Saturday, January 27, 2018

"the spark inside" - me and others on Mark E. Smith and The Fall

my first Fall record

Below is all my writing on The Fall (well, nearly all of it) in chronological order of the releases, rather than the order in which they were written.

There is also a links list to my favorite pieces of writing on The Fall by other people, mostly from the early days of the group, including Barney Hoskyns's 1981 interview and K-punk's trilogy of essays.

And there is an interview transcript with Martin Bramah on his time in The Fall and the young M.E.S. 

Oh and there's also a couple of choice snippets of M.E.S. on M.E.S.


                                                                                                             the Fall's most perfect record 

Out of my own writing, the missing bit here is the only time I actually interviewed Mark E. -  a piece that was part of a whimsical Observer package feature about how people with the name Smith were spending Christmas!  Had a look for it but it must be languishing with the hefty chunk of the Reynolds archive that's in storage (couldn't face bringing all that paper - there's so much of it - with us to LA when we moved - a decision subsequently regretted on a monthly basis). This phone interview with M.E.S.  would have been 1989 probably. There wasn't a a huge story there to be honest - Mark was spending it with his mum and he was looking forward to being pampered and doted upon by various elderly female relatives. As others have reported, despite his reputation, Mark was unexpectedly pleasant. Indeed at one point, when I brought up the subject of his  image as a surly, doesn't-suffer-fools-gladly curmudgeon, he said "I'll have you know, Simon, I'm actually a very pleasant man." 


The Fall's greatest record

Oh, the other missing bit of course is Rip It Up and Start Again's Manchester chapter "Just Step Sideways" which is largely about The Fall and Joy Division. Which you can find in... Rip It Up and Start Again. But below I do include  a snippet from  Rip It Up's prologue -   a quote that has been circulating a fair bit in the last few days.

in some ways, on some days, my favorite Fall record


The Fall
Live At The Witch Trials
Step Forward
eMusic, 2004

by Simon Reynolds

In one early song, The Fall’s frontman Mark E. Smith exalted “the three R’s--repetition repetition repetition” The Manchester postpunk band got their schooling in trance-inducing monotony from The Velvet Underground and Can. On Witch Trials, their 1979 debut album, you can hear Television too, in Martin Bramah’s spidery, needling guitar lines, while Yvonne Pawlett’s glue-on-fingers keyboards make you flash on punkadelic Sixties garage bands like The Seeds. Now and then, on slower songs like “Two Steps Back”, there’s also a sense of disorientation and strangeness that recalls the early Doors. For Smith, seeing the world through askew eyes wasn’t an affliction, though, but a reprieve from the crushing mundanity of life in a Northern English factory town, evoked here on “Industrial Estate”--an uproarious rant about an area of Manchester zoned for heavy industry, where the ground-down workers numb themselves with Valium. 

To escape this living death, Smith and company turned to their own chemical remedies.  
“Underground Medecin” is a paean to amphetamine: “I found a reason not to die...” rejoices Smith, “The spark inside”. “Frightened,” conversely, evokes the downside of drugs: in this case, the racing thoughts, sleepless sweats and twitchy paranoia caused by snorting one white line too many. Smith’s rapid-fire snarl and see-through-you sneer have all the hallmarks of the “speed rap”. 

That’s probably what he’s referring to in the song title “Crap Rap 2” (although some have actually argued that Smith’s unique style of half-spoken delivery is an authentic English equivalent to rapping!). In that song, Smith famously defined The Fall as “the white crap that talks back”--proles who refused to buckle down and accept their allotted fate in the British class system. It’s a mission statement that pungently distils both the group’s spirit of insolent defiance and the crudely-hewn but indomitable force of their music.  

Bend Sinister
Melody Maker, October 4th 1986

by Simon Reynolds

The Fall have not stopped being The Fall. It's all here, on this their 26th long playing record: the wizened sneer, the unforgiving beat, the haggard guitar. The Fall roll on.

A vast body of work, around which a million words have been spilt, and still I don't feel nearer a notion of what they're about. The Fall don't represent or propose anything. They cannot be recruited to any scheme, clarified or filed away. They are this stubborn thing.

What spikes the lumbering wrath of The Fall is the vehemence of Mark E. Smith's invective. But these days even his targets remain shrouded and unclear. While The Fall's music has grown steadily more vivacious and approachable, Smith's writing has folded in on itself in an ever denser scrawl, beyond deciphering, let alone understanding. Sometimes the obscure object of his derision is recognisable as ... people like me, and then I'm suitably, pleasurably, chastened. The Fall, on leash, as periodic flagellation: "Who makes the Nazis? Intellectual halfwits." Ouch. I needed that. Perhaps that was the only thing I ever learned from Mark E. Smith.

The Fall are an example of the extent to which indie music has become a kind of commentary on pop -  a system which purports to represent us, but in fact excludes most of our experience. Indie-pop is a kind of parallel system, unacknowledged by POP, but bound in reaction. Like, say The Smiths, The Fall write about all the matter - squalor, maladjustment, antagonism - written out of pop's script. If Mark E. Smith represents anything it is bloody-mindedness, a recalcitrance towards those who would improve us out of our bad habits and prejudices.

They've been a bad influence. Groups like The Membranes and Age Of Chance think that anyone with "attitude" can get up and do it. The upshot of this is a kind of bolshiness without manifesto, an aimless spite: musically, a narrow interpretation of The Fall - beauty is a lie. These groups consist of nothing but anti-pop gesture. 

The Fall are un-pop too -  anti-dance, anti-spectacle, un-sensual -  but they have carved out a rival territory of alien beauty that they can exploit indefinitely. If the broad sweep of this music has been established, there's still endless scope for growth through internal complication.

Bend Sinister, their thirty-third album, shows that the Fall have a long way to go before they're exhausted. You've probably heard their version of "Mr Pharmacist", with Mark's great slovenly delivery, like his mouth was half-full of mushy peas. There are other indications that The Fall have been steeping themselves in Sixties garage music of late. Tracks like "Gross Chapel" sound as though The Fall have taken the wiry truculence of garage punk and bloated it into a juggernaut sprawl. "Shoulder Pads" is driven along by an absurdly jaunty keyboard riff that makes me think of Question Mark And The Mysterians.

As it becomes less and less clear what Mark E. Smith is on about, so The Fall's noise has come to seem more and more unearthly. When I listen I don't think of grime and rubble and delapidation, like I used to. I don't think of much at all. It's a noise to lose yourself in, something that clouds the mind, roughs you up a bit and leaves you a little deranged.


New Statesman monthly 'Pop' column, April 1st 1988

by Simon Reynolds

The Fall
Seminal Live
Melody Maker. 1989

by Simon Reynolds

New York Times, 11 July 1993
by Simon Reynolds 
The Fall are one of England’s enduring cult bands. Formed in 1976 by the singer and lyricist Mark E. Smith, it evolved into one of the most critically acclaimed and influential groups of the post-punk era. In the mid-80's, the Fall was the prototype for the abrasive British genre of ‘shambling bands’. More recently, its coruscating sound and cryptic lyrics have been a major influence on the indie scene in the United States. Pavement, the most prominent band in the burgeoning American lo-fi underground, is indebted to the Fall, as are other up-and-coming groups like Truman's Water, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and God Is My Co-Pilot.
The Fall has signed with the hip independent label Matador, and the band's new album is its first for some while to be widely distributed in the United States. The Infotainment Scan (Matador/Atlantic 92263; all three formats), the Fall's 16th studio album, is one of the group's most accessible, so it may be that the band will reach a whole new audience, primed by Pavement, et al.

In its early days, the Fall was infamous for being listener-unfriendly. The second album, Dragnet, plumbed new depths of bargain-basement recording. On subsequent landmark albums like Grotesque (After the Gramme), Slates and Hex Enduction Hour, the Fall wove a dense, forbidding but – for those who persevered – captivating trance rock. Over implacable rockabilly rhythms, the band layered a thick wall of droning, distorted guitars in the tradition of minimalists like the Velvet Underground and the German band Can.
The Fall also experimented with techniques that involved degrading the guitar textures and distorting the human voice; one of Mr. Smith's favorite tricks was to feed his voice through a megaphone. He dubbed the band's style "country-and-northern," making a link between the raw primitivism of the Fall's sound and the surly attitude that's often attributed to the natives of Manchester, his hometown in the north of England.
Lyrically, he offered a bilious, withering dissection of British society. But instead of sloganeering, his songs immersed the listener in the grimy textures of working-class life. A self-educated avant-gardist from the wrong side of the tracks, Mr. Smith devised a distinctive fractured style that recalls the cut-up prose of William Burroughs.
As the 80's progressed, the Fall veered closer to pop with albums like The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall and This Nation's Saving Grace and even scored a number of chart hits. Meanwhile, Mr. Smith became a reliably controversial interviewee for the music press. His persona remains that of the classic British misanthrope, who scorns humbug and political cant whether it comes from the left or right. Mr. Smith's intransigence is best exemplified by his fervent belief in a man's right to kill himself smoking.
Musically, The Infotainment Scan may be one of the Fall's more approachable records, but Mr. Smith's lyrics are as caustic as ever, while his wizened sneer of a voice will always be jarring. Not for the first time, he aims his ire at what he regards as fatuous or regressive tendencies in pop culture. ‘Glam-Racket No.3’ takes a potshot at the current British youth trend of 70's revivalism. Over a fuzz-drenched riff and a stomping beat that's pure homage to glitter rock circa 1972, Mr. Smith decries nostalgia and makes a pointed jibe at the nouveau glam-rock band Suede, which is hugely popular in Britain.

The Fall's version of the Sister Sledge disco classic ‘Lost in Music’ may also conceal a pop-culture critique. The song was always an ambivalent commentary on dance culture's escapism (as well as the life of the professional musician), and Mr. Smith is probably using it to deride the British rave scene, which – like disco – is "caught in a trap" of druggy hedonism and mass amnesia. Paradoxically, the Fall's version retains much of the shimmering fleetness that made the original so enchanting.
The album's second side sees the Fall continue the flirtation with rave rhythms and the squelchy synthesizer textures of techno that it has indulged in on recent albums. Contemporary trance-dance has an obvious fit with Mr. Smith's early creed; "repetition in the music, and we're never gonna lose it." The song ‘Service’ layers an eerie mesh of vocal harmonies over a limber, shuffling funk groove. ‘The League of Bald-Headed Men’ seems to be a diatribe against gerontocracy, although it's hard to decipher whether its target is the decrepit fogies who rule Britain or the baby-boomer superstars who dominate international pop.

‘A Past Gone Mad’ is an anti-nostalgia rant layered over state-of-art techno squiggles and a hyped-up hip-hop beat, as it to proclaim that the Fall isn't afraid to move with the times. The band never has been, but the secret of its continued relevance is that the Fall never bends with the times. Mr. Smith and his band absorb whatever in the cultural climate is worth bothering with (what's not, he invariably scorns in song or interview) and make it swing to a rollicking, remorseless beat. Here's to the next 17 years of the Fall.

from the prologue to Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84 (2005)   in a section where I'm discussing postpunk as a era of unprecedented innovation in terms of vocal delivery and lyrical style

The Fall's Mark E. Smith invented “a kind of Northern English magic realism that mixed industrial grime with the unearthly and uncanny, voiced through a unique, one-note delivery somewhere between amphetamine-spiked rant and alcohol-addled yarn.”

from the aptly titled Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews and Overviews, a portion of the interview concerning the early Fall, with original member Martin Bramah

"... That’s what drew those elements of what became the Fall together--a common interest in obscure music. I remember when I first met Mark Smith, he was listening to the Doors. I had thought initially the Doors were a band like Bread--some American soft rock band!

Did you immediately become friends with Mark?

He was always Mark, always as he is perceived now--even before he created the persona.  Naturally a strange person to try to get know. I knew his sisters before I knew him. Aged 16, I was around at his house visiting his sisters and I was interested in the music that was coming out of the front room. He was sitting there with his girlfriend Una who ended up playing keyboards for us. He’s the kind of guy you skirt around initially. Very wary of people and quite aggressive, but obviously quite eccentric as well. He was this kid who wore a black leather jacket with a Nazi swastika arm band--before punk rock! He’d walk around Prestiwch like that--more to make a statement than anything. It was just perversity. He wasn’t a fascist or anything.

Weren’t members of the Fall actually communists, at one point?

We weren’t a political band in any way that made rational sense. We were just kicking against the system that was imposed upon us. If Mark wanted to piss people off he’d be a Nazi. It was a heavy Jewish area, Prestwich. Lots of wealthy Jews there… But Tony Friel, the bassist, was a member of the Communist Party. And there was that socialist ethic.

But Mark Smith himself was never CP?

Not as such. He’s not one for joining clubs. He’s contrary by nature. He’s always bucking the trend—he’s like, ‘you think you’ve got an answer but it’s not necessarily so. You’re kidding yourself, wake up and check out this angle’. His natural impulse is to upset you and disturb you, which is what I liked most about him—but it does make him hard to work with!

The Fall had that song, “Hey Fascist”, right? Not a fraternal greeting, but a put-down!

It was originally called ‘Hey Student’! Mark hated all the students in Manchester. At that point  we had the biggest student population in Europe . But then when we did Rock Against Racism Mark changed the lyrics to “Hey Fascist” because he thought it might go down better that way. 

Was Mark’s objection to students that they were square and middlebrow in their music taste?

Because he didn’t go to university, I suppose it’s the inverted snobbery of the working class kid sneering at the privilege of students. It’s just teenage kids thinking it would be funny to make a statement. It seemed irreverent.

You mentioned Tony Friel, the Fall's original bassist… How did you come across him?

We went to the same secondary school. I met him when I was 12 and I was attracted to because he was this eccentric kid who got picked on a lot, but he had this wild imagination. He’d always be in the corner of the playground telling these wild stories and scribbling in notebooks. A crowd of people would gather to listen to his mad flights of fancy.

So you were this gang of friends into weird music, and then you became The Fall?

We were already writing together before we discovered Sex Pistols. We had a musical empathy. Felt we had an insight into music. And were obviously pickled in all kinds of drugs. Taking a lot of LSD and magic mushrooms and really exploring music. We’d be in Mark’s attic, reading poetry and making noise on instruments We were all non-musicians. But we didn’t have a drummer and at the time it was impossible to conceive of doing gigs locally. What the Sex Pistols did was make us realize we could do it. Up until the Pistols, all the bands that played gigs came from out of town. They’d play at the Free Trade Hall or the Apollo. We’d turn up and sneak in the back door or sometimes pay for a ticket. But when the Pistols played at the Lesser Free Trade Hall we thought, 'we’re as good as that'.  So we immediately advertised for a drummer and threw a set together. I met Pete Shelley at this club called the Ranch Bar and told him we had a band, and he and Howard Devoto and Richard Boon, their manager, came to see our first gig at Northwest Arts. So the next gig was supporting the Buzzcocks.

Up in Mark’s attic, you were reading poetry?

We thought we were beatniks. We liked to dress in black, and we loved the Velvets. We loved the idea of Beat poets. Reading Burroughs and French existentialists, Aleister Crowley and WB Yeats. We were writing poetry because we weren’t writing music to start with. We all wrote words then. Bursting with talent, we were!

And you were already exploring psychedelics?

That was the culture in the clubs in mid-Seventies Manchester.  The 60s hippies happened and by the 70s, it was a way of life. There were a lot of casualties around but we were the next generation of kids. We saw all the hippies who’d blown their brains out and we felt we were wiser than that, but we were attracted to the experience. We learned from the kids who were older than us, people like John Cooper Clark. He was 10 years older and from that 60s generation When we discovered him living down the road from us in Prestwich, we started hanging out together. 

The Fall’s name comes from Camus, so despite being anti-student, you were far from anti-intellectual.

Not at all. We thought all your originality was knocked out of you at University. We were keen to learn what was interesting but we didn’t want to be force-fed. We’d all rejected what little education we had. I played truant whenever I could. But I was being primed to be factory fodder. We were fired up and keen to find out things for ourselves.

Initially we originally called The Outsiders, also from Camus, but then we realized there were three other bands called that. So we chose the Fall. It was Tony Friel’s influence, he was reading Camus. Mark’s idea for a name was Master Race and the Death's Heads. If he had got his way, history might have been very different!

Didn’t the name The Fall also embody a kind of concept or attitude? It has evocations of decline, the decadent phase of a civilization, but also the intimation of comeuppance--the mighty being toppled. The schadenfreude of watching the powerful being brought down.

It’s hard to define the concept of the Fall. We were trying to get to the bottom of things and express what was really bugging us. Mark was the one with the real vision, and that vision quickly became the Fall, but initially it was a real melting pot. It was like a poetry group at first. We used to share our innermost feelings in words and play our favorite albums. Mark bought a guitar but couldn’t play it.  I was already singing in another band so the first line up of the Fall was me singing and Mark playing guitar. It quickly switched because Mark was writing these mad, well-observed lyrics.  Our early stuff sounded American but Mark picked up on how to make Manchester interesting. 

In Manchester music generally there's long been that Northern patriotism thing--down with the effete, wanky South. Especially London.

It was more about expressing ourselves and getting the uniqueness across. We loved what was happening in New York. For me as a guitarist, Tom Verlaine was a big influence. And we loved the stuff in London too. But we didn’t want to imitate it. Mark managed to embody our angle on what was relevant. Some bands stumbled when they tried to politicise punk, but Mark saw that was silly and limited. We tried to leave that behind and explore the music from before punk that was more diverse. We listened to a lot of dub reggae and a lot of German music.

As a guitarist, did you have any particular ploys?

I was a self-taught player. Tony Friel was a better musician than me so he gave me some of the rudiments--how to make a bar chord. I was into discord, getting away from the regimented and the sterile. We were inspired. We knew instinctively that we could do it, and we wanted to do something different and make a primal statement.

So the first actual released thing by the Fall was on the Live at the Electric Circus compilation, and then there was quite a delay before the first EP, Bingo Masters Break Out!  got released on Step Forward. How did you hook up with that label?

We’d already recorded that first EP by the time of Electric Circus, but it didn’t get released for a year. I’m a bit vague about the Step Forward connection. Mark was managing the Fall along with Kay Carroll, his girlfriend. It was s London-based label and owned by Miles Copeland. By then I was kind of just the guitarist in the band. I just turned up and played.

So was that why you ultimately became frustrated and left? Mark taking over and The Fall becoming his band?

The Fall had been together for two or years, but it was a very intense period. We’d done a lot of work and received a lot of attention from the media. It was becoming very much Mark’s thing. I was sick of the way we were being treated as a band. What was initially a collective became a dictatorship. I felt full of confidence and ideas and was keen to do exactly what I wanted to do. Don’t get me wrong, I think Mark’s a genius but he was making it very hard for me to work with him. Mark’s not a musician so he couldn’t literally tell me what to play. He could only tell me what he didn’t like. But he had a vision of how he wanted it. But it wasn’t so much about the music, it was more how we were being treated as people on a daily basis.

And your last contribution to The Fall was writing three tracks on the second album, Dragnet?

I wrote three of the songs that went on Dragnet but I didn’t play on it. I left after Live At the Witch Trials.

And by that point, all the original members had left, apart from you and Mark?

We all left for our own reasons, and at different times, but when you look at it now there wasn’t much of a time lag between. Una Baines left about a year before me. Karl Burns, the drummer, left somewhere in between. Tony Friel was the first to go. Tony left when Kay became the manager because he thought it was a bad idea. He felt he’d invested a lot in the Fall. He’d come up with the name and he was the musician in the band and in his view he was teaching us how to play the bloody instruments. He left because his freedom was infringed. And he went off to form the Passage with Dick Witts.  

You know what, I think it was initially me that suggested Kay manage us. She was a friend of Una’s and she was hanging out with us, and she seemed level-headed. She was a bit older than us. At the same time, Mark was starting to go out with her. It  became a bit of a Yoko and John Lennon scenario. The girlfriend affirming his genius. Mark needed that encouragement, so I’m not saying it was all bad. But it’s the typical girlfriend interfering in the band scenario. But we didn’t all gang up and leave. At the time we all thought it was for individual reasons.

So was it tough for Una, having gone out with Mark, and now he’s dating her friend, and the friend is managing the band?

It was Una’s decision they broke up. Mark was more hurt by that. When I first met them Mark and Una were a real item—first love, teenage true love. They were an inseparable item. Then we formed the Fall and Una started seeing other people. She was off everywhere doing things and she kind of left the Fall thinking it wasn’t an important thing.....

You and Una then formed the Blue Orchids - did you see the group as the vanguard of a new psychedelia, music for "heads"? 

You can’t play down the influence of drugs on Blue Orchids and The Fall. The first drugs we got into was strong LSD. Pot smoking seemed lame back then--hippie guys who sat around stoned and did nothing. We were anti drugs at first and thought we could reach the psychedelic thing without the drugs. But in a club someone gave us some microdots, when we were about 16. The next day we went to Heaton Park and dropped it and spent the whole day on LSD. Heaton Park is a stately home, the nearest thing to a common in Manchester. And then we discovered psylocibin mushroom were growing in Heaton Park for free.  Someone told us that there were fields of these mushrooms. So from that point we were kind of pickled in magic mushrooms and LSD. We just made it our own. It was a free source of entertainment. We’d be munching these things and sitting in pubs and seeing the world in a strange way and getting ideas for songs about our local environment. The Fall was like Coronation Street on acid.

Further Reading

The best things I've read on The Fall are still Barney Hoskyns's revelatory interview-essay and live review for New Musical Express in 1981, here preserved at subscription-only Rock's Back Pages. A non pay-walled version of the interview can be seen here

Mark Fisher at his sharpest in this klassik K-punk series of pieces Memorex for the Krakens: The Fall's Pulp Modernism.  Also an unfinished talk written by Mark to be delivered at a Fall conference in Salford in 2008, but never delivered owing to family bereavement. 

Is "Mark'll Sink Us" actually about Mark Sinker or is that my addled music-press-obsessive brain thinking daft? Here's a piece by MS on The Fall (and the Smiths) and Englishness from NME in 1988 and another from The Wire in 1986 on The Fall and the horror / hallucinogens interface.

A vivid feature on The Fall in Iceland circa making of Hex Enduction Hour by Melody Maker's Colin Irwin

Another good piece - by the late great Richard Cook, in NME. Also his review of Hex Enduction Hour.

I. Penman on The Fall in 1980, NME

Dave McCullough (where's he now?) on The Fall same year, in Sounds

Andy Gill's excellent piece on on The Fall, 1981, NME

Dave Simpson in the Guardian writing about tracking down every former member of the Fall (a lunatic project that turned into his highly enjoyable book The Fallen)

M.E. Smith in his own words - Portrait of the Artist as Consumer, NME

Not properly scanned the obituaries and tributes as yet but here's Geeta Dayal's for NPR and a tribute from Sasha Frere-Jones for Village Voice.

And here's a  lovely tribute / memory-session from Jon Wilde (formerly Jonh Wilde, of Melody Maker renown) who interviewed Mark E. Smith no less than eight times, at We Are Cult website.

The Wire have constructed a portal to a heap of the magazine's writing on The Fall, including Stewart Lee's primer to their discography, interviews by Tony Herrington and Samantha Batra, and Simon Ford's account of the group's formation. 

Finally, more Fall thoughtage from me +  information + links at the Rip It Up and Start Again Footnotes blog

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Roni Size / Reprazent

In the Mode 
Talkin' Loud)
Uncut, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Call it the Mystery of Subcultural Persistence--the reason why there's Goths galore in the Y2K, why death metal refuses to die, why there's 16 year old kids with gel-spiked hair and Discharge T-shirts mooching around St. Mark's Place. Fact is, at any given moment, 95 percent of listeners are not "in the place to be" (as decreed by style mags and hipster vanguardists). 

Long after its claims to cutting edge-ness have faded and its street audience got hijacked by UK garage, drum'n'bass mysteriously persists. Globally, there's more producers and labels than ever, and pioneers like Omni Trio are up to Album #4 already. And now here's Size & the Reprazent crew with the sequel to 1997's New Formssimultaneously the highwater mark of jungle's crossover and an aesthetic pinnacle.

Against all the odds, it's a terrific record. Like last year's Breakbeat Era project and Krust's solo debut, In the Mode is darker and harder than the jazz-inflected New Forms, largely replacing the latter's warm acoustic instrumentation and lavish arrangements with nagging computer bleats and garbled cluster-fucks of dirty samples. It's also the Bristol clan's most concerted effort yet to align themselves with hip hop, expertly weaving guest rhymes from
Method Man, Rage Against the Machine's Zack, and human beatbox jester Rahzel, into the frenetic rhythmic onrush. 

The only slight disappointment is those beats---pulse-racingly urgent but (like most drum'n'bass these past three years)rather linear in their chase-scene propulsion. Whither the frisky topsy-turviness and polyrhythmic exuberance of jungle's annus mirabilus, 1994?

Still, tunes like the Onalee-crooned "Lucky Pressure" show that Size & Co remain unrivalled at integrating songfulness with jungle's dense, fissile grooves. 

Overall, an unexpected triumph. Long may they persist. 

New Forms 
(Talkin’ Loud/Mercury)

director's cut version, Spin, November 1997

by Simon Reynolds

Its day in the British media limelight past, jungle is now in disarray. Riven by schisms--the white industrial sado-masochismo of techstep versus the populist boisterousness of jump up--the scene has lost much of its black audience to yet another new London sound: speed garage, soulful house music turbo-boosted with sub-bass and rude-boy ragga samples. Meanwhile, increasingly divorced from the dancefloor and its dissensions, album-oriented drum’n’bass (jungle’s respectable cousin) is firmly established as an art form and industry in itself, winning a pop audience that has never experienced the music in its proper context of DJ rewinds and MC chatter.

Leading the pack of impending major label debuts (Adam F, Dillinja, Krust, 4 Hero, Source Direct, to name a few) Roni Size’s New Forms is to '97 what Timeless was to '95 and Logical Progression to '96. It’s this year's consensus electronica album, the double-disc magnum opus garlanded with critical acclaim and hyped with the dubious sales-pitch "if you only buy one jungle album this year....". Roni Size and his Bristol-based Reprazent clan (DJ Die, Krust, Sov) have even won the UK’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize--a seal of approval that will doubtless doom jungle as outsider chic. Some scene insiders are already complaining that the fusion-flavored New Forms is mere coffee table jungle-lite.

But then white bohemians (myself included) have never truly grasped why the likes of LTJ Bukem glimpse utopia in the jazz-funk of Lonnie Liston Smith and Roy Ayers, why Goldie flips out for the fuzak of The Yellowjackets and mid-Eighties Miles Davis. New Forms is a timely reminder that elegance can be a form of rebellion for the black working class (not just straightforwardly upwardly mobile aspiration). From Earth Wind and Fire and Chic to today's G-funk and nu-R&B, the regal panache and sheer slickness of sound communicate a kind of defiance, a refusal of your allotted place in the social pyramid. Like Notorious BIG/playa rap's commodity fetishism (Hillfiger, Cristal, Rolexes, Hennesy, Lexus et al), New Forms’ sonic luxury --stand-up bass, lush strings and jazzed cadences--proclaim: "Nothing's too good for us".

Yet often when electronic musicians attempt a synthesis of sequenced sound with "musicality" ("real" vocals, "live" playing), the result is an embarassing mish-mash; witness the worst bits of Timeless. If New Forms mostly escapes that dire fate, it's because Size/Reprazent are minimalists where Goldie is a maximalist (I quail at the prospect of the G-man’s forthcoming 45 minute track recorded with a 30-piece orchestra). Stepped in the Bristol confluence of dub reggae and hip-hop that spawned Massive Attack and Tricky,  Reprazent understand that the real "jazz thing" going on in drum & bass doesn't involve sampling electric piano licks or hiring a session-musician to noodle out a sax solo. Rather, it resides in the rhythm section--the tangential relationship between the hyper-syncopated breakbeats and the roaming, ruminative but always visceral bass. Strip away the stereo-panned streaks of abstract tone-color and the Pat Metheny-style guitar glints from "Matter of Fact" and the track is basically a richotet-rimshot drum solo (albeit one painstakingly constructed over days of red-eyed computer-screen toil rather than played in real-time and in a real acoustic space).

The first disc of New Forms contains all the "big tunes", as well as the most overt nods towards jazz: the double bass driven "Brown Paper Bag", the title track with its tongue-twistingly sibilant scat-rap from Bahamadia, and the gorgeous singles "Heroes" and "Share The Fall," both graced by the torch-song croon of Onalee). "Share The Fall" isn't as good a song as "Heroes", but it's better jungle. Singing inside your flesh, the beat is the melody, its rolling tumble of rapid-fire triplets making you step fierce like a bebop soldier.

Disc Two of New Forms is more cinematic and soundtrack-to-life oriented, achieving a widescreen feel and Technicolor sheen rivaled only by Spring Heel Jack. "Trust Me", for instance, sounds like it might be woven out of offcuts from Dudley Moore's symphonic jazz score for the Sixties movie Bedazzled. Truer to jungle’s anonymous funktionalism, the tracks on Disc Two strip away song-structures and "proper" vocals to reveal a music of lustrous details. Drum & bass is an engineer's art, oriented around specifications and special effects, timbres and treatments. What you listen for is the sculpted rustle and glisten of hi-hat and cymbal figures, the contoured plasma of the bass, the exquisitely timed placement of horn stabs and string cascades. You thrill to the music's murderous finesse--intricacies and subleties designed to enhance the ganjadelic mind-state but which are so nuanced and three-dimensional that they stone you all by themselves.

After techstep’s explosive psychosis and dirty distortion, New Forms offers implosive anxiety and obsessive-compulsive cleanliness of production. Tracks like the eerie, menthol-cool "Hot Stuff" modulate your metabolism like the impossibly refined neurochemical engineering and designer drugs of the next century. New forms, for sure--but  in Roni Size/Reprazent’s music, the clash between the ghettocentric exuberance of the breakbeats and the opulent arrangements of the studio also forges new emotions: tense serenity, suave unease, fervent ambivalence. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Voodoo Magic

Equinox, London
Melody Maker, May 1994

by Simon Reynolds

The host: Moving Shadow, the UK's leading "intelligent hardcore" label. The line-up: jungle's top DJs, including  the ubiquitous Randall, Grooverider, Ray Keith, Brockie and LTJ Bukem, plus PA's from Moving Shadow's three most popular artists, Foul Play, Omni Trio and Deep Blue. The venue: Equinox, a  slightly cheesy disco on Leicester Square usually full of tourists, whose 
balconies and upholstered alcoves provide welcome rest and respite for the combat-fatigued and shellshocked. 

For hardcore is warzone music; its jagged breakbeats are  treacherous, a simulation of the minefield that is modern life. Hardcore strafes the listener's body with percussion, so that dancing is like striding into a stream of machine-gun snares and ricocheting paradiddles, while bass-bombs send 
shockwaves through your intestines. But, with Moving Shadow's brand of hardcore, the danger-beats are incongruously swathed with soothing, silken tenderness: strings, harps, jazz-fusion 
chords, soul-diva sighs and gasps, plus the kind of woogly textures you'd usually hear from The Irresistible Force. 

This "ambient hardcore" sound was traiblazed on tracks like "Music" by LTJ Bukem (who plays a brilliant set, finding an extra five notches of volume to really detonate the night) and "Open Your Mind" by FOUL PLAY. Sadly, FP don't include this sublime song in their PA, but they do debut their fab new single ["Being With You"], all phuture-jazz synth-clusters and diva 
beseechings, while lazers scythe and slash the crowd. Foul Play also 'play' their remix of Hyper-On-Experience's "Lords Of the Null Lines", demonstrating how fluid the notion of  'authorship' is in this scene, where an anthem's life is prolonged by endless, drastically altered versions. 

After Bukem's set, Andy C keeps the music rollin'. Junglists and junglettes do a palsied version of 'steppers', originally a roots reggae dance that involves skipping on the spot like a manic jig'n'reel. But with jungle, it's like they're Morris-dancing on bullets. The crowd tonight mixes 
chic, style-conscious sophisticates (usually black or Asian) and dressed-down white kids who mostly look like they're well under the 18 age limit emblazoned on the flyer. There's all sorts here tonight, friendly luv'd up types who probably secretly mourn the days of "happy 'ardcore", and the moody, 
self-contained junglists into dark tunes, who despise the rave ethos with its Vicks, white gloves and gushing euphoria. 

OMNI TRIO hit the stage, or rather a proxy does, since the true creator behind this country's sublimest dance-pop is a 38 year old Can fan who prefers to remain an enigma. The 
stand-in pretends to knob-twiddle as Omni's classic "Renegade Snares" tears up the floor, with its soul-shocking cannonades of polyrhythm, hypergasmic chorus "c'mon, take me UP!" and 
sentimental verging on twee piano motif. Then the MC announces "the one 'n' only, the livin' legend", DEEP BLUE.  The latter is a unassuming bloke whose "The Helicopter Tune" is still massive after 6 months floor-life. Recently reissued with 4 remixes, it sold 22 thousand and became the first 
hardcore track to go Top 70 in years. Based around a geometric Latin beat cranked up like some crazed clockwork mechanism, "Helicopter" gets the crowd seething like a cauldron. 

A few hours later, we stumble bleary and squinting into a viciously crisp dawn, battered and bruised but still glowing with the beauty-terrorism of "Voodoo Magic."

bonus beats

Moving Shadow, ASHADOW 2LP/CD, 11 tks/72 mins/FP
            With next to no media profile, Foul Play's John Morrow and Steve Bradshaw have quietly built up one of the finest back catalogues in drum & bass. As is the norm with jungle albums, the back-cat is basically what you get on "Suspected": this is Foul Play's greatest hits, reworked by the band plus a r-r-r-rollcall of famous remixers, and bulked up with a handful of new tracks. While this makes "Suspected" a superb introduction for the uninitiated, for fans who've been following the duo's career for a while, it's a tad disappointing (ditto the ratio of new to old material on Omni Trio's "Deepest Cut" and Goldie's "Timeless").
            Still, fans will crave those remixes, which all add new dimensions to the beloved prototypes. "Re-Open Your Mind" remodels Foul Play's 1993 classic (possibly my fave drum & bass track of all time), retaining the goosepimply synth-ripple (still the ultimate aural analogue of a skin-tingling E-rush) but convoluting the beats and bass in accordance with 1995 specifications, and making the twilight-zone bridge passage even more ethereal. "Total Control" is rinsed and blow-dried by Desired State (one of several alter-egos used by top production team Andy C & Ant Miles), who toughen the beats and sub-bass and  curb the original's misguided sax solo (for which, many thanks).
             Then come all four new tracks in a row. "Ignorance" sustains "Total"'s military-jazz vibe, with stabbing bass and almost be-bop hi-hats and cymbals, which are programmed with such glistening intricacy they tie your ears in knots. Less impressive is "Artifical Intelligence": E-Z listening jungle, its Mantovani strings and twinkling tinkles of cocktail piano conjuring up a rather obvious aura of  'heaven'. As does "Night Moves", a stab at downtempo hip hop graced by a keyboard motif uncomfortably close to Omni Trio's "Together". "Strung Out" is far better, living up to its paranoiac title with fidgety, feverish snares, a stalking B-line and an edgy, persecuted guitar-figure that sounds like it might be sampled from Santana or somesuch jazzbo fret-wanker.
            The remainder of "Suspected"  reverts back to   { TO: SIMON PRICE
Foul Play's 'Club Classics, Vol 1'. "Cuttin' Loose" is a drastic revamp of the duo's contribution to Moving Shadow's experimental EP series "Two On One". Kickstarted with an unnerving Afro-futurist kazoo motif sampled from Herbie Hancock, the track unleashes a swarm of scuttling breaks, glassy percussion and furtive, sidling bass. "The Stepperemix" is even more militantly minimal, an endless tidal wave of rustling snares and metallic rim-shots, sheer digital gamelan. Hopa & Bones' evisceration of "Being With You" is the most brutal of the four  remixes this late '94 beauty has undergone, with a brand new drum & bass undercarriage and a spray-job to boot. Wiping the floor with the fusion-lite that dominated  'intelligent'  jungle in '95, "Being With You" is real phuture-jazz, its densely-clustered synth-chords verging on harmolodic dissonance. The CD version of "Suspected" adds Omni Trio's widescreen film-muzik reinterpretation of  "Music Is The Key" (beautiful, but the 'real' diva vocal is a tad Whitney) and the original version of "Total Control".
            Hardcore Foul Play devotees, like myself, might be impatient for more new hints as to where the duo is headed next.. But as a summation of the story so far, "Suspected" is fabulous and undeniable.

Melody Maker, 1995


      If anyone from the 'ambient jungle' scene deserves a wider audience, it's Omni Trio's Rob Haigh. Draping lush, movie-theme orchestration and explosively rapturous soul-diva vocals over strafing breakbeats, Haigh is a sampladelic sorcerer. Anybody who loved The Art Of Noise's "Moments In Love" or Saint Etienne's "London Belongs To Me" will swoon to the sheer pop genius of  "Renegade Snares" or "Thru The Vibe". Now here's Omni's debut LP "Vol 1: The Deepest Cut", sweeping up the best of Haigh's work to date and providing an unbeatable introduction for the uninitiated.

      An enigmatic figure, Haigh's musical route to jungle was strange and winding. He grew up on left-field rock (Can, Faust, Pere Ubu,  PiL), jazz (Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew") and dub ( Lee Perry, King Tubby). In the early Eighties, he formed an "avant-funk band", The Truth Club, and supported the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA. Like many avant-funk veterans, Haigh was seduced into rave culture by the music of Derrick May and early Warp. But unusually, Haigh gravitated towards the hardcore scene rather than 'electronic listening music'.

      "In '91, people started adding breakbeats to house, and it was a very exciting time," Haigh remembers. "When the backlash against hardcore occurred in late '92,  I couldn't abandon breaks and return to the 909 kick-and-hat rhythm, so I stuck with it."

      From early '93 onwards, Haigh released a series of brilliant EP's on Moving Shadow, which spawned monster tunes like "Mystic Stepper (Feel Better)" and "Renegade Snares". The latter is still going strong a full year after it's release, thanks first to Foul Play's turbo-boosted remix, and now to their electrifyingly intense 'VIP Re-Remix' on "The Deepest Cut".

      Film soundtrack music is a major reference point for Omni tracks like "Living For The Future" (originally from the recent "Vol 5" EP, now revamped by FBD Project for the album).  "John Barry is a big influence," says Haigh. "I love the powerful, melodic, soaring strings!" But for all his brilliant arrangements, with their sentimental piano motifs, mellotronic strings and hypergasmic acappella vocals, Haigh's real forte is as a virtuoso orchestrator of rhythm. Where most jungle producers sample and loop whole breakbeats,  Haigh builds his breaks from scratch using "single shot" samples (kicks,  hi-hats, shakers, toms etc).

     "The beat becomes mine," he says, "and is no more a sample than programming a drum machine." 

      Throughout his recent work,  Haigh's beats are so nuanced, so full of varied accents, that it's like listening to a real-time, hands-on drummer who's improvising around the groove.  Just check out the fierce-yet-gliding elegance of the snares on "Soul Freestyle" (from "Vol: 5")--it's like listening to a goddamn jazz drum solo! Haigh is the maestro of a rhythmic innovation in jungle he's dubbed "the soul step".

      "The first and third beats are emphasised, giving the illusion that the track is running at 80 b.p.m. and 160 b.p.m. at the same time," he explains. "This gives the music room to breathe, and makes it easier to dance to."

      Although  Omni Trio firmly belongs in jungle's 'ambient/intelligent' camp, Haigh is wary about jungle's new smooth direction, and in particular the trend towards  incorporating so-called 'real' instrumentation.

     "House and jungle is a sequenced music, created on computers and workstations. There is nothing worse than seeing house artists trying to get into that live muso vibe. The potential in fusing atmospheric ideas with drum & bass is unlimited. But although the music is getting more sophisticated, it must retain the ruffness of tearing drum & bass. This is the core of our music: to lose it would be like, say, rock music without guitar riffs!"