Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bark Psychosis interview / Hex review

At The Quietus there's a very in-depth piece about Bark Psychosis and Hex by Wyndham Wallace. Which reminded me that for some reason I've never put any of my pieces or reviews of the band up here. Here's a 1990 interview for Melody Maker plus my Mojo review of Hex that semi-popular wisdom maintains is where the term "post-rock" originated. Actually, the term dates back long before I used it for the very particular purpose that it's subsequently stuck with (indeed the earliest instance I've come across is 1967). Nor was Hex/Mojo the first time I used it in fact - I believe it was in this 1993 feature on Insides. 


BARK PSYCHOSIS
Melody Maker, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

  The story of Bark Psychosis (light-sculptors, luminists, and best new starsailors of 1990) begins some seven years ago.  Graham Sutton (gtr, vox) and John Ling (vox, bass) met at a East London public school. They quickly became telepathically close friends. Already estranged from the mainstream of school life (both of them had won scholarships and came from non-public school backgrounds), love of music took them even further out on a limb.

   John: "We just had this general attitude of wanting to do our
own thing.  We were into creativity."

Eventually they revolted against the plans others had made for them (being streamed for Oxbridge) and jacked it all in after one term in the sixth form.  After a few years of odds-and-sods work and nomadism, they found a home from home amongst the squatter community in Leyton. John and Graham had been making music since their school days, but Bark Psychosis only took shape early in 1989, when they linked up with drummer Mark Simnett. The trio spent an entire year rehearsing in a room underneath a church in Stratford.

Out of this chrysalis/crypt, Bark Psychosis emerged as a
perfectly-formed, dazzling butterfly in the spring of this year. No growing up in public, no stumbling first efforts: instead, "All Different Things", the most auspicious, impeccable debut since A.R.Kane's "When Your Sad".
     
Of their early days as a dissonant, post-hardcore outfit influenced by Big Black/Swans/Sonic Youth, all that abides is their misleading name. Like a lot of people involved in the noise aesthetic, Bark Psychosis ran aground on a perennial impasse: how to take it further.

    Graham: "It was like hitting your head against a brick wall.
Noise became a dead end."

    And like a lot of people, Bark Psychosis saw a way out this
deadening end, in the rediscovery of silence and space, songcraft
and subtlety. Over the last two years, they've disconnected
themselves from the noise aesthetic, and swooned instead to the
'devastating serenity' of The Blue Nile, Talk Talk's "Spirit Of
Eden", Hugo Largo, Julee Cruise.  They've swum in the iridescent
oceans of Miles Davis and Can. These new inputs are beginning to
reveal themselves on their new single "I Know" b/w "Nothing Feels". If not as immediately ravishing as "All Different Things", it's just as beatifically cocooning.
     

Quite rightly, Bark Psychosis are disillusioned by the stultifying homogeneity of the post-1988 consensus, the predictability of the equation: "perfect pop" meets "wall of noise" = Number Three in the Indie Charts.
    
Graham: "We went to the Reading Festival, and didn't feel part of it all. That kind of scuzzy raucousness gets so boring. Don't you think our music is more of a shock to the system than Ride? They're the New Kids On The Block of the indie scene."

    John: "People should experiment more at gigs. People just want to please other people, they're fulfilling the ritual expectactions. More selfishness is in order."
    
Bark Psychosis aren't afraid to stray from the beaten path of
"entertainment", to wander - even if that sometimes means they
meander into self-indulgence. One minute, they're a seething blur
of luminosity (Napalm Death meets "Interstellar Overdrive"); the
next they're troubadors strumming starchild lullabies.

     Their creative process is similar to early A.R. Kane: they improvise a gaseous cloud of turbulence, which deliquesces and then crystallises into a beautiful shape.

    "Things just click, " says John. "The moods and the meanings
create themselves. We don't set out with a particular emotion, and decide to vent it through a song. We couldn't go through our recorded output and tell you what each song is 'about'. The words take shape from sounds. Certain words feel sensual in the mouth, seem right.  I find it really difficult, this whole business of 'what does it mean?'. Whenever I read interviews, and I find out what the singer was really 'saying', it crucifies the song
completely. We prefer to let people read whatever they want into
it, cos that's another layer of creativity at work.  They're involved in making the song."


If any one thing characterise the Bark Psychosis approach, it's that the mood and the lyrics are devotional.  "This time is yours", goes "I Know", an offering on the altar of love.  The lyric "All Different Things" consists of the repeated plaint: "much rather be". It's a petition to some higher, nameless power, not to to rectify wrongs, or redress grievances, but to be restored to a state of grace. It's intransitive (no noun, no object) because it expresses a yearning with no specific objectives or objections, no precise objects of desire; an ache of incompleteness that stems from the agony of being an individual, severed from the maternal embrace of all creation.
    
"There's quite a lot of spirituality in what we do," agrees John. "I think music is a very mystic experience anyway. You're listening to something and you just get a feeling that you can't account for in words."

   Graham: "But I don't think enough people are into music for its own sake. They're into it for the circumstantial elements, the scene, the ego-boost. We hate that cult of personality thing, that idea of people being role models. Even when it's being a non-role model, like you should be like J. Mascis or Thurston Moore."

Why is there still this regressive hankering for heroes?

John: "I think it's cos people are so uptight about their own creativity, they project it onto other people. They want other people to be creative on their behalf."

    Then again, aren't some people blessed with greater gifts?

Graham: "I think everybody's gifted in some way, but a lot of people mistakenly think that their gift is music. Whereas it might be art or something. A lot of people have a gift at birth but it's stamped out of them."
     
You've talked about "doing your own thing", "self-expression",
"originality". But your kind of group more often tends to downplay the role of the individual artist. There's that idea of the music coming from "outside", "the beyond", and the artist merely being the medium.
     
John: "Some of the stuff I've been reading is linked to that idea. A lot of the work in contemporary physics suggests that what we do creatively as individuals is just part of an ongoing creative process that started 15 billion years ago. It's just inherent in the universe."
     
So God speaks through your plectrum.

"If you want to call the process 'God', then, yeah - God speaks
through everybody. It's really powerful, but if creativity gets
frustrated or perverted, it comes out in nasty ways, like people
struggling to invent more effective ways of killing each other.
Perhaps if the person who invented nerve gases had been given a
guitar or a nice lump of clay..."

There would have been some really nice pots, rather than the
possibility of genocide. But pray continue...

Graham: "There's this new branch of quantum physics called 'quantum stickiness'. Particles interact all the time, and leave these residues on each other. So when the moon shines on you, photons from the moon surface actually enter your eye and change your chemical structure. You become a moon person."

I'm sure the physics of music must work like that. Certain frequencies have a soul-cleansing effect, others leave your insides perturbed. I'm sure Bark Psychosis records help to restore the pH balance of your psyche. Bark Psychosis as the Aqua Libra of indie rock?
     

John: "It might work like that, but you could never explain the process. And that's great, because for the first time in three hundred years of science, scientists are admitting they can't explain anything. Post-Newtonian science saw the world as a machine that you could understand if you dissected it and broke it down to its fundamental particles. Now scientists are realising that things don't work like that. It's all a lot more mysterious. I mean, quantum physicists have discovered that there are these particles that just come into existence for no reason, totally random and originless."
     
Bark Psychosis are definitely part of a climate of sensibility, a shift towards recognising the fact of indeterminacy and undecidablity, towards affirming mystery.  It's nothing to do with New Age, though. New Age self-realisation propoganda tells people that the power lies with them, they can change their lives totally by overhauling their attitude.
    
"It's a fraud," opines Graham. "This idea that enlightenment is something you pay 55 quid and go on a course to get."

Whereas, if you're serious about satori, you should go live on a mountaintop for forty years.

"Maybe. But you can also have mystical experiences with other people, in your everyday life, at gigs. I had a mystical experience at the laundrette this afternoon. I was just mesmerised by the washing machine. Sometimes you mind just gets triggered to a certain level. It can be music, or films, or love, that does it for you."
    
I'm tempted to declare that all bands should be like Bark Psychosis: that paradoxical combination of being clued up but not premeditated, eloquent but not dogmatic, timely and timeless; that delicate balance of craft and chaos. But if all bands were like Bark Psychosis, they wouldn't be the shining, saving grace that they indisputably are.


BARK PSYCHOSIS
Hex
(Circa)
director's cut, Mojo, March 1994

by Simon Reynolds


    These days, alternative = antiquated. Almost all alternative rockers pay
homage to a bygone golden age (although they disagree about which vintage
genre is the one that counts), and almost all of them repudiate the
technology underpinning today's state-of-art pop.  White rock seems to have
ceded the idea of "the future" to rap (black musicians have always been
quicker to exploit the latest hi-tech) or to rave (dance has its own innate
technophiliac logic).

     Actually, there are a handful of futurists who eke out a precarious
existence on the fringes of the British indie scene.  Some of these bands
are techno-conscious and/or dub-wise (Seefeel, Insides, Disco Inferno, Ice);
some forge links between trance-rock and the drone-theory of John Cage, La
Monte Young, Terry Riley et al (Stereolab, Pram, Main); others are just
wonderfully and wilfully self-indulgent (Papa Sprain, Bark Psychosis). Call
them avant-rock or art-pop, but they're all children of Eno, in that they
use the studio to create a "fictional acoustic space", rather than simulate
the experience of a live band.  Increasingly, their music is based not
around riffs and choruses, but layers and loops (these days, executed with
samplers and sequencers as opposed to tape and scissors); this 'rock' is
always on the verge of deliquescing into pure ambience.

If Eno is the spiritual godfather of this boffin-in-the-sound-
laboratory approach, the immediate ancestors for today's avant-rock bands
are A.R. Kane and My Bloody Valentine, late '80s neo-psychedelic pioneers.
Bark Psychosis build on the jazzy, improvisational leanings of A.R. Kane.
Like many of their avant-rock kin, Bark Psychosis veer between minimalism
and maximalism, between the impulse to strip it down and the urge to pile it
on.  Like Can or early '70s Miles Davis, they often combine minimal hypno-
grooves with a hyper-eclectic barrage of weird textures, unusual influences
and jarring time signatures.  Bark Psychosis' big thing is dynamics: their
songs shift from breathless hush to ear-bruising loudness, as in the
whisper-to-a-scree of their gorgeous 1990 debut "All Different Things".
They're maximalists, too, in that they're willing and able to take their
time: 1992's "Scum" single was 20 minutes of dramatic lunges and lulls,
while the three songs on Side Two of 'Hex' each clock in around nine
minutes.

The heart of Bark Psychosis is the interplay between Graham Sutton's
Durutti Column-like guitar-filigree and John Ling's heart-murmur bass.  But
recently, the band have moved towards lush, intricate arrangements and
jazzy, heavy-on-the-hi-hat drumming  (they even played at Ronnie Scott's
last year).  And so "Hex", their long-awaited debut, is as ambitious as rock
oughta be in its fourth decade, but occasionally errs on the side of
over-ripe, slightly gauche 'sophistication'. 

The opener, "The Loom", for instance, lays it on thick--sombre strings, trickles of piano, languid, possibly fretless bass--and seems to be aiming for the baroque grandeur of Scott Walker's "Climate Of Hunter", or Bark Psychosis' personal faves, the Talk Talk of "Spirit Of Eden". "A Street Scene" also doesn't quite gel, with its fussy funk-jazz riff, lugubrious Miles horns and distressed guitar, but gets better when the song clears into a limpid expanse, redolent of the neo-jazz chamber music of the ECM label (motto: 'the most beautiful sound next to silence').  The core of "Absent Friend" is Sutton's brain-piercingly poignant, crystal-guitar motif, which seems to be chipped from the same precious ore as New Order's "Ceremony"; all the other elements--the
harmonica, the drunken bumble bee of a fuzzed-up bass solo, the Mark E.
Smith voice-through-megaphone bit--seem a bit superfluous.
     
As its blighted title suggests, the dominant mood of "Hex" is blue. The
album is shadowed by feelings of anomie and dread familiar to anyone who's
lived in London in the last few years. "Big Shot" has a similar
late-night-rain-and-neon scenario to The Blue Nile ("it's 3AM, don't know
where I'm going, just drive somewhere, fast"), but is far more sinister.
This is funk noir, with a baleful, dub-churning bass surging through a dense
fog of ambient vapour.

Like a lot of their avant-rock siblings, Bark Psychosis really come
into their own when they abandon the Song (and Sutton's slightly earnest
vocals) and stretch out to explore pure texture.  And so it's on Side Two--a
sort of triptych or song-cycle--that Bark Psychosis really start to fulfil
their huge potential. "Fingerspit" continues the urban angst theme ("every
night/streets leave their mark on my skin....I can't find anyway out"); a
broken, dejected guitar figure alternates with avalanche-chords, then the
track devolves into a desolate soundscape, all crevasses of silence and
jagged promontories of dissonance.

 "Eyes & Smiles" strays close to ECM territory again: its twinkling Aurora Borealis guitar, lambent synths, mournful sax, and Mark Simnett's determination to employ every inch of his drum kit, all uncannily recall Jan Garbarek's "Paths, Prints" album.  Like "Fingerspit", the song dwindles into pure ambience, an event-less horizon of tingling, tremulous synths.  

Best comes last, with "Pendulum Man", possibly Bark Psychosis' most accomplished foray yet. A glistening lattice of open-tuned chords, plangent harmonics and mistily reverbed piano chords, the track is a lagoon of serenity to rival David Sylvian's instrumentals on "Gone Too Earth".
   
The rise of ambient-tinged rock (and ambient techno) is a response to,
or retreat from, our increasingly strife-wracked, deteriorating social
fabric. Soundscape gardeners like Bark Psychosis, Seefeel et al make the
aural equivalent of the bower of bliss, a haven from an intolerable reality.
But if the socio-economic outlook still reads "NO FUTURE", the future of
rock is looking more buoyant than it has for a while, thanks to Bark
Psychosis and their 'post-rock' ilk.

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