Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Old Traditions. New Standards.



If we had a pound for every time we'd been tipped the wink that some coming-up-from-the-street alleged new grind messiahs were "the new Nasum", or "for fans of early Napalm", or "in the classic Peel session vein", then we'd have raised enough cash to buy Rickie Lambert back from Southampton, and maybe even to match his wages. (As an aside, if we had a quid for every time a vaguely jangly but bordering on dead-end indie pop outfit were described as "for fans of Sarah Records" - as if true fans of Sarah Records were ever shrinking violets when it came to expressing their views on the general rubbishness of non-Sarah Sarah-"type" bands: indeed, a reactionary strain of Sarah Records diehards went further and used to freely castigate Clare & Matt even for yer actual Sarah bands, chastising the Garden Flat for daring to be piled up with new Blueboy and Sugargliders stuff rather than, as the rhetorical flourish had it, "a seventeenth bloody Field Mice LP" - then we could probably clothe Fernando Torres in the blue and white quarters).

Imagine our surprise, then, to find out - by dint of listening to their compelling "Abuse" album - just how *divine* Singapore's Wormrot are. It's scarcely believable, what with Insect Warfare having harrowingly imploded, to find out that Earache have already stepped in seamlessly with a new catch to try and fill the aching gap, but they have, and just as they brought Insect Warfare's epoch-transforming "World Extermination" to a wider audience with last year's re-release, they've now done the same for Wormrot's 23-track indie debut on Scrotum Jus, together with an extra disc containing 34 bonus cuts (a back catalogue in reverse chronological order through to their earliest demos, with perhaps the diminishing returns you might expect, although fittingly the last ditty is an Insect Warfare cover). All 57 pieces would comfortably have fitted on a single CD, mind: so much for Earache's eco-credentials.

Despite their shared inspiration, sound and raw drum / guitar / yell attack (not wishing to break with contemporary grind mores, Wormrot operate without a bassist, which as lovers of Embury-esque "earthquake" bass we confess to find saddening, but it seems to be what the kids are down with nowadays) Wormrot are not *quite* the new Insect Warfare: too often the lyrics don't follow those of cornerstone influences Napalm or ENT but are somewhat less cerebral (track 14: "Fuck! I'm Drunk"), whereas IW's impressive range of grievances was more securely in their musical forefathers' tradition; and there are a few songs which aren't quite fit for purpose, particularly when singer Arif goes for a snarled-up punk parody vocal instead of either blitzkrieg high-end shriek or reassuring low-end growl. Nevertheless, on standouts like "Extermination", "Operation Grindcore", "Murder", "Sledgehammer", "So Fierce For Fuck" and the dizzyingly dansette-destroying high of "Born Stupid" the combination of high-speed mosh and ultra high-speed grindpunk blastbeats combine to simply dazzling effect.

Being of a vintage that allows us to reminisce about the days when grindcore basslines shook the foundations of buildings, we also remember when every other new indie band were hurriedly christened "the new Smiths": Bradford, Easterhouse, the Cradle, Gene, Suede... We've also mentioned who we think, eventually, got the closest in a way that mattered. In 2010, however, us indie-children have ambled into a new debate: who are the new Lucksmiths ? For whoever they are, they're going to have to be pretty blindingly amazing.

Well, the second LP by Seattle minstrels Math and Physics Club, "I Shouldn't Look As Good As I Do", is as strollingly charming and well-constructed as either its s/t predecessor or any of their fine EP releases, and has them refining even further their modestly understated masterclass in the genteel art of compact songwriting. It opens with the absolutely bombing 7" single "Jimmy Had A Polaroid" (YES! Vinyl is back on Matinee; God is in his heaven): two and half minutes of indie-pop righteousness that was born - luckily enough - to be a 7" A-side, a pacy and catchy number in which delectably jangling guitar elides with skidding, bouncing rhythms which both then collide head-on with slipsliding, lump-in-throat lyrical nostalgia. There's also rather more driving bass than usual, which helps tremendously.

The real achievement of ISLAGAID, however, is that this lead-off single is followed by nine other songs which are pretty much just as well-honed and ripplingly toned: the record a sea of smart, shortish, melody-led numbers that show that you don't always need to slow proceedings down, or to drag them out, to extract occasionally gut-gnawing emotion (although even in this environment, the closing chords of "I've Been That Boy" are unexpectedly moving). There are no true *experiments* here, unless you count perhaps the slightly incongruous if lyrically deft banjo-led narrative of "Everybody Loves A Showtune": there are, however, a number of fitting *embellishments* across the album, in the shape of slightly more ambitious arrangements, a sweeping mellotron, female backing vocals, a newfound studio confidence. At its heart, though, the record remains testament to a fair-timeless songcraft: the light-as-featherdown sweetness of "We Make A Pair", the bristling, bustling jangle of "Love Or Loneliness", the debonair, boy-laid-bare "I'll Tell You Anything", the heavenly sturm-und-twang of the marvellous "Trying To Say I Love You".

Math & Physics have already carved out a niche for themselves, a trademark sunshine sound softly belied by self-aware, often delicate lyricism, but on the strength of this - as you've probably guessed - we would now also nominate them as "most likely" to inherit the mantle of the new (luck)'smiths (a few had them down as the, erm, new old Smiths, after the Morrissey-esque vocal tics on their earlier releases, but the no-doubt rickety suspension of their cover star VW Beetle now seems to have forcibly shaken those from singer Charles' system). More than that, though, the inspired and rousing closing track, "We're So DIY!" even manages to out-Tullycraft Tullycraft. And let's face it, if it were possible for any mortal band to be both the new Lucksmiths AND the new Tullycraft, we would *definitely* want to be part of that, to be their new best friends for ever and ever. Wouldn't you ?

Sticking with the sophomores, there's this second Diversion Tactics LP, "Careful On The Way Up" on Boot, a good seven years in gestation, and it's positively showered us with real hip-hop joy for a good few months now. Despite their undoubted talents, DT were always beyond the posing or industry game-playing, so talisman lead MC Chubby Alcoholic sets out his stall early on, in the huggable and scene-swiping album opener "No Collaborations": "I ain't dreaming of cocktail bars / I'm dreaming of record sales on Mars / and double-parking rocket cars", and the record is full to the brim with his self-deprecating dexterity: there's the self-mocking "Ladies Man" remix ("another day, another Dear John / another mobile phone not switched on"), accompanied by a great Tommy Koi production, the pathos and vivid picture-painting on "NY to the UK" ("the only white boy at the screening of Juice", he reminisces) or a gift for the adept scene-setting metaphor ("I keep it darker than the ragga night at Kentish Town Forum", he boasts on "Twelve Steps").

"Careful On The Way Up" is another attempt by DT to bring the genre into focus, to remind us listeners that hip-hop IS NOT ABOUT bling or guns, never has been. It's about loving a lifestyle and subsuming yourself in it. Cuts like the startlingly strong "Where I'm From" (accompanied by wowsing string-backed beats from the Last Skeptik) and "For The Deejays", as well as tipping earned props to the likes of Jazz-T ("superstar DJs who carry their own bags"), let Chubby lay his heart on his sleeve in setting out his love for hip-hop and how he grew up with it: this is *emotional*. Oh, and they throw in both sides of ace last single "Can't Swim" too.

Although Chubby welcomely dominates the verbals, there are a few guests: the UK collabo track is "Three Card Brag" on which B.Gritty and none other than Blade (taking a rare break from retirement) turn up to accompany him, and "NY to the UK" is even grander as New Yorkers Percee P and Tim Dog, no less, interchange verses with underemployed DT hard-rhymer Squeaky da Rixter and of course the ubiquitous Chubby (the handover from the latter to Tim Dog makes us grin from left ear to right, for reasons we can't quite NAIL, before the Dog delivers a nakedly hardass verse that with its sudden end marks the denouement of not only the song, but the whole CD). But hey, our favourite track right now on "Careful" isn't even one of the lyric cuts: it's "The Turntablists", which does as it says and spins turntablist gold over two and half minutes, showcasing Miracle, Deejay Random, Biznizz, Pogo and the sonic architects of the whole album, Zygote and a Gang Starr-sampling Jazz T. All without an MC in sight. It's adroit and truly great.

Naysayers might say (or naysay) that after such a gap since the first LP, "Pubs, Drunks & Hip Hop", Diversion Tactics owe their eager public more than a 35-minute album: but we've never ever had a good word to say about over-long long players, nor about naysayers, and aren't going to change now (especially as Wormrot, Math & Physics and at least a couple of the albums below back up our case 1000%). For if Diversion Tactics aren't an act who are all about quality, not quantity, then no-one is. DT occupy the same place in our hearts as other fine fellow-Brit crews of yore, whether London Posse or Three Wize Men or Hijack or OutDaVille, but they are not "the new" anyone: the love they show for their art makes them definitely one of a kind.

What about Dutch duo Jesus Crost ? Well, if their newie "010" is anything to go by, they're sort of "the new" Sayyadina / Sore Throat / Agathocles: for on this hard and-fast 23 track, sub-quarter hour blastbeat frenzy on Broken Bones they take equal chunks of fired-up inspiration from the polar grinders' stop-start mastery, the Brummie legends' brevosity (I know, a word we've just invented, but it fits) and the lower-fi Belgian combo's shambling g-core playfulness. We reckon that "010" is possibly an even more consistent album than "Abuse": the Crost certainly don't stand on ceremony, and it's not always easy to divine where each track here begins and ends, but what is for certain is that they have a rare ability to cram half-a-dozen hooks and changes of pace into a single 30-second song; and if you string together "Rapsol", "Ungeheuer", "Cocoloco", "Wurfloch", "Tsarbomba" and "Solve The Conflict" (the only English-language number, all of nine seconds long), you can create a frankly blistering replica of a truly *classic* Peel Session medley from day. Rotterdammerung, if you like. On this form, even Japanische Kamphorfspiele would struggle to match them.

Speaking of Peelie, the Fall are, without any doubt, the new Fall ( ...the true Fall, the only Fall). There are poor men's Falls and there are Fall tribute bands, but more than any other musical phenomenon in the whole of human history, there is no other Fall. Many of the reviews of the ever-mighty combo's 28th long-playing take on barked stream-of-consciousness krautrock n'roll, "Your Future, Our Clutter", have given props to new label home Domino, for allegedly having (somewhat bravely) rejected the first iteration of this album and told M.E.S. to go and do it again. Perhaps they remember how the delayed release date of "Country On The Click" seemed to work wonders for what then became, after a respectable pause, "The Real New Fall LP", but in truth we have no way of knowing whether the original, raw "Click" might have been even finer than this finished product most indubitably is. Certainly, since "Are You Are Missing Winner", the Fall have enjoyed a decade of uncommonly rude health: so why can't we assume that what Domino were originally presented with was just as strong as the final cut ?

Speculative anti-Domino harping aside, make no mistake: there's nothing wrong with "Your Future", and we should thank them for the public service of releasing it. It starts off with two uniformly *superb* songs: "OFYC Showcase" crunches along, drum battery and looped not-many-note bass riff eventually swirling, heaving into a grand Fall chorus shout, with the endlessly repeating keyboards recalling some of "Kamerads" or "Hex"'s feistier, hyper-repetitive passages. After that, "Bury (Parts 1+3)" looms into view: two minutes of chugging dictaphone through-a-wall chordage seguing into a minute of grainy but less aggressively lo-fi riffola before the full production of the single version crashes in, every Smith line brought suddenly and piercingly into focus: "a new way of recording / a chain around the neck", all part of an intriguing narrative about Spanish kings, squirrels and murals interspersed with attempts at a catchphrase chorus ("I'm from Bury", mutters Mark, as his wife shouts "I'm not from Bury", with equal conviction).

The album rolls on: "Mexico Wax Solvent" is slower, stylish, a sort of Latin update of "Dr Buck's Letter" as it pursues an album-pervading lyrical theme of not trusting doctors; "Hot Cake" is faster, a rollicking rockabilly ride; "YFOC / Slippy Floor" is an Appalachian peak, a several-minute slab of manic, unreconstructed, grin-inducing old-school Fall; "Funnel Of Love" the obligatory northern soul cover, oozing the punked-up young Fall of "Rolling Dany"; the closing "Weather Report 2" is ethereal, funereal and naked, recalling the heartrending softness of "Bill Is Dead" as Mark sings about being passed over, but also about having being in love: "You gave me the best years of my life" he coos, before the plangent guitars are overtaken and outweirded by increasingly icy, off the wall synth burble. Oh, over the course of an album, no-one but the Fall could get away with this kind of stuff: even the Fall often don't. But they do here.

Violent Arrest's "Minute Manifestos" is a thrill-ridingly visceral set, a 12" courtesy of Tadpole Records and Boss Tuneage with the latest salvo from this band comprised of 75% of southwestern England's great Ripcord, in their attempt to be the new - sorry, we mean to reinvigorate the incorrigible spirit of - Discharge, Black Flag and all their progressively-less celebrated adherents since, on both banks of the Atlantic.

Side one: the blunt workaday punk of "Kill Me First": the fear of dying alone, not at home. The combative "Oppenheimer", indulging a genre obsession with nuclear obliteration. "State's Evidence", musically feistier, the first *great* song, a crunching disparage of the turncoat witness. "Fools", the most succinct and sweary musical riposte to the expenses scandal. "Killing For A Living", longer, more anthemic, shot through with just the same rage and venom ("no human victory, just capitalist fucking LIES") and even boasting a 'propah' guitar break that sprouts up like an angry thistle after the first chorus.

Side two: "Playing With Matches", flickeringly taut and bleak. The savagely short, quite excellent "Invisible War". The nicely aggressive riot-themed riff-grinding of "Burning Britain". A blazing cover of Dumbstruck's "Victim's Pit". And a second mini-anthem to finish, the singalong but ineffably bleak "Desensitised", a hymn to the emptiness of our staring blankly at TV screens as tragedies unfold abroad. A short summary ? Maybe. But for 10 tracks clocking in at a dozen-odd minutes, why not ? You need to listen to this for real, and feel the burn. Oh, and as no small bonus, there's a CD version on which you also get all twelve tracks from the second best single of 2008, "Criminal Record", plus two other brief outings one of which is an unsettlingly sublime 23-second Ripcord cover.

Finally, to one of the most impressive, most interesting sets of the year so far, and that's Vex'd's "Cloud Seed", on Planet Mu: all the more so because it's really an *accidental* album. With the duo having sprung their separate ways (and us having raved about Jamie's subsequent "Miracles" re-jig, in particular) this is a collection of their unfinished second LP and other late-period projects and remixes, meaning that collaborations with a downbeat Jest (not Jehst) and Warrior Queen at her lewdest best sit alongside remixes of the Elysian Quartet and a Richardson Suite for Piano and Electronics, which in turn mingle happily with darker and harder-edged pieces ("Killing Floor" or "Nails"), which for their part co-exist with beautiful song fragments (the shot-through "Remains Of The Day") and mood pieces (the exquisite two-minute clinches of "Shinju Bridge" or "Slug Trawl Depths").

Part dubstep, part soothing classical minimalism, "Cloud Seed" is pregnant with atmosphere, and only drags in a couple of places (afraid we must 'out' these as the overlong refix of Distance's "Fallen", and the undeniably talented Anneka's usual Beth Gibbons / Bjork thing - see also Starkey's "Stars" - unfortunately dragging "Heart Space" towards the level of Hampstead coffee table muzak). At times, your overriding reaction to this album is admiration, as much as anything else: the way that "Out Of The Hills" transcribes a reggae backing and draws it into Vex'd's industrial-influenced dubstep web without missing a pulse is truly skilful, like setting a slow-motion Cruyff turn to music, or watching Zidane as framed by Douglas Gordon and Mogwai.

"Cloud Seed" makes an interesting counter to last year's standout instrumental album, Kryptic Minds' "One Of Us", in that it jumps from mood to mood rather than setting one, but in its very different way it's just as vital. Vex'd may no longer be "the new" anyone, but any of the myriad paths that "Cloud Seed" prompts its intrigued listeners to explore could just be *our* key to discovering the new Vex'd. And that has got to be worth pursuing.