Tuesday, May 7, 2013

VARIOUS ARTISTS, The Wailing Ultimate (Homestead)
Melody Maker, summer 1987


by Simon Reynolds

Most compilations are unlistenable by definition, because they’re motley. Colours clash, moods jar, idioms mingle promiscuously but unsuccessfully. This sampler from the Homestead roster works because of its consistency. Everything here is unrelentingly GREY--but this is the valiant grey of a Husker Du rather than the miserable grey of a Close Lobsters or Shrubs, grey by choice rather than grey by default. And everything is designed to appeal to masochist sensibilities, ears that will never tire of being brutalized.

There’s so much talent in evidence here, bands that could be Sonic Youths or Big Blacks (the latter represented here by “Il Duce”) in chrysalis. In the US right now there seems to be a genuinely productive interface between punk and the legacy of hippiedom, bands like the Butthole Surfers, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth. Over here all we’ve got is post-goth nouveau blues boogie, plus all that Grebo shite. Maybe because the British way is to soak things up as a look, a lifestyle.

The Homestead bands pictured on the sleeve look like slobs, wear stained tee-shirts, garish Hawaian shirts, scuffed jeans: they could be from anywhere or any era. They look like they always looked like this. The energy British bands put into camp attention to period detail, into looking cool, these bands put into chilling the blood.

Several shades of grey here. There’s the weird shit, songs that are like multiple pile-up collisions between idioms. Dinosaur are what I imagine Meat Puppets would sound like if they came from a steel town rather than the desert: psychedelic impulses struggling up through the slag and smog to kiss the sky. Volcano Suns’s “White Elephant” has this riff like lightning striking in Morse Code, then mutates into a hybrid of Black Flag and Orange Juice. Antietam’s “In A Glass Code” is perhaps the most schizo-eclectic of the lot, its fractures and tangents managing to spike our attention thanks to the bleak, folkadelic wail of Tara Key. There’s virtuoso noise from Phantom Tollbooth (raga spasms, Mahavishnu somersaults), Squirrel Bait (“they flash a proud marble”) and Live Skull (veil upon veil of detuned guitar haze). There’s brutish, heavy-handed power pop (of a sort) from Breaking Circus, Naked Raygun and The Reactions, coarse wedges of horizon.

Last word to Great Plains, who close things up with the hilarious spoof “Letter To a Fanzine”. On the sleeve, singer Ron House claims: “With the possible exception of The New Seekers, I don’t think there’s been any band with less soul than Great Plains. Whether you definite ‘soul’ as the ‘certitude of essence’, ‘the way James Brown moves’, or ‘the pride in your own value’, we don’t have it”. The groups on The Wailing Ultimate may lack soul; what they possess in abundance is lack. This is music whose energy does not stem from a complacent sense of “pride and dignity”, but from frustration and doubt.

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