover. It’s a study of sturdy, corroded old industrial tanks, encircled by metal stairways and surrounded by a devil’s playground of battered, abandoned plastic drums. The drums are marked with hazard labels but yawn open, suggesting that their toxic contents have long since leached out into the environment.

Behind the towering tanks is a radiant blue sky and a slanting blanket of pure white fluffy cloud, against which they rear up like Reims Cathedral. It’s beautiful, in a warped way – the wreckage and castoffs of a once-bright new industry that, nonetheless, continue to assert themselves. Yet in this toxic paradise there’s not a person in sight.

No, this isn’t suggesting that Darkroom are the sort of electronica trio who revel in futurism, and who excise humanity from their orderly sequenced and oscillating musical vision of the world. The opposite is true. Darkroom’s music (in which Os’ sequences and textures are balanced by Michael Bearpark’s mutated post-industrial guitars and Tim Bowness’ naked swoony vocal wail) has humanity in spades. The live instrumentation and vocalising unites with the programmed sound and beats in a way that’s rare in over-purified electronic music, but in the music that emerges – one in which the technology provides uncertainty rather than comfortable form, and in which the threat of chaos and upset looms constantly in the background – the main note sounded is one of loss. One of the main qualities of daylight, after all, is its impermanence.

Via a previous EP, we’ve already heard the discontented seethe of Carpetworld: roof-skittering drum’n’bass with guttering snarls of wounded guitar and Tim’s voice reined in to a hooded whisper of acidic verbiage – the only lyrics on the record, and they’re about bad sex, looting and dodgy discos. We’ve also heard the beautiful flush of ‘Daylight’s title track: a tumbling chant (mournful but blissful) against a slow wallow of bass, the singing notes of Mike’s Frippertronical guitar, and Os’ dawn chorus of flickering sound. Darkroom can do in-yer-face, and they can do strokin’-yer-cheek. They do each of these in roughly equal amounts. Often they do both together, in an elusive blur of ambiguous emotion – the sort that makes you keep one eye on them and the other, anxiously, on the door; but which keeps you held in place, unable to resist the desire to see for yourself what comes next.

Ambiguity is in fact the keyword for this music. Brash, defined techno structures are missing, their place taken by sketchy outlines which the trio fill up with evolving, chaotic detail. The beats are light-footed: slow breaks languidly pacing the background, or pattering techno pulses like rats’ paws. The electronics hum like supercharged fridges close to bursting flamewards, or keen out lovely auroral shivers in the sky and in the shadowed spaces. Tim’s full-voiced mixture of blurred word-shapes and sub-verbal whoops are sometimes Buckley-ish in their tortured flamboyance, sometimes more like Liz Fraser’s outraged brother. Melodies drift, loop and contort: massy and queasily mutable, cloudscapes tortured out of their natural forms by the force of some cruel idiot god.

Sometimes Darkroom’s music sounds like Underworld (though tumbled from their throne and reeling with the impact of a massive nervous breakdown) or like Fripp and Eno sailing their boat into much more malevolent waters. Sprawl growls its overcast way past complex shifting slapping beats, squelched bass, crushed radio-talk and vocal frailties; a baleful camera scanning a wasteland. The opener, Crashed, is strung out, lovely but disfocussed, with a streak of elegant suffering running through it. The guitars rattle like motoring moon-buggies, the voice oppresses like a summer shower, and somewhere in the background, behind the throaty tick of percussion, a lone voice of optimism: a marimba chinking out its own little Steve Reich wavelet.

There are episodes of naked grace on board, beside the pollution, but ‘Daylight’ is still one of the most subtly distressed records to wriggle out of late ‘90s electronica. This is most obvious in the wrenching, frozen agony of Vladimir; but Died Inside seems to sob in anticipation for a collapse waiting to happen but never quite arriving. Looped calls, lilting gasps are answered across a chill and echoing gulf by the icy fuzz of a guarded guitar, prowling and snarling in its own isolation. Once, Tim’s voice reaches a rare degree of intelligibility – a panicked, unanswered plea of “d’you feel the same?”

The wonder that comes close in hand with this fear is laid out explicitly in No History. A soft hip-hop beat holds down the sky-stretchingly rapt vocal and the beautiful subterranean guitar moans: a soundtrack to the forever-flavoured moment when you lie stricken at the bottom of that fatal crevasse, watching the last and most brilliant stars of your lifetime pierce the beckoning void overhead. Like a fleeting memory of softer times, a snippet of (Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay slips in. The amplifier buzz at the end is a benediction.

If there’s a time when there’s resolution, it’s when those two questioning background voices reach out across the comforting pulse of Estragon – Michael’s guitar like a high, bowed bell, Tim toned down to a florid whisper. Still, as it sails on towards its hushed conclusion, the key feeling of ‘Daylight’ remains one of loss. A lament for something unknown, but something voiceable. Something long gone past but reaching out for you again, as the day goes down and fades off into the poisonous beauty of a industrial sunset haunted by old unquiet ghosts.

Darkroom: ‘Daylight’
3rd Stone Ltd./The Halloween Society, HAL 8002 CD (5 023693 800226)
CD-only album
Released: August 7th 1998

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

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

19 Jul

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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