Tag Archives: Crawford Blair

June 2016 – upcoming London gigs – Nordic musical stories, bass guitar filigrees, brass-laced soundscapes and howling animal men – ‘The Devil’s Purse’ stories at the Forge (22nd); Rothko and Ghost Mind at IKLECTIK (23rd); Ánde Somby at Café Oto (24th)

19 Jun

Three more engaging shows around the London fringes. Two have press releases which speak for themselves, while I wrote some babble for the other one (since it’s the first time I’ve covered one of the bands in a long time, while the other band turns out to be a trio who could use some more words spent on them)…

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Crick Crack Club Presents
Fairytales for Grown-ups – The Devil’s Purse
The Forge, 3-7 Delancey Street, Camden Town, London, NW1 7NL, England
Wednesday 22nd June 2016, 7:30 pm
information

“Beguiling, tricksy, highly-strung, and suspiciously helpful – the Little People are waiting in the shadows, beneath your feet, under the tables, and even in the cracks in the walls. They’re waiting to prove just how hard it is to tell that they are there… On hot summer nights their world is a breath away and on long winter evenings they have far too much time on their hands.

Dominic Kelly, Bridget Marsden and Leif Ottosson fuse storytelling performance and Nordic music in a wild journey into the cinema of the imagination. A lost traveller finds himself guided through the mountain mists; a farmer marries an apparently perfect wife; a drunk gambles with a purse that is forever full, and an anxious mother watches her child turn to skin and bone… Come spend some time in the company of Themselves, the Gentry Below, the Good Folk, the sylphs, the sprites, the fairies, and a labyrinth of stories.


 
“Dominic is a performance storyteller whose dynamic style has captivated audiences across the UK, Sweden, and around the world. He has performed in many prominent venues and festivals including The Barbican and the National Theatre in London, The Times Literature Festival, and on tour internationally from India to the Arctic Circle. Bridget and Leif form a duo whose interpretations of Nordic folk music take place in a filmic borderland of tunes and soundscapes. Leif challenges conventional ways of using the accordion and has distinguished himself on the Swedish folk scene as an instrumentalist, composer and arranger. Bridget studied folk music at Stockholm’s Kungliga Musikhögskolan: her band Stormsteg won Best Newcomer at the Swedish Folk & World Music Awards 2012.”


 

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IKLECTIK presents:
Rothko + Ghost Mind
IKLECTIK, Old Paradise Yard, 20 Carlisle Lane, Waterloo, London, SE1 7LG, England
Thursday 23rd June 2016, 8.00pm
information

At IKLECTIK, a concert of two fascinating experimental acts creating powerfully visual and immersive music.


 
Aiming to explore the full sonic possibilities of his instrument (and inspired by the towering ‘Seagram Murals’ in the Tate Gallery), bass guitarist Mark Beazley founded Rothko in London during 1997. The initial lineup was a triple-bass trio with Crawford Blair and Jon Meade (of on-off London math-rockers Geiger Counter), which for three years clanged, droned, whirred and rumbled around its own constantly expanding iron-grey niche.


 
Creating great frowning arches of dark notes, torrential thrums of noise or transcendent etched outlines in the lower ranges, Rothko insisted on being judged as pure music, batting away any enclosing accusations of being post-punk, post-Gothic, post-rock, or anything similar. Somehow they managed to achieve this aim, defying all expectations by becoming universal and making inroads into the awareness, the perception and the affections of a wide and diverse audience. They found favour amongst the kind of sternly political art-music devotees who’d immerse themselves in ‘The Wire’, amongst the brain-knitting psychedelic leanings of London math-rock enthusiasts, and amongst the surprised followers of various indie bands who’d taken a shine to them and taken the opportunity to stick them onto a live bill. After three albums (and various EPs and collaborations) they bowed out in 2001 after a successful support slot with Porcupine Tree, playing to an audience of progressive rock fans.

 
While the original Rothko is arguably the best-known version, Mark maintained the Rothko name and core concept for another nine years across a solo presentation, a bass duo, an wide-screen ambient septet (which swallowed up consenting fellow travellers Delicate AWOL) and a more rhythmic quartet. While the various versions of the band were always underpinned by Mark’s resonant four-string underlay – a slatey burr or baritonic voice speaking out of the deep – the bass-guitar-only rule was relaxed to allow other instruments into the space such as flute, voice, electric guitar, piano and viola (while the synths and drums of the last and longest-lived lineup even occasionally hinted at a post-Can rumble). After Rothko, Mark took his skills and explorations solo, and formed new bass-friendly projects: Low Bias (with Pere Ubu’s syntheur Gagarin), Signals (with Phil Julian and textural guitarist Chris Gowers), Tetherdown (with Anne Garner and James Murray), and Rome Pays Off (in which he reunited with Crawford Blair)


 
Reactivated in 2015, a revived Rothko saw Mark re-teamed with ex-Delicate AWOL bassist and later solo recordist Michael D. Donnelly (his main partner in the post-2000 lineups). Together, they revisited their previous duo work while expanding it with additional lessons learned (in technique, in sonic attitude, in being an interpreter of feeling) during the five year break. A new EP, ‘Severed Tense’ arrived in September last year; a new album ‘Discover The Lost’ is now available on pre-order.


(recent Rothko track Truths And Signs)
 
This particular gig at IKLECTIK, however, showcases a newer Rothko lineup of Mark plus Johny Brown (the latter better known as the frontman of long-running post-punk poetry rockers Band Of Holy Joy, with whom Mark played during the Rothko layoff). Eschewing both past and recent work, they’ll be performing a set of all-new material from a work in progress – a new album called ‘A Young Fist Wrapped Around A Cinder For A Wager’, which they’re planning to record shortly.

While I might be behind the most recent developments, listening to the recent Beazley/Donnelly material has reminded me about what drew me to Rothko in the first place – their ability to grab such fascinating visual evocations out of the kind of low frequencies which you’d think would restrict them. From dirty crumbling bass notes they sketch a grumbling, majestic London ambience of half-forgotten post-industrial structure: the kind you find while turning down sidestreets running under grimy, half-forgotten Victorian railway viaducts or hosting the grand shells of factories. At least, that’s what they seem to do from where I’m listening. Mark apparently draws significant inspiration from sojourns in quiet rural locations far from the pressure and grime of great cities. It’s generally true that what any one listener draws out of Rothko tends to be only a few facets of the band’s mysterious kaleidoscope.

With roots in the Cheltenham Improvisers Orchestra, Ghost Mind is an experimental soundscape collaboration currently consisting of trumpet player Pete Robson, percussionist Stuart Wilding, and Jon Andriessen on heavily-treated guitar, combined with a background of found sounds gathered from around the planet. They present themselves as “a four-person trio” (the fourth member being the titular ghost). Live, they’re a magical concoction, with Stuart’s percussion exploits recalling the startling, fleeting and unforgettable work that Jamie Muir brought to various Derek Bailey bands and King Crimson in the 1970s, Pete’s trumpet journeying from jazz-mute musings and trombone impressions to free-improv mouthpiece splutters, and Jon’s heavily-processed guitar creating dense architectural fabrics and noise blocks but sometimes rising up with plangent, momentary clean licks.

Working together, Ghost Mind create aural experiences which suggest both the world traveller and the documentary edit suite. Their instrumental illustrations and interspersed field recordings link temples to shopping precincts or treetops hung with birdsong, or link toyshops to ping-pong matches; while further human-driven sounds flicker briefly through the mileu via interjections of harmonica and glockenspiel, water-warbling bird whistles, drum notes to shoe-scrapes and miscellaneous tickings. The fact that it all sounds musical throughout – as compelling to children and casual attendees as to dedicated deep listeners – is another of their creative triumphs.


 
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Tigmus presents:
Ánde Somby: The Animals Inside The Man And The Man Outside The Animals
Cafe Oto, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL, England
Friday 24th June 2016, 7.00pm
information

“The Sámi people are a transnational minority living in Sápmi, an area of land stretching across the borders of northern Scandinavia, Finland, and throughout the Kola Peninsula of north-western Russia. Yoik (also spelt joik or jojk) is the Sámi’s ancient and characteristic vocal art, with yoiks traditionally used to invoke a person, animal, place, or experience. You don’t yoik about something, you just ‘yoik it’.

Ánde Somby yoiks animals including salmon, grouse, bear, crow and mosquito, but his signature yoik is that of the wolf. The wolf yoik is a traditional yoik that Somby has developed with dramatic elements in an expressive performance. Somby has been an active musician since 1976 and has performed for royalty, heads of state and even at the funeral of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren! His many animal yoiks are inspired by the idea of transformation in the pre-Christian Sámi religion, when the noaidi (shaman) used yoiks to transform into an animal and back into a human. Somby is also a professor of law at the University of Tromsø and is engaged in Sámi social and political issues.

“In January 2016 Somby released the album “Yoiking With The Winged Ones”, recorded outdoors in Lofoten by the renowned British sound artist artist and field recorder, Chris Watson. The recordings took place in Kvalnes, mid June 2014, in a moment while the Arctic winds were having a little rest.”
 

February 2003 – live reviews – House of Stairs label launch concert (evening 1) featuring Nøught, Foe and Defeat the Young, The Underworld, Camden Town, London, 12th February 2003 (“the Underworld fills with familiar London pronk and math-rock faces”)

13 Feb

Well-worn jokes about “first steps” line up at my door, to be kicked aside. Let’s not goof about. As the House of Stairs label throws its musical launch party, the Underworld fills with familiar London pronk and math-rock faces, fans and musicians grinning at each other as if it was the first day of a school trip. The still-friendly fragments of The Monsoon Bassoon, the occasional Cardiac, plus those particular paying punters who materialise like the genie of the lamp at the faintest hint of a twitchy rhythm or a whole-tone scale blasted out of a loud guitar.

For once, the records being played between the bands nudge and tickle the audience’s mind rather than simply provide aural cud to chew in the interval. When you’re lucky enough to have avant-prog, lo-fi techno wunderkind Max Tundra on hand to do your DJ-ing for you, you get more than the usual jukebox package – Peter Gabriel songs mingle with prank cut-ups of Tony Blair speeches, hilarious jungle-electronica renditions of ’80s pop hits, and ear-opening art-rock oddities whipped from rare vinyl. Priceless from any perspective.

Defeat the Young are the most literate – or literary – members of the House of Stairs stable by a country mile. They’re also the most demanding listen. Richard Larcombe‘s wit is complex and arch; his melodies are crenellated and mediaevalesque, pumped out of harmoniums, sharp-fingered guitars and hurdy-gurdies. Also, while there’s a distinctly proggy kink to his music (like Kevin Ayers cuddling up with Gentle Giant or William D. Drake), he’s drawn more to Havelock Ellis and Groucho Marx than to Tolkien or Carlos Castenada. Thank God for that. A faux-Edwardian English Zappa with highbrow kinks might not be to everyone’s taste. But it’s infinitely better than being subjected to another charlatan wrapped in suspect mysticism and stale denim.

Like a skilful card-trick, Larcombe’s wicked sense of humour also works best up close. In the cavernous rock cellar of The Underworld, he seems out of place – squinting against dim lighting in a venue more accustomed to thrash-metal and ska-punk than to his own rampantly sophisticated English stylings. I always seem to come up with flower metaphors whenever I try reviewing Defeat the Young. Tonight, the phrase is “hothouse flowers”. With two nouveau-metal bands roaring up from behind them, I’m worrying over whether the rarified and sophisticated humour in DTY’s music will wilt in this blunter setting. But they try hard, displaying a determined refusal to compromise. A long, scene-setting introduction (involving virtually the entire plot of The Marx Brothers’ ‘Duck Soup’) sprinkles conceptual theatrics back into the agenda, while (at the other end of preciousness) Jodie Scott’s feedback-heavy guitar adds some belligerent beef to the sound.

Still, it’s not until ‘Nothing from Something’ that things really get moving, as Larcombe gets to grips with his maze-y rake’s progress, bringing some deceptively drawling wit to bear. By ‘Natural Cash’ he’s in ebullient form, punching the air while his feet cycle his pedal harmonium and his lime-tinted vocal quicksteps adroitly through the tricky pitches. Propelled by his perverse and wayward imagination, he guides us through a risque world of sepia photos, elegant penmanship, social theorising and sexual quirks, all couched in a shower of beautiful golden language. Tonight wasn’t really quite his night, but Richard Larcombe is undoubtedly a major talent. He’s already way out there in that field where the erudite spectre of Oscar Wilde grabs the twisty bones of art-rock for a feverish waltz (and for a good snog, if it’s lucky).

The gap between Defeat the Young and the harder-rocking shapes of the rest of the evening should have been bridged by the violent, mordantly comical dada-metal of Lapsus Linguae, but for reasons unknown, they’ve had to stay in Glasgow. The evil smirks and the transmogrified Iron Maiden t-shirts remain north of the border tonight, to infest the queasy nightmares of pub-rockers who’d rather be dreaming of Joe Elliott. So it’s straight on to Foe – whose drummer Paul Westwood hardly gets a break from his turn on the drums and hammer dulcimer for Defeat the Young before he’s clambering back behind the kit for his main band.

If a change really is as good as a rest, he doesn’t need the break – the light percussive touch he uses for Defeat the Young has no place in Foe. Pop-eyed, Westwood lashes his way through this set like an escaped convict desperately hurdling fences. Jason Carty and Crawford Blair thread the gaps in his drumming with rapid intricacies of guitar and bass – a constantly shifting and jerking formation, pouncing in multiple directions. They’re not so much a power trio as a pared-down swarm. One part Don Caballero, one part double-duo King Crimson, and one part higher mathematics, Foe’s music sounds as if it’s been threshed out in cold areas of the brain until it finally lost its temper and exploded. Yet – Westwood’s controlled, wide-eyed intensity aside – Foe themselves are calm, observing their music and keeping it ticking busily until the time comes to dive in with all six feet for a burst of sudden violence.

Sounds familiar? Consciously or otherwise, the all-instrumental Foe parallel the current Crimson’s cerebral-metal approach, apart from refusing to sweeten it with the occasional pop tune. Blair’s grinding bass is as brutal and pitiless as a giant clock ticking, but also carries their complex whole-tone melodies up and down the scale and across the contorting tempi. Carty’s metallic creative/disruptive guitar acts as dissector and illustrator – raiding the harmony and timing of each piece and asking the tricky questions before rocking out into triumphant predatory riffs, pulling the whole band into line with it. Sometimes Foe hurtle like speed-metal Rock in Opposition; sometimes they spend a couple of seconds pinging and pulsing like free-jazzers; sometimes they slam into unyielding hardcore for a few bars.

“How do I play this again?”, yells a mock-baffled Carty, during a break in the action. He’s chuckling – he does remember it, but it’d be easy to get lost in the wanton folds and traps of this music. It’s a real lark’s tongue-twister; more Cuneiform than uniform. In spite of that, there’s a woman dancing in the front row. Incredibly, she’s performing a delighted bump and grind to Foe’s music – her pelvis and body twirls and undulates in perfect time to their constantly altering rhythms. So much for this being brain-only music.

She turns out to be the girlfriend of Nøught‘s drummer. Which explains a lot. Nøught themselves emerge onstage shadowed by conflicting reputations. They’re not actually a House of Stairs band at the moment, but they could be so easily. For evolutionary rockers, grumbling hopefully over their CD players, Nøught are a beacon band – assimilating the instrumental ideas of King Crimson, John McLaughlin and R.I.O., then marrying them to the urgency and directness of punk, grunge and hardcore. But their constant line-up and instrumentation changes (perhaps driven by James Sedwards’ need to bring a variety of tools and voices to his music) have tended to scupper the band and dip it into inactivity rather then renew its energy. Today’s Nøught are a conventional rock power trio plus keyboards, dispending with the second guitarists or Theremins of past live outings. They could be an octet with triangles, euphoniums and bagpipes next week and it wouldn’t surprise me too much. I’d just be happy so long as they kept playing, and stopped disappearing.

Sedwards himself is surrounded by guitars. Two of them are impeccably-finished Les Pauls mounted on flat racks, their strings prepared with objects and blocks (as if John Cage had infiltrated Yes ‘ road crew.) But his guitar of choice is the trashy, rhomboid Fender Jaguar: a Kurt Cobain favourite. It tells you a lot about his approach. Yes, Nøught do like to make a lot of noise. Sedwards’ reticent, un-rocking look (like a young Rowan Atkinson) belie his talents as a fierce, assertive guitarist. And then some. Nøught’s music leaps out of his guitar in a series of bucketing, challenging jumps: a boggling harmonic steeplechase, leaving few notes untouched. Imagine quickfire origami, performed with steel sheets, and you get some idea of how Nøught work.

Their raciness also brings to mind King Crimson’s ‘Red’ gone mutant mariachi. There’s constructive dissonance a-plenty – Sedwards revels in throwing flamboyant, startling chords into his majestic grand designs, catching us off guard. On record, Sedwards revels in the use of choppy strings and blazing big-band brass, and though there’s nothing of that here, there’s been a renaissance in the keyboards department. That muscular undercurrent of organ (triumphant chords supporting the widening paths of guitar and wiry, driven bass) brings an unexpected rhythm’n’blues feel back to the music. Touches of Hendrix or Muddy Waters roots to blend in with the Fripp roars, the John McLaughlin jumps and the Sonic Youth smashes, bringing a different grittiness to Nøught’s aggressive playing. The band has never sounded so human, so assured – and it’s a good balance to those industrial moments when Sedwards assaults his flat-mounted guitars with drumsticks or runs the screams of whirling power-drill chucks through the pickups. Whatever else Nøught’s downtime has provided, it’s brought them a sense of roots and placement that was so lacking in the wall-of-noise incarnation that rattled the walls of venues a year or so ago.

This is an undersung gig, to be sure – a half-full (though comfortable) Underworld suggests that half of the art-rock community in London haven’t even heard about the concert – but there’s a definite sense of homecoming heroes to this one. Good foundations for a strong new house of deserving players, I hope.

Nøught online:
Homepage, Facebook, MySpace, Soundcloud, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Qobuz, Tidal, Spotify, Amazon Music

Foe online:
MySpace, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Amazon Music

Defeat the Young online:
(2022 update – no links available. See Lost Crowns.)

Max Tundra online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Instagram, Mixcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Tidal, Spotify, Amazon Music

House of Stairs online:
(2022 update – there are no longer any web pages for the House of Stairs label, although there is a discogs.com page)

December 2002 – album reviews – Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Volume 1: Useless in Bed’ compilation (“happily balanced on the rougher brinks and fringes”)

4 Dec

Various Artists: 'House of Stairs Vol. 1 - Useless in Bed'

Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Vol. 1 – Useless in Bed’

Placing yourself on faultlines, rather than easily marketable turf, brings risks but inspiration – ask a San Franciscan. That the three London art-rock bands who originally set up the House of Stairs label (The Monsoon Bassoon, Geiger Counter, and Ursa) have all now split or mutated into something else is perhaps proof of both.

Regardless, ‘Useless In Bed’ – the first House of Stairs release – is a declaration of brotherhood. Compiling the work of musicians dwelling on various faultlines (though still mostly centred on London art-rock, it also takes in music from Chicago, Atlanta and Bordeaux), it both defines the edges of prog, jazz, art-rock, hardcore, electronica, folk, improv and noise rock, or encourages people to spill across them.


 
Hard-rocking math-proggers Foe – sprung from the wreckage of Geiger Counter – offer the most urgent track. ‘Triangulator’ is full of furious refracting guitar lines over Crawford Blair’s piano-growl of bass. For six minutes it swings, chops, drops down trapdoors, executes perverse King Crimson leaps between mordantly grim chords, and savages minor keys like The 5uu’s on far too much coffee. Geiger Counter’s posthumous statement is ‘Drink Your Milk’ – less obviously wired than ‘Triangulator’, it still carves up its grunge-y math riffs with heavy enthusiasm, embracing sweeter interludes of short-lived luminous peace as it does so. Nouveau Metal is spreading…

The Monsoon Bassoon‘s own posthumous offering is a explosive and complicated song from when their mingling of Henry Cow and gamelan-Crimson art-rock ran full tilt into their love of American alt.rockers like Shudder To Think. The psychedelic squeal of guitars on ‘Stag’ marches from plateau to jagged plateau in a skirl of trippy flute and meshing riffs, held together by the band’s tight discipline.


 
These days various Bassooners have regrouped in Miss Helsinki, who deliver a sparkling piece of progressive pop called ‘I Felt Your Arms Around Me’. Less surreal than most Bassoon confections, it’s still an acid-flavoured love song whose rattling good XTC jangle and tootling clarinets don’t stop it hurtling delightedly into a complex, storm-tossed middle section in which they see just how much you can rock the train without slinging it off the rails.

 
If you’d prefer to stick with the Bassoon’s skronkier legacy, Chicago’s Sweep the Leg Johnny are still juggling that torch. With the superb ‘Only in a Rerun’, they’re obviously on a roll – it’s a rich mixture of harsh Schizoid Man tones and flamboyant jazz-metal attack from the raw husky wail of Steve Sostak’s alto sax and Chris Daly’s bloodthirsty roar of guitar, tossing Sostak’s airy vocal like a bull tossing a skinny matador. Slewing between dEUS busyness and violent post-Slint minimalism, this is a rough bareback ride to put a wicked smile on your face.


 
Manic Glaswegian pranksters Lapsus Linguae provide ‘Olestra (There’s Only One Drinking Fountain in Heaven)’. A stab of theatrical art-metal somewhere between Faith No More and Beck (with a Resident eyeballing it from the director’s chair) it has all you need to storm the castle of pomp. There’s a man called Penelope Collegefriend singing in a rampant bellow like a punk Freddie Mercury; there’s an inexplicable strings break and a rolling piano line continually chopped off with guillotine precision; there are namechecks for Hermann Hesse and Charlton Heston, and choicely bizarre lyrics like “More I eat, the hungrier I feel – / I lick menus, ignore the meals.”


 
Holding up the genteel-er proggie end are the whimsical and witty projects of the Larcombe brothers. With ‘Sand (Blowing About)’, Stars in Battledress provide a beautiful dance of fluent piano and autoharp: but beyond the divertimento prettiness, James Larcombe leads the duo through eddies of suggestive Debussyan chords.

Richard Larcombe goes on to turn in a conceptual tease on Defeat the Young‘s wonderful ‘I’m Ruining Something’ – an absurdist essay on the corruptions of power which blends Gentle Giant with Lewis Carroll and Stravinsky. Larcombe greets his ensemble of actors, trombone, and full-blown operatic chorus as a lounge-lizard lord of misrule, sighing a manifesto of playful destruction in his arch, refined tones. “I’m recognised as your one sovereign Lord Protector / Trust me – I’ve learned of your country by tape and slide projector. / Each day I’ll go out of my way to spoil, deface and tarnish, / like he who ruins carpentry by swapping glue for varnish.” Oboe, piano and hammer dulcimer float in a dreamy arrangement like an August haze. Apparently there’s a whole album’s worth of this story in the Larcombe shed – ‘The Golden Spike’ – and it’s only one of their dastardly plans.

Both of House Of Stairs’ lo-fi electronica boffins seem to grab inspiration from bargain-bucket electrical goods. Desmotabs create an appealing Stylophone fanfare buzz on ‘Gaseous Exchange at the Alveoli’, let their drum machine go nuts and assault a heart monitor, and squiggle some demented Mini-Moog solos before the entire track melts like a Dali model. Max Tundra (the Frank Zappa of the techno world) continues his marvellous and bizarre mission to fuse hardcore dance music with prog rock. ‘Life in a Lift Shaft’ equals Desmotabs buzz-for-buzz while festooning tough and hilariously uptight Tundra beats with jittery robot piano and fat sub-bass from the tar-pits. Alarm-clocks fly past on tiny wings trying to take bites out of the zany, sunny tune.

The free-er bands – as usual – have a harder time. Gnarly bass-and-drums duo Guapo can be the missing link between ‘Red’ and Ruins when they want to be. However, their grinding ‘Pharoah’ – despite Dave Smith’s excellent Brufordian snarework – is mostly as subtle as a flying breezeblock. Dragging large chunks of pyramid across the desert and insisting that you appreciate each tortuous step, they occasionally snap, shoot off the flywheel and go ape with some fearsome tattoo riffs. Hardcore acoustic fusioneers Cheval de Frise hop up and down with impatience on ‘Chiendents’, banging their heads against their own lo-fi envelope, manically coiling up tighter and tighter acoustic guitar scrabbles against the tussling drums. Compression to destruction, breaking out in wild slashes.


 
And finally there’s the hardcore department, with the recently defunct Ursa demonstrating why they’ll be a sad loss to the British heavy scene. Avoiding hardcore’s usual fixed, deafening riffage and reductive howling, ‘The Blooding’ begins with a studied ponderousness and heaviness which gives way to an inspiring controlled demolition. Galloping punked-up Iron Maiden guitar runs charge under giant toppling riffs, the band dodging falling masonry via nifty turn-on-a-dime spins while losing none of their brute power. American Heritage, likewise, execute proggie timeswitches with rapid and brutal thrash flair, their sound a bleak, bare cliff of thick guitar noise. It’s anyone’s guess as to why they’ve called their track ‘Phil Collins’ – it’s an unlikely tribute, whether it’s aimed square at the Genesis drumstool or at the white-soul crowdpleaser.


 
Anyhow… here’s a house of many doors, happily balanced on the rougher brinks and fringes and demonstrating the breadth of personalities camped out in even one small part of today’s art-rock community. Admirable.

Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Volume 1: Useless in Bed’
House of Stairs, HOS001 (5030094077829)
CD-only compilation album
Released: 2nd December 2002
Get it from:
(2020 update) best obtained second-hand
 

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
 

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