Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Village Voice, December 3rd, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

As a Brit who spends a lot of time in the U.S., I could hardly fail to notice the scathing scepticism of American hipsters when it comes to my country's rock exports. According to the fanzine-led, Anglo phobic consensus, British bands are either videogenic art-school clothes horses, or conceptually overdetermined, stillborn music press offspring. Joe Carducci's Rock and the Pop Narcotic is the Mein Kampf of this nativist sensibility; the Archie Bunker-esque vituperation of his "there's not a goddamn thing going on in the rhythm section!" could be the clarion call for all of those who'd like to drive haircut nonrock from these shores.

Actually, my heart does not exactly swell with patriotic pride when I see Jesus Jones, Billy Bragg, and Siouxsie and the Banshees in the U.S. college radio top ten, but my suspicions are raised by the handful of Limeys exempted from fanzine scorn: the Mekons, Billy Childish (both, interestingly enough, of meagre significance in the U.K.), and above all. Teenage Fan Club, who seem to have been granted the status of honorary Americans. Not entirely surprising, since Teenage Fan Club began as a totally Americanophile proposition. Looking for a way to escape British self-consciousness, envious of U.S. bands' slackadaisical lack of calculation, Teenage Fan Club took their cue from J Mascis's dazed-and-confused demeanour and rehabilitation of early '70s grunge. They promptly wrote ‘Everything Flows’, a zen apathy anthem that instantly surpassed Dinosaur Jr’s' ‘Freak Scene’ in the indolence-as-route-to-nirvana sweepstakes.

TFC's Neil Young fetish, dressed-down image ("I don't fucking care/What clothes you wear/You're still fucking square," they sang on ‘Everybody's Fool’), and self-deflating flippancy were guaranteed to appeal to Amerindie sensibilities. There's added kudos, too, for being one of the few U.K. bands not to succumb to rock/dance crossover fever. But these cross-currents of Anglophobia/Americanophilia get real tangled on their new album Bandwagonesque. Partly because of its, ahem, tributary relationship to Big Star (an American group, sure, but Beatles fetishists), and partly because it's almost a concept album. Like Urge Overkill's The Supersonic Storybook, Bandwagonesque makes ironic play with the idea of being a Big Rock band. Sonically, it harks back to a time when ragged, raucous rock 'n' roll was what sold in the pop marketplace, when it was riffs, not samples, that made teens squeal. In Teenage Fan Club's case, the sound of their early-to-mid-'70s adolescence doesn't mean Cheap Trick or ZZ Top, but Status Quo, the Faces, twilight Stones, Mott the Hoople, T. Rex, and Slade. Even the manufactured pop of the Sweet and Gary Glitter rocked heavier and raunched harder than anything in today's U.K. chart.

In a British music scene still trammeled by postpunk prohibitions about the limits of permissible sound, the aching, bluesy graunch of the 1990 debut, A Catholic Education, felt like the return of the repressed. The instrumental ‘Heavy Metal’ plunged deep into outlawed zones of bad-ass boogie; when TFC kickstarted their recent CMJ showcase at the Marquee with this divinely turgid number, sideburns spontaneously sprouted on my cheeks. While nothing on Bandwagonesque is that hirsute, the album does exude a powerful sense of a band playing from the hips. But for all the music's grinding grunginess, vocally, TFC couldn't be further from the testosterone-drenched gruffness of bastardized blooze. TFC still have residual hereditary links to the UK's 1986 ‘cutie pop’ aesthetic (think K Records, think a eunuchized Beat Happening). And like a recessive gene, the cissy vocals and drippy melodies of singer/guitarist Norman Blake's previous band, BMX Bandits, have re-emerged with a vengeance on Bandwagonesque.

So ‘The Concept’ shuttles between sugar-coated verses and a four-square stomping riff that brings to mind Tom Robinson Band's ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’. This is no coincidence, as the song is a tribute to a female metal fan who likes Status Quo (perennial purveyors of lacklustre boogie to the denim-clad hordes of provincial England) and hangs around tawdry minor-league bands for a taste of transcendence. The song's sway-along, scarf-waving coda with its crestfallen, swoony harmonies midway between ‘Hey Jude’ and the Bay City Rollers, is the loveliest moment on Bandwagonesque. Rock 'n' roll fandom resurfaces in ‘Metal Baby’, as does the chugging boogie stomp. (Not content with that, that riff reappears on ‘What You Do To Me’: creative thrift taken to a new extreme.) A portrait of a girl who's "not the sort of person who's driven white as snow," and "who drank her perfume when I didn't want to go to the heavy metal show," ‘Metal Baby’ is strangely pitched between poignant and patronising. Another double-edged girl-song, ‘Sidewinder’ gushes cloying devotion ("when you're ticking. I'm your tock") only to be abruptly undercut by the deadpan chorus "then again, you're just a fuck."

Still, these acrid undertones are sorely needed at times, to mitigate against the sickly soppiness. ‘December’ is a fey, honey-dripping exercise in Chiltonese, ‘Guiding Star’ is the Jesus and Mary Chain attempting to write a Number One single for the Christmas of 1974, ‘Star Sign’ degenerates, after a glassy ominous intro, into lily-livered Byrds-by-rote anemia. It's almost as though TFC got too much of the grunge out of their systems with The King, the contract-busting album that allowed them to jump from Matador to DGC: a suite of shoddy, slapdash instrumentals with at best the dubious diehard appeal of Arc, the third, all-feedback disc of Neil Young’s Weld. Mostly, though, the balance between grit and goo is upheld precariously, in the spirit of the album's patron saint/principal creditor, Alex Chilton.

Rock has always progressed by bringing new twists to old ideas (as TFC put it, any music that's totally original is invariably totally unlistenable). In recent years, that's meant redirecting attention to forgotten or forbidden options from pop archives. In 1991, the state of the art has involved bands making interesting play with their record collections; Teenage Far Club have as captivating a take on theirs as anybody.

The Observer, December 1st 1991

by Simon Reynolds

With their first single, ‘Everything Flows', last year, Teenage Fanclub's grinding raunch and bluesy solos announced that here at last was a British group unafraid to 'play from the hips’. Their debut album, A Catholic Education, was even more deliciously heavy, most notably on the instrumental track 'Heavy Metal': seven minutes of atavistic boogie that conjured up visions of Seventies bands with straggly sideburns and lank, greasy hair.

But only a few years earlier singer/guitarist Norman Blake and guitarist Raymond McGinley were making music that was the complete antithesis of Teenage Fanclub's gritty rock 'n' roll. They were involved in the Scottish branch of the late Eighties 'shambling' scene, combining an aura of childish innocence with Sixties-based 'perfect pop' and shambolic guitar noise. As well as McGinley's group, The Boy Hairdressers, Blake played in a band called the BMX Bandits, which took the genre's contrived naivety to the outer limits of twee.

Teenage Fanclub was a complete reaction against the shambling style. McGinley says that the turning point was hearing American indie bands such as Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr: "They showed it was OK to play guitar solos and rock out." There was a natural progression, Blake adds, from being influenced by The Byrds, to listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, to discovering the ragged folk-blues of Neil Young. In fact, Teenage Fanclub wants to rehabilitate the 1970-75 period, long deemed according to the punk version of rock history) a barren zone of indulgent, progressive rock and blues-bore flatulence.

"I was really into punk when I was young," says Blake. "But, looking back, I resent the fact that I was never allowed to listen to Neil Young and other great music from the early Seventies. Punk was totally Stalinist, 1976 became year zero. If I listen back to the stuff I liked during punk, groups like The Cortinas, it sounds really terrible."

It got worse. "Post punk, the idea of music that felt good, that was emotionally and physically satisfying, was absent," adds McGinley. "Groups were all about being ideologically correct. The more difficult-sounding you could make a record, the better. That's a very British mentality, starting with a concept, rather than doing what comes naturally."

Another part of the appeal of 1970-75 is that grungy guitar rock was part of the mainstream, not a period genre kept alive in the indie sector. Even pop was rock, with the glam and glitter of Mott the Hoople, The Sweet, Slade, all of whom were far more raucous than today's chart pop.

Teenage Fanclub rather like the idea of being a Seventies-style Big Band. "We love the Rolling Stones, but we can see the absurdity of their lifestyle," says McGinley. Their new LP, Bandwagonesque, plays ironically with the idea of rock stardom. Songs such as 'The Concept' and 'Metal Baby' are about diehard fans and groupies. "We totally admire the obsessiveness of metal fans," says Blake. "And we like the way metal bands are aware of their own absurdity, and exaggerate it."

Teenage Fanclub's early-Seventies revisionism has been confused in some quarters with mere revivalism. "It's absurd," says Blake. "Any music that doesn't sound like anything else in rock history always sounds terrible." "People who expect rock 'n' roll to reinvent itself every few years are really misguided," adds McGinley. "There's no such thing as a completely original band. Music’s been going for thousands of years, and there are traditional structures that recur."

Teenage Fanclub's rock fundamentalism has made the group a rallying point for all those who resent the current dominance of dance music. Unlike many of their peers, Teenage Fanclub have not leapt on to the indie/dance crossover bandwagon. But the group is not actively hostile to acid-house music. Drummer Brendan O'Hare is even involved in a dance-orientated sideline project. "But I'd never want to introduce those rhythms into our music. If I go to a club, I like to hear music that's just bleeps and doesn't mean anything, but sounds great when it's pounding out of these huge speakers. At home, that music doesn't work."

Teenage Fanclub are adamant that rock 'n' roll is far from dead or displaced by dance music. They believe that a rock band with guitars and a live drummer can provide something that programmed rhythms cannot – the right ‘feel’, a sense of musicians grooving together.

"Go to the States, dance music means nothing there," says Blake. America loves rock 'n' roll, and America loves Teenage Fanclub. Spin magazine has just voted Bandwagonesque the best album of 1991.

Geffen Records has signed the group for a hefty advance, and expects them to be big in the States, following its success with equally abrasive bands such as Sonic Youth and Nirvana. "We quite fancy playing stadiums," admits McGinley.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Melody Maker, 1989

by Simon Reynolds

Nowadays, we're familiar with the idea of "free music": music that abandons the shackles of training and technique, in an attempt to propel both player and listener outside history, beyond culture, and into a Zen no-where/no-when. We've heard this rhetoric reheated and this approach rehashed by all manner of marginal rock iniatives: the Pop Group, early Scritti, Rip Rig and Panic, Einsturzende, and currently God. So it's both chastening and valuable to go back to when the idea was more or less originated: 1966, a group called AMM who made (and still make) "music as though music was being made for the first time". This is their first album,
originally released by Elektra Records, in those heady days of the counter culture when people thought this kind of thing might just be marketable. Recommended have reissued it complete with segments from the original sessions which never
made it onto vinyl.

As AMM member Eddie Prevost puts it in his copious and illuminating sleevenotes, AMM music "gently but firmly resists analysis". Listening the mind's eye swarms with an
inferno of images: gales, tidal-waves, timber-processing plants gone mad, a monsoon of stalactites. But in the end, adjectives and metaphors sheer off the obtuse, elusive, jagged surfaces of the sound. AMM music may initially seem impenetrable, but it sure as hell penetrates you. Soon, the desired state is instilled in the listener: a rapt vacancy somewhere between supreme concentration and utter absent-mindedness. Prevost describes how AMM music was widely assumed to be "religious", and how in some senses this was true. Fully immersed, you can escape the inhibitions and repressions that hold you together as "one", and revert to a
primal state of manifold unbeing. In it, you can be everything and nothing.

There was a whole buncha theory behind this music--ideas like "all sound can be music", "silence can be music", elements of Buddhism (meditation without the mysticism). But ultimately words are neither needed nor enough. For a while
AMM used to discuss their music endlessly, but soon they stopped, just turned up, played and went home without a word. And it's not necessary to bone up in order to bliss out. Just come with an open mind, and leave, 74 minutes later, marvelling at just how opened a mind can get.
Kid A
director's cut, Spin, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

There has always been something slightly uncool about Radiohead. The characterless name, binding them to that undistinguished pre-Britpop era of semi-noisy guitarbands with equally blah names like The Catherine Wheel. The albatross of "Creep," the sort-of-great, sort-of-embarrassing song whose rousing anthemic-ness they've long since complicated. The superfluous "h" in Yorke's Christian name. "Cool" has never been Radiohead's thing, though. Leaving all that hipster credibility stuff to the Sonic Youths, Becks, and Stereolabs, Radiohead instead lay their wares out on the stall marked "importance." They hark back to an era when bands could presume the existence of an audience that took them seriously, and audiences in turn looked to bands to somehow explain them rather than merely entertain.

This self-seriousness--the earnestness of being important--is why critics continually reach back for the Pink Floyd comparison. (That, and the sheer magnitude of Radiohead's music and themes). It's not the tinsel and tack of Seventies pop culture that is unsalvageable from that period. It's the solemnity and sense of entitlement with which bands comported themselves as Artists--the concept albums, the gatefold symbolism. Everything about Radiohead---the trouble they take over track sequencing the albums to work as wholes, the lavish artwork and cryptic videos, the ten month sojourns in their recording studio in the English countryside---connects them to the pre-irony era when bands aimed to make major artistic statements. In the age of pop's tyrannical triviality, there's something almost heroic about this unfashionable striving towards the deep-and-meaningful.

Like a lot of people of the electronic persuasion, I was eventually seduced by the ear-ravishing sonic splendor and textured loveliness of OK Computer. I've still got only the faintest idea of what Radiohead are "about", or what any single Computer lyric describes. Luckily for me, it's sheer sound that Radiohead have plunged into full-tilt this time round. Kid A's opening tracks make a mockery of the impulse to interpret or identify. "Everything In Its Right Place" is full of eerily pulsating voice-riffs that recall Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" or Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom--bleats of digital baby babble and smeared streaks of vocal tone-color that blend indistinguishably with the silvery synth-lines. A honeycomb of music-box chimes and glitchy electronix that sound like chirruping space-critters and robo-birds, "Kid A" could be a track by Mouse On Mars or Curd Duca; Thom Yorke's voice melts and extrudes like Dali-esque cheese whiz. After this jaw-dropping oddness, the relatively normal rock propulsion of "The National Anthem"---a grind-and-surge bass-riff, cymbal-splashy motorik drums---ought to disappoint. But the song is awesome, kosmik highway rock that splits the difference between Hawkwind's "Silver Machine" and Can's "Mother Sky," then throws a freeblowing bedlam of Art Ensemble of Chicago horns into the equation. All wincing and waning atmospherics, the out-of-body-experience ballad "How To Disappear Completely" calms the energy levels in preparation for "Treefingers", an ambient instrumental whose vapors and twinkling hazes make me think of a rain forest stirring and wiping the sleep from its eyes. Now you too can own your own miniature of Eternity.

Revealing fact: a high proportion of Radiohead websites provide fans with "guitar tabs" as well as song lyrics, so that the Jonny Greenwood worshippers can mimic his every last fret fingering and tone-bend. Something tells me there won't be too many chordings transcribed from Kid A, though. Saturated with effects and gaseous with sustain, the guitars* work like synthesizers rather than riff-machines: the sounds they generate resemble natural phenomena--dew settling, cloud-drift--more than powerchords or lead lines. Radiohead have gone so far into the studio-as-instrument aesthetic (with producer Nigel Godrich as "sixth" member), into overdubbing, signal processing, radical stereo separation, and other anti-naturalistic techniques, that they've effectively made a post-rock record.

That said, Kid A's "side two" (no such thing in the CD age of course, but "Treefingers" feels like the classic "weird one" at the end of the first side) is more conventionally songful and rocking. "Optimistic," for instance, is mined from the same lustrous gray seam of puritan Brit-rock as Echo & The Bunnymen's Heaven Up Here and U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)". "Idioteque" does for the modern dance what PiL with "Death Disco" and Joy Division with "She's Lost Control" did at the turn of the Eighties. Call it bleak house or glum'n'bass: the track works through the tension between the heartless, inflexible machine-beat and Yorke's all-too-human warble (he sounds skin-less, a quivering amoeba of hypersensitivity).

Lyrically, I'm still not convinced that Yorke's opacities and crypticisms don't conceal hidden shallows, c..f. Michael Stipe. But as just another instrument in the band, as a texture--swoony, oozy, almost voluptuously forlorn--in the Radiohead sound, he dazzles. He moves through the strange architecture of these songs with a poise and grace comparable to his hero Scott Walker. Initially it seems peculiar that a singer/lyricist who obviously expects listeners to hang on his every word, should have such deliberately indistinct enunciation. But maybe that's just a ruse to make people listen very closely, in the process intensifying every other sound in the record, and the relationships between them. It works the other way: the music marshals and bestows the gravity that makes decoding the lyrics feel urgent and essential.

Yorke's words are less oblique this time round, but way more indecipherable; much of the time, we're in real Scuse Me While I Kiss this Guy territory. Where you can make them out, they evoke numb disassociation, dejection, ennui, indifference, isolation. "Optimistic" (it's not the least bit, of course) scans the world with a jaundiced eye and sees only bestial, un-evolved struggle: "vultures circling the dead", big fish eating little fish, and people who seem like they "just came out the swamp". "In Limbo" recalls the fatalistic castaways and ultra-passive nonentities from Eno's mid-Seventies solo albums. "Idioteque" bleats wearily about an "Ice Age coming" (presumably emotional rather than climatic) and "Motion Picture Soundtrack" closes the album with the proverbial whimper--a mushmouthed Yorke mumbling about dulling the pain with "red wine and sleeping pills... cheap sex and sad films" amidst near-kitsch cascades of harp and soaring angel-choir harmonies.

On first, stunned listen, Kid A seems like the sort of album typically followed--a few years later, and after chastening meetings between band and accountants--with the Back To Our Roots Record, the retreat to scaled-down simplicity. ("We realized that deep down, in our heart of hearts, our early sound was what we're really about"--you know the score). With further immersion (and this is an album that makes you want to curl up in foetal ball inside your headphones), the uncommercialism seems less blatant, the songfulness emerges from the strangeness. The track sequencing, immaculate and invincible in its aesthetic righteousness, gives the album the kind of shape and trajectory that lingers in your mind; it's a record people will want to play over and over in its entirety, without reprogramming micro-albums of their favorite songs. Smart, too, of Radiohead to resist the temptation to release a double, despite having more than enough material, and instead stick to a length that (at 50 minutes) is close to the classic vinyl elpee's duration.

Kid A does not strike me as the act of commercial suicide that some will castigate and others celebrate it as. That doesn't mean it's not hugely ambitious or adventurous (it may even be "important", whatever that could possibly mean in this day and age). But the audience amassed through The Bends and OK Computer is not suddenly going to wither away. Part of being into Radiohead is a willingness to take seriously the band's taking themselves (too) seriously. The initial alien-ation effect of Kid A will not deter their fans from persevering and discovering that it's their best and most beautiful album. as well as their bravest.

* um, well, ah, writing this i was unaware that in fact there's not much guitar on the record at all, so those synth-like guitar-tones i was hearing were in fact probably synths, or at least Ondes Martenot....
Revival of the Shittest
(The Social Registry)
The Wire, 2004

by Simon Reynolds

Probably the most peculiar band to emerge from the ferment of out-rock activity in New York these past few years, Gang Gang Dance are a disconcerting live experience. Of the two shows I’ve caught, the first was fairly excruciating and the second was sublimely odd. Half the enjoyment, at least for over-acculturated hipster types, is trying to get a handle on where the band are coming from. You might momentarily flash on Can’s “Peking O”, The Sugarcubes’ “Birthday”, Attic Tapes-era Cabaret Voltaire, The Raincoats’ Odyshape, or forgotten downtown New York outfits from the Eighties like Saqqara Dogs and Hugo Largo, only to have the reference point confounded within 30 seconds as the group move back into untaggable territory. Gang Gang Dance’s music is like a myriad-faceted polyhedron. As it gyrates before your ears, different aspects flash into focus: No Wave, prog rock, drill’n’bass, psychedelia, glitch, assorted world musics, and more. But there’s always a feeling that the music is an entity, animated by some kind of primal intent, as opposed to being the byproduct of eclecticism and aesthetic flip-floppery.

Coming only a few months after their self-titled album on Fusetron, Revival of the Shittest is a vinyl rerelease of the group’s sort-of-debut, which originally came out in the autumn of 2003 in an edition of one hundred CDRs. Pulled together from live tapes, studio out-takes and rehearsals recorded on a boom-box, the six untitled tracks capture moments in the protean early life of the band. The first thing that grabs, or gouges, your ears is singer Liz Bougatsos. It’s hard (at least for someone with my limited grasp of technical terminology) to pinpoint precisely what she’s doing with her pipes--singing microtonal scales inspired by Middle Eastern music, perhaps? On Track 6, she emits what can only be described as a muezzin miaouw, while elsewhere there’s often a kind of 4th World/"Ethnological Forgery" aspect to both her vocals and the group’s music that suggests a sort of defective Dead Can Dance. Sometimes she seems to be simply singing every note as sharp as possible. Whatever the technique involved, the end result ain’t exactly pleasant--indeed, her ululations have a set-your-teeth-on-edge quality, like vinegar for the ears. But there is something queerly captivating about the way Bougatsos weaves around the strange, sidling groove created by her bandmates Brian DeGraw, Josh Diamon and Tim Dewitt.

Seemingly a blend of drum sticks on electronic pads, hand-percussion, and digital programming, Gang Gang Dance’s beats have clearly assimilated the bent rhythmic logic of electronic music in the post-jungle era. Heavily effected (often using reverb and delay), the drums generate a florid textural undergrowth redolent at various points of 4 Hero, Arthur Russell, and Ryuichi Sakomoto’s B-2 Unit. Needling guitars and glittering keyboards, often processed so that it’s hard to tell which is which, exacerbate the chromatic density. Writhing with garish detail, Track 5 feels like you’re plunging headfirst into a Mandelbrot whose patterns aren’t curvaceous but geometric--endlessly involuting cogs and spindles, the acid trip of a clock-maker surreptitiously dosed at work. On tracks like this, Gang Gang Dance music has a quality of deranged ornamentalism (think pagodas, mosques, but also coral reefs and jellyfish flotilla) pitched somewhere between exquisite and grotesque. A beautiful horror unfurls--folds and fronds, filigree and arabesque-that reminds me of Henri Michaux’s maniacally exact accounts of his mescalin experiences in Miserable Miracle.

At 31 minutes, Revival of the Shittest is just long enough--anymore and you’d be worn out by its polytendrilled density. At the same time, it’s this very quality of TOO MUCH-ness that makes Gang Gang Dance so compelling.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mean Fiddler, London
Melody Maker, June 15th 1991

by Simon Reynolds

MERCURY REV, interview
Melody Maker, August 24th 1991

by Simon Reynolds

We're on a boat moored at Manhattan's west side dock, me and three-fifths of Mercury Rev. The boat spent many years under water before it was refloated. Now it's in the process of being refurbished as a floating nightclub. Its interior is a fantastical grotto of corroded pipes and rust-mottled surfaces. But Rev and I do our mumbling in the night air, way up on the poop deck, and nicely placed to marvel at the laser beams streaming into the firmament from the Twin Towers. It's a Rev kinda thing.

The cosmonautical Mercury Rev have been universally acclaimed by UK critics as the draughtsmen behind the first, and so far only, great rock long-player of 1991, Yerself Is Steam, a record that re-ignites the flame of late-Eighties Anglo-American underground noise. But in their native USA, Rev have got zippo, zilch, nary a single mention.

The collapse of their outlet, Rough Trade America, didn't help, but even before that, Rev were shunned by American arbiters of hip. Rev were just too cosmic for the US fanzine mentality to stomach, too expansive. American fanzine consensus dictates that the pastiche rock of groups like Urge Overkill is where it's at.

Americans (correctly) detect a suspicious whiff of ‘art’ about Mercury Rev, and in fanzine USA, ‘art fag’ is one of the worst things you can be. It's the same reason why you'll never find an indie-minded American who rates Jane's Addiction. Rev's tousled aestheticism comes though in the look of the records, the care that goes into presentation of the group. Worse still, like Jane's, Rev are not sacred of being epic.

"I like the word 'epic'," says Jonathan Donahue, singer and guitarist, while bassist Sean (aka Grasshopper) and flautist Suzanne lurk inscrutably in the shadows. "I don't think it means you have to be ELO or ELP. We don't put a time limit on our songs – if it takes ten minutes for a song to work, then that's how long we'll write it. All this paring it down to three minutes for radio play, we don't care shit about that."


A huge, almost symphonic foghorn sounds from a passing vessel, prompting an impressed Jonathan to add: "We like sounds a lot. We wouldn't know how to write a well-crafted pop song if you shoved it up our ass and lit it. We make music that we listen to in certain places, like when we're driving or sitting on a bus. We lose ourselves in it. It's not a party record. You couldn't put it on for people to start boogie-ing!"

Rev isn't gregarious music, nor is it agoraphobic. It's space rock, in all senses.
"You've got to keep moving," the singer says. "We're always trying to get as far away from each other as we can. I wish we could say we were a band that drinks together and thinks the same. But Lord knows, we're not. It's not just that we're not friends, it's sometimes borderline violence. David Baker (occasional vocalist) tried to scoop Sean's eye out with a spoon on Virgin Airways when we were coming back from England. Now we can't fly Virgin. And that's a good airline! They would give you free headphones, socks and sleep goggles. When we landed, the stewardess took our passports and wrote down our names and now we're banned from flying Virgin.
"That's why we don't play live much, cos it's painful to be together for long. It's much better the way it is right now, where we get together one week a year and make a record, and then we split. But then without everybody there, it doesn't work. You need everybody there, tense and uncomfortable, to make the pot boil. We're all like these prehistoric fish at the bottom of the sea – you don't really see each other cos it's dark and you're under a lot of pressure."

Am I right in thinking that Rev, like all righteous folk, are fans of wildlife documentaries?

"We sure do watch a lot of nature films. We do videos, and we put all our songs over wildlife footage. So for 'Very Sleepy Rivers', there's this platypus trying to find his way to water. It's not like we can say we go see weird foreign films or snuff movies for inspiration, like other bands. We have enough tension between us; watching some nature films cools us off."

Last time around, you described yourselves as losers.

"Losers have no potential. It's the same with Rev: there is no ladder for us, nowhere for us to go. The record company feeds us bullshit, say that we come to England and we're gonna play a big ol' show, with a thousand people. And we say: you don't need to bullshit us, why would a thousand people come to see us? Unless Live Aid's happening…"


I explain to them that they are in fact appearing at Reading Festival, to face not a thousand but more like 30,000 hard-to-please punters. Rev are bemused and incredulous. After all, their (mindblowing) Mean Fiddler UK debut was only their second-ever performance (the first was in Fredonia, New York State, where they played to 100 people and Chris Roberts, and they thought that was a lot of people). I tell them that at Reading they'll have to project to the back of the throng (pointing at the New Jersey shoreline across the Hudson River), so they'll have to stride back and forth across the stage and gesticulate like Bono. They look even more befuddled.

Rev come from that milieu of twenty something defeatism and J Mascis "zen apathy" that spawns so many underground bands. At school, these kids – the ones with motivation problems, who smoke weed behind the bike shed, or drop acid in geography –are called ‘slackers’ or ‘burn-outs’ or ‘stoners’. Rev's untogetherness certainly rivals anything Mascis has ever displayed. Check the feat of fecklessness behind their fab forthcoming single ‘Carwash Hair (The Bee's Chasing Me)’.

"We did this single with Dean Wareham (ex-Galaxie 500) and it worked out real well," says Jonathan. "But later we found out that the record company had sent David Fridmann, our bassist, enough money to do a whole album. And that mother f***er took the money they'd wired us, and he sent his mom to Bermuda. And there was only enough money left to do one song. And he was crafty, he didn't tell us until we were ready to do the second song. We thought we had the studio for another week. Now she needed a vacation, she was very uptight. But Lord knows, we're in deep shit."

Asked to name what they think was the last incontestably great record made, Jonathan nominates Richard Burton's soundtrack to Camelot, recorded in the early Seventies; Suzanne chooses The Little Prince.

That line of approach having foundered, I ask: who are your peers?

"Most of them are people who aren't in music, or are dead. Like Richard Burton. Lord knows, he's from England so people are probably tired of him over there, but we wouldn't want people to forget him. When he came on the screen, my mom could shiver. He summed it up, just with his presence. My mom took me to see him on Broadway in Camelot."

Jonathan has an intense relationship with his mother.

"Something had happened today. We stopped off at my mom's. She found out about our trip to England, and she got mad and she told me not to come home for Christmas, not to come home till next Easter. I don't know how mothers find out, maybe they read fanzines or something. She was bummed."

She sounds over-protective. Does she depend on you for company?

"That's probably a good word. I'm sure Sonic Youth's mom let them go."


Mercury Rev remind me of what I call ‘incest rock’ – the Valentines/Slowdive axis – that sensurround swirlpool of suffocating intimacy, the Loop/Can/Faust/Floyd axis make you feel like you're being wombed or entombed (Can's "Mother Sky", Floyd's Atom Heart Mother). The idea comes though clearer still when I eventually edge Jonathan towards a real and revealing musical reference point.

"Heard a couple of songs from the My Bloody Valentine girl. I don't know what they're all about, but when I put them on they remind me of things I don't barely remember. It goes beyond music. You can put it on, and remember things or places or girls. And I don't pick apart the music and say, 'That bit comes from an obscure Brian Eno record'. I listen to it and think about things that are nothing to do with music, and that's the whole point of music, isn't it?

"Why would you put on a piece of music that you can study for what they're trying to do? When you listen to music, you wanna think about something besides other music. These days it's almost like people are writing songs as a form of name-dropping. There's nothing wrong with having influences, we sure have influences, but you've got to get beyond that."

Into the beyond.

Melody Maker, summer 1993

by Simon Reynolds

Mercury Rev are virtually unrivalled as sculptors of stuff and nonsense. With the possible exception of Pavement, no band today revels so richly in the materiality of sound, all the ways it can be molded, smeared, daubed, played with. Too much is never enough for the Rev: Boces sounds like every available strand of the soundscape is crammed, caked, with exquisite stuff.

In a year when the guitar is synonomous with either monochrome sub-blues toil (grunge) or flailing tantrums (the Huggy Nation/shambling revival), Mercury Rev are refreshing because of their aura of unearned, heaven-sent happiness: they sound not so much light-hearted as lightheaded. With the sun streaming through the
window, Boces sounds so right. The opener, "Birth Of A Rockette's
Kick" is an almighty epic of euphoria. Jonathan Donohue babbles stuff like "make it connect, make it come true"; the song's glee-stricken tumult rises to a crest, then subsides into a gorgeous lull riddled with Eskimo babytalk, elf-chatter, and happy-sad woodwind instruments. Then it brims over again, gusted along by horn-section
freak-out and galloping piano, finally collapsing in a shattering avalanche.

"Trickle Down" is untypically uptight for this slacker-daisical bunch, fraught and herky-jerky and jutting accusations like "I think you think too much", then revving up into a dust-bowl swarm that trails a background chorus of what sounds like jeering schoogirls. "Bronx Cheer" is more dazzling frazzle overlaid with ooh-oohing
backing vocals like ventricles spasming in rapture. "Boys Peel Out" is enchanted, jewel-encrusted jazz-psych that defies categorisation, a shimmering idyll of spine-tingling xylophone, lustrous keyboards, and scat-babytalk vocalese that harks back to Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom. "Bottom's Up" is an astral weekend in the Catskills: clouds of cymbal-spray like pollen motes incandescing fire in the sunlight, gilded guitar-chimes darting like dragonflies. "If there's one thing
I can't stand, it's up" murmurs Donohue, defending his right, as a true Mother Nature's son, to loll about, bask in Van Morrison's "silence easy".

Side Two isn't quite so astonishing or engrossing. "Something for Joey" blabbers'n'smokes, but we already know Mercury Rev can lay it on thick. "Snorry Mouth" is better, despite predictable dynamics that shift from from lunging grunge to lagoons of langour. But there's a brilliant mid-song interlude, all glowing feedback embers and flaming wraithes of gtr, and an astounding, protracted aftermath,
a rustling, tintabulating field of glassy chimes and shuddering, muffled explosions. "Clouds" takes the Rev's nonchalance to new heights of airy effeteness redolent of The Byrds (there's even a raga-guitar solo), while "Space Patrol" is perfunctory, a half-minute fuzz-burst that hisses like a cornered cougar. "Girlfren" makes for an unsettling but inconclusive finale: it's a hideously disfigured,romantic jazz ballad, with crooned vocals guttering like melted wax over the piano keys, and ectoplasm shimmering in the background to
little consequence.

Of course, "the inconsequential" is Mercury Rev's domain: that's their glory and, occasionally, their liability. There's no ulterior motives, no agenda, but instead a pantheistic celebration of the wonder of being alive. Like Yerself Is Steam, Boces is "mere" sound and fury, signifying NOTHING, affirming EVERYTHING. Zen Apathy Rules Oka.........

See You On The Other Side
director's cut Spin, autumn 1995

by Simon Reynolds

Optimism, in music, is a tricky proposition. At all costs one must swerve past the
dangerzones of 'jaunty' and 'upful', in order to hit the right note of joy. Mercury Rev always pull it off. Their music sounds like spring. Like the Can of Soon Over Babaluma and Future Days, Mercury Rev's densely woven but richly melodious neo-psychedelia sounds like Nature rejoicing in its own existence, efflorescing and effervescing for the sheer arbitrary splendour of it.

The departure of tempestuous singer David Baker to form his own band Shady, has clearly had the effect of banishing the last vestiges of 'the dark side' from the Rev universe. Their debut Yerself Is Steam had its sinister moments, but its sequel Boces was glad all over. See You On The Other Side is even more rhapsodic and enchanted with itself. The titles tell the whole story: "Sudden Ray of Hope", "Racing The Tide", "A Kiss From An Old Flame (A Trip To the Moon)", "Peaceful Night". Normally such relentless positivity would have me puking, but crucially, Mercury Rev's music sounds lightheaded not lighthearted: it makes you feel like you've got helium for blood.

What with Suzanne Thorpe's fluttering, lepidopterous flute, and the rich palette of horns, strings, keyboards and other non-rock hues with which the band augments its radiant panoply of effects-wracked guitars, Mercury Rev often recalls such flower-power minor legends as Beacon Street Union and United States of America, or indeed major legends Love. But acid rock is only one of many sources, Rev being nothing if not omnivorous. "Sudden Ray of Hope" has the lilting languour, 'just brushed freshness' and fragrant backing harmonies of psychedelic-era Easy Listening. "Everlasting Arm" is at once sentimental and monumental, a wedding-cake colossus of echo-chambered fiddle, drunken brass band, ice-rink organ and one finger piano; imagine Brian Wilson meets Tom Waits.

Side Two (whatever format you get, the 40 minute long "See You" is definitely an el-pee, if you know what I mean) is stranger and stronger still. "Racing The Tide" is a
mystic rush of euphoria, Jonathan Donahue intoning wide-eyed wonderment--"I'm so
close/I'm almost inside/It won't be long/Before the mystery is mine"--over
ear-dazzling guitars. A Spanish trumpet (on loan from Tim Buckley's Starsailor) erupts, like the proverbial cup of joy overfloweth-ing, then the song glides straight into "Close Encounters of The Third Grade": boho-disco a la Buckley's Greetings From L.A., over which is draped space-siren warbling like some kitschadelic version of avant-garde diva Cathy Berberian. "A Kiss From An Old Flame (A Trip to The Moon)" is just a little too kooked out, but "Peaceful Night" is lovely, graced by an arrangment as wonky and inebriated as the orchestration on Big Star's third album, but unshadowed by despair.

Some sulky Rev-heads complain that sans Baker the band have lost their "edge". But See You proves that affirmation doesn't automatically equal "asinine". This is a wonderfull record.

PAVEMENT, interview
Melody Maker, spring 1992

by Simon Reynolds

"My fantasy. A million heads wigging out, blissed out, in
rock noise. A soulboy's bad dream... The return of ROCK".

I wrote that, five years ago, rave-reviewing Husker Du's final
album. At the time - the height of white soul, George
Michael, Mick Hucknall et al - it seemed like a hopelessly
deluded dream. But it happened. Nirvana - who've explictly
cited Husker Du as the prototype for their pop/noise merger -
have got not just one million but five million (and counting)
heads wigging out. It happened, and it's horrible.

Apres Nirvana, le deluge of dreariness:
LemonheadsSeamL7MonsterMagnetVelvetCrushGodMachine, and as if
enough wasn't as good as a feast, let's not forget the
British Americanophile contingent, MidwayStillLeatherface
Therapy?Jacob'sMouseCaptainAmericaetcetc. I call them shaggy
bands - shaggy hair, shaggy riffs, inarticulate screech of
the heart, 'the new authenticity'. Enough already! It's a
persistent rock fallacy that you can never get enough of a
good thing, the more the merrier. It's understandable, this
desire to build some kind of community out of post-Nirvana
grunge, a new counter culture, a home from home for the
world's misfits. But community breeds conformism, and home is
only a couple of syllables short of 'homogeneous'.

The problem with ALL THESE BANDS is that they've taken a
contracted range of influences - Husker Du, Replacements,
Black Flag, Dinosaur Jnr, Sonic Youth at their
least adventurous - and compacted those groups' most limited
aspects into a bluntly belligerent nouveau hard rock. Hence,
the herd-like hordes blighting our shores with their ear-
bleedin' obviousness. It's time for a cull. Time to
proclaim that energy is over-rated, that not everyone's pain
and confusion is interesting. Time to cling onto the real
mavericks and freaks who couldn't conform if they wanted to.

Over here, we're blessed by the Icarus-like ascension of
Verve and Spiritualized, the lunar fringe of Bark
Psychosis/Papa Sprain, the illicit self-absorption of Suede.
America has its saving graces too. There's Mercury Rev, a new
Creation signing called Medecine (MBV meets Krautrock), the
real-gone Royal Trux, the kitschadelic Urge Overkill, Smog,
Shudder To Think. Most of all, there's Pavement.

Slanted and Enchanted (the most appropriately titled
album since Daydream Nation) is a cornucopia of guitar
bliss, a pleasure avalanche. Pavement is where the
slackadaisical, driving glory of the US garage tradition
(Loaded, "Roadrunner", Surfer Rosa), meets the
exquisitely rarefied noise-for-noise's sake alchemy of
Faust/Can/Neu, meets the warp factor of The Fall. Pavement's
golden horde of guitars billow and furl, flare and swarm, in
a way that's simply lightyears out of reach of the shaggys.


Like Mercury Rev, Pavement generate a lot of humour that
defies transcription, because it's so off-the-cuff and
quicksilver. 39 year old drummer Gary Young looks and talks
like Belcher, the scruffy, bearded, eccentric undercover
officer in Hill Street Blues; other drummer Bob Nastanovich
is genial, talkative, a bit like a lean John Goodman; bassist
Mark Ibold is genial and quiet; guitarist and founder member
Spiral Stairs/Scott Kannberg is just quiet. Cleancut
vocalist/guitarist Steve Malkmus is the most serious member,
probably because he writes almost all the songs and Pavement
is his baby, and he cares.

But if Pavement's waywardness and improbability has an
incarnation, it's definitely Gary; he's the id to Malkmus'
ego. Gary's been in bands since he was 11; his favourite
groups are still King Crimson and Yes; he was in a punk band
called The Fall of Christianity until he was kicked out for
having long hair; his wife is vice president of a water bed
company. "I think I turn it around and add a lot of
tension", he says of his role in Pavement.

"By being always being one beat ahead, in more ways than
one," adds Steve. "But that's good, 'cos whenever there's
stress, we can focus it onto Gary, and worry whether he's
gonna make it onto stage or not. So he's an anchor but he's
also a satellite way out there."

"Antagonist, that's what I am," rasps Gary. His T-shirt
reads 'I smoke Oriental drugs'. Musically too, it's his
rangy, ramshackle, inspirationally loose drumming that
transports the guitar majesty to another plane. Alone of
their US peers, Pavement swing and groove rather than flail.
With a beatnik like Gary in the engine room, there's no way
that Pavement could be a straightahead proposition.

Another reason for Pavement's freakitude is their
curious development. Rather than toiling away for hundreds
of hours in an fetid basement honing a "cohesive sound",
Pavement have collided intermittently (the band are equally
split between the East and West Coasts), recorded EPs and
singles in "fits and bursts", then dispersed. "Rather than
slowly evolving as a group entity, it's more like we've been
evolving separately as individuals and then interacting,"
says Steve. Again, this is reminiscent of Mercury Rev,
except Pavement don't have the interpersonal friction.
"Fists have never been thrown," says Gary. "I've never come
close to blows with any of this lot". "That's because we're
all scared of you because you bite," says Bob.

For a lot of people, the initial intrigue about Pavement
was that they're such cryptic buggers: the damn-near-
impossible to find early singles, the encoded titles ("Angel
Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent", "Krell-Vid-User"), the
unfathomable lyrics, the art-work...

"It's fun to create a mystique, and then subvert it, with
interviews like this, where there's no mystery at all," says
Steve. "We used to want to be that way, not do interviews, be
like The Residents, totally anonymous. But it's not us. If
you see us live, or meet us, we're not that cryptic. In the
beginning, you have more control over something like cover
art, more time to think, 'shall I be cryptic?'."

"It worked, though," says Mark. "When that first single
"Slay Tracks 1933-1969" came out, before I was in the band, I
was pretty hooked by the enigma of it all."

Pavement might have blown their cover now, but the lyrics
are still brilliantly baffling. But what's great about them
is that they're not whimsical gibberish, not sixth form
pseudo-surrealistic stream of consciousness. The words sound
like they're pregnant with meaning, it's just that you can't
quite work what the story's all about. The feelings are there
- yearning, frayed euphoria, worldweariness - but you can't
locate their cause. Like hieroglyphics, they emit an intense
emotional charge, but they're impenetrable.

"We try for that, a quality that transcends wordplay,"
says Steve. "But we don't go for straightahead heartbreak."

Pavement's love of oblique strategies connects with the
obsession with espionage that surfaces in songs like "Fame
Throwa". "Being in a band, is like being a spy," says Steve.
"Cos you're getting information and passing it on. Your
favourite bands, you probably never talk to them. I wouldn't
want to, cos I'd find out they're just as dull as me."

"I have the opposite feeling about this mystique thing,"
interjects Gary. "I want to know the words, where it was
recorded, the engineer."

"Gary also seem to want to know personally everybody that
likes the band," says Bob. "On tour, he's averaging ten to
twenty thousand words a night. People find it hard to
believe Gary is our drummer; they say 'that's the guy who was
doing somersaults in the bar!!'"

Right now, Gary is unnerving me by reading my questions
list upside down (a trick he learned playing Scrabble).
"These bands you're comparing us to," he growls, "Sonic
Youth, Pixies, I've never heard them."

Bob: "Well, I've heard pretty much every Sonic Youth and
Pixies song, and I love 'em. But we also love ELO and
Fleetwood Mac. We have a much more diverse range of stuff we
listen to and love than most indie bands. There are a lot of
groups that completely love three or four bands. And those
bands become a huge force in shaping their style. There's
certainly a whole bunch of bands in the US that obviously
love Big Black, or love Dinosaur Jr. And you can see the
damage. That whole Subpop spirit..."

A stunted spirit. A whole generation of bands are coming
through who think rock began with Husker Du's Zen Arcade,
or worse, with Mudhoney. Pavement's secret is that they're
plugged into whole other infinities of guitar-expansionism.
Bob's wearing a Faust T-shirt (actually from the opera, but
he's wearing it in homage to the Kraut-rockers). Steve quotes
Can's "I'm So Green" when he's explaining why they're not
ready to sign to a major yet. This Krautrock connection was
most apparent on the early EP's "Slay Tracks", "Demolition
Plot", "Perfect Sound Forever": glorious orgies of lo-fi
guitar-reinvention. But you can still detect it in glints and
glimmers on "Slanted", in the seething tornado-spout of
guitar in "Jackals, False Grails", in the molten ore that
gushes from "Fame Throwa".

"All that German music is really important to us," says
Steve. "I played Can's Ege Bamyasi album every night before
I went to sleep for about three years. And I still like Can.
A lot of people are citing them as an influence now."

If you listen to Faust and Neu!, Amon Duul II and Cluster,
(and it's hard as all but Faust are out of print) you can
hear prophetic, pre-emptive echoes of so much stuff: from Joy
Divison and The Fall, to Loop and Spacemen 3, to Sonic
Youth's reinvention of the guitar and even MBV's glide
guitar. But the early Seventies Krautrock axis isn't
something you can really imitate. It's more like they're a
model for total possiblity, it's more about their attitude
and methodology than the sounds they generated.

"You can have a methodology to make a country record too,"
says Steve. "On our next EP, we've
kind of gotten away from the tricks and weird effects that we
did on the early records, the little keyboard in-jokes and
off-the-cuff noise snippets. We did that both to poke fun at
and pay tribute to experimental music and people like Faust."

It's these European influences that give Pavement an edge
over their shaggy contemporaries. Another obvious input is
The Fall; some of the tracks on Slanted sound like
candidates for Grotesque or Hex Enduction Hour, back when
M.E.S.'s lot were at their weirdest and wiredest.

"We like The Fall," says Steve. "But we can't hold back,
we want to have a hook, a bit of beauty. We're not as cold
or dour as The Fall."

Going back to the shaggy bands, not only do they all
sound the same (like cold porridge hitting an electric fan),
they all blurt the same emotion, that bleary, incoherent
blend of rage and confusion: "hey, hey we're the
twentysomethings/and we're going nowhere at all". But I don't
get that vibe from Pavement.

"There is a sadness, but we can't be too melancholy,"
muses Steve. "Our lives aren't that bad. I have a job, an
apartment, I can get a beer if I want one..."

Mark: "We all come from happy families too. I don't know
if that has anything to do with it, but all ten parents are
still alive, still married, which is pretty unique."

Bob: "And I enjoy the company of all them, we have a blast
with every single parent."

Steve: "If we had a road crew, it would be them."

Bob: "They're hip too. Mine were just over here and they
were visiting Rough Trade Records, and my mum told them 'I'm
the Pavement mother'. Gary's father designed the Steinberger
guitar, and he saw us and said "well, you guys are loud but
you're not as loud as Adrian Belew". We've practised in their
house and they moved all the furniture out of the living room
so we could practise!"

Perhaps because they were brought up by easy-going,
post-rock'n'roll parents (doubtless using progressive
childrearing methods, no imposed neuroses, lotsa breast
feeding) Pavement have that true slacker quality: a feeling
of entitlement, a willingness to drift, absorb, marvel, but
none of that neurotic compulsion to make your mark on the
world. And they also have the children-of-the-mass-media-age
quality that's the other half of the slacker equation, a
indelible sense of ABSURDITY.

"When we play live, we do feel the whole ritual is
absurd," admits Steve. "Music isn't life and death for us,
and it's hard for me to believe that art can be like that.
It's something to fill your day and something to talk about,
but to obsess about it seems absurd. I mean, you go to so
many shows, you know what it's like, it's 'here's the next
band, here's what they have to say, it's been said before but
there you go'. In the Sixties people had that idealism about
how words and sound can change the world, and maybe it did...
but now everybody's so cynical, they've seen it all before.
We get everything so fast off the TV, most people have
opinions on everything. The thing is, we do 'mean' it. For
what it's worth. We turn up the vocals, we're not trying to
drown out the words in this morass of slackness. There's
something there, it's just confused."

What I like about the Slacker movie and slacker rock
from Daydream Nation to Yerself Is Steam to Slanted, is
that they contains everything that's good and everything
that's bad about our generation. On one hand, a tremendous
love and knowledge of pop culture, a sense of
curiosity/wonder/absurdity. But on the other hand, this is
a generation that can't get it together to DO anything, apart
from make attractive mosaics out of the fragments.

"We still have some sense of values, either musical values
or the way we live our lives. We're not deeply into that
Mercury Rev thing of leaving behind reality. We're not like
those shoegazer bands who believe that sound is everything,
and songs and words don't count."

What Pavement do is neither evade reality (the Scene that Celebrates Itself [shoegaze]) nor reflect it (the shaggies), but refract it through
kaleidoscope-tinted vision, make it seem even more weird and
wondrous, perplexing and poignant than it already is. And
that's something.

Death to shaggy!

Westing (by musket and sextant)
Spin, spring 1993

by Simon Reynolds

The big budget bombast of the Butch Vig/Nevermind sound is as oppressively omnipresent as Daniel Lanois/Joshua Tree stratospherics were in the mid-Eighties. But thank the Lord, there's an alternative to CD-friendly Alternative, in the form of the lo-fi underground: avant-garage bands like Royal Trux, Truman's
Water, Thinkin' Fellers Union Local 282, Wall Drug, Fantastic Palace, God Is My Co-Pilot, and droves more miniature miscreants every month. Too motley to be a movement, these bands do share common 'roots' in the more warped tributaries of the pre-punk and post-punk underground (Beefheart, Can/Faust/Neu, Pere Ubu, Swell
Maps, The Fall). They're fond of thrift-store, ultra-cheesy guitar effects and antiquated technology pushed to breaking point. And their ramshackle songs have cryptic songtitles, absurdist wit, Dada doggerel lyrics, and loose ends galore.

The absolute ruler of this particular mess-thetic is, of course, Pavement. This compilation gathers up all the fabulously rare EP's, 7 inchs and flexis on which their cult was founded. Some obscurity-fetishists claim that is the real Pavement, although personally I prefer the fully-formed, songful and swingin' Slanted
and Enchanted
. But there's gold in this here murk, and Wesket (by
musket and sextant
) is a record all connoiseurs of clamor will cherish.

"You're Killing Me", from their first EP "Slay Tracks (1933-1969), is an auspicious career kick-off: a stylus-skidding scree of distortion coalesces into an angsty punk ditty as haiku-perfect as early Wire. Right from the start, Pavement wreak an
immaculately wrought racket. "Box Elder", though, sounds so runt-like and emaciated you can see why the abysmal Wedding Present covered it. But "Maybe Maybe"'s squall and "Price Yeah"'s drone-swarm look ahead to the billowing grandeur of 'Slanted" songs like "Jackals, False Grails".

On the next EP, "Demolition Plot J-7", The Fall's influence kicks in: "Forklift", for instance, has corrugated riffs, a tinpot organ, and vocals fed through a loudhailer. By the "Perfect Sound Forever" 10 inch EP, Pavement are close to Slanted's exquisite meld of blare and beauty. But like their most obvious ancestors Faust, Pavement still love to disrupt the flow with gratuitous
outbursts of noise, like the impossibly jagged and grating "Drive By Fader" and "Krell-Vid-User". From the ultra-rare fanzine-flexi tracks, "Baptist Blacktick" stands out for the way it slides from Sonic Youth urgency to Replacements' nonchalance, while "My First Mine" stomps uncannily like Hex Enduction Hour era Fall.

Omnivores grazing over the last 15 years of post-punk, Pavement regurgitate a puree of impeccable taste that's seems pretty lipsmackin' to me. Of course, you could argue that this noise-for-noise's-sake approach is going nowhere, but it's going
there in terrific style and that's more than enough for me.

(Im)perfect sound forever, alright!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

BIG BLACK, interview
Melody Maker, 1987

by Simon Reynolds

BIG BLACK. One of the rock names. BIG BLACK says it all. The looming threat. The black hole of noise. The yawning abyss of horror that swallows up all the words we can muster in our attempts to master the experience.

Big Black are alive to the psychedelic possibilities of horror. They are drawn, instinctively, to those phenomena--atrocity, psychosis, calamity--before which the mind reels and language dries up. If fascination is a fixation on an ineffable, arbitrary manifestation of beauty, then horror is simply the inversion of fascination--that chaste, hideous rapture that comes when the mind faces that which undoes it, the unaccountable. Awe (a word which contains both wonder and terror), the ecstasy of dread that comes when meaning fails--these are the dark, religious feelings that shudder at the heart of Big Black.

Big Black have hit upon a kind of subterranean psychedelia, music whose message is not "rise above", but "let's submerge". There are several solutions to the problem of escaping the cage of identity--"make music to satisfy angels" (Paul Morley), "play like beasts" (Lester Bangs)--but Big Black have located a kind of liberation in the mechanical. Like Swans, they have turned themselves into a pop abattoir, a concussion machine whose function is not to expand consciousness, but to compress it, obliterate it.

So I meet Big Black and what I really want to know is what is it about them, about me, about all other like minds, that draws us to this metaphoric self-destruction? Why is it that these sensitive, caring boys, these self-confessed wimps, avowed humanists, are obsessed by everything that subverts the humanist project, all the traumas and sicknesses that contradict our faith in perfection and progress?

Big Black--at some instinctive level--resist the kind of liberal humanism that invents a notion like "death education": the delusion that you can prepare people for this arbitrary, terroristic fact of life, somehow cope with this final sick joke! Big Black want to restore to us the vividness of death, of the threshold situations that compromise our balanced lives.

"What it is", says Steve Albini, singer and guitarist, "is that I just happen to have a fascination for certain kinds of human interaction--where people try to dominate each other, or the means of expression people resort to when pushed to their absolute limits. When people go beyond their training and morals and do exactly what their urges tell them to do, they are, in a sense, being most true to themselves. What intrigues me is that here are situations and phenomena that are severe, and yet I can't understand them."

Does the fascination lie in being confronted with the sheer arbitrariness of tyrannical reality?

"Well, recognising that you are helpless, that you have no power, over others, over your own drives--facing that, accepting it, is a step to stability. Because, if you think you've got the reins of your life in your hands, you're wrong! But basically there's something fascinating about the dirtiness of things going wrong that really stimulates me. I can't explain it, just acknowledge it."

Does the pleasure reside in the disorientation induced by the unmanageable? Or are our nerves so enfeebled that only violent music and violent imagery can wake us up? It's a truism that the presence of death makes us feel more alive.

Bassist Dave Riley speaks: "When I hear the word 'violence' I think of 'victim'. When I think of 'aggression', I think of intensity. Big Black are about intensity."
Santiago Durango, guitarist: "And the opposite of intensity is numbness--who wants to listen to music like that, to live like that? My life is so boring and regular, I need this kind of disruption."

I tell them my interpretation of "Kerosene", their masterpiece: that this story of a man so bored he sets himself on fire is like a metaphor for the Big Black method--their music is an equally drastic solution to inertia, a metaphorical self-immolation.

Dave: "That's quite neat, but actually the song is about something different. It's been widely misinterpreted as being about gang raping a woman and then burning her to death, and we have received a lot of shit about it. In actual fact, the song is about American small towns where life is so boring, there's only two things to do. Go blow up a whole load of stuff for fun. Or have a lot of sex with the one girl in town who'll have sex with anyone. 'Kerosene' is about a guy who tries to combine the two pleasures."

It's as if Big Black use other people's most extreme moments of reality--madness and death--as an escape from their reality. The horror that is someone else's life becomes for them a kind of oblivion.

Don't they worry that they'll develop a tolerance to all this? And that if they try to maintain the level of impact by piling on yet more noise/horror, they'll get sucked into an upward spiral whose ultimate destination is total musical seizure/sensory burnout?

Santiago: "If we reach the point where we can't add anymore, we'll stop. Once we've shot our wad, seen Jesus, we'll give it up."

Dave: "Getting numb to our own material is not really a problem. It's not like we have this stable version of the set, which we've honed over the months. Becoming familiar with our material is helpful, because if allows us to improvise. Someone will always throw in a new rent..."

Santiago: "The song defines the parameters within which we can be creative."

What I like about Big Black is that there's a kind of lucidity to the violence--it's not a fog of noise, everything is picked out articulately, for maximum impact.

Dave: "That's what I liked about the band when I joined--everything's focused."

Big Black are not about making an incompetent din. Unlike British noise groups, I don't get the impression that you're frightened of virtuosity.

Dave: "Getting skilled, acquiring knowledge of music theory, these are not problems. The point is to eliminate those skills and pieces of theory that are not appropriate at any given time. Knowledge is not a problem, knowledge is power. What you need is the right mindset, the attitude to use that knowledge well."

Santiago: "It's the same with learning to use studios. The studio is just a big instrument."

Will Big Black start to take on other textures apart from guitars, exploit other kinds of noise-making technology?

Dave: "Well, there's a synthesizer on 'Bad Houses'. We've done some primitive sampling. I've got a sax I can't play. We're working with Vocoders."

Steve: "You see, I hate the human voice. Our idea is to tamper with my voice as much as possible, and then bury it at the back of the mix. We're working on this song where we put the whole track through the Vocoder, so that my voice comes out composed of the same material as the music, and there's just this flurry of consonants under the beat."

Santiago: "The guitars are basically the thing though--we'll bend, we'll add certain elements--but guitars are what it's all about. And that's basically because they're extensions of our cocks, and we love them."

Dave: "We're puds. Jerks, but it's much better to be a pud with a guitar than a pud without a guitar."

This is as much the heart of Big Black as any fancy theory of trancendence through noise and horror. They're so sweet, so meek and mild-mannered, these boys, possessed with the spindly, bespectacled air of God's chosen computer operators...and yet these Woody Allen geeks have a strange otherlife onstage, where they metamorphise into a monstrous, glorious death machine. What went wrong?

Santiago: "We were never in the mainstream while growing up, we were isolated at school, we all have terrible problems with women."

Dave (mock-hysterical): "I told you--we're losers, we're puds. We're pathetic!"

Sounds like the classic course of development for rock musicians, rock critics, fanzine writers, and indeed anyone who gets into "difficult" or "alternative" music.

Dave: "Yeah, you're a loner, you want to be one-up over everyone else. Plus, you want to belong, somewhere. I mean, I never met anyone who had a good adolescence that I even wanna associate with!"

So life's losers achieve a strange kind of triumph onstage, reinvent themselves through rock noise.

Santiago: "Our lives would be just so much worse without Big Black. Without Big Black we might turn into the sickos we write about."

Steve Albini looks like a fanzine editor--stoop-shouldered, with arms as thin as twigs and an air of bespectacled intensity about him. His writing for US hardcore rag Forced Exposure has won him notoriety, even persecution. Each day he returns home from work (as a photo-retoucher in Chicago), checks his answering machine and finds at least two or three detailed messages of abuse. He's left Forced Exposure now, after a piece entitled "Guide For Social Tards" was printed under his name, 90 per cent which had been written by someone else.

"It was a crap piece of writing. I don't mind making myself look stupid. In fact, I'm probably the best at it. So what annoyed me was amateurs messing where professionals should be."

Albini resents and resists any idea that there is an American "movement" of noise bands, groups like Scratch Acid, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Swans, Live Skull...

"Sure, everyone knows everyone else, has each other's phone numbers, plays the same clubs. But musically, all you can say that we have in common is that we're all American, all like electric guitars, and are all inspired by punk rock. Anything more specific than that is misleading. We start from the same origin, but go in very different directions."

But isn't there at least a similarity of intended effect? Unlike, say, soulboys or singer-songwriters, who want to strengthen the listener's sense and identity and reinforce values, aren't your kind of bands into the pursuit of oblivion, using noise and horror to put the self in jeopardy?

"Well, certainly, the whole thing is about reaching that point where your eyes roll back and you get dizzy! Like the first time me and my friend heard The Ramones. All we could say was 'Fuck!' That was it for me, the beginning. I wasn't even dissatisfied with music before punk, because I didn't listen to music at all."

Perhaps what fascinates Albini about power and domination is the spectacle of pure will. You could define violence as the refusal to argue, to give an account, to justify. Maybe the kind of people who've worked around the noise/horror interface--intellectual geeks--are secretly envious of the sheer will to power, to action, that marks the psychos, fanatics, fuhrers, shamens, they deal with. The kind of potency and singlemindedness that is missing from our aimless, debilitated lives. But onstage, or in print, we can live like fanatics, monsters, live with murderous edge, high on "attitude".

I speak to Big Black while they are in the middle of recording one side of their new LP in London. Before then, in a week or two, there'll be an EP with the promising title, "Headache."

Tell us about the new material, Steve.

"One song on the new LP, called 'L Dopa', is about a Sleeping Sickness epidemic in America in 1926. It's a true story I read about in a book called 'The Awakening', written by Dr. Oliver Sachs, the guy responsible for waking up all these people from deep sleep. Some were woken up as late as 1965, awoke to find themselves old people, their entire productive life just slept away. And all these people either committed suicide or asked to be killed. They were so fucked up, so unable to cope with what they'd lost, that they wanted to throw away the little they had left.

"There's a song called 'Bad Penny', which is about the kind of person who just won't get out of your life, who sticks around and stirs up shit, in your name. 'My Disco' is the true story of a physician who has a kid that has brain damage. And rather than live with that, he beats his way into the maternity ward, grabs the baby and bounces it off the floor until it dies. The amazing thing is that the guy doesn't get sent to jail forever, he's found guilty of aggravated manslaughter, and spends maybe a year in jail. So somehow he managed to convince a jury that, hell, it wasn't such bad thing to smash a baby on a hospital floor because he was too dumb and ugly to be in your family. Any of you guys woulda done the same. That's weird! Can you imagine this guy thinking it through, carrying out the whole operation--punching out nurses, swerving through the hospital corridors and bouncing his child off the floor."

Albini and his group find a terrible poetry in the intractable, the unbudgeable, the indelible. Their music is as desperate a response to these things as any in the stories of their songs. They are drawn to desperation as to a heady drug.
"The thing about these phenomena is that they aren't that unusual; you have to face the fact that you too could be driven to these lengths. I use true stories because I couldn't think up these things. But I don't have to look."

Big Black want to make us feel awe. The paradox of Big Black is that they immerse us, deluge us in defilement and desecration, and yet produce sacred feelings. I feel small before the scale of the experiences they deal in, small and religious in the face of the beauty of terror, the terror of beauty.

Live, when Steve Albini plays guitar with his teeth, I think I see God.

STEVE ALBINI,interview
Melody Maker, late 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-rape 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

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
embarassing, like if someone uncovered your high school year
book pictures and wanted to publish them nationally". The
embarassment 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 descision 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 shortcircuit 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 mimiced."

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
ressurrection 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 mimiced 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 misogynyist
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: "the word 'producer'
has the same effect on me as 'nigger' and 'faggot'. 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 expectactions, 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."

Haus De Luege (Some Bizzare)
Melody Maker, 1989

By Simon Reynolds

After the conceptual perfection of their entry into the pop world, in which they announced the End (of music, of Western Civilisation), the logical step for Einsturzende might have been to disappear, or die. Instead, by carrying
on, they could easily be perceived as having settled into the ignominy of a career (and in the 'music business' no less). Certainly, in terms of the onward march of Rock Discourse they are nowhere now, just part of a rich (or threadbare,
depending on where you sit) tapestry of motley options: 'just music'. But in purely musical terms they're probably more interesting than ever, precisely because they've abandoned their early total gestures for more palatable formats.

And with the shift from out-and-out avant-gardism to the Blues and the Song, it's become possible to see that Einsturzende's "collapsing structures" have always been as much inside your own head as out there in the public realm of contestation. That the End of History they proclaimed was a private apocalypse: the demolition of the House of Lies (Haus Der Luege) that is the stable, self-policing self; the
deconstruction of the "BrainLego" out of which individual consciousness is formed.

Haus Der Luege starts with a "Prologue". It's an internal dialogue between two sides of the brain: the first devilishly advocates a poetry of impossible demands and self-immolatory desire, to which the Voice of Reason feebly counters "we could, but-". But before the case for vacillation and restraint can be recited, it's immediately drowned out by a sound like ten thousand vacuum cleaners
on the warpath. "Feurio" (Mediaeval German for fire) continues to expound the Bargeld manifesto of arsonist assault on the citadel of the self, for the massive
expenditure of unrecoupable energy. Sound-wise it's what Biba Kopf, in his excellent sleevenotes, calls a "musaic": a melange of hand-hit and synthetic sound, tier after tier of sonic rubble, mobilised into a rough-hewn dance shape at the mixing desk, in a manner that puts me in mind of PIL's "Flowers Of Romance".

"A Chair In Hell" is Bad Seedsy, with a "something wicked this way comes" beat tiptoeing up creaking stairs. "Haus Der Luege" is another excursion into disco concrete that dissolves into a waterfall of broken glass. Side Two starts with the nauseous hum of what are either flies or motorbikes, out of which drifts, like the Marie Celeste,"Fiat Lux". An immensely funereal item of ransacked, ghost
town blues, it's further proof of Bargeld's veneration for Sixties C&W visionary Lee Hazelwood. "Fiat Lux" fades into "Maifestspiele", where sounds of the annual May the First riots in Germany are draped in canopies of psalmic sorrow (is it a guitar? is it an orchestra? no, it's fourteen loops of Bargeld vocal played at different speeds). "BrainLego" is like Stone Age people trying to imitate Art Of Noise's
"Close To The Edit". "Schwindel" is urban Gamelan played on a bed frame, a choir of metallic chimes punctuated by the Bargeld Scream (a sound like a traction engine letting off steam). Finally, "Der Kuss", is an ode to the self- annihilating bliss of the kiss, constructed around deep register grand piano chords and a slide guitar solo like a coyote staring into the void.

To remind the listener of such a disparate array of styles and sound-sources (Lee Hazelwood's epic balladry, Gamelan metal-bashing, Penderecki's orchestral threnodies for Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Arvo Part's Mediaevalism, even Eskimo part-song) while at the same time impressing more firmly than ever the sense of an unshakeable musical
identity... well, it's a pretty cool manoeuvre for Neubauten to pull off. But all the while, Bargeld - ironically the consummate egotist - is lusting to breach his own identity, to "think myself to the end" ("BrainLego"), be consumed in a
self-ignited inferno of unreason.

London University Union
Melody Maker, March 1st 1986

By Simon Reynolds

They took the stage looking a little like Grand Funk Railroad, but the Swans present a torture of sound as radical as Einsturzende Neubauten's. There are no melodies, no riffs even - bass and synthesizer are played percussively, combining with the drums as a single instrument.

The Swans songs consist of a single motif or sequence repeated with minimal variation, lurching forward at a punishingly slow pace. The guitar fills in the sound with surges and slashes of ugly noise. Michael Gira's voice is just another loop of abraded texture, an endless scar. And the Swans play very loud.

At times they're like agonized crawling things (some grim humour that they should adopt a name so symbolic of grace and dignity). At other times they sound like pop's abbatoir: only Glitter's "Rock 'N' Roll, Part Two" and the bleakest Killing Joke have approached a rock this merciless, this dehumanized, this dead. Perhaps Swans music exists at the point where the organic and inorganic meet, where the most degraded forms of life shade into the mechanicals.

Some bands use noise to blow the mind. The Swans music acts more like a compression of consciousness, a soul mangling. We were frozen in their noise, our minds unable to wander.

The only comparable experience I've had recently is the latest Cabaret Voltaire performances. Kirk and Mallinder used electronics of formidable opacity, percussively, to achieve a similar effect -- total sensory assault, an involuntary, joyless seizure of the attention.

For the Swans take rock beyond pleasure, beyond joy, to a realm where they can only be submission. What they find attractive in rock is not its liberating energy, its breaking free and emotional release. No, they have perceived in rock an urge to abasement, a repetition complex. This they've isolated and intensified, using the hypnotizing power of repetition, its compulsion, as a metaphor for the mechanisms of social bondage. They explore the sado-masochism at the roots of power psychology, by implicating us in a performance whose pleasure, whose hold, is essentially masochistic. Their music functions as both analogue and working example of the libidinisation of pain.

I don't know why the Swans want to take themselves, and us, so low. But I can't help but be impressed. Without particularly wanting to attend one of their concerts again.