Friday, August 23, 2019

Wooden Wand / Comus

Wooden Wand / Comus
published under the headline "Free Shtick"
Village Voice, October 25th 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Call it the “what it’s all about” factor. See, I’m digging this free-folk stuff as pure sound, but the movement’s unwritten manifesto is harder to grasp, and for me that’s always an impediment to buying into a scene wholeheartedly. Perhaps that’s why I literally don’t buy it (the f-folk scraps I have were all acquired by, erm, other means, shall we say). Just as well, maybe: Mapping this genre properly would entail a financial bloodbath, given its norm of incontinent productivity. Just check the intimidating discographic delta—cassettes, lathe-cut 7-inch singles, 3-inch CDs, side projects, and collaborations galore (see woodenwand.sinkhole.net)—that’s issued from a single group, New York–turned-Knoxville-based Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice, during their two years of existence. This season alone sees Wooden Wand’s solo debut and two re-releases of small-run vinyl-only albums (Xiao and Buck Dharma), while an all-new Vanishing Voice full length, The Flood, is due this month.


“Pure sound” assessment first: “Free folk” verges on a misnomer. As genre expert Jon Dale points out, it’s a highly recombinant style whose warp’n’weft includes threads of not just traditional music but West Coast acid rock, prog, free jazz, Dead C–style noise, musique concréte, and “outsider” minstrels such as Jandek. Xiao‘s best tracks, “Caribou Christ in the Great Void” and “Return of the Nose,” resemble nothing so much as the raga-rock trance and narcotic wah-wah torpor of “We Will Fall” by the Stooges, while Dharma‘s “Satya Sai Baba Scuppety Plays ‘Reverse Jam Band’ ” is a strange shimmer-slither of a keyboard étude, like Morton Subotnik turning into the Blob. If Vanishing Voice have a standard mode at all, it’s long pieces like Xiao‘s “Weird Wisteria Tangles Carrion Christ But Intends No Harm” (and yes, the track titles are another stumbling block to full-on fandom) or The Flood‘s 14-minute “Satya Sai Sweetback Plays ‘Oxblood Boots.’ ” Cantering cavalcades of barely integrated instrumentation (rustling bells, tunelessly parping woodwinds, Cale-like drones, listless percussion, thrumming steel-cable bass drones, and so forth), these tracks either dissipate into oxbow lakes of abstraction or gradually accumulate disparate jetsam into tripnotic juggernauts. Still, we’re not exactly talking “Scarborough Fair,” and the only truly folky aspect is a slight bias toward sounds of acoustic provenance.

But what’s it all about, Alfie? I fear that Wand (real name, James Toth) hits the nail on the head with his self-description as “spiritual dilettante.” The f-folk genre gestures at the shamanic and visionary, but in this easygoing way that feels not so much syncretic as plain eclectic. Isn’t the spiritual path actually hard work, though, a discipline? When Vanishing Voice overtly invoke the transcendental, with the group’s intermittent female vocalist Satya Sai Baba Scuppety ululating lines like “I sought the truth so long” in her piercingly pure-toned voice, the mystical-me vibe verges on schlock. In Dharma‘s “Wicked World,” Toth mutters like a bum/seer whose desolation-row jeremiad gets ignored by passersby. His solo album exhibits a similar penchant for parable and prophecy (Toth’s a Scripture fan) but the accompaniment is pared-back minstrelsy elevated by an exquisite attentiveness to the creak-glistened textures of semi-acoustic guitar. “Spiritual Inmate” distills an f-folk tendency that can be traced back to its ancestor, the Beat movement: condescension toward the benighted square, who’s “passing so much beauty/passing on so much beauty” because he’s, like, imprisoned by being “obsessed with protection.”

It’s shtick, really, this idea of seeing clearly because you’re outside society, but then so are other “performative enactments of the authentic” like grime, so nothing wrong with that. The same element of theater can be seen in a group regarded by many f-folks as an illustrious ancestor, Comus, whose 1971 album First Utterance has just been reissued in a double CD that scoops up everything else the U.K. outfit recorded in its brief existence. That Bowie was a Comus supporter seems especially revealing. This isn’t traditional British music in the Martin Carthy sense (unadorned and faithful) but closer to Jethro Tull: ripe, rustic-flavored rock with frenetic hand-percussion à la Tyrannosaurus Rex and orchestrated elements redolent of Italo-horror soundtrack proggers Goblin. Frolicking woodwinds and Roger Wooton’s vibrato-rattling cackle conjure an indeterminately pre-industrial Albion, all gibbets and gargoyles, merlins and maypoles and maidenheads. A tale of deflowering and murder, “Drip Drip” is all the more creepy for the grotesque tenderness with which Wooton delivers lines like “your lovely body soon caked with mud/as I carry you to your grave/my arms, your hearse” (the last line borrowed by black-metal outfit Opeth for an album title). In “Song to Comus” itself, his hideously capering voice impersonates a Pan-like satyr whose piping music lures “an enchanted damsel” to his forest lair of depravity. First Utterance courts absurdity, but like a great horror movie (The Wickerman would be the apposite reference) it draws you in completely. Wooton brings a conviction to his roles as warlock/sprite/all-purpose bucolic bogeyman that takes it beyond playacting. Whereas with Wooden Wand there’s still a faint aura of make-believe, even put-on, such that, as absorbing as the sonix often are, I still don’t . . . quite . . . buy it.



A follow up post on Blissblog

Everything is glam rock performative enactment of the authentic free folk Wooden Wand

kid shirt weighs in with some interesting thoughts in semi-response to my wooden wand piece, some cool compare-and-contrast vis-a-viz grime... his idea of free folk being about wanting to disappear is intriguing (theory triggered unconsciously by "vanishing voice" maybe?), yes yes, makes sense: a bourgeois-bohemian impulse to get lost, to unmake the most of yourself, (which makes the Animal Collective's "You Don't Have to Go To College" the closest point at which the scene gets to writing that unwritten manifesto) .... tune in, turn on, drop out... dissipate and radiate.... And some of his comments about WW&VV made me think the closest parallel/precursor to them is the Butthole Surfers (think about the pastoral weirdness on Hairway to Steven, the cover of "Hurdy Gurdy Man"; the Living Theater-esque stageshow; also the thread of classic rock pastiche running through the buttholes c.f. WW's comments re. deep purple, jefferson airplane, etc etc), and the Buttholes would have been something I'd have analysed in those terms, a middle class youth stepping off the career track (gibby trained as an accountant), laying waste to their own potential as a sort of proto-political act of refusal

i was talking to jon dale (who may be on the verge of staging a reappearance act) about this, he having his own dissensions with the piece, and i realised the stumbling block for me is actually not the unwritten manifesto aspect at all, cos when all that stuff says implicit and latent you can groove along with the trippy untethered soundswirl; no the stumbling block specifically with WW&VV is when they do write the manifesto, or at least get into spelling out the "what's it all about" too literally -- either in the lyrics (Toth intoning about how "the mystical power of the beautiful flower has turned sour”, or Satya Sai Baba Scuppety ululating about how "I sought the truth so long… all things must pass away… there is one path to choose” or visioning “a land of wondrous beauty that far exceeds my wildest dreams/where the air is pure and clean”) or just the mode of address: invocational, i-be-the-prophet. Cos, for me as not-ready-to-sign-up-for-membership-in-the-movement bystander-onlooker, it's like you're suddenly put on the spot: you either have to say "yes, i totally buy it, this guy is a visionary" or you hold back. and for a whole bunch of reasons possibly more to do with me than the guy's performance, I hold back from that suspension of disbelief. Woebot described the Wand solo album as "more Bonnie Prince Billie" than the group's stuff, and that's it exactly, cos Will Oldham' another one where I don't quite buy the persona, there's a "you're kidding me, right?" element.

With "performative enactment of the authentic", I guess what I’m suggesting or playing with is simply the idea that nothing is “real” once it takes place before a microphone or on a stage (how could it be?). Everything is glam rock, it's all artifice, the make-believe dependent on suspension of disbelief (bothon the performer's part and the audience's). So Humble Pie, despite being very much the kind of shabby blues-bore drivel that prompted glam rock into being, were no less contrived, absurd, or even grotesque, than Roxy Music. Everything is glam-rock too because it all works through glamour, of which there are many more kinds than "glam" or Hollywood (the glamour of anti-heroism or "ordinary joe" is still the stuff of fantasy, from Springsteen to Mike Skinner). Glamour in its original sense--witchy enchantment--might be a big part of free-folk's allure; the mise-en-scene that is conjured by the music works through exoticisim and mystique--you imagine a raggle-taggle commune on the periphery of society, banging instruments in some Finnish wildland or Vermont grove (or with the ancestor-influences: Incredible String Band and extended family in the woods, Vashti in her caravan, etc).

All the things that Kid Shirt lists, seemingly to refute the idea that there is a manifesto or needs to be a manifesto to the f-folk scene, do actually amount to a charter of principles, albeit quite diffuse and low-key. Not a manifesto in the sense of bulleted declarations and exhortations to be shouted in bold and capitals from a soapbox, but certainly a cluster of tendencies-verging-on-tenets:

-- looseness and spontaneity, a be-here-now approach to the jam
-- flux and mutability
-- shifting line-ups, collaborations, nucleus-groups orbited by solar dust-rings of freefloating occasional participants
-- trance states, creative automatism, music-as-ritual rather than "show"
-- tribalistic/family/commune-like image (and often structure)
-- "I am the music. There is no separation"--Heather Leigh Murray
-- “it’s all music, man” as overtly stated principle of all-gates-open fusion
-- yet at the same time countered by very definite zones of non-influence and attractions to other areas; bias to the organic, the acoustic, the hand-played

then when you factor that in with the hand-made, cottage industry aspect: the lathe-cut vinyl, the small-run pressings and odd formats (painted and decorated cassettes etc), the attempt to de-commoditise the commodity while also re-enchanting it, making it more precious and treasurable; you see an impulse to escape and transcend commerce that echoes the original folk movement's (in both US and UK) drive to reject the commercialism of popular culture music.

yes it does amount to a taggable worldview/philosophy, one that's in the continuum of the hippies, the beats (Woebot nailed it all a while back with his Are You a Beatnik or an Avant-Yob thesis, plus afterthoughts). and a subculture too, there's strong elements of homology between sound, clothing, discourse, economics

it reminds me a tiny bit of psy-trance: the syncretic spirituality (psy-trance's postmodern tribal package of Tao, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, Hatha Yoga, Mayan cosmology, wicca, and alien abduction theories), the trancey-trippy music, the internationalism and dispersed rhizomatic scene structure, the cult of the great outdoors, the freak image

the musical coordinates for psy-folk are a lot cooler than psy-trance, of course, but i reckon that both scenes are expressions of a recurring and perennial syndrome, something that is
almost a structural fixture (if not quite requirement) of Western society... the children of affluence who become see through their parents values and the spiritual void of a life based around ambition/acquisition, become disenchanted with its lack of enchantment and try to build another path that will re-enchant the world ... you could probably even trace the impulse back through the centuries... here's a chunk from the Sex Revolts on those Medieval gnostic heretics and millenarian cultists the Free Spirits:

"The 12th Century initiated a period of unprecedented prosperity, just as in the post-World War Two West. But this materialism prompted a counter-reaction, in the shape of a new class of voluntary poor who renounced riches in search of spiritual values. These downwardly mobile bohemians formed 'a mobile, restless intelligentsia' who went 'on the road', following the trade
routes and preaching a contempt for wordly things. Like the beats, the Free Spirit brethren divided the world into square and hip, a 'crude in spirit' majority and a 'subtle in spirit' elite who could access the Divine Oneness in this life rather than having to wait until the afterlife. "

In the end though, I have to give the f-folkers a cautious "big up ya collective chest", if only for being one of the few things in the last five years (and i know the scene's got longer-back roots than that, but then so's grime: as fruitions, both are really Noughties phenoms when it comes down to it,) that actually amounts to a thang--a movement/scene, with something approaching a manifesto (however buried and vague, which is in itself in keeping with the manifesto, after all), plus accompanying canon it's pulled together for itself (interesting to me that they leave out the straighter Britfolk-Steeleye, Carthy, Tabor, Ashley Hutchings--in favour of the kooky stuff; again, makes me think it's Vashti's biography--and precisely her commercial failure--that inspires as much as her music per se). The whole package is something I can feel the pull of, to an extent, but well, I doubt I could fully get on board.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

kid606

kid606
"down with the scene"
Ipecac Recordings
Village Voice,2000

by Simon Reynolds

If anything deserves a  punk-style kick in the ass, it's IDM, short for "intelligent dance music. " Not so much a genre as a mode of appreciation, IDM was (in)famously defined by ambient guru Mixmaster Morris as "the opposite of stupid hardcore"--a snobby distinction between mindfood and rave fodder that most IDM-ers still adhere to. Right now, a lot of smart money is on kid606--real name Michael Depredo--as IDM's very own punk rock. This San Diego teenager understands that IDM, over-civilized and effete like the Roman Empire, needs to revitalize itself with barbarian blood. So he brings the noise from, where else, Stupid Dance Music--hardcore styles like gabba, jungle (in its pre-gentrification, ragga-sampling form circa 1994), Miami bass, dancehall.  On his latest album "Down With the Scene" (his first for Ipecac, the label co-founded by Faith No More's Mike Patton and former Alternative Tentacles boss Greg Werkman), Depredo even signposts his revolutionary intent with titles like "Punkshit", "Hardcore", and "Luke Vibert Can Kiss My Indie-Punk Whiteboy Ass."
                
The last of these is a half-flippant, half-earnest gauntlet thrown down to the first-wave IDM luminary whose 1995 EPs as Plug pioneered what subsequently came to be called "drill 'n' bass"--a mini-genre based around the appropriation and intensification-through-caricature of jungle's breakbeat-splicing techniques. Drill'n'bass is roughly one-third of what kid606 is about, so the jibe at Vibert represents both anxiety-of-influence and upstart cockiness. It's also very punk, its "move over, grandad, there's a new kid in town" disrespect redolent of The Clash's famous line about "no more Beatles Stones etc". On tracks like "Buffalo 606--the morning after"  606 does to Vibert what Vibert did to jungle --exaggerate drill'n'bass's already absurdly convoluted and convulsive polyrhythms. Bringing new meaning to the jungle superlative "tearing", Depredo shreds the fabric of beat itself, honing   splinters of what was once human, hand's on funk into precision-tooled flechettes whose micro-syncopations and hyper-flams snag your limbs and pull you everywhichway.  His savage EQ-ing and treatment of drum sounds conjures a timbral fantasia-- ride-cymbals that weep, miaow,  or hiss like sulphuric in your face;  snares that bleat or silversplash like knitting needles in a pool of mercury. "Kidrush" is like a tumbleweed of barbed wire, or a classic jungle tune played at 78 rpm through the world's shittiest stylus.
                
The other two-thirds of the kid606 sound-spectrum are even noisier: the distorto-blare riffs and stampeding kick drums of gabba, and the hums, crackles, 'n' tics of "glitch" (electronic dronescapes built from the sounds of malfunctioning equipment, vandalized CDs etc).  As hybrids go, it sounds horrible on paper, but kid606's saving grace is what I can only describe as (not very punk, this) "musicality"--a feel for the sensuousness of different kinds of distortion, an oddly refined approach to the excruciation of sound. It's a subtle frenzy---recent developments in audio software allow producers to tweak the parameters of every separate beat in every single bar (a level of micro-processing that results either in music of inexhaustible listenability or a self-sabotaging fiddliness---it's in the ear of the beholder, natch). Subscribing too often to the puerile equation of speed with intensity, kid606 is actually most absorbing when he slows down. "GQ on the EQ" is like an Eighties electro "drum solo" composed from the sounds of a  wasp in a jam jar, sizzling bacon, a wah-wahed bedspring, and so forth. "Secrets 4 Sale" is glitch-funk, a Prince-meets-Oval mosaic of twitches and hiccups. "Dame Nature" is house built from gastric rumblings and stomach sonar.
                
Attitude-wise, kid606 makes me think of  Digital Hardcore with a broader sonic canvas, or  Huggy Bear if they'd been ravers rather than Pastels fans--the same  petulancy and obstreperousness,  the split impulses between expressive urgency and hermetic encryption, the exaltation of youth  (Depredo being the real thing, whereas Huggy sloganeered about Kid's Lib Guerrilas but turned out to be the oldest teenagers in London town).  There's also an ethos of autonomous cultural production that is very Riot Grrl, very Huggy Nation. Kid606 is just one node in an international network of home-studio do-it-yourselfers and laptop improvisers---hyperproductive, multi-aliased artists like V/VM, Speedranch Jansky, Fennesz, Matmos, labels like Irritant, Mego, FatCat, Skam--who release split singles (like the EP Depredo shared with Christoph De Babalon on FatCat earlier this year), collaborate on one-off projects, jam together on tour, and trade remixes.  (The recent kid606 and friends Vol.1 collates remixes of and by Depredo, and is highly recommended).  With many records released in editions of 500 or less, it could be that this scene (IDM's New Wave) has more producers than consumers--which either fulfils punk's Situationist utopia of a culture where the gap between engaged artist or passive spectator is abolished, or just makes this whole zone a cultural backwater. (What's the point of having a revolution if nobody  notices?)
                
Punk was a spasm within the same cultural formation that included progressive rock, it was younger brothers revolting their older brother's wisdom. Johnny Rotten owned a Pink Floyd T-shirt before he scrawled "I Hate" on it, and lots of punks had Gentle Giant record secreted in back of their collections. (Bizarrely kid606  has remixed Gentle Giant, or so his website discography claims).  Inevitably, kid606 and his fellow insurgents share some familial traits with IDM.  Such as IDM's founding and fallacious dichotomy between listening and dancing (bollox, of course--dancers listen very closely, with every sinew and muscle and nerve in their bodies). Another IDM notion that Depredo appears to share is the idea of scenes as creative shackles on the artist (that's how I read the ambiguous title  "Down With The Scene", anyway). Again, bollox--nine times out of ten in the history of dance music, it's the populist hardcore scenes that come up with the really big, really new ideas, which the fringe experimentalists merely tweak or addle with nuances.
                
Drill'n'bass is the obvious recent example of this parasitism, so it's worth contrasting a track by Squarepusher, the genre's most famous exponent, with a superficially similar one by kid606. The 'Pusher man's "Come On  My Selector" is a sneering parody of jungle, its facetious title tweaking and enfeebling a jump-up catchphrase that has huge historical weight behind it, and that in its context of actual usage represents the power of the crowd over the DJ (becoming part of the crowd being IDM's mortal terror).

Turning jungle into a joke is probably the only way an IDM artist like Squarepusher can deal with the humiliation of his debts to SDM. "Catstep/My Kitten/Catnap Vatstep Dsp Remix" (a Hrvatski remix of Depredo track that's on both Down With the Scene and Kid 606 and Friends) is no less daft than "Come On My Selector", and it shares the hallmark of IDM forays into hardcore terrain (a sort of danger-less mayhem,  stemming from the lack of real "social energy" invested in the music). But there's something palpably loving about its pastiche of jungalistic cliches (a Sleng-Teng Casio bassline, tumbling Amen breakbeats, a vocoder-ragga voice chanting buzzphrases like "mash it up", "dubplate pressure", and "ruffneck soldier" like a cross between Stephen Hawking and Beenie Man), and an explosive topsy-turvy energy that recalls jungle at its most rinsed out circa '93-94.
               
Left-field artists often expect applause for combining several Really Big, Really New ideas that originated elsewhere. And the harshest thing you could say about kid606 is that he's really just offering an entertainingly executed composite of  established extremisms. I'd rather give him the benefit of the doubt, and hear his music as the omnivorous, insatiable frenzy of a restless musical spirit. If he hasn't yet reached the absolute novelty he aspires to, you can catch the scent of its imminence.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Caretaker + Baron Mordant

Baron Mordant
Mark of the Mould

The Caretaker
Everywhere at the end of time
Everywhere, an empty bliss

The Wire, June 2019

by Simon Reynolds

It’s twenty years now since the first stirrings of what came to be called hauntology: Boards of Canada’s Music Has A Right to Children, Position Normal’s Stop Your Nonsense, early releases by Mount Vernon Arts Lab and Broadcast… and The Caretaker’s Selected Memories from the Haunted Ballroom. After eleven releases under that name, James Kirby is retiring his best-known alias. And with another leading figure in the genre-not-genre - Baron Mordant, a/k/a Ian Hicks, the man behind Mordant Music the group and the label - also calling time on his public self, it’s tempting to see these career-closing releases as tombstones for the sound-sensibility. Is this the moment to give up the ghosts? Or will hauntology enjoy some kind of after-afterlife?

In hindsight, “memoradelia” – an alternative name proposed by Patrick McNally – might have been a better way to go, avoiding the Derridean cargo carried by the term hauntology. Decay, the attrition of aging, memory’s uncanny persistence and terrifying frailty are at the maggoty core of Mark of the Mould and Everywhere at the end of time.  A memory is a kind of ghost,  sharing its queasy quality of ontological instability: a present absence, neither here nor there, now nor then.  One psychoanalytical explanation – or explaining away – of  the ghost (at least ghosts familiar to us, ghosts we recognize) is that they are symptoms of incomplete mourning:  memories we’re unable to let go.


Continuing the exploration of memory disorders in Theoretically pure anterograde amnesia  and other earlier Caretaker releases, Everywhere at the end of time – a gargantuan project launched in 2016 and now closing with its the sixth installment, plus the free side-album Everywhere, an empty bliss - is Kirby’s attempt to mirror in sound the stages of Alzheimer’s. Identity, memory and a sense of temporality are interdependent. As the first two props of the self crumble, perception of time also erodes away. What ensues is – as far as we can tell - - a prolapse of consciousness, an undignified slide into a hellish limbo of non-time. That threshold is reached on the latest batch of Everywhere: where earlier tracks lasted three or four minutes each, the new pieces dilate monstrously, ranging from 21 to 23 minutes. Listening to these entropic epics models the ego-death of advanced senility: it’s virtually impossible not to drift off into inattentive vacancy.

The first Caretaker record took its concept (and artist name) from the ballroom scene in The Shining: Jack Nicholson’s writer turned hotel caretaker turned revenant psychopath hallucinating the sound of the 1930s light-jazz ballads that the Overlook’s guests had decades earlier slow-danced to (specifically the songs of Al Bowlly, a British entertainer popular between the wars but now almost completely forgotten).  Listening to the drawn-out death rattles of these final Caretaker pieces, you might think of another iconic Kubrick scene: the uncomprehending horror of  HAL the rogue computer in 2001, A Space Odyssey,  as his brain is dismantled bit by bit, the blanks in his consciousness getting bigger until all that is left is the steadily decelerating ditty “A Bicycle  Made for Two”.

The Caretaker could have renamed himself The Caregiver, for on this project he resembles a sonic nurse in a hospice for the terminally ill. Kirby is a custodian in another sense. For over two decades, he’s collected thousands of dirt-cheap shellac 78 rpm discs of Bowlly-type music, from which he’s lovingly sampled, looped, and filtered to create these tracks. The result is an alchemized archive of popular song:  music whose original “people” are either dead or on the downward slope. For to be capable of remembering this music as a real-time, living culture, you’d have to be in your nineties now.  What Kirby presents here could be heard as the faint, faded memory-fragments of once-beloved tunes as they waver on in atrophying minds.

It’s a style of music that, as Kirby has noted, always already ached with nostalgia, oozing a woozy maudlin warmth as comforting as a mug of Ovaltine. His treatments layer an extra sepia-tint patina of Pathé pathos. Suffused with a kindly “golden hour” glow, the earlier instalments of the project loop sonorous horns, harp twinkles and piano ripples into cul de sacs of consciousness: the melodic equivalent of those mental glitches that Americans call “senior moments”  (a self-deprecating, uneasily humorous term that shows you are still in command because you are able to identify them as aberrations). Now and then, there’s a resemblance to the Gas albums, but replacing Alpine grandeur with fireside intimacy. The titles are heartbreaking (“I Still Feel As Though I Am Me”) and often describe the music more effectively than the reviewer ever could (“Long term dusk glimpses,” Internal unravel”).

Across Everywhere’s nearly seven hours duration, everything seems to wilt and yellow as the album progresses, or rather, regresses. Sound starts to reach our ears as though through a swaddling ball of fluff that’s wrapped itself around the needle. Where before the rhythm of the pieces was a gently bobbing sway like the rise and fall of a merry-go-round horse, now it’s an agonizingly protracted pestle-and-mortar grind, slowly pulverizing thought into sparkly dust. By the end – the 20-minute long pieces - there’s no discernible motion, just a sandstorm standstill, eternity-as-abyss.


The Caretaker faces decay and death with serenely fatalistic acceptance, aestheticizing the inevitable extinction of personality. On Mark of the Mould Baron Mordant’s subject is middle age and the response is different: he’s not going down without a fight. There’s a feeling of writhing struggle to this album, a man at war with the spores he’s inhaled. Comprising fifteen tracks plus the bonus inclusion of their instrumental versions, Mould is the grand bouffe finale to a career, Hicks sicking up a feast of all his favorite riddim tics and danktronica textures. 


Much of Mould resembles the vastly more compelling music that dubstep could have been. True, few things could be more boring in 2019 than manifesting a dub influence, but Mordant’s idea of it descends more from Cabaret Voltaire than Lee Perry: it’s a dead-aired, dessicated, deep-underground-silo version of dub, built around cold delays rather than misty-mystic reverb. Imagine Shackleton unshackled. Call it Middle-Aged Echo. Other portions of Mould supply a banging ‘n’ clanking update of early Nineties techno - “(It’s A) MariMba (You Knob)” could be a great lost track from the sessions for DHS’s “House of God” – that exploits the capacity for detail and dimension afforded by current software.

Elsewhere Mould overlaps with eMMplekz, Hicks’s glorious collaboration with Ekoplekz’s Nick Edwards, except that in this case the Baron is handling not just the verbals and lyrics but the backing tracks too. Being a genius word-wrangler means that the Baron is better equipped to describe what he’s doing than me. Trying to tag his unique delivery and idiom - a Tourettic monologue riddled with floridly fetid imagery and gruesomely tortured puns - I toyed with formulations like “mental effluent,” only to be outmatched by a passing reference to “spoken turd” on one track here.  Likewise, hoping to pin down the particular tone of sour derision in Hicks voice,  I realized eventually that le mot juste was in fact “mordant”.

Peter Cook, or certain characters that the comedian played, could be a reference point for the vocal tone – gruffly classless, indeterminately Southern English, withering, withered, the sardonic sneer undercut by its own impotence – but doesn’t capture the uniquely macabre brand of Anglo-surreal humour on offer. That voice and the encrypted private slanguage are maintained not just on record, but in press communiques, email correspondence and interviews, making you wonder if Hicks uses it in everyday life too, when shopping or making up bedtime stories for his kids.


As for what Hicks rants about, one ripe terrain is the sort of modern-day U.K. ugliness that inspires online forums like Shit London and Boring Dystopia. A Robert Macfarlane of built-up Britain, Hicks is an accomplished “visual noticer” with a keen eye for the unsightly and characterless.  But he’s equally observant when it comes to the unreal life of the Internet – the not-so-great indoors - especially the fatuities of today’s music scene. Many lines here read like snippets from blog reviews or Boomkat blurbs. “The Internet Did It” points the finger obliquely at, well, all of us, probably: the crime is left undefined but could refer to the economic nonviability of the leftfield musician’s life in the age of streaming, or to a creeping paralysis and hemorrhaging of meaning and momentum. Choice phrases fly by almost too fast to register: some near-abstract (“lichen 2-step”, “are you being serf?”, “Disneyhole”) and others nearly too on-the-nose as parody or invective (“make an avant sound-design tune that drops into a chamber of grimy vox”, “listen to these cunts waffle on about branding themselves”).

But – and here’s where midlife-crisis comes in – much of the time the target of the tongue lashing is Hicks himself.  “Anything With a Pulse” self-berates with cries of “you’re nothing nearly / there’s just nothing coming through” that suggest a battle with creative block, and it’s followed by “Somebody Wake Up Hicks”  whose title makes it clear that the “you” in the previous song was really “me”. Defying his own sense of abject futility - “there’s thousands of LPs out there like this” goes one line –this album froths over with a last-stand surge and splurge of creativity. And, a vague affinity with Sleaford Mods aside, there’s really nothing else out there in modern music that resembles the Baron’s particular blend of sound and spiel.

Themes of deterioration, self-doubt, and declining powers pervade, even as the sounds and beats rattle and ping ferociously. “Blong” features a child-voice jeering “Dad is a dick”.  “Insane Note” has a line about being “persona non grata” and a grim, sinking-feeling chant “you know that / I know that,” while its title could be read as one step further along from the “sick note” that gets you off school or work. “Percussive SuMMer” is a piss-stream of consciousness spraying into a latrine of sound: the lyric reads like a real-time vignette of Hicks musing to himself in a local tavern, supping a pint, roaming through random memories and rejoicing that a deferred jury summons will allow him a few days to make some tunes.  “KFC’s Toilets” might be an answer record to Burial’s “In McDonalds.” The little kid’s voice – presumably Hicks Jnr - reappears on “Aldi Bin Bag” chanting something indecipherable (“Arseland, oh yeah”?).


All the verbal bile and brackish sound roil towards a clammy climax on “Only For Fun Game,” the penultimate track. Framed with voice-shivers that lurch upwards in pitch, it’s a lament for a life wasted onscreen. “There’s a day out there I really should get to,” goes the chorus. “A life under sky that’s vented and Lenten….  These are the days you can’t get back/ the melted clocks on Dali’s back.” After a flurry of lyric-shards ranging from abstract to uproarious -  “turned on by budget sportwear”, “senile stepovers”, “reduce the risk of a fall while bathing,” “no notifications are good notifications,” “everyone’s over-compensating for a Tavares deficiency” – Hicks signs off with “this is a gentle piss-take”. It’s the last decipherable utterance on the album – the closing track “Back in the US(S)B” fades out with mumbled vocal sounds – and perhaps the last words of a career.


On “MeMbrane” from 2016’s “criminally overlooked” (a Mordant Music joke, that, but true) eMMplekz album Rook to TN34, Hicks described himself as “mildly embittered since the turn of the century”, a reference to the very earliest Mordant emissions.  Two decades on, hauntology remains a surprisingly bustling field, with records, books, events, conferences, still occurring regularly. Only last month, there was the unexpected appearance of a BBC Ideas Film titled ‘What Is Hauntology? Why Is It All AroundUs?’.  But as a “news item”, it felt tardy not topical. For there is a definite sense of this region having  being mapped out long ago, the footpaths worn bare by visitors.  


Elsewhere on Rook to TN34, Hicks crooned mordantly: “Well, I should be moving on / Singing the same old song.”  Perhaps it is time to open the windows and clear away the soupy staleness with a ventilating blast of otherness and newness.  A gust of youthful energy to chase away the ghosts for good.