Friday, December 31, 2010

The Wire, 2010

by Simon Reynolds

At some point in the middle of the last decade, a series of mysterious CDs began popping up on the "New Releases" lists of certain left-field music distributors. Sometimes they'd materialize directly on the shelves of a handful of esoterica-oriented record shops (surprising the owners, who couldn't recall having ordered them). These discs were packaged neither in plastic hard shells nor thick cardboard cases, but with thin card sleeves covered by a protective sheath of shrink wrap: they looked like five inch vinyl records, basically, rather than CDs. This effect was further intensified by the Deutsche Grammophon-style gold seals that each release sported. The legend proclaimed the series's name, its mission, and its means of production: CREEL PONE -- Unheralded Classics of Electronic Music - 1952-1984 -- 100 - Hand Assembled.

Eye-catching and intrigue-piquing, the covers were immaculate replicas of the sleeves of musique concrete and electronic records from that post-WW2 surge into the sonic unknown. They reproduced in miniature not just the original artwork but also--to take just one example, Andre Almuro's Musiques Experimentales--the six differently sized circles cut out of the front cover as spy-holes to a garishly psychotropic inner sleeve. Any liner note booklets or textual matter accompanying the original LP was likewise meticulously reproduced, and each CD-R was printed with the label of its source recording in vivid color. Great pains had clearly been taken to provide the purchaser with as close as possible to the sensation of having 'n' holding an original vinyl copy. But the retail price these avant-bootlegs went for--around ten dollars-- suggested a labour of love rather than an exploitative exercise in niche marketing. These were gifts for fans, made by fans.

Creel Pone's catchment stretched from the output of lesser-known state-funded or university-sponsored sound laboratories (60s and 70s compilations like From Czech Electronic Music Studios, the Flemish Elektronische Produktie Van IP.E.M, Musica Electroacustica Mexicana, New Zealand Electronic Music, Anthology of Dutch Electronic Tape Music, and, most mindblowing of all in a fiercely competitive field, Hungarian Electronic Music) to works by individual composers (Denis Smalley, Herbert Eimert, Phillippe Arthuys, Luis De Pablo, Ruth White, etc). The catalogue also encompassed "outsider electronics" self-released by synth-wielding mavericks unattached to any institution (Edward M. Zajda, Nik Pascal, Pythagoron Inc), along with one-off forays into sound by visual artists (kinetic sculptor Nicolas Schöffer, abstract expressionist painter Karel Appel), musique concrete made by animators like Norman McClaren (Music of the N.F.B.) and library music releases and movie scores by the likes of Tod Dockstader, Zanagoria, and Gil Melle (the splendidly hair-raising Andromeda Strain O/S/T.).

As the buzz about the quality, fetish appeal and sheer obscurity of Creel Pone output grew among electronic music fiends, so too did curiosity about the cryptic perpetrators of these exquisitely executed but wholly unofficial and unsanctioned reissues. Distributor advertorial for Creel releases alluded to a Mr. P.C.C.P. , a/k/a Pieter Christophssen. But suspicion mounted that this gentleman collector, who allegedly operated out of Iceland, was in fact a fiction: a Karen Eliot-style alias smokescreening the activity of a loose collective of crate-diggers and technicians. At the hub of this curatorial cabal, it transpired, lurked the experimental musician Keith Fullerton Whitman, who also runs the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based weird-music distributor Mimaroglu Music Sales.

The Creel Pone project came to a halt in the late summer of 2009 with the 99th instalment, Reinhold Weber's Elektronische und phonetische Kompositione (the "100" in the gold seal referred both to the plan to put out one hundred immaculate releases and to the approximate number of copies of each reissue made). Creel Pone may reactivate at some point, but, according to Whitman, it has most likely reached its "natural end".

Surveying the Creel catalogue as a curated body of work, two things emerge. One is that, as much as it was an idealistic international movement dedicated to opening up a new frontier of sound for humankind, the post-War electronic surge was also a craze that convulsed composers across the globe. Every developed nation (and quite a few developing ones) simply had to have its own electronic music research centre. Even the Catholic University of America had a resident concrete composer, Professor Emerson Meyers, whose 1970 LP Provocative Electronics was resurrected as Creel Pone #77.

Whitman compares the runaway evolution of the music and the faddish excitement of its makers to the techno and jungle scenes he was immersed in during the Nineties: empowered by new technology, a swarm of second-division producers pick up on the breakthroughs of a few innovator- producers, ripping them off but in the process intensifying and mutating the innovations. "You'll hear a technique that's invented in 1954 in Japan going out to Berlin, then to Spain... trademark sounds that become part of this general lexicon of transformation, individual composer's tricks that enter this grand pool of ideas." Early electronic music, then, was about scenius as much as genius; Creel Pone revels in the generic-ness as much as the singularity of the sounds generated.

The other aspect relates to the "1952-1984" time-span Creel Pone marks off as its Golden Age. (Some of the Creel Pone seals varied the dates slightly: 1947-1983 was one variant, as above). Whitman argues that this was the most concentrated period of innovation in human history--not just in music but across the entire spectrum of culture and society. In terms of electronic music specifically, though, the cut-off point of 1984indicates the eclipse of analogue by digital. "From the early Eighties onwards you had digital synthesiers and samplers like the Synclavier, you had computers," says Whitman. Citing the deterioration of outfits like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, he argues that "the early music made using digital audio technology has dated very badly." He believes that the approach encouraged by sequencers and computers is "'I'll fuck around and see what happens'" whereas tape-based music required so much planning and time investment it led to superior results. ”For someone like Herbert Eimert, a two minute piece took a month of 18 hour days to achieve. It involved sitting down with a piece of paper and scoring out your sounds, making a chart of all the different combinations. And then actually doing it. You get music that's really thought-through." The Herculean effort, the heroic spirit of risk-taking, imbues the music with an intangible but undeniable aura. "Also analogue sounds are just better."

C86: 20 years on
Time Out, Monday October 23 2006

by Simon Reynolds

Ours is a culture gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration. Anniversaries and Greatest Ever lists, remakes and reissues, albums played onstage in their original sequence and festivals like this year’s Folk Britannia… all our yesterdays swarm forth to crowd out the present. What’s freaky, though, is when it’s stuff that you’ve lived through that gets revived or revisited, as with this month’s
20th anniversary of C86 shows at the ICA.

As a rock writer starting out in 1986, this stuff was my journalistic beat. In Melody Maker I wrote a sort of manifesto (albeit uninvited, and not welcomed) for the new wave of indie-pop, titled “Younger Than Yesterday”, which I followed a few months later with a subcultural studies-style analysis of the scene’s fashion codes. C86 has become the tag for this brief moment in British pop history, on account of the cassette compiled by New Musical Express. But back then the talk was of “shambling bands,” a John Peel coinage that celebrated the self-conscious amateurism of the music, or of “cutie,” a nod to the child-like imagery favored by the groups, from their band-names (the Pastels, Talulah Gosh, 14 Iced Bears) and record artwork to the clothing (pigtails and plimsoles for girls, buttoned-up birthday-boy shirts and little caps for the lads).

The style element was the most fascinating thing for me: “anoraksia nervosa,” I dubbed it, because most cuties seemed to be skinny and small, and the scene’s signature garment was an anorak of the sort a child might have worn in 1961. Cutie fashion was so stridently virginal, it had to be some kind of statement. Noting how love songs on the scene were romantic rather than carnal, and that the white-only sources for shambling music (Velvets, Byrds, Buzzocks, the scratchy-racket postpunkers like Swell Maps) suggested an aversion to the earthy sexuality of funk and soul, I concluded that these kids were staging a revolt against Eighties values. Rejecting hypersexual chartpop and aspirational adulthood alike, the cutie shamblers harked back to both their own lost innocence and to pop’s childhood (the Sixties), creating a new bohemia based around purity rather than debauchery.

Fine and dandy, except that the music, by and large, was a wee bit flimsy. The scene leaders seemed to average one great song each--the Shop Assistants’ “Somewhere in China”, The Bodines’ “Therese,” Primal Scream’s “Velocity Girl” (the last two you’ll find on the ICA event affiliated Cd86: 48 Tracks from the Birth of Indie Pop compilation). Mostly what you got was a spindly, scrawny rehash of ideas done first and best by the Postcard label: past-its-sell-by-date Orange Juice, Josef K sans literary panache, early Aztec Camera without the excuse Roddy Frame had of actually being 16 (some of these would-be-kids turned out to be in their late twenties!). The C86 tape paled next to its predecessor, C81, a cassette compiled by Rough Trade and NME that documented the far more diverse and adventurous postpunk culture of the early Eighties. I recall going to the original ICA event organized around C86’s release, and feeling dismayed by how inbred and insular-sounding British independent music had become.

Yet C86 did go on to have more of legacy than doubters like myself imagined. Galvanised by Ecstasy culture and genius producer Andy Weatherall, Primal Scream shook off the malaise of Sixties retro and made Screamadelica. Shambling-era zine writer Bob Stanley formed Saint Etienne, who merged the holding-hands chasteness of C86 with house, dub and Northern Soul to create some of the most enduringly enchanting music of our time. The American branch of cutie clustered around K Records and Beat Happening would influence Kurt Cobain (a big fan of the Pastels and the Vaselines) and spawn the Riot Grrl movement. You can track C86genes in bands as diverse as Stereolab, Teenage Fan Club, My Bloody Valentine, and Belle & Sebastian... So it was a significant period, but more in terms of what spun out of it than the actual recorded legacy. Even the scene itself was more about creating a lovely sense of community in defiance of prevailing Eighties values, than of earth-shattering music.

C86 was in some ways the actualisation of a Jesus and Mary Chain song title, "My Little Underground". A tightly-knit intimacy verging on incestousness was almost the point of the scene, which was based around a small circuit of cramped pub venues and hang-outs like the Chalk Farm ice cream bar. The most crucial thing about C86 was that it involved a resurgence of the do-it-yourself ideal--young people shoving aside inhibiting notions of professionalism and gleefully making their own culture, with seemingly every fanzine editor in a band or starting their own label. If this amateur ethos often crossed into a wilful amateurism, if the lo-fi spirit sometimes turned into Luddite intransigence (one zine proposed that music should only be heard on flexi-discs and Dansettes!), the upside was a spirit of egalitarianism and autonomy. Women especially came into their own. The cutie image reconciled girlish glamour with tomboy androgyny, and Talulah Gosh would be regarded as honored ancestors by the more overtly feminist grrrl-bands of the '90s like Bratmobile and Huggy Bear. So if we must have a culture of rampant retro-mania, maybe this is a UK pop moment worthy of commemoration.

The ICA present two nights of C86-themed gigs this week: Friday’s bill features The Magic Numbers, GoKart Mozart, Vic Godard & The Subway Sect, plus a DJ set from Saint Etienne; Saturday’s bill has Roddy Frame from Aztec Camera, Phil Wilson from The June Brides, The Wolfhounds and a DJ set from The Pastels. The compilation album ‘CD86: 48 Tracks From The Birth Of Indie Pop’ is out this Monday on Castle Records.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Request, 1996

by Simon Reynolds

Guided By Voices offends me. In this age of cultural overload and aesthetic surfeit, GBV is monstrously, disgustingly prolific. The band averages about 24 songs per album; last year, GBV put out a four-CD 'Box' of early, frankly dubious material; singer/songsmith Robert Pollard has a backlog of some 2000 tunes, but is still planning to write a 'Tommy' style rock opera. Who among us has a life empty enough to accomodate such a glut of undistinguished creativity?

GBV is basically America's very own Oasis. Both bands are led by incorrigibly incontinent songwriters who are morbidly obsessed with English rock of the mid-to-late Sixties, and who have nothing to say but insist on saying it. If--in the age of mostly instrumental, studio-warped genres like trip hop, jungle, post-rock, ambient etc--you're gonna stick with a craft as quaint as songsmithery, you should at least make sure you have something compelling or uniquely idiosyncratic to say. Oasis don't, but are at least shameless about it: Noel Gallagher's lyrics are a jumble of doggerel and epic-sounding phrases that allow fans to read whatever they like into them. But with Pollard, you can't be absolutely sure he has nothing to say, because every expression is convoluted and coded; he gets in the way. Titles like "The Official Ironmen Rally Song", "Bright Paper Werewolves" and "Rhine Jive Click" are the most daftly, wilfully oblique titles since Amon Duul II (who at least had LSD as an excuse).

Another similarity with Oasis is GBV's relentlessly upbeat mood: a neo-mod, bright-eyed poptimism that proclaims "it's 1966, the future is wide-open!". In England, such empty triumphalism elevated Oasis into a huge pop phenomenon, by tapping into young kids' desire to fly in the face of grim present reality. In America, GBV's Anglophile/necrophile quasi-anthems make the band a hit only with rockcrits and others steeped in the canon of classic rock (and thus able to appreciate the reverence and the references). Everything on "Under The Bushes" is tuneful in that deja vu, Tom Petty/Sebadoh way, while the riffs trigger your kneejerk-reflexes, conditioned by years of exposure to classic rock. And so the stop-start dynamics of "The Perfect Life" thrill mildly, in a oh-alright-one-more-time-then sort of way; "Underwater Explosions" is the Monkees on downers; "Atom Eyes" is as melodious as an American Squeeze. Can I be the only listener for whom half-liking a GBV song is unavoidably accompanied by shame?

GBV is just one more fat fly crawling over the dungheap of rock history, sucking it up and pooping it out. "Under The Bushes" is just one more dropping in a copious trail of disgrace.
House Arrest
Paw Tracks
Observer Music Monthly,, Sunday 22 January 2006

by Simon Reynolds

Ariel Pink is the perfect antidote to the i-Pod. Instead of Radio Me, an onan-i-verse of sound playlisted for an audience of one, Pink’s music recreates the primal scene of the child falling in love with pop for the first time: ear cupped to an imperfectly-tuned transistor, plugged into an otherworldly beyond and wide open to the ravishment of surprise. The illusion is created partly by Pink’s artfully lo-fi production, out of focus and streaked by sudden leaks of colour-saturated noise, and partly by his stylistic disjointedness, the way an incongruous melody will jut into a song like interference from another station’s signal.

This Los Angeles recluse is driven by contradictory impulses that mesh to make sublime noise-pop. The formalist’s love of songcraft and period stylisation (one minute he’s channeling Hall & Oates, the next Blue Oyster Cult) collides with a psychedelic urge to shatter form with kaleidoscopic chaos. As if to signpost the latter, “Trepanated Earth” on last year’s Worn Copy featured a motif from “Eight Miles High” and on House Arrest there’s an actual Byrds sample, a miniscule fragment of “Turn Turn Turn”. Driven by a frazzled riff that recalls the Nazz’s psych classic “Open Your Eyes,” “Getting’ High In the Morning” is a mind-furnace that makes imagery of melted spines, brains dipped in fire, and skin turning to smoke dance before your eyes.

Running through everything on House Arrest-- just one of a horde of albums Pink home-recorded in the early Noughties that are only now getting a proper release--is the man’s religious love for pop. “Hardcore Pops Are Fun” is somewhere between a hymn and a manifesto, its off-the-cuff inanity--“pop music is free/for you and me/pop music’s your wife/have it for life/pop music is wine, it tastes so divine”--masking true devotion.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Melody Maker, 1990?

by Simon Reynolds

It's generally deemed that Can's post-United Artist work was less distinguished than pinnacles like Tago Mago, Soon Over Babaluma, and Future Days. Certainly, something
of their telepathic internal combustion was depleted after their switch from two-track to 16-tracks recording. But those later albums, now CD-reissued by Mute, are far from barren of enchantment.

Indeed, Landed (1975) is a bona fide masterpiece and no mistake. From the bluesy, galactic garage rock of "Full Moon On The Highway" (with its weird chorus, like the vocal has been dilated and distended by an expert glassblower)through the musky Middle Eastern tapestry "Half Past One", to the cosmic skank of "Hunters And Collectors", the quartet are in feverishly fecund form. On "Vernal Equinox" and the 16 minute epic "Unfinished" Can return to the unmapped territory of "Quantum Physics" and "Peking O", an omniverse where the normal laws of sound no longer apply. "Unfinished" is a flux of unravelling forms that coalesce into fleeting focus before deliquescing again; a sort of animated mosaic, or abstract expressionist cartoon.

Flow Motion (1976) is more mainstream, the work of a Can who were less self-sufficient, operating with one ear cocked to the new sounds of the day (reggae, disco, even boogie). "I Want More" was their one pop hit - if not a case of Can selling their soul, at least of them mortgaging it. But it's such a joyous disco novelty, it's hard to begrudge them. The main vein of the album is rhapsodic, oceanic fun not far from what was doing John Martyn at the time ("Solid Air", "One World") ; "...And More" and "Smoke" are tribal funk mantras that anticipate 23 Skidoo and Byrne & Eno.

Later that year, Can also released Unlimited Edition, a treasury of tracks from Can's gilded era (1968-75) that never made it onto the albums. It's all superlative stuff, with special honours going to "Cutaway": 19 minutes of Can at their most combustively spontaneous, going through myriad phases, before eventually devolving into a primordial soup of DNA strands, helixes and lattices.

Saw Delight (1977) was where the rot began to set in. Too often, Can cross the thin line between wandering and meandering, nomadism and onanism. New member Rosko Gee's
vocal's on "Call Me" is awfully prog-rock. The 15 minute "Animal Waves" is formula Can (a pan-global, sensurround groove, synths that wax and wane, simmering percussion, an exotic, sampled Arabic vocal) that never ignites into magic. "Don't Say No" bubbles and froths jauntily enough, but its lyric of mystical affirmation must have jarred badly with the negationist mood of punk.

"Can" (1978) was their last studio album (until 1989's "Rite Time") and their first without bassist Holger Czukay (the group's heartbeat). It's not a bad swansong. "All Gates Open" mismatches hokey harmonica with cosmic jaccuzzi synth-whorls, over a crisp-and-spry James Brown pulse. "Sodom" is yet another epic of iridiscent amorphousness, but must have sounded mighty flatulent next to the anorexic, angular demystification rock of the day (Gang Of Four etc). Bizarrely enough, "Aspectacle" - with its boogie guitar, in-the-pocket funk groove, swoogly noises and Michael Karoli's stoned, nonsense vocals - sounds uncannily like Happy Mondays. Even on their last legs, Can were ahead of their time as ever.

Rite Time
The Wire, 1994?

by Simon Reynolds

With Can (see also: Davis, Miles), there's a paradoxical sense that there's nothing left to say, and yet everything left to say. It seems like we've only scratched the surface of this music, and yet it's so hard to get critical purchase on Can's slippery magic.

The idea of a CAN-thology seems faintly sacriligous, so before anything else, let me iterate the bleedin' obvious: you NEED the original albums, yes, ALL of them. That proviso aside, and despite the inevitable dissension over highpoints absent and lowlights mystifyingly included, this double CD is a useful crash-course for the uninitiated and impoverished.

Early Can--examples here include 'Father Cannot Yell' and the awesome 'Mother Sky'--is cosmic garage punk, an acid-singed mantra-minimalism heavily indebted to the Velvet Underground. At this point, Can also went in for noise-swarms like "Soup"
and voodoo catacombs like "Augmn" that recall the Floyd at their most AMM-aleatory or even the Godz' atavistic sound-daubs.

By 'Tago Mago' and 'Ege Bamyasi', the Liebezeit/Czukay rhythm section has completed intensive studies in James Brownian motion, and the Can vibe shifts from motorik throb to fitful phatback shuffle. Hence the simmering pressure-cooker tension of "Mushroom", the succulent pulse-matrix of "One More Night". Magnificent, but these albums merely prepare the hallowed ground for the prehensile, octopoid,
Shiva-limbed ethno-funkadelia of 'Future Days' (1973), 'Soon Over Babaluma' (1974) and 'Landed' (1975): the Gaia trilogy. On tracks like 'Dizzy Dizzy', 'Moonshake' and 'Future Days', Can are making music so tender, tactful, tactile and telepathic it seems to become your bloodstream.

At this exalted point, Can were making the ultimate body'n'soul music, the incarnation of their Zen-tinged creed of mystic-materialism: flow motion, pantheistic awe, melt-your-psychic-defences and take-the-world-in-a-love-embrace,
every day is Mother Earth's Day etc. After "Landed", Can's cosmic libido starts to wane and droop with the later Virgin albums; what was implicit becomes literalised in the New Age affirmation of "Don't Say No". Can disintegrated; a decade-
long diaspora ensued, of interesting but not exactly satisfying solo projects (which are next in line in Mute's reissue/anthology program).

Finally, 1989's "Rite Time": no, there aren't too many examples of reformations that resurrect the original magic, but--unlike Television, Buzzcocks et al--Can's comeback is excellent, if hardly earthshattering. Reunited with original
vocalist Malcolm Mooney (whose parched drivel sounds like a blend of Alex from A.R. Kane, Shaun Ryder and a punch-drunk Ray Charles), Can are still peddling their Zen-funk credo: the 'Rite Time' is Here and Now, if only we could all see 'Like A New Child', et al. The latter is the best track, and possibly their finest since 'Babaluma''s "Chain Reaction/Quantum Physics": a vast, sprawling, panoramic
groovescape, pivoting around Irmin Schmidt's Zawinul-esque synth-helixes and Liebezeit's roaming drums, and punctuated by elephantine blasts of guitarfuzz. Other gems: the moon-skank of "The Withoutlaw Man", the shuffle-funk of "Movin'
Right Along", where Mooney's dubbed up vocal darts amidst Karoli's wah-wah scumbles and plangent Afro-bluesy licks.

'Rite Time' was recorded in Nice, which may explain its sun-baked, easy-rolling nonchalance. Can are just about the only band I know that can make jauntiness and lighthearted whimsy not just tolerable, but aesthetically compelling and even
existensially admirable. But then the miraculous is this band's metier.

CAN discography
Spin Guide to Alternative Rock

by Simon Reynolds

Monster Movie (1969; Spoon/Mute 1990) [7]
Can Delay 68 (rec.1968/9, released 1981; Spoon/Mute 1990) [6]
Soundtracks (1970; Spoon/Mute 1990) [8]
Tago Mago (1971; Spoon/Mute 1990) [9]
Ege Bamyasi (1972; Spoon/Mute 1990) [8]
Future Days (1973; Spoon/Mute 1990) [9]
Soon Over Babaluma (1974; Spoon/Mute 1990) [10]
Landed (1975; Spoon/Mute 1990) [8]
Unlimited Edition (1976; Spoon/Mute 1990) [8]
Flow Motion (1976; Spoon/Mute 1990) [6]
Saw Delight (1977; Spoon/Mute 1990) [2]
Out of Reach (Peters Int'l) [1]
Can (1979; Spoon/Mute 1990) [6]
Rite Time (1989; Spoon/Mute 1994) [7]
Cannibalism 1 (compilation; Spoon/Mute 1990) [7]
Cannibalism 2 (Spoon/Mute 1992) [7]
Anthology -- 25 Years (Spoon/Mute 1994) [8]
Cannibalism 3 (Spoon/Mute 1994) [7]

As creators of a unique sound-world of wanderlust and wonderment, Can are up there with Hendrix and Miles Davis. Each phase of Can's meandering career has opened up vast vistas of fertile terrain for subsequent bands to colonise and cultivate: avant-funk (Talking Heads, PiL, Cabaret Voltaire), trance-rock (Loop, f/i, Cul de Sac), lo-fi (Pavement, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282) and post-rock (Bark Psychosis, Laika). As well inspiring solitary eccentrics from Brian Eno to Mark E. Smith to '90s ambient guru Mixmaster Morris, Can also uncannily anticipated many moves made by entire genres of contemporary 'sampladelic' music, such as ethno-techno, jungle and ambient hip hop. Basically, when it comes to psychedelic dance music, those crafty Krauts wrote the goddamn book.

Can's core members--bassist Holger Czukay, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, drummer Jaki Liebezeit and guitarist Michael Karoli--came from avant-garde and improv-jazz backgrounds; Czukay and Schmidt had both studied with Stockhausen. But instead of exploring aleatory noise or jerky time signatures, Can discovered--through The Velvet Underground, and later via James Brown--the Zen-power of repetition and restriction. Minimalism and mantra-ism were hallmarks of the Krautrock aesthetic, but what set Can apart from their peers was their fervent embrace of groove. Like Miles' early '70s albums ("On The Corner", "Dark Magus" etc), Can's best work fuses 'black' funk with 'white' neo-psych freakitude. Recording in their own studio in a Cologne castle, the band adopted a jam- and-chop methodology similar to that used by Miles and his producer Teo Macero: improvise for hours, then edit the best bits into coherent tracks. As the band's Macero figure, Czukay worked miracles with a handful of mikes and two-track recording. Can's proto-ambient spatiality actually diminished when they went to 16 track in the mid-70s!

Early Can is a sort of kosmik garage-punk that combines the metronomic drive of the Velvets with the abstraction of Barrett-era Pink Floyd: over the throbbing Liebezeit & Czukay rhythm-engine, singer Malcolm Mooney (and later his successor Damo Suzuki) yowl acid-visionary drivel or onomatopeiac nonsense. Highlights of this 1968-69 period include "Father Cannot Yell", "Yoo Doo Right" and the awesome 15 minute rumble of "Mother Sky".

Named after a sorcerer, *Tago Mago* contains Can's most disorientating, shamanic work. Torn between two impulses- James Brownian motion and post-Floyd chromatic flux--the double album ranges from the polyrhythmic roil of "Mushroom" and "Oh Yeah", to "Augmn"'s dub-reverberant catacombs, to the fractal sound-daubings and scat-gibberish of "Peking O". A meisterwerk.

After the tense angst-funk of *Ege Bamyasi*, with its sharply etched guitar and crisp beats, Can's music literally seems to blossom with *Future Days* and *Soon Over Babaluma* (two glorious summers in a row, after the rotten weather that shadowed *Bamyasi*, is the band's own explanation). Can's octopus-limbed ethnofunkadelia is as succulently sensuous and touchy-feely prehensile as a rain forest or coral reef. At once light-hearted and urgent-like-your-life's-breath, the music embodies the band's Zen creed of mystic-materialism: pantheistic awe, take the world in a love embrace, every day is Mother Earth's Day, etc. So *Future Days*'s title track is a shimmering aural vision of Paradise Regained, while the side-long "Bel Air" is as beatific as a sea otter basking off the coast of British Columbia.

On *Babaluma*, the balmy, aromatic "Come Sta La Luna" sways to an undulant, off-kilter tango rhythm, but it's Side Two's sequence of "Chain Reaction"/"Quantum Physics" that is Can's absolute zenith. "Chain" is all flow-motion effervescence and iridescence, sonic hydraulics as ear-baffling as Escher's aquaducts and weirs are eye-confounding; "Quantum Physics" is a chaos theorem, funk translated into abstruse, polydimensional equations. Czukay's percussive/melodic bass and Liebezeit's Morse Code drum resemble the mandible-clicking telecommunication of the insect world.

Can's late '70s albums replay the *Future/Babaluma* phase's mystic and musical motifs, but with steadily diminishing returns and a rising whimsy-quotient. *Landed* is their last great album. Its highlight is the protozoan amorphousness of "Unfinished", 13 minutes of aural paella (looks a mess, tastes great). Other fine collage-tracks and 'musaics', like the 19 minute "Cutaway", appear on *Unlimited Edition*--a grab-bag of unreleased goodies recorded between 1968 and '75, ranging from exquisite addenda to *Babaluma* like "Ibis", to items from the Ethnological Forgery Series (affectionate pastiches of genres like trad jazz).

Back in the studio, Can's muse was ailing. The stylistic puree got lumpy with *Flow Motion*, as reggae and blues entered the mixing bowl. *Saw Delight* is a prog-rock frightmare, probably thanks (no thanks) to newbies Rosko Gee and Reebop Kwaku Baah (ex-Traffic), who gradually displaced the disenchanted Czukay. *Out of Reach* was so uninspired that it's never been reissued. The band rallied slightly for the sprightly swan-song *Can*, parts of which bizarrely pre-empt Happy Mondays' guttersnipe disco. Ten years later, the band re-united for the surprisingly excellent, if scarcely earthshattering (the world had caught up with them by then) *Rite Time*; the highpoint, "Like A New Child", is possibly Can's most gorgeous groovescape since *Babaluma*.

During the decade-long diaspora between break-up and brief reunion, the Can clan flowed everywhichway; *Cannibalism 3*, a sampler of their solo work and collaborations, will help you navigate the delta of stimulating, if seldom wholly satisfying, music. Czukay's six solo albums and sundry link-ups (with David Sylvian, Jah Wobble et al) are probably the most compelling; *Movies*, with its pioneering shortwave-sample of Iranian pop on "Persian Love", is something of a classic. Schmidt's soundtrack work (reissued on the triple-CD *Anthology*) is always interesting, if lacking Can's rhythmic intensity. As for introductions to Can itself, *Anthology--25 Years* is the most up-to-date selection. It's a comprehensive crash- course for the cash-restricted, that inevitably skips Can's longer--and wilder--excursions.

Future Days
Soon Over Babaluma
Unlimited Edition
Blender, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Among Can-fans, consensus decrees that the seething voodoo-funk of 1971's
Tago Mago represents the German group's zenith. But although the albums that
followed seem light-hearted compared with their earlier
Velvet-Underground-meets-James-Brown hypnogrooves, the playing still roils
with a supple inventiveness verging on supernatural. Their
improvised-in-the-studio, mostly instrumental music was never more cinematic
than on Future Days' 20 minute-long idyll "Bel Air." And it was never more
telepathically uncanny than on Babaluma's "Chain Reaction"/"Quantum
Physics," a song-suite that takes the listener out to the remotest recesses
of the cosmos. Whimsy sets in on Landed, although the musky, violin-laced
exoticism of "Half Past One" is haunting and "Unfinished" intimidates with
its abstract noise. Unlimited Edition, a collection of 1968-75 out-takes,
is a trove of delightful oddities, like "Mother Upduff," which wraps
psycho-jazz squall around a macabre storyline about death during a vacation.
These remasters add no new tracks but vastly improve on the earlier hissy,
drab CD transfers, bringing out the ultra-vivid textures and exquisite
details of Can's playing as never before.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Observer, November 1992

by Simon Reynolds

In 1992, Heavy Rules. All year, the US alternative scene has been dominated by bands who take their cues from the early Seventies, when groups like groups like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Mountain, etc bastardised and brutalised the blues. And this
nouveau heavy rock carries heavy themes. Soundgarden rage against the impasses of life in "Rusty Cage" and wail about low self-esteem in "Outshined". Pearl Jam mingle melancholy with political awareness: their hit singles "Alive" and "Jeremy" tackle issues like child abuse and child neglect. Members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam collaborated for the one-off project Temple Of The Dog, and broke into the US Top Ten with an album-length elegy to a friend and band mate who died of a drug OD

The most manic-depressive of the lot are Alice In Chains, also in the US Top Ten with their "Dirt" album. The band's name perfectly evokes their sound, whose ponderous riffs and toiling rhythms create an impression of struggle against insuperable obstacles. Listening, you feel like you're sinking into the slough of despond. Typical Alice In Chains songs deal with death ("Them Bones"), heroin ("Godsmack") and despair ("Down In A Hole")

If Black Sabbath are the overwhelming influence on US alternative rock today, it's because the early Nineties feel uncannily like the early Seventies, when Sabbath's doom-laden songs were the soundtrack to getting numbed-out on depressant drug (barbiturates, Quaaludes). So what ails the youth of America? The answer can be found in "Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids", by journalist/sociologist Donna Gaines, which has been hailed by Rolling Stone as "the best book on contemporary youth culture"

Gaines' interest was pricked by the teen suicide craze of the late Eighties, and in particular the 1987 case where four teenagers in Bergenfield, New Jersey gassed themselves in a car. Mingling with a segment of US youth universally known as "burn-outs", she won the kids' trust and uncovered the harrowing truth about their lives.

Burn-outs "bomb out" at school, fail to make their grades because they feel they have no future. With the decline of traditional manufacturing employment, the only options for these kids are ignominious service sector jobs, devoid of union protection or prospects of advancement. Persecuted by teachers and cops and despised by their more aspirational peers, burn-outs express their alienation in their scruffy clothes and long-hair. As on real-life teenager in the book says, "no job is worth cutting your hair for". With no incentive to plan for the future, burn-outs get wasted on drink and dope; some graduate to harder drugs like heroin. They listen to the classic metal of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath or its modern successors, the thrash-metal of Metallica and Slayer. Gaines wrote her book in 1990, so she missed the punchline: the mainstreaming of the burn-out aesthetic with the explosive success of Nirvana and the rest of the Seattle grunge bands.

For these kids, the gap between the expectations fostered by the dream factory of Hollywood and MTV, and what they can reasonably expect from life, is huge. The escape routes from this dead end include the the anaesthetic/amnesiac coma of drugs, and the one-way ticket "outa here" of suicide. For some, Metallica's ballad "Fade To Black" is a nihilistic anthem. The more optimistic imagine joining the army, or forming a successful rock band: both ways of seeing the world and learning a trade. And so you get the paradox of a band like Alice In Chains, who dragged themselves out of the mire of their native Seattle, and turned their loser worldview into massive success. Even after Bill Clinton's victory, things look bleak for American youth. Paying off the deficit will depress the US economy for years. So you can expect to hear US bands singing the "born to lose" blues for a long time to come.
Melody Maker, 1988

by Simon Reynolds

At a Megadeth concert, the fact is inescapable. Their audience is a congregation come to worship, and their God is Death. It's as simple as that. Why then does the
unrelenting bombast of "this life-denying nonsense" fascinate? Because it appeals to something deep-rooted and unbudgeable in masculinity, and if some girls can trip out on it, while many boys are repelled by what it stirs in them, then that's because we're all ambi-sexual, all torn inside by Eros and Thanatos.

Megadeth, like those other kings of their scenes (Bad Brains, Public Enemy, Big Black, The Ex) - exceed their own puerility by the extremity with which they're fixated. These fixations produce extreme art, attain a visionary edge. Megadeth's mediaeval, Good/Evil worldview appropriately generates a noise of absolutes - the futurist absolutes of rigour, acceleration and momentum.

Just as you can gasp at the Pyramids (if you choose to forget the immense suffering it required to erect them) or gawp at footage of a mushroom cloud (if you shut from your mind the truth of the specific South Pacific terrain and ecosystem vaporised instantly) so you can abstract elements of the spectacular, of pure form, from Megadeth. But only in clear conscience if you understand (and reject) the psycho-
sexual underpinnings.

At their peaks, Megadeth are all fire and brimstone, a sirocco of scalding ash. The incredibly simple (and similar) riffs sometimes mesh into a frenzied pitch and there's a white frazzle that is brighter than a thousand suns, while the bass chunnels several leagues beneath the crust. "In My Darkest Hour" and "Devil's Island" have colossal riffs that arch and flail like the spine of a whale in a boiling sea. The uncanny combination of ponderousness, agility and speed can decimate. But a lot of material fails to attain sufficient severity of punishment.

Like Reagan and some 61 million fellow Americans (according to Gore Vidal) Megadeth believe nuclear war is inevitable, is God's chosen means of implementing the
Armageddon. Megadeth are maybe more singular in the anticipatory glee ("you'll be the first to die") with which they approach this point finale of History. At least one hopes so.
The Complete 70's Replica CD Collection 1970-78
(Sanctuary Records)
Uncut, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

The mystery of the riff--so crucial to rock, so oddly neglected by critics. Or perhaps not so strangely, given that riffs are almost impossible to write about: just try explaining why one monster-riff slays you where another one fails to incite. Riffs just seem to bypass the aesthetic faculties altogether and go straight to the gut. A killer riff is by definition simplistic--which is why self-consciously sophisticated rock tends to dispense with them altogether in favor of wispy subtleties. Riff-based music seems lowly, literally "mindless" because it connects with the lower "reptilian" part of the cerebral cortex which governs flight-or-flight responses, the primitive emotions of appetite, aversion, and aggression.

Talking of reptiles, Black Sabbath--perhaps the greatest riff factory in all of rock---irresistibly invite metaphors involving dinosaurs. For a group that wielded such brontosauran bulk, though, Sabbath were surprisingly nimble on their feet. Listening to this box-set, which comprises all eight albums of the classic Ozzy-fronted era, I was surprised how fast many of their songs were, given ver Sabs' reputation as torpid dirgemeisters for the downered-and-out.

Even at their most manic, Sabbath always sound depressed, though. Rhythmically as much as lyrically, Sabbath songs dramatise scenarios of ordeal, entrapment, affliction, perseverance in the face of long odds and insuperable obstacles. Tony Iommi's down-tuned distorto-riffs--essentially the third element of the awesome rhythm section of Bill Ward and Geezer Butler--create sensations of impedance and drag, like you're struggling through hostile, slightly viscous terrain. Joe Carducci, Sabbath fiend and theorist supreme of rock 's "heavy" aesthetic, analyses about how bass, drums, and guitar converge to produce "powerfully articulated and textured tonal sensations of impact and motion that trigger hefty motor impulses in the listener." But let's not discount Ozzy's role: his piteous wail is one-dimensional, sure, but it sounds utterly righteous in this abject context. And he's effectively touching on forlornly pretty ballads like "Changes" too.

With a few exceptions (Lester Bangs, notably) the first rock-crit generation abhorred Sabbath. Criticism typically lags behind new art forms, appraising it using terminology and techniques more appropriate to earlier genres. So the first rock critics, being postgraduates in literature, philosophy, and politics, treated songs as mini-novels, as poetry or protest tracts with tasteful guitar accompaniment. Expecting rock to get ever more refined, they were hardly gonna embrace Sabbath's crude putsch on Cream, which stripped away all the blues-bore scholarship and revelled in the sheer dynamics of heaviosity. Riff-centered rock--Zep, Mountain, ZZ Top, Aerosmith---was received with incomprehension and condescension. But while Seventies critical faves like Little Feat and Jackson Browne have sired no legacy, over the long haul Sabbath's originality and fertility have been vindicated by the way their chromosones have popped up in US hardcore (Black Flag/Rollins were massively indebted), grunge (Nirvana = Beatles + Sabbath x Pixies), and virtually every key phase of metal from Metallica to Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age to Korn. Sabbath are quite literally seminal.

Sabbath dressed like hippies: check the groovy kaftans and loon pants in the inner sleeve photos of these CDs, which are miniature simulacra of the original gatefold elpees. And they clearly hoped to contribute to the post-Sgt Pepper's progressive tendency: hence pseudo-pastoral interludes like the flute-draped "Solitude," an idyll amidst Master of Reality's sturm und drang. But critics deplored them as a sign of rock's post-Sixties regression , mere lumpen bombast fit only for the moronic inferno of the stadium circuit, and as a symptom of the long lingering death of countercultural dreams. In retrospect, with Sixties idealism seeming like a historical aberration, Sabbath's doom 'n' gloom seems more enduringly resonant, tapping into the perennial frustrations of youth with dead-end jobs from Coventry to New Jersey: headbanging riffs and narcotic noise as a cheap-and-nasty source of oblivion. Sabbath's no-future worldview always becomes extra relevant in times of recession, like the economic down-slope looming ahead of us right now. Looking back, the much-derided Satanist aspects seem relatively peripheral and low-key, especially compared with modern groups like Slipknot. In old TV footage of Sabbath, the group seem almost proto-punk, their sullen, slobby demeanour recalling The Saints on Top of the Pops. There's little theatrics, and the music is remarkably trim and flatulence-free.

But then no one really goes on about Iommi's solos, do they? The riffs are what it's all about, and Sabbath's productivity on that score is rivalled only by AC/DC. "Sweet Leaf", "Iron Man", "Paranoid", "Children of the Grave," "Wheels of Confusion", the list goes on. So we're back with the mystery.... just what is it that makes a great riff? Something to do with the use of silence and spacing, the hesitations that create suspense, a sense of tensed and flexed momentum, of force mass motion held then released. If I had to choose one definitive Sabbath riffscape, I'd be torn between the pummelling ballistic roil of "Supernaut" and "War Pigs", whose stop-start drums are like slow-motion breakbeats, Quaalude-sluggish but devastatingly funky. "War Pigs" is that rare thing, the protest song that doesn't totally suck. Indeed, it's 'Nam era plaint about "generals gathered... like witches at black masses" has a renewed topicality at a time when the military-industrial death-machine is once more flexing its might.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Uncut, December 1997

by Simon Reynolds

I remember very clearly the first time I heard Cut – it was the summer of '79, I was staying at my aunt's in the Yorkshire Dales, and I'd sneaked off to listen to The John Peel Show. The tracks – ‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ and ‘Newtown’ – sounded incredibly eerie and ethereal, partly because of the tatty, trebly transistor radio through which I heard them, but mainly because it was my first exposure to dub-wise production.

A few weeks later, Cut became the second album I ever owned. As with other records from the days when my collection was in single figures (like PiL's Metal Box), Cut's every rhythm-guitar tic and punky-dread vocal inflection is engraved in my heart.

As a just-missed-punk 16-year-old, I'd first encountered The Slits' name in a Melody Maker profile of Malcolm McLaren. After losing control of the Pistols, McLaren was offered the chance to manage The Slits and briefly schemed to make a wildly exploitative movie in which the girl-band go to Mexico, find themselves effectively sold into slavery, and are turned into porno-disco stars. Thank God, The Slits slipped out of McLaren's clutches. He went off to make skin flicks in Paris, and The Slits made Cut – one of the greatest albums of the post-punk era, alongside Metal Box, Gang Of Four's Entertainment and The Raincoats' first two records.

One of rock criticism's minor dissensions is which version of The Slits is better – the untamed, untutored rumpus of their early live gigs versus the tidied up, punky-reggae studio-Slits with dub wizard Dennis ‘Blackbeard’ Bovell at the controls.
As exciting as the 1977-78 John Peel Sessions indisputably are, The Slits sound infinitely better after they fell in with Bovell, Budgie took over the drumming (following original sticks-woman Palmolive's departure for The Raincoats), and they acquired some basic chops. On the Strange Fruit CD of those Peel sessions, you can hear the embryonic glory of Cut, but the raw tumult is closer to heavy metal bludgeon than punky-reggae sway.

Compounding the taboo-busting frisson of the band's name, Cut's cover is a confrontational classic: mud-smeared and clad only in loincloths, The Slits strike bare-breasted Amazon poses and defiantly out-stare the camera's gaze. The backdrop is a picturesque, bramble-strewn English cottage – as if to say, ‘We're no delicate English roses’. The back-sleeve has Ari, Viv and Tessa daubed in warpaint, lurking in a bush. The music and lyrical stance is just as fierce, kicking off with two jibes at punk rock machismo, ‘Instant Hit’ and ‘So Tough’ (the latter namechecking a "Sid" and a "John"). Everything great about The Slits is instantly audible in these songs: the itchy-and-scratchy rhythm guitar, the revved-up but rootsical basslines, Budgie's clackety rimshot drums, and, above all, the strange geometry of the clashing and overlapping girl-harmonies. Ari Up's harsh Teutonic accent makes her sound like a guttersnipe Nico, on sulphate rather than smack.

‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ is where Bovell's dub-wisdom makes its presence felt. It's desolate dirge-skank, all sidling bass and brittle drums. Ari's portrait of a shopaholic is truly poignant as she tries to "satisfy this empty feeling" with impulse-purchases. But if ‘Spend’ is woman-as-consumerist-dupe, ‘Shoplifting’ turns this on its head, imagining petty theft as proto-feminist insurrection: "We pay fuck-all!" Oi!-meets-Riot-Grrrl backing vocals urge, "Do a runner! Do a runner!", and the music – surging, spasming dub-funk – does exactly that as Ari unleashes an exhilarating scream of glee-and-terror, then collapses in giggles with the admission: "I've pissed in my knickers!"

The sombre ‘FM’ critiques the mass media. Ari's protagonist wonders, "What's feeding my screams?", and describes radio transmissions as "frequent mutilation... serving for the purpose of those who want you to fear". ‘Newtown’ is an Irvine Welsh-like vision of a society based around addiction and surrogate-satisfactions, drawing a disconcerting parallel between the cathode-ray junkies "sniffing televisiono, taking foot-ballino" and The Slits' own bohemian milieu numbed-out on illegal narcotics. The jittery, scraping guitar mimics the fleshcrawling ache of cold turkey, while dub-FX of dropping spoons ram home the analogy.

‘Ping Pong Affair’ is about emotional withdrawal: Ari measures out the empty post-break-up evenings with cigarettes and masturbation ("Same old thing, yeah I know, everybody does it"). ‘Love Und Romance’, scorns the very lovey-dovey intimacy that ‘Ping Pong’ craved. It's a witheringly sardonic parody of smotherlove-as-braindeath, with Ari gloating to her boyfriend: "Oh my darling, who wants to be free?"

‘Typical Girls’ – the only single off Cut – was The Slits' manifesto, a mocking diatribe against the non-punkette ordinary girls who "Don't create/don't rebel" and whose heads are addled with women's-magazine-implanted anxieties about "Spots, fat, unnatural smells". With its cut-and-dried, programmatic critique of conditioning, ‘Typical Girls’ is the closest The Slits got to the 1979 agit-funk bands. But unlike, say, The Au Pairs, The Slits sound riotous rather than righteous.

After Cut – 32 minutes of near-perfection that ends with the touching if slight ‘Adventures Close To Home’ – The Slits went all earth-mother feminist and tribal conscious. 1981 saw the belated sequel to Cut: the African-influenced Return Of The Giant Slits, whose off-kilter meters and cluttered soundscapes make it a poor cousin to The Raincoats' mistress-piece, Odyshape.

But, by '81, the post-punk zeitgeist had shifted to New Pop. String sections, suits and synths were de rigueur; anything that smacked of bohemian withdrawal from the mainstream was lambasted as punky-hippie defeatism. The Slits scattered: Ari Up became a fully-fledged Rasta, settled down and had babies; Viv Albertine eventually worked in TV; Tessa got into martial arts.

Although The Slits' attitude was clearly a crucial ancestor for Riot Grrrl and its UK chapter (Huggy Bear et al), the question of their musical legacy is more elusive. 1979-81 post-punk experimentalism – death-disco, agit-funk, ‘John Peel bands’ – is one of the great neglected eras of modem music.

Maybe, when people tire of Britpop's Sixties new wave tunnel-vision, that period will be rediscovered. But so far I've only ever encountered one band who cite The Slits as an influence: New York's goddess-and-Gaia-obsessed pagan funkateers, Luscious Jackson. Singer Jill Cunniff declared: "There was a time when The Slits were the epitome, the ultimate, the coolest of the cool. They were everything I wanted from life."

I second that emotion.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ambition (GQ Style, 2009)

GQ Style, winter 2009 

 by Simon Reynolds 

Just a few months before Michael Jackson died, I felt the urge to write about him for the first time ever. I was in a café and "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" came on and even though I must have heard it hundreds of times since first seeing the video on Top of the Pops in 1979, for some reason the song hit me like a lightning bolt. For all its falsetto-funk silkiness , the sheer aggression of the sound--the coiled rhythmic tension, the stiletto penetration of Jackson's voice--seemed to attack with the force of The Stooges or Sex Pistols . 

But what I really came away with was a vague idea, just a phrase really: "total music", the idea of a category of pop set apart from the merely excellent. Listening, rapt, I imagined the electricity of the Off the Wall sessions: Quincy Jones assembling the highest-calibre session players available, no expense spared, and pursuing perfection with an almost militaristic focusing of energy. The achievement: flawlessness so absolute that it didn't so much transcend commercialism as blast right through it, such that domination of the radio and the discotheques was merely a by-product, a secondary benefit, of the quest. "Total music" occurs through the synergy of talent, limitless funding, a really good idea… and something else: a superhuman drive, the "right stuff" that Tom Wolfe wrote about in connection with NASA's moon missions.

I imagine this intangible elan infused the making of Abba's music, or the classic recordings of the Beatles, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson. There's loads of music that I love and that probably means more to me than "total pop", records made by artists both more unassuming yet in some ways more narcissistically self-absorbed and idiosyncratic. But there's no denying the special charge that imbues music when it's made by people who know they're making history, who can be confident they're taking it out onto the largest stage available.

 In the Sixties there was a long moment where the best pop (in terms of constantly pushing forward and sheer musical quality) was also the best-selling: Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Byrds, Dylan, Beach Boys, Doors. (There's really only a few exceptions: Love, Velvet Underground). Aesthetic ambition and commercial ambition were indivisible. This folk-memory of this ideal persisted long after it ceased to apply, inspiring everyone from Bowie and Roxy to the major punk bands to the likes of U2, Bjork, Radiohead. 

But over the last couple of decades the two kinds of ambition have come to seem more and more tenuously connected, to the point where a phenomenon like the Beatles seems almost implausible, a fluke. 

 My dad had this maxim, something like: aim for the top, because if you fall short, you'll at least reach higher than if you'd aimed for the middle and fallen short of that. It's not completely true: o'er vaulting ambition can result in "EPIC FAIL", whereas a shrewd strategy of modest aspiration might lead to steady sustained successes. Still, remembering this motto led me to this thought: if you want to do great work in music or any art form, just as important as talent or imagination is the desire to be great. You might have the most refined melodic gift, the subtlest musical mind, but if you don't have that will-to-power, the balls and the gall… 

Certain bands only make sense at the top of the pop world: Springsteen and U2 were made to work in widescreen, to issue the most sweeping, speaking-for-Everyman statements. "Overbearing", "bombastic": the insults are merely the measure of their achievement, and nobody can take away those moments when they mattered (Born To Run, then again Born in the U.S.A., for Bruce; the majestic sequence from "Pride" to "Streets Have No Name", for Bono and Co). 

 Of course, there are artists who have the temperament of the world-historical genius but who don't actually have anything worth saying. Jim Steinman, the fevered brain behind Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell, Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart", and Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back To Me Now", exemplifies this syndrome. Steinman is far from deficient in the will-to-greatness: he's got an unbridled flair for the grandiose, plus the requisite perfectionist streak (he's been known to spend huge amounts of his own private money on projects when the original budget's run out). Unfortunately his ambition is not accompanied by the filter of taste, to put it mildly. 

 Talking of finances, the rise over the last decade or two of home studios and digital audio workstations, has meant that it's possible for artists to make massive-sounding and expensive-seeming albums for a fraction of what it once cost. It's much cheaper and easier to create the illusion of luxuriant orchestration or to pull off ear-boggling sonic trickery of the kind that would have taken days of intricate labour by George Martin and Abbey Road's white-coated technicians. Artistic ambition, in the old days, had to go hand in hand with commercial ambition, just to pay off the bills. Nowadays the two kinds of aspiration have become severed. The Colossal Sounding, Colossally Ambitious Album is today a sort of specialist subgenre of rock, purveyed by groups like Flaming Lips. 

And not just rock: take Erykah Badu, who renovates the tradition of politically engaged, autobiographically personal "progressive soul" masterpieces by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and Marvin Gaye. Her vastly ambitious New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) sold pretty well but it could never hope to achieve the mass cultural impact of Songs In the Key of Life or What's Goin' On. These are different times and Badu, like her buddies The Roots and Common, is catering for a niche market of historically-informed cognoscenti who still listen out for that kind of takes-the-measure-of-the-zeitgeist Epic.

 Although a singer, Badu regards herself part of hip hop. Surprisingly, given its sketchy record with the Album, rap has been one of the main places this decade where commercial ambition and artistic ambition have remained tightly entwined, with performers like Outkast, Jay-Z and Kanye West putting out sonically adventurous, alternately self-glorifying and socially-conscious albums that sold in huge numbers. It stands to reason that rap is richly endowed with "the will to be great" because the genre is all about self-aggrandisement. What LL Cool J called "talking on myself" still defines the art's core: MCs exalt their own ability to dominate and defeat the competition, finding the most vivid, witty, unique and creatively brutal ways of describing their prowess. 

 Rap expresses and exposes the ugly side of pop's ambition: its profoundly inegalitarian streak, a drive towards status, glory, preeminence. The aspiration to greatness often comes with a certain monstrousness of personality. Look at Morrissey. Pop stardom was always, he frankly admitted, a form of revenge exacted on the world for his outcast adolescence. But when society's "mis-shapes" (to use Jarvis Cocker's term) become stars, the result can be unsightly. The retaliatory narcissism of early Smiths lyrics ("the sun shines out of our behinds", "England owes me a living") is one thing when the singer is a skinny wisp only a few years out of obscurity. But from a fifty year old pop institution with the build of a bouncer, striding across arena stages and tossing the microphone cord with lordly disdain, it starts to look like any old showbiz prima donna. 

 Rap has its own Morrissey in Kanye West. I never used to understand hip hop fans complaining about his monster ego (this is rap, what did you expect guys?). But after the bloated self-pity of much of 808s & Heartbreak and his disruption of the MTV Video Awards, I'm starting to see their point. 

 The supreme case of the will-to-be-great turning rancid is Michael Jackson, of course. Around the point he started calling himself (and insisting on being called) the King of Pop, Jackson 's output shifted from "total pop" to "totalitarian kitsch": the nine gigantic statues of MJ as a Dictator built at his requirement by Sony and installed in European cities to promote 1995's HIStory: Past, Present & Future, Book 1, the fascistic promo film for that record with Jackson in full Khadaffi-style regalia amid hundreds of soldiers. Think too of the Versailles-like indulgence and corruption of Neverland, and that peculiar quasi-dynastic marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of the King. When pop stars try to externalize the grandeur inside their music, to make reality match up to its utopian absoluteness, the results can be grotesque, a tragic-comical catastrophe of nouveau-riche kitsch. 

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Music of Belief
(Release the Bats)
director's cut, The Wire

by Simon Reynolds

Don't know about you, but I was sold on Dolphins Into The Future the moment I saw the name. Is that silly? Naming a group is half the battle, I think. Done well, the name works as a miniature poem, a manifesto condensed to slogan size. It frames and guides the sonic experience like "set and setting" does with psychedelics. An outfit called Dolphins Into The Future could hardly fail to have something going for it.

Onset - Beyond Clouds from Adam Sammons on Vimeo.

As it happens, "Dolphins into the Future" is a cultural readymade, re-porpoised by Lieven Martens, a 28 year old from Antwerp, Belgium with an extensive pedigree in "freenoise", a string of aliases (notably Duncan Cameron and collaborative project Blobs), and a cassetteography as long as both your arms. It's the title of a memoir by Joan Ocean, a groovy lady who's spent many years communing with a "pod" (a tribe, I guess) of Hawaiian spinner dolphins. But you don't need to know about her Damascene encounter with a California grey whale, her theory of "sound holography" (how cetacean creatures communicate), or her New Age resort Sky Island Ranch, for the name Dolphins Into the Future to do its magic. Those four words get reveries in motion: musings about dolphins as the alien race, that we imagine is out there in some corner of the cosmos , already in our midst; Gaia-conscious grief for the abuse we've inflicted on Mother Water ( pollution, garbage dumping, overfishing, polar ice cap melting, unstaunchable oil leaks from deep sea drilling).

But listeners would probably be picturing coral reefs and luminescent bottom-feeders even if Martens had picked the name Hot Pink Freon Jizz. Much of his sound-palette, as heard on cassette-only releases like Mountains Saturnus, suggests whale-song, sea horse stridulations, and other subaquatic chatter. Produced using tape-loops and a mixture of analog and digital synths, and often altered by slowing-down or pitching-up, Martens's textures typically have a smeared, swaying off-pitch quality redolent of Boards of Canada. But there's also glinky, glass-bottle percussive sounds suggestive of gamelan, and rustling, chittering ambiences that could be painstaking forgeries of ethnological field recordings or samples directly taken from "Nature Sounds" cassettes.

Martens is a prominent figure in the international post-noise network catalysed by the Skaters. But while there's clearly a debt to Spencer Clark and James Ferraro's strain of Pacific-idyllic New Millenium Exotica (specifically the 2006 Pan Dolphinic Dawn single), Martens has fastened on one rivulet in the torrent of ex-Skaters output and developed it into a distinct and more fully realized sound-stream. Dolphins Into the Future is a significantly more electronic proposition, touching on just about every decade of its history, from early Dutch operators like Dick Raaijmakers, through the Seventies analogue synth gods and their New Age-y Eighties offshoot "space music" (Martens gives props to Windham Hill sub-label Private Music, artists like Michael Stearns and Emerald Web, and America's long-running Hearts of Space radio show), up to Nineties electronica heads like The Orb.

"The Voice Of Incorporeality," the 30 minute opening track of Martens's first CD release, actually reminds me a little of "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld," The Orb's debut single. It raises the delicious thought that Martens is, deliberately or not, pushing retro-chic into the early Nineties, or one sector thereof: chill out rooms, smart drinks, Mixmaster Morris, Fax Records, Telepathic Fish, etc. But since that moment had its own retro-futurist and "cosmic camp" invocations going on, "Voice" equally reminds me of Rainbow Dome Musick, the two LP-side-long compositions recorded by Steve Hillage as an ambient soundscape for the 1979 Festival of Mind-Body-Spirit. Like that album's "Garden of Paradise", just about every sound in "Voice" is a glisteningly gauche signifier of Heaven or Eden. The trickle of a waterfall and the liquid chirruping of tropical birds establish the mise-en-scene: an aquatic bower-of-bliss in a jungle clearing. Harp-like twinkles of synth cascade gently while a dazzling drone gyrates, like a polygon whose mirrored facets keep catching a shaft of sunlight. Yet this isn't really New Age: the music's contours aren't picked-out cleanly enough, everything's too saturated and overloaded, and as the never-changing/ever-shifting track reaches its end the final effect is bruising bliss.

Taking up Belief's second half, "Observations Through the Halocline of the Worlds" is a nine-part suite whose components range from thirty seconds to eleven minutes long. Highlights include the third sequence (plinking gamelan, offset by what could be light raindrops skittering across a drum skin) and the fifth (the closest to "classic" Dolphins Into the Future, a swatch of aqueous yet fractured texture, like a National Geographic seascape photo spread chopped up and tessellated into an abstract blue collage). These longer pieces are juxtaposed with environmental snippets suggestive of a rainforest canopy or a savannah watering hole at dusk. "Observation" #9 is a celestial organ solo, an echo-shrouded spire of melody swirling up and away into outer space.

When I read in David Keenan's hypnagogic pop overview in the Wire last year that New Age music was all the rage with the post-noise underground, I was tickled pink. It struck me initially as a well-established hipster move: the subliming of kitsch, pioneered by groups like Butthole Surfers in the late Eighties, albeit using figures--Black Sabbath, Donovan--that now seem straightforwardly canonical, not cheesy. When the text that come with The Music of Belief describes "The Voice Of Incorporeality" as a "soundplay accompanying you during your ascension on the ladder of Mystical Tones towards the Silence, the Nada "or dedicates "Observations Through the Halocline" to "Saturn as the Throne, the Sea, Mitragyna Speciosa, J.C.L. and the Cetacean Nation", it's hard not to wonder how deep Martens' tongue is lodged in his cheek. And yet he plays it very straight, with none of the obvious winks to the listener that the Buttholes or indeed The Orb would place in plain view. My sense is that he is both amused and amazed by New Age culture, the gaudy kitsch of crystals, flotation tanks, wind-chimes, and all the outlandish beliefs and outré sonics that come with them. But he's also profoundly attracted to the underlying concepts: healing music, serenity, deep listening, getting in touch with your anima.

At a time when our computer-based lifestyles involve a lot of frantic surfing and skimming across the shallows of culture, the idea of slowing down, breathing deeper, listening calmly, and re-establishing contact with the elemental (hello trees, hello sky) has rather a lot of utterly non-ironic appeal. If, like me, you spend most of your working day engaged in data-processing and sign-decoding, while the bulk of your leisure involves media of one kind or another, you can end up with an existence that's simultaneously immaterial yet devoid of spirituality. The idea of a life that is more earthed and embodied but that at the same time at least entertains the possibility of higher planes, seems attractive.

Adhering to the hippie maxim "be here now", New Age was one path taken out of the Sixties. As a result New Age music has a number of perfectly respectable neighbours: from Krautrock to Jon Hassell's 4th World zone, from Obscure and Ambient Series artists like Harold Budd and Laraaji to cosmic fusion and ECM. Perhaps Martens is trying to locate the buried utopianism in New Age, reactivate its psychedelic potentials? In which case, the title of this lovely album--The Music of Belief--lays it on the line. It's a dare to the listener: suspend your cynicism.

Lieven tells me he used to be a big fan of The Orb, and also that David Toop's Ocean of Sound was a huge influence on him

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

my contributions to
The Wire, Issue #100 June 1992

Funhouse (Elektra)

When they say it's the greatest rock'n'roll record of all time, they really mean Side One. The first album's morose, moribund entropy (a compliment) (honestly!) EXPLODES with "Wild On The Streets", "Loose", "TV Eye", a triptych of controlled abandon that's never been equalled. The delirium of subhuman snarls and sucking sounds emitted by Iggy at the climax of "TV Eye" is the living end, a nether limit even the Birthday Party (for whom Funhouse was bible) underpassed. After immolation, burn-out: "Dirt", a hymn to transcendence thru abjection, with Ron Asheton alternating between piteous blues and silvered cascades. The Bowie-fied Raw Power probably had more to do with spawning punk, but Funhouse is the real animal: progeny include Black Flag, Pixies, the wah-wah mantras of Loop and Spacement 3, and the SubPop/Nirvana crowd.
Simon Reynolds

Led Zeppelin IV (Atlantic)

Contrary to received wisdom, Led Zep didn't bastardize the blues: they aggrandized them, inflated them from porchside intimacy to awe-inspiring monumentalism. Detached from their contemporary context (in which they could only seem a fascistic, brutalised perversion of rock) we can now only gasp and gape at the sheer scale and mass of Zep's sound, never more momentous than on this LP - the megalithic priapism of "Black Dog", the slow-mo boogie avalanche of "When The Levee Breaks". But Zep were more than just heavy: both "Misty Mountain Hop" (slanted and enchanted acid-metal) and "Four Sticks" (a locked groove of voodoo-boogie) sound unlike anything recorded before or since. Perhaps because of this, er, eclectic experimentalism, Led Zep actually didn't have that much influence on HM, except for odd instances like Living Coloür's fusion-metal and Jane's Addiction's funked-up deluges of grandeur.
Simon Reynolds

Soon Over Babaluma (Spoon)

Like Tago Mago and Future Days, Babaluma is inexhaustible; a hundred listenings in, and you still find new worlds. "Dizzy Dizzy" and "Come Sta, La Luna" are Can at their most telepathic and tactile. The Mandelbrot whorls and 7th dimensional involutions of "Chain Reaction/Quantum Physics" are the deepest psychedelic grooves I know outside early 70s Miles. Humour, poignancy, awe, groove, Dada, intimacy, immensity - sometimes I wonder why I bother listening to anything else. Anticipates (or pre-empts): the Fourth World pan-Globalism of Talking Heads' Remain In Light, Byrne/Eno's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Jon Hassell, the avant-funk of PiL and The Pop Group, The Raincoats, 23 Skidoo, ARKane's oceanic rock, even some rap and rave.
Simon Reynolds

Zen Arcade (SST)

Along with the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy, this kick-started/blueprinted the late 80s regeneration of rock. Like J&MC, Husker Du trailblazed a whole new way for pop and noise to coexist. Their fusion of folkadelic yearning and foaming fury, bleeding hearts and bleeding ears, spawned the Dinosaur Jr/Nirvana school of "zen apathy/bewilderness rock", and was a pivotal influence on My Bloody Valentine et al too. The 13-minute all live raga-improv blizzard "Reoccurring Dreams" that closes this magnificent double didn't, however, ignite a Mahavishnu revival (shame!). They recorded more accomplished albums (Warehouse, Flip Your Wig) but Zen Arcade was the Du at their most unleashed, expansive and emotionally devastating.
Simon Reynolds

you can read the whole piece with contributions from the Wire writership here

Sunday, February 28, 2010

DIZZEE RASCAL for The Word magazine's People of the Decade
director's cut, The Word, January 2010

By Simon Reynolds

It was the voice that grabbed you. A voice like wounded eyes. Strung taut between lashing-out and tears, its rapid-fire, blurting rhythm was like thoughts racing so fast they trip over themselves. That voice was heard first on a white label played with mounting frequency on London's pirate radio stations during the summer of 2002. "I Luv U" dramatised the war of the sexes as a duet (Dizzee's “that girl’s some bitch yunno” thrown right back in his face by an unidentified female MC) over bass-blasts closer to hard techno or punk rock than UK garage.

The voice was unique, quirky, but also collective, the sound of the streets. Dizzee's back story likewise told of the struggle of an exceptional individual but also somehow who was the product of an environment. Raised in "the ends" (East London) by an African-born single mum, Dylan Mills was kicked out of four schools in four years, got into all kinds of trouble, looked likely to get into worse. But then, like so many others from the same place, Dizzee found a way out through music. "Where I'm from, there ain't a lot of other options," he said in 2003. All that aspiration and desperation forced through the narrow channels of pirate radio's intense competitiveness had created a scene overflowing with talent. "Thousands of DJs and MCs… it’s kinda our hip hop," said Dizzee of the genre that what would soon be known as grime. "I think this country needs to listen to this country more. Americans speak English, what are [US rappers] gonna tell us in our own language? There’s ghettos here--it’s not recognized. We’re underneath… and we’re about to blow up and rise."

Blog-buzz propelled the teenage MC towards an XL record deal and "I Luv U" was given a full-blown re-release in early 2003. Too harsh for radio, the single only dented the UK Top 30. Boy in Da Corner, the debut album, showcased just how many sides, emotionally and musically, there were to this reflective rude boy. On the dreamy, vaguely Oriental opener "Sitting Here," he's the painfully acute observer (“I watch all around/I watch every detail/I watch so hard I’m scared my eyes might fail”) while on the equally ethereal closer "Do It" Dizzee revealed his fragility ( "everyone’s growing up too fast,” “it’s almost like I’ve got the world on my shoulders sometimes.”) But in between he was cheeky and cocky, boasting on "Fix Up Look Sharp" of “flushing MCs down the loo", while on non-album track "Ice Rink" (produced by Wiley, his former colleague in Roll Deep) he instructed listeners to "kiss from the left to the right/kiss til my black bum-cheeks turn white”.

Boy made 19 year old Dizzee the youngest Mercury Prize recipient ever. A win can be a mixed blessing, almost a career ender (hello Gomez), especially for "urban" acts (hello Roni, Dynamite, and possibly Speech Debelle too). But Dizzee was too shrewd, too strong for that. He had no interest in being a critics darling and his ambition extended way beyond grime. For a while he kept a foot in both underground and mainstream. 2004's Showtime mixed experimental beats with poppy novelty singles (the Captain Sensible "Happy Talk"-sampling "Dream"). Sounding confused and torn, he talked about how still being part of grime, "I just don't do raves and I don’t do pirate radio". (But without raves and pirate shows, what else is there to grime?). 2007's Maths + English took a firm stride towards realizing Dizzee's popstar promise, with the old-skool rap rampage "Sirens" and the Lily Allen over Bugsy Malone team-up "Wanna Be". But it was eerie opener "World Outside" that served as a message to his scene: "there's a world outside of the ends and I want you to see it/I can see it." The message was: Goodbye.

Dizzee got strategic next. Where once he'd made most of his own backing tracks, now he farmed out production to a motley bunch of beat-makers that included New York house ruffian Armand Van Helden and electropopster Calvin Harris. He was no longer grime (sinking back into the underground, that scene could no longer serve as a launching pad for anybody) but simply a modern-day pop musician, sonically all-over-the-place. Fourth album Tongue 'N' Cheek is not an aesthetic triumph like Boy, but a canny mixed bag that serves to cap a triumph of a different sort: it contains three number one singles, all scored within just over a year. The Rascal is now the king of pop's castle. The mark of Dizzee's achievement is that newspapers don't describe him as "top grime MC" anymore but as "the UK's biggest rapper". He was even invited on Newsnight to discuss the election Barack Obama, where he impishly entertained the possibility of himself being Prime Minister one day.

With supreme cunning and determination, Dizzee Rascal maneuvered his way through the Noughties, ending up exactly where he wanted to be , where he deserved to be. With the punk-house stormer "Bonkers", the second of that string of chart-toppers, Dizzee ended the decade in fine style: riding a sound as exciting in its own way as "I Luv U," with words that turned the despairing darkness of Boy In Da Corner into a sort of dayglo nihilist cartoon. As he put it back in 2002, "There is so much to care about in this world… If you give a shit, you’ll go nuts."