Saturday, December 31, 2011

home



music is rotted one note, soiled despoiled and sullied by chancers and charlatans, played by grinning poseurs, curated by an uneasy alliance of sunday supplement bores, fickle fanboys and youtube spivs, consumed as an afterthought via supermarket queues, reviewed in thrown-away throwaway thirty word pieces. it aspires to be being played in kfc, or to soundtracking a supremely meaningless "aspirational" advert for some unnecessary consumable... an idiot joy showland that perfectly captures, and unendingly celebrates, the blandest excesses of capitalism rather than fighting them to the messy death. a smarmy guardian piece in the spring mocked sarah's manifesto to be part of "the great jigsaw of feminist and socialist revolution", no doubt in stark contrast with the nobler aspirations of a newspaper that backed the new-rightist lib dems, that lavished its 16 front pages and a whole supplement upon the year's ultimate frippery, that devotes its sports section to about five football clubs and lazily drapes its music pages with the usual broadsheet second-guessing of what its shallower readers might imagine is "cool" this week.

"fanzines, mixtapes, word of mouth and trading demos was soon phased out / for downloading albums in their scores, reducing music to ones and noughts... corporate sponsorship on venue walls"

surely music doesn't *have* to mirror, in its creation, execution and marketing, every single failure of these unenlightening, quickfix times: there are plenty of glorious realities out there aside from the quotidien drinking and violence that we co-opt as a society to escape the endless swathes of beige being daubed across popular culture by battalions of eager-to-please marketing graduates. why *can't* art reflect those early year greys, sheens of snug cold, fresh air dancing about yr face... or hazy mid-eve flickering darkness, shot through with the carousel of headlights circling the roundabout, shining whites in the evening air, a glow of shopfront neon, the moon casting its decorous shadow down over the lone high-rise ?

"this is it / i can find no words to describe our love / it's priceless"

and so "clang of the concrete swans" comes on and i find myself teary - whether with sadness, joy or relief they can still do this, i'm not sure - but it's their own "english electric lightning" for the new decade, and we must hold on to these moments, these songs, these celebrations of our confused times and mixed-up heads. i cue up "the boy who loved brighter" and it exudes warmth: so sweetly and beautifully done, it's both a tribute and a triumph. i put on "battle hype" and am blown away by the whole thing - the execution, the conceit, the confidence, the skill, the swagger - it's dazzlingly audacious, dizzyingly epic.

"vowels as clear as church bells" peals out, the remote viewer gone belle epoque, and i swear it would light up the union chapel: yet it's also as warm and intimate as grandma's front room. i dig out "summer promised me too much" (from a jiffy knitwear creation, ha) and it sweeps me away, like early hood doing "byron", or the edsel auctioneer at their prettiest and fuzziest. i unleash the on fell singles 'pon unsuspecting, lucky *lucky* turntable and they're extraordinary, blissfully dancefloor-hugging yet undeniably affecting: the sound of modern glossy pop high-fiving unassuming downbeat indie, of the funky lovingly nuzzling the lo-fi. i immerse myself in "broken" and glow as bristol and london's finest dubsteppers combine, and wow myself with the realisation that sometimes you can listen to what you thought were soundless moments; to a backlog of fuzzy cityscape memories; to the headlights of those passing cars as they light the raindrops on the nightbus window.

"you never told me, simon / about the 40-carat scum / at newquay train station"

i unsheath "ersatz gb" from its unkempt sleeve with no little trepidation, but as the record revolves and magick happens, i entertain the thought - not without a certain sadness - that barely a handful of new bands can muster the itinerant energy and rumbunctious panache of this fiftysomething man on his thirtysomethingth album. (and what a track record: even now, i still fantasise about raiding the ashmolean and christening the messiah stradivarius by playing the m.e.s. violin part from "papal visit"). i listen to the unvarnished, anger-strewn stomp of "rock and roll is full of bad wools", and it strikes me that it's the most scholarly commentary on our riot-hit isle that i've encountered all year.

i glory in the mere existence of jakarta's individual distortion, who deliver a messy breakcore beast which diffidently melds grindcore, hip-hop beats and jungle called "your band doesn't sound like sarah records", but then spit out, from nowhere, "farewell": a song that begins as chaotic cybergrind but suddenly switches down and before you know it, has enveloped you in in warm, soapy suds that channel blueboy, alcest and ted maul into the most gorgeous, touching, instrumental pattern. as long as this can happen, the x-factor will never win.

"a sleeping bag and a ten man tent / i send dem man hiking"

i hold to my heart the other records this year that bucked the trend. the new wave of grime that appeared from nowhere just when i had given up on the genre (although of its progenitors, it's probably only the disarmingly genial kwam mc who i'd be feel comfy sharing a quick san miguel with). or the resurgence in *positive, political* and - in that way - old-fashioned cobweb-despatching hardcore that was summed up by straightedge bands making some of the singles of the year and a boston h.c. outfit delivering one of its standout albums.

"10,000 lawyers dead on robertson / it felt good to just kick back and look at them / and we were fucking laughing at them"

thus i bask in the sure knowledge that - as none other than hoary black metal grizzlers venom observed this very year - punk's not dead and that though it's evolved into different styles, each with labels that try to mark themselves out as untainted sovereign territory (grindcore, hardcore, crust, deathgrind, powerviolence), the best of each genre coalesce in a haze of beautiful energy on my stereo, creating music that is just thrilling and urgent, proving that the label doesn't matter, it's the sounds they make... all else is redundant, like debating whether a beautiful poem is a sonnet or mere quatorzain... witness the finnish grind classicists who distil a six-part, 16 track concept album about human weakness into well under half an hour; witness the supergroup from japan, new jersey and texas (!) who summon up, rather than merely play, a shrieking record which spanned twelve tunes in as many minutes, each hanging on grimly for dear life, like haikus in a hailstorm; witness (and cower before) the remarkable musical *event* that was wormrot's "dirge"...

these are the moments that our little fanzine is (was ?) for.

as for singling out individual chansons from this merry miasma of heady noise, and to name but several doozies plucked from a fecund wider field, i would certainly entreat you to investigate the magnificent cannonades that were scapegoat's "no release", death toll 80k's "no escape", looking for an answer's "no compasion", weekend nachos' "you could exist tomorrow", noisear's "the last spark of resistance" (noisear are all the ron johnson bands. all at once), despise you's "bankrupt social code", coke bust's "degradation", hatred surge's "brutal tyranny", sss's "the kill floor", lock-up's "accelerated mutation", beartrap's "nailed shut", ampere's "bullshit sloganeering", the rotted's "surrounded by skulls" and sidetracked's "full circle": those should give you some tantalising insight into the sonic carnage being justly wreaked by plectrum-chafed electric guitar strings across this earth right now.

"sarandon will never be unreasonable... we expect everyone to have an equal billing / except for us"

i love the way that cultural references linger in the ether and then knowingly rain down the years: how the flats single, merely by dint of being a scenester-friendly remake of thrilled skinny's "it's a good doss", is still better than anything dan devine's dad's label released after about 1989. i smile and wince alternately through violent arrest's "fuck off", for while barely up with their greatest moments, i treasure the irony in it somehow sharing both a studio and a producer with brighter's indelible "christmas", surely its polar opposite.

"you could have been a grime saviour / but all you saw was the paper, and became a grime hater"

hell, i savour so many musical moments provided in 2011, all the biiig tunes, from d-beat to d-step, the sonorous peal of eski bars, of serious low frequencies, of new adventures in minimalism, of invigorating japanese indie-pop, of earnest norwegian hardcore, of bilious colombian grind, of dark, darting guetta-baiting techno from italy, belgium, japan, bosnia, ukraine... of export-quality premium swedish jangle, of boombastic lurchstep, of the obligatory manic jump-up, of bubbling cauldrons of blippering intrigue from the london 'burbs. i salute some fine scouse thrash, some urgent and rattling powerv., some wonderful indie-pop, some searing notts hip-hop, some glowing new york new-wu and a resurgent mobb. i roll out a carpet of respect to a black techno master who sprinkled gold dust on his remixes, and to a fellow german who continues to lead the way both with his own productions and with his minimal-tech label. and how i wish with all of my brittle, not-so hollow heart that every single one of these people and bands could play the upcoming popular music festival of london (plus, in wormrot's case, take up a residency at the hangover lounge).

"i'm back, i'm a criminal / 28 weeks inside, it's minimal"

i relish the reality that most of the great singles and albums of the year were available on vinyl, thus yielding both to stylus crackle and to sensuous human caress.

and i revel in the fact that wu-tang are on the same label as peppa pig.

ahem. i hope you had a great year. i had a great year, despite having had once again to embrace my inner 4th division. for me, 2011 was "the year of enjoying music", for that's what you can really do when you're not writing about it. fwiw, as we can't shake the habit, our (strictly unannotated) lists of the best singles and albums of the year are where you might expect to find them.

anyway. happy new year. and remember: life's not about the haters, the fakers, what's trending or what's selling. it's all about stolen kisses, and other little victories.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Singlish Scheme



Saturday night back in ever-salubrious Stockwell (an old hunting ground of mine), and I'm in the Grosvenor on Sidney Road, one of those neat and largely unruined pubs that always make me feel a little more... clubbable. Last time I ventured here, 'twas to see the ever-mighty Horowitz, and a cheery indie atmos thus prevailed, but tonight the vibe is very different: it's 90% a black-clad metal crowd, 9% bemused-looking old man locals, and then me.

The girl handing out flyers won't condescend to offer me one, remarking "you don't look like you listen to Gorgasm" as she swooshes by. I'm hurt: I could explain that, fair enough, I don't actually listen to Gorgasm, because at the moment I'm more into strains of grindcore, the hardcore end of powerviolence and maybe a little bit of deathgrind rather than Gorgasm's entertaining and earnest but um, pedestrian goregrind, but what she *really* means is that I'm not wearing appropriate "uniform" (partly this is because I've come straight from a kids' birthday party) and so I can't be one of them, with my lack of long hair and band t-shirt and visible tattoos and piercings, and perhaps she thinks I'm sitting here in the Grosvenor tonight labouring under the illusion that I'm about to see Coldplay or something.

It's disappointing, because over all those years of turning up to gigs in suits I'd found "metal" (for want of a better word) crowds most accepting of all, more so even than indie-pop, but now I feel a little lost and left out. The whole point about metal is that it's not cool, it's never been fashionable, and it should never be about "fitting in": surely that would defeat the point, its attraction for those who *don't* fit in, who sit awkwardly with musical conformity ? I sigh inwardly, nurse my Amstel and make a mental note to step up my support of the ongoing battle against false metal. Luckily, Wormrot are playing tonight, and they will soon be raising my spirits sky-high, largely by virtue of proving that they are the best band in the world right now.

When the set begins, there are barely 40 or 50 people in the room. I suspect in part this is because the Grosvenor must be one of the most thickly soundproofed venues in town: from the front of the pub you can't hear the racket created by even the loudest band in the back room only twenty feet away, so it's perfectly possible not to notice things have kicked off until your mates come to fetch you. Having slunk in, unwanted, from the bar my head start allows me to grab a decent spot, only a few feet from the stage, albeit right by the wall and being faced down by the huge speakers. Before too long though the room has filled, as punters sheepishly filter through from the main bar: the word is spreading, and it feels like a couple of hundred in here now. There's no room even for standing, so some clamber on to tables at the back. Front centre, a recognisable moshpit has been birthed, and it's a whirlpool of pure chaos, the kind of dancing that's pretty much indistinguishable from fighting. Hey, maybe I am too old and square for this after all.

Rasyid provides the noise: as lone guitarist in a bassless trio, much rests on his shoulders. For the half-hour or so of Wormrot's set, we mostly see the back of his shaved head, his body contorting and his fingers filling the room with peals of guttural, breakneck power-chordage while he keeps a weather eye on Fiti, the drummer and Rasyid's partner in creating Wormrot's juddering, cascading rhythms. Fiti is responsible for pacing proceedings, and *driving* the songs forward: orchestrating how they stop, start, canter, gallop, crash and then restart, normally all in the space of half a minute or so. He has an almost childlike demeanour, clearly enjoying himself hugely whilst he happily knocks seven shades of shelter from his drumkit. Arif sings: his growl may be primal, but his manner between songs is friendly and enthusiastic, with the shapes he throws onstage recalling Lee Dorrian or the young Barney Greenway. Fiti and Arif are both wearing Phobia T-shirts. Of this we approve.

The songs are... *the songs*. Joyous battering-rams of openly pilfered grind and bruising sweat-heavy breakdowns that charge out from the blocks and never labour. "Spot A Pathetic", "Talk Shit Holocaust", "Murder" (introduced as an "old song", it being from those dim dark distant days of 2009), "So Fierce For Fuck", "Principle of Puppet Warfare"... the hits *rain* down, including heartwarmingly healthy chunks from this year's album, "Dirge", a record which saw them break through from promising ("Abuse") to... well, very near perfect; that saw these unassuming young men furnish a stupefying and heady 25 tracks in 18 minutes and the only way I can portray the feeling as it first teemed and tumbled out of the speakers is that it was as if blossom hailed down, as if the falling leaves from London planes could swarm and almost suffocate you, as if the dancing summer breeze could surround and shake you, as if the early morning dew could rise to a torrent and topple you. "Dirge", as well as being the least aptly-named LP in world history, is an album which you must have if you're a lover of grindcore, or punk, or metal, or rock music, or possibly just of music altogether, and because of all the hype around Wormrot and the huge reaction to it, it's an album which you can *download for free* because so many thousand versions were ripped by tune-hungry kids around the world that Earache thought they might as well just give in and share the record's belligerent JOY with everybody. And getting back to this evening, Wormrot finish the same way "Dirge" finishes, with "The Final Insult", and it's a fitting denouement, a grandstanding instrumental to bring the mosh one last time. Arif shakes out his bottled water in triumph, and I'm proud to catch some on my brow.

Outside in the early autumn air, under a black sky, I can gather my thoughts. Now there are a couple of criticisms that can be fairly levelled at Wormrot, so let's acknowledge them (NB "that's not music, it's just noise" is not one). Firstly, that they're derivative. Well, yes: each ingot of their sound has been cast before, although they're frankly way too young to be Napalm copyists (they wouldn't have been born when "Scum" came out!) and they've actually been listening to Phobia, Magrudergrind and Insect Warfare, which musically must be closer reference points. But we would hardly like Wormrot so much - and to be honest they would surely not be quite so celebrated - if they weren't doing something great, and at least faintly original, with that template. The way they furiously compress the song arrangements, throw in some confounding humour, mix in hurtling punkish riffs (yes, TUNES!) and play with dynamics is, to my mind, pretty unique. Wormrot do use tried and tested building blocks, but create an architecture all of their own: this is "roots" grindcore, and you can't help but marvel at the economy of expression it distils.

The second criticism is that they're not overtly "political". As you know, this is one we would normally regard with more seriousness than most, dogmatic and po-faced as we are about the madly fucked up nature of this greed-swollen, empathy bypass world. Well, there are vague socio-political themes in some of Wormrot's songs, but clearly being from Singapore they can hardly bang on about Thatcher / Reagan / Bush / Blair in quite the way that US/UK bands we love might have done. Worse, if they did tilt into the platitudinous, they might lose the mischievous streak that helps make their songwriting so immediate, their Singlish lyrics so (deliberately!) entertaining. And - of course - there's a generational thing in this post-internet age, that newer bands of every genre seem less concerned about directly addressing social issues through their songs: some just "care about the state of their hair" and deserve censure accordingly, but I have faith that many believe that there are other, more meaningful ways to be politically engaged, and I suspect they may even be right. Perhaps I just need to get that mote out of my eye.

Any road up, the gig tonight has been a revelation, and we think about our reaction to that brilliant Insect Warfare record, and how we'd concluded it was - in a positive and natural way! - the death of music. And of course it transpires, not for the first time, that we couldn't have been more wrong: perhaps it was actually the beginning, and "Dirge" was its natural heir, the first in the line of new potentates. It was interesting to read what Digby Pearson, perhaps the godfather of grindcore, said about Earache (an oft-extollable label) signing Wormrot: for like him, we thought there was something different, something *genuine* about Insect Warfare and Wormrot as distinct from much that went before, and like him it was (the still-shiveringly thrilling) "Born Stupid" that made us really sit up and take notice of the latter.

Now I am a very lucky man: I've been to hundreds and hundreds of great gigs over the last 25 years. I've been privileged enough to see Rakim, Cube, P.E., the Go-Betweens, Brighter, Hood, Motorhead, Napalm, ENT, Nasum, Slayer, the young Mary Chain, the 80s Fall, KRS-One, Blueboy, Tramway, Bolt-Thrower, TBS, Wu-Tang Clan, the Windmills, Would-be-goods, the Wedding Present, Heavenly, Lock Up, even Comet Gain on a good night. But I have got to level with you right now and say that tonight - a gig that was exciting, crucial and a somehow everything-affirming pick-me-up - ranked with the very best of those.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

It Glitters, It's Gold



A blue moon glimpses out over Camden's fading evening sky: for D'Alma and I are out in North London again. Old men that we now are, we edge towards a couch in a *buzzing* Jazz Cafe and slump gratefully onto it, drinking Red Stripe from plastic cups but fantasising that we're sipping 40s on the kerbside. We hear "Slam", "King Of Rock" and chunks of Gang Starr and Jeru blaring out: old style East Coast is the vibe tonight, and it fits our contented mood like a glove. Then, as we chat, the noise slowly ratchets up, a frisson of excitement begins to subsume the room, and we decide it's time to raise ourselves back to our weary feet and check out what's going down. An unassuming-looking guy in a baseball cap and a Carhartt hoodie strolls down the steps to the stage. No big thing, surely. *But we're all butterflies and goosebumps*. Why ?

Because he's the R, Rakim Allah, the God MC, the greatest rapper of all time. Until this spring, he hadn't played in London for twelve years. We bought tickets to see him in 2008, but then he cancelled and we wondered if we'd missed the chance for good. And now we're twenty feet away from him, in a venue that only holds a few hundred people. Remember, "Paid In Full" (this show is loosely billed as its 25-yr anniversary) sold over a million on its own. So forget the disappointment of the Olympics lottery: we've won just by getting in here tonight.

The stage is bare save for Rakim, his buddy DJ Technician and two turntables: but the R's presence fills the room. He unleashes "My Melody", and the punters go wild. He switches forward a whole quarter-century to the beautiful "Holy Are U", and the place crackles with electricity. Then, we jump back to the late 90s and "The 18th Letter", with stabs at its best tracks, "It's Been A Long Time" and "Guess Who's Back". Another rewind in time takes us to 1986 (of course): we're bathing, *luxuriating* in the warmth of this show.

More singles are deployed. "Move The Crowd" takes an elegant bow, but it's "I Ain't No Joke" which really hits the spot. Then there's an obligatory sequence "for the ladies", which is chivalrous of him. However, unfortunately it features the likes of "Mahogany" and "What's On Your Mind", by some distance Eric B and Rakim's worst ever singles, as well as his verse from Truth Hurts' "Addictive" single (mind you, please note that we love Truth Hurts, and despite occasional rumours to the contrary, we do not have any kind of downer on R&B - yr confusion may spring from our oft-stated view that the only thing worse than a hip-hop record ruined by a stilted R&B hook is an R&B record vandalised by a completely superfluous bolt-on verse from a jobbing rapper. That kind of crossover madness can still go hang, in our book). Anyway, we look on, dutifully, until it's over.

The otherwise-amazing set is punctuated liberally with newer cuts ("How To Emcee" stands up surprisingly well, given the general lack of love for "The Seventh Seal" LP) but it's not long before "The Punisher" delivers an appropriately bruising reminder of how Rakim truly used to *slay* the mic ("kill 'em again", he urges, and heads truly BOUNCE). Rakim and DJ Technician then divide the crowd for some call and response that quickly degenerates into general abuse: we're on Rakim's team, of course, so we easily defeat those "other side" suckers. In a novel variation of "frontman goes rogue" (you know, MES on the keyboards, or that thing Flavor Flav does on the drumkit) Rakim takes to the decks for a couple of minutes of serious scratching: beforehand he's a bit nervous ("if it don't work, don't dare YouTube me") but afterwards, facing renewed acclaim, he's more relaxed. "YouTube that shit".

A guy just up the bar comments that "this must be like going to see the old blues legends". We sort of see what he means, and it's true that most of us here have visibly grown up with Rakim. The bloke just next to us looks like a Chelsea headhunter, but is more than amiable: he tells us that he too was 13 when he first got hit by Rakim's flow. However, there is the obligatory idiot (for your future gig-going reference, this one looks a bit like Richard Jobson during his Armoury Show phase) who tries to start on us, because we're wearing suits. Jobson tries to engage our new friend from the Shed End, but headhunter's on our side: he knows, just like us, that what you're wearing doesn't matter, nor does what you do for a living: we've all got jobs to hold down and family to keep (and are grateful for both), and what matters is that we can still come together to pay tribute to the people who, through their music, have enriched our lives. Rakim is right up there, of course, amongst the other greats we've recently had the privilege of seeing (Cube, Chuck, KRS...)

A fact that the legend on stage proceeds to ram home in a coursing final spell. So as our last drink kicks in, we're pummelled by a sequence that starts with "Don't Sweat The Technique", flowers into old car-stereo staple "Know The Ledge", hits hard with "Paid In Full", replete with the Ofra Haza remix intro, and after increasingly imploring requests, finishes with a breathtaking "Follow The Leader", done a cappella. It can't get much better. We don't feel so weary now, or so old.

I think we've compared Eric B and Rakim to the Smiths before, the phenomenon of four landmark albums and countless classic singles in only a few short years, followed by nothing else: after they went their separate ways, they never reformed, could not tarnish or dilute their legacy. They started young (Rakim was 18 when EB&R broke big and only 24 when they broke up: the same age as Johnny Marr when the Smiths split). And if Chuck D was Strummer, strident, political and defiantly international in outlook; and Ice Cube was Johnny Rotten, the frontman of a punkish vanguard who then matured into a creative artist in his own right; then Rakim is the obvious man to play the Morrissey role, the man who introduced poetry and a whole new lyrical style into hip-hop, whose early peaks have never really been equalled, but whose voice is still as welcome and distinctive as it was when "Eric B For President" first appeared. I think we've also made the point, but shan't tire of it, that the great John Peel introduced us (and thousands of others) to both.

You should always move on, and always love new music, and as you know we do, but there's a reason why the golden era got its name, and flashbacks to it like this are a shot in the arm, a reminder that in a quarter-century from now we could be in another venue, seeing an artist that broke in 2011, perhaps someone we'll discover over the next few weeks or months. That holds out a gorgeous kind of promise, and we just can't wait.