Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Year of the Ant

Ant and Nick Grater "Nitrous Oxide" (Cluster, 12"): Ant "Midnight Black" (Maximum Minimum, 12"): Ant and K.N. "The LOUD Shit!" (Powertools, 12")

Some reckon that listening to a type of music completely divorced from the context for which it was designed can't be legit, or at least sensible. Why would you listen to Dido except when attending some dinner party or, in current climes, barbecue under extreme duress ? Why ever contemplate Coldplay aside from their natural setting of shopping mall muzak or as the piped soundtrack beloved of our more unimaginative pub and restaurant chains ? And why oh why oh why lend an ear to Ant's barbarous rhythms outside the sweaty atmosphere of a packed club in the capital, brimming with adherents to the S.U.F. Collective ?

Well, for one, Blueboy weren't kidding back in the day when they noted (kind of) that there ain't that much love in the clubs. For two, well, good music transcends place and status. It must do, else I wouldn't be able to appreciate anything other than the rickety white middle-class indie-pop of the ageing post-c86 hipsters whose growing pains I identify most closely with (and by god do I appreciate that stuff, as you know). And for three, the difference between Ant and the other examples is that his tunes do not suck. Look, I'd no more pop a pill than vote Conservative, but I can't get enough of the way that techno like this reverberates around my head, and the less addled my brain and the quieter the surroundings, sometimes the better it seems. Just makes me feel that I'm still getting something out of this insane emotional over-investment I've made in vinyl and cassette and CD and minidiscs over the years, makes me feel lucky that I can get the same buzz from Cluster or RAW or Max / Min now as I used to from Sarah or Subway or Ron Johnson (or, indeed, as I still do from Sarah or Subway or Ron Johnson). It may just be that 2005 is as joyous a year for acid-tech as 2004 was for grime: let's just hope that this scene doesn't plunge itself downhill quite so speedily as grime seems to have done over the last few months.

So. "Nitrous Oxide" lacks the monumental energy of Ant and Nick G's "Emergency Red": it's a conventional high-bpm drum intro for a minute or so, then sequencers repeating a sub-low bass mantra, all brought constantly to the boil by fill-ins. Halfway in, more traditional A&NG sonic enterprise resumes (awkward moments on the dancefloor = yaaay!) but the earlier hook returns and by the time it's over you kind of wish there had been a little more experimentation: it's still a worthy addition to the canon though. On the other side, "Chromed" is an instant undercurrent of throbbing, vaguely menacing synths, joined by drums after a half a minute but again only really getting interesting about halfway through.

The Max side of "Midnight Black" is much more instantly adorable, a tight, chatty hook counterpointed by sprightly bleeping and swooshing drums to create an unforgiving sirocco of sound. After the statutory 3 1/2 minutes (you know the pattern), clanging metallic sprites start to canter and cavort, banishing the original riff; by the time it returns to chase them away, the song is nearly over. The Min side, however, lets the rapacious sprites out to play again, skidding around in the undertow of slightly more considered techno beats. It's hard to resist the cheery mix of rolling rhythms, especially when the formal beats recede entirely for the last 30 seconds or so.

The Ant and Kenichi Niwayama 12" starts with a rare extended sample - some bloke going on about the sound he wants (basically, yes it's "the loud shit"). The song goes nowhere special for a couple of minutes but picks up with depth charges and feedback-like swathes of noise (remember Purity's heavenly marriages of beats and migraine screams ?) rattling around, Ant and K.N. messing around with the faders and all the usual sonic tricks getting a decent run out. The flip is maybe a tad less engaging, revolving around a sample "We want your soul" and looped soundclips about succumbing to the capitalist consumerist feeding frenzy from the comfort of your very own armchair. Though I like the various "bloody blimey space invader" noises that turn up unannounced four or so minutes in. But overall the feel of the whole single is much more like the ready bombast of "Midnight Black" than the more spacious, warmer sound of "Nitrous Oxide".

So all good stuff - but I still think that Ant's "Homemade Discord" is even better: and possibly my favourite single of the year so far. My favourite album to date ? Er, that's coming up next time.

You won't like it.

Anyway. Current listening:

Magazine - Definite Gaze (a post-punk revelation)
Math & Physics Club - Movie Ending Romance (Matinee Recordings: M&PC's best moment yet)
Siege - Walls (from "Choosing Death" v/a comp on Relapse: gorgeous. Please someone reissue more Siege stuff!!)
The Grey Tapes - White Ant (s/t CD on 555: this is what rock, and in particular rock vocals, should sound like)
Ice Cube - We Had To Tear This MF Up (from "The Predator": DJ Muggs' finest hour ?)
Jasmine Minks - Forces Network (now on "The Revenge of the Jasmine Minks" CD on Rev-Ola)
Schrasj - The Birge (from "f" album. All pop should sound like this ?)
Beat Happening! - Fortune Cookie Prize (Dreamy LP. This too)
KRS-One - Outta Here (from "Return Of The Boom Bap" LP but recently reissued on 12" - I will never tire of this)
Forest Giants - So You Think You're Unhappy (? hopefully forthcoming)
Mark Owen - How The Mighty Fall (Sedna LP) - oh, I don't feel inclined to justify myself right now.... ;-)
The (Mighty!) Fall - New Puritan (from the heavenly Peel Sessions box set. The best record ever made ? I wouldn't laugh it out of court).

And finally, some *sports* reviews:

Barnet 1-1 Bristol Rovers:
Sloping pitch. Slow turnstiles. Dreary game. "Boring boring Atkins". Basic errors. Unlikely late equaliser. Hurrah.

Bristol Rovers 2-3 Peterborough: 0-2 down. Basic errors. "Atkins Out" unfurled (proper banner, well, bedsheet). Ooh, sending off. Comeback! 2-2! Back from the dead! Oh no, dead again.

Millwall 2-0 Bristol Rovers: White elephant stadium. No atmosphere. Not a bad performance. But it all comes undone in the end. Only the FA Cup left if we are to qualify for Europe.

...Leyton Orient at the weekend. See ya.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Windmills, Picture Center, Pluto @ the Water Rats, London, 30 July 2005

First up were Pluto, who brought with them one of the biggest and most adoring, vocal crowds I've ever seen for this kind of venue. When their pumped-up, amp-worrying and frankly somewhat rockin' set reached its final crescendo, you could have been forgiven, what with all the cheering, shrieking and sweat, for thinking that we were at Wembley Arena, rather than on the Grays Inn Road. I was blithely assuming that the massed ranks of Pluto groupies were the usual "awayday" coachload from out of town, but with the group themselves apparently being Kiwis, this was more likely a reunion for exiled New Zealanders in central London. Anyway, all concerned enjoyed themselves greatly, the band really looked the part (and indeed "walked the walk"), and the Water Rats' bank manager surely won't believe his luck when he sees the bar takings figure. Oh yes, and Pluto were terrible.

Luckily, things improved fairly sharpish. Picture Center first came to my attention in the days when Shinkansen was at least nominally a going concern and Matt Haynes was gently chiding them for selling themselves as a "post-Field Mice" band, in the days when that tag went a long way to cementing your popularity amongst a certain indie constituency. The premise for the accusation was that their press releases dared to refer to the fact that Picture Center lynchpin Mark Dobson was the drummer in the later, expanded 'Mice line-up, although I've never seen clinching evidence that his new band traded quite so much on that infamy (although I did always like the fact that their name shared an obvious theme with Northern Picture Library, Bobby Wratten's first post-Mice combo, who forgivably did trade rather on Bob's previous oeuvre. And as for the Occasional Keepers....)* Anyway, to return somewhat tangentially to the point, the irony here is that in this boy's heart Picture Center managed at some point to overhaul Bobby's long term franchise, Trembling Blue Stars, in terms of both relevance and beauty: an overtaking manoeuvre amply demonstrated by taking the Center's 2003 (and still most recent) album, "Our true intent is all for your delight" - on their own label, North American - and comparing it with an increasing percentage of the Stars' recent forays for Elefant.

That album title was of course taken from the introduction by the 'rude mechanicals' of their play within a play in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", and last time I went to see Picture Center, I somehow felt the magic conjured up by "Forever" was at least equal to that of the Bard's most fantastical work. I'm pleased to say that lightning can strike twice: with the sound quality better than last time I saw them here, the guitar trills, mournful bass and Mary's beautiful voice came across as crisp as the lyrics were brutal. The song is a peach: driving along, deliberately, with regret-strewn words, then capsizing into an expansive, crashing, moping strumfest ("I thought we'd be together, forever..") They then play "For Youth and Valour", also from that second album: higher-tempo, but with lyrics at least as dark. The third track, their (definitive) version of Ash's "Burn Baby Burn", worked less well only because it was drowned out intermittently by the chatter from the rear of the room: a few of Pluto's sizeable fan club having overspilled from the main bar, which had been having difficulty accommodating them all.... nevertheless, the band were unbowed and recovered to give us the perfectly-balanced duet "LP2" and the lovely, early single "Useless", Mary's voice contrasting with the fainter, beautifully wimpsome bloke on the original version. Last song was "Incense", the West Coast Experimental Pop Band cover which sprawled across their "The Wonder Of God's Heaven and Earth" album: its psychedelic swirl slightly less successfully translating to the gig, it tripped and faltered a little, washing just a touch of the awe away. Nevertheless, Picture Center are mighty and long live all who sail with them.

Talking of misleading press releases, as we sort of were, the Water Rats website last week managed to describe the Windmills' sound as "acoustic-driven alt. country". If true, this previously unflagged change of artistic direction could have made for an interesting, if concerning, third phase of the evening (as well as explaining the otherwise criminal fact that nobody has released anything by them since third album "Now Is Then" two years ago). Fortunately, however, the Windmills have not spent that time morphing into some kind of east-of-Essex Palace Brothers (who authentic Southenders might christen the Palace Theatre Brothers, but that's by the by). Instead, we got pretty much a "greatest hits" set (yay x lots), starting with the dizzying joys of "360 Degrees" and closing with a somewhat disjointed quasi-encore of the glorious "Walking Around The World" (in a small room, the ebbs and flows of the recorded version tend to be sacrificed somewhat, while Roy Thirlwall decided to change the narrative from the first to the third person, just to increase the disorientation already wrought by my final pint of the evening). More satisfyingly, we also got, as I would have demanded, thunderously nailed-on versions of "Now Is Then", "Beach Girls 1918", "When It Was Winter", "Want"... all examples of how the Windmills are the band the House of Love really could have been, if they'd had more decent songs, less hype, gone uphill instead of down after their eponymous album and not spent £x thousand amounts of record company advances on drugs. Thirlwall's distinctive, deep croon, and debonair, er, air (tonight he even sported co-ordinated cream stage garb, as opposed to the coat he wore back in the day at the Hope & Anchor) are still the glue which holds their songs together, but the playing, melodies and particularly the arrangements show that the Windmills just have a way with the construction of the deadpan pop song: even when, as tonight, they slow things down for the lachrymose waltz of "Across The Playing Fields", or power themselves up for the Cure-ish rock of the tremulous "Summer Snow".

So yes, all in all, Picture Center and the Windmills - two bands whose histories entwine back no little time - made it a fine way to see off the last listless Saturday before the football season starts again next week. Unless you had indeed been duped by the promotion into expecting to see the new darlings of alt-country, it would have been impossible to be disappointed tonight.

* The Occasional Keepers - a supergroup featuring Sir Bob and Caesar and Carolyn Allen (the mighty Wake) and heavily trailed as such, have just released an album, "The Beauty of the Empty Vessel", on LTM. Despite sensible counsel to the contrary from at least one corner, I was adamant that this was a collaboration to get somewhat over-excited about. I was wrong. The Occasional Keepers' record is, as its title suggests, extremely pretty but very insubstantial. It just seems strange - last I heard, the Wake were all set for a comeback album, and gave us a terrific, upbeat taster track, "Town of 85 Lights", on one of the Darla comps - but after that, there was only darkness...

Currently listening to:

Orange Juice "The Glasgow School" (Domino): If like me you didn't have these early recordings, you simply must get them.

Lethal Bizzle "Uh-Oh" (Relentless): Yes it's still the same song as "Oi", "No", "Forward", "Backwards", etc etc. This makes it, too, entirely ace.

Raw Power "Screams From The Gutter / After Your Brain" (Golf): At last a decent reissue for the Italian thrashers, including "Politicians", as covered by the great Napalm Death...

NB future updates may be sporadic until my computer is fixed. But rest assured there is still much I wish to go on about...