Friday, November 30, 2007

PRAM, The Stars Are So Big, The Earth Is So Small… Stay As You Are
Melody Maker, October 16th 1993

by Simon Reynolds

Forget the retro-parochialism of Blur et al: this is truly English music, so English it’s barely rock. Everything about this band--from Rosie’s pure,
un-American tones and junkshop keyboard, to the way the percussion (played on a homemade kit) is a decorative thread in the tapestry rather than a driving backbeat, to the name Pram (with its whiff of domesticity, mundane modesty, and quaintness) suggest that Pram are reviving that tradition of squatland anti-rockism (The Raincoats, This Heat, early Scritti and other Peel favourites) that petered out in the early Eighties.

Like their precursors, Pram refuse the simpleton satisfaction of kick-ass dynamics in favour of pleasurable perplexity, abstruse enchantment, and cerebral stimulation. This is exactly what I want to hear right now.

Pram are siblings of the American lo-fi anti-grunge revolt (Thinking Fellers etc) but without the wisecracking absurdism and overly obvious Krautrock influences. Instead songs like “Radio Freak In A Storm” (a clucking, wheezing sonic contraption, all hazy harmonium and squawking trumpet) make Pram the only band I’ve ever heard who appear to be influenced by The Raincoats’ neglected mistresspiece Odyshape. The Raincoats compositional method was closer to knitting than jamming; Pram share that homespun approach.

They aren’t always a rarefied, non-physical proposition: the eerieness of ‘Loredo Venus’ woozes around a rumbling, dub-funk bassline. But mostly, this is meditative, mesmeric head-and-heart music. After years of full-blooded, testosterone-pulsing music, Pram are valorously anemic.

Lyrically, the vibe lies somewhere between personal politics and magical realism: imagery of dislocation, dazed anomie, the kind of spooky stagnation captured by the Mekons at their most haunting and rootless. Trapped lives, festering desires, and forlorn fantasies of transcendence. The 17 minute ebb’n’sprawl of “In Dreams You Too Can Fly” does for dejection what Tim Buckley’s Starsailor did for the erection, i.e. make it cosmic. “Cape St Vincent” is kindermusik for the orphaned of this world, while “Dorothy” faintly recalls early Eighties keyboard-based acid-trance gods The Blue Orchids.

The future of British music lies in un-rocking rock, either by demoting the guitar to a bit part (the Pram method) or feeding the guitar through the sampler’s digestive tract (MBV, Seefeel etc). The Stars Are So Big suggests that Pram will have a big role in that future: a future that’s looking brighter every day.
Melody Maker, July 5th 1992

by Simon Reynolds

You know, maybe the Scene wasn’t so bad after all. Sure, it churned out rapture by rote, but grunge has similarly turned rage into a cliché, and produced the same meager amount of precious music in the process. Right now, I’d gladly choose the shoegazers’ dazed wonderment and fragility over the shaggys’ bludgeoning belligerence anyday.

Anyhow, Moose have sensibly put considerable distance between themselves and the dismal figment with which they were lumped last year, with this C&W-scented debut album. XYZ is admirably ambitious. The melodies clearly aspire to (but don’t quite scale) the dizzy heights of lachrymose grandeur attained by Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb ballads like ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’. The overall sound is like AR Kane attempting to simulate the tremulous, heart-strings-a-quivering arrangements of such Sixties pop-C&W, but using their swarm of ice-floe guitars instead of an orchestra. The result is a spectral avant-C&W that mostly works like a dream: there’s a real affinity between country’s lump-in-throat despondency and the shoegazers’ mumbling miserabilism.

‘Little Bird’ sets the tone, a happy-sad melody swathed in a gauzy miasma of mandolins, with a rubber-band bassline that’s pure homage to ‘Wichita Lineman’. ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ is candy-coated in acoustic cascades and rippling braids of pedal steel. Overall, gooey devotion is what Moose are about, rather than red-blooded desire. ‘The Whistling Song’ is all swoony glissades and dew-stippled cob-web and, yes, whistling. Then there’s a flustered cover of Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’", which doesn’t quite extinguish the memory of Nilsson’s Midnight Cowboy version. Slide One closes in epic style with ‘Sometimes Loving Is The Hardest Thing’: pang-laden strings and celestial vapour-trails of guitar form a slipstream of blurry majesty, like Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ meets George Jones.

On the flip, ‘Soon Is Never Soon Enough’ is the closest to conventional rock propulsion here; the model is possibly Exile On Main Street, but the candyfloss production impedes any real honky-tonk raunch. On ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’, so hazy is Mitch (R.E.M.’s Murmur, Reckoning) Easter’s production, it’s like the song obscured in a dust-devil swirl of apple blossom. ‘High Flying Bird’ has one of the album’s prettiest out-of-time tunes and keening C&W-muzak strings. ‘Screaming’ is closer to the post-1988 radiance of Moose’s first and loveliest EP, a glad-foot gust of iridescence. ‘Friends’ is the least of Moose: it’s a ditty with a morose plod of a beat and Gedge-like vocals, although there’s nice acoustic embroidery as the song ambles into the sunset.

Finally, there’s ‘XYZ’ itself, the most successful fusion of the two sides of Moose’s schizo-aesthetic. It’s a desolate, ambient soundscape, a country homestead on the crest of the canyon. Whistling (again!) and Russell’s lonesome voice drift on the breeze, lustrous guitars peek through like shafts of sunlight after a downpour; the result is a gorgeously disorientating avant-MOR, like Eno at the Grand Ole Opry.

On the title track, Moose’s divided impulses (corny sentiment versus abstract expressionism, Glen Campbell versus AR Kane), which have coexisted rather precariously for much of the album, finally achieve glorious resolution. And the result is like nothing you’ve heard, right up there with Spiritualized’s ‘Step Into The Breeze’ in the annals of latterday bliss-rock.

Folks, this is one heck of a lovely record.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

ISOLATIONISM, genre survey/thinkpiece
ArtForum, January 1995

by Simon Reynolds

In Brian Eno's original definition, ambient simply meant 'environmental'. It was music as decor, a subliminal accompaniment to everyday life; later, with Eno's On Land, it became psychogeographic music, an evocation of real or imaginary landscapes.

Ambient has assumed a different meaning in the last four years with the rise of ambient techno in Britain, Europe and increasingly America. Evolving out of the post-rave phenomenon of chill-out music, ambient has become a genre unto itself, based around albums more than 12 inch singles,and with its own stellar artists (Pete Namlook, The Irresistible Force, Future Sound Of London, Biosphere, The Orb). Whatever its stylistic debts to Eno, Jon Hassell, Harold Budd et al, this nouveau ambient is closer in spirit to New Age. Swaddling the listener in a wombing sound-bath, today's ambient means retreat from the environment, relief from the stresses of urban existence.

Inevitably, there's been a reaction against ambient's dozy, cosy pleasance, in the form of a sort of ambient noir. The Aphex Twin shifted from the idyllic, Satiesque naivete of early tracks like "Analogue Bubblebath" to the clammy, foreboding sound-paintings of his recent Selected Ambient Works Vol II. Aphex Twin and fellow ambient noir-ists like Seefeel and David Toop/Max Eastley have drifted away from rave and into the vicinity of "Isolationism". This term, coined
by critic Kevin Martin, describes a loose network of disenchanted refugees from rock (Main, Final, Scorn, Disco Inferno, E.A.R.) and experimental musicians (Zoviet France, Thomas Koner, Jim O'Rourke). Now all the above, plus another 13 avant-rock and post-rave units, have been corralled onto a landmark compilation, masterminded by Martin and titled Isolationism. It's the fourth in Virgin UK's
best-selling series A Short History of Ambient, which has ridden the crest of the chill-out boom; ironically, because Isolationism breaks with all of ambient's feel-good premises. Isolationism is ice-olationist, offers cold comfort rather than succour. Instead of ambient's pseudo-pastoral peace, it evokes an uneasy silence: the uncanny calm before catastrophe, the deathly quiet of aftermath.

Musically, Isolationism still shares many attributes with ambient.
First, the emphasis on texture and timbre: many tracks are a fog of numinous drones,
generated by effects-processed guitars, samplers or, in Thomas Koner's case, the
long decay of gongs. Second, the abscence of rhythm: if there's
percussion, it's either a metal-on-metal death-knell (Null/Plotkin's "Lost (Held Under)"), or gamelan-style texture (Paul Schutze's "Hallucinations"). Third, it adheres to Eno's dictate that ambient music should be uneventful. But instead of being lulling and reassuring, Isolationist repetition induces a pregnant unease.

One of the best tracks on the compilation is David Toop & Max Eastley's "Burial Rites (Phosporescent)". Toop is a critic as well as musician, and recently he wrote of how certain strands of contemporary music reflect "the sensation of non-specific dread that many people now feel when they think about life, the world, the future". He argued that this sensation was the other side of the coin to a sensation of non-specific bliss. Toop's bliss/dread notion fits with the way Isolationism turns ambient inside out, so that the sonic traits (hypnotic loops, amorphous drones) that normally signify a plateau of orgasmic/mystic bliss (in techno) or serenity (in ambient), induce the opposite sensations: slowburning panic, dissassociation, disorientation. With Isolationism, the abscence of narrative signifies not utopia but entropy, paralysis. But there's still a neurotic jouissance to be gleaned from this music. It's a victory over what Brian Massumi calls 'ambient fear' (the omnipresent low-level anxiety of the late 20th Century mediascape): by immersing yourself in the phobic, you make it your element.

Other Isolationist artists withdraw from paranoia-inducing reality into
a kind of sanctuary of sound. Unlike ambient techno (which models itself on that pseudo-womb, the flotation tank), Isolationism's idea of utopia is empty space. If this music evokes mind's eye images of unpopulated expanses, it's because it's purged of all the normal signifiers of 'humanity' or 'sociability' in pop (vocals, lyrics, a funky beat). Koner has recorded a series of albums inspired by Antarctica, while other Isolationist pieces induce reveries of deserts, tundra, subterranean grottoes, post-apocalyptic wastelands or virgin planets. Typically, the music suggests extremes of climate or temperature--Zoviet France's "Daisy Gun" conjures up the polar twilight in Siberia, Total's "Six" is as
astigmatic to the ears as staring into a blast furnace is for the eyes. The common denominator is inclement environments, hostile to human life.

What is the appeal (for Isolationist music does have an uncanny magnetism) of these
morbid reveries, so different from the oceanic surge of 'intimate immensity' that you feel when listening to cosmic rock or ambient techno? In The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey notes the tendency of modernist writers to fantasize about world destruction or mass annihilation, diagnosing it as a response to a verminously overpopulated planet. The empty landscape/soundscape seems intimately connected with a heightened, fortified sense of
individuality; it relieves the perennial avant-gardist anxiety about disappearing in the morass of the masses, about the purity of art succumbing to the mush and pap of an abject popular culture. In another sense,the Isolationist impulse, and its accompanying 'face the future, brave the unknown!' rhetoric, seems to
be a redirection, into inner-space, of perennial male longings for the frontier; a harsh bracing wilderness, fit for a rugged masculinity, and far from the soft-options of domesticity.

If rave and rock culture are about creating an ersatz community
in the face of atomisation, Isolationism, with its fetish for asocial spaces, is a renunciation of that illusory solidarity. This is music that embodies and embraces the 'death of the social'; music that's impelled by a near-monastic impulse to flee pop culture's noisy hyperactivity for a rigorous aesthetic of silence and sensory deprivation. At its ultimate degree, this becomes a kind of aestheticised death-wish. Perhaps the rock precedent for Isolationism is Nico's The Marble Index, on which the Ice Queen's nihilist hymns are framed in John Cale's vistas of vitrified sound. Nico seems possessed by Freud's nirvana-drive, a longing to revert to an inanimate, inorganic state, free of the irritation of fleshly, animal desire. Devoid of R&B's hotblooded vitality, The Marble Index is one of the whitest albums ever.

As wideranging as its parameters are, the Isolationist compilation
also seems a bit too Caucasian. Stretch just a little bit further, and it could encompass strains of modern black music whose aura of desolation and entropy verges on Isolationism, albeit reached via a different route: blues, dub reggae, and blunted rap. There's the burgeoning British genre of ambient rap [ie trip hop]: artists like Portishead, Massive Attack, DJ Shadow and above all Tricky (just check the titles of his brilliant singles "Aftermath (Hip Hop Blues)" and "Ponderosa"). And there's London's jungle scene. Jungle draws on hip hop, techno and ragga, but its sound and mood is more like dub reggae gone ballistic. Its hyperkinetic drum'n'bass is designed, like dub, for ganja-smokers. But devoid of Rastafarianism's utopian hope, jungle's apocalypse is faithless: dread without Zion. One strand of jungle, 'dark/ambient', combines treacherous breakbeats and minefield bass with soothing heavenly textures: a mish-mash that expresses, non-verbally, its audience's divided impulses--to lose themselves in amnesiac bliss and to stay vigilant, to flee and to face down "inner city pressure".

Various Artists: Isolationism--Ambient IV (Virgin)
Aphex Twin--Selected Ambient Works Volume II (Sire)
David Toop and Max Eastley--Buried Dreams (Beyond)
Thomas Koner--Permafrost and Nunatak Gongamur (Baroni)
Tricky --"Aftermath" and "Ponderosa" (4th & Broadway EPs)
KK. Null/J.Plotkin--Aurora (Sentrax)
Zoviet France--Shouting At The Ground (Charrm)
Portishead--Dummy (Go-Beat)
Various Artists--Drum & Bass, Selection 1 and Selection 2 (Breakdown)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

GEORGES BATAILLE, The Accursed Share, Volume II and Volume III
unpublished review for Village Voice, 1993

by Simon Reynolds

"The Accursed Share", written in the twilight of his life, was Bataille's attempt to pull together all his ideas and obsessions, and construct a coherent theory of human civilisation. Volume I (also published by Zone) focussed on the problem of economic surplus. In Bataille's view, what distinguishes cultures are the different ways they have of spending this 'accursed share': these range from Aztec sacrifice, to Native American potlatch (ritualised, ruinous gift-giving, in a society where rank was determined by the ability to squander resources), to Tibet (where excess wealth was absorbed by a large 'parasitic' class of monks devoted to non-productive contemplation). Bataille's positing of a fundamental human drive towards expenditure without return, challenges capitalist ideas about the psychological motivations that govern economic activity. And while his contention that humanity's real problems concern luxury rather than scarcity would seem to be contradicted by our current reality of global poverty and imminent ecological catastrophe, Bataille saw no inconsistency. The current crisis is the result of capitalism's break with pre-Modern methods of disposing of economic surplus, in favour of accumulation, investment and runaway economic growth.

With the following volumes of "The Accursed Share", Bataille attempted to
integrate this provocative, if rather sketchily substantiated, economic theory with the rest of his thought. Volume II, 'The History Of Eroticism", is, for the most part, a rather ponderous and convoluted reprise of the theory of sexuality previously explored in 'Erotism: Death and Sensuality'. Bataille distinguishes between profane life (secular, bourgeois, productive) and sacred life. Profane life is based on the denial of man's animalism, a refusal of the animal's subjection to sexual drives and to death. All the labour and achievement of profane existence is a futile denial of mortality, that paradoxically condemns the profane individual to a living death, forever living for the future rather than in the present. But sacred life is a repudiation of the profane world's values of utility and productivity. Bataille is clearly on the side of the beasts and the angels, rather than the bourgeoisie.

As in "Erotism", Bataille explores the affinities between sexual desire and mysticism. Both are fuelled by a longing for total fusion, an incandescent,
immolatory merger of the self with the cosmos. The mystic and the lover desire
total consumption, pure expenditure without return; "their life is aflame and
they consume it" . Love's real object isn't the beloved, but what the Situationists called "the lost totality" and what Bataille calls "a lost intimacy": an end to alienation, union with the universe. And of course, utopian thought has always aspired to this ideal state of being, sometimes locating it in a lost golden age, sometimes at 'the end of history'. The psychological origin of this notion of heaven-on-earth is most likely our dim memories of the blissful inertia and kingly indolence of life in the womb.

In Volume III, Bataille defines this state of pure being as "sovereignty". Historically, the sovereign was defined by the consumption of wealth, rather
than its production (which in Bataille's view is always servile and alienated).
Bataille expands this particular meaning of sovereignty to include any form of
existence that isn't subordinated to utility, that doesn't involve the employment of the present for the sake of the future. It's the old utopian and/or mystical dream of living in the now. Since knowledge is always in some sense instrumental and thus subordinate to useful ends, sovereignty is a state of unknowingness, accessible only in moments. These occur only when strong emotions disrupt the chains of thought. Bataille's inventory of sovereign "effusions" - laughter, tears, intoxication, play, festivity, sexual ectasy, sacred terror - are all privileged moments that allow human beings to live in the present.

Haughtily contemptuous of bourgeois values (deferment of gratification, accumulation, providence) Bataille's own table of virtues are aristocratic.
Historically, the aristocracy have been the class of humans most able to devote
their lives and resources to prodigality (dandyism, combat, gambling, 'perverse'
sexuality). Appropriately, the society that's most antithetical to Bataille's
notion of sovereignty is Soviet Communism, which was created in reaction to an
obscenely wasteful feudalism. Impelled by the need to make the industrial
revolution happen in less than a decade, Stalin's economics turned bourgeois
accumlation into national policy. The result was state capitalism: a society in
which the individual's access to extravagant consumption was totally
subordinated to the goal of increasing national productivity. The ultimate goal
of Communism was an end to alienation (after the dictatorship of the proletariat
had withered away, Marx envisioned a society based around aesthetic, sovereign
activity). But in the mean time, Soviet Communism increased alienation, creating
a society whose inhabitants were less and less able to live in the present
moment. For Bataille, the real problem with Communism is its inability to
conceive of life in terms of play, only in terms of work.

Where Marxism mirrored the economicism of the bourgeois worldview, Nietzche
and de Sade are Bataille's ancestors and prophets of sovereignty. Both were aristocrats, opposed equally to capitalist values and Christian/Socialist
philanthropy (hence their usefulness to fascism); both felt that solidarity
with other human beings debilitated them in their quest to become their own
gods. Borrowing Sartre's distinction between the rebel and the revolutionary,
Bataille recognises the reactionary nature of de Sade, Nietzche and even his own
thought. The revolutionary wants to replace a bad (because dysfuctional) order
with a good (because better-functioning) system. But the rebel only wants to
break the rules, and is secretly complicit with the order he revolts against.
His trangressions are unconstructive and childish. But because he's disciplined
and self-sacrificing on behalf of the future, the revolutionary rules out for
himself the bliss of wicked, wasteful behaviour. The rebel alone has access to
sovereignty and jouissance. "Pleasure, unjustified by any utility, is sovereign
insofar as it denies to the point of ecstasy a world that is infinitely deserving of respect."

Bataille's sovereignty is a sterile splendour, the unconstructive waste of energy into the void. Chiming with in with the mystical tradition that stretches from Taoism through the Gnostics' 'cloud of unknowing' to the philosophy of Norman O. Brown, Bataille's final paradox is that the sovereign's last word is "I am NOTHING". So perhaps the ultimate modern of form of sovereignty is heroin
addiction: a return to the invulnerable, solipsistic self-sufficiency of life-
in-the-womb, a total escape from the servile ignominy of the productive world,
the purest form of wasting your life. But perhaps even Bataille would have
blanched at the idea that the junkie knew how to live like a king.

Monday, November 12, 2007

PJ HARVEY, The Academy, New York
Melody Maker, July 10th 1993

by Simon Reynolds

From grunge's 'castration blues' to the glutinous gloom of Come/Red House Painters/Mazzy Star to tonight's support band Gallon Drunk (with their cliche-encrusted homage to Nick Cave's homage to primal blues), everyone in '93 wants to cut back to the raw bones of a lost authenticity. But perhaps only a woman could bring a new dimension to something as hidebound as bluesy catharsis: Polly

For a long while, it was precisely her traditionalism that put me off: after Throwing Muses, Dry seemed retrogressive. Eventually, I appreciated it for having the same relation to the 'angry women' bands that The Pretenders bore to punk, ie. a more musicianly format for the same ferocity. Now that's she's gone right back to rock's roots (listening to Muddy Waters, covering Willie
Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle"), Harvey's mismatch of radical content and trad form is even more disconcerting and provocative.

For PJ Harvey are now playing blues rock: they sound like nothing so much as Led Zeppelin. Rob Ellis' drums rampage as thunderously as John Bonham; Polly's singing sometimes recalls Robert Plant at his most histrionic. "50 Ft Queenie" churns around a bassline that's a dead ringer for Black Sabbath's "Supernaut", while
Harvey's alter-ego Queenie is a female equivalent to the titanic, sky-scraping Supernaut, or the marauding man-monster that stomps through Hendrix' "Voodoo Chile". Taking on the self-aggrandising, tyrannical swagger of heavy rock, Polly Harvey is the incarnation of that Freudian nightmare figure, the phallic woman. But the crucial point is that nobody has the phallus, least of all men. The "phallus" isn't a dangle of gristle between the legs, but an imaginary, unattainable state of omni-POTENT wholeness and invulnerability. From heavy metal to gangsta rap, men loudly (pro)claim sole possession of it, but PJ, the ultimate tomboy, doesn't see why she shouldn't usurp that "birthright" (as "Man-Size"
mockingly puts it) for herself.

Much of the music PJ Harvey play tonight is cock-rock, no two ways about it. But the finest moment, blasting off the set as it does the album, is "Rid Of Me", which replaces rock's cock with a vagina dentata. It's the same scenario as Fatal Attraction, where a woman turns her 'lack' into a voracious threat. With its gutteral vocals and lunging Pixies dynamics, "Rid Of Me" embodies love as
close combat. When the riff starts to slam and Ellis shrieks the backing chant "lick my legs" in that supremely humiliating falsetto, the audience squeals and gasps in a hysteria that dwarfs what Suede incited here recently. As the song's blind thrust escalates, mercilessly bludgeoning the line "doncha-wish-ya'd-nevva-met-her" into your brain, you almost black out.

On songs like "Rid Of Me" and "Yuri G", the way Polly smites and gashes her fretboard never lets you forget that a flesh-and-blood human is struggling viscerally with an instrument, that this noise comes from her body. Which is a throwback (radical music today, from sampladelic dance to post-MBV, sounds disembodied, breaks the connection between physical gesture and sonic effect), but a
thrilling throwback. "Dress" beats you black and blue, "Sheela-Na-Gig" goes ballistic, "Oh Stella" rotorvates like the treadmill-groove of Zep's "Four Sticks'. Other songs have off-kilter dynamics that uncannily recall prog-blues units like Budgie or The Groundhogs. Much of the time, Polly seems to be singing from the same place--love's killing floor--as the bluesmen, black and white.
Except that for once it's the man who's the devil-in-disguise, the black dog, the caster of malign spells.

Clearly, PJ has a deeply ambivalent relationship to male energy. It excites her as much as digusts her. PJ Harvey incite a ton of it tonight. No grrl-only zone in front of the stage for PJ, quite the opposite: it's jam-packed with jostling brawn and slamming skins. There's some savage irony in the fact that tiny, delicate PJ
would get pulped if she tried to attend her own gig. With her Albini link-up and tonight's, erm, 'balls-out' performance, Polly clearly wants to succeed on the most masculinist terms, even as songs like "Me Jane" parody/deconstruct machismo. It makes you wonder if the moshers get the irony of "Man-Size", with its "get
girl out of my head" line?

Too often tonight, PJ Harvey cross the thin line between heavy and heavy-handed, impressive and oppressive. New songs like "My Naked Cousin" and the stiff funk-rocker "Primed and Ticking" seem forced, don't groove. The show suffers from a certain coldness, a lack of intimacy or real abandon. Maybe somebody should tell PJ that for all its apparent privileges, masculinity isn't an enviable state
of being. And then, after all the bombastic, ear-bleeding overkill, Polly demurely whispers 'thankyou', closer to a church mouse than a monster of rock. What a strange, fascinating bundle of contradictions she is.