Tuesday, February 28, 2012

This Many Boyfriends "Starling" (Angular Records): Allo Darlin' "Capricornia" (Fortuna Pop!)

Time to dig out that in love with these times, in spite of these times all-time avian-themed playlist: "Wings", "Snowbirds Don't Fly", "Pelican Blonde", "Red Kite", "Lark Descending", "New Birds", "Chickens", "When Owls Cry", anything and everything by Jackdaw With Crowbar and, a little less satisfactorily, Sportsguitar's "Tits". The latest addition comes courtesy of This Many Boyfriends, and while their name will always conjure up fond memories of Calvin Johnson and sparse, snare-led DIY pop, the band themselves are continuing on a resolutely upward 'alternative / indie' trajectory which includes the obligatory Cribs support slot and a tie-up with Domino Recording Co partner, Angular.

Happily, the music is as endearingly ramshackle as ever. A little like last year's Evans The Death single, "Starling" fair froths with heady youthful vigour, sounding faintly as if Period Pains were playing early Soup Dragons. The song has it all: up and down guitars, careering Subway Org drum-thud, wiry melodies, offhand vocals, some fetching early Soup Dragons-y shouted "ba-ba-bas" and an enervating but thankfully brief guitar solo, before the song reaches resolution around the 150-second mark.

Lyrically, it neatly pays frayed testament to callow youth at the same time as harbouring dreams of a settled future, although the ornithological references are sadly limited to an acknowledgment that starlings are, um, prone to self-preen 'til they're clean and pristine. No doubt if TMB had time for a third verse, they would have been able to get something in about how starlings' seemingly dark plumage actually conceals the grandeur of striking turquoisey hues, although pleasingly the impeccably pretty sleeve has a good stab at doing the bird justice.

The B-side, too, "Just Saying" (a dig at the vacuity of the ubiquitous pin-up popstar) sports even more yelled "ba-ba-bas", alongside marvellous Bubblegum Splash! bass plod and another guitar line straight outta Belshill, 1986. Anyway, all this renders "Starling" a perfect companion - a feathered friend, you might say - to arguably This Many Boyfriends' previous highspot, the equally bright and raffish "I Don't Like You ('Cos You Don't Like The Pastels)" from their first EP: a disc officially celebrated by one esteemed source from north London, lest we forget, as the 93rd best single of 2010.

And then there are Allo Darlin', who This Many Boyfriends are supporting before they hook up with the Cribs, although it's fair to say that AD's polished "Capricornia" feels a world (well, a hemisphere) away from the appealingly scruffy TMB single. Back in 2009, while watching summer dissolve into autumn, we tripped across "Henry Rollins Don't Dance" and proclaimed it "intelligent, sassy, witty and tuneful", before - less gallantly - bracketing it with "faintly whimsical" indie-pop and pointing out that it wasn't as good as Black Flag or Minor Threat. (It would later be crowned the 83rd best single of 2009). Their output since has made a similar impression on us: always somewhere between admirable and lovable, but never *connecting* as we'd like. But then this single, the latest breezy, bright delight from the Fortuna Pop! stable, is seemingly precision-engineered to extract maximum joy: it blows plenty of recent indie-pop out of the water, including their own.

"Capricornia" navigates the fragrant waterways of classic tunedom with uncanny ease, setting one in mind of the effortlessness of "Streets Of Your Town", or the irresistible rush of Even As We Speak's "Falling Down The Stairs". It's a heartfelt tribute to Elizabeth's native central Queensland and the bittersweetness of leaving it behind, but although it rings with longing it never loses sight of the fact that it's also on a sparkling popsong tip: a crisp production shines through as the vocal melodies coalesce with guitars that alternately jangle and chime, like Creation-era Razorcuts at their most upbeat.

And it's just a thought, but... there are some records that *deserve* to bridge that gap between our own modest indie-pop wants and the wider world of radio-friendly, timeless pop, and the copper-bottomed "Capricornia" is surely one of those. Remember: we're old enough to remember Even As We Speak being played on Radio 1, and thus allowed to dream such crazy dreams. Oh, and in these barbarous times when proper use of the apostrophe is taking a bit of a battering (the latest salvo in this "war against intelligence" comes with Waterstone's deciding to shed the apostrophe completely), it's good to see that Allo Darlin' are hanging on to theirs.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Mark Stewart & Primal Scream "Autonomia" (Future Noise)

Bobby Gillespie briefly played bass in one of my favourite bands. He then played the drums for another group, on perhaps my all-time favourite album. He went on to form his own combo, who released two dropdead gorgeous singles on Creation which even now still fill me to the brim of heartbreak with their waterfall lilt. I love him so much for all this that I can even draw a discreet veil over everything they've released since 1987. Every so often, I see him in town and I'm *this* far away from saying "Bobby, excuse me, but please can I just run back home and get you my copy of "Crystal Crescent" to sign ?", but I don't, and perhaps it's as well to be so bashful as I hear that Bobby doesn't suffer fools gladly.

Mark Stewart, for his sins, stars on no less than three of my favourite LPs: twice as frontman of head-wrenching Brizzle post-punk funk-toting jazz / dub mentalists the Pop Group (enjoying "Rigour" again the other day, we were reminded once again how the Pop Group helped pave the way for the stupendous bIG*fLAME, who shared the same obsession with pop, politics, excitement and rage) and once via his crushing Mute solo work "As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade", one of the 80s' most memorable slabs of invective. Even when I lived in Bristol, I never saw him in the park or the street or the coffee shop, but I understand that he too doesn't suffer fools, so it's probably best that I never bumped into him and ended up asking him to autograph "For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder", say.

But you can see why it stirs some long-dormant emotions and memories to have Mark Stewart team up with Bobby and his band (Mark thanks the Primals on the sleevenotes for his 2008 "Edit" album, so it's obviously not a brand new friendship). The ostensible subject matter of "Autonomia" is Carlo Giuliani, the teacher killed in Genoa in 2001 at the hands of the carabinieri, but the lyrics are framed more widely and the "rubber bullets, tear gas" mantra which Stewart deploys here is instantly recognisable today: in the context of subsequent summit protests, of the streets of Athens, of marches in Syria and Bahrain, even the looting and riots in England last summer. We're all familiar with shaky mobile phone footage of thudding feet and madding crowd, but become anaesthetised to the reality as it's sold as cheap drama, syndicated to rolling news across the continents, the images turned into mere fodder for talking heads that sagely nod but do nothing to stop the madness.

"From the ashes of empire, hope survives... rise like a phoenix from the flames"

So this is important stuff, and as ever there's no doubting Mark's sincerity and the distinctive power of his narration, but despite being produced by longtime Maffia man and all-round On-U legend Adrian Sherwood the music behind "Autonomia", while spiky and sparky enough, lacks the necessary *urgency*, and feels light-years from the alternately spatial and clawhammer production by the same man that made the likes of Stewart's "Hypnotised" 12" so damn powerful, so on-edge. Conflict will never enjoy the metropolitain colour supplement caché of the Primals, but musically their brilliantly raging tribute "Carlo Giuliani" had much more fire and *purpose*.

The remixes fare better, even if they can't match my favourite Mark Stewart re-work, Ultraviolence's dependably aggressive pseudo-gabba re-rendering of "Consumed". Tectonic head honcho Pinch's "Apocalyptic" remix is as powerful a dubplate-wobbler as you'd expect but unfortunately, as well as excising the single version's 90s Primal Scream-isms, it also removes the bulk of Stewart's vocal contribution. JD Twitch's perky Optimo mix gets the balance better in this respect, as well as lending proceedings a funky yet still slightly queasy feel: we'd recommend it as the best starting point from the song's five versions.

But despite our reservations, "Autonomia" is still welcome: it may be the best thing Primal Scream have been involved with for a quarter of a century (although we still reserve a soft spot for "Ivy Ivy Ivy" and half of "Sonic Flower Groove"), and it's a signifier that there are those who haven't forgotten the powerful nexus that music and social comment can forge. Yes, this union may throw up mere ephemera (time will tell whether that includes this single), but it can also create songs that echo down the decades. And if you don't believe us, just listen to "She Is Beyond Good And Evil". "She", of course, now being played by Meryl Streep.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Deh-Noizer "Unconscious Reactions" (Nightmare Factory)

Oh, and the *other* thing about the best techno (picking up from here, I guess) is that it can give the lie to those lazy assumptions that music can't merit adjectives like "textured" or "atmospheric"or "thoughtful" or "subtle" unless it's slow, sedate, even slightly boring. The kind of mindset that decrees that every third single should be a ballad, or that you should "let the music breathe" once in a while, and that ends up being taken as gospel to the extent that all you have to do is come up with a fairly dull, witless and ponderous record and there's a danger it'll be automatically hailed as a work of brooding genius. Luckily, "Unconscious Reactions" is a slamming little album from 24-year old Treviso producer Deh-Noizer which hacks those preconceptions into the proverbial cocked hat with all the pent-up ferocity of a truly riled Claudio Gentile.

"Introvert" opens proceedings, but eschews techno stylings entirely, providing little clue as to what is to come. Instead, it's a scene-setter, drizzling bruising dubstep bass over planks of vaguely forbidding drums. It's "Feelings Selection", the first of four full-length club tunes, which marks where the record comes alive, starting with CS gas and alarm memes but constantly evolving over eight minutes into a dazzling pick-me-up, managing to sound both atmospheric *and* textured (man), but remain a certified floor-botherer into the bargain. The blinding "Charged" builds on "Feelings Selection" but adds a new veneer of malevolence, its dark trills and rushes surely coming from the same secret underground bunker that yielded Ryuji Takeuchi's *massive* "Vital". It's possibly the best thing here.

"Extinction" and "Face To The Ground" can't match the brilliance of the two tracks that precede them but do manage to maintain the momentum, the former sliced through with choral howl and eerie swoosh, the latter keeping up a clinical locomotive chatter before the album changes mood once again, with a distinct drop in temperature. Spread over two tracks, "Broken Atmos" is two halves of an icy whole (like "Winter" and "Hostel-Maxi"): the first mix hangs on fractured beats over which effects patterns from "Extinction" seemingly re-emerge, before the second dispenses with drums entirely, the sun refracting light patterns across frozen ground as ghosts of Blueboy's "Nimbus" dance obligingly across the frost.

"Wormhole" is the final flourish, a far-too short wrap-up in which burbling, warm synths cradle flitting, fleeting wisps of percussive chatter until they escape upward into a dark but forgiving sky. As you know, we have a contractual obligation to shoehorn-in mention of Kryptic Minds as often as possible (yes, similar arrangements exist for I, Ludicrous and Napalm Death amongst others) and just as "Unconscious Reactions", however different it may be sonically, exudes the same thoughtful grace as Kryptic Minds' "One Of Us", "Wormhole" shares the rare, mottled comedown beauty of "One Of Us" album closer "Distant Dawn". Truly, such moments are precious.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sufferinfuck "In Boredom" (Grindcore Karaoke)

A word on Grindcore Karaoke first. Set up by Agoraphobic Nosebleed's J. Randall (who we should observe at this juncture, apropos of nothing, is one of grindcore's better lyricists) GK is a public service website which has veritably bloomed since its inception only a year or so ago and which already offers a frankly exhausting array of well over 170 completely free download releases, not at all confined to grindcore (the grindcore there is here tends to the trebly and downright bewildering) but harvesting a prettily eclectic crop of experimental and noise material too. It's always intriguing wading through their epic release list: "what kind of band name is that ?", "what genre labels have they randomly assigned themselves ?" and "is this one going to be a minute long or an hour long ?"

True, a fair proportion of stuff on Grindcore Karaoke is at least borderline unlistenable, but we're quite fond of unlistenable music, especially when it's *interesting* unlistenable (Japan's YOKOZUNA-bot are setting some new standards here). Unlistenable music has always been far preferable to the 99% of listenable music that is bad listenable music (other things preferable to bad listenable music include: silence; ambient noise; and, um, all other sounds in the world).

But *do* scour the website from time to time, because as well as a host of reliably diverting um, insania, J. Randall's philanthropy gives you noteworthy curios, like Colombia's fearsome Chulo; solid sets from bands you may have come across elsewhere (Ablach, who were on the ace PowerItUp Nasum tribute, or English dogs - well, "Isle of Dogs" dogs - Evisorax, who supported Wormrot on their UK tour last year); and there can be real trophies hidden within, such as Individual Distortion's remarkable Sarah and hip-hop referencing cyber / ambient / grind and - more conventional, but nearly as rewarding - the browbeating, self-titled ten-tracker from Chest Pain last autumn. Sufferinfuck's "In Boredom", another ten-track EP, is the latest of these 'finds' and, for the avoidance of doubt, it is *highly* listenable.

The EP begins with with a lengthy sample which keeps you in a measure of suspense before "The Harbinger Of Death" and "Phoney Wars" lay out Sufferinfuck's, er, basic value proposition, viz. a rattling meld of d-beat and breakneck hardcore with the odd grindcore riff retrieved from the Ark, and some excellent dinking little bass runs: this sort of merry musical mayhem sometimes gets shoved in the powerviolence drawer nowadays, or even (by those less exacting than ourselves) described as straight grindcore; but "In Boredom" is really, frankly, just punk in its most primal 21st century form, a variant on the magic provided on slightly different terms right now by all sorts of US bands, from Backslider, BearTrap and Sidetracked through to the impossibly good Scapegoat. It was a pleasant surprise to discover, after first listening, that Sufferinfuck (like Ablach) are actually Scottish: when we'd initially read that the songs were recorded in Livingston, we'd kind of assumed that must be some boho suburb of NYC or Boston, MA rather than the town (of Meadowbank Thistle FC ignominy) in West Lothian.

Standout tunes on "In Boredom", like "Nothing Is Real" and the (Mind Eraser-ish) "Mind Eraser" are cracking rants, drivingly played and drawing from the same raw anger pool as Discharge or Sore Throat, with "Upright Swine", which for its sins boasts an almost melodic riff, not far behind. And there are the regulation Borstal (short sharp shock) tunes too, such as "Morons", the title track and the closing, fairly self-explanatory "Fuck Work". Most intriguing is the slightly more experimental "Stagnant", which comprises two minutes of careful, crackling dissonance - punctuated with guttural barks - while a discernible song structure hovers nervously but audibly in the background: it's the sort of thing that Weekend Nachos might come up with to bookend some of their sterner stuff, and works very effectively. So today, treat this EP as your perfect, bloody valentine: it seems these are good times for the new sound of young Scotland.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Michael Lasch "Substrain" (Elektrax Recordings): Michael Schwarz "Torsion" (Emphatic Records)

Never understood this "I only listen to real music" lark. If you prefer guitar bands to electronic bods, or well-produced million-sellers by respected major label artistes to scratchy madness recorded by teenagers in dank basements or on their i-pads, why not just say so ? We're certainly not going to judge you for it. After all, if people judged us by the music we liked, we wouldn't have many friends, possibly any acquaintances at all.

But it's beyond trite that all music is 'real' music. It consists of sounds made by human beings with whatever tool they have to hand, whether that's their larynx, a computer, "yer granny on bongos" or a 50-piece orchestra. Mind you, if you listen to the production on a record by a so-called "real" band, you'll likely hear what was once ostensibly a guitar sound but that's been channelled through so many effects that any human quality has been airbrushed from the proceedings entirely. You might as well have cut out the middle man and started with a laptop from the beginning, and it would save on plectrums too.

We've thought for a while now, though, that if there *was* one genre more 'human' than the others, it would have to be techno. It's the sound of a heart beating, in essence completely primal. It's then overlaid with whatever creative conceits the artist fancies, and while it has (like any genre) been hijacked by any number of gurning scene chumps, the cream of the crop still know that the song should revolve around that steady pulse, lovingly fondled by whatever flickers of synth, extra percussive caress and strictly rationed melody make the journey most worthwhile.

For us, the hub and haven for all this is currently Germany: although we still closely associate that fine nation with Marsh Marigold, A Turntable Friend, Firestation Tower and the under-rated defensive nous of Karl-Heinz Forster, it's notable in 2012 for being home to a luminescent host of dark, minimal and black techno genii, including Sven Wittekind, Andy White, Cortechs, Klaudia Gawlas, and these two.

Herr Lasch has now decamped to Berlin, and there's an inevitable big city sleekness about "Substrain"'s imposing clatter as he clambers aboard the imposing roster of big-ticket Sydney label Elektrax Recordings. The single has a skittering hook that brands it a close cousin of Human Tech's "Bit Crisis", a single from the Perugia outfit on Electrax last year, but the way the drums drive forward through the empty caverns of this listener's head puts brings to mind another Italian, the Logotech of "Harsh Lines" et al. Disconcertingly though, "Substrain" is offset throughout by vague cooing sounds, as if a pigeon were trapped in the studio and trying to sing its way out. The substrain being avian flu, perhaps ?

The second Michael, Schwarz, is more of a known quantity to us, having been responsible for some fabulous remixes of late - espesh on singles last yr by DJ Nightnoise, Kai Randy Michel and "Riot"-er Adriano Giliberti - even if his prolific run of 'solo' releases has a more sedate hit rate (not that the likes of the remarkably assured "Deep Sphere" in '010 or last year's slow-burn Nachstrom Schallplatten belter "Ganimed" are anything to be sneezed at, mind).

"Torsion" is the lead of three tracks here on Coruna's Emphatic imprint (an EP shared with DJ Stay and H Paul) and sees Schwarz on imperious form, administering over nine trembling minutes an adamantine, devastatingly rendered reimagining of his better recent singles which maxes on his signature pounding hi-hats while high-horsepower and yes, high-torque bass is dissected by clock-alarm bleep. "Torsion" does what a record should do: it makes your head shudder, toes tap, heart soar and sinews stiffen as it builds from ebb to full flow. So if this isn't real music, then we can only speculate as to quite what the hell is.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Wedding Present "You Jane" (Scopitones)

It was nice to see Barney from Napalm Death mention the Wedding Present in a newspaper interview last week, recognition that it wasn't just in my head that the two bands had a certain shared fanbase (no doubt aided immensely by both being staples of the John Peel show in those uncertain days as the 1980s stumbled into the 1990s). It also reminded me that it must now be a cool quarter-century since I was first ridiculed (in a draughty classroom, if I recall rightly) for actually liking the Weddoes, which means that by now my skin has grown so thick on the topic that I effectively wander around sporting a force-field inuring me to their further criticism, the sort of defence technology the military would pay handsomely for (or perhaps more realistically, kill for). Yes, I've slavered over most of their records, keenly monitored their "chartwork" and since first seeing them as an ashen-faced youth at the Astoria on their "Bizarro" tour I've watched them at venues from the Louisiana in Bristol and Top of O'Reilly's in Nottingham to London haunts like the Forum, Koko and ULU.

And then just the other day it turned out there was a new WP single, "You Jane", a taster presumably for forthcoming LP "Valentina" (and, we think, the first "Jane" reference in a Weddoes tune since the girl who was getting rung up during the first verse of "Anyone Can Make A Mistake") and whether you're fan, friend or foe of the fearsome foursome you'll note that the single of course sounds much as one might expect it to. With grinding bass, sweetly buzzing guitars, a soupçon of mournful melody and some sweet backing vocals, "You Jane" is a musical chaperone to the blushing "I'm From Further North Than You": a dainty melange of "George Best", "The Hit Parade" and "Saturnalia", throwing in some Cinerama-ish references to a clutch of anciennes vedettes du cinema. And despite familiar lyrical tics (rhyming "chance" with "romance", etc), "You Jane" actually subverts conventional Gedge subject-matter: as he laments his latest lost lover you're expecting him either to plea for her back or to invite her to cheat with him on her new man, but come the chorus, for once he simply lets go, yawling "don't come crying to me..." over shuffling, backsliding guitar. The only real disappointment is that just when the track appears to be building to ye olde "crashing instrumental end bit" - that solid-as-a-rock feature of Pres classics from "My Favourite Dress" through "Kennedy" to the likes of "Boo Boo" - it instead simply stops, dead. But, as with the novelty of David letting go of a former flame, perhaps it's no bad thing that the Wedding Present, so often called out for playing the same old song, can still confound us in little ways.

Let's be candid: when the Final Day comes and all discographies are judged (by an even higher authority than ourselves) we don't expect "You Jane" to be in the hallowed top hundred Weddoes numbers of all eternity: although it may well be parked just outside, windows slightly steaming, perhaps regretting that it wasn't written in 1992 when the Wedding Present were raiding the top 40 on a monthly basis. What matters, though, is not whether Gedge's talent for making the down-to-earth seem poetic is on a long term wax or wane. It's that the Wedding Present are still here, and still warming so many of us, even as temperatures in the normally balmy City slip below zero. As one of our number said to a visibly hammered Mr Gedge after that Louisiana gig, "You've brought a great deal of pleasure... to very few people". To this day we can only hope that DLG took that as the compliment that was, genuinely, intended.