Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Friday, October 7, 2011

Spin, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

"Have you got any Jack Purcell's?" asks Richard Fearless.

The burly sales clerk in Sports Authority looks blank.

"It's a make of trainers," Fearless explains.

The sales clerk looks blanker still.

"Sneakers, Rich-- in America, they call 'em sneakers," translates Tim Holmes, Fearless's sound engineer partner in Death In Vegas.

Arriving in New York, the first thing British bands --especially those affiliated to dance music--tend to do is hunt down the latest lines of name-brand sneakers. It seems typical of Richard Fearless that his holy grail is a ultra-obscure brand named after a post-war tennis champion; a brand he became obsessed with after spotting them on Elvis Presley's feet in a classic 1950s stage photograph. Style is something of an obsession for Fearless, who's reknowned in Britain for his mod-influenced sharp-dressed look, who recently turned down a Calvin Klein TV commercial, and whose prized pair of Patrick Cox snakeskin loafers were stolen when he passed out after DJing at a club.

Today, hitting the street again after the fruitless footwear quest, he's looking relatively under-dressed in a long sleeve pink shirt and faded jeans with the silver letters AC and DC stenciled on alternate buttocks. Still, in many ways Fearless and his band represent every Anglophobe's nightmare of style-over-content Limey art-rock. After getting an art scholarship at a boarding school aged 13, Fearless went on to study Fine Art at college, before switching to a graphic design degree course at the London College of Printing. It's in his blood: his mother is an art teacher and his sister designs shoes. Even his voice has the classic UK art school rock accent--middle class, but slurred and mumbly in a downwardly mobile effort to suppress its innately posh crispness and clarity.

Wandering the streets of mid-town Manhattan, Fearless's aesthete's eye is constantly
captivated. "What a marvellous little old man!" he enthuses as a dapper, David Lynch-
esque geezer waddles past. Fearless keeps stopping to take snaps of showroom dummies
in store windows--the mis-shapen, poorly executed physiognomy of mass-produced
mannequins fascinates him. One of his many projects on the go--which encompass a
movie about India influenced by Sixties experimental film-maker Harry Smith, a
documentary about Elvis fans, and a film score--is putting together an exhibition of his mannequin photos.

Over lunch at a noodle diner near Times Square, Fearless explains how Death In Vegas's
visuals are equally as important as its sonics. His record contract includes a clause that gives him total control of all aspects of the band's presentation--not just the cover art, but the advertisements too. Better still, he notes gleefully, the record company "has to pay us separately for the art work--including any amendments." For Fearless does it all himself, right down to the fonts--like the Gothic typography used on Death In Vegas's new album The Contino Sessions, which he hand-copied from Luftwaffe insignia.

Inspired by a James Ellroy character, Contino Rooms is the name of Death In Vegas's twin studio HQ in North London. With Holmes tweaking the music in one room and design partner Will Bevan finessing the imagery in the other, Fearless flits back and forth all day overseeing the work-in-progress. "With the new album, we were designing the sleeve while we were making the music," he says, a boyish grin brightening his pallid features.

Death In Vegas's dark 'n' dubby debut 1997 Dead Elvis was lumped in with the Big Beat
scene, largely because of Fearless's DJ residency at the Heavenly Social, the London club made famous by The Chemical Brothers. But with Contino, Fearless has broken decisively with that scene's relentlessly cheery antics and pledged his allegiance to moody, tripped-out trance rock---Sixties garage punks like Thirteenth Floor Elevators and Chocolate Watchband, the manic-depressive mantras of Velvet Underground and The Stooges, and, most of all, all the late Eighties neo-psychedelic resurgence of My Bloody Valentine, Loop, and Spacemen 3 that so enthralled Fearless when he was 17.

Contino Sessions mostly consists of instrumentals, such as the album's highpoint "Flying"--a celestial pageant of ringing, iridescent guitars that recalls Neu! and Harmonia, Fearless's Krautrock faves. But there are vocal cameos from archetypal leather-trousered rockers such as Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, Jesus & Mary Chain's Jim Reid, and Iggy Pop, who contributed a psychosis-by-numbers monologue to "Aisha".

"Iggy was just a stab in the dark," explains Fearless, wolfing down food from the three
heaped and steaming dishes he's ordered. "We wrote a track for him, got our manager to
contact his manager, sent him a letter. It was a bit of a dream really that he said yes." The session took place in New York's Electric Ladyland studios. "Iggy turned up in a torn black T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, blue drainpipe Levis, and black biker boots," recalls Holmes. "He did the vocal, and we just stood there open-mouthed." Holmes was was so buzzed by this encounter with his hero that he rushed out immediately afterwards and bought a pair of sneakers, only to find out later they were "three sizes too small".

Despite the duo's love of all things Iggy-esque and the new album's boycott of the
dancefloor, Death In Vegas remains very much a product of the last decade of UK rave
culture. Fearless describes the late Eighties acid house revolution as "my punk rock," and when he DJ-s he mostly plays Detroit techno. "I'm still excited by dance music, but with Contino we were trying to get away from that whole electronica tag, which seemed to be exploding here. It would have been too easy to make an album that would have ridden on that wave."

Although it sounds like incandescent rock'n'roll, Contino's mode of construction owes a lot to dance music. "What I love about the best dub reggae and techno is how hypnotic and monotonous it is," says Fearless indistinctly through a mouthful of fried rice. "When there is a change, you notice it so much more. That's what we tried to do with our album, but using live musicians."

Fearless can't play any instruments himself. Instead, he and Holmes operate as sound painters--sketching the outlines of songs, then using "real" musicians as a palette of colors. "We get the guys to play along to the tracks, and then we sample and rework the best bits, " explains Holmes, looking glum because his cellophane noodles with sliced pork haven't materialized. On Contino Sessions, the result
is a DJ's simulacrum of psychedelic rock--fuzzed-out, distorted, but looped and layered electronica-style.

If there's a drawback to this DJ/designer's sensibility to arranging sound, it's that it is necessarily somewhat detached. Unlike their inspirations from Moby Grape to
Spiritualized, Death In Vegas songs don't seem to be driven by urgent emotions. Adapting the Velvet Underground drone-rock aesthetic into a sort of wallpaper-of-noise, The Contino Sessions works as gloriously cinematic mood-food rather than soul-wrenched expression.

All the words on the album are written by the guest vocalists. "For me, it's all about sound," says Fearless. "I just can't take what goes on in my head and put it onto paper as lyrics. Being extremely dyslexic doesn't help." He claims that his brand of chronic dyslexia doesn't affect his reading abilities, only writing and arithmetic: "When somebody leaves a phone number on my answer-machine, I have to get someone else to write it down!"

And then, incorrigible art school rocker that he is, Fearless is pivoting 180 degrees in his seat and training his camera on a waiter at a distant table. The boy just can't help it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hour Logic
(Hippos In Tanks)
(NNA Tapes)
director's cut, The Wire, August 2011

by Simon Reynolds

Laugh-out-loud moments are few and far between in the work of Fredric Jameson. But A Singular Modernity did elicit a chuckle from me – the laughter of uneasy self-recognition –with its characterization of the modernists as obsessed with “measurement”. Surveying the cultural landscape, fellows like Ezra Pound tabulated innovations levels, keeping inventory of “partial breakthroughs” and “intensities” that seemed to herald a new world.

The past decade has witnessed the steady incapacitation of this mode of assessing music. Just as linear directionality within culture has dissolved thanks to the internet’s effects on time and space, likewise it’s hard to locate a metric by which you could determine whether a particular artist or genre is more advanced than another. It was easier during the 1990s, at least within electronic dance music: change was felt viscerally, as an exponential rise in how challenging music was to dance to or simply withstand as a sonic onslaught. Beats got faster and more complex; bass grew gnarlier and heavier yet also more intricately molded and morphed. In the 2000s, this onward-and-outward drive gradually crumbled into the current swampy state of every-which-way: a hyperactive yet static end of history in which producers receive ovations for making records that sound like early 1990s House and ‘future garage’ is a two-steps back retreat to the skippy beats of 1999.

Atemporality, some folks call it. Yet it doesn’t have to be a predicament. Look at the way artists associated with the post-noise underground (the roster of Not Not Fun’s sub-label 100% Silk, for instance) offer an outsider’s take on dance music history, treating its archival deposits the same way they do New Age and 1980s ‘yacht rock’, as Play-Doh to be twisted into new shapes.

This is where Brooklyn’s Laurel Halo is coming from. Her music is neither referential nor reverential, but if you’ve listened to electronic music for a good while you will hear in her work a host of... let’s not say ghosts (there's nothing morbid or musty about Halo’s sound), let's say sprites: everyone from Ryuichi Sakomoto to Enya, Andreas Vollenweider to Danielle Dax, Ralph Lundsten to Laurie Spiegel. Specifically in dance terms, the feel is often undeniably early-to-mid 1990s: “Aquifer”, the opening track on the Hour Logic EP, had me flashing on Ken Ishii’s R&S releases, while elsewhere you might be minded of the early Black Dog, the young Carl Craig, or other producers who recorded for Kirk DeGiorgio's ART label.

Like these precursors Halo’s music finds the fine line between clubby floor-fodder and homebodied brain-food. What we have here isn’t so much Intelligent Dance Music, though, as Superfuckin’ Intellectual Dance Music. In interviews Halo discourses fluently about arcane concepts like ‘aural apophenia’ and ‘memory asymptotes’, while citing as inspirations everything from the Gnostic SF of Philip K Dick's VALIS to Hajime Sorayama’s super-realist soft porn. But Halo’s patter never seems willfully obscure or ostentatiously cerebral. It’s just a young, open mind looking for a harmonious connective logic to integrate all the things that arouse its curiosity, while also reaching for a language to describe and explain music whose operations and sensations are maddeningly resistant to verbalisation.

Hour Logic literally gives up on words: unlike last year’s song-and-lyric oriented King Felix, it’s almost completely vocal-free. “Constant Index” is the sole tune here that sticks with Felix’s 1980s 4AD vibe, which suggested an imaginary MARRS full-length with Colourbox calling on the blurry-voice talents of Elizabeth Fraser and Lisa Gerrard. Throughout Hour Logic, there’s a feeling of panoply, a luscious and fragrant sensuousness. The title track is a little marvel of audio feng shui, balancing wide and warm horizons of synth-waft with a chalky-yet-fluorescent bassline, gossamer percussion, and pensive chords. On “Strength In Free Space”, textures fan out and shimmer like a peacock’s tail. "Speed of Rain" shifts back and forth between boombastic surges of breakbeat-like propulsion and lulls of cascading serenity, like a jogger in a Japanese garden repeatedly halting to admire a koi pond or waterfall. But the absolute stand-out piece, “Head”, leaves behind loveliness. A dislocated pulsebeat, like a trance drum-roll build plucked from context and stretched out into a long ribbon of rhythm, forms a sort of endlessly suspended climax. The music brims towards a singularity, an exquisite crisis: flanged sounds converge at a sort of three-dimensional crossroads, forming a helix of tones that hovers, plangently, before scattering in disarray.

“Head” and “Strength In Free Space” both recur on Antenna, a side dish to the main feast. Like Hour Logic, this tape is nearly the length of an LP. But the contents are less structured: swatches of fabric whose patterns are attractive but would be more impressive still if cut and styled into garments. There's a shitload of Ambient music and minimalist composition already extant in the world and Antenna sometimes recalls earlier efforts in an overcrowded field: Meredith Monk-like mouth music, with the milky, churning nebula that is “Impulse”, while “Dia Sapien” grinds and purrs like an offcut from Seefeel’s Quique, and “Zoo Hypothesis” could be “In Dark Trees (Coil’s Sidereal Vicious Mix)”. Best of the batch are “Heuristic Gag Factory” (Blade Runner re-scored by Monolake) and “Factory Reset” (a cat’s cradle of pitch-modulated vocal warbles/wobbles).

Sky and ocean are major inspirations for Halo, in particular notions of suspension, diving, and freefall. These sensations all have a blissful-yet-perturbing effect on one’s sense of orientation. Which has a certain resonance with the notion of atemporality: the archaic modernist impulse to ‘push things forward’ blocked by the impasse of ‘which way would that be, then?’ Halo is well aware of these issues, and has talked eloquently of a vague-ening of memory caused by our brains starting “to mimic our patterns of information retrieval and consumption on the Internet – to the point where... we move towards this eternal Present.” The upside is that “you can make all these interesting sounds out of this rubble of time quickening”.

A whole heap of futures have stacked up behind electronic dance and non-dance music across three or more decades of unrelenting advance. But rather than striving strenuously and futilely for some kind of alien beyond, or lapsing into wistful, epigonic classicism, Halo flicks through all these futures-past like the pages of a flip book. The result – if such a thing could still be measured – feels new and now.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Melody Maker, 17 September 1987

by Simon Reynolds

TILLBURG, HOLLAND: the Monsters Of Rock tour continues its traipse across Europe. There's no hard rain of piss bottles, and instead of mud there's Astroturf, but the William II Stadium, like Donington, is a vast human sty, a seeping eye-sore. The fans have gathered to celebrate together the belief that being yourself means wallowing in the worst that you're capable of, that true letting go involves lowering yourself, that any kind of grooming or self-nurture is a pretense, and that only neglect or active self-abuse are "authentic".

The men look like Vikings who've been out of service for a while, who are turning into couch potatoes. The women look like wenches. Everywhere you see the same slightly discolored flaxen hair, straggling over collars or drooping from upper lips. Men with huge guts, and bellybuttons you could lose a hand in, stagger around shirtless. One fellow, as gross as a shaved sow, nearly brains my diminutive Island Records chaperone with his bloated and glistening stomach.

Stepping gingerly over babbling brooks of urine, and comatose spectators, we somehow gravitate towards what must surely be the lowest spot in the entire festival. A gang of oafs are acting up for the benefit of a photographer from a Dutch music rag. They decide to make cruel sport with one of their number who's completely unconscious, drag him to his feet and pull his pants down for the camera. He comes to, struggles to escape like a hog in a slaughterhouse, makes feeble inebriate attempts to cover his modesty, but his "mates" keep pulling down his trousers, then turn him round so his privates are on display. A throng of onlookers snigger and cackle like serfs at a bear-bait or badger-taunt. Then all five moon in a row, to cheers. Unsightly. Unappetising. Gagging, we flee.

In this milieu of baseness and fatuity, Anthrax are a massive and caustic act of hygiene. As people, they're chummy and easygoing and up for fun, but – bar the regrettable faffing around of the 'I Am The Man' spoof-rap – their music is charged up with an apocalyptic sobriety. Metallica and Anthrax are to trad heavy metal (in all its 57 varieties of idiocy) what the Protestant Reformation was to Catholicism. A rigorous and purgative initiative whose aim is take metal out the Middle Ages and into modernity. Metal's medievalism is vested not just in its emotional repertoire – the themes of warrior manhood, honour, revenge and righteous violence, the fascination with Satan – but in the gaudy pantomime and ossified ritual of performance (which is what the peasant hordes out there lurve). Metallica and Anthrax are trying to replace all that by literacy and self-effacement.

In any other pop genre, this demystification would be a reductive maneuver; raising of consciousness so often leads to inhibited music (one thinks of the clipped, constipated Au Pairs approach to agit-pop, the Redskins/Faith Brothers brand of "sensible soul", the dwarfism of The Wedding Present school of authenticity). But the fundamental musical propositions of HM simply are gigantism, disproportion, and exaggeration; what Anthrax have done is retain the sheer mass of metal while excising what's laughable and embarrassing about its content. But hysteria is the essence of the idiom, so they've managed this by replacing tight-trousered hyperlust with an equally histrionic pitch of denunciation.

Hence the magnificent new single, 'Make Me Laugh', a splendid tirade against TV evangelism. Not that it tells me anything I don't already know; but the venom caused by the subject matter was clearly necessary to sustain the severity of the music.

Charlie Benante, drummer, explains in his thick New York Italian accent: "There's a lot of these guys in America. You turn on a channel, and you see a coliseum-type place, and there's this preacher looking out at you through the camera with this imploring expression, and he goes on about the will of God, and 'we really need the money'. And we see this all the time, and we think, 'this is so ridiculous'. It makes us laugh. But the sad part, the unfunny part, is that people believe in all this shit because they have nothing else to believe in. And the evil part is that this guy is sucking the lost and lonely in, brainwashing them to send in money and then everything will be beautiful. It's sick."

Do you think that the evangelists don't actually believe that they're the instrument of the Lord, that it's all a money-making con?

"No, I don't think they do believe what they say. Maybe some of it. I don't know. The main thing is they're making a lotta money out of this. It's a big fraud. All the money goes back into making more money, not good works."

What do you think you achieve, when you speak out on an issue like this? Education?

Joey Belladona (singer): "No. We don't have anything we want to get across to anybody. It's just something interesting to talk about."

Charlie: "Maybe it does make people more aware of what's goin' on."

Joey: "But it ain't preachy, man."

Charlie: "The other thing is that a lot of these evangelist organisations are ready to put down heavy metal music as corrupting, and there's the PMRC, but in reality they are the bad eggs, the mind-manipulators. All we're doing is playing our music. The thing that hurts us is when some kid commits suicide, and they find a tape in his room with Anthrax, Ozzy, etc on it – and right away, they blame the music. They don't go into the background of how the kid got fucked up, how his family was. Could be that the music was what kept the kid going for so long, his only reason for living. Who knows?"

Do they think that the emergence of Anthrax and Metallica within the addled genre represents a moral regeneration for metal – away from the glamorization of living fast and on the edge?

Joey: "Fast cars, sex and drugs, you mean?"

Charlie: "Metal has always had this larger than life image. We're more into being real. Onstage, people throw things at us, we bleed. We're not invulnerable. We just try to be on the same level as our audience – except we're onstage."

And along with a moral regeneration, there's a musical regeneration too – a return to discipline and precision after a long period in which metal has been slack and enervated and...

"Sloppy? Yeah, we try to run a fit band. Some lady was interviewing us last night, and she said 'a lot of it sounds like noise'. I took this kinda personally. We're pretty hot musicians, the stuff we play is pretty complex. It's not chaos, so if someone calls it 'noise', I get annoyed."

Is this like Metallica's vexation at being labelled "thrash", because it suggested some kind of shambles?

"I don't mind the tag, but only in the sense that kids come to our shows, and they thrash."

It's interesting that another of the tirades on the album is a song called 'Antisocial'. Traditionally, rock, and especially metal, has prided itself on being outside the law, careless and vandalistically self-directed. But here are you – with your temperance, your steady girlfriends, and "antisocial" is a term of abuse aimed at big corporations and the uncaring wealthy...

"Well, we didn't write that song, it's a cover of a track by Trust, this French political hard rock band. We agree with the lyrics, though."

The irony is that you combine this social concern with metal viciousness, whereas the bands who still try to peddle the renegade mythology (Guns 'N' Roses etc) have this blow-dried, weedy sound. What do you feel about "lite metal", its sentimentality and romanticism?

"A lot of people think you have to be flamboyant onstage, but it's not our way. We wear shorts, that's about as far as we'll go into dressing up. We're like these kids going out into the yard to play. But kids today are pretty smart, they can relate to us looking the same as them, they don't need all this glam shit."

You've been quoted as saying that the new album, State Of Euphoria, is your best yet...

"It's the most complete. We spent more time on it."

Do you ever worry about whether you'll be able to exceed what you've done before?

Joey: "We're just starting to get a groove going. This is the first album I've been properly integrated into the band."

Could you ever contemplate a complete step sideways?

Charlie: "Nah. I don't wanna drastic change. That's not what we set out to do. We'd get a lot of heat from people who are into us, if we changed. We're just getting a groove together, paving a way for us. When I was into a band as a kid, and they made a drastic change with the new album, did the album 'they felt they had to make', I felt so bad, it was like betrayal."

With something as unitary and monomaniac and, in the best sense, one-dimensional as Anthrax, though, each of you must have unrealised musical ambitions, wayward impulses that you have to keep in check for the collective good?

Joey: "We probably have fantasies of things we might do, but that doesn't involve or affect Anthrax at all. Those impulses don't matter, and if we indulged them within the group, we'd just get sideswiped from what we're doing. As musicians we're versatile and accomplished enough to do pretty much what we like. But not within Anthrax."

The one idea Anthrax keep returning to is the desire to be "real". And this obsession means they've not only taken metal out of medievalism into modernity, they've actually made it to the 20th Century. As such, they're unique (Megadeth by comparison, are 16th century millenarians gleefully waiting the impending Armageddon, Metallica perhaps Lutherans for whom the world is a huge globe of excrement and life merely a harvest of sorrow). The obsession with "realism" and "authenticity" is one of the great cultural symptoms of our era, a belief in cutting through artifice, role-play, protocols, social codes, rigmarole, mystique and mystification. This century has seen the burgeoning of counselling and therapeutic organisations who encourage the opening up and display of emotional innards, and who condemn dissimulation of the border between public and private life (think of the Goldman book, the focus on Dukakis' history of mental health); and culturally, from the nouveau roman to 'Brookside', there's been an attempt to "free" content of the prettifying veils of form, in order to achieve a completely "transparent" reproduction of reality.

At its most neurotic extreme, this longing to get in touch with "reality" leads to a kind of pornography of the real. This is the addiction to images of abjection, violence and catastrophe, because these are regarded as instances of reality in extremis, life at its most "demystified" and unromanticised and explicit. The whole aesthetic of hardcore (from Black Flag to Big Black) is based on such a pornography of the real, on a perverse pleasure in the worst this world has to offer. Anthrax and Metallica are driven by a similar desire to tear off the veils of false consciousness. While not descending to the carnographic depths of a Slayer, they do have a morbid interest in war and exploitation that reminds me of anarcho-punk groups like Dischord or even the mystical nihilism of The Pop Group. You could say that Anthrax have implanted the "soul" of hardcore inside the body of heavy metal.

A side effect of their distaste for mystification is in an attitude to the Love Song that reminds me of the Gang Of Four, as shown in songs like 'Damaged Goods' and, ironically enough, 'Love Like Anthrax'. Anthrax once declared that they'll never write a song with the word "love" in it.

Charlie: "Scott [guitarist and lyricist] feels that 'Finale' is the Anthrax love song. It's about being in a situation where you're with this person – it could be a boy or girl singing the song – and you've been with them for so long you fuckin' hate her, but you just go through with it. And then the song goes, 'finally he broke away'. But I can't see us writing love songs or ballads, it's not us. What we're about, is what I think metal should be about, that kinda 'no room to let up' attitude."

Are Anthrax as a band anti-romanticist?

"Personally, we're all romantic, we all have girlfriends. As a band, we try to have a positive attitude to life. We don't want to dwell on death, or glorify it, cos it ain't glorious. But I suppose we do like to think about evil things. You see I'm a great horror fan. The song 'Now It's Dark' off the new album, that was inspired by Blue Velvet. I told Scott, you gotta write a song about Frank Booth. You see, everybody is Frank Booth, there's some of that psycho in everybody."

Why does that potential fascinate you?

"'Cos there's good and evil in everybody. Everybody has bad thoughts, little impulses, maybe even on the level of wanting to trip somebody up, for no good reason. All I'm saying is, face up to it."

Was punk a crucial influence?

"Musically, yes. I was into Sex Pistols when they were huge and happening. I liked The Clash. I never adapted to the look though. But I just thought punk was cool. I liked Johnny Rotten, he was like this rotten teenage kid, who just did what he wanted to do, said what he wanted to say. The whole thing of being anti-establishment, the politics, I never bothered with that stuff. Sometimes, you get into that, it ruins the music. That's one of the reasons I like Public Enemy so much. I know they said a lot of bad shit in the press, but I'm trying to ignore that so I can get off on the intensity of the music, and its originality."

At one point, it seemed like speed metal and hardcore punk were going to merge, as "speedcore" or "thrash"... Is that still happening?

"It seemed like it was gonna happen, but it never did, they went apart again. I think they're really separate kinds of musics."

But the whole spirit of Anthrax – from your lyrics to your near "straight edge" attitude to drugs and drink – is closer to hardcore than heavy metal.

"I don't know about that. But as far as we're concerned, you just can't stand up onstage and sing about 'lovechild' and 'we're gonna party' and all that shit. It's ridiculous, it's so thin, so plastic. We like to sing about reality, everyday life, much more than 'baby, I love your spiked heels'. I don't know what you call that kind of rock – slut rock, glam rock, cock rock – but it's finished now. It's over."