Friday, April 17, 2015

Extreme Music

A riff on 'Extreme Music and the appeal thereof' from 2007, which was written for someone else's book but not ever actually used, the time-wasting twat-head (said affectionately but with an under note of annoyance)


What is the attraction of extreme music? What can "extreme" even mean nowadays, when the outer limits in every conceivable direction seem to have been probed? Besides, extremity depends on context and expectation.  If "extreme" has any meaning at all,shouldn't it be in reference to extremity of affect, the intensity of what the listener experiences? But then, as we can all surely attest, it's often the softest songs, the most gently seductive and caressing sounds, that cut you up most cruelly. Bursting into tears is a pretty extreme reaction to a piece of music, but I can't think of any noise record or avant-garde work that has done that to me. Whereas Al Green's "I'm Still In Love With You" or The Smiths' "There is A Light That Never Goes  Out" infallibly devastate. The most recent thing to make this grown man sob was Kraftwerk's "Autobahn", an innovative piece of music on many levels, but not really "extreme" or noisy, on the contrary, all euphony and Beach Boys-like honey to the ears. What  choked me up wasn't the poignant melody but the sheer aesthetic majesty of it, the spirit behind the work.

Conversely, I once fell asleep in a Galas concert (and I was a fan and admirer of her music!). The singer was aiming to conjure Old Testament levels of affliction, abjection and grief (the work was inspired by AIDS as a modern day plague). Yet the undifferentiated pitch of mind-rending anguish had the effect of lulling me into a doze. On the level of affect, Galas's work was on the same level as Mantovani. Or a  mug of Horlicks.

Nonetheless I remain obsessively drawn to the abstract and out-there in music, and I'm not exactly sure why. That's not unusual: often there seems to be a gap between the reasons we give for liking or validating certain kinds of music and what's really going. With noise, free jazz/improv, avant-classical, et al, there's a tendency to talk in terms of subversion or challenge, an assault on staid sensibilities. The music is envisioned as an edifying ordeal, a salutary and spiritually uplifting violation that will expand the listener's horizons. But in this scenario it's always some Other that is being tested and transformed; by definition, we are the the always already expanded. If you approach a work of art expecting to be challenged, you're no longer in a place where that can happen.  

Terms like "innovative", "groundbreaking", "pioneering", are equally problematic, because once you get past the first few listens, the music necessarily becomes familiar; what was abstract and amorphous starts to take on a shape, ceases to be disorientating. It's impossible to repeat the shock of the new.

This is even more the case when we listen to avant-garde music from a long time ago--Varese's pre-World War 2 compositions, the early musique concrete of Pierres Henry and Schaeffer, Stockhausen's elektronische works, or, in rock terms, Velvet Underground, early Throbbing Gristle, et al.  

So what is going on when we go back  as listeners to experience a past breakthrough? Is that sensation even recoverable, given that the present we inhabit is one where the breakthrough is taken for granted,  commonplace, perhaps even institutionally sanctioned to the point of seeming worthy. 

Clearly there's a large element of projection by the historically-informed listener, a kind of mental restaging of the moment of bursting through into the unknown. Curious and paradoxical this may be, but it's absolutely integral to my enjoyment of the music. Indeed it results in an arguably unreasonable bias against contemporary artists working in those fields, on the grounds that, however accomplished their work is,  they are settlers not pioneers; what Philip Sherburne calls an apr├Ęs-garde.


my assertion of being compulsively drawn to the extreme is somewhat in contradiction to the opinion that Extremity is passe as voiced in this Over-Rated of 1997 bit (but then consistency is the hobgoblin of etc etc)  which ran on the old Website Blissout aka A White Brit Raver Thinks Aloud. I wonder if you can guess who the unnamed opponent that is not-strawmanned-not-at-all-actually at the start of the piece?


There's a certain strain of argument being touted in which the extremities 
(global as well as musical) are where it's all happening--from freeform improv 
to Jap-core noise, from NZ drone-scapes to quirked out neo-Krautrock to 
Skullflower-style fuzzadelia. Apart from the insufferable cooler-than-thou 
attitude that often seems intrinsic to this stance, my aesthetic objection to 
all these initiatives is their tendency to end up as pure abstraction. And pure 
abstraction isn't really that interesting. You can't do anything with it, or to 
it--apart from just lie back and take it (in). 

"A scribble effacing all lines" is how Deleuze & Guattari put in A Thousand 
Plateaux, talking of the tendency of avant-garde artists to reterritorialise 
around "the child, the mad, noise"--the aesthetic equivalent to such "fascist or 
suicidal" lifestyle choices as heroin addiction, terrorism or joining a cult. 
Musically, the quest for chaos can easily end up as a black hole of 
undifferentiated, maelstromic miasma--as vast as the cosmos maybe, but in the 
absence of any figure-ground perspective, it's effectively as claustrophobic as 
a cubby-hole. 

I subscribe to the D&G/Manuel Delanda line that the most interesting work 
happens "on the edge of chaos". I'm interested in abstraction where it works as 
a component of a groove ('ardkore, darkside, techstep) or an element within an 
architectonics of audio-space (Chain Reaction). It's the thresholds, the 
intermediary zones, that are really magical -- melody bleeding into noise, 
songcraft struggling with psychedelics (My Bloody Valentine, Husker Du); 
distortion + raunch (Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic", Royal Trux's Cats and Dogs); 
the Bataillean excess and surplus-to-requirements extravagance working within 
and against the funktional minimalism (Prince, swingbeat); space + groove + 
timbre (Can, Neu!, Miles Davis, Seventies dub). Punk to funk, the ethos is the 
same: "restriction is the mother of all invention" (Holger Czukay). 

Extremism? Well, on what scale are we measuring here? Very little out-rock, 
avant-jazz, left-field electronica, etc. being perpetrated today really ranks 
with, let alone exceeds, the outer limits probed by the Sixties freeform 
brigades, electro-acousticians, and so forth. There's also the question of ego: 
so much out-rock or avant-improv seems to partake of the Expressionistic Fallacy 
(e.g. Caspar Brotzmann's scrofulously self-preening theatre of pain). This 
interferes with the listener's ability to derive machinic use-value from it. You 
just have to sit there and gasp in awe. It's about marveling at the Artist's 
depth and intensity of feeling, rather than using the music to trigger 
sensations and intensities in yourself. The impersonal, "objective" approach to 
constructing rhythmic engines or kinaesthetic audio-sculptures can create just 
as powerful feelings in the listener as the "subjective" school of Romantic 
outpouring creativity. The idea that the former is mere artisanship whereas the 
latter is true Art is, like, half a century out of date, at least. This is the 
age of the engineer-poet, the imagineer. 

Although drum & bass can make some preposterous claims about its experimentalist 
reach, the truth is that its radicalism is always constrained with a quite rigid 
set of parameters: at any given season, certain kinds of bass-sound, certain 
kinds of breaks, and a specific tempo, are required by DJ's and dancers; 
invention takes place within and against those constraints. The resulting 
friction creates sparks. In hardcore dance scenes, constraints are a strength, 
not a liability. At the very least, these parameters are no less likely to 
produce strikingly listenable and intensity-productive results than the total 
absence of constraints. Extremism can be as fruitless as any musical stance; 
simply embarking with an experimental mindset does not guarantee results. 

Leaving the rhetoric of extremity for those still interested in playing the cool 
game (the fun wears off about a decade or so, lemme warn ya; there's always 
something more marginal and listener-unfriendly than whatever outer limit you 
set up shop upon) is a tremendous release. I can now confess that the 
song-oriented Faust IV is my favourite of their albums rather than the hipper 
Faust Tapes, that I prefer the boogie-fied crossover stab Clear Spot to Trout 
Mask Replica, that the almost-funky Strange Celestial Roads is my fave Sun Ra, 
that the Sly-and-Jimi influenced Seventies Miles pleasures me more than Ayler or 
AMM screeching to the converted. I can consign those Merzbow CD's to that 
cupboard marked "possibly someday, probably never".  

Thursday, April 16, 2015


interview, Melody Maker, November 18th 1989

by Simon Reynolds

cover feature, Melody Maker, July 30th 1990

by Simon Reynolds

Melody Maker, May 1991

by Simon Reynolds

Monday, April 13, 2015

Tresor / PCP - 1992

Melody Maker, autumn 1992

by Simon Reynolds

Tresor is a famous Berlin club located in a vault that was once the safe of a department store. Maybe because the temperatures inside this strobe-blitzed sauna reach tropical levels, the techno made by DJ's and groups associated with the club (and gathered on Der Klang Der Familie) is sweat-less and cold-as-ice.

The Berlin sound as represented here has a similar clinical-but-crazed vibe to the stuff coming out of Detroit on the Plus 8 label, like F.U.S.E.'s "F.U.": basslines that pulsate in sinister wave-forms like radioactive ore, rigorous programmed beats, synth-twitches that instil a strange ectastic dread. Unlike UK hardcore's epileptic basslines and sped-up vocals exploding like fireworks, this music doesn't speed-rush forwards in blind propulsion; the repetition seems to take you deeper and deeper towards something primal and not a little threatening. 

Voodoo possession is the model here, rather than the hyper-hyper exhiliration-whizz of breakbeat house. "Drugs Work" by System 01 is like venturing into a cyberdelic jungle, parting wave after wave of foliage towards some secret, pagan grove. Maurizio's "Ploy" is a cloud of oscillations and wave-forms that's almost beyond dance. 

Voov's "It's Anything You Want It To be And It's A Gas" assembles programmed rhythms and grids of sequencer pulses into a percussive lattice of near-symphonic complexity. Mind Gear's "Don't Panic" is simply symphonic, rivalling the poignant grandeur of Orbital's "Belfast". A brilliant compilation.

Planet Core Productions's Frankfurt Trax offers more German vanguard techno. Abbreviate the label's name to PCP and you get a good idea of the vibe of the Frankfurt sound: mad-as-hell, mental-as-fuck, apoplectic/apocalyptic frenzy, all stomping 4/4 beats and gut-busting bass-blasts. 

Mescalinum United's "We Have Arrived" is a storm-trooper stampede with a smeared, blaring riff that'll rip your entrails out. With its infernal bass and down-swooping drones, "Nightflight (nonstop to kaos)" by The Mover presents Frontal Sickness is like a cybernetic version of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man".

 But it's not all mayhem. Six Mullahs' "Persian Lover" is an Islam-otronic mood piece. Project AE's "Whales Alive" is an extraordinary, undulating soundscape: stereo-panning slow beats, brief arias of whale song, tidal synths, a terra-technic bass that glows like the Earth's core. Imagine "Once In A Lifetime" if Talking Heads had been ripping off Kraftwerk rather than Can. 

Another brilliant compilation.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Skip James / John Martyn

for The Wire cover versions mega-feature issue, November 2005

“Devil Got My Woman” (Skip James, rec. 1931)

Blues might be the most worn-out (through over-use and abuse), hard-to-hear-fresh music on the planet, but James’ original “Devil” --just his piteous keening voice and acoustic guitar--still cuts right through to chill your marrow. The lyric surpasses “Love Like Anthrax” with its anti-romantic imagery of love as toxic affliction, a  dis-ease of the spirit (James tries to rest, to switch off his lovesick thoughts for a while,  but “my mind starts a-rambling like a wild geese from the west”). Most singers would flinch from taking on this unheimlich tune. But John Martyn, reworking (and renaming) it as “I’d Rather Be The Devil” on Solid Air (Island, 1973) not only equals the original’s intensity but enriches and expands the song, stretching its form to the limit. It starts as a sickening plunge, a dive into seductive but treacherous waters. Roiling with congas and clavinet, the band’s surging aquafunk rivals anything contemporaneous by Sly Stone or P-Funk; Martyn moves through the music like a shark. Lyric shards come into focus now and then--“so much evil”, “stole her from my best friend… know he’ll get lucky, steal her back”--but mostly Martyn’s murky rasp fills your head like this black gas of amorphous malevolence. Then suddenly the bitches-brew  turbulence dissipates; ocean-as-killing-floor transforms into a barrier reef-cocooned idyll. Danny Thompson’s bass injects pure intravenous calm, keyboards flicker and undulate like anemones, Martyn’s needlepoint fingerpicking spirals in Echoplexed loops of rising rapture. Sonically traversing the distance from the Mississippi levee work-camps in which the young James toiled to Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, “I’d Rather Be The Devil” captures the ambivalence of “blue”: the colour of orphan-in-this-world desolation, but also of back-to-the-womb bliss. The two halves of Martyn’s drastic remake also correspond to a battle in the singer’s soul--between monster and water baby, danger and grace.
                                                        SIMON REYNOLDS