Friday, November 30, 2007

PRAM, The Stars Are So Big, The Earth Is So Small… Stay As You Are
Melody Maker, October 16th 1993

by Simon Reynolds

Forget the retro-parochialism of Blur et al: this is truly English music, so English it’s barely rock. Everything about this band--from Rosie’s pure,
un-American tones and junkshop keyboard, to the way the percussion (played on a homemade kit) is a decorative thread in the tapestry rather than a driving backbeat, to the name Pram (with its whiff of domesticity, mundane modesty, and quaintness) suggest that Pram are reviving that tradition of squatland anti-rockism (The Raincoats, This Heat, early Scritti and other Peel favourites) that petered out in the early Eighties.

Like their precursors, Pram refuse the simpleton satisfaction of kick-ass dynamics in favour of pleasurable perplexity, abstruse enchantment, and cerebral stimulation. This is exactly what I want to hear right now.

Pram are siblings of the American lo-fi anti-grunge revolt (Thinking Fellers etc) but without the wisecracking absurdism and overly obvious Krautrock influences. Instead songs like “Radio Freak In A Storm” (a clucking, wheezing sonic contraption, all hazy harmonium and squawking trumpet) make Pram the only band I’ve ever heard who appear to be influenced by The Raincoats’ neglected mistresspiece Odyshape. The Raincoats compositional method was closer to knitting than jamming; Pram share that homespun approach.

They aren’t always a rarefied, non-physical proposition: the eerieness of ‘Loredo Venus’ woozes around a rumbling, dub-funk bassline. But mostly, this is meditative, mesmeric head-and-heart music. After years of full-blooded, testosterone-pulsing music, Pram are valorously anemic.

Lyrically, the vibe lies somewhere between personal politics and magical realism: imagery of dislocation, dazed anomie, the kind of spooky stagnation captured by the Mekons at their most haunting and rootless. Trapped lives, festering desires, and forlorn fantasies of transcendence. The 17 minute ebb’n’sprawl of “In Dreams You Too Can Fly” does for dejection what Tim Buckley’s Starsailor did for the erection, i.e. make it cosmic. “Cape St Vincent” is kindermusik for the orphaned of this world, while “Dorothy” faintly recalls early Eighties keyboard-based acid-trance gods The Blue Orchids.

The future of British music lies in un-rocking rock, either by demoting the guitar to a bit part (the Pram method) or feeding the guitar through the sampler’s digestive tract (MBV, Seefeel etc). The Stars Are So Big suggests that Pram will have a big role in that future: a future that’s looking brighter every day.
Melody Maker, July 5th 1992

by Simon Reynolds

You know, maybe the Scene wasn’t so bad after all. Sure, it churned out rapture by rote, but grunge has similarly turned rage into a cliché, and produced the same meager amount of precious music in the process. Right now, I’d gladly choose the shoegazers’ dazed wonderment and fragility over the shaggys’ bludgeoning belligerence anyday.

Anyhow, Moose have sensibly put considerable distance between themselves and the dismal figment with which they were lumped last year, with this C&W-scented debut album. XYZ is admirably ambitious. The melodies clearly aspire to (but don’t quite scale) the dizzy heights of lachrymose grandeur attained by Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb ballads like ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’. The overall sound is like AR Kane attempting to simulate the tremulous, heart-strings-a-quivering arrangements of such Sixties pop-C&W, but using their swarm of ice-floe guitars instead of an orchestra. The result is a spectral avant-C&W that mostly works like a dream: there’s a real affinity between country’s lump-in-throat despondency and the shoegazers’ mumbling miserabilism.

‘Little Bird’ sets the tone, a happy-sad melody swathed in a gauzy miasma of mandolins, with a rubber-band bassline that’s pure homage to ‘Wichita Lineman’. ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ is candy-coated in acoustic cascades and rippling braids of pedal steel. Overall, gooey devotion is what Moose are about, rather than red-blooded desire. ‘The Whistling Song’ is all swoony glissades and dew-stippled cob-web and, yes, whistling. Then there’s a flustered cover of Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’", which doesn’t quite extinguish the memory of Nilsson’s Midnight Cowboy version. Slide One closes in epic style with ‘Sometimes Loving Is The Hardest Thing’: pang-laden strings and celestial vapour-trails of guitar form a slipstream of blurry majesty, like Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ meets George Jones.

On the flip, ‘Soon Is Never Soon Enough’ is the closest to conventional rock propulsion here; the model is possibly Exile On Main Street, but the candyfloss production impedes any real honky-tonk raunch. On ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’, so hazy is Mitch (R.E.M.’s Murmur, Reckoning) Easter’s production, it’s like the song obscured in a dust-devil swirl of apple blossom. ‘High Flying Bird’ has one of the album’s prettiest out-of-time tunes and keening C&W-muzak strings. ‘Screaming’ is closer to the post-1988 radiance of Moose’s first and loveliest EP, a glad-foot gust of iridescence. ‘Friends’ is the least of Moose: it’s a ditty with a morose plod of a beat and Gedge-like vocals, although there’s nice acoustic embroidery as the song ambles into the sunset.

Finally, there’s ‘XYZ’ itself, the most successful fusion of the two sides of Moose’s schizo-aesthetic. It’s a desolate, ambient soundscape, a country homestead on the crest of the canyon. Whistling (again!) and Russell’s lonesome voice drift on the breeze, lustrous guitars peek through like shafts of sunlight after a downpour; the result is a gorgeously disorientating avant-MOR, like Eno at the Grand Ole Opry.

On the title track, Moose’s divided impulses (corny sentiment versus abstract expressionism, Glen Campbell versus AR Kane), which have coexisted rather precariously for much of the album, finally achieve glorious resolution. And the result is like nothing you’ve heard, right up there with Spiritualized’s ‘Step Into The Breeze’ in the annals of latterday bliss-rock.

Folks, this is one heck of a lovely record.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

WHITE NOISE, An Electric Storm
The Wire, September 2007

by Simon Reynolds

The first time I ever heard of An Electric Storm was in the early Nineties, canvassing opinion for a list of the most extreme records ever, when an older colleague dimly recalled a “spectacularly out-there album by this band White Noise”. The band’s name made me expect a cochlea-scouring sandstorm midway between “Sister Ray” and Metal Machine Music, so when I picked up the first CD reissue a few years later, I was surprised to find my ears caressed by deliciously tuneful pop-psych ditties speckled with kooky synth-bloops. Things got significantly wiggier on Side Two admittedly, but still water off a duck’s back to a Faust fan.

An Electric Storm isn’t a ravagingly extreme experience, even by its own era’s standards, but it is one of the prettier peaks in the mountain range of British art-into-pop. Indeed White Noise instigator David Vorhaus’s initial motivation was pure pop: all he wanted to do originally was score a massive hit single. Chris Blackwell virtually bribed him to make an album instead, giving Vorhaus a 3000 pound cheque roughly equivalent to the proceeds from a Top Ten smash in those days of lousy royalty rates. As helmsman of Island, the leading progressive label of the era, Blackwell could see the direction rock was moving: the emergence of a head culture, longhairs seeking long-form, immersive experiences and disdaining the cheap thrills of the three minute single, whose instantness was now deeemed “immature”. By the time Electric Storm came out in 1969, the psychedelic poppiness of tunes like “Firebird” was already dated, a throwback to “See Emily Play” from two summers earlier. “Serious” rock had renounced the folderol of Sgt. Pepper’s-style studio artifice as child’s play and staged a post-Big Pink return to “organic” naturalism.

All the more reason to cherish An Electric Storm for going against the grain of the blues bores and country rock dullards and sticking with the studio-as-playpen spirit of ‘67. Alongside its art-into-pop credentials, this album is a superlative merger of science and music. As much an inventor of instruments as an instrumentalist, Vorhaus had studied for an electronics degree while simultaneously undergoing classical training in double bass. His partners Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson were key members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (a name more evocative of craft’n’graft than rarified research, and rightly so, the Workshop earning its keep cobbling sound effects for the Beeb). They had also formed a very “white lab coats”-sounding organisation called Unit Delta Plus, dedicated to propagandising for electronic music in all fields of art and media.

Because the album’s surface is so disarmingly attractive, an element of historically-informed projection is required to fully appreciate the technical ingenuity and painstaking labor involved. According to Vorhaus, Electric Storm contains more edits than any other recording ever, a claim that’s unverifiable and most likely superceded in the age of virtual studio technology. But Vorhaus, Derbyshire and Hodgson were doing it the hard, old-fashioned way, manually rather than digitally. The 12 minutes of “The Visitations” took three months to snip’n’splice together. “Love Without Sound” is decked out with violins, cellos, and violas, except it’s an illusion artfully and effortfully spun by the budget-restricted group, the string sounds being Vorhaus-played double-bass parts which were then vari-speeded. Listen past the shapely melodies, and the songs are riddled with disorientating detail: pitchshifting beats that sounds like nothing so much as the woozy, melting breaks of 4 Hero’s Parallel Universe, drastically panned whooshes (stereophonic malarky was Vorhaus’s specialty), fluttery trails of sonic after-images and before-images, jarring rhythmic judders, and a myriad other sound-shapes that defy either description or forensic tracing of their provenance.

“Your Hidden Dreams” is an especially heady collision of pop and experiment, oscillating between the most beguiling of the album’s summer-of-67 melodies and
a bedlam of sound-synthesis and mixing desk mayhem (phased drum rolls, violently flickering fluctuations between left and right speakers). The lyric, sung by Val Shaw in her demure, cottonwool-soft voice, is an “under the pavement, lies the beach”-style appeal to free the imagination and re-enchant the world. Yet, like “Garden of Earthly Delights” by White Noise’s US counterpart United States of America, there’s an ominous sense that loosing the shackles of rationality and super-ego opens a portal to the dark side as much as portends paradise regained: “Let go your thoughts and be engrossed in strange scenes”, Shaw coos, “take me by the hand/a stranger in a stranger land.” When she finally sings “take me and you’ll begin to understand”, you wonder if this isn’t LSD “herself” speaking, a siren luring the listener into the psychedelic maelstrom.

The maelstrom arrives with “The Visitations”, although even here White Noise don’t totally abandon pop, thanks to a recurring dreamy-eerie melody that comes from the same place as “Old Man Willow” by Elephant’s Memory (the group playing during the Plastic Inevitable-style party in Midnight Cowboy). But the pastoralism alternates with interludes of shaking sobs and whimpers, and the song ends in disintegrated desolation, anxious female voices pleading “please don’t go” to a near-catatonic male who can’t stop slipping “back to my darkness”. Grand finale “The Black Mass: An Electric Storm in Hell” was thrown together in a single night after Island started making threats about recovering their 3000 quid. Essentially a tremendous drum solo played by Paul Lytton, then phased-to-fuck a la “Itchycoo Park”, its combination of extreme processing and jagged percussion (paradiddles like California Redwoods toppling) suggests a phantom genre, “free jungle”. Over this mind-maiming rampage of rhythm, lunatic screams shoot like black bats across the stereo-field.

Electric Storm is unavoidably date-stamped with its era’s follies. A baroque bordello colliding cutting-edge sound-synthesis and kitschadelic frippery, “My Game of Loving” has an orgy for a middle eight (actually, a mixture of a fabricated orgy and the gasps and moans of the real thing). How swinging Sixties is that? (The tune ends, wittily, with the sound of shagged-out snoring). Sometimes the record is just silly: “Here Come the Fleas” is more Spikes Milligan and Jones than Pierres Schaeffer and Henry. One foot in the brave new worlds of Germany's WDR and Paris's INA-GRM, the other in the already campy universe of Carnaby Street and The Knack... And How To Get It, White Noise could easily be enjoyed in that hindsight-wise mode of amused condescension so prevalent (and hard to shake off) in our retro-conscious culture. Even the most deranged moments of “Visitations” and “Black Mass” are simultaneously mindblowing and “mindblowing, man”, if you get me. Yet alongside its period charm and its oh-so-English charm (the well-brought-up voices of singers Val Shaw, Annie Bird and John Whitman sound like Daphne Oram’s nieces and nephew), An Electric Storm still retains charm in its original sense: magic. Above all, what endures is the spirit of curiosity, mischief, and discovery that animated its creators.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

ISOLATIONISM, genre survey/thinkpiece
ArtForum, January 1995

by Simon Reynolds

In Brian Eno's original definition, ambient simply meant 'environmental'. It was music as decor, a subliminal accompaniment to everyday life; later, with Eno's On Land, it became psychogeographic music, an evocation of real or imaginary landscapes.

Ambient has assumed a different meaning in the last four years with the rise of ambient techno in Britain, Europe and increasingly America. Evolving out of the post-rave phenomenon of chill-out music, ambient has become a genre unto itself, based around albums more than 12 inch singles,and with its own stellar artists (Pete Namlook, The Irresistible Force, Future Sound Of London, Biosphere, The Orb). Whatever its stylistic debts to Eno, Jon Hassell, Harold Budd et al, this nouveau ambient is closer in spirit to New Age. Swaddling the listener in a wombing sound-bath, today's ambient means retreat from the environment, relief from the stresses of urban existence.

Inevitably, there's been a reaction against ambient's dozy, cosy pleasance, in the form of a sort of ambient noir. The Aphex Twin shifted from the idyllic, Satiesque naivete of early tracks like "Analogue Bubblebath" to the clammy, foreboding sound-paintings of his recent Selected Ambient Works Vol II. Aphex Twin and fellow ambient noir-ists like Seefeel and David Toop/Max Eastley have drifted away from rave and into the vicinity of "Isolationism". This term, coined
by critic Kevin Martin, describes a loose network of disenchanted refugees from rock (Main, Final, Scorn, Disco Inferno, E.A.R.) and experimental musicians (Zoviet France, Thomas Koner, Jim O'Rourke). Now all the above, plus another 13 avant-rock and post-rave units, have been corralled onto a landmark compilation, masterminded by Martin and titled Isolationism. It's the fourth in Virgin UK's
best-selling series A Short History of Ambient, which has ridden the crest of the chill-out boom; ironically, because Isolationism breaks with all of ambient's feel-good premises. Isolationism is ice-olationist, offers cold comfort rather than succour. Instead of ambient's pseudo-pastoral peace, it evokes an uneasy silence: the uncanny calm before catastrophe, the deathly quiet of aftermath.

Musically, Isolationism still shares many attributes with ambient.
First, the emphasis on texture and timbre: many tracks are a fog of numinous drones,
generated by effects-processed guitars, samplers or, in Thomas Koner's case, the
long decay of gongs. Second, the abscence of rhythm: if there's
percussion, it's either a metal-on-metal death-knell (Null/Plotkin's "Lost (Held Under)"), or gamelan-style texture (Paul Schutze's "Hallucinations"). Third, it adheres to Eno's dictate that ambient music should be uneventful. But instead of being lulling and reassuring, Isolationist repetition induces a pregnant unease.

One of the best tracks on the compilation is David Toop & Max Eastley's "Burial Rites (Phosporescent)". Toop is a critic as well as musician, and recently he wrote of how certain strands of contemporary music reflect "the sensation of non-specific dread that many people now feel when they think about life, the world, the future". He argued that this sensation was the other side of the coin to a sensation of non-specific bliss. Toop's bliss/dread notion fits with the way Isolationism turns ambient inside out, so that the sonic traits (hypnotic loops, amorphous drones) that normally signify a plateau of orgasmic/mystic bliss (in techno) or serenity (in ambient), induce the opposite sensations: slowburning panic, dissassociation, disorientation. With Isolationism, the abscence of narrative signifies not utopia but entropy, paralysis. But there's still a neurotic jouissance to be gleaned from this music. It's a victory over what Brian Massumi calls 'ambient fear' (the omnipresent low-level anxiety of the late 20th Century mediascape): by immersing yourself in the phobic, you make it your element.

Other Isolationist artists withdraw from paranoia-inducing reality into
a kind of sanctuary of sound. Unlike ambient techno (which models itself on that pseudo-womb, the flotation tank), Isolationism's idea of utopia is empty space. If this music evokes mind's eye images of unpopulated expanses, it's because it's purged of all the normal signifiers of 'humanity' or 'sociability' in pop (vocals, lyrics, a funky beat). Koner has recorded a series of albums inspired by Antarctica, while other Isolationist pieces induce reveries of deserts, tundra, subterranean grottoes, post-apocalyptic wastelands or virgin planets. Typically, the music suggests extremes of climate or temperature--Zoviet France's "Daisy Gun" conjures up the polar twilight in Siberia, Total's "Six" is as
astigmatic to the ears as staring into a blast furnace is for the eyes. The common denominator is inclement environments, hostile to human life.

What is the appeal (for Isolationist music does have an uncanny magnetism) of these
morbid reveries, so different from the oceanic surge of 'intimate immensity' that you feel when listening to cosmic rock or ambient techno? In The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey notes the tendency of modernist writers to fantasize about world destruction or mass annihilation, diagnosing it as a response to a verminously overpopulated planet. The empty landscape/soundscape seems intimately connected with a heightened, fortified sense of
individuality; it relieves the perennial avant-gardist anxiety about disappearing in the morass of the masses, about the purity of art succumbing to the mush and pap of an abject popular culture. In another sense,the Isolationist impulse, and its accompanying 'face the future, brave the unknown!' rhetoric, seems to
be a redirection, into inner-space, of perennial male longings for the frontier; a harsh bracing wilderness, fit for a rugged masculinity, and far from the soft-options of domesticity.

If rave and rock culture are about creating an ersatz community
in the face of atomisation, Isolationism, with its fetish for asocial spaces, is a renunciation of that illusory solidarity. This is music that embodies and embraces the 'death of the social'; music that's impelled by a near-monastic impulse to flee pop culture's noisy hyperactivity for a rigorous aesthetic of silence and sensory deprivation. At its ultimate degree, this becomes a kind of aestheticised death-wish. Perhaps the rock precedent for Isolationism is Nico's The Marble Index, on which the Ice Queen's nihilist hymns are framed in John Cale's vistas of vitrified sound. Nico seems possessed by Freud's nirvana-drive, a longing to revert to an inanimate, inorganic state, free of the irritation of fleshly, animal desire. Devoid of R&B's hotblooded vitality, The Marble Index is one of the whitest albums ever.

As wideranging as its parameters are, the Isolationist compilation
also seems a bit too Caucasian. Stretch just a little bit further, and it could encompass strains of modern black music whose aura of desolation and entropy verges on Isolationism, albeit reached via a different route: blues, dub reggae, and blunted rap. There's the burgeoning British genre of ambient rap [ie trip hop]: artists like Portishead, Massive Attack, DJ Shadow and above all Tricky (just check the titles of his brilliant singles "Aftermath (Hip Hop Blues)" and "Ponderosa"). And there's London's jungle scene. Jungle draws on hip hop, techno and ragga, but its sound and mood is more like dub reggae gone ballistic. Its hyperkinetic drum'n'bass is designed, like dub, for ganja-smokers. But devoid of Rastafarianism's utopian hope, jungle's apocalypse is faithless: dread without Zion. One strand of jungle, 'dark/ambient', combines treacherous breakbeats and minefield bass with soothing heavenly textures: a mish-mash that expresses, non-verbally, its audience's divided impulses--to lose themselves in amnesiac bliss and to stay vigilant, to flee and to face down "inner city pressure".

Various Artists: Isolationism--Ambient IV (Virgin)
Aphex Twin--Selected Ambient Works Volume II (Sire)
David Toop and Max Eastley--Buried Dreams (Beyond)
Thomas Koner--Permafrost and Nunatak Gongamur (Baroni)
Tricky --"Aftermath" and "Ponderosa" (4th & Broadway EPs)
KK. Null/J.Plotkin--Aurora (Sentrax)
Zoviet France--Shouting At The Ground (Charrm)
Portishead--Dummy (Go-Beat)
Various Artists--Drum & Bass, Selection 1 and Selection 2 (Breakdown)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

GEORGES BATAILLE, The Accursed Share, Volume II and Volume III
unpublished review for Village Voice, 1993

by Simon Reynolds

"The Accursed Share", written in the twilight of his life, was Bataille's attempt to pull together all his ideas and obsessions, and construct a coherent theory of human civilisation. Volume I (also published by Zone) focussed on the problem of economic surplus. In Bataille's view, what distinguishes cultures are the different ways they have of spending this 'accursed share': these range from Aztec sacrifice, to Native American potlatch (ritualised, ruinous gift-giving, in a society where rank was determined by the ability to squander resources), to Tibet (where excess wealth was absorbed by a large 'parasitic' class of monks devoted to non-productive contemplation). Bataille's positing of a fundamental human drive towards expenditure without return, challenges capitalist ideas about the psychological motivations that govern economic activity. And while his contention that humanity's real problems concern luxury rather than scarcity would seem to be contradicted by our current reality of global poverty and imminent ecological catastrophe, Bataille saw no inconsistency. The current crisis is the result of capitalism's break with pre-Modern methods of disposing of economic surplus, in favour of accumulation, investment and runaway economic growth.

With the following volumes of "The Accursed Share", Bataille attempted to
integrate this provocative, if rather sketchily substantiated, economic theory with the rest of his thought. Volume II, 'The History Of Eroticism", is, for the most part, a rather ponderous and convoluted reprise of the theory of sexuality previously explored in 'Erotism: Death and Sensuality'. Bataille distinguishes between profane life (secular, bourgeois, productive) and sacred life. Profane life is based on the denial of man's animalism, a refusal of the animal's subjection to sexual drives and to death. All the labour and achievement of profane existence is a futile denial of mortality, that paradoxically condemns the profane individual to a living death, forever living for the future rather than in the present. But sacred life is a repudiation of the profane world's values of utility and productivity. Bataille is clearly on the side of the beasts and the angels, rather than the bourgeoisie.

As in "Erotism", Bataille explores the affinities between sexual desire and mysticism. Both are fuelled by a longing for total fusion, an incandescent,
immolatory merger of the self with the cosmos. The mystic and the lover desire
total consumption, pure expenditure without return; "their life is aflame and
they consume it" . Love's real object isn't the beloved, but what the Situationists called "the lost totality" and what Bataille calls "a lost intimacy": an end to alienation, union with the universe. And of course, utopian thought has always aspired to this ideal state of being, sometimes locating it in a lost golden age, sometimes at 'the end of history'. The psychological origin of this notion of heaven-on-earth is most likely our dim memories of the blissful inertia and kingly indolence of life in the womb.

In Volume III, Bataille defines this state of pure being as "sovereignty". Historically, the sovereign was defined by the consumption of wealth, rather
than its production (which in Bataille's view is always servile and alienated).
Bataille expands this particular meaning of sovereignty to include any form of
existence that isn't subordinated to utility, that doesn't involve the employment of the present for the sake of the future. It's the old utopian and/or mystical dream of living in the now. Since knowledge is always in some sense instrumental and thus subordinate to useful ends, sovereignty is a state of unknowingness, accessible only in moments. These occur only when strong emotions disrupt the chains of thought. Bataille's inventory of sovereign "effusions" - laughter, tears, intoxication, play, festivity, sexual ectasy, sacred terror - are all privileged moments that allow human beings to live in the present.

Haughtily contemptuous of bourgeois values (deferment of gratification, accumulation, providence) Bataille's own table of virtues are aristocratic.
Historically, the aristocracy have been the class of humans most able to devote
their lives and resources to prodigality (dandyism, combat, gambling, 'perverse'
sexuality). Appropriately, the society that's most antithetical to Bataille's
notion of sovereignty is Soviet Communism, which was created in reaction to an
obscenely wasteful feudalism. Impelled by the need to make the industrial
revolution happen in less than a decade, Stalin's economics turned bourgeois
accumlation into national policy. The result was state capitalism: a society in
which the individual's access to extravagant consumption was totally
subordinated to the goal of increasing national productivity. The ultimate goal
of Communism was an end to alienation (after the dictatorship of the proletariat
had withered away, Marx envisioned a society based around aesthetic, sovereign
activity). But in the mean time, Soviet Communism increased alienation, creating
a society whose inhabitants were less and less able to live in the present
moment. For Bataille, the real problem with Communism is its inability to
conceive of life in terms of play, only in terms of work.

Where Marxism mirrored the economicism of the bourgeois worldview, Nietzche
and de Sade are Bataille's ancestors and prophets of sovereignty. Both were aristocrats, opposed equally to capitalist values and Christian/Socialist
philanthropy (hence their usefulness to fascism); both felt that solidarity
with other human beings debilitated them in their quest to become their own
gods. Borrowing Sartre's distinction between the rebel and the revolutionary,
Bataille recognises the reactionary nature of de Sade, Nietzche and even his own
thought. The revolutionary wants to replace a bad (because dysfuctional) order
with a good (because better-functioning) system. But the rebel only wants to
break the rules, and is secretly complicit with the order he revolts against.
His trangressions are unconstructive and childish. But because he's disciplined
and self-sacrificing on behalf of the future, the revolutionary rules out for
himself the bliss of wicked, wasteful behaviour. The rebel alone has access to
sovereignty and jouissance. "Pleasure, unjustified by any utility, is sovereign
insofar as it denies to the point of ecstasy a world that is infinitely deserving of respect."

Bataille's sovereignty is a sterile splendour, the unconstructive waste of energy into the void. Chiming with in with the mystical tradition that stretches from Taoism through the Gnostics' 'cloud of unknowing' to the philosophy of Norman O. Brown, Bataille's final paradox is that the sovereign's last word is "I am NOTHING". So perhaps the ultimate modern of form of sovereignty is heroin
addiction: a return to the invulnerable, solipsistic self-sufficiency of life-
in-the-womb, a total escape from the servile ignominy of the productive world,
the purest form of wasting your life. But perhaps even Bataille would have
blanched at the idea that the junkie knew how to live like a king.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Observer, 1993 i think


"When we started the group, we felt that people were starved for music which allowed them to really let themselves go," says Brett Anderson, Suede's 24 year old singer. "The last group like that was The Smiths."

Since their demise in 1987, The Smiths have not exactly been a hip reference point. Morrissey's English self-consciousness seemed precious and inhibited next to the wild, exploratory noise coming out of the US. For the last four years, the most interesting British groups have all been Americanophile. But Suede think qualities like self-consciousness, stylization and pretentiousness aren't the English disease but a blessing.

"I'm not patriotic," says the foppish Anderson. "But I think British people are among the most creative in the world, just because of the madness of the country. It's a giant web of perversity, repressed sexuality, and shyness."

It's this terrain of closetted, clandestine and peculiar sexuality that Suede explore, following in the footsteps of their idol Morrissey. "Twisted sexuality is the only kind that interests me," says Anderson. "Any kind of sex is extreme if you think about it, but it's become banalised. It's become boring to talk about sex
in the way pop does. We like to deal with it in a way that grates a bit more, that brings out the comedy and tragedy of sex. The songs are often imaginary situations based on real sentiments, or real situations taken to their logical extreme."

Suede's debut single "The Drowners", released this spring, featured homo-erotic lyrics like "we kiss in his room/to a popular tune". But Anderson refuses to be categorised, extolling instead a sort of pansexual passivity.

"I don't have a banner that I uphold for any sexual faction. I just don't feel like I'm a fully-fledged member of the male sex. But I think lots of men feel like that. Which doesn't necessarily mean you're gay or even bisexual, just that there's a lot more to sexuality than you're fed."

With its swoony vocals and lyrics like "stop taking me over", "The Drowners" seemed to be about a feverish desire to be ravished, engulfed, devoured.

"That's very much how I feel. I'm quite interested in lying back and taking it. And that's traditionally a female thing, isn't it? It's about emotional submission as well. Relinquishing control isn't considered very manly. 'The Drowners' is about being drunk through love, being so in love it's almost like you're smacked out
on heroin."

While the lyrics are provocative, musically Suede are relatively traditional. Their sound is old-fashioned guitar pop, with a distinct glam rock aura that came through in "The Drowners" (whose chorus reminded many of David Bowie's "Starman") and is even stronger on the brash new single "Metal Mickey". Anderson's fey, mannered vocals and camp London accent recall Bowie or Pete Perrett of The Only Ones. Seventies rock matters more to Suede than Sixties, which is why they have no time for the neo-psychedelia music of today's alternative scene, with its pursuit
of the "mindblowing" or "far out".

"We're not into that scientific approach to breaking boundaries of sound or making weird noise," says bassist Mat Osman. "We're really fans of pop, we want to reach the largest number of people, but still have this quality of otherness."

And so Suede pledge allegiance to the English art-rock tradition (from the Beatles through Bowie to Kate Bush and The Smiths) and disdain the current post-Nirvana hordes of shaggy-haired American grunge bands.

"I've never been into that James Dean idea of cool," says Anderson. "I'd always find a shopkeeper more interesting."

SUEDE IN THE USA, feature/thinkpiece/live review

Melody Maker, June 19th 1993

by Simon Reynolds

"Hysterical and historic" is how Brett Anderson describes Suede's gigs in Britain. So it must be a bit humbling, after all that fandemonium, to come to America and play modestly sized venues packed with punters who haven't whipped themselves into a delirum before you've even played a note.

The audience at Irving Plaza, the second date of Suede's debut US tour, is, I suspect, quite a bit older than UK Suede-heads:college rock twentysomethings, lots of industry and media types, a smattering of gay men. But the atmosphere is surprisingly charged. As the pre-gig music flits bizarrely between ancient disco (Village People's "YMCA"!) and classic Kate Bush, electricity flickers amongst
the crowd. Then the stage is bathed in lavender light, symphonic strings sweep and soar, and Butler & Anderson make their grand entrance: Bernard, bowing, and Brett, arms folded across his torso, all willowy "take me, I'm yours" passivity. Gasps and sighs ripple through the audience: Suede, it seems, already have an ardent mini-
following here.

Suede are all about hysteria. And hysteria is all about a revolt against sexual difference, against the cage of gender identity. The original 19th Century hysterics were young women whose bodies rebelled against the constraints of 'proper' femininity, which enforced passivity and sexual repression. For 'male hysterics' like Brett, it's a revolt against 'proper' masculinity, a revelling in
passivity and emotional uncontrol. But in another sense, Suede as a phenomenon is all about an audience enjoying the spectacle of its own hysteria. As Brett put it: "when we first started, we felt people were starved for something for which they could really let themselves go".

The first song tonight, "The Next Life", is drenched in 'male hysteria': as Butler pounds the piano, Brett spirals up into stratospherics midway between Kate Bush and Roy Orbison. After this grandiose pop-era, worthy of The Associates, Brett bows, skintight shirt clinging to his tits, and the audience orgasms. This is
exciting! Then the rest of the band appear and Suede git "Moving". Brett's preposterously over-stated Cockernee accent makes me think first of Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady", then of early Adam Ant, when he did kinky songs like "Whip In My Valise". As the band bump and grind, Brett turns his back on the audience and shimmies his arse (what little there is of it), offering it up invitingly, practically begging to be initiated. The roisterous "Animal Nitrate" incites a
little forest (well, let's not exaggerate - a copse) of arms outstretched at the front.

By "My Insatiable One", I've decided Suede are everything I could have hoped for. But then, something starts to flag. With "Metal Mickey", Brett's thrashing his butt with the mike in a fey frenzy, but the song itself is glam-racket ordinaire (I always thought it was as disappointing a sequel to "The Drowners" as "What Difference Does It Make" was to "This Charming Man"). Brett's anti-elocution is
starting to grate a bit. And Butler, flouncing and mincing like a muthafucker, is beginning to seem more charismatic, more enigmatic a figure than the frontman.

Then an astute change of pace with "Pantomime Horse", Suede's "Reel Around The Fountain". Butler unfurls gilded cascades of guitar, and Brett turns his back on us, arches his spine like a cat, and again seems to offer himself, spelling out blatantly and bluntly the saucy suggestiveness of the line "ever tried it that way?". My wife points out that Brett's decollete shirt is the kind of garment
that looks tacky on a girl but good on an underfed boy. That's the essence of Suede: the kind of simpering, self-caressing coquettish-ness that is outmoded, reactionary and plain embarassing when done by a woman, is now, allegedly, subversive when taken up by a man.

After a bad B-side, Suede glide into the eternal majesty of "The Drowners", all swashbuckling rifferama and swoony ravishment. Then another cruddy B-side, signed off with an unexpectedly sarcastic comment from Brett: "that's for you lot in America, you like noisy rock, doncha?" A heckler hollers: "it's not loud rock, it's good rock we like". Butler lashes the insubordinate punter with abuse, while Brett glares daggers, tries to stare down the upstart, but comes off a bit of a schoolm'arm. Eventually he breaks off and hurls himself into "She's Not Dead", dedicated to the Anglophiles in the audience.

"So Young" is boisterous but quaint, vaguely redolent of Adam Ant and Marco Pirroni. By now - perhaps because of that jarring interlude of audience antagonism - the electricity of the first four songs of the set has dissipated. The shrill histrionics (I've never heard a singer whelp and whinny like that), the flamboyance of the arse-wiggling, is getting tired and tiresome. By "Sleeping Pills", the
hall has thinned out significantly. "To The Birds" sees Brett performing the 'touching the audience's hands' ritual, but perfunctorily. He evades and ignores the few stage invaders, who are whisked offstage with amazingly brisk efficiency. Anderson clearly wants to incite the same kind of tactile ardour as Morrissey, but doesn't seem to know what to do with it. It occurs to me that where
Mozzer's artifice seems the authentic expression of his freakish nature, Brett seems to have thought his way through to the idea of theatrical excess: the boots he's chosen are too big for him.

Then Suede are off, Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" booms over the system, and the audience seem both baffled at the lack of encores and yet not that bothered by the band's failure to return. Apart from the pre-converted Anglophile worshippers at the front (the seeds of Suede's Stateside cult-to-be) the audience seem underwhelmed, like they've seen just another pretty good English
band. Overall verdict: swayed but not SLAYED...


Brett Anderson recently declared, haughtily, that "the US is a thing to be broken, like a disobedient child". But America is a big child, and conquering it is not going to be instant like the U.K. It's going to one helluva hard slog. At the moment, it's very early days for Suede. The album has slid to #37 in the CMJ (College Music Journal) Top 150 for college radio airplay, having peaked at #27. On
the CMJ retail chart, the debut is hovering around the #20 Spot. Another alternative radio chart, The Gavin Report, has Suede doing better, creeping up to #7 as I write. But MTV has so far limited play for the "Metal Mickey" video to its alternative slots, and has yet to shift it to daytime rotation.

So how far can Suede take it in the USA? Will they go all the way, or are they destined to be the latest instalment in a long-running series of bands whose divine status in Britain just doesn't translate to America: a grand tradition that includes The Pistols, The Jam, The Smiths, Happy Mondays and Stones Roses.
According to Craig Marks, music editor of Spin, "it might be a little tough for them when it comes to radio. College radio is a natural home for them. But where they really need to make it is the 'modern rock' stations, the kind that play The Cure, Pearl Jam, Midnight Oil, but don't play 'challenging' music, like P.J. Harvey. That's where they have to get over, and I'm not sure they will. Then
again, all it takes is MTV to get behind one video..."

Ann Powers, a critic and editor at Village Voice, is particularly interested in questions of rock and gender. She has an unusual perspective on Suede's US prospects. "I think they have a chance. See, I think they're really cute! If Sassy [the hip magazine for teenage girls] gets behind them, they could make it. Suede are perfect for 12 -15 year old girls. The gender ambiguity thing isn't a problem, 'cos girls love that boy-who-looks-like-a-girl thing.
What might hold them back in the teenybop market is that their music's a little too hard." Powers reckons that one sector of the US market that Suede may not conquer, is, ironically, the indie scene. "That English gender-bender thing puts American indie guys off. There's a layer of homophobia that's not very far below the surface
amongst that scene."

Rolling Stone's Anthony De Curtis is also doubtful about the sexual ambiguity thang. "Historically, that kind of English artist - Bowie, Morrissey - has a hard time translating to America. They find a niche, but they never become quite the thing they are in the UK. Morrissey has a sizeable cult, but that's all it is. A lot of it depends on Suede's staying power. They won't be an instant sensation. "But it's true that America's never really had that English obsession with androgyny. The only area you get it at all is heavy metal, with singers like Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, who has the make-up and the long blonde hair and slender physique. But it's couched in a framework of overt heterosexuality and homophobia. Like Sebastian Bach wore that T-Shirt that said 'AIDS kills fags dead'.
So long as it's framed within a strident heterosexuality, a bit of androgyny is acceptable. But take away that framework, let the gender definintions really blur, and Americans get nervous. The classic example is Marc Bolan, who was a god in the UK, but nothing much here - basically just known for "Bang A Gong (Get It On)" ".

The problem for Suede is that the pop/rock divide that they've effortlessly crossed in the UK - following in the footsteps of The Beatles, Bowie, Pistols, Smiths - is still cast-iron in the States. Image flash, a healthy dose of contrivance - all the things that are the very spice of pop life in the UK - are anathema to US rock fans,
who still believe in "authenticity". Which is, of course, precisely why Brett Anderson hates American rawk. "I can't think of any American bands I like except Iggy Pop and Patti Smith," he told me. "English bands have that feeling of pop about them, but pop is still a dirty word in America."

It's impossible to downplay the significance of the fact that the US doesn't have those highly-visible arenas - Top of the Pops, Radio One, the weekly music press - that English bands can invade so easily, thereby conquering the nation's consciousness. A vast sprawl of regionally disparate and racially-divided markets, the US has thousands of radio stations, scores of TV channels, and monthly
rather than weekly music magazines whose crits tend to be more cautious than their UK counterparts. Suede took eight months to go from MM cover to TOTP; Guns N' Roses took two years to break America.

And then there's the gender-bender thing. "America does like its stars quite straight, really," concedes Brett. "It's always frustrated me that the English bands that succeed in America are the least interesting ones. Like Jesus Jones getting to Number One, while Bowie was never really anything in the US. I've always thought the American public has quite a bland taste in music. America produces loads of good musicians and songwriters. But never anybody you'd want to get injured for, or defend with your life. Which is what music is all about when you're young: the bands I loved I always got injured for. In England, it's like small armies fighting each other."

Finally, there's the fact that it takes so fucking long to crack America. So many British bands get worn out trying to break America the hard way (Echo and The Bunnymen); even if they eventually win an audience, it usually takes them so long they've lost their original spark. "It's good that Morrissey is finally getting
successful in America," says Brett. "But it's a shame it didn't happen when he was in The Smiths and was actually good.... The timescale is so much longer in the US. To really make it there takes seven years, whereas in England, the music papers pick up on stuff immediately."

One factor in Suede's favour is the Anglophile tendency of the college rock audience, who are apt to lap up anything British. Unfortunately, the cool crowd, the people who define indie taste, tend to react against college rock. In America, it's hip to be Anglophobe. There's a kind of nativist sensibility here which treats
UK imports with extreme scepticism, and which is already dismissing Suede as just another English "haircut band" who can't rock their way out a damp paper bag. These hardheads never rated The Smiths and regard Bowie not as an heroic ancestor but as the culprit who ruined The Stooges' Raw Power with his poncified production.

Appearing on MTV's alternative show 120 Minutes a few days after the Irving Plaza gig, Brett seemed anxious to downplay the idea that there's anything stage-managed about Suede. "It wasn't strategised," he said of their ascent in the UK, "there's no Malcolm McLaren". He tried to downplay the subversiveness of the album cover: "there's nothing controversial about two women kissing is there?". Such nonchalance may come a cropper when they get out to the America heartland. Unfortunately, throughout the MTV appearance, Brett came over as snide, supercilious and full-of-himself, littering his talk with UK-specific references (how he used to be a 'plastic punk' with a 'Nagasaki Nightmare' badge) and making lofty pronouncements. Preciousness, pretentiousness, "I Am the Resurrection" style proclamations: these may be the very lifeblood of the British music press, but they cut no ice with American audiences, whether they're indie hipsters or rock'n'roll heartlanders. I cringed as I sensed a nation being rubbed up the wrong way.

But for all this, Suede may yet conquer the USA. As Anthony DeCurtis puts it, "there's an eagerness here for something to happen right now. There's a vacuum and a lot of people wouldn't object if Suede became the next big sensation." But it'll take a lot of soul-destroying graft, lots of touring: Americans often say they'll withold judgement until they've seen if a band can cut it live.


Perhaps the only thing that should matter is is that Suede really are good. I love the album, especially the swoon-song ballads. But Suede don't want to be judged as a purely musical proposition. They've always aimed to be a world-historical, Zeitgeist-defining band. And it's on this iconic level that you have to ask: when it comes to the myth-stakes, are Suede a mistake?

It worries me that nothing - in the production, the guitar sound, even in the lyrics - indicates that the "Best Album Of 1993" actually comes from '93. It could have been recorded any time between 1972 and the present: circa "Ziggy Stardust", or in 1979 (circa The Only Ones), or in 1986 circa The Queen Is Dead? But
perhaps this out-of-time quality does says something profound, and profoundly depressing, about Britain today. Suede have often remarked that the Nineties feel like the Seventies. Could it be that our society hasn't advanced significantly since 1975, that the Eighties were a mad, bad dream of "go for it!" fake optimism (the manic phase of manic-depression), and that we're now locked in a perpetual 1975? There's that same pre-punk feeling of stagnation and barely arrested collapse; the same decrepit class system, delapidated public services, all pervading shabbiness and sordidness. We're still scared of Europe, the IRA are still with us, and so are the hippies, struggling to carve out some space for themselves (except that crusties face even more desperate odds than the bedraggled rump of the counter culture). London's still burning with boredom.

All the characters in Suede songs are lost souls, looking for transcendence in drugs or sexual thrills. So if Suede reject the futuristic technology that lends a cosmetic gloss to Nineties life - samplers, Nintendo - it's because underneath the surface frippery, we're stuck in the Seventies. Britain has gone nowhere in 20 years.

So I wonder who is this audience that celebrates itself in Suede, and what does it actually have to celebrate? Rock'n'roll has always been the cult of adolescence as the highest state of being, a period in which you're alive to possibility, able to "live in the now" free of memory's reproach or anxiety about the future. At the
dawn of Brit-pop, The Beatles and The Stones were purely affirmative: 'we're young, we're the majority, this time is ours'. The Sex Pistols were a negation concealing a hope of rejuvenation: 'we're young, our time has been stolen, but we refuse the "no future" to which we've been condemned'. The Smiths were purely nostalgic: 'we are young, our time is long-gone, we're the minority".

And Suede? They say we're "So Young", but I wonder what that means anymore. Suede and their following - you lot - are a minority within the larger minority that is youth today, the bulk of whom live for Nintendo, or if they're into music at all, prefer computer games' speed-crazed equivalent (tekno). From The Beatles to The Pistols to The Smiths to Suede, the "we" has contracted, gotten smaller and more


"Pleasure is all about attaining a state of unconsciousness", opined Brett airily, reducing the 120 Minutes veejay to speechlessness. Another problem for any band in the Nineties is that rock is pretty long in the tooth, and critical knowledge has built up like barnacles. Knowingness has polluted the water table, irrevocably.

The Smiths, whom Brett describes as 'an ultimate point of something", were densely laden with iconography and reference points. In working from The Smiths, Suede are paying homage to a homage. Brett Anderson seems too boned-up, steeped in pop history. Marc Bolan said: "pop must be a spell". Has Brett broken the spell by spelling it all out too clearly, being too articulate a spokesman for ambisexuality and ambiguity? Doesn't he have too clearly defined a gender agenda?
Brett admits: "sometimes I worry I'm too explicit. It's possible people will get totally bored and there'll be no mystery left whatsoever".

It's doubtless futile and foolish to hope for 'innocence' from rock this late in the day, but to me, the only really driven artists seem to be those who appear to have never picked up a music paper in their life, like The Aphex Twin or Polly Harvey. P.J. Harvey is a good contrast with Suede. Brett and Polly are the two icons of 1993. Their bands are traditionalists who've rejected the innovations of
the late Eighties (the sampler, sequenced rhythms, the studio-magick of My Bloody Valentine et al). Both arose as iconic personalities in opposition to the facelessness of the shoegazers and techno. And both bend gender: Brett envies female "privileges" (passivity, self-preening, being penetrated), Polly usurps male privileges (the "neutrality" of the male rocker who doesn't have to think in terms of gender). But Harvey seems to have kept her mystique, unlike Anderson, who knows only too well what it takes to be a good interviewee. Above all, Suede are the latest in a long lineage of male "gender tourists", who revel in "femininity" (as Brett put it: "I'm interested in lying back and taking it.... relinquishing control - and that's traditionally a female thing, isn't it?"). They do it very
well, but it's deja vu. Suede are the last gasp of a glorious tradition; P.J. Harvey are the first, fierce breath of something new.


Of course, Suede's 'gender tourism' is also a colonisation of gay sexuality. Anderson is obsessed with gay sex, but in a very particular sense: he's interested not in playing predator (which is too close to heterosexist machismo), but being prey, play-thing, the bottom. Village Voice writer Barry Walters has noted how many Suede songs seem fixated on the idea of surrender, of 'taking it up the
butt', to put it crudely. Obviously, this swoony passivity speaks strongly to a lot of young Brit-boys who feel a vague sexual ambivalence inside themselves but would never quite describe themselves as gay or bisexual.

In Brett's case, this longing to be taken ("ovaah") seems more like a metaphor than a literal craving (Lord knows, it could easily enough be realised). All the bum-wiggling, the lyrics like "have you ever tried it that way" and "do you believe in love there?", make me think of a famous case of Freud's, a man named Schreber who
fantasised about being God's wife. Basically, he wanted to be sodomised by the Almighty. Taking it up the ass, for Anderson, seems to be a metaphor for some kind of overwhelming erotic/mystic experience, total surrender, an Apocalyptic Orgasm. Hence the lugubriousness of the "Pantomime Horse", who only feels whole when
playing the bottom role.

All of which is pretty piquant after the laddishness of grunge, but let's put it in its proper perspective. If the truth be known, what you could call the hysteric-isation of the male body is the norm in club culture. Gay eroticism has filtered, via house, techno etc, into the consciousness of working class boys. Subsonic bass goes right up your ass, literally; lost in the polymorphous swirl of rave music, you become androgynous. And the weird thing is that all this 'feminisation' of men (in Suede's audience, in rave culture) makes very little difference to the position of women in either subculture. A smidgeon of gay eroticism only adds to the male bonding. In Holland, a hardest-core techno band called Sperminator released an
anthem called "No Woman Allowed"; 90 percent of the skinny bodies who drape themselves over Morrissey onstage are male. "All Rock Is Homosexual", the Manic Street Preachers proclaimed on a T-Shirt: the subtext, whatever the intention, reads -'girls, keep out!'. In the end, is the fervour for Suede (like the Manics, a four man band, as trad as they come) just a last-ditch denial of the tumultuous
invasion of women into rock? Are they the last of the Old, rather than the first of the New?

Dog Man Star
New York Times, November 27, 1994

by Simon Reynolds

The London Suede: 'Dog Man Star' Nude/Columbia CK66769; CD and cassette.

A supergroup in Britain, Suede failed to sway America last year with its heady blend of raunch guitar and flamboyant androgyny. Its self-titled debut was too steeped in glam rock and mope rock connected with only the most devout Anglophiles. Rather than toning down its preciousness, the group soars to new heights of swoony hysteria on "Dog Man Star." (The band now calls itself London Suede.)

Right from the start, with the futuristic bombast of "Introducing the Band," the album heedlessly lunges for the epic. The vocalist Brett Anderson has shed his adolescent mannerisms for a quasi-operatic croon. On songs like the orchestral "Still Life," he approaches the sonorous majesty of the 50's balladeer Scott Walker.

But "Dog Man Star" is really a showcase for the guitarist Bernard Butler, who crams the record with cranked-up guitar overdubs and mid-70's production effects. Half pomp-rock folly, half baroque-and-roll grandeur, "Dog Man Star" deserves attention, if only for its absurd ambition.
PJ HARVEY, The Academy, New York
Melody Maker, July 10th 1993

by Simon Reynolds

From grunge's 'castration blues' to the glutinous gloom of Come/Red House Painters/Mazzy Star to tonight's support band Gallon Drunk (with their cliche-encrusted homage to Nick Cave's homage to primal blues), everyone in '93 wants to cut back to the raw bones of a lost authenticity. But perhaps only a woman could bring a new dimension to something as hidebound as bluesy catharsis: Polly

For a long while, it was precisely her traditionalism that put me off: after Throwing Muses, Dry seemed retrogressive. Eventually, I appreciated it for having the same relation to the 'angry women' bands that The Pretenders bore to punk, ie. a more musicianly format for the same ferocity. Now that's she's gone right back to rock's roots (listening to Muddy Waters, covering Willie
Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle"), Harvey's mismatch of radical content and trad form is even more disconcerting and provocative.

For PJ Harvey are now playing blues rock: they sound like nothing so much as Led Zeppelin. Rob Ellis' drums rampage as thunderously as John Bonham; Polly's singing sometimes recalls Robert Plant at his most histrionic. "50 Ft Queenie" churns around a bassline that's a dead ringer for Black Sabbath's "Supernaut", while
Harvey's alter-ego Queenie is a female equivalent to the titanic, sky-scraping Supernaut, or the marauding man-monster that stomps through Hendrix' "Voodoo Chile". Taking on the self-aggrandising, tyrannical swagger of heavy rock, Polly Harvey is the incarnation of that Freudian nightmare figure, the phallic woman. But the crucial point is that nobody has the phallus, least of all men. The "phallus" isn't a dangle of gristle between the legs, but an imaginary, unattainable state of omni-POTENT wholeness and invulnerability. From heavy metal to gangsta rap, men loudly (pro)claim sole possession of it, but PJ, the ultimate tomboy, doesn't see why she shouldn't usurp that "birthright" (as "Man-Size"
mockingly puts it) for herself.

Much of the music PJ Harvey play tonight is cock-rock, no two ways about it. But the finest moment, blasting off the set as it does the album, is "Rid Of Me", which replaces rock's cock with a vagina dentata. It's the same scenario as Fatal Attraction, where a woman turns her 'lack' into a voracious threat. With its gutteral vocals and lunging Pixies dynamics, "Rid Of Me" embodies love as
close combat. When the riff starts to slam and Ellis shrieks the backing chant "lick my legs" in that supremely humiliating falsetto, the audience squeals and gasps in a hysteria that dwarfs what Suede incited here recently. As the song's blind thrust escalates, mercilessly bludgeoning the line "doncha-wish-ya'd-nevva-met-her" into your brain, you almost black out.

On songs like "Rid Of Me" and "Yuri G", the way Polly smites and gashes her fretboard never lets you forget that a flesh-and-blood human is struggling viscerally with an instrument, that this noise comes from her body. Which is a throwback (radical music today, from sampladelic dance to post-MBV, sounds disembodied, breaks the connection between physical gesture and sonic effect), but a
thrilling throwback. "Dress" beats you black and blue, "Sheela-Na-Gig" goes ballistic, "Oh Stella" rotorvates like the treadmill-groove of Zep's "Four Sticks'. Other songs have off-kilter dynamics that uncannily recall prog-blues units like Budgie or The Groundhogs. Much of the time, Polly seems to be singing from the same place--love's killing floor--as the bluesmen, black and white.
Except that for once it's the man who's the devil-in-disguise, the black dog, the caster of malign spells.

Clearly, PJ has a deeply ambivalent relationship to male energy. It excites her as much as digusts her. PJ Harvey incite a ton of it tonight. No grrl-only zone in front of the stage for PJ, quite the opposite: it's jam-packed with jostling brawn and slamming skins. There's some savage irony in the fact that tiny, delicate PJ
would get pulped if she tried to attend her own gig. With her Albini link-up and tonight's, erm, 'balls-out' performance, Polly clearly wants to succeed on the most masculinist terms, even as songs like "Me Jane" parody/deconstruct machismo. It makes you wonder if the moshers get the irony of "Man-Size", with its "get
girl out of my head" line?

Too often tonight, PJ Harvey cross the thin line between heavy and heavy-handed, impressive and oppressive. New songs like "My Naked Cousin" and the stiff funk-rocker "Primed and Ticking" seem forced, don't groove. The show suffers from a certain coldness, a lack of intimacy or real abandon. Maybe somebody should tell PJ that for all its apparent privileges, masculinity isn't an enviable state
of being. And then, after all the bombastic, ear-bleeding overkill, Polly demurely whispers 'thankyou', closer to a church mouse than a monster of rock. What a strange, fascinating bundle of contradictions she is.