Archive | 2000 RSS feed for this section

REVIEW: centrozoon: ‘Blast’ album reissue, 2008 (“let the music fall inwards”)

3 Feb
centrozoon: 'Blast' (reissue)

centrozoon: ‘Blast’ (reissue)

Here’s a tale of escape.

Disciplines become traps: beautiful sounds become honey-traps. This can be more obvious along certain musical paths than others. Two particularly susceptible paths are ambient-synth playing and the underground swell of Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft. The former can drift towards being a proliferating mass of lonely cells; each of them seeking an individual voice but often, obliviously, stuck in identical textures, wallowing in parallel. The latter follows a rigorous playing method and lifestyle which borders on benevolent culthood. While this banishes the shapeless flab which often devils ambient music, it can err in the other direction. At its best, the Craft births and burnishes exceptional players: at its worst, it produces musicians who devote themselves to obsessively burnishing a constant reiteration of stern, generic Fripp stylings.

When touch-guitarist Markus Reuter (an accomplished Crafty, and part of the Crafty-dominated Europa String Choir) encountered former Subsonic Experience electronics-coaxer Bernhard Wöstheinrich and formed centrozoon, the team-up had conceptual and practical lineage from both the Crafty discipline and the ambient flood. On top of that, by the time they released their debut album ‘Blast’ in 2000, there wasn’t anything especially unusual in what (on paper) they offered – an alliance of mutant fretboard work and left-field synth-noise, stretched and softened into a minimal ambience. In chasing that direction, centrozoon were following a path which had been trodden since the mid-’70s and the days of… well, Fripp & Eno.

Their peculiar triumph (which is clear even eight years later, with this expanded reissue) was that ‘Blast’ escaped all of the expected pitfalls and mudbanks. It’s not that Markus and Bernhard simply brazened it all out; nor did they overwhelm their listeners by assuming wracked and exaggerated musical personalities. Instead, they opted to simply get out of the way. With minimal shepherding, they let the music fall inwards of its own accord. This sounds like abandoning responsibility, but it’s not. Ultimately, and with the right kind of awareness and attitude, it’s a very effective way of letting the music take its own shape.

On a superficial listen, ‘Blast’ isn’t an obvious leap into the unknown; nor is it immediately shocking, then or now. Each of the four pieces on the original release could conceivably see the same use as other ambient experiments – a gloss for cosmic afternoons; sonic wrappings for art installations; chemical soundtracks for intellectual stoners on introverted afternoons. As for immediate originality, let’s say that Fripp fans enthralled by the oceanic, ambient-improvised textures of Soundscaping will find plenty of pleasure here. In particular, the widening ice-vapour agglomerations of Markus’ Warr Guitar textures in Empire are an immediate homecoming. As they stretch near-subliminal fingers out into the void, they’re subtly transformed by Bernhard’s lullaby synth-pulse; moving from austerity into something like the hopeful whistling of a small boy in the rain, safe in a shapeless optimism.

Transformation is a key process here. Markus’ extreme processing and honing of his Warr Guitar touch-playing into textural drifts and folds, all sounds of strings and fingers worn away; Bernhard’s unschooled musical impulses becoming constructive. Most significantly, their effect upon each other – formalist liberated by upsetter, randomiser cradled by knower.

Markus might dominate Empire – however passively – but it’s Bernhard (the part-time abstract painter) who leads the more baleful Sign. Here, the low buzzes and wah-swells of synth gradually open up into a mournful piece of grand European ambience. For Crafty guitarists and King Crimson fans alike, this is the most Frippertronical piece on the album. That said, Markus eschews any of those intensely compressed Frippish emotions in his playing. Instead, his touch-guitar yields little more than a distant, echoing subway-tunnel ambience. It pulls the listening ear after it, as if co-opting it into the pursuit of an invisible stranger who’s only just out of reach; or a far-off footfall which must be caught up with.

Even this early in their career, it’s the ability to trigger that kind of unsettling mood and engagement in the listener that set centrozoon apart, and eased them out of those Crafty/ambient straitjackets. Their eerie approach to layered tonality may have had its similarities to the Fripp approach, but it’s been taken a few steps further along. Blank and unsettling, it feels like a kind of purposeful decay, a deliberate whittling-away of what underpins expectations and security: hollowing it out only slightly, just enough to make a change that’s sensed. As a listener, you venture out onto it, but the sound of the settling structure disturbs you.

In many respects, time has left ‘Blast’ strangely untouched, and for all the right reasons. The Fripp & Eno analogy still holds, not so much over sound and mood, but over how Markus’ discipline and rigorous self-schooling and Bernhard’s iconoclastic instincts meet and envelop each other. Even at this stage, they’re astonishingly well integrated. It’s difficult to look at their work looking for cracks in the method. Unified and unruffled, it stares back at you, and it’s you that blinks first.

More self-conscious (or perverse) than the other tracks on the record, the hooded, atmospheric Sense cops a few tricks directly from 1980s art-pop. Sparse lines and pared-down chords of electric piano recall the pairing of Richard Barbieri and David Sylvian. A upfront electro-pulse (OMD meets ’90s techno) is carved up into a jazz shimmy, while Bernhard’s bloopy electronic punctuation sounds like nothing so much as a Simmons drum set catching the cheesy hiccups. All of these are eventually upended when Markus sets aside his Invisible Man approach in favour of a growing grind of slow-motion garage-static. In parallel, Bernhard’s underlay of sound gradually becomes more and more unstable and less and less comforting; eventually it hones itself into a subtly disturbing sheath of noise.

On the original ‘Blast’, Sense was the disruptive moment. Power – a held-back track from the album sessions, now restored to the reissue – demonstrates that it wasn’t as much of a one-off as it seemed. Post-‘Blast’, centrozoon would begin several years of thorough engagement with dance music (actually, a kind of wilful grappling) which would flower in 2003 with the thumping techno-prog drive of their ‘Cult Of: Bibiboo’ album. Three years earlier, Power anticipates this and delivers an early take. Its rocking knock of rhythm and Bernhard’s dirty twangs of synth are a shift towards the dance-floor, away from icy dreams. Markus’ misty blurs of Warr playing are more direct and sharpened than they are elsewhere on the album, roaming purposefully behind the electronics like a searching headlight. The musical layers climb eerily, growing into an alarming constellation of eyes as Bernhard works in a march-rhythm built from a racheting percussion pulse. Nine minutes along, the beat courses away and the music planes on into ambience and a slow fade of atonal spirals.

Placed at the end of the reissue, Power supplants the title track of ‘Blast’ as its grand finale. Drawing attention to the band’s drive onwards to its dance phase makes some historic sense, but it also displace the album’s original emotional core. After the disruptions of Sense, Blast doesn’t immediately seem disturbing. For a long time it remains as beautifully eerie but conventional textural ambience. It hovers around the same close, elongated and barely-there notes like steam in a cathedral aisle, coiling itself backwards in the winking lights from the synths.

Over seventeen minutes Markus and Bernhard gradually, imperceptibly marshal the potential of horrific awe that’s within the music until it’s staring you in the face. Its intensity is subliminal, its aghast tone somehow removed from imminent peril. The horror here is backwards-looking, specifically European and instinctive, reeking of a darker history without ever clarifying what that is. This could be just soundtracking; but if so centrozoon have found silent films of overwhelming cataclysm to channel the music for. At a pinch, it could be cathedral music – if so, the building’s traumatised ghosts have crept out for a whirling pageant of blood and fire. It could be a troubled, unanswerable requiem; if so, this one’s for a calamity that’s overtaken even God, even memory. There’s something about it that emphasises the absence of words, of the shapes that make sense. It’s less the blast, and more the invisible and unexpected shockwave – like a glimpse over the shoulder at the terrible beauty of impelled destruction.

In the coming years, centrozoon would prove themselves far more mercurial and direct than the music on ‘Blast’ suggests. Compared to the hammering pulse of ‘…Bibiboo’ or the leaping, detailed art-pop of ‘Never Trust The Way You Are’, ‘Blast’ now sounds like hidden music, or perhaps hiding music: Bernhard and Markus remote almost to the point of vanishing, keeping their skills on a low bleed. Even here, though, there’s a determined stamp that set them apart from the noodlers and set them on course – but that’s not all. There’s still something special about ‘Blast’ and its ability to etch such hauntings out of such hushed musicality.

centrozoon: ‘Blast’
Unsung Records/Inner Knot Records, UR004CD (4260139120307)
CD/download album reissue
Released: 2008 (originally released 2000)

  • Followed by: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’.

Buy it from:
Iapetus Records or Burning Shed (CD); or Bandcamp (download).

centrozoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

REVIEW – Delicate AWOL: ‘Hurray For Sugar’ single, 2000 (“lilts and tilts like a girl on a lazy swing”)

29 Jul

Delicate AWOL: 'Hurray For Sugar'

Delicate AWOL: ‘Hurray For Sugar’

The effect is similar to one of those pocket mandalas you pick up at weekend markets. Do you know the ones I mean? Those little spheres of interwoven articulated wires which, under simple pressure, reform to flat discs; or extrude themselves out and around to form new, near-identical spheres with tiny spatial differences.

In such a way, Delicate AWOL have turned themselves inside out – the old shape inverting and realigning within itself. The blunt, metallic math-rock dots and points remain, as do the little axe-blows of guitar and the keen, floating intelligence. But the hard-bitten, streetwise urban perspectives they displayed on ‘Random Blinking Lights‘ have been flexed away, replaced by a blunted pastel sleepiness. Their music used to fit the sullen sludge of London’s clogged traffic arteries. Now it sounds as if it’s drifting through an endlessly attenuated suburban daybreak: through sleeping ranks of tidy little white subdivision houses, stretched out along the fringes of some anonymous American town.

None of the above is a slag-off. Yes, Delicate AWOL have retired their striking Throwing Muses-versus-Laika qualities of nerve, and have replaced them with the oddly narcotic soulfulness and dusty whispering you’d expect from Low or Cowboy Junkies. No, this is not a bad move. It’s allowed their minds to work in a different way, letting their thoughts seep out instead of being propelled out onto tape.

Warm, intimate, laden with clinging morning torpor, Hurray For Sugar lilts and tilts like a girl on a lazy swing; Caroline’s voice stroking your floppy ears, a lone glockenspiel tingling out a little scatter of light. “Arise, you’re waking – hurray for sugar. / Aware, a little – hurray for coffee… / beside your body, catherine wheels spin.” And even if the guitars have a clotted sleep-dirt feel to them, this is still a song about vision; or about the moments of utterly unguarded perception which adhere to the sticky margin between sleeping and fully waking. “I breathe in, I open the curtains. / I look outside at my neighbours, / behind their fences… such radiant faces.” A lovely piece of work, shambling like a sated and drowsy lover.

Having reabsorbed their 40 Shades Of Black instrumental alter-ego, Delicate AWOL express it again in Camford Heights: which sounds like a sort of Sonic Youth picnic for the close of a West English summer, the sun slanting away down the back of a sky like a rumpled sofa. Blunted, slurred jazz chords and round, resounding Manchester bass carry the tune, completed with casual drop-in visits from all kinds of other fellow travellers: Mogwai all stoned and finger-mumbling a cryptic chant off their massed steel strings, a young Adrian Belew in noise-haze mode, Frank Zappa adding a dirty air-sculpture like a colophon of smog. Before it’s over, Delicate AWOL have passed through a bewitching slew of guitar sounds: passing train bells, crashing wires, the music of pylons in the wind. From wan, sweet daybreak to dusty, sun-stupored dusk, they’ve got it all covered.

Delicate AWOL: ‘Hurray For Sugar’
day Release Records Ltd., DR106 (no barcode)
Vinyl-only single
Released: 2000

Buy it from:
Long-deleted – try to find this second-hand.

Delicate AWOL online:
MySpace

December 2000 – album reviews – Picture Center’s ‘The Wonders of God’s Heaven and Earth’ (“the sound an illusion makes as it leaves the body”)

1 Dec

Picture Center: 'The Wonders Of God's Heaven And Earth'

Picture Center: ‘The Wonders Of God’s Heaven And Earth’

A beautifully understated fatalism hangs, both heavy and light, over the music on Picture Center’s first album. It reminds me of the last time I was – God knows why – wandering on one of the muddy pebble beaches along the Thames Estuary, heart carried like a windsock, fumbled at by a half-hearted drizzle; and when I saw a lonely seagull poised like a pinned crucifixion in the air, almost motionless. Every now and again there was a single convulsion of wings, but the bird always seemed on the brink of a slow, agonised slide down the bank of the air. I remember thinking that it must have been moving forwards once, but something had paralysed it in the middle of a wing-beat…


 
The words “together” and “forever” haunt ‘The Wonders Of God’s Heaven And Earth’. Persistently returning – sometimes as statements of peeling faith, sometimes as a grim acknowledgement of being stuck. Sometimes a question, hopeful or semi-resigned; the gamble of a last lottery card; the last sarcastic murmur which is the sound an illusion makes as it leaves the body. Another word that returns is “whatever” – breathed out as a throwaway, or embraced with no complaint beyond a drop in the volume and a withdrawal into the kind of shrug that says “here’s as uncertain as anywhere.”

This is familiar. Picture Center have a connection with the late lamented Field Mice… well, more of a fumbled kissing connection, really (they shared some people once, but not any more). Consequently, they’re part of that downbeat English indie bloodline that winds through Sarah Records and its Shinkansen successor – the one that carries the heart-lorn and introverted folk music from the lonely post-war estates – while the countrified, Celtified melancholia of songs like Useless ties in with the romantic resignation of Belle & Sebastian or The Blue Nile.


 
So, as you’d expect, the pace is wistfully dragging, almost funereal. Girls’ and boys’ voices whisper, tears are long-dry but faces stay crooked. The guitars sigh out the emotions, a mist of greyed-out pearls hanging in the atmosphere. A particular poignant English gloom prevails – wan air; not enough daylight saving; and little towns that aren’t so much sleepy as catatonic on tranquilisers, smack and inertia (“around in circles, but nothing comes of it”). The washed-out-but-beautiful album cover could be a stony beach, or a hill of puffy blossoms… oh, or the soggy styrofoam’n’plastic debris left behind in the fields after the festival closes. Distilling an unusual beauty from such unpromising ingredients is Picture Center’s particular talent.

You can think of psychedelia as colourful, but there’s another strand of it that’s a billion shades of grey and merely half of a painful, ghostly heartbeat away from reality. And that’s where Picture Center live; acknowledging it in their gliding, spectral cover of West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s Smell Of Incense. It’s heightened by the other elements they allow to soak into the mix – the occasional country curve of a lonely guitar, the fretful Sigur Ros falsetto and drum-machine bubble on Dreams, the pressed-out Julee Cruise sigh of Forever. The tired glimmers of Cocteau Twins moondust or the hinted imprint of hip-hop’s loops and scratchy gusts behind the music-box delicacy in Never. You know they’ve been there – that place where sorrow floats, suspended in its own little bubble while reality freezes your face into something that’s calm but drained…


 
Ten pictures of fading dreams, drawn-out disappearances, fateful accomodations (“without my darkness your star wouldn’t shine / You need me like I need you…”) and stories of nothing-going-on, in which despair and beauty still manage to sit hand-in-hand on the same worn-down furniture, and achieve a kind of peace together.

Picture Center: ‘The Wonders Of God’s Heaven And Earth’
North American Recordings, 5 030820 012704
CD album
Released: 27th November 2000

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand.

Picture Center online:
MySpace Last FM

October 2000 – album reviews – Grizzlybearunderwear’s ‘Grizzlybearunderwear’ (“faraway silhouettes atop burnt-off hills”)

15 Oct

Grizzlybearunderwear: 'Grizzlybearunderwear'

Grizzlybearunderwear: ‘Grizzlybearunderwear’

If Grizzlybearunderwear’s terrible name (which might be an old ‘Simpsons’ joke) gets you thinking of a manic yodeling band of gabblers with wacky shorts and tricky fingers, then your reaction needs a rethink. On the other hand, if their music really is the “apocalyptic pop music” which they claim it to be, then that term needs a rethink too. There’ll be no sheets of fire, no torn T-shirts; no glamorous wailing and fucking in the streets while rolling in the torn shreds of the Situationist manifesto. Instead, life as we know it will end in radioactive studio silt and aching bones: and if this is pop music, then the future apocalypse won’t be about dancing and verse-chorus-verse (or even verse-chorus-explosion, verse-weird bit-recap). It’ll be about toil, twisted smiles and arms flailed grimly at faraway silhouettes atop burnt-off hills.

This is cause for cheerfulness if you’re of a certain cast of mind – a lover of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s cheery hellbound sitcoms, for example, or someone who sees ‘The Seventh Seal’ as an average day at the office. Maybe also if you were the kind of person seduced during the ’80s and ’90s by 4AD’s handful of backwards-future visionaries, soused in reverb and electronic gumbo but somehow touching on something stirringly ancient… even if they’d injected bastardised hip-hop into the mixture. Grizzlybearunderwear (Leipzig-based, led by the enigmatic KGSi) would’ve fitted in perfectly with that crowd. A decade or so further on at the century’s turn – with post-rockers rooting back into that world of blurs, dirt, noise and strangely captivating obscurities – they’ve got a chance to make a whole new set of friends.

So… eleven mostly-instrumental tracks, combed in from the band’s previous run of EPs. Some of this are a little too familiar-sounding. My Esoteric Friends sounds like Dif Juz deciding whether to dig themselves out of a swamp or wallow sensuously in the warm sludge; and if Germany had hosted a Cocteau Twins concert in the middle of a swamp, the bootleg would have sounded like Again, Dangerous Visions (romantic, rusted post-punk bass, fussing drum machine and guest singer Hirshie’s lightly sonorous warning tones, close to that chin-down, guarded alto which Liz Fraser used in more plaintive Cocteaus songs). But the way in which the phased guitar yields to free-form space whispers and to an unhitched scramble of psychedelic organ points the way towards Grizzlybearunderwear’s wilder, woollier intentions.

As KGSi and co. delve deeper, the album proves that they’re not short of ideas for interesting meetings of instruments and noise. Physalia takes a rocky journey from distant cave-drums and tremolo guitars to exhausted sludge-metal riffs and queasy, fingers-at-the-brink harmonium chording. The two-minute Spacer tumbles out of gothic guts like one of Vincent Ward’s lost sound cues from ‘The Navigator’: dragging, muddy-toil rhythms and a lamenting guitar which flaps overhead like a ragged banner. A suffocating sky-duvet of wah-noise cups itself She Drove To The Sea which (with its chain-clanking Slint guitars, Bardo Pond moodies and tinnitus grumble over the top) comes across like one of the more restless new-millennial post-rock bands (perhaps a more despondent Delicate AWOL). Ushuaia strips the detail further back only to add even more noise guitars, suffocatingly entwined, with gushing tidal waters surging relentlessly over the top with a hammering beauty. The gothic bells and sombre Rothko bass clanging of Parthian Shot, clunking bravely in its subterranean echo, mask a swirl of voice being squeezed out of existence in a tempest of rushing noise.

Broader thinking, filtering in dance music, is revealed on Snapdragon (Eniwetok Remix). A squelching bass pulse and a rapidly fluttering trance-techno riff are poised over the everyday, comforting sounds of a shopping mall: you can hear parents and children swarming distractedly through the aisles, as if to set us up for a braver, happier new world of clean architecture and Saturday shopping: suddenly, an abrupt countdown slams the music into driving industrial rock mode, extinguishing the shoppers. When we next hear voices they’re quietly discussing the effects of atomic explosions and the penetrative power of radioactive particles.

It’s revealing that the latter is being talked about in the matter-of-fact tones of Midwestern news broadcasts, and that KGSi’s industrial attack was merely grim and tough rather than decisively devastating. The 4AD bands cowered under the global threat of one overwhelming nuclear apocalypse. The Grizzlies are of a time when the average person’s at risk from a smaller hell – maybe one small package of explosive discontent, stashed in a city bin under a pile of greasy McDonald’s wrappers and waiting coldly for rush hour. Snapdragon’s lack of hysteria suggests that KGSi has accepted these everyday atrocities. His tongue-in-cheek claim of playing “electric chair controls” seems to be an acknowledgement of the casual trappings of horror the world now contains so openly.

Grizzlybearunderwear: ‘Beaver Female Seminary’

Grizzlybearunderwear’s work with dialogue adds to their explorations, although they’re rarely explicit. Patrol These Borders retains the time-honoured spangly guitars (embroidered with the hiccuping spatter of treated toms) but blends in a long chunk of bitter dialogue from ‘The Maltese Falcon’ – the voices of Bogart and Bacall, strained by disappointment and guilt. An assured, untrustworthy telephone voice on Beaver Female Seminary (providing guidelines to “the True Way” in the tones of a used-car salesman) is flattened by heated, weary steam-press thuds and growling Banshees guitars.

Hell Are Other Real People (which samples Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Dead Man’) nods its way along on a scarcely-there-at-all dance thud, while deep, surprisingly vocal guitars hum to each other. Sometimes it’s like a more diffuse, message-less take on Godspeed You Black Emperor. All around crickets are warbling, cars draw up stealthily, a campfire burns, and voices mutter to each other. We’re somewhere in the American West, and they’re talking of stalking and concealment, of victimisation, of the decay of living bodies. The story never clarifies; but the feeling lingers: sinister places and hungry lives constantly poised for flight.

Beneath their guitars and samples, Grizzlybearunderwear certainly have an ear for the messages contained in sound and in the emotional underwash of voices. I might wish they had as good an ear for band names but, given what else they can achieve, I can forgive that lack.

Grizzlybearunderwear: ‘Grizzlybearunderwear’
Noiseworks Records/Heliodor Recordings, NW220 / HELIODOR 004 2000 (4032648002203)
CD-only album
Released: 2000

Get it from:
Best obtained secondhand, although some Grizzlybearunderwear tracks are downloadable for free from Edaphon and there’s an album page here.

Grizzlybearunderwear online:
Homepage MySpace

October 2000 – album reissue reviews – King Crimson’s ‘Lizard’ & ‘Islands’ 30th anniversary reissues (“some of their most surprising – yet most neglected – music”)

7 Oct

From 1970 to 1972, King Crimson existed as a kind of invalid’s cats-cradle between its two ideas men (guitarist/composer Robert Fripp and lyricist/lights man/presentation polymath Peter Sinfield), with one faithful and exceptionally talented sax’n’flute player (Mel Collins) hanging on philosophically to the bouncing threads.

Perhaps it was a comedown for the band who, only a couple of years previously, had single-handedly redefined British rock music and almost stolen Hyde Park from the Rolling Stones in concert. However, this was still a time when they produced prolifically. Matters weren’t helped by internal conflict and a regular turnover of personnel (lead singers in particular). But despite having already lost key members to ELP (magisterial manchild singer Greg Lake), the sessions world (dazzling but personally wayward drummer Michael Giles) and Foreigner (composer and jack-of-all-instruments Ian McDonald, though strictly speaking he wouldn’t help form the AOR collossi for another few years yet), Crimson soldiered on. And, in the process, came up with some of their most surprising – yet most neglected – music.

King Crimson: 'Lizard'

King Crimson: ‘Lizard’

Psychologically, ‘Lizard’ has always felt like the oddest King Crimson album. Hurtling out at the tail-end of 1970 (less than a year after ‘In the Wake of Poseidon‘) and with a shroud of silence surrounding its making, it’s like a black hole in King Crimson’s history. No-one involved in the making of ‘Lizard’ seems to talk about it much. The fact that the band started recordings with a brand new vocal/rhythm section (singing bassist Gordon Haskell from Fleur De Lys and ex-Manfred Mann drummer Andy McCulloch), and ended the sessions with both men shot out of the saddle and vanishing before even playing a note onstage, has given the album’s reputation more than a tinge of sulphur and daggers drawn. Haskell still doesn’t talk to Fripp, and his contributions have been ostentatiously removed from Crimson compilations ever since. Silent prickles. Ooh, nasty.

The new remaster provides few clues to the musical politics behind ‘Lizard’, but does throw its obsessive ambition into sharp relief. It’s a remarkable record – the most panoramic thing Robert Fripp ever attempted until he blew up ambient music with his Soundscapes twenty years later. And it’s also the most anti-rock record he’s released to this day; as far from being a “band” album as this particular Crimson were from being a live band.

The music comes in floods of cryptic decoration, riding on the back of Fripp’s dark and abrasive chordal imagination. Both leaders are on intriguingly different form: Fripp mostly leaving his Les Paul untouched and playing devilishly tricky acoustic guitar, Sinfield throwing away most of his clotted Gothic lyric totems in favour of shifting psychedelic parlour tricks. But pride of place goes to semi-detached piano player Keith Tippett, a jazz guerilla who constantly refused Fripp’s offers of joint musical leadership of King Crimson but (for ‘Lizard’, anyhow) seems to have taken it on anyway.


 
Fripp had produced and played with Tippett’s band Centipede; and the jazzer returns the favour in full measure here, bringing along oboe player Robin Millar, trombonist Nick Evans and cornet player Mark Charig (all reknowned for Soft Machine contributions) to join Mel Collins and himself in expanding King Crimson’s musical voicings. Consequently ‘Lizard’ jangles and loons with a bright, big-band free-jazz sound as the horn section and Tippett’s fulsomely unpredictable pianos joust with Fripp’s gargantuan Mellotron sounds and the blooping cartoon synthesizers. Certain songs – Happy Family in particular, seem to abandon the rigorous Crimson discipline altogether and worry themselves to bits, with Tippett keeping a relaxed but steady grip on the anarchic play.


 
Peter Sinfield, for his part, stays in an almost domestic realm for the first half of the album. His lyric for the perky Indoor Games is a bizarre Bunuel-meets-Doctor-Seuss poke at the pretentions of bourgeois bohemians, his protagonist barely keeping himself afloat in the showy menagerie of his household. The Cirkus which opens the album is reached in a dream-voyage, a gaudy cruel entertainment which immediately succumbs to stampede and peril. Happy Family is one of the acts which could’ve been performed there – an impossibly tortuous metaphorical tribute to the sorry end of The Beatles. Throughout, Tippett tops every surreal word-twist with another kink in his piano playing.


 
Tippett, in fact, is far more at home than half of the official Crimsons. Gordon Haskell’s a great bluesy singer; but while sunk in this whirling confection of oboes and exploding pianos, drowning in Sinfield’s crossword puzzle wordplay, he struggles even to be heard (let alone draw meaning out of the songs). Andy McCulloch copes better with music that requires him to jump between drum approaches from jazz hiss to orchestral percussion and military rattle. Still, you can almost hear him furrowing his brow and wondering what the hell all this has got to do with headlining the Marquee Club.


 
Poor old Haskell – a good guy in a bad position – gets some respite on Lady of the Dancing Waters where they give him a wistful tune with a trombone and a little English clearing to serenade in… only for him to be upstaged by the beautifully husky choirboy vocals of Yes singer Jon Anderson for the next song. At the conclusion of Indoor Games he unleashes one of the most fascinating laughs in rock history – a demented, yelping hiccup of crazed, fearful mirth which the engineer picks up and slaps back and forth across the speakers. It’s all in keeping with the chamber-jazz-on-laughing-gas feel of ‘Lizard’. But it also sounds like a helplessly honest reaction to the horribly sinister undercurrent beneath the playfulness – the oily black saw of Mellotron, the thousand little knives in Fripp’s clean cross-picking and Tippett’s electric piano jabs.

The second half – the Lizard suite itself – is King Crimson’s most ambitious conception up until that point, in which chamber symphonics and iconic mediaeval imagery return to the band’s music again. Prince Rupert Awakes opens the suite with a tragic cryptic ballad: a heraldic Anderson singing over Tippett’s rippling piano, tension intruding from the wind-chimes which ripple the surface of the beauty and from the deliberately discordant Mellotron which flicks ghastly shadows across the daylight.

Although Sinfield’s overcooked poetry is almost impenetrable, there’s substance here. Near-suffocated beneath rococo imagery of temple wax, peacocks and “tarnished devil’s spoons” is a small saga of civilisations clashing in a profitless war. Rather than a tale of heroism, it represents the fear, frenzied mood swings and devastation that war visits on human beings. Bolero (anchored on McCulloch’s half-march/half-dance drumming) starts with a long, lyrically sad oboe line bidding farewell to peace, but soon moves into a jagged desperate revelry, the partying before the fight. Slurring, drunken trombone and sax grab the oboe theme and o roaring off with it as Tippett’s piano becomes steadily more impressionistic and jumpy and Fripp’s Mellotron infuses an uneasy, compromised warmth.


 
Dawn Song is the morning after: Haskell sings softly and haltingly, to sparse piano and oboe, of broken ploughs and spokeless wheels, and of soldiers “burnt with dream and taut with fear” waiting for the inevitable reckoning of spears and armour. Which duly arrives in Last Skirmish with brutally knotted jazz snare and more typically Frippish minor key riffs, stately and dark – initially on Mellotron, then taken up by harsh baritone sax with a petrified overblown flute dipping and waving above. As battle commences in earnest, bluesier saxes and an enraged elephantine trombone wail alongside a resurgent Fripp guitar and Tippett’s increasingly shattered piano attack.

In the background, Fripp jacks up an initially sweet and civilised Mellotron string part until the pitch is tortured beyond endurance. Then there’s a brief respite (glimmering lucid guitar and distant rills of piano) before the sound of a hue and cry, galloping brass and hunting horn clamour in the most frantic moment yet. Finally, Prince Rupert’s Lament, the wreckage of bodies and hopes on the battlefield afterwards. A tolling bass ostinato, exhausted kettle drum rolls and a distant bagpipe shriek of Fripp guitar, utterly bereft and angry. ‘Lizard’ is over.

Abstract, absurdist and oblique it may be, but if you avoid involving yourself too literally in Sinfield’s wordplay and just allow the music to speak into you, ‘Lizard’ is an album which has plenty to offer. The game-playing cast of its music only adds to its power, puncturing prog pomposity and adding new dimensions of conceptual menace which the band had never previously achieved. At times, it’s like observing a particularly venomous orgy.

As the last part of ‘Lizard’ fades away, Big Top careens out of the silence – a quease-inducing carousel of circus music in which the pitch spirals further up and out of control than ever before, snagging the ensemble players like a Kansas tornado and dragging them off into the unknown skies, still squiggling out treacherous silvery worms of music.

King Crimson: 'Islands'

King Crimson: ‘Islands’

Although the ever-underrated ‘Lizard’ now jumps out of the speakers with renewed animation and significance, the real rediscovery from King Crimson’s current reissue phase is 1971’s ‘Islands’.
Long-unavailable on CD, this album was recorded by those Crimsoneers who’d survived the latest falling out (Sinfield, Collins and Fripp) with two new full-time recruits – Boz Burrell and Ian Wallace.

The new boys were grounded in rootsy jazz and rhythm’n’blues. Boz, in particular, seems antithetical to the perceived Way Of Crimson – a brash and commanding singer with scatting tendencies, and perhaps suspicious of Crimson’s grand designs as hatched on prog touchstone ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ and further honed on ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’ and the formal dementia of ‘Lizard’.

In spite of this, ‘Islands’ is the King Crimson album that’s furthest from the roots heartlands. There is one exception – Ladies of the Road, in which Sinfield turns in a salacious lyric of international groupie action that allows the band to engage in their dirtiest and most gleeful playing ever. Collins roars boozily on dick-grabbing tenor sax; Fripp plays as if his guitar’s strung with Mississippi baling wire and slams down some gloriously sloppy, sleazy little solos; and Boz revels in the rampant bluesy shouting. Even the flute and the fragrant Paul McCartney harmonies in the chorus can’t shake the sweat off this one.

 
It’s certainly a sharp contrast to The Letters. This is the album’s main sticking point, with aggressively stilted music rescued from Crimson’s early days and a lyric of pure antiquated Jacobean melodrama (poison pens, adultery, madness and suicide) in which sex is the engine of betrayal and degradation.

However, neither of these pieces fairly represent the unprecedented warmth and clarity of intent on ‘Islands’. If the preceding ‘Lizard’ was perhaps Tippett and Sinfield’s album – liberally dusted with the excitement and lawlessness of free jazz and untrammeled purple poetry – ‘Islands’ is most definitely Fripp’s, its scope narrowed down with superb clarity. It’s King Crimson’s simplest album by far, one in which the tunes and the placing of changes and instruments are far more important than complexity or the thrill of clash.

Several ‘Lizard’ buddies – jazz pianist Keith Tippett, Marc Charig on cornet and Robin Millar on oboe – are all along for the album sessions, and ‘Islands’ is also suffused with the warmth, light and mesmeric relaxing qualities of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, inspired by Sinfield’s travelling. After the demented rush of ‘Lizard’ it’s a much more contemplative work, with Tippett returning to a reflective supporting role and with that Crimson intensity redirected towards knowledge and timing instead of flamboyant theatre. Formentera Lady (introduced by fluttering flute, romantic swirls of piano and the deep bowed chording of Harry Miller’s double bass) sees Sinfield “shadowed by a dragon fig tree’s fan, /rRinged by ants and musing over man”, and that’s to be the central flavour of the album.


 
Ian Wallace was the perfect drummer for this music – well aware of the jazz and rock heat needed for the Crimson repertoire, but equally capable of the delicate timekeeping needed for the gentler pace of the new material. Formentera Lady ticks along on his hushed bass drum and cymbals, his trickles of wind chime and seed-pod percussion, and Boz’s gentle two-note bass riff. And whatever Boz’s feelings for the material might have been (he’s the prime suspect for having described much of ‘Islands’ as “airy-fairy shit”) he sings Sinfield’s contented landlocked reveries in a nostalgic, light tenor with a surprisingly humble and innocent charm. The gentle pulse of Fripp’s supportive acoustic guitar arrives four-and-a-half minutes in. Greek strings hum in trapezoidal shapes, and when King Crimson’s first familiar slip into the texture of legend arrives it happens seamlessly, cued by “here Odysseus charmed for dark Circe fell”, when guest soprano Paulina Lucas opens her throat for prolonged eerie siren singing, merging with Collins’s explorations on tenor sax.

Equally seamlessly, it gives way – on the rising heat of Wallace’s ride cymbal – to Sailor’s Tale, Fripp’s musical portrait of Odysseus’ doomed navigation between the parallel forces of destruction, Scylla and Charybdis. If Formentera Lady is King Crimson entranced in siesta time, Sailor’s Tale is a slow awakening to peril. Not the Gothic nightmares that the band used to specialise in. This time, what’s central to the piece’s power is the sheer excitement it generates.

Fripp and Collins (the former back on his rich drone of overdriven guitar) play prolonged horn notes off each other above Wallace’s rapid triple-time jazz pulse, reaching a peak at which they split off and howl their own paths – Collins squalling like Ayler or Coltrane, while Fripp prepares to deliver the most colossally dirty solo of his career. Played on a shattering echo like a deranged banjo, it passes through a maelstrom crescendo of hellish Mellotron and frantic cymballing out into free space, disintegrates spectacularly and falls into nothingness. Only the dark primeval bass of Sinfield’s prolonged oceanic synthesizer chords to witness its passing. The hairs don’t settle on the back of the neck for a good few minutes.


 
The rest of the album returns to the sun- and sea-warmed peace of Formentera Lady. The Song of the Gulls prelude is a small Fripp-written study for Robin Millar’s oboe and polite strings: no more than a serene intro to the album’s title-track finale, bridging the huge stylistic gap between Ladies of the Road and the final resolution of Sinfield’s escape. Islands itself is a subtle compositional triumph: King Crimson’s own miniature ‘Sketches of Spain’, finally proving that they can sustain a gentle and nourishing rhapsody without tweeness or needing to pounce back into violence. Wallace is almost invisible but for a few lightly brushed cymbals, letting Collins’s miraculously tender bass flute and Tippett’s delicately shaded Bill Evans-ish piano set the atmosphere. Fripp abandons guitar altogether to quietly pump a small harmonium (you can hear his feet patiently working the pedals).

Boz sings alone and unaffected, again displaying a surprising empathy for Sinfield’s lyric of separateness yielding to inclusion over time – “grain after grain love erodes / the high weathered walls which fend off the tide… / Equal in love, bound in circles. / Earth stream and tree return to the sea. / Waves sweep the sand from my island, / from me.” Mark Charig’s jazzy, sleepy cornet plays a crucial part, taking up the melody and soaking it in acceptance and the weary joy of homecoming, before a softly swelling finale where sedate and harmonious Mellotron strings lift the ensemble to resolution. “Beneath the wind turned wave, / infinite peace. / Islands join hands / ‘neath heaven’s sea.”


 
But for a brief hidden track (in which we hear a burst of studio tune-ups and Fripp’s soft Dorset burr patiently instructing the oboe and string players) that’s the end. Incidentally, it was also the end of King Crimson’s “grand design” phase. The core five-piece would briefly tour and squabble (with Peter Sinfield’s departure forever closing the early Crimson songbook) and the rootsy bar-band which lurked in the ‘Islands’ line-up would then honk its way across the States, jettisoning all the Debussy and fragrance of the album as it went.

It would all end in tooth-sucking enmity and anger, with everyone but Fripp abandoning King Crimson in favour of rhythm’n’blues. Boz would even end up thumping bass for Bad Company, which evidently pleased him musically and financially but seems a sorry waste of talent after his showing on ‘Islands’. The next time that Fripp surfaced, he’d be leading a far louder, far more cryptic improvisatory band, which would immediately overshadow his work here. This period of King Crimson’s existence is always outshone by the horns and flurries of the band’s debut years, by the bold and bitter brute minimalism of ‘Red’, by the stalking menace of the European improv years or the poppy art-rock of their New Wave era.

But both ‘Islands’ and its companion ‘Lizard’ – two of the most unusual to emerge from the body of rock – contain some of King Crimson’s best-planned, best executed and most intricately beautiful work, with a unified conceptual scope the bands would never really match again. These reissues bring that buried treasure back to light, revealing an exciting early ’70s meeting point between musical forms that’s been poorly served by an increasing suspect official history. It’s time to put it back on the chart. If more of today’s bands had the same open-minded determination – stumbles and all – that King Crimson exhibit here, we’d be better served ourselves.

King Crimson: ‘Lizard’
Virgin Records Ltd., CDVKCX3 (7243 8 48947 2 6)
King Crimson: ‘Islands’
Virgin Records Ltd., CDVKCX4 (7243 8 48949 2 4 )
CD-only reissue albums
Released:
4th October 2000
Get them from: (2020 update) Both records have now been superseded by 40th Anniversary Editions with new remastering and additional tracks. Current or former versions can be obtained from the King Crimson stores at Burning Shed and the Schizoid Shop.
King Crimson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

October 2000 – album reviews – Inter’s ‘Got My 9’ (“bards of the slump they may be, but Inter’s zestful intelligence means that they triumph at it”)

5 Oct

Inter: 'Got My Nine'

Inter: ‘Got My Nine’

You could feel sorry for Inter. Coming along with spry, bitingly intelligent Wonder Stuff-ish crunch-pop singles at a time when the Britpop consumers had long packed those in and turned to vacantly swaggering arena singalongs (then to bloke-next-door troubadours, then to vague boys with falsettos). And following that, getting involved with a Japanese label setting down roots in English pop, who picked and signed Inter as their flagship band and then perversely dropped them as soon as this album was released. Yeah, you could feel sorry for Inter – but not too sorry. They don’t really invite it.

Not because they deserve the frustrating ride they’ve had to go through for the past year, but because they’re too resilient to let it knock them back for too long. The band – cheerfully waspish frontman Steven Bray, two ex-Who Moved The Ground?-ers (guitarist Sid Stovold and drummer Johnny Gill) and bassist Michael Boylan – might even end up writing about the experience with less self-pity than most. After all, they’re always whipping up quick storms of questioning, sardonic power-pop to sketch stories and situations involving flailing fall guys or bewildered patsys. The British are used to being frustrated, bolshy losers, whether in the form of celebs laid low by the press (Jimmy) or the nobodies of Keep It Inside, leading cut-down lives and nursing a growing stew of resentment as likely to be aimed at their own lives as any potential whipping boy. And the prickliness and compressed fuming which this breeds is Inter’s first port of call when they’re writing songs.

‘Got My 9’ isn’t perfect. Though they’ve triumphantly inherited the Stourbridge Strut from Miles Hunt and co., Inter can slip too readily into a stream of straightforward West Coast punk (notably on both Speed Racer and Jimmy, which run far too close to that overmined motherlode), and the impressive cauldron of distortion on Boss Grasshopper buries whatever we could’ve learnt from the song. Still, there’s a couple of well-sustained lengthy epics of disaffection – Real Horrorshow and Swallow, each with dramatic power-pop opera choruses and skirling organs – showing that the band can drive their sound to more expansive places when they want.


 
And rather than wallowing in the stagnancy of despair, Inter prefer to hitch a lift on the rise of that initial anger – the precise point where “it’s sick, / but then something starts to click” – and hop off just in time to tell the story. As they display on the caustic, Lennon-style waltz of The Great Unknown, centred on a chilly-hearted hidebound man turned conman who “just stayed at home / and he missed all the fun, / ‘cos nobody gave him directions.” Bray lands some stinging blows on the traps of honour and naivety – “it’s useless to run, / ‘cos they got you too young / and your honesty’s made you a liar.”


 
Throughout ‘Got My 9’, Inter look, with indignation and a touch of reactive guilt, at the debris our dissatisfied culture throws up. They travel from the vacant celebrity of glamour models on Cherry Red Electric Blue (“look what we’ve done to you – / sugar centre through and through”) to the ludicrous aspects of self- promotion (via the ironic, ringing, radio-hit sound of Radio Finland), and give homegrown racists a firm rousting on the catchy National Paranoia. “Your national paranoia is all that’s keeping you alive – / if you had your way we would be oh so white and ten feet high… / Don’t push your poison over here!”


 
Real Horrorshow – maybe the heart of the album – is less mocking, more distressing in the picture it paints. “Revenge is scary – / you’re making it sound OK,” agonises Bray as he watches someone sinking into hatred, burdened by a dull life circumscribed by boredom and fear and by a red fringe of violence they’re too weak to thrive on. “Take your milk like every good boy… / You’ve gotta be careful cos everyone’s out for blood – / it’s gonna be murder, and you could be their first. / It’s maybe the fashion, but people get bored too soon. / And your best intentions leave you feeling cursed.”


 
Love in Interworld is equally suspect and frustrating. On Happy Ending, Bray frets “you’ve seen inside me – you’ve seen things you ought not to have known,” and sarcastically foresees any shared future toppling like a line of dominoes – “you’ve seen the future / so we both know how this will end.” Swallow, despite a passing resemblance to U2’s With or Without You, is a far more bitter piece of work, where guilty recriminations (“I know I’m not what you expected / and I know, I know, you think that you’ve been left out again,”) are struggling with vengeful bile: “swallow every accusation that you’ve built your conscience on… / Swallow this and I hope you choke.”

A finale of fading comfort is provided with Do You Feel Lucky?, which sees the grit and irritation left behind in a cloud of summery yet anorexically sad, dreamlike images of helplessness and disappearance. A pensive chorus (“every day is a day less I have to kill / I could stop right now, but you know I never will,”) which leaves you wondering whether the narrator has chosen life or a gradual slip into death.


 
Bards of the slump they may be, but Inter’s zestful intelligence means that they triumph at it. They certainly don’t deserve to be thrust back into the bargain-indie bin again as long as there’s a label wise enough to catch them.

Inter: ‘Got My 9’
Yoshiko Records, YR-002-CDA001 (5 032701 200422)
CD/vinyl album
Released:
3rd October 2000
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Inter online:
Facebook MySpace Amazon Music
Additional notes: Inter split in 2001, with various members going on to Wherewithal and, more currently, The Dolomites and The Sound of Ghosts.
 

October 2000 – album reviews – Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ (“allowing – or forcibly inducing – change to come through”)

3 Oct

Radiohead: 'Kid A'

Radiohead: ‘Kid A’

Radiohead are history. And they know they are: elevated into a pantheon of great expectations and rock landmarks a mere three albums into their career, and somewhat against their own wishes. Like a latterday Pink Floyd crossed with Nirvana (with the universality of both) they’ve had the rock world at their feet. But they’re also fully aware that, like Miles Davis before them, they need to let go of an expected history before they congeal. Embracing the difficult development of their own history by allowing – or forcibly inducing – change to come through.

So it’s goodbye to Old Radiohead’s upfront army of rock guitars, Thom Yorke’s frenzied in-yer-face angst, and those singles scooping at the soul like the hook in the fish’s mouth. And all the talk of the band making a record that mostly junks standard concepts of guitars, lyrics and pure song in favour of Warp Records-style electronica and muttering left-field oddness has turned out to be true.

‘Kid A’ does indeed have no singles and no singalongs – lovesick, punch-drunk or otherwise. It has a bleary, fractalized, impersonal mountain-scape etched out on computer for a cover; a lyrical agenda which is plainest in its absence. And its diverse pieces are deliberately disassociated from each other. Sometimes chill, sometimes as mechanistic as automata moving in a warehouse; all strung-out and scrambled by filters, Pro-Tools or anti-technique. Trusted “recorder” Nigel Godrich plays an odd mixture of Eno and Albini roles, squeezed alongside the band in the producer’s chair. Sometimes you can hear a band member at work, untweaked. More often you can’t. It’s like a set of glass cases enclosing specimens, puzzling specimens of music pulled up and laid out with a firm “that’s what you’re getting – goodbye” sense to it. Anti-pop, not pleasing anyone’s appetite for a snackable chorus.

And already (to filch another Yorke line) the knives are out. Radiohead are busily having their seams ripped open and their functioning organs speared, teased out and compared scrupulously against charts; a list of names marking off the components of ‘Kid A’ track by track. And, increasingly, marking it down. “Charles Mingus, Autechre, Alice Coltrane, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin…” goes the chant. “Rip-off. Buy the originals. Who the hell do Radiohead think they are?” And yes, none of ‘Kid A’ is as groundbreaking as any of those recorded texts, which Yorke and co readily cite as influences. There’s no element that a student of improv, post-rock, serious electronica or revolution jazz won’t have heard already. But this also means that one of the world’s biggest rock bands have admitted they’re at least as much learners as teachers. Sounds like cause for celebration to me.

In fact it’s other legendary records – the likes of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Rock Bottom’, Scott Walker’s ‘Tilt’ and Robert Fripp‘s ‘Exposure’ – which ‘Kid A’ is most genuinely akin to. Each of these records strives to meet its ends by a mixture of instinct, cold science flushed hot again with consuming passion, and their own secretive internalised logic. It’s a big step going from ‘OK Computer’ (one of the most explicit and upfront records of the ’90s, in which Thom Yorke was a incandescent clench of ego; stubborn, scarred, and railing against the draining fear and indifference of the adult world we’re trained for) to a twenty-first century record which is as weirdly egoless as this one is. An inarticulate speech of the heart via samplers, hazard and evasion.


 
Significantly, the most memorable and accessible song on ‘Kid A’ (the tear-blown strum and shivering strings of How To Disappear Completely, echoing both King Crimson‘s desperately vulnerable Waiting Man and Walker’s cryptic Patriot) sees Yorke singing softly and acceptingly of the ultimate relinquishment. Drifting away from himself in Dublin, becoming insubstantial, not as a surrender, but as some kind of transcendence. “I’m not here… this isn’t happening,” he sings, a tired relief (and, almost, a kind of love) suffusing his voice as the quivering violins flutter down, snow-like, obscuring the signposts.

It’s the emotional rightness in ‘Kid A’ that finally pulls it clear of the dissectory attacks people are aiming at it. As if the cry of rage that dominated ‘OK Computer’ is now diffused in a temporarily helpless scatter of images and impulses. As if the echo, coming back, has impacted on a band whose foes and fears are now nested in the fabric of the world, who can no longer respond with a simple song.

The fabulously grotesque artwork (a booklet of nightmare kid’s drawings) that lurks, hidden, in the back of the CD tray, gives a little glance into this world. Stick men boot each other in the balls; small mice squeaking copyright signs wander into the maw of a toothy beast growling a trademark; frightened eyes stare out of threatened houses, and Tony Blair’s PR grin is distorted into empty-eyed predatory lust. A nation of grinning little bears end up on the end of people’s forks or balaclava-clad and tooled up with Kalashnikovs, and a screaming parade of vitriolically surreal words march across the pages like circus handbills. Like the doomsday rhetoric of Godspeed You Black Emperor, it’s almost comical… yet it jolts, like the sound of a chisel stealthily tapping at your wall.


 
And perhaps ‘Kid A’, rather than being the rebel songbook for this world, is the recovery notes for those as cracked by it as ‘OK Computer’ predicted they would be. There’s a terrible surrender and relief about Everything in Its Right Place, freewheeling along on tranquillised electric piano chording with a slipstream of sliced up, gossamer-keening Yorke vocals tangled in its tail. In which two of the few comprehensible lines are “yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon – yesterday I woke up soaking,” and “what is that you tried to say?” This is disarrangement, dysfunctionality – not order. Yet Yorke seems to realise that this too has its place in a person’s history; and the sheer beauty of his singing throughout implies there’s hope waiting up beyond the dissolution.


 
About half of ‘Kid A’ ties in with this dissolve. The clinking music-box-meets-hip-hop narcosis of the title track, a nursery lullaby as rendered by an uptight and drier Massive Attack. Yorke’s bass-warped, filtered and generally fucked voice wavers, croons and ties little musical bows in and out of the pernickety beats, while words about “heads on sticks”, “ventriloquists” and “a little white lie” work their way through the dirty pink clouds. Who blinks first? The gaudily humming electro-disco on Idioteque reveals an empty dancefloor grooving away to itself as catastrophe looms. Yorke, in a slurred keen, is spilling out surreal sub-sense like David Byrne on sodium pentothal (“laugh until my head falls off / I swallow ’til I burst… / Women and children first, and children first…”) but sounds ecstatically happy (“here I’m alive, everything all of the time”), and the last sounds on the track aren’t death-booms but an aviary of feverish guitar loops.


 
The breakdown’s in the motorik groove of The National Anthem, adhesive thumbstains of bass underpinning a brawling rabble of brass that sound fresh from a vigorous drunken debate at Mingus’ Jazz Workshop or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Yorke’s voice winds out of the airshaft with a lobotomised “everyone around here… everyone is so clear”: later quavering “everyone has got the fear” as the horns become restive, but affirming “it’s holding on… it’s holding on.”


 
The other half? Anyone’s guess. The smears and rumbles, the webbing of indistinct voices, the gusts of emotion hurtling up towards invisible targets, all blur the picture. The ghostly tundra ring of Treefingers gives away nothing but a deathly peace. The unravelling trip-hop of In Limbo, full of unhitched folk guitar and stutters of echoed organ, is lost somewhere in the subconscious: grumbling “you’re living in a fantasy world” while itself threatened by nightmares of loss and disappearance (“I’m on your side, / nowhere to hide, / trapdoors that open, / I spiral down”), and finally swirling away in a rush of killing reverb as if down an enormous storm drain.


 
There are a few dud or ill-fitting moments while Radiohead grope in the fog. Morning Bell, for one, where they knock out a scratchy, swamping, insect-buzzing song which sounds like nothing so much as Echo & The Bunnymen shaking with the D.T.s. Or the tribal tom booms, wiry laceration of rhythm guitars and guilt-ridden lyric on Optimistic, harkening back too much to ‘The Bends’ (or the out-of-focus U2 of ‘The Unforgettable Fire’). But the starved boniness renders these hauntingly hollow-eyed stuff, compared to the previous fire. “If you try the best you can / the best you can is good enough,” sings Yorke, with a scratched, dented demeanour belying his words.


 
The final act is Motion Picture Soundtrack, journeying on an exultant wheeze of harmonium, celestially riffling harps and gusting bass wind as Thom Yorke settles back into love as if he’s settling back into a wrecked old armchair. And it’s love among the trashed – “red wine and sleeping pills / help me get back to your arms. / Cheap sex and sad films / Help me get where I belong.” Querulous (as he protests “Stop sending letters, / letters always get burned. / It’s not like the movies,”), but there’s happy-sad commitment here as he murmurs “I think you’re crazy, maybe… / I will see you in the next life.” Then one last delayed pink gush of electrophonic orchestration, and out.


 
But it’s in its totality that ‘Kid A’ sinks into your mind. There’s no way it could ever be counted as a flawless record – in fact, it revels in its flagrant imperfection with such a fierce joy (and one born of abstract willpower) that it’s hard to condemn it for that. But it’s a vitally important record for Radiohead; and a rewarding one for the listener.

The peculiar triumph of ‘Kid A’ is the way that it transcends both its own wanton abstractions and Radiohead’s past explicitness to resonate beyond each of them, in the way that an impact on a random strand can shake the whole web. To hear it is to be haunted by the emotional husks of messages long lost and made irrelevant, or by the impressions left by intentions deflected and displaced into half-formed actions and events. To have your mind rippled by the last exhausted breeze from a shockwave far, far away. To be moved by the vibration of history – Radiohead’s history, at any rate – as it passes.

Radiohead: ‘Kid A’
Parlophone, CDKIDA 1 (72435 2959020)/7243 5 27753 4 7 (72435 27753 47)/LPKIDA 1 (724352 959013)
CD/cassette/10-inch double vinyl album
Released:
2nd October 2000
Get it from: (2020 update) buy/download from W.A.S.T.E. Store, Google Play or Amazon Music; stream via Soundcloud, Deezer, YouTube, Apple Music or Spotify
Radiohead online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

September 2000 – album reviews – Steve Lawson’s ‘And Nothing But the Bass – Live @ the Troubadour’ (“sheer guilelessness”)

10 Sep
Steve Lawson: 'And Nothing But the Bass - Live @ The Troubadour'

Steve Lawson: ‘And Nothing But the Bass – Live @ The Troubadour’

Apparently, this music is what Steve Lawson makes to entertain friends – who make themself known as such simply by showing up to one of his intimate gigs. These could be in London, Lincoln, or Watford; in France or California; or wherever else Lawson and his little bundle of bass guitars, EBow sustainers and looping devices pitch camp for an evening of playing. Having asserted your friendship by wandering in and sitting down, you can smile to yourself about the way his lush, demonstrative instrumental music manages to cross-reference Frippertronics, Pete Seeger, Jaco Pastorius and Joe Satriani (for starters) without them crashing into each other or crowding him off his own playing stool.

You can also smile – with genuine enjoyment – at the sheer guilelessness of his music. The gauche jokiness of the album title is completely accurate. With one exception, this really is all One Man And His Loops live in front of a small, polite and audibly happy audience. But it shouldn’t be dismissed as cutesy novelty, or as circus tricks with effects pedals. That isn’t the half of it. In London, we’re used to anxiety. Self-exposure from tortured musical artists. Cool-by-numbers checklists. Spotlight-grabbing attitude flexers. Obvious-state-of-minders stapling themselves to credible trends, and sinking with them. Hearing Steve Lawson duck all of this (instead, he quietly focusses on the way music connects across generations, and between person and person) is a sweet shock.

On technical terms alone (if not in finger-thrashing stunt display), Lawson respectably holds his end up alongside American stars of the lyrical bass such as Victor Wooten or Michael Manring. But his work showcases not only prodigious playing talent but also a thorough lack of self-consciousness about engaging with his listeners. Maybe it’s from his previous work, playing with the equally guileless and elfin pop veteran Howard Jones. When you hear Lawson duetting with himself on sprightly children’s-song tunes like The Inner Game and The New Country (wrapping joyously squishy melodies around his looped, nodding, double-stopped riffs) you know you’re not hearing someone who’s concerned about his agenda fitting anyone’s T-shirt, or with the solemn rules at jazz school.

All right – perhaps an over-mellow conflation of two lovable old chestnuts (Chopsticks and Blue Moon) on Blue Sticks is a step too far in this direction. All taste and no meat; too close to a musical life that’s one long function room. Lawson dispatches it with impeccable skill – which is all very nice, but a little worrying in terms of complacency. Far better to hear him feeding twanging threads of Celtic-American folk song and bluegrass, Flecktones-style, into The Virtue Of The Small; and to then observe him splitting off to layer on some luxuriously glutinous improvisations (via serenely wandering fretless and classic-metal distortion). Listening carefully, you might spot momentary nods to other bass players – Chris Squire, Steve Swallow, Alphonso Johnson, Stuart Hamm – who’ve let melodies rumble up from the basement.

Of course, you could just put the notebook down and enjoy tunes like Bittersweet, a fretless-bass-and-piano duet owing a little to Pachelbel’s Canon and as much to Weather Report’s A Remark You Made. Jez Carr’s strums of high, cautiously sweet piano haze this one lightly with blue. Perhaps it’s over-aligned with the fastidious, earnestly white end of New Age jazz, but Lawson’s head-bowed cadences are beautifully poised – natural and regretful.

So far, so immaculate… so ‘Bassist Magazine’. What really opens doors are three pieces in which Lawson ventures into process music, chance-and-hazard and ambient music. Thankfully, it’s closer to Fripp Soundscapes and to post-rock than to the freeze-dried fusion on (for example), those slick early albums by John Patitucci.

On Drifting, the original moonlit ostinato foundations and skirling skybound melodies give way to smears of trembling Frippertronical treble passes – like wheelmarks on cloud – and to trance-techno bubble echoes Lawson somehow wrings out of his bass.  The lapping sounds and shimmering harmonic nudges of the gorgeous Pillow Mountain (with its sub-aqua heartbeat) are closer to Mouse On Mars than to any bass guitarring this side of Rothko’s post-rocking odysseys. Here, Lawson EBows strange Chinese string calls out of the beautiful murk. A third piece, Chance, clings on (just) to the right side of disassembly. The sharp attack, or mother-beast rumble, of Lawson’s varied approaches on fretless step in and around the frigidly emotional ECM-inspired bass figure at the heart of it, ghosted with minimal traceries.

It’s with these pieces that we hear Steve Lawson’s audience returning a favour. Moving away from simply bobbing their heads to the happy melodies, they concentrate on  listening instead. And all without the man breaking much of a sweat, either.  For any instrumentalist, this album would be charming. For Steve Lawson, it’s a showcase punched open at one end. His friends are watching him grow – I suggest that you join them.

Steve Lawson: ‘And Nothing But The Bass – Live @ the Troubadour’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0011 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 28th August 2000

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

August 2000 – album reviews – Rudy Simone’s ‘To Put the Sun Back in the Sky’ (“shot through with aftershocks of abandonment, dispossession, self-doubt and the battle to stay afloat”)

19 Aug

record-rudysimone-putthesun

Shot through with aftershocks of abandonment, dispossession, self-doubt and the battle to stay afloat, Rudy Simone’s debut album doesn’t resolve the questions she’s raised before. It doesn’t round off those battleworn displays of uneasy heart from the previous year’s ‘Personal Cloud‘ EP, nor does it offer clear clues about where she’ll be travelling in the future.

Fresh as she sounds, Rudy already has plenty of past. Originally from Buffalo, New York State (where, as Rita Seitz, she sang in various obscure bands during the early 1980s) she turned emotional refugee later in life and crossed the Atlantic to Liverpool, where her own songs emerged amid a landscape of acoustic sessions and nightclub rushes. Most debut albums are a statement, however crude. This one’s a scrambling steeplechase across Rudy’s emotions and her spiritual restlessness. It stays true to the disruptive collisions between the life singing in the head and the life that lurks outside. What ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ resembles most is an attempt to wrap up Rudy’s fraught baggage in a big, unwieldy brown paper package; to tie it together with guitar strings and beats, to spray it with disco glitter and then set it free somewhere down the Mersey. Drifting seawards, it comes unstuck and reveals itself.

Attempting to cram in all her gushes of inspiration, Rudy ends up with a confusing whole. Seemingly at random, songs appear in alternate acoustic and instrumental alternate versions; there are two takes on the eerie Kill The Cult Of Cool single, and a trancier reworking of Personal Cloud. ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ ends up as an anxious, fractured goodie-bag, unsure about whether floaty beats are better than strumming, and telling repeated stories in different tones. Don’t expect track-by-track coherence – but do expect plenty of understated feeling, a maverick DIY pop sense in full effect, and some determined songcraft. This album is a necklace-worth of interesting, often touching episodes.

In some respects, Rudy fits in with that rough wave of confessional women emerging in the 1990s via trip-hop and indie rock, including the two Beths (Gibbons and Orton) and Juliana Hatfield. There are some similarities to Jane Siberry; though Rudy is more loosely strung, she shares elliptical, Siberryesque feminine perspectives, blown about by impressions and finding solid little truths in the midst of abstraction. But for my money the artist whom she’s closest to is Lida Husik. Both Rudy and Lida resist committing themselves to any one musical approach or way of looking; both seem suspicious of tradition or sturdy craftsmanship. As with Husik, Rudy’s wispily sweet vocal belies her determination to discover and envision things her own way, learning from time and from chance. Both, too, are peripatetic and intuitive to a fault: they’re both quite prepared to walk into mires of embarrassing self-conscious fluff if that’s where an idea takes them (in Rudy’s case, a misplaced James Brown tribute called Bony Little, giddy and apologetic, in which she bangs on forever about her skinny white ass).

For this album, the club dance elements have triumphed in Rudy’s big bag of sounds – as they did on Husik’s ‘Green Blue Fire’ album four years previously. Techno producer Sheldon Southworth, a.k.a Diffusion, is a vital collaborator for half the album. He’s the Beaumont Hannant to Rudy’s Husik, adding his own club-friendly trance sparkle to hers and replacing guitars with the zing of electronics. For The Secret Sayings Of Jesus, Rudy whispers god-inside Gnostic philosophy, floating it like evangelical thistledown over Diffusion’s bright trance beats and aquatic keyboard textures. Despite her trippy tones, hypnotically soft, the chant is a desperate prayer rather than navel-gazing. It’s a counterpoint to the other songs, which make up a travelogue of delusions to be overcome in oneself or endured from others.

Vanity’s Car perks its way through cheerful Euro-trance and Soft Cell gurgles, but Rudy’s lyrics dwell on how the wrong kind of excitement can lessen a person’s grasp on reality – “amazing how far you’ll go when you lose control – / I’ve got to get out on my feet / and be the things I always wanted to be.” The fallout is clear: “I might be sitting in your living room / but I might as well be in another country,” Rudy protests on Can’t Go There. “You can drive if you wanna, but I prefer to stay on my feet… / ‘cos you’re so blind, you can’t see that it’s right across the street.” Warm swelling synths, glinting funk-wah guitar, and house piano echo that communal gospel glory which Primal Scream tapped on Come Together. Rudy’s own hopes of connection, though, are dissolving.

While Diffusion’s contributions are valuable, there’s no question that Rudy remains convincing on her own. The brief pure-dance diversion of Mentallium hurls rapid drum’n’bass kitfire headlong into chilly trance electronica: to wild things up a little, Rudy mixes twitchy diva calls, jazzy double bass and kettle drums into the instrumental. Out on the other edge of her music, she abandons beats and boxes. A blues-y acoustic guitar version of Vanity’s Car brings its warnings closer to the surface, no longer masked by shiny bodywork. Part pop-plaint, but mostly blues rant, the all-acoustic Water’s Edge sees the banalities of love (“Sometimes I’d like to kill him, / but I always gotta thrill him”) splinter in a glare of rage. Wailing like a cross between PJ Harvey and Etta James, Rudy walks the shoreline, grappling with a moment of agonising choice. Violence is poised within her, ready to strike inwards or outwards, and only the lone conscious voice of the song cries out against it. “Don’t go, you’ll only make your mama cry / Don’t go, you’ll only fuck your baby’s mind.”

As a single, Kill The Cult Of Cool got lost in the no-budget wilds which sank so many others; yet its emotional hop-skip-and-jump was a remarkable coming-together of ideas and instinct. It still is. Broody horror synths, laceworks of folk guitar and a patchwork of voice snippets quilt together into something haunted, defiant and transformative. In keeping with the rest of the album’s repetitions and revisitings, the song gets a double outing (the Derision Mix transforms it into radiophonic electro-funk replete with glitchy scratching and whooshing, frothing Vangelis synth splurge) but it’s the original that really matters. Something of a signature song for Rudy ever since it first showed up on ‘Personal Cloud‘, its cohesive spirit remains clear as its splintered voices ask for compassion, pray for guidance, plant down stubborn feet. “I was the quiet one in school, never made any trouble,” stammers a sampled man; “I don’t care what you say, I’m not crazy,” Rudy adds quietly. It’s full of struggle, though never precisely clear what that struggle is – the claw back to sanity out of the creeping horrors? a defense of alternative thinkers and scapegoats? – yet it’s also affecting in a way in which few things that I hear are.

The spine of the album, though, is the title track and Personal Cloud. The former’s a grieving white-girl rap about a marriage snapped violently in half: here, Rudy sounds as soft-spoken but as wide-awake’n’dreaming as Margaret Fiedler does while puzzling out dreams in Laika. Almost cushioned by the pain, she lets moments of heartbreaking reproach crest over it and into the words: when she murmurs “you say you’re following your heart / I say fear has played a much bigger part”, real agony glints. In a new take on Personal Cloud (remixed by M@2K into radar blips, ambient funk and blue-light electronics) more displaced degrees of mourning are added to Rudy’s grapple with addictions, love and loneliness (“I wrap my lips around a cigarette instead of you…”). Her voice flutters, weightless and bereft: a hydrogen balloon un-anchored by faithless hands.

Maybe ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ is not the album Rudy Simone’s capable of. It’s more like several different shots at an album: all crowded into the kitchen together, taking anxious and uncomfortable refuge. No clear clues; a spinning signpost; but indications of an effective, if scattered, talent – one worth investing some love in.

Rudy Simone: ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’
Phat Lady Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R-only album
Released: 2000

Buy it from:
Extremely rare – best found second-hand.

Rudy Simone online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

2000 – EP reviews – Empty Vessels’ ‘Empty Vessels’ EP (“uptight urban fuck-up music”)

14 Jul

Empty Vessels: 'Empty Vessels' (demo cassette, 2000)

Empty Vessels: ‘Empty Vessels’ (demo cassette, 2000)

Perhaps I was spoilt by the absolute flamboyance of David Devant And His Spirit Wife (a band of music-hall performance artists in Britpop camouflage, fronted by another Vessel) but I initially found Empty Vessels a bit underwhelming. Billing themselves as a “breakbeat/guitar soundclash”, I was expecting to be walloped around the head with seething snare cracks, to have my arse booted by kick-drum hits and my ears burned by electric wailings (all in a comfortable metaphorical way, mind). I was expecting festival style-ee-ee expansiveness. A sort of Asian Dub Foundation that had been gutted and stripped out, but were still rustling defiantly.

But Empty Vessels are less of a soundclash than a crowded minibus jammed with noises. They sound as if they do their recording in one of those tiny closets in Islington that estate agents try to flog to people as homes… or maybe in the cupboard of one of those closets. The usual claustrophobia of sped-up drum’n’bass-style breakbeats could only be amplified by these cramped, super lo-fi recordings; all skinny and vertical, never laying out when they can tense up. The sort of music inspired by hunching up and listening to hoarded CDs rather than by losing oneself on a sweaty, body-heavy dancefloor. Beat-science with a home chemistry set…

Nicotine is an unfortunate starter: neurotically trapped rushes of synth bass, shrill Killing An Arab-style guitar licks through budget fuzztones, and some pug-dog yelping courtesy of a bloke who sounds like Steve Harley forcibly bundled into a filing cabinet. Skip it for Chew-Up, a smarter shot in which all the beats are turned up and a careening sub-bass runs away with the foundations. Here the fuzzy shoulderings of guitar are a relief from the needling drums. The voice runs like a mumbling rat, complaining but flicking from rhythm to rhythm, and you find yourself wanting to catch on to what it’s ranting about. Empathising too much with your own sampler, it seems. “Chewing up experience, and chewing up experience… / It’s mine! It’s mine! / I acquire.”

Empty Vessels sound best when they don’t sound in control, when they’re running after their technology like it’s the last bus out of town. Sneering Face is one of those intriguing accidents that happen when you have white guys playing gladiatorial black dance music, desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get around their own whiteness, and ending up somewhere else entirely when they fail, sounding pretty liberated for it. While it starts as a wayward attempt at speed rapping (invaded by psychedelic space guitar echo), Empty Vessels have decided to fuck it all off about two-thirds of the way in and go for the ridiculous. Creaky vocal interjections that belong in Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop (“I – ought to teach them a leh-sson!”), seasick bloots of guitar, falsetto operatics wobbling in the background. The sort of vandalism that suggests they meant to do it from the start.

Uptight urban fuck-up music. Tower-block friendly. Angry summer sounds for days when none of your clothes seem to fit. I can’t say I like this, but it’s successfully sneaked into my curiosity field.

Empty Vessels: ‘Empty Vessels’ demo cassette
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette-only demo
Released: 11th June 2012

Buy it from:
The original cassette is long gone, although it was possibly reissued as a Peoplesound CD single which might be available second-hand. These three tracks have since been resurrected on ‘Empty Vessels 1‘, available from Bandcamp

Empty Vessels online:
Homepage BandcampYouTube

Post-Punk Monk

Searching for divinity in records from '78-'85 or so…

Get In Her Ears

Promoting and Supporting Women in Music

The Music Aficionado

Quality articles about the golden age of music

ATTN:Magazine

Not from concentrate.

Xposed Club

improvised/experimental/music

I Quite Like Gigs

Music Reviews, music thoughts and musical wonderings

A jumped-up pantry boy

To say the least, oh truly disappointed

PROOF POSITIVE

A new semi-regular gig in London

We need no swords

Organized sounds. If you like.

:::::::::::: Ekho :::::::::::: Women in Sonic Art

Celebrating the Work of Women within Sonic Art: an expanding archive promoting equality in the sonic field

Ned Raggett Ponders It All

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Headphone Commute

honest words on honest music

Yeah I Know It Sucks

an absurdist review blog

Pop Lifer

Waiting for the gift of sound and vision

Good Music Speaks

A music blog written by Rich Brown

Archived Music Press

Scans from the Melody Maker and N.M.E. circa 1987-1996

OLD SCHOOL RECORD REVIEW

Where You Are Always Wrong

Fragile or Possibly Extinct

Life Outside the Womb

a closer listen

a home for instrumental and experimental music

Bird is the Worm

New Jazz: We Search. We Recommend. You Listen.

Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

eyesplinters

Just another WordPress.com site

FormerConformer

Striving for Difference

%d bloggers like this: