Monday, December 31, 2012

Sixty

It was a good year, even if it fell off a bit near the end.
 




















"I regret / throwing away / my Jesus and Mary Chain records / during my religious phase" (Hulaboy, "Oh Lord. CHUKKA!")

We began '12 genuinely wondering (on the occasion of Hulaboy's ace EP)
 
"whether good "indie" as we used to know it exists at all today. Has the Man redefined it out of existence, or is it still 'out there', but just failing to register, to prick the senses in the way it used to in those days when a new 7" could seem crucial to your life ?"

and then found over the course of the year that any number of grrrreat bands delivered the same answer as Hulaboy did: *hell yeah*, it exists. You just have to find it.

So, the year's shining singles. Hulaboy, natch. The Hobbes Fanclub, with bells on. Nixon's disarmingly outstanding "This Town" EP on Cloudberry, in our favourite Josie Portillo artwork yet. A slew from the imperious Matinée Recordings: Pale Sunday, Hermit Crabs, September Girls, Charlie Big Time, Bart & Friends et al. From Bristol and Nottingham respectively, the mellow musical treats that were Our Arthur's "Strange About The Rain" and Red Shoe Diaries' "When I Find My Heart". Bristling, majestic comeback 45s from classic combos: Wolfhounds, June Brides, Black Tambourine. And great, time-defying pop from 'Allo Darlin', too.

We're afraid that Burial's "Kindred" and "One / Two" singles were also outstanding(*strokes chin*): and there were no end of sleek and sinewy instrumental singles from beyond these shores of which the *very* pick were probably Michael Schwarz's "Incarnation" and "Function", Ryuji Takeuchi's "Upside Down", Sven Wittekind's "The Twirl" (plus its ace Klaudia Gawlas remix), André Walter's "Corporate Vultures" and Tex-Rec's marvellous "Encoding".
 
Swedes General Surgery and Italians Cripple Bastards inflicted head-mashingly fine 7" EPs on us via Relapse, the latter being one that we only belatedly realised had 14 tracks, such was the pace at which the last ten or so zipped by. And there was Napalm Death's "Analysis Paralysis", another reminder of how it's grindcore, not any other genre, that has really taken up the cudgels of true punk and hardcore. With its "if you're looking for the guilty ones / we only need to look in the mirror" attack, it reminded us of Forever People's dainty "Invisible" ("we are invisible / we're nowhere to be seen") and then that in turn always reminds us of Napalm's "The World Keeps Turning" ("we're the cause, not the cure") or the self-explanatory "Silence Is Deafening". Enviro-tastic.

It's probably a bad sign that we listened to far more ancient than recent hip-hop in 2012 (Big Daddy Kane's "Another Victory" is lighting up our speakers as we type, and 2012 was rendered a little extra-special for us by *finally* getting to see Sticky and Fredro strut their stuff) but at least the likes of the hyper-prolific Roc Marciano and his New York chum and M.A.R.S. affiliate Action Bronson continued to try and carry a torch for the real thing: the former's "Emeralds" single was probably the most complete vision of all, while both Roc and the Action man received able assistance from the UK's Purist for later 45s. Our favourite homegrown hip-hop tune, though, turned out to be the back to basics floor-filler "Inject The Beat", authored by a stunning quadrumvirate of producer Irn Mnky, MCs Bane and Cappo and turntablist DJ esSDee. In wondering where all the good UK hip-hop has gone, it was a great shame to see that Son Records, who have produced some extraordinarily high-end music over the past decade (Styly Cee, Caps, C-Mone, Scorz), were effectively forced to give up as a consequence of illegal downloading, etc (the upside was that it got a video clip of Cappo and Styly onto Newsnight, which a real treat in an otherwise fairly poor year for said TV programme...)

"I'm in love with this racket, like Federer" (Rival, "Headshot Season")

Grime subsided a little after its renaissance of sorts in 2011, but No Lay was undoubtedly top of the (Christmas) tree with her excellent comeback tune and LP (and that's not to mention of her "Anarchy" single this winter, which sounds like a - supremely confident - audition for major label fame). Having said that, for a pure one-off 45 that nimbly pushed all the right buttons it would be hard to top Terror Danjah and Riko Dan's startling and egregiously danceable "Dark Crawler" 12", the best thing that either have done for a while. And Rival's "Headshot Season" was our favourite of his singles (and the only one of our picks to also appear in Crack Magazine's top 50 tunes of 2012, fact fans), even if not close to the tremblingly raw touchpaper-lighting excitement of "Lock Off The Rave" last year.

If we may zone back into instrumental territory to close, our longtime darlings Kryptic Minds flattered to deceive a bit, but as the year wore on their singles got both more eclectic *and* more aggressively brilliant, ending with the marvellous "The Divide" / "Rule Of Language" 12", amongst the finest instrumental vinyl of the year.
 
Incidentally, it did rather sum up an eclectic year in singles that our favourites ranged from the sub-one minute (Chulo vs. Gripe) to the supra-one hour (Michael Schwarz's "Neuronorm" remix package)...
 
"I wonder if you still listen to / the bands we went to see ?" (the Wedding Present, "Pain Perdu")
 
Shimmying across to albums, the old boys (and girls) were in fine fettle. Tender Trap's LP was scintillating. As was Napalm Death's, obv. The Wedding Present's "Valentina" was perhaps the all-round strongest of their long-players since re-forming. Even better, none other than our 80s-90s heroes the Great Leap Forward re-emerged, with the anger-bred brio and thematic flourishes of "This Is Our Decade Of Living Cheaply And Getting By", an LP which was truly medicine for our times. It was nice to see "they haven't lost it" albums, too, by other vieilles-stagers like Public Enemy, Bad Brains, the Wake and Bumpy n' Premier.
 
Looking at newer bands on 33 (or digital "equivalent"), effervescent Glasgow duo Strawberry Whiplash really hit their stride with "Hits In The Car", while two of the classiest records of the year came from Scandinavian labelmates of theirs, Cats On Fire and Azure Blue; a third was Our Arthur's first long-playing salvo, the cruelly unsung and tearjerkingly rain-stained "Humour Me".

Sven Wittekind's "Broken Mirrors" was a top-drawer album, perhaps the best of the year in pure musical terms, but it was such a shame that so much on it was *old news*. Deh-Noizer's "Unconscious Reactions" burned bright (with tracks like "Feelings Selection", "Charged" and "Wormhole" flying especially high), even if it couldn't quite sustain those levels throughout.

Noise-wise 2012 proved to be not even a patch on 2011, but given that Wormrot didn't see fit to cheer us with any new material, that's perhaps not surprising. Even so, Noisear deserve a shout-out for their "Turbulent Resurgence" set (we weren't expecting Noisear to out-blast their new labelmates Phobia, but they did) and Terrorizer's return, while hardly inspirational, at least added one more album of high-falutin guttural growlcore to the canon.

And talking of high-falutin, it would also be fair to say that the Garlands' album was an (inevitably) fabulous début.
 
There were some storming retrospectives: we were most tickled by the Sugargliders and Hit Parade assemblages that came out in autumn. But we also meant to get round to eulogising the brilliant AR Kane singles collection (current favourites include "Sugarwings", "Down", "Supervixens", "Sea and the Child" and "Honey Be", but there are *so* many others: "Snow Joke" has a little of the feel of the Orchids' "Peaches", for example). 

We loved the MBV "Loveless" extra tracks reissue too (here's a confession for you: it took us over 20 years to get round to listening to anything that MBV did after "Isn't Anything", simply because in 1990, we were so anti-whatever was cool and popular - at our school, this meant all shoegaze, and everything baggy, both genres beloved of the Sarah-haters - that we simply refused to listen to any of it). But (states obvious), even if "Loveless" is more 'tuneful' and less experimental than we always assumed it must be, "Glider" and "To Here Knows When" are really very good, aren't they ? If it wasn't for AR Kane's existence, MBV would surely be the most significant and radical alternative band of their age. Also, Alan McGee has now gone up a notch in our estimation (to steal Snoop's line from "Starsky and Hutch", that means he's now at notch one).

A word for Cake's compilation, er, "Cake", issued by Rocker's Local Underground label: we'd been trying to get hold of Cake's songs for years. For those of you unfamiliar with them, or who think we may be randomly and frankly unlikelily bumbling on about the US band of the same name, Cake were a classic-sounding, bandwagon-avoiding and hence sadly overlooked Bristol group featuring Debbie Haynes (ex-Flatmates) and Jez Butler (ex-Groove Farm) amongst others: Mr Butler resurfaced this year, with his compact orchestra, on a number of those Our Arthur tracks we loved so much.

Oh, and talking of the Groove Farm, one of the best compilations of 2012 was A Work Of Heart's "Raving Pop Blast!" tribute to said combo, featuring cracking tracks from no end of illustrious bods including Rocker's own Drain On The Balcony, the Fireworks (who we're very anxious to hear more of), Horowitz (from whom we expect more soon!) and, in a neat "coming full circle" kind of way, Our Arthur again. You can find an exhilarating and heartfelt tour de force on the comp here.
 
Before we finish our records round-up, there does need to be some kind of special award for the Morbid Angel remix album, which was somehow both a joy and a chore to listen to, three compelling if occasionally enervating hours of wilful, tunnel-vision mentalism. If you had to sum up the original "Illud Divinus Insanum" outing in a phrase it would be along the lines of "bad Latin, bad album", but "Remixes" is not so much a vast improvement as simply a different *species* from the original. In ambition, range and length, it proved a marked contrast to "The World's Shortest Album", and the DJ Scott Brown, DJ Ruffneck and Tek-One contributions especially still rule our little world.

Ohhhhh... so much else we enjoyed in '12. Rossini's "La Cenerentola" at Glyndebourne. Guerrilla knitting in Southville. The East London Olympics, when they weren't all about mayors or royals. Robert Pirlo's coup de grâce, chipped beyond a despairing Joe Hart. The new series of Rastamouse. The two Ians, McCulloch and Broudie, at the Union Chapel (apart from when it got a bit too M.O.R.) "Hey Diddle Diddle" at the Bristol Old Vic. Ice-T's "The Art Of Rap" movie: genuinely fascinating, a kind of return to traditional documentary film-making, where you actually learn things and have the luxury of engaging with the talking heads. Oddly enough, James Naughtie's excellent BBC4 film on Sir George Solti achieved the same. And talking of BBC4 (we seek solace in it often) it was great to see repeats for the Chas and Dave documentary, which pointed up how they were only "rediscovered" and properly venerated from 'round 2003, when Pete Doherty started banging on about them. We would say only this, bandwagon jumpers: we were eulogising Chas and Dave before that, and at the time it felt lonely on that limb. Glad you got on board, though.

Football, once our first love, continued to sink to new lows, many provided by Chelsea. So for the purposes of our blood pressure, we'll draw a veil over the lot of them (let's be honest: Pirlo aside, even Euro 2012 was, as sporting events now tend to be, essentially one long promotion for alcohol, junk food and betting, with most of those responsible being welcomed as "partners" and sponsors), save to say that:
 
- we should, and will, honourably exempt Zambia's thrilling underdog run to the African Cup of Nations title from our ire;
- otherwise, we're increasingly persuaded that the only solution is to reinstate the maximum wage for footballers (hint: we would suggest around the £20 a year level we left it at, plus player expenses based strictly on cost of bus ride to match and launderette charge for washing kit).
 
And that, dear faraway friends, needs to be that. So... shout-outs to the N1 and E3 massive. Big up to my main man D'Alma and my man the Beat Poet. Hail Allah the Supreme Creator. Love and respect to you all. Peace.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Flag75 "Adhesion" (Electrax Recordings): Daniel Cuminale "Surface Signal" (Audiosignal): Mintech "Rock In Peace" (Electrax Recordings): Spiros Kaloumenos "Last Of The Last" (Focus): Jan Marks "Is That You" (Audiosignal): Hirax "La Bocca de la Bestia" (Metalhit): Jaydan & Renegade "Dead People" (Smokin' Riddims): Preditah "Red Bull" (Earth 616): Tex-Rec "Amstrong Part 1" (Hybrid Confusion): Peverelist "Stableface" (Soul Motive): Leghau "Clipper" (RemuteD): Cortechs "The Bane" (Mechno Music): Merky Ace "Eff Tizzy" (Family Tree): Ramson Badbonez "My Shit" (King Kong Holding Company): The Proctors / Apple Orchard split (Dufflecoat): Spiros Kaloumenos "Meteor" (Driving Forces): Forest People "Servant Spirits" (Analogeffekt): Frankyeffe "Without Pause" (Diva): Wu-Block featuring Jadakiss "Stick Up Kids" (E1): The Pains of Being Pure at Heart "Jeremy" / "My Life Is Wrong" (Slumberland): André Walter "Corporate Vultures" (Stigmata Digital): Bad Brains "Into The Future" (Megaforce Records)
 
One reason our post count this year increased by um, 2000% (pretty much a hard stat for once, rather than exaggeration!) was a desire to quit with that old-school "occasional but epic post" nonsense and instead be modern, slick, no-prisoners, up to the minute, twitter-friendly, no more than 140 characters per review, all that. We failed - *sigh* - meaning amongst other things that we built up a backlog of other records we enjoyed over the year that we never got near describing for you, because we were too busy over-wittering on about the ones we did get round to writing about.
 
So you'll understand that we must *must* MUST grab, right now, this last, heaven-sent opportunity to PROVE our newly-acquired minimalist review technique credentials by reviewing the first nineteen records here, mostly ones we meant to review months back, using a total of two, unmeticulous but accurate words:
 
"pretty good".
 
*And* we're going to see Wu-Block in a few weeks. Woo. I mean, Wu.

As for the three that are left: well, the Pains need no introduction and you all will have bought everything they've ever done the nanosecond it was released, meaning that this single will be very old news. For our sins, we haven't invested in every record, not recently, but we've still seen them more than any other band over the last few years or so, and they mean a huge amount. Anyway, the cover of the Magnetic Fields' "Jeremy" is able enough, but it's "My Life Is Wrong" which they really seize quite brilliantly. We love East River Pipe, but if anything we actually prefer the Pains' version, which takes an early feedback-soaked stranglehold and does not, *will* not, let go.
 
When This Many Boyfriends' "Starling" fluttered into view, it 'inspired' us to list a few of our favourite, um, bird-related tunes, although we omitted to include Wire's rather smart "Culture Vultures". We're reminded to add it to the roll now, of course, thanks to the new André Walter single, which becomes at least the second best song ever with "vulture" in its title (putting New Order's "Dub-vulture" in third), a typically invigorating slab of high-octane alt-techno which is a little more direct, a little less minimally abstract than AW's excellent SWR outing "Infrasound" a few years ago,
 
"a rather intricate exercise in techno pointillism that oscillates rolling, ricocheting rhythms with jacking spring-heeled hydraulics, all sprinkled liberally with pitch modulation"
 
apparently. "Corporate Vultures" is, we hope, a nod to the still-scandalous excesses of any number of financial institutions and their still-willing lickspittle apologists, but even if it isn't, it's a fine piece of music.
 
One left, but one worth waiting for. We had Bad Brains' last LP "Build A Nation" in our top five albums of 2007:
 
"not only includes some of the dreamiest, most perfectly-picked roots reggae we've heard for a country while but also some of the more coruscating hardcore tunes we've encountered since the heyday of the great m.d.c..."
 
Anyway, "Build A Nation"'s follow up, "Into The Future", carries on the good work. In keeping with our newfound commitment to keep things brief, we will restrict our thoughts to a mere sentence or two. When punk first burst upon us all back in the 1970s via some of our cities' staider suburbs, it would probably not have been thought likely that the best punk album of 2012 would be made by four fiftysomething Rastafarians from DC: but it's happened. Like its predecessor, the album combines confident HC stylings ("Youth Of Today", "Into The Future"), fizzing sub-90 second firecrackers ("Yes I", "Come Down") and dub and reggae-soaked sizzlers ("Jah Love", "Rub A Dub Love"), but what really makes it special is the rousing last ten minutes, comprised of bountiful, plucked reggae instrumental "Make A Joyful Noise" and the moving, brass-tinged tribute, "MCA Dub" to close. Magical.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Burial "Truant" / "Rough Sleeper" [aka "One/Two"] (Hyperdub)
 
To those lamenting the lack of a new LP from south London undercover grimestep wizard Burial since "Untrue" got the critical cognoscenti salivating in 2007, it's probably worth pointing out that over the five tracks on his brace of EPs this year (the two here clock in between them at over 25 minutes) he's easily provided an album's worth - just shy of an hour - of fresh material.
 
You may have thought that the "Kindred" EP - in particular sprawling closer "Ashtray Wasp" - was pushing even dubstep's notoriously blurry and bleary-eyed lines as far as they could sensibly stretch. You would have been wrong, for this new 12", despite being modestly shrouded in a typically nondescript sleeve, is possibly even more ambitious. When Eno infamously described Burial's ouevre as "dance music that you can't dance to", Burial's records were far more DJ-sympathetic than they are now. Hell, compared to this, they were "Footloose". Or "Boogie Wonderland".
 
Ahem. If "Kindred" the song mirrored the noise and hubbub of the city club, albeit tempered by interludes of reflection, as if the listener was being invited between the jinking bursts of dancefloor-friendly bass tones to step back into the cold of the street outside, these new pieces - and they are definitely pieces, not songs - are (even) more fractured, disparate soundscapes that rise to occasional crescendos as they take in and absorb passing bursts of more fully-formed music; they're patchworks seemingly in search of a unifying theme. More suburban than urban, if you like.
 
The vocal samples are actually marginally less disembodied than normal - in moments coming as close as Burial has come to carrying "proper" words upon his tide of clipped, ambient beats - but the music that surrounds them flits in and out, subsiding to silence at times before new flickers emerge: it's almost like a movie soundtrack, rather than an own-right single. And, unlike the three contrasting tracks on "Kindred", "Truant" and "Rough Sleeper" complement each other snugly: instead of the "nightbus" visions usually invoked when Burial is discussed, they recreate the feeling of movement on foot around a town or city, from the sampled sound of keys jingling in someone's pocket through to the discrete snatches of song that intrude as the ghost "narrator" seemingly moves from venue to venue, walks from outside to inside and then outside again.
 
"Truant" is hinged early on by a plaintive "I fell in love with you" motif, but otherwise it's a suite of electronic landscaping, buoyed by ramping, deeeeep bass, impaled by occasional slivers of noise, and then shot through with sudden... shards of silence. Deep into it, the distant sound of a rave, refracted through a busy night, finally gives the track a focus of sorts. Even later on, some hints of jazz force their way into the mix, as if Squarepusher had wandered in, helplessly intrigued by the sounds of what had gone before, and decided to add his musical twopenneth. "Rough Sleeper" - even the titles reflect the idea of an itinerant protagonist - is more expansive still, boasting a sculpted "high church" segment arrayed around a portentous organ sound, percussion as brisk as the last EP's "Loner", a passage of urgent and fidgety buzzing bass that segues into an oasis of beatific calm, and then a higher-tempo final stretch at the end of which the track implodes rather tartly and abruptly.
 
Both pieces are subtly and impressively constructed, and, when the component parts coalesce, deeply powerful. Listening to this - while myself moving from pavement to pavement in the downpour - a list of London postcodes began to form in my head, as I tried to whittle down the ones I'd lived in to the place that best matched the grainy timbre of these dark but bliss-stained tracks. I finally nailed it as SW9: a torrent of memories, of the crossroads lit by traffic lights, of hurried dashes to and from the Tube, of involuntary shivers, of the boys circling on bikes; yet also a place of twentysomething possibilities, of smile-making and heads-aching, of nights-out merriment, flirting with strangers, the excitement of the city. Um, that's still as close as I, at least, can come to capturing the appeal of Hyperdub's marquee signing.
 
Yep, as you can tell, for the second time this year Burial's output has defied our somewhat limited powers of description: we'd really like to see Alex Ross writing about it, but until that happens we're just happy that we've stuck with it, and not been put off (at times we were *so* tempted) by the hype. For us, "One/Two" may not have the gravitational pull of "Kindred", but it better explores the experimental themes heralded by "Ashtray Wasp" and cements Burial's position at the forefront of, well, modern music, frankly.If there were a sliver of justice on this earth, this would be Christmas number one, wherein *much* confusion would, quite rightly, reign.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Fall, Islington Assembly Hall, 6 December 2012

Even 35 years in, there are legions of Fall naysayers. To be fair to most, they know about the Fall, and have heard a few of the songs, but tend to dismiss the band along the lines of, "it's just some mad bloke shouting over what is frankly a bit of a racket in the background". This is, of course true in itself, but not the whole truth: it's equivalent to saying "football is just some blokes kicking a pig's bladder about", or "Shakespeare was just some bloke scribbling words with a quill". Still, we respect the naysayers' (wrong) opinion. This post is dedicated to them.

Tonight is another triumph, a TR7 perhaps, although unlike last night's smooth curve of improvement it's more of a rollercoaster. The band all look rather dapper, as if they've been co-ordinated: save for Elena they're all wearing dark outfits, Smith in particular much smarter in his black leather jacket. We also realise why he seems quite so old now: it's because there's now a visible bald patch coming, although for a man in his mid-fifties he didn't do badly in keeping all his hair 'til now. For her part, Elena tonight has not one but two handbags (of differing sizes) by her side, along with a couple of very full-looking carrier bags. We never find out what's in them, sadly.

After a particularly long wait for Mark to join the rest of them (indeed, he waits until the second song is underway) the set unravels itself as similar to last time, and so is imbued with newies of varying promise (there must be a new LP imminent: they clearly have the material for it), but inamongst them the like of "Hot Cake" and "Strychnine" are picked up by the scruff of the neck early on, blitzing the recorded versions and providing real excitement earlier than it arrived yesterday. And "Bury" is not only discernible, but *on fire*, Mark and Elena incandescent with zeal as they scream, "I'm not from Bury!" out across the Hall.

There's no "I've Been Duped" this evening, but there is another "Container Drivers" (yay) and, again, that's the song that brings the crowd alive (and brings M.E.S. out from the cosy chair, behind the guitarist's amp, that he found yesterday). As he hogs centre stage, he is clearly relishing the moment, the validation of a song from "Grotesque" having stood the test of time: each "roll on, roll off" is a particular joy. Even better, tonight 1986's (very) minor hit "Mr Pharmacist" gets thrown in to the proceedings, picking up the cue of last night's audience karaoke and proving that the two-minute high-tensile pelter still has a role to play in a Fall set; and they decide to treat us to "Reformation" too, one of the four certified highlights from the otherwise not completely er, whelming "Post-Reformation TLC" and which, even by Fall standards, is pretty minimal in structure (mmm, as we noted here when it came out in single form):

"comes as close as a song can to packaging the chimera that is ESSENCE OF FALL into one place. as we've hinted before, it is a hulking, bristling monster which basically consists of taking a two-note bassline, and then running with it uninterrupted for the next seven minutes or so"

But for the second evening in a row the set proper closes with "Blindness" and it is, it really is, a tour de force, a song that we would happily have them play approx. forever (yes we know that many of you, had you been there, might have observed drily that it already felt like it had gone on forever). There's not just tampering with the guitarist's amp tonight: Smith also plays the cymbals with his mic, and wanders intermittently over to the keyboard to "play" it while Elena tries her damnedest not to look too annoyed.

The encore ? Well, tonight undistracted by flying beer, Elena cheerfully introduces Dragnet's "Psykick Dancehall" with "is there anybody there ?", the crowd respond with the necessary "YEAH" and for the second time we're taken back to the Fall's heyday. They follow "Dancehall" with a rollicking "What About Us ?" (like "Blindness", a classically repetitive Fall song taken from their prime 21st century LP "Fall Heads Roll"  to send us out into the rainy night.
 
It's been a blast, truly. You're not going to like this, but they probably are the second best band in the world.

Friday, December 07, 2012

The Fall, Islington Assembly Hall, 5 December 2012

Naming the best band in the world is easy, and isn't even a trick question, because there's a reasonable consensus, with which we wholeheartedly agree. Basically, it's the Berlin Philharmonic, and has been since the late nineteenth century. The vexed question is who comes next. Who are the second best band in the world ?

Earlier this year, three friends and I spent a month listening to every album by the Fall. One a day, in chronological order. We then ranked them, of course, as you'd expect us old man music anoraks to: it wasn't just the 'classic' albums that dominated, either (even though "Hex" won). It proved a rather rewarding, even uplifting, thirty days and it struck me, especially as they're by some distance the band I've chosen to witness in the flesh most often, that the Fall might just be that silver medal band, second fiddle to Sir Simon Rattle & company. (What happened next, we're ashamed to say, was that rather than having a rest from the Fall, we each set about listening to all 50-odd Fall singles in order, and ranked them, too. All of which made the prospect of having the Fall back in London as welcome as ever).

As the Compton Arms was teeming with celebrity Fall fans and a disconcerting (and rather novel) aura of hipsterness, D'Alma and I started in the Florence, where I was briefly introduced to a Luddite (older readers may remember the Luddites: their "Doppelganger" was a Festive Fifty entry in 1983, only one place below the mighty Fall's "Kicker Conspiracy"). We then sat in the warm trying to work out a sensible time to venture over to the nearby Assembly Hall, given the Fall's notorious dislike of (a) coming on stage on time and (b) tolerable support bands. Just after ten to ten, we caved in. A blast of icy cold air, and we were within the rather smart Assembly Hall's embrace (not many venues welcome you in via red carpets and freshly polished fittings). There was just time for the PA to crank out "Another Girl Another Planet", "Don't Dictate" and the opening bars of "Public Image"... and then they appeared.

It was the usual Fall line-up: Mr Smith, Mrs Smith, and three work experience lads (albeit these have been around a year or two now: perhaps we should call them apprentices). Mr Smith (the sorcerer they're apprenticed to) is looking quite old now, even to the extent that he seemed to be wearing his belt halfway up his midriff. Mrs Smith, mind, is as glamorous as ever. She ascended the stage wearing a bright red duffle coat and, as always, kept her ever-expanding handbag close to her Korg throughout. The work experience lads clanked up the usual skewed rock and roll rhythms, and we were set.

The first 35 or 40 minutes, intriguingly, were mostly new songs (or old songs played unrecognisably: subsequent research reveals the latter group apparently included the normally amazing "Bury"). Unfortunately, Mr Smith decided to spend much of this time sitting down behind the amplifiers, meaning that for large swathes of the evening he was heard, but not seen: occasionally, his head would bob up into view while he messed with the guitarist's amp. Overall, the show was good, but not great.

The turning point came with "I've Been Duped", Elena's song from "Imperial Wax Solvent". On that record it jars a bit, but live it comes across almost as a lost punk classic: it reminded us of the gobby way they belted out "Systematic Abuse" (at 93 Feet East a few years back, for example). It's nice when the Fall occasionally eschew um, altrockabilly for their punk(ish) roots.
 
Then things really hot up. For "Container Drivers" arrives, in all its glorious madness. It's tremendous fun, the apprentice on drums having a field day, and Mr Smith is not only back in vision, but hyped up and towering over the front of the stage. After the stark contrast of the reflective "Weather Report" (from Domino outing "Your Future, Our Clutter") the set then winds up with none other than "Blindness", increasingly one of our favourite Fall songs. True, there's not much more to it than a single bassline, but *what* a bassline. It grinds on, rolls on, drives on. After a few minutes and a seeming argument between Mr and Mrs Smith, a second vocal mic is passed into the eager throng below. This time, the disembodied vocal we hear is that of a lucky punter in the front row: the punter starts riffing on a "he is not appreciated" theme, paying due deference to the Hip Priest still barking out "vocals" a few feet above him. This goes on for a few minutes, the punter starting to broaden his repertoire (we hear shouts of "Mr Pharmacist") before, sadly, the band depart the stage.

The encore is brief, but brilliant: after a flying pint glass whistles past the Korg, we get "Sparta FC" and yet again it sounds much better live than it ever really managed to in the studio. It's also rather spookily topical tonight - "English Chelsea fan / this is your last game" - for it's being played within minutes of Chelsea having been knocked out of the Champions' League. Then it's over, and we spill out onto the street, along with a formidable phalanx of other middle-aged white men.

We've seen the Fall 20 or 30 times, I guess, over a 25-year span. Sometimes not for a few years (we fear the last time we saw them may have been at the Astoria, which would be - gulp - four years ago); other times four times in as many days.
 
"beforehand, we had wondered whether four fall gigs in a row might seem a bit much - but in the end the answer, of course, was that it was not nearly enough."

Even on the rare occasions when they disappoint, it's intriguing: we've had the "privilege" of seeing the storm-offs, the pulled plugs, the beefs with support bands, even the guitarless three-piece Fall (not far off Smith's infamous "me and your Granny on bongos" quote) that surreally improvised its way through that debacle at Dingwalls. And even then, you *know* the setbacks are just setting them up to return stronger another time. Tonight they almost disappointed for a while, but soon they thrilled again (though it was a shame that they took too many tracks from the patchy if acclaimed "Your Future" yet nothing from their fine and fiery most recent album, "Ersatz GB"). We ended up just as excited as we were the first time, back in 1987. We're already raring for more.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Noisear "Turbulent Resurgence" (Willowtip): No Lay "Flowcaine" (Freshwave Entertainment): Forest People "Portal Grade" (Sick Weird Rough): Cortechs "The Last 13" (Steil): Kryptic Minds "The Divide" / "Rule Of Language" (Osiris Music)
 
It was inevitable that as soon as we praised the dry autumn weather, the tables would turn and the city would be deluged by full-force jets of skimming rain, (slam) dancing beneath a sea of rapidly-greying cloud. Thing is, though, we still don't mind, because we rather like *this* kind of weather, too: it just takes a bit more preparation on the clothing and accessories front. Plus, the new inclemency of climate has been soundtracked by the usual slew of somewhat terrific newies.
 
Noisear follow last year's whirlwind, "Subvert The Dominant Paradigm", with a new LP on Willowtip, "Turbulent Resurgence", and it's comforting to see that the New Mexico-born combo haven't lost their penchant for short, sharp blasts of grind-infused mayhem. However, there are changes at work. "Subvert..." was a many and varied beast, and while it boasted a generous 30 tracks it wasn't all a sprint: final 'tune' "Noiseruption" comprised twenty minutes of carefully orchestrated chaos (perhaps a companion piece to Brutal Truth's equally conspicuous experimental epic "Panic Room"). It seemed designed not so much to subvert any passing dominant paradigm as to drive it gleefully off the nearest steep precipice.

On "Turbulent Resurgence", though, there is a remarkable consistency of vision: over the course of 18 unrelenting minutes (yes, the whole LP is shorter than "Noiseruption" was) Noisear furnish twenty "proper" tracks plus instrumental intro, outro and mid-LP "intermission". The pure relish with which the foursome plough fearlessly through these songs, hackles up and heads down, is a little reminiscent of Wormrot, true, but in terms of the actual music, well: there are myriad flashes of Gridlink's high-tensile trebliness (if offset by fine, gargled, low-end cookie-monster vox); there are plenty of detuned riffs, where mathgrind-meets-death before both are swept away by the sheer pace of the thing; and on the shorter songs the embers of hardcore punk still burn bright ("There Is No God", for example, could be Noisear joining the mightily fine Scapegoat in their rather effective Crossed-Out worship). As each song buzzes merrily to a close, to be instantly replaced by another chunk of trilling 45-second grind, you never find yourself tempted towards the "skip" button. The lyrics and sentiment throughout are spot-on too. Particularly in the light of our somewhat lachrymose post in the summer about the relative disappointment of Phobia's "Remnants Of Filth", "Turbulent Resurgence" is tremendously welcome.

The sublimely talented No Lay you know, and "Flowcaine" is eight proper songs from the rightly Minaj-doubting Londoner, obtainable for an extremely competitive £4.49 via a certain well-branded online music store. While Ghetts - there's a blast from our reviewing past - turns up briefly as a star turn on the diverting "The Jungle", the killer cuts for us are the opening, Limelight-produced "Below Zero" and the head-turning old school bouncer "The War", which comes closest to the brilliance of her recent "Off With Ya Head" single.
 
It's a long time since a grime record has been so consistent over even this many tracks (consistency from any UK rhymer over full CD or mixtape length is, I think we've all accepted by now, just never going to happen): "Flowcaine" is *important*, next-level proof that No Lay has been quietly building up a fully bulletproof repertoire, rather than her typical contemporaries' modest palmfuls of ephemeral crossover hits.

Nowt to do with much-missed Bristol indie royalty Forest Giants, Forest People are (well, is) in fact one Dragan Lakic from Bosnia and Herzegovina, with his first outing for that label we go on so much about. Our favourite record of his to date, "Portal Grade" is a convivial serial beat-wobbler, a neatly-styled slice of engaging minimal techno that carves synth-addled vapour trails through a dark sky of cloudbusting percussion.

And the Rhine-Ruhr's empiricist sound-collager(s) Cortechs are *back*, with an EP on local label, Steil. Lead track "The Last 13" is maybe the best Cortechs single since hometown-ode "Cologne", which you'll recall was

"exceedingly fine, a pitter-patter of syncopated techno percussion underpinned by heart-monitor beep and cuddlesome synth dynamics"

not least as it's combined with a shapelyand areodynamic Niereich remix (mind you, the remix gets a bit disconcerting when the handclaps come in, because they don't sound entirely unlike the legendary intro to Rose Royce's "Car Wash". We'd like to listen to more of Niereich's stuff, but he releases so much of it that we genuinely aren't sure there are enough hours in the day for *anyone* to listen to every track and remix he puts out: perhaps, as a human race, we ought to put together some kind of rota so we can, at the very least, report back to each other on which tunes to buy). More robust and muscular than "Cologne" or "Slow Wave Sleep", "The Last 13" perfectly complements the streetlamp-lit clean lines of the maze of housing estates we navigate on the way home.

The steady stream of bangers from Kryptic Minds shows no sign of abating, either. While last single "Idiom" was
 
"a huge booming bass pulse, interwoven with quickfire synth burble for maximum dancefloor succour"

and its equally electric B-side "Breach" veritably ripe with brisk techno stylings, their powerful new 12" expores two more directions, with equal style. "The Divide" feels almost as grime as it is dubstep: a dungeon bass hybrid born from the same rippling promise as those Rephlex compilations a decade back, and pivoting on clinical shuffling rhythms that chart a journey through '00s south London with some panache. "Rule Of Language", on the other hand, sees the duo back to what they do best: a solid serving of darkly forbidding halfstep with a hint of menace and an aura of possibility. It's alternately thrilling and chilling. An edginess that fits the current weather like a glove, especially as the first wintry winds mass, ready for attack.

In fact, all the songs mentioned in this post are trinkets of joy that have grown on us as we've negotiated the vagaries of this jinking, austere, beautiful but increasingly rainy autumn. We surmise that many in the indie-pop game still prefer "super sunny summers" hands down. But the wonder of nature is all around us in autumn and winter too, you know. It's just.... how a coating of snow makes the evening bright, the roads aflame as the lamplights reflect the white. Hiding inside is no substitute, especially when technology lets you take the music with you.
 
So, just like the 'Brides, we *refuse* to be shut in.

Monday, November 19, 2012

General Surgery "Like An Ever-Flying Limb" EP (Relapse): The Garlands "The Garlands" (Shelflife)

It's definitely deep autumn now, as these fleeting November days skew between last flashes of sun and pre-emptive blasts of icy air. While some prefer the full-on haze of midsummer sunshine (amply evidenced by a virtually unbroken chain of summer-lovin' new wave and indie-pop classics, still epitomised by "Here Comes The Summer"), I can't help feeling the "lazy sunbathers" are missing a trick.

This - what we have now - is optimum weather for walking, for admiring the sights, for being out and about, for indulging the beauty of nature, for sinking on to a park bench and trying to catch up with highlights from the history of recorded music (again). And yet the place we grabbed our takeout coffee from this morning was full of young people sitting on their own, breathing in air-con and staring sullenly into laptop screens. What they need are these two blasts of *absolute* fresh air, borne on the north-easterly wind... yes, after our last post repped Germany, we now shift our focus to the ever-inviting shores of Sweden.
 
One of the reasons that so many of us Brits have such love for the Swedish nation en masse, aside from fuzzily generalised notions of Scandinavian liberalism, is the way it has taken concepts birthed on our island (you know: indie-pop... metal... um, detective fiction) and then produced the definitive versions of them. This post attests to the first two: we'll wait another day to bore you with our take on Laasgård vs Henriksson, etc.
 
* * * * *
 
Now the five fine gentlemen who make up Stockholm combo General Surgery rarely disappoint: their last outing "Corpus In Extremis - Analysing Necrocriticism" -

"15 tracks, you know, arrayed from the short-burst grindmath of "Necronomics" and "Adnexal Mass" through to the joyous five-min sludge of album pivot "Virulent Corpus Dispersement" yet perhaps peaking in sheer excitement with the fierce higher-tempo riffing of "Exotoxic Septicity" and "Restrained Remains""

- was one of our top five albums of 2009, and given that General Surgery are hardly prolific with new output, it's a happy surprise for them to deliver up a spanking five-track (orange vinyl!) 7" EP a mere three years later. And "Flying Limb" presents a neat contrast to "Corpus In Extremis": for whilst the finest song on that was an epic elegy to "Symphonies Of Sickness", this is a beezer EP notwithstanding that the whole thing lasts barely eleven minutes: the faster passages seem much more fevered, suggesting the band have consciously decided to up the blastbeats-per-minute and go for broke. Perhaps they took a listen to Napalm's "Utilitarian" and, having eventually picked up their jaws from the floor, decided to try and match its intensity.

Whatever the motivation for it, this new approach is particularly apparent from the breakneck opening of "Like An Ever-Flying Limb" itself, before the song eventually settles down into some more varied tempos. It's that title track ("no chance of reassembly!" gurns Erik Sahlstrom cheerfully) and the closing "Dark Cyanotic Hypostasis" which are the two true pearls from this selection, the ones on which General Surgery best indulge and interweave their favourite pursuits of (a) punishing, grind-imbued axe thrashing and (b) groovalicious, early Carcass-tastic riffery. Normally we're all for a full-on, hectic, hell-for-leather, neighbour-baiting racket, but this lot profit from mixing it up, twisting between the dark and light. And the guitar riff on "Hypostasis" is possibly the best we've heard on a record this year, as primeval as Wolfhounds' "Skullface", as frankly danceable as the hook to Coldworker's "Monochrome Existence".

Not that our plaudits for those two songs should be seen as a dis to the remaining melodies: "Rhythmic Epidermal Clamor" starts with one of those brief, rushing bass-led intros which we particularly adore ici at le palais d'in love with these times, in spite of these times before ploughing its way through a minute and a quarter of sizzling metallic din; the hurtling "Seizures" is one of their shortest songs (and titles!) but veritably thrills for all 40 of its Earth seconds; and the remaining longer tune, "Ejected Viscous Mucus", suffers really only by comparison to the majesty of the title song, which it follows.

The all-round production of the EP, like the LP, is satisfyingly strong (we know that abysmal production is oft-viewed in goregrind circles as merely an occupational hazard, something that just goes with the territory; but unlike black metal or some lo-fi indie subgenres where poor production rather adds to the charm, we've not sure that anybody benefits from groups who can actually play drowning in the sludgy quicksand of a cheap mix).

Of course, though, General Surgery aren't really goregrind (not least as goregrind is a bit rubbish, really): the lyrical themes remain medical, so are "gory" in the sense thatany NHS treatment table might make even the strong-of-stomach turn a touch queasy - albeit that the concept of the words and samples on this EP is about how *death* is essentially a medical condition, albeit a rather severe and irreversible one - but the music is a still-irresistible combination of Swedish death and British grind influences, as you might expect, with ye olde Steer / Walker / Owen-worship still at its core. A delightful little record.

* * * * *

And then there are the Garlands. The Garlands rule, rule hard. Remember their half of that Atomic Beat EP ?
 
"two absolute zingers, songs so storming that they could fell trees and boundary fences for miles around"

Not to mention that excellent single on Big Pink Cake last year, "You Never Notice Me". Nor their coquettishly sweet Cloudberry CD-r in 2008, which led off with the bite-sized but razor-sharp "Why Did I Trust You ?"
And now ? Shelflife, who are on fire at the moment, have released this first Garlands album. Just like "Ever Flying-Limb", it's a record born in Stockholm yet released via a US label: just like "Ever Flying-Limb", it kills, kills hard. It almost seems counter-intuitive for a band as instant, as made to make POP singles, as the Garlands to release a whole album (a whole Talulah Gosh album would never have worked, much as they were sort of the best band ever, while there's a reason that even Free Loan Investments' most sprawling work, released on Shelflife and praised on our pages a whole ten years ago, only scraped the ten-minute mark) but somehow, they've pulled it off. Indeed, in a touch of true genius, a further nod to their stellar singles pedigree, the vinyl version of this plays at 45 rpm. At 26 minutes, "The Garlands" is longer than any of the best five LPs of last year, but still probably around optimum length for an album (see also the last Math & Physics Club outing).

Over the course of a dozen scintillating tracks the newly fleshed-out five-piece Garlands, albeit still with Roger and Christin at the helm, unleash pure, merrymaking indie-pop carnage: there are melodies strewn absolutely everywhere, like rose petals. You'd expect nothing less, given Roger's track record with the unimpeachable :-) Nixon (whose new 45 on Cloudberry is pretty much perfection, btw) and those adorable Free Loan Investments, but even so this a heady and powerful brew, an elegant complement to the leaves that are tumbling down all around us this quite stunning autumn. There are versions here of both "Open Arms" and "Why Did I Trust You ?" as well as "Tell Me" from the Atomic Beat 7" and "David" from the Cloudberry 3", but there is no point in singling any particular songs out, because (alert the cliché police NOW) they would all stand comfortably as own-right singles. Um, especially "Chandeliers".

Since those earlier releases their sound is slightly slicker, as you might expect from a fully-fledged fivesome, but none of the excitement of the earlier singles has been sacrificed. Indeed, "Open Arms" is even faster out of the traps than it was before. Come to think of it, what we said about that M&PC album

"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"

could just as easily apply to this one, for the Garlands have risen above any temptation, à la Shop Assistants, to make every third track a glockenspiel-coated slowie. Apart from some very mild relaxation of pace on the final tune "Your Words", there's ne'er a hint of b*ll*dry, and quite right too. That's not to say that the lyrical sentiment shares the same unfailingly sunny disposition as the music: just like Free Loan Investments, there is plenty of emptiness and anger in the words, more of that "gut-gnawing emotion", if you like; indeed, we'd hazard that there's almost enough heartbreak, betrayal and desolation here to fuel a Harper Lee album. So we'd definitely cast this as an autumn record, not a summer one.

But ultimately, whatever the season and whatever's in season, "The Garlands" is still just a gurglingly brilliant album that chimes with the very best pop music from down the ages: a little gem as pristine as Christine, as gorgeous as George. Back in the '80s (and bringing it back to the brothers O'Neill) we had a phrase for this kind of thing: "manic pop thrill". It's a phrase that fits the Garlands to a tee.