Saturday, November 2, 2019

Birthday Party / Nick Cave and the Bad Seed

[from a guidebook to alternative rock, 1995]

Emerging, like some hideous butterfly, from the Bowie-damaged New Wave chrysalis of The Boys Next Door, the Birthday Party were the most abandoned, sensorily deranged Dionysian rock'n'rollers since The Stooges.  But although Nick Cave's self-confessed ur-Text was Funhouse, his grandiose delivery and baroque lyrics were actually closer to Iggy's own model, Jim Morrison.  Like Jimbo, Cave had poetic ambitions that eventually blossomed in his Southern Gothic novel And The Ass Saw The Angel.

The first B. Party LP (actually a compilation of single and EP material, later reissued as Heehaw) sees the band shaking off quirk-out influences like Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart and getting ever more primal. An  awesomely original sound'n'vison takes shape in macabre ditties like 'Happy Birthday', 'The Friend Catcher' and especially 'The Hair Shirt', where Cave's grotesque vocals are doused in Rowland S. Howard's brimstone gtr.  After this debut, The Birthday Party left Australia for London, pilgrims in search of infernal post-punk clamor.  But instead of kindred extremists, they found the irony-clad poseurs of early '80s New Pop (ABC, Human League etc) with their synths, suits and string sections.  Doubly exiled, The Birthday boys soon gathered around them a cult of those disenchanted by the new regime of health and positivity.  Against this squeaky-clean backdrop, their marauding music shone like a murky beacon of obsession, sickness and debauchery.

 Abjection--the base materiality of fleshly existence-- figures vividly in Cave's lyrics for Prayers On Fire and Junkyard, as a source of both voluptuous allure and skin-scrawling revulsion.  On Prayers, Tracy Pew's scabrous bass is the obscenely throbbing heart of the Birthday Party's itchy, twitchy music of disequilibrium and malaise; he provides both motor and melody in the lust-stricken bacchanal "Zoo-Music Girl", the Artaud-meets-Screaming-Jay-Hawkins paroxysms of "A Dead Song" and the spasming swamp-funk of "King Ink".  Where Prayers is idiosyncratic and eclectic, Junkyard is more homogenous, closer to the live BP's dense frenzy (as heard on *It's Still Living* and *Drunk On The Pope's Blood*). Some tracks are a bit of a turgid slog. Still, 'Big Jesus Trash-Can" and "6 Inch Gold Blade" have a rollicking jazz-punk swing, and the album starts and ends with two absolute BP pinnacles: "She's Hit", where cadaverous guitars frame Cave's grisly gynocidal lyrics ("there is woman-pie in here"), and "Junkyard", whose downward-spiralling noise and opiate imagery ("garbage in honey's sack") seethe and roil like rock's own death throes. Amazingly, the Birthday Party staggered on through two more EP's.  Possibly their finest hour, The Bad Seed is a concentrated spurt of refined dementia, and wickedly witty to boot--from the "fingers down the throat of love" chorus of 'Fears Of Gun' to the Disney-on-bad-acid talking trees of 'Deep In The Woods'.  The patchier '*Mutiny* peaks with the Faulkner-esque psychodrama 'Swampland' and the verminously detail-infested soundscape of 'Mutiny In Heaven'.

After Mutiny, the Party broke up. Rowland S. Howard joined Crime and the City Solution, swathing surrogate-Cave figure Simon Bonney's boomy baritone and moody lyrics with decidedly Doors-y atmospherics; later Howard formed These Immortal Souls, whose ghost-town dereliction paved the way for the country-blues despondency of Mazzy Star.  Nick Cave assembled the Bad Seeds (whose core remains Einsturzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld on guitar and keyboardist Barry Adamson) for the splendid From Her To Eternity.  Framed in cinematic but still rough-hewn arrangements, Cave staked out some of the themes that would occupy the rest of his career: amorous murder (the title track, "Well Of Misery"), the Artist abandoned or misunderstood by his audience ("A Box For Black Paul", "Avalanche") and Elvis (a cover of "In The Ghetto").  The Firstborn Is Dead plunges deeper into Americana: the 'talking blues' Elvis-myth of "Tupelo", the murder ballad 'Say Goodbye To The Little Girl Tree', homages to Dylan and "Blind Lemon Jefferson", and so on. But Cave's hammy delivery and use of Old Testament lingo make this LP a bit hokey.  Still, the mock-ethnological sleevenotes are a hoot: "The Black Crow King" is the tale of "a king surrounded by followers who have learned to imitate him"--a sly dig at Cave's Goth cult.

1986's all-covers album Kicking Against The Pricks not only recharged Cave's aesthetic battery, it sets the terms of the remainder of his career. Subsequent albums merely juggle different ratios of the three styles on offer here: blues, C&W noir, and what Cave called "entertainment music, although some might call it corn".  A masterful feat of canon-formation and career-realignment, Kicking repositions Cave as showman not shaman. He convincingly brings out a latent dimension of tragic pathos in such '60s melodrama as Gene Pitney's "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart", Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb's "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", and even The New Seekers' "The Carnival Is Over".  Later in '86, and clearly on a creative roll, Cave & Co came up with a terrific bunch of original songs in similarly epic vein for Your Funeral...  My Trial.  On the shimmering majesty of the title track, Cave rivals the ruined grandeur of the anti-hero persona patented by folk-blues singer Tim Rose (whose "Long Time Man" is covered here).  Only an acrid strain of misogny (the Biblical rape fantasy of "Hard On For Love", the inner sleeve's Madonna/Whore imagery) mars a masterpiece.

Tender Prey's 'The Mercy Seat' is Cave's last towering moment.  As in 'Long Time Man', he plays a wife-killing convict, his ruminations and no-regrets gusted along by a Velvets wall-of-noise. The rest of the LP is a grab-bag of mostly ill-conceived essays in genres like gospel, garage punk and '70s soul. Tender Prey sets the tone--bitty, dwindling-for what has so far proved to be Cave's artistic twilight.  The Good Son wanders into Neil Diamond terrain (the cover depicts Cave at the grand piano, surrounded by l'il red-headed girls). Some swear by the MOR balladry of "The Ship Song"; most find it a crock of schlock.  Henry's Dream is rawer, but a bore. Let Love In rallies musically (the Bad Seeds' arrangements are deft, humorous, almost poppy), but on the story-telling front it's Cave-by-rote, in-a-rut.  Back in '88, the singer declared: "lyrically, thematically, my work is still chained to the same bowl of vomit". But once upon at time, at least, that puke tasted fresh.


Wednesday, October 30, 2019

forgive us our synths

[an essay on electropop - from the League and Depeche to Miss Kittin and Fischerspooner -  for a book]

Synthesisers in pop go back much further than you might think. Prog rockers loved ‘em: ELP’s Keith Emerson let rip many a Moog solo, Rick Wakeman from Yes performed behind a vast bank of keyboards, and German bands such as Tangerine Dream sketched the face of the cosmos with Mellotrons and Arps. At the other end of the spectrum, Stevie Wonder pioneered the use of electronics in R&B (with tech guidance from two white geeks who went by the name Tonto’s Expanding Head Band). And the blurts of abstract noise from Brian Eno’s EMS VCS3  on those first two Roxy Music albums turned a generation onto the avant-pop potential of synths.   

Still, the synthpop era as commonly understood--the early Eighties Britwave of Human League, Gary Numan, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode--really started in 1977, with two epochal singles:  Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”  The missing link between Beethoven and Paul Van Dyk, “Trans Europe Express” conjured the spiritual dimension of technological progress--“all the dynamism of modern life” as K-werk commandant Ralf Hutter put it--with its arching Doppler synths and tireless machine beats. A massive worldwide hit, “I Feel Love” was the first disco record to be made entirely from synthetic sounds. Produced by Giorgio Moroder, the track's clockwork-precise sequenced bassline and coldly glittering electronics laid down the blueprint for Eighties synthpop.

For many young musicians who’d been mobilized by punk’s do-it-yourself rallying cry, the near-simultaneous impact of these two singles was revolutionary: suddenly the trad-rock format of guitars, bass, and drums seemed archaic,  exhausted. By happy coincidence, just at this moment, synths--hitherto the preserve of wealthy prog-rockers--got an awful lot more affordable, portable, and user-friendly. The new breed of synths like the Wasp resembled an orchestra in a box. Which is one reason synthpop was full of duos, partnerships that split the roles neatly between singer/lyricist and composer/machine-operator: Soft Cell, Eurythmics, DAF, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, et al.  Synths meant you simply didn’t need a whole band of instrumentalists. This became even more the case when programmable drum machines like the Linn started to come online at the end of the Seventies. That said, two notable exceptions to the duo norm also happen to be probably the most famous synthpop outfits of all time: The Human League and Depeche Mode.

From the North-of-England industrial city of Sheffield,  The Human League started out as a quartet consisting of two synth nerds (Ian Craig Marsh, Martyn Ware), a singer with a striking lopsided hair style covering half his face (Phil Oakey), and a fellow who didn’t contribute anything musically but projected Pop Art-influenced slides behind the band (Adrian Wright). In 1979, David Bowie proclaimed The Human League to be the sound of the future. But after two modest-selling albums of almost-pop, the group split acrimoniously.





Everyone assumed the synth boffins, who’d formed a new group called Heaven 17, would make it, and that the vocalist and Director of Visuals were the talent-free rump doomed to obscurity. But in an inspired move, Oakey recruited two teenagers, Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley, as backing singers after spotting them at a Sheffield nightclub. With the “ordinary girl” charm of their fallible voices and amateurish dance moves, Catherall and Sulley humanized the League for the first time. Brunette and blonde respectively, the girls’ presence created an Abba-like visual chemistry while also banishing the group’s geeky science-student image, something further enhanced when Oakey stopped writing songs inspired by Philip K. Dick and black holes and started singing about L.O.V.E.

The second masterstroke in the reinvention of the League came when they found their own Giorgio Moroder in producer Martin Rushent, a bearded music-biz veteran who combined arrangement skills acquired through working for the likes of Shirley Bassey with a gear-head’s passion for the latest music technology. The result was a perfect sequence of timeless hits--“The Sound of the Crowd,” “Love Action,” “Open Your Heart,” “Don’t You Want Me”-- that forever demolished the synthesiser’s image as a cold and soul-less instrument. “Don’t You Want Me” reached Number One on both sides of the Atlantic, boosted by its classic promo clip, which, Jean-Luc Godard style, depicted the band making its own video.  




Compared to Human League’s postmodern wit, or to the kinky noir imagery of Soft Cell, Depeche Mode early on seemed like the lightweight option. Dinky ditties such as  “New Life” and “Just Can’t Get Enough” seemed like the very definition of disposably innocuous pop. When their main songwriter Vince Clarke quit to form Yazoo, people assumed Depeche would be forgotten within a year. But the group had originally signed to pioneering independent label Mute because they admired its roster of innovators like Fad Gadget and DAF. Depeche had their own aspirations to depth and edge. Stepping into Clarke’s shoes as chief writer, Martin Gore started to explore the dark and deviant precincts of human life. He split up with his prim Christian girlfriend and spent time in Berlin, checking out everything from sleazy bondage clubs to performances by metal-bashing avant-primitivists Einsturzende Neubauten.



Depeche Mode also admired Neubauten’s UK counterparts, Test Dept, a  gang of left-wing skinheads whose clangorous steel symphonies celebrated the collective strength and muscular might of the working class, even as their physical skills were being rendered obsolete by the decline of heavy industry. Borrowing Test Dept’s Constructivist  imagery, Depeche titled their 1983 album Construction Time Again and put a hammer on the front cover, a tribute to the Nobility of Labor that echoed the Soviet hammer-and-sickle.  “Everything Counts,” the first single off the album, featured a desolate woodwind-like refrain that sounded like a socialist wringing his hands upon learning that Thatcher and Reagan have been re-elected, while the lyrics critiqued Eighties enterprise culture: “the grabbing hands grab all they can… it’s a competitive world.”  




Full of metal-on-metal percussion and sampled noises, Depeche’s next hit singles “People Are People” and “Master and Servant” took Neubauten and Test Dept’s ideas into the pop mainstream. Lyrically informed by Gore’s forays through Berlin’s S&M underworld, “Master and Servant”  connected bedroom and boardroom to make a witty personal-is-political allegory about power games:“it’s a lot like life,” so “forget all about equality.” Proceeding through a check-list of Weighty Subjects with an almost methodical determination, Depeche then tackled religion on 1984’s “Blasphemous Rumours,” which impudently suggested that “God’s got a sick sense of humor.”



In the late Eighties, Depeche Mode’s music got ever more sophisticated and melodically haunting with albums like Black Celebration and Music For the Masses. They scored their first US hits with “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence” and established a reputation as a surprisingly formidable live act. Depeche’s arena tours of America took in larger and larger audiences, peaking with a 1988 show at the Pasadena Rose Bowl witnessed by seventy thousand ecstatic fans. 



By this point, Depeche Mode were virtually rock stars, second only to U2 as a big-in-America band from the British Isles. Depeche’s music got rockier too. As with other synth-pioneers such as Human League, Soft Cell, and Eurythmics (all of whom they’d outlasted commercially), at a certain point the only way forward for Depeche was to incorporate non-synthetic instrumental textures. All this culminated in the bluesy grind of 1993’s “I Feel You.”



Around this time, singer Dave Gahan underwent a bizarre transformation. Dumping his wife and kids, he moved to Los Angeles and got into deeply into tattoos, facial hair, and drugs. Suicide attempts and drug overdoses followed. For  Depeche’s original American following, all this rockist nonsense must have been deeply puzzling.  After all, for sensitive and maladjusted types, a huge part of the appeal of being into all that “faggy” music by eyeliner-wearing Anglo fops was that it served as a potent form of  dissidence: a way of defining yourself against the standard high-school fare of Motley Crue and Ozzy. But here was formerly fresh-faced Gahan mutating into… well, Dave Navarro, basically. The horror, the horror…

Grunge made guitars dominant during most of the Nineties. Eighties synthpop was either completely forgotten or recalled only as a joke--all those  preposterous New Romantic haircuts and fey eyeliner boys playing one-finger synth-melodies. Then, slowly, the contempt turned to amused affection, and by the eve of the new millennium, a full-blown early Eighties revival got rolling. It began as a retro-ironic fad within the techno world, with groups like Adult. and Les Rhythmes Digitales, whose "Hey You What's That Sound"  came with a video that parodied the charmingly clumsy graphic effects that seemed so futuristic in 1983. 




Soon scenes blossomed in the hipsterlands of Brooklyn, Berlin, and other major cities across America and Europe.  Clubbers dressed in a mish-mash of recycled Eighties New Wave style signifiers--asymetrical haircuts, ruffs, skinny ties worn over collar-less T-shirts, punky-looking studded belts and wristbands, little cloth caps. The soundtrack mixed classics and obscurities from the original era with new tracks by modern artists like Miss Kittin and Vitalic,  who studiously deployed vintage analog synth sounds, vocoderized cyborg-vocals, 16th-note basslines, and archly inflexible drum machine beats.  Known as “electroclash” or “nu-wave”, the revival was the big hype of 2002, but neither of the scene’s most touted bands, Fischerspooner and The Faint, managed to penetrate the mainstream, and soon hipsters moved on to pillaging another seam of retro (late Seventies postpunk). What few noticed was that Eighties synthpop had already resurfaced on the charts, in a seemingly most unlikely location--nu-metal. Multi-platinum selling  Linkin Park roar at the choruses, sure, but their verses drip with the wan and slightly wussy melancholy of prime-era Depeche Mode, suggesting that the band was born at precisely that moment in the early Nineties when MTV would play “Enjoy the Silence” back with ballads by Queensryche and Metallica.








Sunday, October 27, 2019

Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music

Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music
Spin, 1993

by Simon Reynolds

So much of the fabric of modern pop originates in reggae.  Dub's
ganjadelic echo-effects anticipated the remix-mania of today's club
music, while the slurred gibberish of  DJ talkover is one of the
sources of rap.  Right now, dancehall's ragga chants and fidgety
production is influencing emergent British genres like Apache
Indian's bhangramuffin and jungle (a manic offshoot of techno).
And I have a farfetched theory that the yodelling falsetto of
Morrissey (who once declared "reggae is vile") has secret links with
the milky chirruping of Junior Byles and Barrington Levy.




"Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music" (Mango/Island)
traces the evolution of reggae from 1958 to the present. It starts
with the 78 rpm proto-ska of the Folkes Brothers' "Oh Carolina" and
ends - four discs and 95 tracks later - with Shaggy's 1993 ragga-
remake of the same song.  Reggae's roots lie in American soul and
R&B, but as with most pop breakthroughs, mimicry led to mutation, as
Black American dance was subtly warped in synch with the Caribbean
vibe. Ska's jerky pulse and rocksteady's chugging grooves both have
the same monochrome sound and upful aura as Wilson Pickett or Booker
T & The MG's, but Jamaican musicians shifted emphasis from the
downbeat to the 'afterbeat', and thus created a New Thing.



As rocksteady evolved into roots reggae and dub, the Jamaican
elements became more defined: the bass became more pronounced and
melodic, while producers like King Tubby and Lee Perry used reverb to
heighten the music's spatiality.  In the '80's, reggae went digital,
just like US black pop from swingbeat to rap. But dancehall, argues
Linton Kwesi Johnson in the box set's hefty booklet, is at once
futuristic and primal: a cyber-pagan resurrection of the ritual beats
favoured by African cults like Etu and Kumina.



What Johnson and other commentators shy away from is the role of drugs.  Most crucial
shifts in pop history have occurred when drugs interface with
technology to make possible new forms of listening.  Just as
psychedelia coincided with the arrival of LSD and stereo/8 track
sound, similarly 70's dub had everything to do with marijuana's
heightening of sonic dimension and depth.




In the Eighties, Jamaica became a stop-over in the cocaine trade routes; this probably has something to do with ragga's jittery beats, apoplectic vocals and gangsta
vibe.  Throughout its history, reggae has oscillated between two
extremes, symbolised by the rude boy and the natty dread: between
macho swagger and mellow spirituality, ghetto survivalism and Rasta
dreams of escaping to a halcyon homeland (Zion).


Crammed with great songs, Disc 4 agitates against the notion
that reggae declined musically in the Eighties as the fire of
militant spirituality faded.




Nonetheless, Disc 3 surpasses the rest, covering reggae's commercial and aesthetic zenith from 1975-81, and ranging from the luscious pop of Gregory Isaacs and Sugar Minott to
the apocalyptic dread of Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time" and Max
Romeo's "War In A Babylon". While the bubbling rhythms of Black Uhuru
and Junior Delgado are dub-inflected, there's not enough pure dub
here for me. Why no Augustus Pablo, Prince Far I, King Tubby or Mad
Professor?  Then again, as Island supremo Chris Blackwell points out,
Jamaica has the highest per capita rate of musical output in the
world. Inevitably, as massive as it is, this compilation could only
scratch the surface.  Which it does quite superbly.





Monday, August 26, 2019

Terror Danjah - interview + liner note

concerned by the alarming news that grime legend Terror Danjah is in a coma - wishing him a swift and complete recovery

below  is the liner note tribute I wrote for the Terror compilation Gremlinz that Planet Mu did in 2008, plus a Q and A that appeared on Gremlinz in shorter form, but here takes the expanded form published by FACT magazine and timed for the comp's release

but here is his new album



TERROR DANJAH: THE ALPHA PRODUCER

By Simon Reynolds

Ninety-five percent of grime beats are strictly functional: they're designed as launching pads for an MC's skills rather than as showcases for the producer's virtuosity.  These tracks don't tend to go through a lot of shifts and changes but instead loop a drum pattern and a refrain (typically evoking an atmosphere that mingles menace and majesty, with melody and "orchestration" pitched somewhere between a straight-to-video movie score and a ring-tone).  And that's fine, you know: it's a perfectly valid and valuable craft making this kind of basic MC tool.  It's okay if the tune doesn't go anywhere, because the pirate deejay's only likely to drop a minute-and-a-half before cutting to the next track.  It's alright if it's  thinly textured, a bit 2-D and cheapo-sounding, because  it's going to be largely drowned out by MCs jostling for their turn to spit sixteen bars.  But it stands to reason that few of these tracks are going to be things you'd want to buy and listen to at home.   They're just not built for that purpose.

Out of the handful of grime producers who've made some beats that work as stand-alone aesthetic objects--Wiley, Target, Wonder, Rapid from Ruff Sqwad--the undoubted ruler is Terror Danjah.  But this 29 year old from East London is not just grime's most accomplished and inventive producer.  He's one of the great electronic musicians to emerge in the first decade of the 21st Century, a figure as crucial and influential as Ricardo Villalobos or Digital Mystikz. Someone who's kept on flying the flag for futurism at a time when recombinant pastiche and retro-eclecticism have taken over post-rave music just like what happened with alternative rock a couple of decades before.

Like earlier artcore heroes such as 4 Hero and Foul Play (in jungle) or Dem 2 and Groove Chronicles (in 2step garage), Terror Danjah knows how to walk that perfect diagonal between function and form, how to maintain a tightrope balance between rocking the crowd and pushing the envelope.  He has made plenty of MC tools, tracks like his "Creepy Crawler" remix of "Frontline" or "Cock Back" that have become standard beats of the season on the grime scene, enabling MCs he's never met, on pirate shows he's never heard, to show off and sharpen their skills. Terror has also crafted beats tailor-made to a specific MC's talents, like "Haunted" (the instrumental for Trim's classic "Boogeyman") or "Reloadz", whose speeding-up and slowing-down-again rhythm is a perfect vehicle for Durrty Goodz's quick-time style.  (That track is also a kind of living history lesson, cutting back forth between grime's stomping swagger and jungle's breakneck breakbeat sprint, between 2008 and 1994.)

But on this all-instrumental anthology, with the pungent charisma of MCs like Bruza or D Double E removed from the picture, you can really hear all the work that Terror Danjah puts into his tunes.  On tracks like "Code Morse" and "Radar," the intricate syncopations and hyper-spatialised production, the feel for textural contrast and attention to detail, are comparable to German minimal techno producers like Isolee.  But all this sound-sculpting finesse is marshaled in service of a gloweringly intense mood--foreboding and feral-- that is pure grime.   This is artcore: a stunning blend of intellect and intimidation, subtlety and savagery.  Street modernism, in full effect.

Gremlinz is named after Terror Danjah's trademark:  the grotesquely distorted, gloating laughter that makes an appearance in all his tracks, a poisonous  giggle that makes you think of a golem, some horrid little homunculus that  Terror's hatched to do his bidding.  The gremlin audio-logo crystallizes the essence of Terror Danjah's work and of the London hardcore continuum of which he's such an illustrious scion. It's at once technical (the product of skilful sonic processing) and visceral,  funny and creepy.  Like the catchphrases and vocal-noise gimmicks that MCs drop into their sets or tracks (think D Double E's famous "it's mwee mwee" signal), the cackling gremlin announces that this here is a TERROR DANJAH  production you're listening to.  When a pirate deejay drops one of his tunes, when a crowd in a club hollers for a reload, that slimy little goblin is Terror marking his sonic territory like the top dog, the alpha producer, he is.


Q/A with Terror Danjah

You started out in the late Nineties with Reckless Crew, an East London jungle/drum'n'bass collective of deejays and MCs. How did that come about?
I formed Reckless in 1998. The other members were D Double E, Bruza, Hyper, Funsta, Triple Threat, DJ Interlude and Mayhem. We came to fame from being on Rinse Fm and playing at local clubs and raves including One Nation, Telepathy, World Dance, Garage Nation, and Slammin' Vinyl.

What did you learn, as a producer, from those drum and bass days? Who did you rate at that time and would consider an influence?
I wasn't much of a producer back in them days. I was absorbing the musical sounds from Roni Size, Dillinja, Shy FX, Krust, DJ Die, Bad Company, Andy C and DJ SS. I learned a lot from listening to their music. Jungle was the first British music we could say was ours. I'd grown upon on reggae, R&B, soul. And also house music, on account of having an older brother. I was deejaying on the pirates and I got into producing drum and bass, because I wasn't getting a lot of tunes from producers. They'd be giving me one or two dubplates, but they had the big DJs like Brockie to service first. So I started making my own  "specials" and did loads of tracks. But I didn't put them out, just played them on the radio. My own personal sound.  But DJ Zinc and a few others cut my tunes as dubplates.

When did you make the transition to UK garage and that MC-fronted 2step sound that was the prototype for grime?

 I did two garage tunes and they blew up so I decided to stick with that. In 2002 I did "Firecracker" b/w "Highly Inflammable" on Solid City, Teebone's label.  For a while I was part of N.A.S.T.Y. Crew,  because I'd been at St. Bonaventures [a  Roman Catholic comprehensive school in Forest Gate, London E7] with a couple of members of N.A.S.T.Y.  But all the time I was doing my own thing and eventually just branched off. 

Then in 2003 I formed Aftershock with this guy called Flash, who I'd met at Music House where everyone goes to cut dubplates.  The first two Aftershock releases were Crazy Titch's "I Can C  U, U Can C Me" and N.A.S.T.Y.'s  "Cock Back".  That got the label off to a flying start--everyone was buzzing after those two releases.  Then it was Big E.D.'s "Frontline" and then in 2004 I put out the Industry Standard EP. That’s the one where people thought "this label is serious".

Industry Standard is where you can really hear your three-dimensional "headphone grime" sound coming through, on tunes like "Juggling" and "Sneak Attack".  With those tracks and all through your  music, the placement of the beats, the way sounds move around each other in the mix--it's very spatial.

Some of that comes from listening to a lot of Roni Size and Andy C and producers like that. Lots of abstracty sounds rushing about, coming out of nowhere.  There's a sense of more life in the music.  That’s what I do in my tunes. Drum and bass gave me ideas about layering sounds and placing sounds. But it also comes from studying music engineering at college, doing a sound recording course.  I learned about mic'ing a drum kit and panning.  You've got the pan positions in the middle of your mixing desk, and the crash should be left or right, the snares should be slightly panned off centre, the kick should be in the center. So you've got a panoramic view of your drum structure.

Obviously I went beyond that, started experimenting more.  The bass stays central but the sounds always drift. So each time you listen you’re not just bobbing your head, you’re thinking  "I heard something new in Terror Danjah’s tune". So it always lasts longer.

Industry Standard was the breakthrough release, in terms of people realizing that here was a producer to reckon with. What came next?

Payback was the biggest.  That EP of remixes was one of Aftershock's top sellers. It was getting caned the most, especially my "Creepy Crawler" remix of "Frontline".   That cemented it for us.

Basically you took Big E.D.'s "Frontline" and merged it with your own "Creep Crawler" from Industry Standard.  It's got a really unusual synth sound, harmonically rich, with this sour, edge-of-dissonance tonality. It makes you  feel like you're on the verge of a stress-induced migraine. A sound like veins in your temple throbbing.

It's a normal synth, but where many people would just use it straight out of the module without any processing or texture,  I’ve learned some techniques to give it more.  I add that to it. I can’t tell you how, though. Certain producers might go "ah!"

Those sort of wincing tonalities are a Terror Danjah hallmark.  Another are the bombastic mid-frequency riffs you use that sound a bit like horn fanfares, and that sort of pummel the listener in the gut. They've got  this distorted, smeared quality that makes them sound muffled and suppressed, like their full force is held back. But that just makes them more menacing, a shadowy presence lurking in the mix.  Like a pitbull on a leash, growling and snarling.

That's like an orchestral riff.  Again, it's all about the effects I put on it. If you heard it dry you’d think "Is that it?"  It’s the same techniques I use for the giggle.

Ah, your famous hallmark:  the jeering death-goblin laughter.  How did you come up with the Gremlin?

I had a lot of drum and bass sample CDs back in the day and I had that sound from time.  I used it a couple of time in tracks, just to see how it sounds.  Then I stopped using it and everyone was like, "Where is it?!?". I was like, "I don’t want to use it no more".  But everyone was going like "That’s nang! Use it!".  So I switched it up, pitched it down, did all sorts of madness with it.

But Terror Danjah music is not all dread and darkness. You do exquisite, heart-tugging things like "So Sure," your R&G (rhythm-and-grime) classic. Or "Crowbar 2," a really poignant, yearning production draped in what sound like dulcimer chimes,  a lattice of teardrops. That one reminds me of ambient jungle artists like Omni Trio and LTJ Bukem.

I used to listen to Omni Trio and all that, when I was 14 or 15. That R&G style is more me.   Everything you hear is different sides to me, but that sound, I can do that in my sleep.  One day I can be pissed off and make a tune for deejays to do reloads with. And another day I'll do one where you can sit down and listen and relax, or listen with your girl and smooch her.

Do you see anyone else in grime operating at the same level of sophistication, in terms of producers?

I don’t think none of them really. [Aftershock producer] D.O.K. is the closest in terms of subtle changes, and DaVinChe. You've also got  P-Jam.   But I don't really look at anyone and think they’re amazing. Wiley at one point was the guy whose level was what I wanted to get to.  But I don’t think there’s anyone now who’s doing anything different. They’re being sheep.

After the very active 2003/2004/2005 phase, Aftershock went pretty quiet. There were just a few more vinyl releases and then a couple of full-length things.   What happened?  And what have you been up to in recent years?

The label went quiet due to the change of the climate--the introduction of CDs in the underground market place. Because we were so successful with the vinyl format, but it was time to move with the times.  So I released a CD called Hardrive Vol 1, which had ten vocals and ten instrumentals and featured artists like Chipmunk, Griminal, Wiley,  Mz Bratt, Wretch 32, D Double E, Scorcher, Shola Ama.  I also put out an instrumental CD called Zip Files Vol. 1. And I've been working on Mz Bratt's album.

I'm told this compilation was selected out of some 80 instrumentals. Which means 62 weren't used! Does this mean you are sitting on a vast personal archive of unreleased Terror Danjah material?
Definitely. I got billions of tunes stacked on a few Terra Bytes hard drive.

You have Industry Standard Vol 4 on Planet Mu soon, and you recently returned to deejaying with the Night Slugs appearance -- does this mean you are back in the game full force? Do you feel like grime is still an area you want to work within or are you being drawn to other areas, like funky, or the more experimental end of dubstep?
I've always made music what I like, and most of the tracks on 'Gremlinz' were made before there was a genre called  'Grime' or 'Dubstep'.  I started off in Jungle, so I'm not afraid of change! 

Talking of the wacked-out end of dubstep, I can see a lot of your influence with the nu skool producers like Joker, Rustie, Guido, and so forth. Can you hear it yourself and what do you think of this sound people are calling things like "purple" and "wonky"?
 It doesn't bother me, but I personally think a producer/artist should just make the music and let the record/marketing company name it whatever!





Friday, August 23, 2019

Wooden Wand / Comus

Wooden Wand / Comus
published under the headline "Free Shtick"
Village Voice, October 25th 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Call it the “what it’s all about” factor. See, I’m digging this free-folk stuff as pure sound, but the movement’s unwritten manifesto is harder to grasp, and for me that’s always an impediment to buying into a scene wholeheartedly. Perhaps that’s why I literally don’t buy it (the f-folk scraps I have were all acquired by, erm, other means, shall we say). Just as well, maybe: Mapping this genre properly would entail a financial bloodbath, given its norm of incontinent productivity. Just check the intimidating discographic delta—cassettes, lathe-cut 7-inch singles, 3-inch CDs, side projects, and collaborations galore (see woodenwand.sinkhole.net)—that’s issued from a single group, New York–turned-Knoxville-based Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice, during their two years of existence. This season alone sees Wooden Wand’s solo debut and two re-releases of small-run vinyl-only albums (Xiao and Buck Dharma), while an all-new Vanishing Voice full length, The Flood, is due this month.


“Pure sound” assessment first: “Free folk” verges on a misnomer. As genre expert Jon Dale points out, it’s a highly recombinant style whose warp’n’weft includes threads of not just traditional music but West Coast acid rock, prog, free jazz, Dead C–style noise, musique concréte, and “outsider” minstrels such as Jandek. Xiao‘s best tracks, “Caribou Christ in the Great Void” and “Return of the Nose,” resemble nothing so much as the raga-rock trance and narcotic wah-wah torpor of “We Will Fall” by the Stooges, while Dharma‘s “Satya Sai Baba Scuppety Plays ‘Reverse Jam Band’ ” is a strange shimmer-slither of a keyboard étude, like Morton Subotnik turning into the Blob. If Vanishing Voice have a standard mode at all, it’s long pieces like Xiao‘s “Weird Wisteria Tangles Carrion Christ But Intends No Harm” (and yes, the track titles are another stumbling block to full-on fandom) or The Flood‘s 14-minute “Satya Sai Sweetback Plays ‘Oxblood Boots.’ ” Cantering cavalcades of barely integrated instrumentation (rustling bells, tunelessly parping woodwinds, Cale-like drones, listless percussion, thrumming steel-cable bass drones, and so forth), these tracks either dissipate into oxbow lakes of abstraction or gradually accumulate disparate jetsam into tripnotic juggernauts. Still, we’re not exactly talking “Scarborough Fair,” and the only truly folky aspect is a slight bias toward sounds of acoustic provenance.

But what’s it all about, Alfie? I fear that Wand (real name, James Toth) hits the nail on the head with his self-description as “spiritual dilettante.” The f-folk genre gestures at the shamanic and visionary, but in this easygoing way that feels not so much syncretic as plain eclectic. Isn’t the spiritual path actually hard work, though, a discipline? When Vanishing Voice overtly invoke the transcendental, with the group’s intermittent female vocalist Satya Sai Baba Scuppety ululating lines like “I sought the truth so long” in her piercingly pure-toned voice, the mystical-me vibe verges on schlock. In Dharma‘s “Wicked World,” Toth mutters like a bum/seer whose desolation-row jeremiad gets ignored by passersby. His solo album exhibits a similar penchant for parable and prophecy (Toth’s a Scripture fan) but the accompaniment is pared-back minstrelsy elevated by an exquisite attentiveness to the creak-glistened textures of semi-acoustic guitar. “Spiritual Inmate” distills an f-folk tendency that can be traced back to its ancestor, the Beat movement: condescension toward the benighted square, who’s “passing so much beauty/passing on so much beauty” because he’s, like, imprisoned by being “obsessed with protection.”

It’s shtick, really, this idea of seeing clearly because you’re outside society, but then so are other “performative enactments of the authentic” like grime, so nothing wrong with that. The same element of theater can be seen in a group regarded by many f-folks as an illustrious ancestor, Comus, whose 1971 album First Utterance has just been reissued in a double CD that scoops up everything else the U.K. outfit recorded in its brief existence. That Bowie was a Comus supporter seems especially revealing. This isn’t traditional British music in the Martin Carthy sense (unadorned and faithful) but closer to Jethro Tull: ripe, rustic-flavored rock with frenetic hand-percussion à la Tyrannosaurus Rex and orchestrated elements redolent of Italo-horror soundtrack proggers Goblin. Frolicking woodwinds and Roger Wooton’s vibrato-rattling cackle conjure an indeterminately pre-industrial Albion, all gibbets and gargoyles, merlins and maypoles and maidenheads. A tale of deflowering and murder, “Drip Drip” is all the more creepy for the grotesque tenderness with which Wooton delivers lines like “your lovely body soon caked with mud/as I carry you to your grave/my arms, your hearse” (the last line borrowed by black-metal outfit Opeth for an album title). In “Song to Comus” itself, his hideously capering voice impersonates a Pan-like satyr whose piping music lures “an enchanted damsel” to his forest lair of depravity. First Utterance courts absurdity, but like a great horror movie (The Wickerman would be the apposite reference) it draws you in completely. Wooton brings a conviction to his roles as warlock/sprite/all-purpose bucolic bogeyman that takes it beyond playacting. Whereas with Wooden Wand there’s still a faint aura of make-believe, even put-on, such that, as absorbing as the sonix often are, I still don’t . . . quite . . . buy it.



A follow up post on Blissblog

Everything is glam rock performative enactment of the authentic free folk Wooden Wand

kid shirt weighs in with some interesting thoughts in semi-response to my wooden wand piece, some cool compare-and-contrast vis-a-viz grime... his idea of free folk being about wanting to disappear is intriguing (theory triggered unconsciously by "vanishing voice" maybe?), yes yes, makes sense: a bourgeois-bohemian impulse to get lost, to unmake the most of yourself, (which makes the Animal Collective's "You Don't Have to Go To College" the closest point at which the scene gets to writing that unwritten manifesto) .... tune in, turn on, drop out... dissipate and radiate.... And some of his comments about WW&VV made me think the closest parallel/precursor to them is the Butthole Surfers (think about the pastoral weirdness on Hairway to Steven, the cover of "Hurdy Gurdy Man"; the Living Theater-esque stageshow; also the thread of classic rock pastiche running through the buttholes c.f. WW's comments re. deep purple, jefferson airplane, etc etc), and the Buttholes would have been something I'd have analysed in those terms, a middle class youth stepping off the career track (gibby trained as an accountant), laying waste to their own potential as a sort of proto-political act of refusal

i was talking to jon dale (who may be on the verge of staging a reappearance act) about this, he having his own dissensions with the piece, and i realised the stumbling block for me is actually not the unwritten manifesto aspect at all, cos when all that stuff says implicit and latent you can groove along with the trippy untethered soundswirl; no the stumbling block specifically with WW&VV is when they do write the manifesto, or at least get into spelling out the "what's it all about" too literally -- either in the lyrics (Toth intoning about how "the mystical power of the beautiful flower has turned sour”, or Satya Sai Baba Scuppety ululating about how "I sought the truth so long… all things must pass away… there is one path to choose” or visioning “a land of wondrous beauty that far exceeds my wildest dreams/where the air is pure and clean”) or just the mode of address: invocational, i-be-the-prophet. Cos, for me as not-ready-to-sign-up-for-membership-in-the-movement bystander-onlooker, it's like you're suddenly put on the spot: you either have to say "yes, i totally buy it, this guy is a visionary" or you hold back. and for a whole bunch of reasons possibly more to do with me than the guy's performance, I hold back from that suspension of disbelief. Woebot described the Wand solo album as "more Bonnie Prince Billie" than the group's stuff, and that's it exactly, cos Will Oldham' another one where I don't quite buy the persona, there's a "you're kidding me, right?" element.

With "performative enactment of the authentic", I guess what I’m suggesting or playing with is simply the idea that nothing is “real” once it takes place before a microphone or on a stage (how could it be?). Everything is glam rock, it's all artifice, the make-believe dependent on suspension of disbelief (bothon the performer's part and the audience's). So Humble Pie, despite being very much the kind of shabby blues-bore drivel that prompted glam rock into being, were no less contrived, absurd, or even grotesque, than Roxy Music. Everything is glam-rock too because it all works through glamour, of which there are many more kinds than "glam" or Hollywood (the glamour of anti-heroism or "ordinary joe" is still the stuff of fantasy, from Springsteen to Mike Skinner). Glamour in its original sense--witchy enchantment--might be a big part of free-folk's allure; the mise-en-scene that is conjured by the music works through exoticisim and mystique--you imagine a raggle-taggle commune on the periphery of society, banging instruments in some Finnish wildland or Vermont grove (or with the ancestor-influences: Incredible String Band and extended family in the woods, Vashti in her caravan, etc).

All the things that Kid Shirt lists, seemingly to refute the idea that there is a manifesto or needs to be a manifesto to the f-folk scene, do actually amount to a charter of principles, albeit quite diffuse and low-key. Not a manifesto in the sense of bulleted declarations and exhortations to be shouted in bold and capitals from a soapbox, but certainly a cluster of tendencies-verging-on-tenets:

-- looseness and spontaneity, a be-here-now approach to the jam
-- flux and mutability
-- shifting line-ups, collaborations, nucleus-groups orbited by solar dust-rings of freefloating occasional participants
-- trance states, creative automatism, music-as-ritual rather than "show"
-- tribalistic/family/commune-like image (and often structure)
-- "I am the music. There is no separation"--Heather Leigh Murray
-- “it’s all music, man” as overtly stated principle of all-gates-open fusion
-- yet at the same time countered by very definite zones of non-influence and attractions to other areas; bias to the organic, the acoustic, the hand-played

then when you factor that in with the hand-made, cottage industry aspect: the lathe-cut vinyl, the small-run pressings and odd formats (painted and decorated cassettes etc), the attempt to de-commoditise the commodity while also re-enchanting it, making it more precious and treasurable; you see an impulse to escape and transcend commerce that echoes the original folk movement's (in both US and UK) drive to reject the commercialism of popular culture music.

yes it does amount to a taggable worldview/philosophy, one that's in the continuum of the hippies, the beats (Woebot nailed it all a while back with his Are You a Beatnik or an Avant-Yob thesis, plus afterthoughts). and a subculture too, there's strong elements of homology between sound, clothing, discourse, economics

it reminds me a tiny bit of psy-trance: the syncretic spirituality (psy-trance's postmodern tribal package of Tao, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, Hatha Yoga, Mayan cosmology, wicca, and alien abduction theories), the trancey-trippy music, the internationalism and dispersed rhizomatic scene structure, the cult of the great outdoors, the freak image

the musical coordinates for psy-folk are a lot cooler than psy-trance, of course, but i reckon that both scenes are expressions of a recurring and perennial syndrome, something that is
almost a structural fixture (if not quite requirement) of Western society... the children of affluence who become see through their parents values and the spiritual void of a life based around ambition/acquisition, become disenchanted with its lack of enchantment and try to build another path that will re-enchant the world ... you could probably even trace the impulse back through the centuries... here's a chunk from the Sex Revolts on those Medieval gnostic heretics and millenarian cultists the Free Spirits:

"The 12th Century initiated a period of unprecedented prosperity, just as in the post-World War Two West. But this materialism prompted a counter-reaction, in the shape of a new class of voluntary poor who renounced riches in search of spiritual values. These downwardly mobile bohemians formed 'a mobile, restless intelligentsia' who went 'on the road', following the trade
routes and preaching a contempt for wordly things. Like the beats, the Free Spirit brethren divided the world into square and hip, a 'crude in spirit' majority and a 'subtle in spirit' elite who could access the Divine Oneness in this life rather than having to wait until the afterlife. "

In the end though, I have to give the f-folkers a cautious "big up ya collective chest", if only for being one of the few things in the last five years (and i know the scene's got longer-back roots than that, but then so's grime: as fruitions, both are really Noughties phenoms when it comes down to it,) that actually amounts to a thang--a movement/scene, with something approaching a manifesto (however buried and vague, which is in itself in keeping with the manifesto, after all), plus accompanying canon it's pulled together for itself (interesting to me that they leave out the straighter Britfolk-Steeleye, Carthy, Tabor, Ashley Hutchings--in favour of the kooky stuff; again, makes me think it's Vashti's biography--and precisely her commercial failure--that inspires as much as her music per se). The whole package is something I can feel the pull of, to an extent, but well, I doubt I could fully get on board.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

kid606

kid606
"down with the scene"
Ipecac Recordings
Village Voice,2000

by Simon Reynolds

If anything deserves a  punk-style kick in the ass, it's IDM, short for "intelligent dance music. " Not so much a genre as a mode of appreciation, IDM was (in)famously defined by ambient guru Mixmaster Morris as "the opposite of stupid hardcore"--a snobby distinction between mindfood and rave fodder that most IDM-ers still adhere to. Right now, a lot of smart money is on kid606--real name Michael Depredo--as IDM's very own punk rock. This San Diego teenager understands that IDM, over-civilized and effete like the Roman Empire, needs to revitalize itself with barbarian blood. So he brings the noise from, where else, Stupid Dance Music--hardcore styles like gabba, jungle (in its pre-gentrification, ragga-sampling form circa 1994), Miami bass, dancehall.  On his latest album "Down With the Scene" (his first for Ipecac, the label co-founded by Faith No More's Mike Patton and former Alternative Tentacles boss Greg Werkman), Depredo even signposts his revolutionary intent with titles like "Punkshit", "Hardcore", and "Luke Vibert Can Kiss My Indie-Punk Whiteboy Ass."
                
The last of these is a half-flippant, half-earnest gauntlet thrown down to the first-wave IDM luminary whose 1995 EPs as Plug pioneered what subsequently came to be called "drill 'n' bass"--a mini-genre based around the appropriation and intensification-through-caricature of jungle's breakbeat-splicing techniques. Drill'n'bass is roughly one-third of what kid606 is about, so the jibe at Vibert represents both anxiety-of-influence and upstart cockiness. It's also very punk, its "move over, grandad, there's a new kid in town" disrespect redolent of The Clash's famous line about "no more Beatles Stones etc". On tracks like "Buffalo 606--the morning after"  606 does to Vibert what Vibert did to jungle --exaggerate drill'n'bass's already absurdly convoluted and convulsive polyrhythms. Bringing new meaning to the jungle superlative "tearing", Depredo shreds the fabric of beat itself, honing   splinters of what was once human, hand's on funk into precision-tooled flechettes whose micro-syncopations and hyper-flams snag your limbs and pull you everywhichway.  His savage EQ-ing and treatment of drum sounds conjures a timbral fantasia-- ride-cymbals that weep, miaow,  or hiss like sulphuric in your face;  snares that bleat or silversplash like knitting needles in a pool of mercury. "Kidrush" is like a tumbleweed of barbed wire, or a classic jungle tune played at 78 rpm through the world's shittiest stylus.
                
The other two-thirds of the kid606 sound-spectrum are even noisier: the distorto-blare riffs and stampeding kick drums of gabba, and the hums, crackles, 'n' tics of "glitch" (electronic dronescapes built from the sounds of malfunctioning equipment, vandalized CDs etc).  As hybrids go, it sounds horrible on paper, but kid606's saving grace is what I can only describe as (not very punk, this) "musicality"--a feel for the sensuousness of different kinds of distortion, an oddly refined approach to the excruciation of sound. It's a subtle frenzy---recent developments in audio software allow producers to tweak the parameters of every separate beat in every single bar (a level of micro-processing that results either in music of inexhaustible listenability or a self-sabotaging fiddliness---it's in the ear of the beholder, natch). Subscribing too often to the puerile equation of speed with intensity, kid606 is actually most absorbing when he slows down. "GQ on the EQ" is like an Eighties electro "drum solo" composed from the sounds of a  wasp in a jam jar, sizzling bacon, a wah-wahed bedspring, and so forth. "Secrets 4 Sale" is glitch-funk, a Prince-meets-Oval mosaic of twitches and hiccups. "Dame Nature" is house built from gastric rumblings and stomach sonar.
                
Attitude-wise, kid606 makes me think of  Digital Hardcore with a broader sonic canvas, or  Huggy Bear if they'd been ravers rather than Pastels fans--the same  petulancy and obstreperousness,  the split impulses between expressive urgency and hermetic encryption, the exaltation of youth  (Depredo being the real thing, whereas Huggy sloganeered about Kid's Lib Guerrilas but turned out to be the oldest teenagers in London town).  There's also an ethos of autonomous cultural production that is very Riot Grrl, very Huggy Nation. Kid606 is just one node in an international network of home-studio do-it-yourselfers and laptop improvisers---hyperproductive, multi-aliased artists like V/VM, Speedranch Jansky, Fennesz, Matmos, labels like Irritant, Mego, FatCat, Skam--who release split singles (like the EP Depredo shared with Christoph De Babalon on FatCat earlier this year), collaborate on one-off projects, jam together on tour, and trade remixes.  (The recent kid606 and friends Vol.1 collates remixes of and by Depredo, and is highly recommended).  With many records released in editions of 500 or less, it could be that this scene (IDM's New Wave) has more producers than consumers--which either fulfils punk's Situationist utopia of a culture where the gap between engaged artist or passive spectator is abolished, or just makes this whole zone a cultural backwater. (What's the point of having a revolution if nobody  notices?)
                
Punk was a spasm within the same cultural formation that included progressive rock, it was younger brothers revolting their older brother's wisdom. Johnny Rotten owned a Pink Floyd T-shirt before he scrawled "I Hate" on it, and lots of punks had Gentle Giant record secreted in back of their collections. (Bizarrely kid606  has remixed Gentle Giant, or so his website discography claims).  Inevitably, kid606 and his fellow insurgents share some familial traits with IDM.  Such as IDM's founding and fallacious dichotomy between listening and dancing (bollox, of course--dancers listen very closely, with every sinew and muscle and nerve in their bodies). Another IDM notion that Depredo appears to share is the idea of scenes as creative shackles on the artist (that's how I read the ambiguous title  "Down With The Scene", anyway). Again, bollox--nine times out of ten in the history of dance music, it's the populist hardcore scenes that come up with the really big, really new ideas, which the fringe experimentalists merely tweak or addle with nuances.
                
Drill'n'bass is the obvious recent example of this parasitism, so it's worth contrasting a track by Squarepusher, the genre's most famous exponent, with a superficially similar one by kid606. The 'Pusher man's "Come On  My Selector" is a sneering parody of jungle, its facetious title tweaking and enfeebling a jump-up catchphrase that has huge historical weight behind it, and that in its context of actual usage represents the power of the crowd over the DJ (becoming part of the crowd being IDM's mortal terror).

Turning jungle into a joke is probably the only way an IDM artist like Squarepusher can deal with the humiliation of his debts to SDM. "Catstep/My Kitten/Catnap Vatstep Dsp Remix" (a Hrvatski remix of Depredo track that's on both Down With the Scene and Kid 606 and Friends) is no less daft than "Come On My Selector", and it shares the hallmark of IDM forays into hardcore terrain (a sort of danger-less mayhem,  stemming from the lack of real "social energy" invested in the music). But there's something palpably loving about its pastiche of jungalistic cliches (a Sleng-Teng Casio bassline, tumbling Amen breakbeats, a vocoder-ragga voice chanting buzzphrases like "mash it up", "dubplate pressure", and "ruffneck soldier" like a cross between Stephen Hawking and Beenie Man), and an explosive topsy-turvy energy that recalls jungle at its most rinsed out circa '93-94.
               
Left-field artists often expect applause for combining several Really Big, Really New ideas that originated elsewhere. And the harshest thing you could say about kid606 is that he's really just offering an entertainingly executed composite of  established extremisms. I'd rather give him the benefit of the doubt, and hear his music as the omnivorous, insatiable frenzy of a restless musical spirit. If he hasn't yet reached the absolute novelty he aspires to, you can catch the scent of its imminence.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Caretaker + Baron Mordant

Baron Mordant
Mark of the Mould

The Caretaker
Everywhere at the end of time
Everywhere, an empty bliss

The Wire, June 2019

by Simon Reynolds

It’s twenty years now since the first stirrings of what came to be called hauntology: Boards of Canada’s Music Has A Right to Children, Position Normal’s Stop Your Nonsense, early releases by Mount Vernon Arts Lab and Broadcast… and The Caretaker’s Selected Memories from the Haunted Ballroom. After eleven releases under that name, James Kirby is retiring his best-known alias. And with another leading figure in the genre-not-genre - Baron Mordant, a/k/a Ian Hicks, the man behind Mordant Music the group and the label - also calling time on his public self, it’s tempting to see these career-closing releases as tombstones for the sound-sensibility. Is this the moment to give up the ghosts? Or will hauntology enjoy some kind of after-afterlife?

In hindsight, “memoradelia” – an alternative name proposed by Patrick McNally – might have been a better way to go, avoiding the Derridean cargo carried by the term hauntology. Decay, the attrition of aging, memory’s uncanny persistence and terrifying frailty are at the maggoty core of Mark of the Mould and Everywhere at the end of time.  A memory is a kind of ghost,  sharing its queasy quality of ontological instability: a present absence, neither here nor there, now nor then.  One psychoanalytical explanation – or explaining away – of  the ghost (at least ghosts familiar to us, ghosts we recognize) is that they are symptoms of incomplete mourning:  memories we’re unable to let go.


Continuing the exploration of memory disorders in Theoretically pure anterograde amnesia  and other earlier Caretaker releases, Everywhere at the end of time – a gargantuan project launched in 2016 and now closing with its the sixth installment, plus the free side-album Everywhere, an empty bliss - is Kirby’s attempt to mirror in sound the stages of Alzheimer’s. Identity, memory and a sense of temporality are interdependent. As the first two props of the self crumble, perception of time also erodes away. What ensues is – as far as we can tell - - a prolapse of consciousness, an undignified slide into a hellish limbo of non-time. That threshold is reached on the latest batch of Everywhere: where earlier tracks lasted three or four minutes each, the new pieces dilate monstrously, ranging from 21 to 23 minutes. Listening to these entropic epics models the ego-death of advanced senility: it’s virtually impossible not to drift off into inattentive vacancy.

The first Caretaker record took its concept (and artist name) from the ballroom scene in The Shining: Jack Nicholson’s writer turned hotel caretaker turned revenant psychopath hallucinating the sound of the 1930s light-jazz ballads that the Overlook’s guests had decades earlier slow-danced to (specifically the songs of Al Bowlly, a British entertainer popular between the wars but now almost completely forgotten).  Listening to the drawn-out death rattles of these final Caretaker pieces, you might think of another iconic Kubrick scene: the uncomprehending horror of  HAL the rogue computer in 2001, A Space Odyssey,  as his brain is dismantled bit by bit, the blanks in his consciousness getting bigger until all that is left is the steadily decelerating ditty “A Bicycle  Made for Two”.

The Caretaker could have renamed himself The Caregiver, for on this project he resembles a sonic nurse in a hospice for the terminally ill. Kirby is a custodian in another sense. For over two decades, he’s collected thousands of dirt-cheap shellac 78 rpm discs of Bowlly-type music, from which he’s lovingly sampled, looped, and filtered to create these tracks. The result is an alchemized archive of popular song:  music whose original “people” are either dead or on the downward slope. For to be capable of remembering this music as a real-time, living culture, you’d have to be in your nineties now.  What Kirby presents here could be heard as the faint, faded memory-fragments of once-beloved tunes as they waver on in atrophying minds.

It’s a style of music that, as Kirby has noted, always already ached with nostalgia, oozing a woozy maudlin warmth as comforting as a mug of Ovaltine. His treatments layer an extra sepia-tint patina of Pathé pathos. Suffused with a kindly “golden hour” glow, the earlier instalments of the project loop sonorous horns, harp twinkles and piano ripples into cul de sacs of consciousness: the melodic equivalent of those mental glitches that Americans call “senior moments”  (a self-deprecating, uneasily humorous term that shows you are still in command because you are able to identify them as aberrations). Now and then, there’s a resemblance to the Gas albums, but replacing Alpine grandeur with fireside intimacy. The titles are heartbreaking (“I Still Feel As Though I Am Me”) and often describe the music more effectively than the reviewer ever could (“Long term dusk glimpses,” Internal unravel”).

Across Everywhere’s nearly seven hours duration, everything seems to wilt and yellow as the album progresses, or rather, regresses. Sound starts to reach our ears as though through a swaddling ball of fluff that’s wrapped itself around the needle. Where before the rhythm of the pieces was a gently bobbing sway like the rise and fall of a merry-go-round horse, now it’s an agonizingly protracted pestle-and-mortar grind, slowly pulverizing thought into sparkly dust. By the end – the 20-minute long pieces - there’s no discernible motion, just a sandstorm standstill, eternity-as-abyss.


The Caretaker faces decay and death with serenely fatalistic acceptance, aestheticizing the inevitable extinction of personality. On Mark of the Mould Baron Mordant’s subject is middle age and the response is different: he’s not going down without a fight. There’s a feeling of writhing struggle to this album, a man at war with the spores he’s inhaled. Comprising fifteen tracks plus the bonus inclusion of their instrumental versions, Mould is the grand bouffe finale to a career, Hicks sicking up a feast of all his favorite riddim tics and danktronica textures. 


Much of Mould resembles the vastly more compelling music that dubstep could have been. True, few things could be more boring in 2019 than manifesting a dub influence, but Mordant’s idea of it descends more from Cabaret Voltaire than Lee Perry: it’s a dead-aired, dessicated, deep-underground-silo version of dub, built around cold delays rather than misty-mystic reverb. Imagine Shackleton unshackled. Call it Middle-Aged Echo. Other portions of Mould supply a banging ‘n’ clanking update of early Nineties techno - “(It’s A) MariMba (You Knob)” could be a great lost track from the sessions for DHS’s “House of God” – that exploits the capacity for detail and dimension afforded by current software.

Elsewhere Mould overlaps with eMMplekz, Hicks’s glorious collaboration with Ekoplekz’s Nick Edwards, except that in this case the Baron is handling not just the verbals and lyrics but the backing tracks too. Being a genius word-wrangler means that the Baron is better equipped to describe what he’s doing than me. Trying to tag his unique delivery and idiom - a Tourettic monologue riddled with floridly fetid imagery and gruesomely tortured puns - I toyed with formulations like “mental effluent,” only to be outmatched by a passing reference to “spoken turd” on one track here.  Likewise, hoping to pin down the particular tone of sour derision in Hicks voice,  I realized eventually that le mot juste was in fact “mordant”.

Peter Cook, or certain characters that the comedian played, could be a reference point for the vocal tone – gruffly classless, indeterminately Southern English, withering, withered, the sardonic sneer undercut by its own impotence – but doesn’t capture the uniquely macabre brand of Anglo-surreal humour on offer. That voice and the encrypted private slanguage are maintained not just on record, but in press communiques, email correspondence and interviews, making you wonder if Hicks uses it in everyday life too, when shopping or making up bedtime stories for his kids.


As for what Hicks rants about, one ripe terrain is the sort of modern-day U.K. ugliness that inspires online forums like Shit London and Boring Dystopia. A Robert Macfarlane of built-up Britain, Hicks is an accomplished “visual noticer” with a keen eye for the unsightly and characterless.  But he’s equally observant when it comes to the unreal life of the Internet – the not-so-great indoors - especially the fatuities of today’s music scene. Many lines here read like snippets from blog reviews or Boomkat blurbs. “The Internet Did It” points the finger obliquely at, well, all of us, probably: the crime is left undefined but could refer to the economic nonviability of the leftfield musician’s life in the age of streaming, or to a creeping paralysis and hemorrhaging of meaning and momentum. Choice phrases fly by almost too fast to register: some near-abstract (“lichen 2-step”, “are you being serf?”, “Disneyhole”) and others nearly too on-the-nose as parody or invective (“make an avant sound-design tune that drops into a chamber of grimy vox”, “listen to these cunts waffle on about branding themselves”).

But – and here’s where midlife-crisis comes in – much of the time the target of the tongue lashing is Hicks himself.  “Anything With a Pulse” self-berates with cries of “you’re nothing nearly / there’s just nothing coming through” that suggest a battle with creative block, and it’s followed by “Somebody Wake Up Hicks”  whose title makes it clear that the “you” in the previous song was really “me”. Defying his own sense of abject futility - “there’s thousands of LPs out there like this” goes one line –this album froths over with a last-stand surge and splurge of creativity. And, a vague affinity with Sleaford Mods aside, there’s really nothing else out there in modern music that resembles the Baron’s particular blend of sound and spiel.

Themes of deterioration, self-doubt, and declining powers pervade, even as the sounds and beats rattle and ping ferociously. “Blong” features a child-voice jeering “Dad is a dick”.  “Insane Note” has a line about being “persona non grata” and a grim, sinking-feeling chant “you know that / I know that,” while its title could be read as one step further along from the “sick note” that gets you off school or work. “Percussive SuMMer” is a piss-stream of consciousness spraying into a latrine of sound: the lyric reads like a real-time vignette of Hicks musing to himself in a local tavern, supping a pint, roaming through random memories and rejoicing that a deferred jury summons will allow him a few days to make some tunes.  “KFC’s Toilets” might be an answer record to Burial’s “In McDonalds.” The little kid’s voice – presumably Hicks Jnr - reappears on “Aldi Bin Bag” chanting something indecipherable (“Arseland, oh yeah”?).


All the verbal bile and brackish sound roil towards a clammy climax on “Only For Fun Game,” the penultimate track. Framed with voice-shivers that lurch upwards in pitch, it’s a lament for a life wasted onscreen. “There’s a day out there I really should get to,” goes the chorus. “A life under sky that’s vented and Lenten….  These are the days you can’t get back/ the melted clocks on Dali’s back.” After a flurry of lyric-shards ranging from abstract to uproarious -  “turned on by budget sportwear”, “senile stepovers”, “reduce the risk of a fall while bathing,” “no notifications are good notifications,” “everyone’s over-compensating for a Tavares deficiency” – Hicks signs off with “this is a gentle piss-take”. It’s the last decipherable utterance on the album – the closing track “Back in the US(S)B” fades out with mumbled vocal sounds – and perhaps the last words of a career.


On “MeMbrane” from 2016’s “criminally overlooked” (a Mordant Music joke, that, but true) eMMplekz album Rook to TN34, Hicks described himself as “mildly embittered since the turn of the century”, a reference to the very earliest Mordant emissions.  Two decades on, hauntology remains a surprisingly bustling field, with records, books, events, conferences, still occurring regularly. Only last month, there was the unexpected appearance of a BBC Ideas Film titled ‘What Is Hauntology? Why Is It All AroundUs?’.  But as a “news item”, it felt tardy not topical. For there is a definite sense of this region having  being mapped out long ago, the footpaths worn bare by visitors.  


Elsewhere on Rook to TN34, Hicks crooned mordantly: “Well, I should be moving on / Singing the same old song.”  Perhaps it is time to open the windows and clear away the soupy staleness with a ventilating blast of otherness and newness.  A gust of youthful energy to chase away the ghosts for good.