Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Post-Rock - Scorn, Laika, Kevin Martin

POST-ROCK 
Melody Maker
late 1994 or early 1995

by Simon Reynolds

Imagine, if you will, a scene without a location, a 
community of misfits, a loose confederation of exiles and 
prophets-without-honour. Bands--like Main, Disco Inferno, 
God/Ice/Techno-Animal, Moonshake, Laika, Seefeel, Bark 
Psychosis, Papa Sprain, Scorn, Orang, Pram, Stereolab, 
Insides--who are gradually linking up into a network as they 
drift further out from the indie mainstream. 

     For want of anything snappier, I call this phenomenon 
'post-rock' because, technically and ideologically, that's 
precisely what it is.  Post-rock bands use rock 
instrumentation, guitars/bass/drums, for non-rock ends. 
Guitar is deployed not to generate riffs, but as a source of 
timbres, drones, effects-treated textures etc.  Post-rock is 
music that happens along the vertical (layers) as opposed to 
horizontal (dynamics); music that opens up space (aural, 
imaginary) as opposed to developing through time 
(verse/chorus/solo).  Increasingly, post-rock bands resort to 
technology like samplers, sequencers, MIDI etc when they 
can't take 'reinvention of the guitar' any further. 
Examples: DISCO INFERNO wiring up their guitar, drums and 
bass to MIDI-computers, so that each string, each part of the 
kit, cues different samples; SEEFEEL embracing the 
soundsculpting and remixology techniques of dub and techno. 

     As well as a musical break with rock methodology, post- 
rock severs itself from rock'n'roll ideas like 'youth', 
'community', populism. Post-rock bands have responded, 
consciously or unconsciously, to the industry-sponsored 
monolith of mediocrity that is "alternative", by reviving the 
old ideals of 'independent music' (back before indie labels 
became merely a farm-system for the majors).  They have given 
up the idea of mass success or even indie cult-hood, and 
accepted the idea of being marginal, forever.  Drifting, 
disgusted, from the disgrace of grunge, they now find 
themselves comrades-in-arms with avant-gardists who've always 
been out there on those cold and lonely perimeters where 
there's honour but no profit.  An example: back in 1989, 
Loop's Robert Hampson would play on the same bill as bands 
like Walking Seeds and Thee Hypnotics, whose grungy acid-rock 
wasn't far from Sub Pop heavyweights like Tad. Five years 
later, Hampson's band MAIN plays with improvisers like Paul 
Shutze and Eddie Prevost, while Hampson has collaborations 
planned with dronologists Jim O'Rourke and Thomas Koner. 

     All this might seem rarefied, even elitist, except that 
post-rock has found an unexpected re-entry point into the 
mainstream via the post-rave phenomenon of ambient techno. 
Ambient has provided a context in which all kinds of weird 
shit gets played to receptive ears (the drugs help a lot.) 
Hampson even has a flourishing sideline as an ambient DJ, 
while the parallels between the 'ambient noir' of Aphex 
Twin/Toop & Eastley/Locust et al and the 
isolationist/environmental soundscapes of Koner/Zoviet 
France/Main etc have been noted on both sides. 

     The post-rock vanguard is torn in two opposed 
directions.  Some bands--e.g. Main--are abandoning rock's 
kinetic energy altogether, losing the backbeat and 
dissipating into ambience. Others--SCORN, LAIKA, ICE--are 
looking for a different, non-rock form of dynamic, and 
finding it in the grooves of hip hop, techno, dub and, soon, 
jungle.  This music is physical in its impact, but not in its 
playing--it's constructed from programmed rhythms and sampled 
loops--and so can properly be considered post-rock. 

     But even when it's danceable, post-rock is still 'head 
music', in so far as its defining attribute is 'space'. 
All the origins and influences that led to today's post-rock 
--psychedelia, Krautrock, Eno, dub reggae, post-punk 
vanguardists like PiL, Cocteau Twins, the blissrock and 
dreampop of MBV and AR Kane, hip hop, techno--have been forms 
of spatial music.  Compare that to the lineage that runs from 
mod through punk to the Manics and New Wave of New Wave: 
music based around compression and instantaneity, whose prime 
format is the 7 inch single rather than 12 inch soundscape, 
designed to sound good blaring through your tiny tinny 
transitor rather than a boomin' stereo system. Populist 
rabblerousing for the kids (that's 'kids' as in 'The Kids Are 
Alright', 'If The Kids Were United' etc). That's not a value 
judgement, just a description.  Honest. 

     Post-rock didn't come out of the blue, it has a history, 
moments when eggheads diverted rock ideas for non-rock ends. 
Here are some key moments in the evolution of spatially- 
oriented post-rock. 

1/ VELVET UNDERGROUND: Post-rock because not based in the 
sexual dynamism of R&B, but the drone-minimalism of Cage/La 
Monte Young/Terry Riley, and Spector's Wall of Sound. 

2/ KRAUTROCK: Can combined VU-drones with James Brown/Miles 
Davis grooves.  Faust and Cluster just droned. Neu! invented 
motorik, an unsyncopated proto-disco pulsebeat. 

3/ ENO: influenced by Cage, Steve Reich, VU, Can, et al. 
Invented 'ambient', which is the sound of rock turned to 
stone.  Eno is thus the polar opposite of The Rolling Stones, 
who are the very essence of rock'n'roll. 

4/ POST-PUNK ANTI-ROCKIST VANGUARD: Pil, Pop Group, Cabaret 
Voltaire, etc,  drew on all the above and invented dub metal, 
death disco, avant-funk--all genres that today's post-rockers 
are extending (they were all teenagers at the time). 

5/ JESUS AND MARY CHAIN: the iconography was pure 
rock'n'roll--leather, speed, solipsism, cool-verging-on- 
autism--but the sound was not: Spector-meets-Velvets wall of 
feedback over a rudimentary unsyncopated beat. From the Mary 
Chain's anti-kinetic noise came MBV/Loop/Spacemen 3, all of 
whose psychedelia turned ambient eventually 
("Loveless"/Main/Spectrum/Spiritualized). 


^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ 

LAIKA 

     "Repetition is like a machine... If you can get aware of 
the life of a machine, then you are definitely a master... 
[Machines] have a heart and soul--they are living beings"-- 
Holger Czukay of Can. 

     LAIKA was formed by Margaret Fiedler after her 
un-amicable departure from Moonshake. Erstwhile partner Dave 
Callahan kept the name; Fiedler kept bassist John Frenett, 
then recruited Guy Fixsen (who'd produced Moonshake and 
engineered My Bloody Valentine) and drummer Lou Ciccotelli 
(who also plays in God).  Judging by Laika's debut EP 
"Antenna", though, if anybody should have kept the name 
Moonshake (the title of a song on Can's "Soon Over 
Babuluma"), it's Fiedler. For while Callahan's Moonshake have 
veered off in a harsh freeform jazz direction with the recent 
"The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow" LP, Laika are renovating the 
fizzy flow-motion funk of Can at their mid-'70s peak circa 
"Babaluma" and "Future Days". 

     Although "everything starts with bass and drums", Laika 
don't jam out their lithe'n'luscious grooves like Can did, 
but assemble them in '90s state-of-art fashion, using looped 
beats. Their sound is a mix of programmed material and hands- 
on playing. This blend of machine-music and flesh-and-blood 
funk is one way forward for rock, combining the 'magical', 
superhuman effects of sampling with the 'warmth' that comes 
from real-time interaction between players. Fiedler's faves-- 
MC 900 Ft Jesus, MBV, Beastie Boys--all operate at this same 
interface between hip hop and rock, sampling and live. 

     There are techno elements to Laika's sound, too. 
Discreet sine-waves of synth weave through the effervescent 
pulse-lattice of bass/percussion on "Lyin' Goat"; "Squeaky" 
is Aphex-style toy-music made out of sampled breath and 
creaking, rubbing sounds; "Marimba Song (Boo Boo's Gone 
Mambo)" juxtaposes Orbital-style sequencer motifs with 
fusion-flute twirls.  But on the whole, what's appealing 
about Laika is that they're making trance-dance that doesn't 
sound like machine-music, that feels like a live band 
'breathing' as a single musical organism. 

     "We've gone through the 'wow, technology!' phase", says 
Guy. "Now it's integrated organically with what we do." 

     Trance and electronica may not be influences or even of 
interest ("I've been to Megatripolis twice, I've been bored 
twice," says Margaret), but Laika are intrigued by jungle. 

    "We like the stuff on the pirate stations," says 
Margaret, "Especially the juxtaposition of fast and slow, 
the way they'll have spacey sounds over manic beats.  There's 
one track on our LP that's kinda like our take on jungle." 

     When I ask Laika if they feel they're part of avant- 
rock's outward-and-onward drift towards the margins and away 
from the easy money (ie. pillaging rock's archives), the 
response is typically self-effacing. 

     "I dunno", says Fiedler. "We just get bored easily." 
("Antenna" is out now on Too Pure. An LP "Silver Apples Of 
The Moon follows this autumn) 


 ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ 

SCORN 

     SCORN are a prime example of the post-rock syndrome. 
Mick Harris and Nick Bullen used to be in Napalm Death, who 
took a certain form of rock extremity--velocity--to its 
furthest limit.  When a band reaches such an aesthetic 
impasse, it can either persevere (at the risk of grotesque 
self-caricature), or veer off in the opposite direction in 
search of a different kind of extremity (like the Swans going 
quiet and folky), or it can get to grips with technology in 
order to push beyond those limits.  Scorn combined the last 
two strategies, swapping Napalm's epileptic thrash for 
slow'n'low dub tempos, and augmenting the guitar/bass line-up 
with programmed drums and samplers. 

     "I didn't really want to leave Napalm," says Harris, 
"but I was the only one who wanted to bring new ideas in. 
I'd always listened to loads of different music--everything 
from Crass to the Cocteaus.  Metal was was actually the last 
thing I got into." 

    Harris argues that Scorn are still "a Rock'n'Roll band", 
but it's hard to see how. The biggest influence on their 
sound is the avant-dub of 'Metal Box' era PiL, John Lydon's 
fervently anti-rockist and increasingly studio-bound outfit. 
Scorn's new LP "Evanescence" is basically Public Enemy 
Limited, ie. PiL filtered through the Bomb Squad's 
terrordrome sample-scapes and looped hip hop beats. 
Accordingly, the album has gotten rave reviews in metal rags 
like Kerrang AND black dance mags like Echoes.  Scorn are 
capitalising on this dancefloor connection with an EP of 
remixes by Andrew Weatherall, Jack Dangers (Meat Beat 
Manifesto) and, hopefully, Richard H. Kirk and Seefeel. 

     Scorn are no strangers to the art of mixology--their 
1992 EP "Deliverance" consisted of five progressively more 
devastated remixes of the same dirge. At 40 minutes long, it 
hijacked both the longest single record (held by The Orb's 
"Blue Room") and the concept of 'ambient dub'.  Instead of 
the womb-muzak usually associated with that term, Scorn's 
ambient is strictly twilight-zone, haunted and disquieting. 

    "My favourite stuff of Eno's is 'On Land' and 'Apollo,'" 
says Harris. "At low volume, it's late night relaxation 
listening. But at extreme volume, ambient creates a totally 
different mood, the dark side comes through." 

     Harris ventures deeper into this ambient noir hinterland 
with his solo project Lull. On the forthcoming LP "Cold 
Summer", titles like "Long Way Home" and "lost Sanctum" 
perfectly capture the music's aura of exile and desolation. 

Like a lot of dark ambient and isolationist music, Lull is an 
attempt to create imaginary space in a world that's 
verminously overcrowded. The misfit's anti-social hunger for 
wilderness has to be redirected towards inner space (as in 
another title, "Slow Fall Inwards").  Lull is beat-free; 
Scorn's music, ever more groove-oriented, combines funk's 
restlessness and ambient's entropy, paranoia and paralysis. 
A big input is Nick Bullen's obsession with the noir 
soundtracks of Bernard Herrmann ("Psycho", "Taxi Driver"), 

    Perhaps what makes Scorn still 'rock'n'roll', even a 
'metal' band in some sense, is this sombre mood: a doom-clad 
despondency that's very Sabbath.  (Could it be a Midlands 
thing, Scorn being Brummies?)  Just check song-titles like 
"Light Trap", "Blackout" and "Black Sun Rising", the latter 
originating in the poet Nerval's metaphor for the abyss of 
melancholy.  Musically, Scorn ought to be filed in the hip 
hop racks next to New Kingdom; emotionally, they belong with 
Alice In Chains in 'Metal'.  Scorn's methodology is 
absolutely '90s, but Harris is right, they're still "heavy". 

     ("Evanescence" is out now on Earache. An EP of dance 
remixes is due sometime in July. Lull's "Cold Summer" LP will 
be released in July on Sentrax). 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ 

GOD 

     KEVIN MARTIN is what you'd have to call a 'prime mover'. 
His business is making musical connections and finding gaps, 
apertures through which a future can be glimpsed and maybe 
grasped.  Firstly, he's singer, sax-ist and band-leader of 
not one but three groups--GOD, ICE and TECHNO-ANIMAL.  He 
also runs the Pathological label, catalysing one-off 
collaborations like E.A.R. (Martin + Sonic Boom + Kevin 
Shields + Eddie Prevost) and an as yet untitled mega-jam, 
loosely inspired by early '70s Miles and organised by Paul 
Shutze, that will feature Rudi from A.R. Kane, Jim O'Rourke, 
Jah Wobble and Tim Friese-Greene (ex-Talk Talk). If all this 
wasn't enough, Martin produces bands, writes for The Wire, 
and has masterminded a compilation of 'Isolationist' music 
for Virgin's 'Short History of Ambient' series. 

     Despite their freeform/noise-rock squall God is in some 
ways Martin's most trad outlet, since it's based around real- 
time improvisation. God sound organic, pulsating, primal. 
Martin values God for the way friction between a gang of 
individuals (11 on their latest LP "The Anatomy of 
Addiction") combusts in the form of chance ideas, although 
the ideal is to "sacrifice our individuality within a group 
sound that's overwhelming". 

     God's studio LPs "Possession" and "Anatomy" have been 
affected, however, by the production techniques Martin's 
explored through Ice (50 % sampling, 50 % live) and Techno- 
Animal (wholly sampladelic). In God, this takes the form of 
sampling their own playing, whereas Ice and Techno-Animal use 
external samples.  Martin enthuses about the "revolutionary" 
potential of 'hard disk editing', where sound is converted to 
digital data and mixed, processed and edited inside a 
computer. Hard disk editing makes it much easier to do the 
kind of intricate tape-splicing once done manually by Can or 
Miles Davis' producer Teo Macero, where long improv sessions 
were chopped up and condensed into compositions.  Ice's 
"Under The Skin" LP is a prime slice of cyber-rock, combining 
the ferocity of real-time playing with the hyper-real effects 
of digital technology. 

    Techno-Animal is the most studio-bound of the three 
bands, being based entirely around samples. Martin and his 
collaborator Justin Broadrick from Godflesh were intrigued by 
"what happens after you've taken music to the extreme, as 
we'd each done with God and Godflesh. At that point, 
extremists like Nick Cave, Swans, Einsturzende Neubauten, had 
reverted back to traditional genres--blues, folk, MOR.  We 
didn't want to take the 'irony' route, and decided that 
there's an extremity in silence, or slow motion, or 
minimalism, that's equally effective as full-on assault. 
It's all about finding where the polarities--noise and 
silence--meet. Techno-Animal is meditational, about 
recapturing lost memories, whereas God is physical, trance- 
inducing, ritualistic". 

    Techno-Animal and Ice are on-going projects, having both 
recorded tracks for the fourth instalment of Virgin's best 
selling series of ambient anthologies.  Compiled by Martin 
himself, this 2 and a half hour double-CD is an essential 
guide to the dark ambient zone he calls 'isolationist'. Along 
with avant-rockers like Main and drone-ologists like Thomas 
Koner, the compilation includes offerings by Aphex Twin and 
Seefeel.  Some kind of unexpected convergence is occurring 
here. Avant-rockers have felt at once encouraged by and 
resentful of the success of Aphex's "Selected Ambient Works 
Volume 2", when they've been making the same kind of sinister 
soundscapes for years with minimal reward; at the same time, 
proto-ambient units like Zoviet France are puzzled and 
pleased that, after years in the wilderness, their tracks are 
slipping into sets by chill-out DJ's. 

    "People are questioning musical structures, the ambient 
boom has made them open to stuff that isn't song-based", 
reckons Martin.  "But it needs to be taken a lot further. 

     Martin decided a long time ago that "as soon as you 
start relying on making a living out of music, you begin 
making compromises." And so he lives to make music, rather 
than makes music to live. So compulsive, so almost biological 
is his drive that he breaks out in a strange, virulent skin 
disorder whenever he produces a record! 

     "The Virgin compilation and Pathological are ways for me 
to chase dreams, really. The fact that such a concentrated 
bloc of stridently uncompromising music is going to released 
via a major label is a victory for the hard of head! " 


     (God's "The Anatomy of Addiction" and Ice's "Under The 
Skin" are out now on Big Cat. The "Isolationist" anthology 
will be released by Virgin in September). 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ 


RECENT PINNACLES OF POST-ROCK 

PAUL SCHUTZE: "New Maps In Hell" (Extreme). Ambient-improv 
nightmare-scapes. Check out also imminent LP "The Surgery Of 
Touch" and techno alter-ego Uzect Plaush. 

JIM O'ROURKE: "Remove The Need" (Extreme). Top-notch drone- 
ology using 'prepared guitar'. 

KAZUYUKI K. NULL AND JAMES PLOTKIN: "Aurora" (Sentrax). 
Jap-core improv colossus + cyberthrash guitarist = unearthly 
drones derived only from guitar. 

EINHEIT BROTZMANN: "Merry Christmas" (Blast First). Ex- 
Neubauten percussionist + neo-Hendrix axe-tormentor = 
wonderfully ruined noisescapes. 

ZOVIET FRANCE: "What Is Not True" (Charrm).  19th LP of a 15 
year undersung career at the brink between ambient and 
musique concrete, this has all the usual wraithes and 
apparitions.  The "Vienna 1990" LP shows they can do it live, 
too! 

LABRADFORD: "Prazision LP" (Kranky).  Krautrock, without the 
'rock', dissolved into a delicate, drum-less chamber music, 
all serene expanses and distant drones. 

FLYING SAUCER ATTACK: LP (via Cargo distribution). Lo-fi 
pastoral ambience under the spell of Krautrock obscurities 
Popol Vuh, and pretty spellbinding too. 

BIOTA: "Almost Never" (Cuneiform/ReR). Indescribable sound- 
mazes full of trompe l'oreille acoustics. 

THOMAS KONER: "Nunatak Gongamur" (Baroni). Breathtakingly 
desolate recreation of Antarctica in sound, all receding 
reverberations and slow-mo shock-waves. 

1 comment:

Kieran said...

I think this appeared in the 23rd July 1994 issue, with JAMC and Hope Sandoval on the cover.