Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Warmest Sound

For more than thirty years, my Grandad was in a band. They regularly toured the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the States, playing everywhere from the Hollywood Bowl to the Royal Albert Hall, and released so many studio and live LPs that they made Billy Childish look like the Blue Nile, indeed so many that nobody, including my Grandad, could keep track of every record. We've endeavoured to build up as much of the extant vinyl as we can grab, but we're resigned to the fact that theirs is one discography we'll never complete. Dozens of the albums were on EMI, via the wonderfully named Regal Zonophone (later reactivated as a boutique imprint for St.Etienne), which at the time made my Grandad labelmates with Joe Cocker, Procol Harum and the Move: you may also recognise that label name from Mark E. Smith barking a treasured catchphrase of ours, "Repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, Regal Zonophone". He (my Grandad, not MES) spent fair chunks of time in the 1960s and 70s in EMI Studios - as they then were - in Abbey Road: on more than one occasion a vastly inferior band, called the Beatles, were in the studio next door.

No, my Grandad wasn't in a rock band or a folk band or a pop band - probably just as well, given our pronounced reservations about such music before 1976. He was in a *brass* band (playing the baritone, since you ask: along with its sister the euphonium, a wonderfully evocative instrument). Indeed, he played with that band from the 1940s right through to the 1980s: all the way from Attlee's premiership to Thatcher's, unconsciously charting a poignant political decline. But he was also, in that time, a prodigious moonlighter in an array of other musical projects: a conductor, a band leader, a choirmaster, a published songwriter and no mean concertina player. And he could never resist a nearby piano, the instrument that gave him associateship at the London College of Music when he was only 15 years old.

Still, it was that warmest sound, the calming, beauteous caress of brass instruments, which is the most powerful, inerasible memory from days going round to his snug terraced house as a kid. It was always there, a soundtrack to our equally indelible recollections of the lavender-scented front room, of the sweeties from Grandma, of the net curtains, of the musty carpet we played on, of the pet cockatiel whose MES-like interjections would occasionally "accompany" the dancing trumpets and trombones.

In that house, where the turntable never stopped spinning, we learned to share Grandad's love of music. It wasn't just the soothing tones of a full brass orchestra, much as those can still take us to a cherished place. It was also of pieces he'd himself grown up with - the Trout Quintet, the Serenade for Strings, both sheer elegance at 33 rpm - which would be handed further down the generations. Or he'd play us "The Entertainer", or he'd play Bucks Fizz on the record player (the seven year-old me kind of liked them). He bought us cassettes for Christmas and birthdays, from gospel and classical recordings to the Japan and New Order tapes I asked for when those bands superseded even the Fizz in the battle for my inconstant musical affections.

For him, for decades, it had been tour, tour, tour; too much time on the road and away from family: the pull of music can sometimes stretch too far. But once he left the band, it was precisely the same songs that had taken him away that helped rebuild the home again. And that was the house I knew. A brass band can conjure surprisingly powerful feelings: it's music often earmarked to symbolise comfort and homeliness, whether to sell freshbaked Hovis or play cosy winter carols to snowbound commuters, but the more spirited passages have an entirely different feel, painting radiant colours with uptempo, resilient and above all *celebratory* brush strokes. The appeal of brass band music across deep-rooted family traditions, military traditions, working traditions and religious traditions is another reason why, for its devotees, it is so much more than just something to listen to: just ask the bandsmen who stood tall before the mines were decimated, along with the colliery bands of which they were so fiercely proud. Hear mournful cornets and French horns lamenting a world forever left behind.

* * * * *

My Grandad died the other day, just shy of his 95th birthday. We'd had our final conversation in the stroke ward. He asked, rather from left-field, whether we preferred Parsifal, of all things, to Die Zauberflote. We had to back Mozart on that one, which I'm confident was the answer that Grandad wanted. And then he found out that the Black Dyke band had just covered (a vigorous, blazing, full-on march called) "The Liberator", and his enthusiasm for that particular tune fair flooded out, a music fan still every bit as excitable about his pet favourites as we are about Horowitz, about Cappo, about Insect Warfare, about whoever. Serene and happy, he hummed the melody, for those precious instants oblivious to the ever-present distraction of fellow patients' chatter and the orderlies buzzing around him on their rounds.

It's fair to say we never inherited his musical ability. That would have been evident each time in our teens that we scratched together distorted sub-Weddoes chord screes and listless can't-get-a-girlfriend indiepop laments from a Korean guitar and a 10-watt amp, politely as he tolerated such cacophony. But we did inherit his passion for music, which is why these fumbled, hasty words are here. His life saw musical trends ebb and flow: jazz and the charleston in the twenties; the reinvention of British music by the likes of Britten and Vaughan Williams (the latter of whom once conducted him); the rock n' roll invasion; the high water mark of classical minimalism; the subsequent birth of subcultures from punk and metal to goth. But right through into the 21st century, his passion remained. Only in the last couple of years did ill-health finally stop this particular nonagenarian stripling journeying up to town for concerts: a round-trip of some 260 miles. Don't know about you, but we sincerely hope we're still so committed to gig-going when we hit our our tenth decade.

For the funeral, we plumped for two old faithfuls. As Grandad was the first to acknowledge - and as he was angling for in that Magic Flute conversation - sometimes you just can't shake a good hook, whether written at the tail-end of the seventeenth century (that was Pachelbel's Canon) or on the cusp of the twentieth (we went for the New World, inadvertently maxing the Hovis angle). On the day, and just at that moment - with the newfound luxury of distance, and sudden tears in eyes - each seemed supremely fitting.

And we're glad, at least, that Grandad got to meet his great grand-daughter before he died. When she's older, we might show her fragments from distant, pre-mp3 times: some of the 78s he played on in the early days, some of the sheet music he wrote. For she's going to get an immersion in music, in all its forms and formats, of which Grandad would heartily have approved.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Words On Power

In the lift at the office the other day, inamidst all the usual work hard / play hard bluster, some bloke from the corporate department was banging on with no little alacrity - and a certain, surely misplaced, sense of pride - about how 'twas all "unrelenting grind" up there. No, my friend, faffing around with shareholder resolutions and verification notes is *not* unrelenting grind: but let us show you what *is*. For the Power It Up label, pride of Lower Saxony, have recently been responsible for no fewer than three records that fully warrant the oxygen of publicity. Unfortunately, we don't have it in our power to grant them that, so we're going to resort to just scribbling about them here instead.

* * * * *

Kicking off with "A Tribute to Nasum". Prosaically enough, "A Tribute to Nasum" is indeed a v/a tribute to the legendary Nasum, indeed probably the ultimate tribute to Nasum in that over its course, some 53 mostly first or second division bands from across the grindcore spectrum try but in the end fail to produce a cover that quite lives up to the untrammelled quality of the Swedish band's originals. However, before you cross the compilation off grandma's Christmas list, that stat doesn't stop it being worth investigating further. After all, you could have said the same about the "Fortune Cookie Prize", "Snowstorm" or "Romantic And Square..." tributes, but it didn't stop them being eminently kissable in their own right.

Firstly, this tribute features a number of bands with a pretty solid rep in our eyes, combos that have either graced this blog, or would have done had we got round to posting up a greater proportion of we've written: Coldworker (of course featuring ex-Nasumite Anders Jakobson), Keitzer (authors of the mighty "No Justice No Peace"), Rotten Sound, Nashgul (q.v.), Total Fucking Destruction, Afgrund, Japanische Kampfhorspiele, Leng T'che, Mumakil, Misery Index, Kill The Client... The compilers have obviously decreed that for the benefit of punters short of staying power, most of these better-known names should be thrown in right at the start of the disc, largely leaving the last 40 or so tracks to comparative unknowns. Of the above-named, Rotten Sound do their best to make the chosen track ("Resistance") recognisably their own, and it's probably the most accomplished number here; TFD cheerfully give "Blinded" the slightly leftfield shakedown you'd expect; Leng T'che play things safer by choosing to cover the tip-top "No Sign Of Improvement" and net the ensuing open goal, although it's nowhere near their 2010 highpoint, "Totalitarian" (featuring guest vocals from Barney Napalm Death). And speaking of the sadly absent Napalm Death - perhaps Nasum's most celebrated fans - probably the closest we get to them here is Mumakil's excellent, bracing version of "Gargoyles & Grotesques".

Secondly, even aside from the "A-listers", there are plenty of individual tunes that contain sparks of interest, and it's not so hard to wade through them all, given that the average track length here can't be too much more than a minute. Rompeprop and Methadone Abortion Clinic stand out for the way that their pitchshifted Mortician-like vocals drag "Disappointed" and "Sixteen" away from the originals: you could be forgiven for thinking that neither band were fronted by humans at all. Indeed, the goregrind bands here - bands who are, by definition, usually pretty terrible - profit from at last having some decent ingredients to work with, instead of coasting on blood and guts or puerile in-jokes. There are also a few death metal outfits on board, who by and large moonlight effectively as born-again grind combos.

Thirdly, of course, is the indisputable T.R.U.T.H. that, Nasum having been a rather splendid musical ensemble, a large percentage of the original melodies were simply rather ace: this assists a number of the participants in producing something approvably listenable, such as Mastic Scum, Goregast, My Cold Embrace and Expose Your Hate who, respectively, cover the groovesome quartet of "The Masked Face", "Stealth Politics", ""Silent Sanguinary Soil" and "Shapeshifter". You can't go too far wrong with that kind of material, and they don't.

Fourthly, it's rather sweet to see how far around this globe the tentacles of Nasum's influence had spread before their premature demise: there are bands here from the States, Canada, Brazil, Singapore, Japan, Sweden, Finland, Norway, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Poland and, rather surprisingly, Saudi Arabia (Creative Waste, if you were wondering). It's a trifle disappointing, though, that to the best of our knowledge the only band on here hailing from our own sceptr'd isle are Aberdeen's granite grinders, Ablach ("Too Naked To Distort").

Fifthly, there's just our wonderment at the clutch of groups on display who bothered making it all the way to the studio in order to record a song lasting 20 seconds or shorter: given how half of the bands here seem to hail from Alpine regions, this conjures vivid images of them spending hours trekking through snowdrifts in order to make it to the recording session, before starting the arduous journey back only minutes later. Particular admiration is therefore due to each such hardy adventurer, but the real prize here goes to the indefatigible Bathtub Shitter, whose cover of "Rens" (duration: 3 seconds, at the outside) finishes the whole exercise off with a shouted flourish.

* * * * *

Next is Nashgul's newest, "El Dia Despues Al Fin De La Humanidad", the best work to date from the La Coruna four-piece. Now the fact that Nashgul had tracks on both the Repulsion and Nasum tribute albums tells you a little about where they're coming from, but closer parallels are probably their Spanish compatriots Looking For An Answer (more on that story later) and, somewhat inevitably, the increasingly legendary Insect Warfare.

There are some excellent songs on display: first track proper (after the obligatory doomsday intro) "Hidrofobia" absolutely explodes into life, unsurprisingly carrying no doubt conscious thematic echoes of Insect Warfare's "Hydrophobia" but also setting a benchmark for the record as a whole in terms of its abrupt early-Napalmisms and rolling riffs. "Predicores De La Muerte", the obligatory broadside against organised religion's double standards, springs into life with a great little instrumental groove, and "La Plaga" for us is the best track of all, Nashgul singing about hiding from said plague "entre las ruinas del capitalismo" while interchanging riff-flecked passages with all-out grind attacks. There's "Olor A Napalm", with the whiff of Napalm (Death) you'd expect, "Crematorio", which pulls all Nashgul's tricks into a showboating single minute or so, and the pivot of the album, "El Dia De Los Muertos", about consumption, indolence, routine jobs and mediocrity, which slows down into a long, booming intro (think General Surgery's patented Carcass / Unrest blend) before the blastbeats kick back in. Hot on its heels is one of the faster ditties, the sung-in-English "Terrorist Warhead", which might do for some of you missing Insect Warfare as much as we obviously are.

The final flurry of tunes, for us, don't quite hit the same heights (even though "Street Trash" has some heroic punk riffing, "Planet Cancer" contains more welcome hints of I.W., and "El Vengeador Toxico" just has a brilliant title) but still show Nashgul settling in comfortably to their newfound role as premium quality grinders, a welcome move away from past dalliances with zombie horror shtick (Machetazo, take note). "El Dia Despues Al Fin De La Humanidad" is highly recommended.

* * * * *

And finally, there's an album that's already made our year-end top tens (in 2007), but which we've been listening to near-continually since and which now gets a more widely distributed re-release, in the manner of those Insect Warfare and Wormrot long-players. "Extincion", by five-piece Madrid powerhouse Looking For An Answer (motto: "grindcore is raw, veganism is law"), was originally released on the band's own Living Dead Society label: by any yardstick, it's a cracking release, one which from the opening slaughterhouse sample radiates the band's sheer energy and anger. Musically, the LP is a precursor to those later-recorded IW and Wormrot collections, being a pummelling aggregation of blastbeats, furious breakdowns and low-end growl (as distinct from Nasum's love of screaming high-register vocal): as we've ventured before, the band ape the best tradition of "Mentally Murdered"-era Napalm, somewhere between the tinny conviction of "From Enslavement..." and the Scott Burns-produced death metal of "Harmony Corruption", most tracks between two and three minutes long to allow them to mix things up a little. It's also no great surprise that Looking For An Answer, like their compatriots Nashgul, turned up on the Repulsion tribute record (with "Driven To Insanity", which also appeared on their excellent 7" EP for Relapse last year).

The opening salvo proper of the appropriately savage, stop-start staccato "La Matanza" ("Slaughter") is perhaps the best "meat is murder" song since THAT one, which soon crashes into "Vuestro Respeto Es Nuestro Desprecio", as LFAA line themselves up against "la justificacion del dolor inocente", itself a theme later picked up in "Repugnancia, Aversion y Odio" (animals as innocent victims of cruelty) and "Conciencia Genocida" (which mourns our "criminal indifference" to that). LFAA have no truck with the old canard that our capacity to reason justifies our maltreatment of animals ("Los Humanos Tambien Son Carne"), so it's unsurprising that "Demilicion A Sus Valores" debates violent action to protect animals, or that "Replica" ("Retort") contemplates revenge without compassion on those inflicting that pain. For animals, the call is for "la liberacion absoluta": on "Ruptura", one of the longer tracks, which contains some passages with a deathier feel, the band not-so-gently chide even the "protectionists" who regulate, and thereby legitimise, animal suffering.

As for what us human beings are doing to ourselves and to each other, the message is that we're all implicated: "integrados en un sistema de produccion global que camufla vuestra mediocre y vacia existencia" ("Fosa Comun"). "Sistema Social", musically the tightest of the three 30-second tunes on the album, resumes this school of thought, addressing the slightly wider target of "una tirania profesional" under which we cyclically labour and consume. The riff-heavy "Utopia Muerta", which unfolds a little like the instrumental sections of Napalm's "Scum", excoriates those recreational "revolutionaries" ("cuando mies de bastardos" - ouch!) who won't brook change to their comfortable lifestyles. Such decadence is our ultimate oppressor: that's the premise of "El Yugo De La Opresion", which boasts dollops of crustpunk and a killer Doom-like riff. Oh, of course there's nothing original about any of this: but that's a criticism that can levelled at most of the rest of our favourite music too. What is incontestable is that on this record, the music and the lyrics dovetail perfectly, all-too exquisitely, and the passion and the soul of the band shine bright.

In a sense, every message on the album is compressed into the obligatory one-chord (one word, one second long) number, "Escoria" (scum), but the real apotheosis of all these lyrical threads comes nearly halfway through, as the ambulating bars of "Marcha Hacia La Extincion" roll unsurprisingly into the title track and LFAA rail bitterly at how humanity's self-absorption is leading us to total wipeout, aided considerably by a blinding breakdown in the middle. The musically sublime "Cada Naciamento Es Una Tragedia" (also replete with a searing breakdown) then translates this idea, somewhat bluntly, from the general to the particular. So by the time you get to track 18, "Revulsivo", you may be feeling a little suffocated. The band has this one final chance to finish on a positive note; but despite their name, they can't bring themselves to do it. The song's message is frank; that hope is deception. It fades out, fades back into the sound of the abbatoir.

Which all makes "Extincion" as bleak as it is brilliant: as bleak as listening to the Field Mice's "Bleak" on the bleakest of bleak midwinter days, as bleak as you'd expect from an album whose sole theme is, well, extinction. But perhaps the very bleakest thought of all is this: there is very little of what LFAA say that isn't - if we're honest - completely spot on.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

Let us take you for a walk. We'll start at Queen Vic's clock on the edge of Highbury Barn, and as you sashay down Highbury Hill you'll briefly espy the horizon-clogging deathstar of "the Emirates" (the stadium name that mainstream commentators and journos are contractually obliged to use, but it's only really known to locals and Gooners as the Grove), before it sinks once more beneath the Victorian villas on either side of the road. Eventually, on the right just by the old art-deco West Stand entrance, as the street flattens out towards Arsenal tube station, there's a gateway where the old Highbury matchday turnstile used to be.

Now, of course, it's the entrance to a gated parallel universe of glass-flecked, clean-lined flats (sorry, we mean "an exclusive and truly unique development of high specification apartments") but - unlike the old Highbury - there's a public right of way enabling even us unwashed to venture unescorted through the grounds of said flats, meaning that you or I can freely wander across what used to be the turf in front of the South Stand, see how all of the old stand facades remain, albeit now housing urban luxury ("Highbury Square") for an unbeguiling combo of Arsenal obsessives, second-home seeking City workers, buy-to-let parasites and minted locals.

It's fair to say that the residents and developers do their best to stop you noticing there's a public path: indeed, it took a local newspaper campaign to shame them into actually unlocking the gates, even though the requirement to provide public access was one of the few concessions the council made when rubberstamping Arsenal's plans to bury N5 in endless vistas of premium high-rises and premium low-rises. So don't worry if it all looks a bit "private": it isn't. (Similarly, a little further south there's daytime public access from Gaskin Street to Islington Green through the private square built there, behind the old Collins Music Hall: again, the residents would seem to prefer we didn't know, so use it or lose it).

Stroll through the gate and in a few steps you are there, where the pitch used to be: treat yourself to a touchline meander. An acre or two of manicured plants to the landscaped left. Shrubbage where Adams caught opponents offside, where Keown wrestled them down, where Meade and Caesar laboured, where Henry's shots rippled the net. For an older generation, memories will be of Joe Mercer, Wally Barnes or Reg Lewis gracing this arena at the outset of the 1950s, when much of the area was still bombed out, when memories of Cliff Bastin were fresh, when local kids used to alternate their Saturday 3 p.ms between Highbury and White Hart Lane (even celebrated THFC fan Chas Hodges freely admits in his autobiography to being one of them). Incidentally, the Nicholls toy shop on Holloway Road those same kids used to frequent is still there: not everything has been overhauled this past half-century or so.

When you reach the east side of Highbury Square and exit, take the sharp left into Avenell Road where the 'thirties frontage of the stadium is most neatly preserved: the concierge desk snug where marble halls and Chapman busts abounded. Then, ambulate down towards the huge grey new Arsenal spaceship, fortnightly sucking in 60,000 come-lately out-of-towners until they all leave 80 minutes in (not merely for easy access to the Waitrose, the waiting limos and the chauffeured 4x4s that leave their engines running throughout the game: a lot of them are more into rugby really, and just get confused easily). Many fans still commute, though: since the ground move, the greenspace of Highbury Fields has been disfigured permanently by a diagonal track directly through its heart, the grass worn down to dust and mud solely by the weight of Arsenal fans trampling across it every fortnight.

The ten-foot high letters that spell out "ARSENAL" in imposing grey stone - sadly, you can't move them about to make choice anagrams - are the entrance to the ground from Drayton Park (the road), in front of the recently-christened Clock End Bridge over the railway line to Drayton Park (the station). Across the way, Drayton Park (the pub), normally quiet and hyper-local, enjoys bonanza paydays when the away supporters' coaches come down and it can barely contain the demand. A few doors down, Veli's caff: a great place for double egg and chips that no doubt now has to face up to unparalleled competition for its handful of tables. Veli once told us that he only ever really wanted to concentrate on serving locals, but now there's a stadium right across the way, that's a bit of a pipedream on matchdays. One suspects the takings compensate.

Should you slope around the Emirates' environs before a game you will spot all the tickbox new-breed Arsenal fan matchday staples: huge queues in Starbucks (fan in front of me plumped for a wet skinny caramel macchiato, paid for on a card), fans indulging in champagne breakfasts in more than one Upper Street eaterie, a small army of Range Rovers (usually with disabled badges) crawling around the streets, Zilouf's doing its £16 per head gourmet "matchday special". Post-game, fans in Holloway Tesco's stocking up on fine red wine, French cheese and more champagne. Now it is quite possible that the same scenes are repeated nationwide, and that fans in Bristol, Bournemouth, Bury, Burnley and Barnsley also max on macchiato, champers and Bordeaux in the same numbers. But somehow we feel entitled to doubt it.

To be fair to the club, the main entrances to the new ground (sorry, "stadium") acknowledge the club's peripatetic history via Dial Square, Woolwich and Highbury; we haven't yet dared to enter the Arsenal Museum, but the mural wrapped like a cake decoration around the circumference of the place has a reasonable spread of Arsenal greats past and present, although the true greats, those who've earned their place in history rather than those still hanging on the coat-tails of the present, are defiled by having their names on the back of their shirts, as if all that we've ever had is the febrile acceleration of the commoditisation, the monetisation of the sport post-1990, a financial imperative now reflected in the unresolved antagonisms between local people and the Arsenal empire in their midst about planning, about parking, about policing. It's hard for cash-strapped councils to negotiate against multi-million pound corporations, whether Tesco or Arsenal, and it's harder still for the immediate community to have their voice heard by an entity that is increasingly looking to markets thousands of miles away, that is on-the-record as claiming 30 million overseas fans (and a frankly unlikely 2 million in the UK) whose goodwill needs to be mined. Arsenal FC *does* still do very good work in the community, does continue to foster some of its local links: we wouldn't want to suggest otherwise. But in general, a bit like the game itself, it's never felt further away.

And - the story is old, but it goes on - we think of our love of football (and we do still love it, despite its lazily packaged ubiquity spreading it thinner and thinner, which we will refuse to let crush us) and all the truisms that underpin it: loving not just football today, but the rich cultural history of the sport; loving not just the highest tiers of football, but valuing and enjoying it at every level; loving not just your club team or your country, but the wonderful, wide world of international football; loving not just "champagne" football, but admiring defensive, resilient, yes even bus-parking football too; appreciating that football is a game - a game - played (and refereed) by human beings in real time, and that the TV-led obsession with "video evidence" is just as inimical to appreciating it as overdosing on Carling OPTA stats, or those over the age of about 12 wheeling out the good old "deservometer" (the ever-selective "we should have won because we had more possession / we hit the woodwork / their goal was offside / the ref was a homer / because of Blatter and Platini", etc etc); recognising that MK Dons are not a football club; recognising that at the end of the day, real life is still more important (this is quite comforting to dwell on if, to pluck a random example out of the air, your team of choice has just lost 6-1 to Oxford Utd), and that just shouting a lot, being able to dish it out but not take it, and using football as a vehicle for general abuse of the other team / their fans / your own fellow fans / officials is not "passion", or at any rate, not the kind of passion that's worth cultivating. And we realise that actually, only a few of us seem to regard these things as truisms any more, which is probably why we feel so isolated in thinking that football is disappearing swiftly into a swishing cesspit of its own making, soundtracked only by cash tills and verbal abuse (and given that the average afternoon at a game at any level consists of little other than folk hurling the C-word about with abandon, the irony in the fear that vuvuzelas might destroy such a valuable atmosphere is PALPABLE...)

So we sigh, and retrace our steps to the old ground, and we step inside again, just to try once more to summon up the ghosts of matches past and imagine the roar of the North Bank in the days of Joe and Wally and Reg, and we wonder what they might have made of the inescapable, in-yer-face modern game, of Super Sundays and baby Bentleys and Football Punk and "the race for fourth" and taking out a second mortgage to buy a season ticket. Then, feeling a slight chill, we turn around, ascend the steep incline back up Highbury Hill, and contemplate all that the new season might bring.