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July 2018 – some post-Doran thoughts on smaller music festivals; and next week’s EppyFest in Cheltenham (27th & 28th July)

21 Jul

John Doran of ‘The Quietus’ wrote a pithy, on-the-nose article a while back about the ongoing corruption of big music festivals, lambasting them as “unsatisfying money hoovers designed to deplete your bank account for minimal return… a heavily branded and patronisingly over-mediated experience – with little in the way of the rough round the edges, unexpected, challenging or genuinely exciting experience that makes being a music fan worthwhile; just a massive spoonfed dose of the ubiquitous, the hyped and the monolithically popular.”

As a follow-up punch, John slashed a hole in the backdrop in order to expose the ethics behind the festival business: how, even as you’re frolicking in a ludicrously overpriced facsimile of countercultural free-spiritedness, your ticket money wriggles its way into the war chests and “shockingly regressive campaigns” of suspect billionaires intent on crushing any genuine counterculture that’s little more than a cheery mask on a product, funding a host of life-killing causes including anti-LGBTQ, anti-union and anti-immigration initiatives. Unsurprisingly, he concluded “personally I’d sooner go to a smaller, more grass-roots independent festival and have a clutch of genuinely odd, uplifting, joyous and memorable experiences on a smaller, freer scale.” He lists plenty of smaller, more conscientious festivals which might better suit your ethics or your conscience – Supersonic, End of the Road, many more. Modestly, he didn’t mention ‘The Quietus’s own efforts .

I might lack John’s edge, but I’ll still say amen to all that. There’s also always the option of going further off the map, seeking out festivals beyond the tents’n’burgers belch. I’ve covered some such here… Marchlands’ annual musical/theatrical celebration of reaching across borders and understanding history; the composer-driven London New Wind Festival; New York’s wonderfully brainy and diverse Ecstatic Music Festival. On a more domestic level, there’s next month’s Whole World Window 2 in Preston, raising urgent money for psychedelic hero Tim Smith’s health care while also functioning as a focussing lens for assorted rock and pop acts existing in a rowdy, complex continuum outside ot the mainstream. The staunchest supportive and communal ethics, unsurprisingly, still hover around punk events, those pass-around-a-donation-bucket battles for big values in small places (I might often be bored by the music, but I profoundly admire the commitment and the generosity of spirit).

* * * * * * * *

As regards the coming week, Gloucestershire’s EppyFest – just a week away now – is the epitome of a pocket festival. Now heading in its seventh year, it also pretty much defines “boutique”. Its amiably knitted-together selections of psychedelic rock and pop, folk, electric and acoustic chamber music and accomplished instrumentalist is undeniably cosy, but in the right way – unashamed and unaggressive, slightly specialised while toting an inclusive audience ethic. There’s a rosy English glow to it, alright, but not the kind which shoulders out differences while indulging a truculent and moneyed bucolic fantasy. The Eppyfest England is one which is comfortable in itself, but not too smug to look outwards: mostly white, but not bleached and angry. In the best sense and intimation, it’s a liberal parish.

Gong, 2018

The Friday lineup, starting in the evening – is the briefer concert, with just two sets of performers. The headliners are the current and ongoing version of cosmic-rock libertine troupe Gong, still romping along after the death of founding holy prankster Daevid Allen. This isn’t the first time there’s been a post-Allen Gong: percussionist Pierre Moerlen floated a de-hippified mid’-70s jazz-rock version around Europe which had little to do with Allen’s mischievous space rock parables, while the band’s original feminine-mystiquer Gilli Smyth led a sporadic Mother Gong version at points in the ’80s. This, however, is the first Gong that’s been a direct continuation of Allen’s work: thumbing its collective nose at his departure from music and from life, and mourning him by celebrating his ethos.

This Gong iteration is helmed by delightfully wayward, larger-than-life Anglo-Persian prodigy (and ‘Misfit City’ favourite) Kavus Torabi, who established himself as one of the premier, most open-eared British psychedelic talents while with The Monsoon Bassoon and Cardiacs, has continued it with Knifeworld and Guapo, and who has in effect been rehearsing for Gong leadership for the whole of his musical life. Expect the same applecart-overturning riffs, the mingled brass and electric strings, the space-dust party atmospheres. The old firm’s still a family.



 
In support, Liverpudlian guitarist Neil Campbell is arguably one of the most gifted musicians still unknown to the general public. An omnivorous stylistic polymath, he’s mastered contemporary classical, progressive rock, jazz and assorted other styles to the point in which he can pass seamlessly between and through them; and he comes trailing awestruck references from guitar scholars and crossover music master musicians alike. Working off nylon- and steel-strung acoustic guitars (with a chain of echoes, loop pedals and other processors) he creates detailed, fiery electro-acoustic tapestries when playing solo: given the opportunity, he’ll also roll out orchestral concerti, small ensemble pieces, vital building-block contributions to the larger works of other, and site-specific concerts in venues of all kinds.



 
North Sea Radio Orchestra headline Saturday’s seven hours of music – as ever, they draw together Anglo-pastoral classical, a stolen kiss or two of folk melody, crossover chamber music and English art-rock. (They’ve covered Robert Wyatt, as well as old Christmas carols and Vernon Elliot). Sixteen years in, they’re a little smaller and tighter than they used to be – the choir is long gone and the ensemble streamlined, with most of the Victorian poetry settings consigned back to the bookshelf in favour of more personal lyrics of chalkhills and children, lost loved ones and the make-do-and-mend of life.

North Sea Radio Orchestra, 2nd June 2018

They’re still a quietly enchanting proposition, gently webbed together by a deceptive fragility, a village-singer tone and Craig Fortnam’s elegant compositions, and they grow ever more comfortable in themselves as the years pass. From German kosmische, they bring in that cosmic powerplant throb: from Frank Zappa and Canterbury, the somersaults of harmony and tinkle of xylophone (with the lyrical coarseness and silly whimsy gently steered out of the picture); from English chamber music, the gentle green ache. All soft borders, all subtle mind.



 
Second down the bill is Doris Brendel. The Vienna-born multi-instrumentalist daughter of concert-piano legend Alfred Brendel, she originally made her mark in ‘90s neoprog and underground AOR providing vocals, guitar, sax and flageolet to The Violet Hour: when that didn’t last, she applied herself to whatever was going while cultivating her own records in her own time. She’s refined her earlier approach, but what you get now is still pretty much what you got then – a singer who can go from a dream-folk murmur to a gutsy rhythm-and-blues blast, who puts on an assured show of muscular rock and costumed pizazz. An old-school rock chick, but one who’s taken control and honed it to excellence. There might be differences in tone, but latter-day ladyrockers like She Makes War and Ciara Clifford might look to her and immediately see a spiritual older sister.



 
Via a shifting gambler’s hand of interrelated projects – and a proven ability to survive practical and artistic disruption – the persistently thoughtful Oxford prog-rock collective Sanguine Hum have explored music for nearly twenty years now. In many respects, they’re a back-to-first-principles prog-initiative. Rather than constructing vast vanity pieces (as if to impress their aspirational Mellotronic forebears), the Hum are based very much in a lush’n’lambent ’70s pop mode – as least as much Neil Young, Steely Dan or David Bowie as Genesis, Zappa or Canterbury – which they can then wilfully and logically expand to bigger and broader things (engulfing and building upon later influences such as Boards Of Canada along the way).

For this acoustic-slanted EppyFest slot, lead singer/guitarist Joff Winks and keyboard player Matt Baber (the latter fresh from last month’s release of his “ambient prog minimalism” solo album ‘Suite For Piano and Electronics‘) will play as a duo; exploring at least one track from each of the project’s scattered albums and personae, with new material as a bonus.



 
Electric chamber group Firefly Burning were to have held the middle of the bill but had to pull out. To replace them, in comes a harder noise in the shape of the explosive wit, ominous chording and multi-layered songwriting of London’s Thumpermonkey. I described them a while back as “the missing link between Peter Hammill and Neal Stephenson”: a tag which they really seemed to like, so let’s run with it. A motley crew of brainiacs, meticulators and fast friends with their heads in lofty places and their toes sunk in dirty post-metal, they have the kind of esoteric preoccupations (and the wherewithal to communicate them) which encourage interest rather than eye-rolling and detachment. Unshamedly weird-fictional, the songs have covered Nigerian email fraud, Aztec hauntings, bizarre medical conditions and Victorian explorers amongst many other topics, all via a rich filter of literary and cinematic techniques and dark, sophisticated humour.

As for the music, Thumpermonkey play within that increasingly rare strata of hard rock in which there’s room to breathe, think, listen and explore beauty as well as nail down a predatory riff. Michael Woodman sings like an athletic college don moonlighting as an operatic priest, while his cohorts Ben, Sam and Rael construct a moving fortress, observatory and interdimensional vessel for him to stand on. They’re the kind of band that either make you proud to be curious, or will magnetize your brain into a state of curiosity. In effect, they’re the ‘Infinite Monkey Cage’ of British post-prog and we’re bloody lucky to have them.



 
Bristolian progressive-grunge rockers Lord Of Worms cite Meshuggah, Soundgarden, Tool and Ufomammut as influences, and there’s certainly some roiling springy punktone bass and restless post-hardcore rhythmic shifts in the mix. Their folk lilts and Zoie Green’s burnished-silver vocals simultaneously tie them into a tradition of female-fronted folk-rock acts like Renaissance and The Morrigan. Judge for yourselves…



 
Like Sanguine Hum, Dutch/American crossover prog poppers Fractal Mirror will be playing under reduced circumstances as regards personnel, but probably not in terms of the music. While the band can rely on the assistance of Echolyn polymath Brett Kull, among others, in the studio, this live date will just feature their core duo of singer/guitarist/keyboard and recorder player Leo Koperdraat and lyric-writing drummer Frank Urbaniak. Expect intimate expansions on their recipe of dove-soft Mellotronics and pastoral post-Porcupine Tree moods, with their hidden freight of darker, reflective lyrics.



 
Sonic Bond Promotions & The Epileptic Gibbon Podcast present:
EppyFest 7: North Sea Radio Orchestra + Gong + Neil Campbell + Sanguine Hum + Doris Brendel + Thumpermonkey + Lord Of Worms + Fractal Mirror
St Margaret’s Hall & Annex, Coniston Road, Hatherley, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL51 3NU, England
Friday 27th July 2018, 7.00pm
– information here and here
Saturday 28th July 2018, 1.00pm – information here and here

* * * * * * * *

It would be stupid of me to represent EppyFest as some kind of absolute template for festivals. It’s its own little Gloucestershire gem, it has its context and its taste-palette, and while it’s a fine refresher there’s far more to contemporary music – to a nourishing cultural diet – than even a thoughtful slipped-weekend like this one can provide.

What I am advocating is a spreading of its care-filled cottage ethos; its preference for building a relatively equal, mutually supportive community of performers and audients in a warm and humble space, rather than driving a rush of drainable, soakable human cattle through the money-mill. Events like this are worth the seeking-out, worth the effort that goes into their creation. Go find some. Go make some. Come tell me about them.
 

November 2016 – upcoming gigs – The Scaramanga Six in Winchester and London (5th, 12th) with A Formal Horse, The Bitch, The Fiascos and Zen Motel

2 Nov

Following a period spent spawning, recording, dispersing around the country, essaying the odd solo gig or micro-festival appearance, and carrying out whatever grim and murky business keeps them afloat in between shows and records, the various members of The Scaramanga Six have reconvened for a couple of autumn dates in southern England.

The Scaramanga Six, 2016

Still stubbornly insisting on being a quartet (one which won’t refund a third of your ticket price, so don’t ask) and still possessed of the most ferocious fraternal-twin-brother glower since the heyday of the Kray brothers, the Six continue to mine a rich and rewarding seam of murky kitchen-sink rock drama: like a small belligerent family of pub singers who’ve rushed the stage, mugged the house band and grabbed the mike in order to settle a few scores and tell a few hard tales in public. With Tony Bennett, The Cramps, The Stranglers, Cardiacs and Pixies amongst their crowd of musical influences (the sartorial ones include Moss Bros funeral directors, glam rock queens, small town wide boys and absinthe dandies), they’re still toting around last year’s album ‘The Terrifying Dream’, a collection of songs based on skull-rattling nightmares (some of which may not have anything to do with being asleep).



 

I’ve always liked the Six, right for the time I first encountered them and got the opportunity to dub them one of the country’s “most timely” rock bands – expressing inflated smalltown-British bile and huff with better tunes than anyone else. Fourteen years later, you’d have thought that they’d have lost that particular title; and it’s true that their ebullient theatricality has allowed them to sidestep strict reality any time they like. (As far as being state-of-the-nation signifiers goes, they were always more ‘League of Gentlemen’ than ‘This is England’.) But as long as there’s a supply of twisted romantics with alarming habits, touchy self-deluders going off the rails, and sinister broody men as likely to harm themselves as much as others, the Scaramanga Six will have material to juggle with and ram home; and whenever it runs short, they’ll fill the gaps with bullish tales of self-reliance in adversity (who says their Yorkshire base hasn’t rubbed off on them?) or one of bass-player Steve’s gonzo rockabilly bawl-alongs. God knows what they’re making of the poisonous post-Brexit seethe. It’ll probably provide them with enough inspiration for a double album.

  • The Barn @ The Railway Inn, 3 St. Pauls Hill, Winchester
    SO22 5AE, England, Saturday 5th November 2016, 8.00pm
    (with A Formal Horse + The Bitch) – information here and here
  • Pure Rawk @ The Black Heart, 2-3 Greenland Place, Camden Town, London, NW1 0AP, England, Saturday 12th November 2016, 7.00pm (with The Fiascos + Zen Motel) – information here and here

The two shows this month bounce off different aspects and intimations of the Six. At Winchester the emphasis seems to be on art rock. The main support coming from sparkly Southampton band A Formal Horse, whose continually flexing music tosses math and prog ideas around under Hayley McDonnell’s crystal clear folk voice, a bounding conceptual glitterball. I couldn’t find out anything about the other support band, The Bitch, but with a name like that it’s unlikely that they’ll be playing detailed chamber-folk or be led by a woman with a concert harp (although, on second thoughts, it would be wonderful if they were…)


 
In contrast, the London show and supports – courtesy of promoter Pure Rawwk – are absolute Sunset Strippery. The Fiascos describe themselves, variously as “filthy punk rock’n’roll from The Cronx, south London”, “Motörhead in a sweet shop” and “Social Distortion playing to get out of jail. They feature former members of Spizzenergi and the Brijitte West band, plus ubiquitous go-to-drummer Robin Guy (the onetime Rachel Stamp/Sack Tricker who’s filled in for everyone from Sham 69 to Rancid, Faith No More and The Bay City Rollers). Gleefully trashy and explosive Essex hard-rockers Zen Motel (pals with the Wildhearts) open the show with a rare acoustic set.



 
In both cases, the Six are likely to be glowering at the top of the bill and bringing the weight; like elder brothers, or dangerous uncles.
 

April 2013 – mini-album reviews – Alex’s Hand’s ‘This Cat is a Genius (A B-Sides Compilation)’ (“mostly tarry, and it sticks to things”)

17 Apr
Alex's Hand: 'This Cat Is A Genius'

Alex’s Hand: ‘This Cat Is A Genius’

Sometimes barrel scrapings are as much part of the meal as anything else from the barrel. In the brewing industry, that’s how you get sludgy yeast spreads like Marmite. Yum. Or not.

Meanwhile… we’ve met Alex’s Hand before. They’re yomping Seattle-ites from the scruffiest, carney-est end of American Gothic; something like a junior Primus, Zappa and Residents rolled into one, abruptly zombified, and crammed into the fustiest old suit in Abraham Lincoln’s trunk of hand-me-downs. This EP of B-sides (so they call them – they’ve only ever put out one EP) certainly seems like barrel scrapings. It’s mostly tarry, and it sticks to things. It’s shapeless, it’s distinctly umami, and you might not like it.

That, of course, is the point. Alex’s Hand tend to revel in everything they do, both their moments of genuine artistry and their dumbest chunks of musical blubber. ‘This Cat Is A Genius’ is a pre-release teaser of off-cuts from their debut album (‘Albatross Around The Neck’). It shows off (if that’s the right word) their sludgier leanings; their most precipitous rants; their Melvins side. It sounds as if while the goofy fuckers were messing around in rehearsal, some vicious bastard poisoned their coffee – but they enjoyed it so much that they sent out for more and left the tape running.

What the band’s actually doing is dealing with the departure of Slurrp, their ontime lead guitarist and horn-razzler. Drummer Nic Barnes and bass-bothering microphone pest Kellen Mills drop their stage-names, pick up the pieces and tumble onwards; various buddies help Kellen out with the guitar parts; but it’s clearly been a blow. You can all but hear Alex’s Hand bouncing off the ropes. However, they’re not ones to miss out on a dark chortle, even at their own expense. Nor are they scared of turning a setback into a challenge. If they have to have a period of floundering, they’re damn well going to get something out of it, even if they have to milk it ’til it bleeds. Rolling away from a relatively tight rock stance towards something doomier (or at least more rubbery), they’re taking the opportunity to map the underside of their development as they go.

One of the last two tracks from Slurrp’s last stand – ConserveNow! – is six-and-a-half near-atonal minutes of Melvins-style strain: a lurch-along instrumental of fuzzed grunge bass and wobbly guitar, like a sick freight train careening along a lost stretch of railway. The other, Ants, is a collapsing shack-load of wreckage-guitar and free-form word association. While Slurrp sifts through sluggish, raging clumps of feedback in the background, Kellen’s schizophrenic basslines jump and ebb between laid-back mooch and irritated attack. He also mutters beady-eyed, half-cut stuff into your ear – mostly about giants and UFOs, although at one point he does complain “words are stale, empty – they lack a certain sensuality.” Much of the ‘This Cat Is A Genius’ shares this playful pissed-off stance – a complaining laughter; clever-dumb; slumming in drunken despondency and enjoying a grump. Kellen plays the role of educated-and-unravelling to the hilt, offering flashes of self-mockery through the filter of booze vapours and the pinch of bad shoes.

Dear Me’s clench of lumbering punk disgruntlement mingles King Crimson feedback skitters with a collapsing, anti-play perversity. Inside itself, the song’s at war – halfway through, Kellen grabs a guitar and launches doggedly down a different tunnel and into a different tune. On the headache blunder of Train, he’s scouting for empty bars in order to avoid conversation, moping about insincerity like a touchy teenager: “wish I was happy listening to people with nothing to say. / Lying assholes with so much money / really are dead inside – / they pick my brains as they lie.” Longtime ally Ben Reece (of Step Daddy) drops in again to add wracked, protesting electric guitar and some needling ‘Marquee Moon’ edge as Kellen’s drunken soliloquy heads ever further downhill and then kinks back up shit creek, screaming about “blackest diamonds” and falling into the sea.

While the odd glancing zinger falls out of this kind of lyrical mess, Kellen’s verbal squalls and cracked mumbling are generally just another bit of colour. What he says is less important than how he says it; or just how the words hit the wall. Impression (featuring another temporary guitarist, Shadough Williams) sounds like a lobotomized David Byrne tripping over Black Sabbath. Nic drums on bottles while the music flinches between runaway bursts of samba and foot-dragging sludge-metal. Kellen dismisses another waster in smudges of sardonic detail: “he smokes his cigarettes, douses them with side-effects… / Stand to deliver, his parents used to say – / started out rich and pissed it all away.”

On Penticide, the band paddle around in a splatter of sprained, detuned instruments – piano, melodicas, glockenspiels – while Kellen’s rambling narration casts a cockeyed look downtown. Scribbling a vicious political cartoon of a “crack-whore free-market” full of hapless fools pushing “shit-stained zombie shopping carts”, he also rips himself and his peers ragged. “Welcome to the half-baked bistro… / conspiracy countdown coffee-shop collective,” he husks, before tagging himself as “a dying maverick with a bad attitude… / like Merce Cunningham took a shit in a wine glass.” Mocking his trashed, anti-heroic slide from high culture to garbage, the band break into sarcastic applause.

Confounding all this sarcasm, the final moments come close to delicacy. Sad Little Skeletons is slender, thoughtful and melancholy; initially, it’s not much more than distant birdsong and overheard chat, accompanied by lonely bass melody and shavings of rhythm guitar. For once, Kellen sings gently, setting aside the drunken howls and the scatter-shot smartarsery. Clarity renders his conclusions even bleaker. “Thoughts will come / then fly away. / These emotions are so thick, / like this life just makes me sick. / These piddly little humans, driving their cars / on the freeway… / Sad little skeletons; broken, but don’t realize they’re lost.” The rise towards a tangled noisy fanfare and the drowning of the words in yell and distortion initially comes as a relief. Then you go back and listen to it again, hearing the weary breathing and the tiredness that smacks of reality.

Part-broken, smeared, and devilled by little gouts of waspishness, this isn’t the easiest collection of songs and slurs to get along with. But there’s plenty to scoop out anyway, especially if you like hearing the wilful awkwardness of a band who enjoy stretching themselves out of shape and balance, and who can fit that in with the big boots and barfly lunges. If you enjoy feeling as if you’ve been dipped in an uncomfortable goo, that’s a bonus.

Alex’s Hand: ‘This Cat Is A Genius’
Alex’s Hand (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only mini-album
Released: 15th April 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

Alex’s Hand online:
Facebook Twitter Bandcamp LastFM

June 1999 – album reviews – Cay’s ‘Nature Creates Freaks’ (“those red-hot gravelly tones”)

23 Jun
Cay: 'Nature Creates Freaks'

Cay: ‘Nature Creates Freaks’

On a quick listen you might be tempted to put Cay straight into the femme-noise box, however much you thrill to them. There’s the loose-wired slangy racket of the two guitars, the American-styled punk roars of instruments and voice, the general “let-off-the-leash”-ness of this album. Not least, there’s the striking vocal and visual presence of Anet Mook up front; defiantly anti-glam but compelling the attention anyway, ripping the frets out of her guitar and scorching her vocal chords with her flammable yell.

There’s also the album’s clutch of rackety singles. The mixture of pattering, jangling drag-racer suspension and blazing gasoline riffola in Better Than Myself; the pure punk venom of Princes And Princesses which all but drags a friend out of the comfort of collusion, spitting and chiding (“perverted decent little thing, I hate your guts cos they don’t exist”) prior to burning away with her down the road as if trying to rewrite ‘Thelma & Louise’ as guitar flare. The violence of Neurons Like Brandy, which feeds off a familiar Nirvana-ish alternation of quiet and loud, but sped up to a unnerving back’n’forth flick between stroke and punch; all to display the swerving of a love shot through with pills and booze, bonds and walls, focus and absence… of contradictions that won’t hold, but won’t break easily enough.

Not that the album tracks give much away to the singles, either. Reasonable Ease In Chilled Out Conditions leaps around its cage with enough aggression to punch out my speakers, and possibly my lights too. Cay attack the song as if they’re trying to singlehandedly relaunch punk in a shower of crunching bass and Uzi drum slams. Here, Anet sings like a suave skinning knife: her harsh, vicious slurs crack like a whip, and she chews words like gum. “And all the snow will melt away, / another week’ll come to stay, / to help you pull your little scam… / ‘Cos in the end you’re leaving like a sound! To be honest, I don’t know what the fuck she’s on about (cocaine madness, perhaps) but when Cay can fire it fifty miles up into the air via ten million volts of guitar I don’t particularly care.

There’s enough unleashed rage here to satisfy the grrlpunk board, though the fact that the other three Caypeople are men might brand them, to anyone drawing up the passports, as more Blondie than Bikini Kill. Yet… there sounds as if there’s more to Cay than just a femme-fronted burst of punk power which’ll burn itself out in a sorry gulp of lost fuel in a year or two. The truly compulsive thing about Anet’s voice isn’t the anger; it’s the permanent note of astonishment that cuts through those red-hot gravelly tones. It’s a yelp of instant reaction to anything (whether it’s introspection or copping an insult). It makes her someone who’s always on, always with the nerve to jump back or jump in.

In counterpart, there’s the detail work performed by Nicky Oloffson, Cay’s deceptively quiet-mannered guitarist and lateral thinker. He brings the odd noises, the jazz-chords that slip questions in; the art-textures that clink and keen in the mix, the sweet strums and battered song-sighs that break up the heat-blasts. Cay might have more of a chance of a commercial breakthrough than most – there’s an arresting hookyness balancing their controlled chaos – but there’s clearly an art-rock band evolving inside this tight, powerful metalcore package.

As well as the usual punky suspects, Cay’s love-list includes the evolving, protean King Crimson. This is a good sign, and explains how they can pull off such a wondrous effort as the album’s title track – a beautiful mix of punk power-chords, an ecstatically bruised and revelatory vocal from Anet, and a long moment when the rock rolls aside to reveal a heartfelt swathe of inner-space guitar melodies. On the rougher end, it also explains the parade of tempo-chopping riffs on Senseless – skirting points from Purple Haze and ‘Larks Tongues In Aspic’ through to Nomeansno and fully enraged hardcore punk, with a slam of alarm bells.

And then there are Anet’s lyrics, which dodge gesture politics or party rhetoric (of either kind). Most of the time they’re both simple and opaque. There’s some ragged individualism, some slippage between connections and independence. More often, though, they’re a discombobulated and shifting matrix of ideas, truths and motivations (with a hefty sprinkling of drug talk and quarrelling). They show life as it tends to appear to the over-curious – suspect; tenuously woven together. Something blurred by the changing loyalties and dependencies of unsettled lives where there are more questions and rejections than there are answers.

On the country-ish billow and scrub of Come Out, Anet is certainly questioning, though she’s questioning no-one in particular unless she’s trying to put a face onto the forces of chance. Cay seem to accept the unreliability and conflict in human flux… and unusually, they even accept their own. In the middle of the colossally aggressive guitar screams and sardonic vocal squalls in Reasonable Ease In Chilled Out Conditions, Cay slip gently into a embracing strum while Anet sighs “when we both come down, when we’re both worn out, / that’s where we should meet…”

A moment of unlikely grace, but then Cay are a band with unexpected depths.

Cay: ‘Nature Creates Freaks’
EastWest Records, 3984277462 / 3984277461
CD/vinyl album
Released: 17th June 1999

Get it from:
CD or vinyl best obtained second-hand; files streamable from Bandcamp.

Cay online:
Facebook Bandcamp Last FM

October 1998 – EP reviews – Dark Star’s ‘Graceadelica’ (“a fistful of brilliant flares criss-crossed with human fragility”)

28 Oct

Dark Star: 'Graceadelica' EP

Dark Star: ‘Graceadelica’ EP

Hallelujah. David Francolini, Laurence O’Keefe and Christian “Bic” Hayes – refugees from the indie/prog/psych collision of Levitation – have quietly regrouped as Dark Star. Listening to their superb debut EP somehow makes the whole painful Levitation saga (all those spats, frustrations and blown hopes) worthwhile. But while Levitation ran, jumped, shook rooms, dazzled, and finally shattered, Dark Star – a power’n’glory trio that’ll rip off your head and return it to you all lit up and twice the size – take every bit of that energy, aim it, and channel it on course.

So what would happen if someone took British underground psych-rock as a foundation, then scanned the heights of British ’90s indie for what it had to offer? If they took Primal Scream’s panoramic hallucinatory peak, the funky drummer grace of The Stone Roses on ‘Fool’s Gold’, Radiohead’s lacerating skill and intensity, Spiritualized‘s on-off blinks of revelation, the waves of transporting guitar frenzy The Verve dealt in when Ashcroft cut out the rock-god schtick, and then fused it all together? And – unbelievably – got it right? They’d get this.

‘Graceadelica’ itself storms right out at you full-tilt, laced with detail, power and adrenalin quakes. Bic’s ghostly guitars are everywhere – chittering in the midground, weaving sensuous smoky patterns and Cocteaus star-clusters beyond, sketching spare cascading melodies upfront, then suddenly exploding into your ear in a storm of shocked echo over Francolini’s immaculate power-funk drumming. And it’s about memory barbed and refracted by mystery: someone stalking the city with a incredible secret to recover. “I must have hit the floor, / some dark uncertain hours before /…Those half familiar streets / were swimming underneath my cobwebbed feet. / My aching bones were dry, / a skeleton beneath the lead-grey sky. / Yeah, it’s all coming back to me now… maybe too late.” Pounding the pavement, finding a pathway to the key. “Feels like I’m walking over water, / subhuman urban messiah. / Slow-bound for church of the neon, / my resurrection’s in a glass on the bar…”


 
The title track carries off the prize for grace and scope, but the whole EP is a fistful of brilliant flares criss-crossed with human fragility. The heavy-metal bullet of ‘Crow Song’ – like PJ Harvey fucking Ted Hughes on Metallica’s drum riser – is haunted, a hapless killer’s nightmare. O’Keefe’s supple, astonishing basswork oozes power, but the song itself is flinching from guilt (“Hope you don’t mind, but if I let you in – no-one must know, no-one must know”) and the unfolding of terrible rituals: “You see, he speaks to me in sleep: and I don’t like what he says. And when I wake I find another feather, just next to me on the pillow…”

On ‘New Model Worker’, Bic’s voice is both tannoy-sneer and humble plea, the guitars a cataclysmic swing between grinding industrial filth and tiny, tender, praying filaments. “Season’s cycle’s turning overtime, and I’m a new model worker with too much on the mind. / There’s nothing to decide, there’s nowhere here to hide. / And just to breath in; the future becomes what’s left behind.” ‘Solitude Song’, hovering over a huge depressive plunge, refuses to deny anything – “There’s nothing wrong with you / (“I’m sorry, Doctor”) / You’re acting like a fool (“Well, someone’s got to…”) “. Instead, it’s braved out, and they jerk your tears out while they howl for strength “until the cloud’s gone, and we’re through… / Laugh when it’s over.”

Dark Star have only just started, and already they’re way better than Levitation ever were. Unless they blow out that revealing light again. Like Levitation, Dark Star are possessed of such power that they could as easily shake the world or tear the muscles off their own bones. Top marks for effort and promise, lads, but don’t let the frenzy buck you off this time. ‘Gracedelica’, at least, is an object lesson in how to ride the bastard over the horizon and back.

Dark Star: ‘Gracedelica’
EMI Records Ltd/Harvest Records, CDEM523/10EM523 (724388615822)
CD/vinyl EP
Released: 26th October 1998
Get it from:
(2020 update – best obtained second-hand)
Dark Star online:
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November 1994 – album reviews – Laundry’s ‘Blacktongue’ (“a scuffed, brooding black-iron hybrid”)

26 Nov

Laundry: 'Blacktongue'

Laundry: ‘Blacktongue’

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Laundry: ‘Blacktongue’
Mammoth Records/Prawn Song Records, MR0098 2 (35498009822)
CD-only album
Released:
22nd November 1994
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Laundry online:
MySpace Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music
 

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