Thursday, May 17, 2018

Bad Brains, Bambi Slam, The Stupids


Clarendon, Hammersmith, London

Melody Maker, May 16th 1987

by Simon Reynolds 

Live the Stupids are never quite as monstrous as on record. Tonight, hampered by the nonappearance of guitarist Marty Tuff, their frantic thrashing stirred up a strangely immobile cloud of noise that loomed in the distance rather than sweeping over to engulf us. Hard core should drown.
Bambi Slam songs are Pebbles tantrums. Sixties punk with tweaks of feedback and a beat like a little brat stamping its feet on the spot, or the Glitter Band at 78rpm. Interesting, but unfortunately made to seem puny and flat-footed by the noise and majesty of what followed.
Bad Brains double-stun with a tidal wave of their sound and the shock of their incongruity — imagine Burning Spear playing Anthrax. But the link-up of Rasta and speed core is totally appropriate; both sub-cultures have a total vision of the world, as unremitting tribulation and slavery, both imagine liberation in the form of apocalypse. Bad Brains' music similarly seems to consist in absolutes — of gravity, velocity, heat, cold. Blacks invented rock 'n' roll in the first place, so it's fitting that they're here at its outer limits, presiding over its ultimate super-nova, its whitest white-out. Their singer slashes out the beat with an outstretched arm, and it's like he's conducting the orbit of planets.
The shows are slick, as tautly rehearsed, as the Temptations or Zapp, right down to glib inter-song chat. An intensely glamorous bunch — the singer lashes the air with his dreadlocks, the guitarist wears a permanent gape of joy at his own brilliance, the bassist's bug eyes and Clinton eyebrows say "I can't believe we're doing this!" In a way, there's nothing of themselves in the music, it's anti-authentic: Bad Brains take the form of hardcore and perfect (exaggerate) it to the point where it's abstract art.
Such a fastidious assault, so exact, so exacting. Bad Brains are about astounding musicianship crammed within rigid parameters and so blazing all the more brightly. (The singer brings an almost scat feel to the straight-ahead melodies, throws in all manner of swerves and dips.) Similarly the emotional intensity of Bad Brains, of hard core in general, comes from when energy is caged, ricochets off the walls.
Bad Brains were like a visitation, a bolt from the heavens, and the vast sexless apocalypse of their music left even the grubbiest, most lumpen members of their congregation cleansed, elevated, re-born.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Mover + Sick Music / gabba + drum & bass in the 21st Century

Undetected Act from the Gloom Chamber
Planet Phuture / Boidae
Sick Music 2018
(Hospital Records)
The Wire, April 2018

by Simon Reynolds

In 1990, the German producer Marc Acardipane released “Reflections of 2017” under the name Mescalinum United – the first of many aliases, among them Pilldriver, Alien Christ, and most famously The Mover.  “Reflections” was the flipside of “We Have Arrived”, a blaring stampede that laid down the blueprint for gabba: the crazy-fast, ultra-hard style of techno that stormed to popularity across Northern Europe and established outposts of fanatical followers all over the world. “2017” would remain a leitmotif in Acardipane’s work, appearing in track titles like “Lightbringer (Escape from 2017)” and as the catchphrase “see you in 2017”.  Back in the early Nineties, 2017 must have seemed far off, a mind-swirl of dystopian mise-en-scenery out of Blade Runner, Robocop, and Terminator.  Fans could imagine the Mover as a faceless rave equivalent to Snake Plissken from Escape from New York: a lone-ranger anti-hero making his way through the chaos of a collapsed society or a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Flash forward to the present: we have arrived, indeed we’ve overshot. The future-now of 2018 is dystopian and apocalyptic, for sure, but in ways we could never have imagined back in the Nineties. Compared with that decade, when he released hundreds of tracks through the Frankfurt-based family of labels he co-founded – PCP, Cold Rush, Dance Ecstasy 2001, etc - Acardipane had a quiet 21st century. His output oscillated between gestures towards credibility (a 2003 album for Tresor) and panders to the remaining gabbers in the Netherlands (plentiful enough to propel him into the pop charts). But there were long silences too. Then last year The Mover remobilized, with high-profile “living legend” style deejay appearances at raves and the remastered reissue of his greatest tracks. The plan was for an all-new album to come out in 2017 – completing the circle – but it got bumped to this year.

The ungainly album title Undetected Act from the Gloom Chamber suggests a certain  awkwardness about returning to the fray. Which would be understandable, in so far as The Mover’s √§sthetisch / weltanschauung is built around a foreboding futurity that we’ve in some sense gone past. Almost inevitably, Acardipane picks up exactly where he left off. All the things fans like me love, hallmarks of the style some of us call gloomcore, are amply present: the sky-darkening swoops of raven-black synth, the parade-ground snares and thick thuds of kickdrum; the cold cavernous reverb; the piteous melodies and macabre jeering sounds.  Highlights include “Stealth,” an electro-tinged track bounced along by giant smacks of clap and a backwards bass-lurch like a tank’s caterpillar tread churning helplessly in mud, and “Doom Computer,” which drapes sickly drooping melody-riffs over a trudging march beat like a renegade legion of orcs on a dastardly mission.   

The Mover’s first album came out in 1993 and bore the title The Final Sickness; earlier there’d been two Frontal Sickness EPs. That’s my segue to Sick Music 2018, a compilation on Hospital Recordings, for some time now drum and bass’s leading label. Every so often I ponder, as a long lapsed D&B believer, how the genre has carried on for a full twenty years after I stopped paying close attention: a timespan four times as long as the genre’s original heyday of 1993-97. I wasn’t the only one to switch off. Once D&B commanded the attention of magazines like this one, as well as ideas-hungry pop stars like Bowie and Bjork. But now you’re more likely to see a review of a hauntological facsimile of 94-era jungle or darkcore-circa-93 in these pages, than a current exponent of the genre that is the extension of those sounds.

Not that the D&B scene cares particularly. Nor has it suffered from the external neglect. Arena-scale raves still happen regularly, scene elders like Andy C persevere and prosper, new DJs and producers replenish the field.  A stable fixture in the genrescape, D&B has also stabilized as a form, “the full circumference” (as they used to call it) of its stylistic variants long since set out. Andy C’s defiant comment that D&B “isn’t going anywhere” could be read in a less flattering way. On the other hand, perhaps it’s time to give the genre a break, forgive and forget its promises to keep always moving forward. Why judge it any more harshly than all the other vanguard sounds that have slipped into a steady-state?

Sick Music contains a fair amount of the head-banger style that drove me out of the scene in ‘98, although after a long period of abstinence a track like Unglued’s “Bootstrap Bill”, a clattery battery of growling bass and bad-boy beats, sounds rather invigorating. But the freshest stuff by far here expands upon the “musicality” moves of the mid-Nineties: the easy-rollin’ heights (or Haigh-ts) and cruise-control bliss of prime Moving Shadow. The core of Hugh Hardie’s gorgeous “Nightingale” is a reverb-smudgy piano lick whose effect is like a cinematic dissolve, a twinkle in time. Modulating this curl of liquid smoke as if rolling a sip of wine across the palate, Hardie braids the keyboard chords with vocal murmurs, fast-flicker hand-percussion, and soft spasms of double-bass. Who’s to say a stone classic can’t happen during a genre’s middle age, rather than its youth? 

Several of the best tunes here could be designated “lover’s jungle”.  London Elektricity’s tingling and tremulous “Just One Second (Mitekiss Remix)” features a lyric about freeze-framing a moment of rapture - “if this second was my life / I would happily die” – delivered with that characteristically Scandinavian singer’s quality of cold-water clarity by Elsa Hedberg. Kubaiko’s “Playing Tricks” wordlessly transmits a similar butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation, twining a sprite-like vocal sigh with silvery whooshes of texture. Meshing an Amen-break like a bounding antelope with trance-style pulse-work, Seba x Physics’s “Innocence” is repeatedly split apart by the awe and gratitude of a diva’s “you show me how to love.”  And Urbandawn’s “Spare Life” laces dewy synths and unexpected groans of shoegaze guitar over a midtempo groove.

Listening to Sick Music, it struck me that “drum and bass” seems almost a misnomer these days, directing attention as it does to what are now the least interesting aspects of the genre.  The drums and the bass do their job efficiently enough: the former skittering briskly, the latter either supplying pulsing warmth or slicing crossways across the beat as blaring stabs.  What holds and caresses the ear now is everything else going on in the arrangement and production:  keyboards, orchestrations, the wisps and whispers of unidentifiable instrumentation, the overall shimmerglow of the sound design.  Really, a better, more telling name would be “melody & mood.” 

If both these releases show that an elder artist and a no-longer-young genre can still generate strong, exciting, and in many ways absolutely valid music, there still remains a lingering sense that both reached their apotheosis around 1996-7. The Pilldriver anthem “Apocalypse Never” would be both Acardipane’s and gloomcore’s abyssal apex; Adam F’s “Circles” and “Metropolis” arguably stand as twin peaks of D&B’s musical and monstrous directions.

The point of “see you in 2017” - or jungle’s tropes of “living for the future,”  “we bring you the future” etc - wasn’t really about how tomorrow would actually be, sonically or otherwise. The year-date or the amorphous image of  “phuture” created a quickening in the present, as if you and the music being pulled taut by a line attached to that distant destination.  Propulsive linearity was the feeling that ran through all the dancefloor electronica of the Nineties - trance and techno as much as jungle and gabba. A hurtling teleology, a ballistic sense of purpose, felt as a physical sensation: beats got ever more brutal and fractured, tempos accelerated, textures escalated in abstraction and noxiousness. Hearing them through a sound system was an onslaught and an ordeal: a test for dancers, forging new flesh.  And each individual track was a microcosm of the entire culture’s fast-forward drive. Rave was a movement, in the martial sense of a modernist vanguard, but with a hint of political mobilization too. Another reason why The Mover was such a perfect name.

But in the 21st Century, for the most part it feels like development in electronic dance became lateral not linear: sideways journeys across the genrescape, combined with a deepening of sound design and a textural thickness afforded by recurrent upgrades in digital technology.  Although you hear this laterality most in nu-millennium styles like micro-house and post-dubstep, you can hear it in Acardipane’s new work and in Sick Music’s nu-skool D&B producers.   Structurally, in terms of what the beats and riffs are doing, the music has not really advanced. But the sound has a high-definition gloss and dimension to it that’s 21st Century. The the architecture is Nineties, but the interior d√©cor and exterior paint-job are totally now.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

six songs connected to Rip It Up and Start Again

originally written for Largehearted Boy website, 2006

1/ Sex Pistols, “Bodies” (Never Mind the Bollocks, 1977)

Well, without punk, there’d be no postpunk, right? And it was the Sex Pistols (specifically this song and “Anarchy in the UK”) that first snagged me off whatever path I was on aged fourteen and into the world of taking-music-too-seriously. Mainly, because I’d never heard anything that sounded so deadly serious before. Not so much anti-abortion as a protest against life, “Bodies” is a song that reminds you that a big part of punk’s appeal was its pure wanton evil--destruction for destruction’s sake. Almost orchestral in its grandeur (those huge backing vocal chants), “Bodies” sounds appalling and glorious. In Rip It Up and Start Again, part of my rhetorical pitch is challenging punk’s inflated historical status and bigging up “the aftermath”. This involved criticizing punk rock as a backward step, a return to basic rock’n’roll. Which is true for much of it, but the best punk was actually the distillation of rock into something that hadn’t, actually, been heard before. You go back a few years before Buzzcocks and X-Ray Spex, and really there’s nothing that has that monolithic blam-blam-blam-blam feel, even the heaviest metal or hardest-pounding Stooges had more swing to it. Still, there was a sense in which, once punk had staged this reductionist process, it couldn’t be taken anywhere, it could only be repeated with diminishing returns. Hence postpunk’s drive to expand and experiment.

2/ Public Image Ltd, “Death Disco” (single, 1979)

A protest against death: John Lydon singing (although that word seems inaccurate and inadequate for the harrowing noise unleashed here) about watching the light go out in his mother eyes. As much as the sound of the single, which made the Top 20 in Britain, what was life-changing for many, me included, was the matter/anti-matter collision of “death” and “disco” in the title. Disco, subverted by content too heavy and dark for the brightly lit celebration of the dancefloor; “death” (rock’s seriousness, its grappling with “the human condition”) subverted by disco’s hedonism and levity. Ian Dury & The Blockheads--another of my favorites back then--did something similar, albeit in a more accessible and conventionally musical way: “My Old Man” (on New Boots and Panties) was a poignant reminiscence of Dury’s own dead dad over taut funk, while “Dance of the Screamers” (from Do It Yourself) turned disco into primal scream therapy for the interpersonally challenged.

3/ Talking Heads, “Seen and Not Seen” (Remain In Light, 1980)

I got PiL’s Metal Box for Christmas 1979, and Remain In Light for Xmas the following year. I remember spending Christmas morning lying on the carpet in our living room as close to the speakers as I could get, lost in its jungle of glittering texture-rhythm. “Seen and Not Seen,” the least groove-oriented track, is actually my favorite song on the record, though. Although I didn’t realize this at the time, it’s one that bears a really heavy Eno imprint in terms of its near-ambient atmosphere, the way the synths glint and waver like heat-haze rising over a sun-baked highway. It’s similar to the “4th World” music Eno was making around this time with Jon Hassell. I love the lyric--the story of a man who learns how to change his facial appearance by gradual exercise of will, only to realise that he’s made a terrible mistake halfway through the metamorphosis--and the hesitant cadences of Byrne’s spoken delivery. People typically have a fairly limited idea of what postpunk was about--angular, stark, punk-funk, angsty--but there was a whole other side to the music that was ethereal, dreamy-drifty, and gorgeously textured, and “Seen and Not Seen” is an exquisite example. I wanted to get the track for the Rip It Up compilation, which is coming out this spring and showcases the atmospheric, blissy-eerie side of postpunk, but we couldn’t get the rights.

4/ Scritti Politti, “PAs” (from 4 A Sides EP, 1979)

There was just something really mysterious and intriguing about Scritti Politti. Somehow I’d got wind of the idea of them as this fabulously uncompromising outfit skulking in the margins of the UK postpunk scene and operating at some outer limit of politics-in-pop. I guess that was their reputation, their image, their glamour in a way, and it made them both attractive and vaguely intimidating, like a challenge that you ought to put yourself through. And then when I actually heard Scritti for the first time--it would have been “Bibbly-O-Tek,” also from 4 A Sides, on John Peel’s radio show--I was struck both by how unusual it was (the fractured song-structures, the odd chord-changes) but also how instantly beguiling the song was (the sweetness of Green’s voice, the sheer melodic beauty--which came, I realized many years later, from his childhood love of the Beatles). There was a loveliness that I completely had not expected. And when I got 4 A Sides, and the two other early EPs, I gradually became convinced Green was a pop genius. All this was well before he’d made his big turnabout and decided to go “pop” with “The ‘Sweetest Girl’”. I was such a fan that I nearly wrote him a letter telling him that he should just forget all the Scritti ideology about avoiding musical conventions and just go for it, that pop stardom was his destiny. It was “PAs,” this fantastic funk groove with a gorgeously insinuating and serpentile melody, that really sold me on this idea. This would have been the summer of 1980, when Green actually was holed up in a Welsh cottage ruminating over his musical future. But as much as it was great when he did go pop, first with the lover’s rock reggae of “Sweetest Girl” and then with the electrofunk hits like “Wood Beez,” “Absolute” and “Perfect Way”, part of me wishes he stuck with his original band and just kept on making things like “PAs” for ever.

5/ Tenor Saw, “Ring the Alarm”, 1985

I wanted to include something to register the extent to which postpunk depended for its very being on the amazing black music of the late Seventies and early Eighties--funk and disco, reggae and electro. This tune is from just outside the period Rip It Up covers, but, well, I’ve been listening to it a lot this week, and it seems as good an emblem as any for the massive effect Jamaican music had on UK postpunk. I played it yesterday and had one of those moments. It’s a midtempo skank, sweetly sung, but it hit me with the impact of The Stooges; the tension in the rhythm suddenly had this quality of tectonic violence. The line in this song that always slays me, makes my head spin, is “sweet reggae music ‘pon the attack”. If you think about what the song is actually about, it’s grim--the market struggle of sound system against sound system (“ring the alarm, another sound is dying”). It’s pitiless, Hobbesian, and yet there is such exultation in the song, same as in “War in A Babylon” by Max Romeo, another tune I’ve been playing recently.

6/ La Dusseldorf, “Dusseldorf” (La Dusseldorf, 1976)

Not strictly postpunk; indeed this album--the brainchild of Klaus Dinger of Neu!-- was recorded in 1975, making it pre-punk. But I’m including it A/ because I’ve been listening to it incessantly, and B/ David Bowie cited this album, along with Neu 75, as a huge influence on Low, which in turn was a massive LP for the postpunk bands. La Dusseldorf could therefore be seen as the Source in terms of the Neu Europa vibe that swept through so much postpunk, from Simple Minds’ Empires and Dance to The Associates (“White Car in Germany,” etc). There’s this clear-headed atmosphere of nobility and splendor to “Dusseldorf”, panoramic vistas reeling by as you head at speed into a world that’s cleansed and newborn. You get a tiny foretaste too of the glisten and uplift of early U2 and Echo & The Bunnymen, the postpunk breed of bands I call “glory boys” in Rip It Up. In Neu!, Dinger was one of the great rock drummers, he invented the motorik beat, this amazing combination of caveman primitivism and ever-shifting subtlety, a white version of Amiri Baraka’s “changing same.” One of the cool things about La Dusseldorf is that, in what seems like an act of supreme perversity, Dinger handed over the drum kit to his brother Thomas, who then proved to be just as good as Klaus. The latter, meanwhile, took up guitar and almost out-dazzled Neu! guitarist Michael Rother. I think he was trying to prove a point, that he was the real mastermind in Neu! Lyrically, “Dusseldorf” is wonderfully inane, just a chant of the city’s name, a one-word anthem of civic patriotism; sonically it’s 13 minutes of rolling motorik majesty, something I could happily listen to for fives times that length.