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August 2002 – live reviews – Prong + Needleye + Foe @ The Underworld, London, 22nd August 2002 (“pin-sharp vintage thrash, bridge-girder hardcore tunes and even a couple of sandpaper-throated singalongs”)

24 Aug

Watching from a sparsely attended moshpit, it strikes me that Foe are an uncommonly serene rock band, especially for a metalfest like this one. It’s partly the demeanour. Stage right, Jason Carty with guitar, looking like a slightly-built Viking who’s opted for books and meditation instead of battleaxe. Stage left, the looming ox-powerful figure of bassist Crawford Blair, with the blank, heavy-lidded poise of the expert craftsman at work on his five-hundredth perfect replica. Only Paul Westwood – lashing at the drums with pop-eyed concentration – seems to have read the metal-frenzy rulebook, expressing enough frantic urgency to cover for all of his bandmates’ apparent dispassion.

To be fair, it’s a dispassion that’s illusory. Foe care profoundly about what they do, sending long clean jags of rippling twelve-tone math-metal out into the air. Each Foe piece seems to have been built out of a spasming DNA helix, infallibly convulsing and tearing off in a new direction every fifteen seconds. Time signatures and pitches leap about like fleas. In half a minute alone, King Crimson, Naked City, Henry Cow and Dillinger Escape Plan appear in the music, tip a hat, and disappear again. The overall impression, though, is of the passionate serenity (that word again) and protracted seriousness of a Frank Zappa guitar solo, mapped out on graph paper and rearranged for post-punk power-metal trio. Crawford reluctantly delivers comments between songs, as if his arm’s being lightly twisted by an offstage manager. One song’s apparently called Pick On God for a Good Laugh.

Dolled up to the nines, the London metal crowd line the Underground’s upper terrace and look on. Black clothing which creaks; carefully-selected offensive t-shirts. Cleavage and translucence for the girls, studs and sculptured hair for almost everyone; black-and-white goth paint here and there. Puzzled looks almost everywhere, as Foe continue their intricate, tone-carving wranglings. All of the metal regalia, though, is outshone by a single Foe fan in a homemade melange of furry lite-pastel artificial fabrics, a choker made of luminous toys, trousers made from railwaymen’s safety vests, and (the crowning glory) a Hello Kitty rucksack. It’s as boldly twisted as any of Foe’s shape-shattering melodies. A couple of new converts scuttle into the moshpit, as the numbers click into place and joyful grins break across faces. It’s tough getting this kind of rocket science across to an audience.. but there are always more free agents to pick up.

Click. Next.

“All right, fuckers, we’re Needleye!” bawls a hefty bloke with mascara, a shoulder-length sweep of black Silkience hair and a mysteriously off-white jutting broom of Catweazle beard. Unlike Foe, Needleye have no intention of letting the music do all the talking. Four stretched-out men do their best to look roof-scrapingly tall while decked out in swarms of tattoos, PVC, scalplocks, leather and the kind of satanic Pharoah beards you suspect they’ve swiped from Slayer’s make-up cupboard. Plus there’s one wraith-thin possible-ladyboy in black-metal corset, pancake and black lippy, scowling down at a stack of technology while jabbing and tweaking it with the sadistic, nipping fingers of a bully at a girl’s school.

The boxes respond with a counter-barrage of ripping samples, clamorous plane-crash textures, and Uzi drumbeats. There’s no actual drummer. Drummers just aren’t lean and scary enough any more. There are some green “alien” lights, though. And some angular guitars that have to be played with a convulsive whole-body flick, like grain bending in the wind while in the throes of an epileptic fit.

The music? Fear Factory-style cyber-thrash, if you hadn’t guessed already. Head Needler Duncan Wilkinson vomits up phlegm-wads of incomprehensible words from his pancreas, presumably before Cannibal Corpse can go in after them with their nice new bonesaw. Two guitarists make noises like sheet-metal presses on nasty speed, while a space station goes berserk in the background. There is much lunging up and down.

The next half-hour is filled by relentless music that hogs the air like a swarm of flies. As yet another identical piece lifts off from the stage and barrel-rolls over the bouncing audience, I suddenly realise what’s been nagging me about the unvarying tempos, the constant machine-gun beat spray, the static web of guitar thunder. Those frozen and unyielding dynamics, the way nothing whatsoever changes throughout Needleye’s set… For all of the tortured rage and costume drama being acted out in the electro-terrorism onstage, this is actually about reassurance. This is ambient music for headbangers.

(At some point during Needleye’s ranting, I get introduced to a woman who makes sculptures of toilets out of chocolate. Somehow this makes sense. It’s that kind of an evening.)

After the theatrics, watching returning metal veterans Prong is almost like watching B.B. King. Actually, that’s not too far off. Underneath their muscular, knowing thrash assault is more healthy hot space than you’d expect. I keep having R’n’B flashbacks: like Aerosmith before them, Prong have a healthy sprinkling of the other black music to them. There’s swing and swagger behind their raucous noise (more than a few moments are closer to Cameo than to Metallica), which leaves some healthy breathing room in the music between their crushing riffs.

And compared to Needleye’s painstaking obsession with image, this band pay no more than basic-black, sufficiently shaggy attention to the metal uniform. With sixteen years of changes behind him, singer/guitarist Tommy Victor is the only remaining original Prong member: and with the band’s links to darker musicians like Killing Joke and Swans now consigned to the past (guitarist Monte Pittman’s most recent gig was with Madonna), they’re able to bathe a little more in mainstream American metal. If it rocks, don’t glitz it.

If there’s a little more compromise to Prong’s music than there was back in the days when they were thrash-metal spearheads, it’s a compromise made entirely with their fans and no-one else. As the atmosphere of the now-packed Underworld begins to build up to New-Year’s-Party level, Tommy makes no attempt to conceal how much he’s enjoying himself. He’s the first man I’ve ever seen deliver those crypt-rattling hardcore/death metal vocals with a broad grin (instead of gurning in agony as if undergoing brutal rectal surgery), and he revels in bringing his Cockneyfied punk singing-accent back to its hometown.

Sweeping through a long set that draws on pin-sharp vintage thrash, bridge-girder hardcore tunes and even a couple of sandpaper-throated singalongs, Prong are as comfortable as they are tight. A band with enough history, and enough of a grasp of history, to relax into the flow and enjoy their snug place in the pulse of tradition. There’s more than one route to serenity.

Prong online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music

Needleye online:
Homepage MySpace Soundcloud Last FM Spotify

Foe online:
Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM Amazon Music
 

September 1995 – live reviews – Organ Night: Lake of Puppies + The Monsoon Bassoon + Fear of Fear @ The Monarch, Chalk Farm, London, 19th September (“music to spin the brain like a top”)

24 Sep

Just across the road, the great decaying wheel of the Roundhouse is housing Cirque Surreal and Wakeman with Wakeman. Over here, in the less salubrious surroundings of the Monarch, a collection of various punks, proggies and other wonderful low-lifers (including myself) are cramped together to check out some rather lower-profile musicians. Somehow, I think we’ve got the better deal.

This is ‘Organ’ Night, so we’re guaranteed a rich feast of music from all directions, as exemplified by opening act Fear of Fear, whose Metallica-meets-PJ-Harvey take on the punk/funk thing is tight and excellent. But judging by the overwhelming number of Alphabet Business Concern T-shirts filling the room, plus Bic Hayes hanging around near the bar, it’s a pretty safe bet that tonight is going to have a strong Cardiacs flavour. And yes, those unjustifiably obscure prog/punk/music-hall eccentrics do have a lot to answer for as regards the shape of this evening. Some of the seeds they’ve sown during their lunatic nine-album career are springing up with a vengeance in this little Camden pub.

The Monsoon Bassoon are a real brain-skewing treat, and a demanding one. Their music has those Cardiacs components of mind-boggling tempo changes, raucous crashing melodies and cheerful gibberish in Cockney/Estuarine English (although they’re originally from Plymouth, so my ear must be out of tune). The War Between Banality and Interest is a fine example, a Cardiacs-type tossed rhythmic salad so perkily crazed that it makes ‘Larks’-period King Crimson sound like James Last. Aside from Cardiacs and King Crimson, The Monsoon Bassoon show an affinity with the wilder American side of things: the “anything goes” spirit of Captain Beefheart and (to pick a more recent example) Mercury Rev. The double voice-and-guitar team of Kavus and Dan, Sarah’s voice, flute and clarinet, and the rhythm section of Laurie and Jim offer us song titles to die for and music to spin the brain like a top.

How is it that they can play songs so insanely complex yet so insanely catchy? Five hundred hooks and time changes in each four-minute burst, it seems. And how can they play it with such unflappable cheerfulness, Kavus in particular finding the time for some Who-style scissor jumps? Forget it… just stand back and have your mind tickled… Oh, comparisons? well, if I must…

Some simplified examples: Bullfight in a China Shop is a stretchy boogie in 5/4 with Mercury Rev flute, Leyline PLA is like a crunchy thrashy Schizoid Man played by an unholy alliance of The Buzzcocks and Ian Anderson with the odd lick of harmonised Queen guitar. Bright Lucifer goes from a cataclysmic snare-roll opening to Cardiacs-meets-‘Thrak’ mayhem, while Aladdin mates Frame by Frame with Living in the Past. Tokmeh has elements of that wandering Frippy gamelan sound of the ’80s, but ends up as the sound of five instruments dancing separate dances to a common end – a freaky fugue. And that’s where The Monsoon Bassoon are at. A pure, wild, Dionysiac musicality with a roguish five-fold intelligence kicking it into gear: hung up on no scene, naturally sparking and kinking. Let them into your life and watch your world take on brighter, loopier colours.

Headlines Lake of Puppies have a more direct link to Cardiacs – they’re led by William D. Drake, who was formerly Cardiacs’ keyboard player, And yes, it does show – although the anarchic musical mayhem which is one of the central Cardiacs characteristics is absent here, Drake’s new band share that specifically English eccentricity. In fact, they take it down a few notches and on a few steps. If Cardiacs’ Tim Smith is the intense, slightly scary motormouth maniac on the rural bus, Bill is his refined elder cousin who restricts his own lunacy to deranged sessions on the tennis court. Lake of Puppies are like Cardiacs exhuming the ghost of Noel Coward for tea on the lawn: all summery waltzes, genteel harmonies from Bill and from singing bassist Sharron, easy-going nylon-string guitar (from Craig) and the cosy burr of baritone sax and clarinet. Kevin Ayers could get a mention on the influences list, as could the Kate Bush of Coffee Homeground.

All of this is not as harmlessly cuddly as it sounds. Although the lyrics are difficult to make out amidst the weaving melodies, I get the impression that Lake of Puppies are singing about trickier subjects than crustless sandwiches. There’s the occasional burst of noise when Bill abandons his piano for fuzzy organ and the band launch into gutsy cyclonic roaring, and the music is just too complex and cerebral to be entirely cosy. But in the prog environment of today – where bands tend to be either sickly, prissy and pompous or thrashily confrontational and noisy – Lake of Puppies stick out as a sunnily listenable and enjoyable alternative. And I wouldn’t be surprised if all of that gentility was a Trojan horse for something gloriously warped… definitely one to check out again.

Keep it up, ‘Organ’!

Lake of Puppies online:
Homepage Facebook Last FM

The Monsoon Bassoon online:
MySpace Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music

Fear of Fear online:
(no online presence)

Additional notes: (2020 update) Lake of Puppies didn’t last very long, with various bandmembers going on to The Shrubbies, North Sea Radio Orchestra and Quickspace while William D. Drake eventually started a solo career. There have been a couple of Lake of Puppies concert reunions over the years, with the latest one being at 2018’s ‘Spring Symposium‘. The Monsoon Bassoon lasted until 2001, with Kavus Torabi moving on to a multitude of projects including Knifeworld, Guapo, Cardiacs, Gong, The Utopia Strong and a solo career, while Laurie Osborne moved into dubstep with Appleblim. Daniel Chudley Le Corre also has an intermittent solo career. Several former Monsoon Bassoon members occasionally reunite in sea-shanty band Admirals Hard. I have no idea what happened to Fear of Fear.
 

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