Friday, June 21, 2024

RIP James Chance / James White


Off White 

Infinite Zero/American

Lost Chance 

Mojo, 1995?

by Simon Reynolds

     After the nihilism and noise of  No Wave came the era of mulatto mutant disco. For one short moment, England and New York were in sync.On both sides of the Atlantic the sharpest ex-punks were cooking up piquant hybrids of funk, punk, freeform jazz and dub. A Certain Ratio, Pop Group, Gang of Four, Bush Tetras, Defunkt, ESG--all briefly belonged to an international
avant-funk movement.

Sick muthafunker James White was a key player in all this miscegenated mayhem.  Swiftly following up the 1979 debut Buy, White changed his band's name from the Contortions to the Blacks, and released Off White on the ultra-hip Ze label.  The opener Contort Yourself encapsulates White's sonic and lyrical shtick. Over brittle funk guitar, neurotic bass and a hissing hi-hat disco beat, James spurted the infantile squall of his bebop sax and rapped nihilistic nursery rhymes: "now is the time/to lose all control/distort your body/and twist your soul".  Next came the vile misogny of Stained Sheets, a duet juxtaposing Stella Rico's needy, orgasmic whimpers with White's sadistic contempt. A blankly ironic cover of Irving Berlin's (Tropical) Heatwave segues into Almost Black, the most dubious homage to blackness since Norman Mailer's 1957 essay The White Negro.  That said, Off White's febrile funk remains queerly compelling, even if you're left feeling so soiled you have to take a shower afterwards.

Lost Chance was recorded two years later, when White had changed his name to Chance and hooked up with a brand new bunch of sidemen. Live and lo-fi, this 1981 set showcases Jimbo's unhealthy James Brown fixation, with covers of I Got You (I Feel Good) and King Heroin, alongside Contort Yourself rehashes like Melt      
Yourself Down.  As with ACR, Pop Group et al, funk figured in Chance's white bohemian imagination as voodoo possession, a cold-fever compulsion, which in turn made it the ideal vehicle for the avant-funksters themes of addiction, obsession and control.  

Of course, nobody noticed that Michael Jackson was at that exact same moment working the fascist groove thang in far more convulsively thrilling and spooky fashion, with Off The WallTriumph and Thriller, and in a million-selling pop context to boot. Now, that's really sick...

[postscript note: some errors here - no Wiki or discogs in those days - he was Chance before he was White; Buy and Off White were simultaneously released, if I recall right, to make some kind of statement]

James Chance and the Contortions

Soul Exorcism


melody Maker, 1990?

By Simon Reynolds


Thursday, May 9, 2024

Steve Albini RIP

Shocked and shaken by the way-early death of Steve Albini.  

Saddened too.

People I've met through this music thing are thinning down in number, it feels like. 

I interviewed Steve three times.

The first time was with the rest of Big Black, somewhere in North London, in 1987.

The second time, a photographer friend instigated it. The location was a Lower East Side bar and it was a thorough and very interesting interview. But for some reason I never wrote it up - perhaps there wasn't a hook to hang it on. This would have been 1989, or 1990 - maybe he was between bands? 

(Some while ago I made a list of a lifetime's interviews-never-even-transcribed-let-alone-written-up - and it was larger and more shaming than I'd anticipated). 

The third time was when Big Black's discography was being reissued, or perhaps first-time-issued on compact disc - including all the earliest Albini-alone stuff, plus a live concert of them at their peak. This took place late summer '92, I think. Location was a recording studio in North London (Southern Studios in fact - home of the record label). He was there to remaster the records being reissued, 

Another thing I hazily remember is that Steve was also copying,  for his personal aural delectation, hours and hours of  never-released master tapes of music, or anti-music, made by members of Crass before punk. That's how I remember it. Did he play me any? Was it droning dimly in the background? I have the faintest memory-trace of something in the vicinity of Metal Machine Music or perhaps even Roland Kayn. Abstract, abrasive, atonal - but this aural  after-image may just be a phantom memory. Or even a dream (I can't be the only one who's had dreams about imaginary albums - in my case always by actually-existing artists).  But I distinctly recall him saying that was what he was up to in the studio, while also remastering. I wonder what he could have been talking about? 

At any rate, here is Steve Albini being forthcoming and forthright, drily witty and rigorous in his logic, as he was in the earlier two encounters. I liked him a lot, even though some of his opinions I found fairly incomprehensible. 

Melody Maker, November 21 1992

by Simon Reynolds

Reissue-mania rages unabated. And now it's getting eerie, for they're dis-interring the recent past, stuff I
wrote about at the time. To whit: the entire Big Black catalogue: from the early EP's ("Bulldozer", "Racer X", "Lungs",), right up the band's final out-with-a-bang-not-a-whimper performance at London's Clarendon, captured in the form of the album/video Pigpile.

But what you really need to hear is Big Black's two LP's Atomiser (1986) and Songs About Fucking (1987). Combining catharsis-through concussion noise with a morbid interest in the extremities of human experience, Big Black were an absolute pinnacle of the sickfuck /ear-gouge aesthetic.
"Songs" like "Jordan, Minnesota", "Kerosene", "Bad Penny" still chafe your eardrums and pummel your guts something grievous. And then there's the Big Black legacy, which stretches from Hole (Courtney Love recently put "Kerosene" at top of her Top Ten Records That Changed My Life) to the
English skronk scene (Silverfish etc) to the ghoulish thrash of Therapy?. Ah well... I guess, like most great bands, Big Black's influence has been largely dire and occasionally productive.

Anyways, here's Steve Albini, all set to appraise the "living legacy", his acquaintance with his own oeuvre refreshed after eight hours of remastering at Southern Studios in North London. I've interviewed him a couple of times, but it's easy to forget how likeable he is, easy to assume he's identical with the twisted, obsessed geek that so often inhabits the songs. In reality, he's an appealing fellow. His virtues include admirable rigor and fastidiousness of thought, a dry sense of humour, scrupulous
honesty, and against-the-grain contrariness: he says that far from objecting, he'd rather I smoke, because he prefers the company of smokers - "they tend to be more tolerant and less judgemental than non-smokers".)

Re-listening to his own music, it transpires, was not always a comfortable experience. "I haven't heard those early Big Black records for five years, and it's horribly embarrassing, like if someone uncovered your high school year book pictures and wanted to publish them nationally". The embarrassment abates a bit when Big Black ceased to be the 19 year old Albini "fucking around on my own with a drum
machine", with the arrival in 1982 of guitarist Santiago Durango and, a bit later, bassist Dave Riley. "When it was just me it was far more stylized and affected than when it was performing rock band that wrote songs as a collective."

The way Albini tells it, Big Black's collective identity was based not on convictions about how rock bands should sound but how they should conduct themselves. "We had an ideology about how we dealt with people inside the music scene, the way we'd operate as a team internally. We constructed an archetype of a perfect rock band, which we tried to live up to."

That ideology was basically the punk belief in "complete control". "We were inspired more by what punk rock purported to be, rather than what it actually was. The exemplar of independence and ethical conduct today are Fugazi, where they call their own shots, don't have a manager, don't have a
booking agent. And we did all that stuff ourselves. It's actually quite easy."

It was this ferociously uncompromising idealism that culminated in the decision to end Big Black at the height of its white-hot fervour of creativity, critical esteem and popularity in '87. The pretext was Santiago's long-delayed decision to become fulfil his familial obligation to become a lawyer. But really, Big Black were sick of the problems generated by their burgeoning success. And so they opted for
one of the great feats of bloodymindedness in rock history, a premature auto-destruct rivalled only by Jane's Addiction.

"As we got bigger, people tried to make plays for the band, appeals to our vanity or our ambition, or tried to coerce us into doing things. And it was obvious that the only way to short circuit that was just to break the band up. We were never comfortable with the notion that there were people
in the audience that we didn't know personally. Finally, we'd play a show to several hundred and it'd be a real stretch to find three we'd want to talk to. In the beginning there's a sense of kinship with the audience. As it gets bigger, that community gets diffuse, and you can either accept the fact that you're a star entertainer. Or you can completely sever yourself from the audience, like we did."

Albini is sceptical about the notion of a Big Black legacy. 

"See, what I considered the most important thing about the band was the way we conducted ourselves, not the series of noises that came out of the speakers. To me, the least significant part of any band is the stylistic elements. Any truly great band is going to have consistent stylistic elements. But they're also going to have ideals underneath that are the foundation for the style. Unfortunately with Big Black it's the superficial elements that've been mimicked." 

According to Albini, the list of culpable copyists who grabbed hold of the substance but not the spirit range from Godflesh and their grindcore ilk to "a lot of the disco- industrial stuff" (Wax-Trax etc). Nor can he see many examples of a positive influence. "There are people that think similarly, but I think it'd be awfully presumptuous of me to say they'd been inspired by us. As well as Fugazi, there are many smaller American bands doing things completely indepedent of the music industry/alternative scene."

It's strange to think of Big Black as idealists, when so many of their lyrical obsessions seemed to partake of a brutally nihilistic worldview, a vision of human life as governed by power-relations of domination and submission. 

"When I think of Big Black I think of our motivations and ethics. The lyrics are paid an undue amount of attention, I'm not joking when I say they were largely an afterthought. It was whatever we happened to be interested in at the time. We were disenfranchised middle class Americans, and so we had
the same sort of death and freak obsessions that everyone from that era had. I do think that those themes are universal, to an extent. De Sade explored a lot of the same territory. I don't actually share de Sade's worldview, but I think it's sort of fun to put on that hat and actually think that way. That's where the personalities in the songs came from. I was interested in imagining the motivations for extreme behaviours that appear totally preposterous."

Big Black's anti-Romanticism was signalled very clearly in the sleeve note salutation on Songs About Fucking to "all bands who don't write love songs", which recalled the Futurists' proclamation that the nude in painting was an exhausted idiom, sentimentalized and enfeebled.

"Every so often you'll find someone who has an angle on the love song that isn't completely beaten to death. But it just seems like such a small domain for 90 percent of pop to be centred on. I don't know why there aren't more songs about three-cushion billiard, which I think is the most beautiful, graceful thing a human being can do. I don't understand why there aren't songs about taxidermy or fly fishing. There are so many things that people do for satisfaction, that don't centre on rubbing genitals."

By 1987, the post-hardcore/noise-horror bands' fetishisation of real life at its most graphic and ghastly
seemed to have reached a dead end. There seemed like there was no way to up the shock effects, the torturous noise levels. And so the aesthetic petered out (until it's recent resurrection with the grunge movement). By '87, the obsession with psychopaths and serial killers seemed to be just another kind of conformist cliche, a stock narrative.

"I agree to an extent, although those themes go back a long way, to the blues and Appalachian murder ballads. I don't think we actually did it to an obsessive degree. But the bands that mimicked Big Black and our peers, did develop a "let's write about 'grody' things" aesthetic that very quickly burned itself out."

At times it seemed like hardcore bands identified with serial killers as the ultimate heroic outsiders. Albini denies that BB ever celebrated "lowlife" or psychosis. Nonetheless, the characters in songs like "Kerosene" (a bored man who combines his small town's two sources of release - blowing things up and screwing the local slut - in a single self-immolatory catharsis), or "Power Of Independent
Trucking" (a fuck'em, forget'em redneck nomad) did come across as vaguely impressive figures. Their singlemindedness is almost heroic, because they're decisive, they act. 

"What interested in me in those subjects was examining the scenarios in detail and finding the degree of absurdity or obsession that was expressed. The ultimate interest lay in seeing how close these characters were to you, coming to accept that everyone is capable of extreme, absurd, and preposterous behaviour like that, under certain conditions."

Along with limit-experiences, Big Black struggled to reach the extremities of aural punishment. At the time, Albini declared that even though he was losing his hearing in the right ear, he could never get the band to sound loud enough. He still feels that "when I see a band I like, I want to be overwhelmed, pinned to the wall, induced to vomit."

For many, the bankruptcy of this sado-masochist aesthetic, with its concealed machismo and latent misogyny, was finally revealed in the name of Albini's post-Big Black combo, Rapeman. Albini is still unperturbed by the outcry that surrounded that ill-fated band (whose music, incidentally, he rates higher than Big Black!). He shrugs it off as a very local-to-England knee-jerk response on the part of the tattered remnants of left-wing politics.

"The idea that Rapeman or Big Black were misogynist seemed completely misdirected to me. The songs were all personas. If the persona adopted for a song happened to be a sexist pig, I don't see how that relates to my personal politics. But that's a leap that people make all the time. Accusations of proto-fascist ideology, sexism and machismo were much more appropriate for heavy metal than the scene in
which we operated."

After R***man, Albini's pursued a very successful career as a producer. He grimaces at the idea: ".... It's such a pejorative term, one I associate with a mode of thinking, a way of life, that I shun and abhor." For all his protestations, the list of bands Albini has sprinkled his glitterdust upon is legion: from "big names" like the Wedding Present, Breeders, Pixies to a swarm of minor post-hardcore bands (many done for love rather than money, like Jesus Lizard). Most recently he's scuffed up Silverfish's
latest ball of scree. 

Albini's has long contributed rants and (excellent) fiction to the influential US fanzine Forced Exposure, Most recently he penned a column of "Eyewitness Record Reviews", the idea being that these were the only truly informed reviews ever written because he was involved in making the
albums. Picking only on bands who'd ignored his request NOT to be credited on the sleeve, Albini passed vitriolic verdicts on the platters and the personnel behind them, concluding with the fee he charged.

Albini has similarly trenchant opinions on the state of the rock underground. "Until about six months ago I thought we were in the absolute fucking depths. But very recently, there's been an upswell of unknown bands, and my opinion of the rock community has improved significantly." He cites
eccentric labels like Drag City, and "really independent" bands like Arc Welder, Shorty, The Dijdits, Slint, Jesus Lizard, The Idiot, as the wave of the future.

"Nirvana's success has triggered a buying frenzy on the part of the record industry. On one hand that's bad, 'cos some good bands will be tempted to sign to the majors and will of course be destroyed as all good bands are. But on the other hand, it's good: a whole load of real horseshit bands will be taken out of the picture. Bands that sign to a major have typically eighteen months: a year of being treated
like kings, then the album comes out, it fails to meet the sales expectations, they spend six months in limbo and then the band collapses. But there is a population of bands who recognise the stupidity of signing to major, like Jesus Lizard, who've told them to get fucked. And I think those bands will be the foundation of the next significant phase in American music. We're in the shit now, it's going to be
horrible, a lot of indie labels are going to form unholy alliances with majors and they'll be crushed. But the end result is going to be very positive. It'll destroy the incentive the majors have to eat up indie bands, and wipe out the bands who are weak enough to think they can cash in."

Albini admits, with a twinge of ruefulness, that he's sorely tempted to get back into the fray himself. "Not a day goes by where I don't miss being in a band. Personally it would be hugely satisfying to just do it. But I also think the one thing that's missing in the music scene is restraint; people are constantly releasing things".

Instead, Albini has a new focus for his energies: three cushion billiards, a game which he finds has almost Zen-like properties in terms of the discipline and focus it demands. "It's very humbling, especially if you're used to the instant gratification of playing rock. Executing a particular shot,
you either have the right stuff or you don't. It's completely unforgiving. I'm good enough to make a fair game with someone who's national tournament calibre. But it takes 50 years to be good at this game. I'm 29, and I've only been playing for three years."


In truly eerie timing, Albini and his band Shellac are cover stars of the new issue of The Wire, pegged to their new long-awaited album To All Trains.

Here's a much older Wire piece  - 1994, thirty fucking years ago - with Albini doing Invisible Jukebox and scattering caustic opinions hither and thither.

Unless I'm misremembering, the interviewer Jakubowski is an alias then used by Nick Terry of Lime Lizard / The Lizard / Terrorizer renown.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Ambient Jungle - Nostalgia of the Year (of Every Year)

 [from Faves + Unfaves of 2000 - director's re-cut]

The greatest track of the 1990s? 


Another Pop Mystery I've been contemplating recently relates to the life cycles
of genres, their arc and fall. You can be basking in the blooming fullness of a
genre's annus mirabilus, and somehow it never occurs that this is obviously the
golden age, the peak, the best it's ever gonna get, and that the only way
forward now is downhill. When you're in the thick of it, you think it can just
carry on forever at this perpetual crest.... Records that at the time seem like
portents or glimpses of so-much-more-to-come turn out, years later, to have been
swan-songs, the last of the summer wine. Who'd have thought, for instance, that
Adam F's 'Metropolis' and Nasty Habit's 'Shadowboxing" were destined to be the
historical pinnacle of techstep (and therefore drum'n'bass), that they were
form-defining and form-exhausting ultra-tunes?

These thoughts emerged during a spate of compulsive re-listening to what they
used to call (alright, what I used to call) "ambient jungle", which inspired
musings on the lines of why couldn't this music just stay forever at this
sustained peak of awesomeness? Why do musics have to deteriorate or die? Tracks
like Dillinja's "Deep Love" and "Sovereign Melody," Bukem's "Atlantis", EZ
Roller's 'Believe" and "Rolled Into One" (Moving Shadow's last masterpiece?),
the Steve Gurley's remix (more like re-production) of Princess's Eighties
Britsoul classic of yearning "Say I'm Your Number One," still sound so
fantastic----why couldn't they have carried on like this until the end of time,
or at least lasted out the decade. 

A peculiar twist of hind-hearing is that even tracks I didn't rate that highly at the time sound fabulous now, like PFM's "One and Only"---the way the bass moves and drops, the ripple-trails and
glistening vapors of ambience, the explosive entrance of the diva vocal. Then
there's Peshay, a producer I never particularly rated--his track on the first Logical
Progression, "Vocal", is amazing, and I never even noticed it at the time; that
kind of Speed-oriented mellow jazzual track was the enemy, back then. Now, long
after the battle's subsided, whatever was at stake a faint memory, I can hear it
as a tour de force of exquisitely mashed-up beats and diva deployment, using a
vocal sample (India from the River Ocean track "Love & Happiness") that's got more in common with a beautifully designed commodity, a sports car or leather sofa, than say Aretha Franklin; it's all
burnished technique and poise, not raw soul. After 2step I can appreciate what
is basically a kind of capitalist utopianism behind such fetishising of elegance
and surface slickness. 

Another example: in my disappointment that Omni Trio had
abandoned the euphoria fireworks of the "Renegade Snares" formula, I missed how
good bits of Haunted Science are--"Who Are You?" and especially "The Elemental",
an early neurofunk-style two-stepper beat with keyboard lines as delicate as dew
settling and bass-drops like tender thunder--how cleverly Rob Haigh had
developed a new, calmer but still compelling style of drum'n'bass for the home

The truth is that there always was an integral side to drum'n'bass that wasn't
about rudeness (nasty B-lines, mash-up breakbeats) but about supreme dainty-ness
and neat-freak finesse. It's a different kind of rush--the tingle you can get
from the groomed delicacy of a hi-hat pattern, the nimble, glancing panache of a
synth-chord flourish. Jacob's Optical Stairway, the oft-maligned alter-ego album
by 4 Hero, is some kind of pinnacle in this respect: the detail in the music
induces its own kind of high, the aural equivalent of putting on your first pair
of glasses and suddenly everything's ultra-sharp.

The chill-ness of "ambient jungle" and the jazzy stuff that followed is also
more appealing, partly because of the feeling that I've listened to enough
extreme music for a lifetime so why not go with sheer beauty and pleasantness
for a bit, and partly because there's nothing like parenthood to make you
appreciate the aesthetic of stress-reduction. 

(Actually, a few years ago I had something of an epiphany: a plane trip, creating the typical intense stress situation right up til you go with all the getting work done before departure
and packing in a rush. Coiled as tight as bedsprings, we got in the cab to JFK;
the driver had the radio tuned to one of those lite-jazz stations, the kind that
plays what Jackson Griffiths dubbed "biz jazz", the post-ECM, post-fusion
travesty of jazz favored by many corporate executives (and Yellowjackets fan
Goldie). Any other day my response would have been nausea, but the music hit
like a IV drip pumping liquid valium straight into the spine. Instant
tranquilizing bliss. That day, I could dig it.)

                                         Xanaxophone  -  Smooth FM insta-serenity injected direct to the amygdala. And the cover of                                                 the single  is as ghastly as a 1980s fusion album.  Love this though
                           - actually prefer it to the celebrated Trace remix 

Of course, people still make this kind of drum'n'bass (or carry on doing something pretty similar in spirit e.g. broken beats/West London Sound) and it's not as good as the 94/95 stuff. Tje breaking through of - the breaking through into - "musicality" was more thrilling and suggestive than the arriving there fully.

LTJ Bukem's long-awaited debut album came out this year--encased in a striking
period-looking jazz-fusion style cover, and with a montage of snapshots of his
jazzbo heroes on the inside--but it got almost no attention. Bit sad, for a guy
who once commanded dance magazine cover stories.

But going back to the golden period that late 93/94/95 phase when darkside
started to flirt with musicality, blossomed into artcore/ambient-jungle, and
then went too far into the fuzak-zone.... quite a few tracks from that era fit
the syndrome of "lost future" music, or genres-that-never-were (but could/should
have been). Sometimes A-sides, more often B-side tunes or track four on an EP
jobs, these tunes--Blame's "Anthemia", Trace's "Jazz Primitives", Myerson's
"Find Yourself" (with its painted bird of a Flora Purim sample flitting through
a labyrinth of future-jazz foliage), lots more--feel like they could have been
blueprints for entire worlds of sound , but of course they weren't. The DJs
weeded them out; the massive rejected them. Still, I'm fascinated by these
tracks that represent a path not taken.


suggestions welcomed -  entreated, even!



Bachelard-influenced further thoughts on Ambient Jungle:

It's like dancing inside a dream

Like dancing inside a painting

(I was going to say that "One and Only" is the Sistine Chapel of d&B just in terms of the scale and grandeur, but keeping it ambient-aligned, probably should say Monet's Water Lilies or Matisse's "Swimming Pool")

As the titles suggests - usually they reference the aquatic, the cosmic, the aerial, etc - the music invites Bachelard-style reveries of spaces and places.... forms of movement like ascension, floating, cruising, gliding etc etc.

The genius of it is that is contemplative but it's still physical and impactful. Ambient jungle is made to be played on big systems just like any jungle. The bass sounds like thunder.


The original Ambient Jungle piece from The Wire, September 1994

"Prescient, moi?" - interesting to see at the end of this paean that I am already warning of tendencies towards prissy wussy self-conscious musicality.

People seem to have a hard time understanding my dialectical conception of  music - what is the right thing to be doing musically in '93-94, is not necessarily going to be the "right" thing to be doing in '95/'96. In fact, it's highly unlikely to be the right thing to be doing still, by that point. Music moves in a reactive, sharp-swerving sort of way. (Of course, there will be some consummately achieved "stragglers" coming out in the older, obsolete mode - things can be acknowledged as late beauties while still affirming the current state-of-art, the new direction).

It's not even a conception, it's more an ingrained way of feeling music - conflict, backlash, inversion, reversal - these are the energies, the transvaluative surge, that fuels the music's forward movement, and that fuel one's fandom.  Musicians feel these impulses as strongly as any bystander; practitioners and critics are equally invested in the principle of things constantly moving forward. 

Did I not notice at the time that this track is a sort of annotation-cum-tribute to "Atlantis"? 

the ultimate mesh of militant and mellow?


bonus bliss  - real-time review of ambient jungle etc in MM's Stone Free column 94-96

in the hurry of reviewing, missing the form-unravelling genius of "Anthemia" - look, nobody's perfect