Monday, March 20, 2017

The Blue Orchids - two compilations, a decade apart

A View From the City
(Playtime Records)
Melody Maker, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

Blue Orchids were an anomaly. They were hallucinogen-fuelled at a time when drugs were extremely unfashionable (the early Eighties days of healthy New Pop, when Martin Fry, Adam Ant etc denounced intoxication as hippy decadence). Fall refugees Martin Bramah and Una Baines quickly propelled the wired garage sound of The Fall towards unabashedly psychedelic territory. Their sound lay somewhere on the continuum that connects the brain-fried minimalism of Question Mark and The Mysterians, The Seeds, Thirteen Floor Elevators, to Tom Verlaine, Meat Puppets, and Happy Mondays's early mantra-rock.

This long-overdue compilation gathers their singles and the outstanding songs from The Greatest Hit LP and "Agents Of Change" EP. Blue Orchids happened upon a sound - tumultuous drums, thick gluey bass rumbles, eerie swirlround keyboards and kiss-the-sky guitar - that was ramshackle but visionary. Lyrically, Bramah and Baines were nakedly mystical. "Sun Connection" celebrated the heroic torpor of dole culture, a life without rules (except "the law of dissipation"); it advocated opting out of the struggle up the "money mountain". "A Year With No Head" anticipated the "zen apathy", indolence-as-route-to-enlightenment, anti-stance of Happy Mondays' "Lazy-Itis" and Dinosaur Jr's "Bug": "threw my name in the bin/ate the fruit of surrender, surrender to no-one". "Release" proposed a life of passive fealty to the majesty of Mother Nature: "let's touch the flesh of the breeze/And feel release." 

Best of all remain the colossal, head-sundering tidal deluge of "Low Profile", and "Dumb Magician". The latter's lyrics say more about The Blue Orchids' than anything I can muster. "We move so fast today, nothing stands in our way/We're free to act, and forced to pay/See behind the scenes/The strings attached to all things/'This gets me that'/Try so hard to get your foot in the door/Get what you ask for and nothing more/The only way out is up, the only way out is up". The mystic blaze of keyboard and guitar escalates towards a heaven-ravishing climax, quite possibly the most transcendental music of the early Eighties. 

Blue Orchids were ahead of their time, out on a limb, timeless. Tune in, turn on, drop UP.

Uncut, 2002
by Simon Reynolds

One of the great lost groups of the post-punk era, The Blue Orchids were formed in 1979 by two refugees from the Fall, guitarist/singer Martin Bramagh and organist Una Baines.  Acid-doused and brazenly mystical, the Orchids’ hypno-swirl of discordant guitar and incense-and-belladonna keyboards couldn’t have been more at odds with the early Eighties. Misfits they certainly were, but The Blue Orchids were far from hopeless failures:  indeed their 1982 debut for Rough Trade The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain) topped the independent charts.

Beyond the simple sheer thrill of their ramshackle neo-psychedelia, The Blue Orchids tapped into something:  currents of disaffection and withdrawal that would later surface, substantially transformed, as crusty  and rave. Without ever proselytizing, Bramah and Baines essentially proposed a quiet refusal of  the new “climb the money mountain” ambition culture of Thatcher/Reagan.  “Dumb Magician” is a devastating critique of  the dis-enchanted worldview that comes with pursuing wordly success: “try so hard to get your foot in the door/get what you ask for and nothing more…. The dumb magician/Sees behind the scenes/The strings attached to all things/’This gets me that’", before offering the defiant call-to-transcendence: "The only way out is UP”. “A Year With No Head” is either about 12 months wasted in a futile attempt to lead a conventional life, or 12 months spent wasted, as in being off yer tits (I’ve never quite figured it out). And “Low Profile” is their turn-on/tune-in/drop-out anthem (“no compromise in the name of truth/keep a low profile/serene inspiration”), the inexorable rumble of the rhythm driving a gold-dust-rush of sound as exhilirating as  Felt’s similarly-vainglory-themed “Primitive Painters.”

What’s essentially rehearsed on The Greatest Hit is the Nineties slacker ethos: defeatism as dissidence, a subsistence-level bohemia eked out beneath society’s radar and acknowledging no rules bar “the law of dissipation” (as they put it “Bad Education”). But The Blue Orchids don’t have that Gen X curse of irony. Bramah and Baines’s lyrics teem with pagan poetry and ache with  naked pantheist devotion: “get down on your knees/just touch the flesh of the breeze/and feel release”, “with hearts that burst when we salute heaven”,” “ate the fruit of surrender/surrender to no one”.  They even based a song around a Yeats poem, one of just two tracks from The Greatest Hit not included here.

“Visions of splendour, two left feet” goes “Sun Connection”, one of the group’s most awe-struck and awe-inspiring songs. The lyric perfectly captures the group’s uncanny merger of  sublime and clumsy. Blue Orchids started raw with the burst-levee roar of the singles “Disney Boys” b/w “The Flood” and “Work” b/w “The House That Faded Out” (the latter particularly stunning with its odd stabbing rhythm and jigsaw-like disjointed feel). The Greatest Hit is consummate, perfectly poised between primitivism and polish. Tracks from the EP Agents of Change--where the Orchids wore their inspirations on their sleeve-notes with the confession: “this extended player has been completed under extraneous influences working upon the psyche”--err slightly towards state-of-graceful mellow (the piano-rolling “Release” is enjoyably reminiscent of The Stranglers’s “Don’t Bring Harry”) but remain beatific beauties.

At once anachronistic and ahead of their time, The Blue Orchids flash back to the  keyboard-driven garage-punk of The Seeds and ? And the Mysterians, and flash forward to the acid-rock resurgence of Loop and Spacemen 3. There’s even a faint glimpse of a near-future Manchester: the drug-hazy “lazy-itis” of Happy Mondays.  Pulling together almost all of the group’s output, A Darker Bloom gives you a chance to discover a remarkable, if sadly compact, body of work. If only they’d released as many records as The Fall…. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Big Audio Dynamite and Schoolly D live 1986

Big Audio Dynamite/Schoolly D at Brixton Academy, London

 Melody Maker, 22 November 1986

by Simon Reynolds
HIP HOP is about a strange kind of unity: it's a community that responds to oppression not with a dream of solidarity and equality, but with a sociopathic individualism. A brotherhood bound in ruthless competition with each other. At a hip hop event there's a resonance between audience and performer that comes because the star lives out the fan's megalomaniac fantasies in a theatre of cruelty and triumph.
But tonight Schoolly D faced a different community, a hostile and ignorant audience. That faceless plain of rock fandom, shorthaired hippies, Mick Jones lookalikes nostalgic for the golden days of 1978. Many were wearing trainers, but not for the right reasons. There was no resonance. There was shit sound, far too little volume, and in truth Schoolly D didn't seem to be trying too hard either. The audience were indifferent, desultory even in their throwing of glasses on stage.
A pity, because the record is a quantum leap for hip hop. In the search for higher and harder hits, some have tried to mix hip hop with other substances, like rock or Go Go. Schoolly has opted for a purer, more vicious distillation of the drug. 'P.S.K.' is an avalanche. 'Put Your Filas On' shows D.J. Code Money to be a virtuoso, a poet of scratch.
But Schoolly let the side down badly, failing to tyrannise the audience. He bobbed from one end of the stage to the other, flicking his wrists in little gestures of dismissal, stopping now and then to adopt the new B-Boy posture: arms folded across the chest, supercilious gaze of disdain. Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Nobody here tonight.
I have not been impressed by Big Audio Dynamite hitherto: hip hop and punk united in relations of mutual enfeeblement, I thought. The very idea seemed a bit naff: four outlaw myths for the price of one — the rocker, the B-Boy, the rasta, the cowboy — all merged into a single cartoon swagger. Pile it all on. Basically, though, this is a rock'n'roll band, having as much to do with hip hop as ZZ Top. All that Jones has acquired from hip hop is the idea of theft — he'll rip off anything from 'Summertime Blues' to The Big Country theme to Raw Silk's 'Do It To The Music' to Ennio Morricone.
You know it's not in any sense dynamic rock or dance music, but somehow it works, as a fierce sloppiness, a flurry that sweeps you along in its blur if you're prepared to let it have its way with you. Strummer didn't make an appearance, which is what everyone wanted (even me), but this is The Clash at heart, with some technology and a new cosiness and songs drawn out for seven minutes. But the sentimentality (The Clash's great strength) is well to the fore. Mick Jones, with his pissed grin and slicked back hair and drainpipe physique, is a reactionary figure, but hard to dislike. And songs like 'V Thirteen', with their crestfallen melodies and cissy vocals, are really rather pretty in a mopey sort of way. But then I always thought 'E=MC2' sounded like China Crisis. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Diamanda Galas live 1989

Diamanda Galás at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Melody Maker, 14 January 1989

by Simon Reynolds

Diamanda Galas's AIDS trilogy Masque Of The Red Death draws a mixed bunch to the Queen Elizabeth Hall on New Year's Day — 50 per cent goth/immaculate consumptive types, whose pierced flesh, cryptic jewellery and uniformly black garb makes the theatre attendants' noses' wrinkle in disdain; 50 per cent rather more respectable, arthouse types.
But then Galas operates on the fringes of both the rock left-field and of modern classical music, and her work can be "enjoyed" on two levels — vicarious voyeurism (lookit da spookeee ladeee) and sober appreciation of her Statement.
After a prologue of deliciously hammy, Hammer House/Dr Phibes organ, Galas steps out and lets rip her infamous Munch howl. Her first "piece" is like a Muslim widow's prayer wail, a fathomless abyss of grief. She bucks and writhes as though struggling to unwind, work out and expel via her throat a giant tapeworm of ectoplasm. She cuts between this laser-searing scream and a verminous babble of multiple voices, like a horde of vindictive goblins. Or she sings against backing tapes of her own voice multi-tracked into a choir of wizened Middle Eastern crones.
It's impossibly intense, hideously beautiful, and the air crackles with the static electricity of a thousand heads of hair standing on end. I came at least partially prepared for this, but it's nice to think that some must have come with no expectations or prior experience. Some rape of sensibilities! And indeed, a few chickenshit members of the audience get up and leave. But, after 20 minutes of unmitigated vertigo, the impact dims, for no readily apparent reason. Perhaps because enough is as good as a feast. Perhaps because 20 minutes is long enough to acclimatise to even the most hostile aesthetic environment. Perhaps also because Galas stoops to didacticism, albeit of a rabid, spume-flecked sort.
Delivered, with pointed irony, from a pulpit, Galas' demonic sermon/tirade is sometimes platitudinous ("Don't give up the fight against the order of the homophobe", "all mandatory testing is aimed at containment"), sometimes acute ("big buck penitentiary USA…controllers of slow death…sifters of compassion") but always manageable in comparison to the inchoate, unarticulated grief of her wordless pieces. The same problem afflicts her attempts to inhabit more conventional musical genres, like the good-time R&B groove of 'You Must Be Certain Of The Devil', or the vaudevillian piano numbers that close the performance.
Masque Of The Red Death is most effective when Galas eschews commentary or irony, and simply drops us in it. The work may be intended as a plea for compassion, but it has no truck with the kindliness and good sense of therapeutic and counselling language. Instead Galas almost revels in the intoxicating imagery of exorcism and excoriation, scapegoating and pariah-dom. Perhaps she aims to show us, by induction, how deeply embedded in our souls is the medieval mindset — both the palpitating horror of invasion, corruption and pollution of the wholesome integrity of our own bodies, and the panic-reflex to segregate in order to purify and protect the social body. Whatever, this was at least a partial triumph for the demon diva.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Howie B

cover story for The Wire, 1995

by Simon Reynolds

   Howie B is in New York on a two day mission devoted solely
to buying records. I hook up with him late at night, after
all the used record stores have shut, in a crowded downtown
cafe on St Mark's Place. He's already spent $400, picked up
so much vinyl he had to buy a bag just to carry it, yet he's
planning to cram in several more hours of shopping tomorrow
before his flight back to London. Howie describes it as "pre-
production" for U2's new album, even though he isn't actually
the producer. He's been asked in as a "player", which in his
case really means "programming and playing records" and
generally working up a "vibe" with the official producer,
Flood.  Work starts a week from now.

     Drinking coffee and smoking Marlboro Lights, and
accompanied by Michael Benson--his longtime friend from
Glasgow who's written the stories that go with his
forthcoming solo LP "Music For Babies"--Howie is still
buzzing from the day's research. "I was in all the different
shops, flipping through the albums on headphones, dropping
the needle and thinking 'Fuck, that's a corker, I can take
that and fuck it up'". I've picked up everything from mad,
mad techno to New York musicals to old Herbie Mann stuff to
Latin music".

     What will he do with the 80 +  hours of music he's
already acquired?

    "I'll take anything, it can be as small as a triangle
hit, and I'll spread it across a [sampling] keyboard and turn
it into a tuned piano. Or I'll take a timbale recorded in
1932 on this Latin record and make it into a percussion
pattern, or snatch some vocal and take it four octaves down
until it's like a lion's roar."

     What exactly does Howie B do for a living?  Examine the
small print beneath the manifold projects with which he's
been involved through the last seven years--Soul II Soul's
first two albums,  Tricky's "Ponderosa" and "Abbaon Fat
Tracks", "I Miss You" on Bjork's "Post", the Skylab album, U2
and Eno's "Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1", plus the heap
of tracks he's released via Mo' Wax and his own Pussyfoot
label--and you'll find Howie credited in different ways. Most
of the time he's down as "engineer", sometimes he's credited
as "programmer" too; elsewhere, he's promoted to "co-
producer", and now and then he gets to share the publishing
credit as writer. At what point does engineering bleed into
production? Where do you draw the line between producer and
creator?  These distinctions, admits Howie, are pretty
arbitrary, and largely dependent on the generosity of his
employers.  Money and ego are at stake.

     The nature of modern music--the popularisation, through
ambient, trip hop and jungle, of music without lyrics or
conventional song structure; the  all-pervading
commonplaceness of the studio-as-instrument aesthetic
pioneered by Eno and the early '70s dub-wizards--has smudged
the border between composition and the technical side,
writing and recording, art and craft.  In such a confused and
contested soundworld, it's easy to see how a figure like
Howie--with no musical training in the conventional sense,
and few instrumental skills--can slip and slide
between different levels in the music hierarchy, while
basically doing the same thing: "creating a vibe".  With so
much of today's crucial music, it's sound-in-itself--the
timbre and penetration of a bass-tone, the sensous feel of a
sample-texture, the gait of a drum-loop--that's the hook, the
sales-point, not the sequence of notes that constitutes 'the
melody'.  Howie B's career is just further proof that we need
to start thinking of the engineer as poet, as weaver-of-
dreams.  Another example: "Timeless", where engineer Rob
Playford shares the publishing credit with Goldie on more
than half the songs, and jungle's faceless abstraction co-
exists uneasily with the record industry's demand for
marketable stars.

     This struggle between stagefront and backroom has been
a latent subtext of pop for decades. I've long thought it
unfair that Jagger/Richards get the credit for "Satisfaction"
when it's Charlie Watts' drum bridge that's the song's killer
hook, and the same goes for whoever came up with the
heartstopping bass part on The Four Tops' "Reach Out (I'll Be
There)".  Howie offers Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side" as
another example: "the guy who did the bass on that, Herbie
Flowers, for me that bassline is the 'boom!'"-i.e.  the bit
that blows your mind--"but nobody knows he played that 'line.
I didn't until Brian Eno told me about five months ago."

     Howie's rise to the top has followed an almost quaint
path; he literally started out as a tea-boy, graduated to
tape operator, then assistant engineer, and so on. For three
years, he worked in the film industry "creating atmospheres
to go with visuals", as an assistant to veteran soundtrack
composer Stanley Myers.  Together, they worked on Nic Roeg
films like "Track 29" and "The Witches".  It's ironic that
someone reknowned for working in a field (ambient/trip hop)
that often prompts the hack cliche "a soundtrack for a non-
existent movie", actually started out making sounds for
existent movies.  Completing the circle in a weird sort of
way is the fact that he recently worked on U2 and Brian Eno's
"original soundtracks" for mostly fictitious films, and that
Howie's own album "Music for Babies" is going to be
accompanied by an animated movie.

     *         *         *         *         *         *

In the beginning, Howard Bernstein was a fusion freak.  It's
quite refreshing to meet a musician in his early thirties
whose seminal, life-changing musical experience wasn't seeing
the Sex Pistols live, but a different kind of 1976 gig
altogether: Santana, supported by Earth, Wind and Fire, when
Howie was only 13. As a Jewish boy growing up amidst the
Protestant versus Catholic sectarianism of Glasgow, Howie was
an isolated adolescent who divided his time and passion
between '70s kosmic jazz-fusion and radical pyschoanalysts
and mystical thinkers like RD Laing, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky.
(After school, he actually studied psychology in
Manchester, but quit when he realised that the only thing in
which he was qualifying was "taking drugs and partying").

     Young Howie was into Stanley Clarke, Return To Forever,
Herbie Hancock's "Manchild", even that dismal Santana
offshoot Journey. "Through Santana, I got into Alice
Coltrane, John McLaughlin, and the whole Sri Chimnoy Zen
philosophy side of it. Music became something I could grab
things off, follow as a route." Like fusion-headz old and new
(e.g. the Beastie Boys, the Mo' Wax milieu), Howie tends to
talk about what he does in terms of  vibes ("mad vibes",
"getting a good vibe", "vibing off each other"), of "learning
curves" and "opening up" and "giving". With his spiritual
leanings and vague positivity, it's perhaps no surprise that
he eventually fell in with the hippy-dread scene in London,
becoming friends with Jazzy B and Nellee Hooper, and
eventually supplying them with enough 'dead-time' in the
studio where he worked to enable Soul II Soul to record their
debut album.

     In 1990, Howie and his engineering partner Dobie got a
deal with Island as Nomad Soul. They released one single,
then "spent quarter of a million without realising it-- I
wasn't sitting there with a calculator, y'know--on an album
that mashed up hip hop, soul and jazz, and is still sitting
on a shelf at Fourth and Broadway". The vocalist was Diane
Charlemagne, later to sing on Goldie tracks like "Angel" and
"Inner City Life".  In fact, in '91 Howie actually worked
with Goldie, on music that never saw the light of day, back
when the Metalhead was part of the Hooper/Massive Attack
milieu and hadn't yet flipped out to 'ardkore rave.

     After the crushing blow of Nomad Soul, Howie drifted for
a while. He collaborated with Tricky and with Japanese B-boy
crew Major Force, amongst many others.  The first time most
of us heard his name was in connection with Mo' Wax, for whom
he's done five or so 12 inches as Howie B. Inc and Old
Scottish. Most notable is the Major Force collaboration
"Martian Economics", a wacked-out, Sun Ra-meets-The Orb
affair they knocked up in five hours. "We took it to James
Lavelle and said "what do you think?'. Five weeks later I was
in a club and I heard it, thought "Fuck, what's going on?!"
James'd released it without telling us!"

     Howie then started his own, Mo Wax like label,
Pussyfoot, putting out tracks by himself, sometimes using
the alter-ego Daddylonglegs, and by likeminded friends.  But
perhaps his best work prior to "Music For Babies" was with
Skylab.  A new label called L'Attitude invited him to jam
with Matt Ducasse.  "Matt played me all this stuff, mad loops
and crazy noises.  There was no material as such, just sound,
but it was like a licence for me to go mad. We went into his
attic and started making music, me vibing off what he'd play
me.  I got Tosh and Kudo from Major Force in on four or five
tracks.  I'm very proud of that record, it's a mad album: no
rules, full of peaks and troughs and emotions, and with no
A&R telling us what to do".

     "Ghost Dance", one of the best tracks on "Skylab
#1", is highly reminiscent of the fidgety art-funk rhythms
and chromatic smears of David Byrne & Brian Eno's "My Life In
The Bush of Ghosts". Back in 1981, that album was dissed by
many as an academic, coldblooded affair, an egghead's
appropriation/dessication of black American and African beat-
science; in retrospect, what with its influence on everyone
from Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee to artcore junglists
and ethnodelic trance units like Loop Guru, "Bush
of Ghosts" can be seen to have been uncannily prophetic.

       "That was a very important record to me," admits
Howie. "I was living in Manchester when I first heard it, and
I'd get stoned and sit in between the speakers, out of my
head, and just sit and write to the rhythms. Freeform words.
It opened so many little doors for me."

     Which makes it especially cool for Howie that he's been
accepted into the Eno/U2 fold. The association began back in
February '95, when he was called in to salvage Bono's cover
of 'Hallelujah' for a Leonard Cohen tribute album. Four
months later, he was invited to participate in the
"Passengers" project.

     "It was the maddest, mad, mad time," says Howard,
emphatically. "A mad exchange of ideas. They gave me all this
space and I just went, 'boof'"--another little verbal tic of
his, evoking someone exploding all constraints--"I opened up
totally. It was like walking into a little dream, these great
musicians, all these wicked twenty minute grooves for me to
take and fuck up".

     Eno and U2 didn't, however, tell him anything about the
"original soundtracks" concept. "All they said was that their
ideas were 'it's a late night album, and it's blue, the color
blue'.  When I got the promo, that was the first time I
realised it was about films." Howie co-produced three tracks,
including the very "Bush of Ghosts"-like "One Minute
Warning", and co-wrote another, "Elvis Ate America".  This
lurching, ultra-minimal slice of swamp-funk, vaguely redolent
of Alan Vega's post-Suicide solo LP's of robotic rockabilly,
was knocked up by Howie in a few hours, the night before the
album's final deadline. Bono had handed him his daft doggerel
(sample lyrics: "Elvis/Ate baconburgers and just kept
getting bigger") a few days earlier.

     How did he find Eno as a co-producer?

"It's just a totally different ball game. It's like when you
think a stone is a stone, and all of sudden it turns into a
butterfly. That's how I'd describe Brian. To be quite honest,
I was shitting it when I first met him." When I ask him later
if there's anyone out there he'd like to work with, Howie
cites Eno as his dream collaborator (alongside Cissy
Houston!!). They've already had a bit of jam session earlier
this year, "just me and him in his little studio in Kilburn,
three hours, no preconceptions.  I turned up with my record
deck and an echoplex." 

Later in the year (see The Wire #139),
Eno would cite Howie's use of this effects unit as typical of
a new preference for lo-tech, antique, task-specific
equipment as opposed to state-of-the-art hi-tech with a bewildering number of options: "Howie B, if he wanted could have all sorts of
digital processing boxes, but
he wants that.  He's focused on it and he's used it with such
taste and skill."

     *         *         *         *         *

And now, bearing the very Eno-esque title "Music for Babies",
here's Howie B's debut album, a concept record about
"the joy of having my little girl, Chilli, who's now a year
and a half old." From the itchy, corrugated riffs of
"Allergy" (inspired by Chilli's milk allergy) to the idyllic
tone-and-timbre poem that is "Here Comes The Tooth", this is
virtuoso sampladelia. But what does the person who inspired
the record make of it?

     "I've played it to her, and there's something going on
there, she's moving to it. Sometimes she goes up and turns it
off, then she turns it back on again."

     If Massive Attack's "Protection", with its accompanying
"Eurochild" exhibition of sculptures, wasn't
proof enough that trip hop is the new art-rock, "Music For
Babies" is a unified package combining text and design, and with
an accompanying film in tow.  "Toshi from Major Force, he's
on the cutting edge of graphics, and he's working with
Michael's stories and two paintings that this Icelandic
artist Hubert Noi has done. And an animator called Run Wrake
is doing a wee film to go with it."

     Swilling back herbal tea straight from the pot to soothe
his sore throat, Benson takes over to explain how his stories
and prose poems became part of "Music For Babies".  "I'd met
this woman who was really fucked up on drugs and yet she'd
written a whole novel. She explained that she'd done it by
writing a page a day.  I started doing the same thing, but
every page was so different I could never make them link up.

 This stuff that comes with the album is a sample from that work-in-progress.  Some
stories are inspired by the shape of particular tracks, so
that the text'll be cut up into different sections, or it'll
be a thin strip of words, like a thin strip of sound.
Sometimes it worked the other way round: Howie'd read a story
and then start a track from that. But lots of them have fuck
all to do with the music!

    "The novel and the fiction market are very much alive,"
he continues, "But at the same time people I know very rarely
phone me up and say 'I've got this wicked novel!'. So for me,
the idea is to stick fiction in places where you don't
usually find it, the sort of places where I get excited. I
love buying records, so that's where I want to put my work."

     *         *         *         *         *         *

Despite his lack of conventional musical training, Howie B is
very much what used to be called a 'muso'. When asked if,
despite his apparently all-gates-open eclecticism, there are
genres of music he just can't see the point of, he
disappoints me by emitting the cliche "Just bad music".  And
like your true muso, he hates categories and labels. One in
particular irks him: you guessed it, tr** h**. Yet when
pressed to describe the Pussyfoot sound in a label profile,
he came up with the phrase "experimental space hop"--which is
just an ungainly synonym for trip hop!  Why does the term
offend him so much?

   "I don't know where it came from," Howie grimaces. "I was
involved in that whole vibe and then all of sudden people
from outside think they can put a phrase on it, explain it.
But for me all that we're doing is making music.  When you
pigeonhole something, as soon as I do something ouside those
walls it becomes a problem for people."

     A lot of people share Howie's annoyance with 'trip hop'.
Some think the music's great but are incensed by the term,
regarding it as racist, a spurious wedge driven between
what's happening in the UK and US rap.  Personally, I think the term's okay. It's a handy signifier for a phenomenon--instrumental,
abstract, midtempo breakbeat music; hip hop without the rap
and without the rage, basically--that if not totally UK-
specific is at least almost totally out-of-step with US hip
hop, where rhymin' skills and charismatic personalities rule.

No, my problem is with the music: too little of it lives up
to the psychedelic evocations of the name, too much of it is
just pot smoker's muzak, or acid-jazz-gone-digital.  Out of
this weed-befuddled, cooler-than-thou mire of mellowness,
three names stand out: DJ Shadow, Wagon Christ, and Howie B.

     For Howie himself, "it's just groove-oriented music. Hip
hop is trance-like as much as house or techno are,  you get
locked onto the groove.  Because there's no vocal in my
music, I have to create a soundscape for people to travel
through.  Maybe I don't pick up the mic' and express myself
through words, but it's still my form of expression. I do see
the tracks as songs, there's feelings and emotions, and it
can be just as frightening as hip hop, or as wicked as hip
hop.  I see it as hip hop, as music, as a collaboration of
ideas.  'Martian Economics', that was like me doing a tune
with Jimmy Smith, even though he wasn't there."

HOWIE B                           
Music For Babies
written for a publication whose name i have forgotten

     "Howie B" sounds like a rapper; "Howard Bernstein" sounds more like a TV executive. In fact, the real Howie is somewhere between B-boy and backroom boy. An engineer and studio whizzkid, Howie's a prime mover in the mostly faceless world of trip hop. Like his pal Tricky, Howie is one of a new breed of musician: he doesn't exactly possess instrumental skills, but he's expert at using sampling computers and the studio mixing-board to transform borrowed beats, licks and atmospheres into gripping grooves.

Howie B is what you might call a scientist of "vibe".  As such, he's an in-demand engineer/producer, working with such luminaries as Soul II Soul, Bjork, Passengers (U2 & Brian Eno), and Tricky himself.  Howie is also the soundscape-shaper in the ambient outfit Skylab, and he's released a heap of solo 12 inches on ultra-cool trip hop label Mo' Wax, and via his own Pussyfoot imprint.

"Music For Babies", his first solo album, showcases Howie's best work outside Skylab. A sort of abstract concept album inspired by the birth of his daughter Chilli, "Babies" is entirely instrumental, but it manages to convey eloquently a spectrum of emotions and moods, from the itchy agitation of "Allergy" to the idyllic anticipation of "Here Comes The Tooth". (For those who miss lyrics, there's always the CD booklet's collection of one-page stories by Howie's chum Michael Benson).  There are tunes here, but this kind of  ambient/trip hop is really about texture and timbre: sounds so succulent and tantalising you want to taste or stroke them.  Tremulous with the wide-eyed wonder of the newborn, glowing with the joy and gratitude of her parents, "Music For Babies" is sheer enchantment.                                                                                                                  

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Art Techno (aka IDM Phase 2)

Melody Maker, 1995

by Simon Reynolds

A genre-without-a-name is emerging, an omni-genre wherein techno succumbs to
an influx of ideas from jungle, trip hop, all over, and gladly sacrifices its
identity. This music is not particularly danceable (it makes no attempt to
placate the needs of ravers or DJ's), but neither is it ambient (too restlessly
interesting for chill-out).  It's art-tekno, in so far as the only listener
response that's appropriate is fascinated contemplation. All you can do is marvel
at the bizarre audio-sculptures, let your ears wander through the
sound-installations, and boggle at the sonic contraptions as they go about their
pointless, captivating tasks.

How is this new zone of music-making different from "armchair techno", as
pushed from and at the hip by Warp Records in 1992/93 with its "electronic
listening music" concept and "Artificial Intelligence" compilations?  Well,
intelligent techno was always limited by purism (no breakbeats, associated
with 'ardkore rave) and piety (too much reverent nostalgia for Detroit).  As a
result, "intelligent techno was definitely rather anaemic on the rhythmic side",
as Kingsuk Biswas of Bedouin Ascent puts it.  One story in 1995 concerns how
jungle has given techno a hefty and sorely needed kick up the arse, forcing it to
lively-up its ideas about rhythm. Richard James, for instance, responded with the
inspired breakbeat-tomfoolery of AFX's "Hangable Auto Bulb" EP.

Perhaps it's now possible to speak of a new perimeter region where post-rock
and post-techno, post-jungle and post-trip hop, bleed into each other; a zone
where refugees, fleeing the shackles of genre and the expectations of scene,
gather to trade ideas.  This new anti-category includes loads of
artists and labels not covered in this article: artists like Mu-ziq,
Techno-Animal, Boymerang, Scanner, Seefeel/Disjecta, David Toop, Voafose, labels
like Clear, Sahko, Staalplatt, Leaf and Lo Recordings (whose "Extreme
Possibilities, Vol.1" and "Collaborations" compilations are good introductions to some of the key players in this field).  But even among the figures dealt with herein, the sonic
and emotional spectrum ranges vastly, from the irreverent humour of Wagon Christ
and playful Dada wit of Mouse On Mars, to the spirituality of Bedouin Ascent and
the forbidding intellect of Mille Plateaux.


Cornwall born-and-bred and buddy of the Aphex Twin, Luke Vibert emerged in
'95 as a major purveyor of barely classifiable, semi-danceable weird-shit.  After
the glacial ambience of his Wagon Christ 1994 debut "Phat Lab Nightmare", Vibert
veered off into cheesy-but-deranged trip hop with "Throbbing Pouch" and its
attendant EP's "Rissalecki" and "Redone".  Better still are Vibert's mindboggling
peculiar forays into drum & bass as Plug.  The two Plug EP's so far--"Visible Crater
Funk" and "Rebuilt Kev"--take breakbeat-science and bass-mutation to levels of
grotesque convolution rivalled only by artcore maestros like Droppin' Science.
Warning: your limbs will get tied in knots if you're fool enough to dance.
Needless to say, the reaction from the junglist community has been muted, to put
it mildly.

"One of my mates did try to play a Plug track in a club," says the
well-spoken 22 year old Vibert. "He got into a huge row, this guy kept saying
'this ain't jungle'.  I think the guy was right, actually!"

In Wagon Christ, Plug, and his numerous remixes, Vibert has an alchemist's
approach to sampling. It's all about "getting good sounds out of absolute shit.
I listen to piles of cheesy records. For some reason I tend to only sample stuff
I don't like! One friend thought 'A Polished Solid', my EP on Mo Wax, was about
that: me polishing up a turd!  Actually I got the title from a ripped up packet
of Rizlas.  There was an offer for 'a polished solid brass lighter', but the only
words left were 'a polished solid'."

Wacky titles are one of the many charms of Vibert's output, from the saucy
"Throbbing Pouch" to the daftly-monikered Plug EP's. "Visible Crater Funk",
"Rebuilt Kev" and the forthcoming "Versatile Crib Funk"  are all anagrams of
'Luke Francis Vibert'.  "I'm running out of variations now," laments Luke.
"There's some really rude ones, like Fuck Arse Brain, but nothing nice!"

Vibert's ability to ooze his way through the barriers between genres is a
prime example of the 'perimeter' theory of: an omni-genre where tekno, ambient,
trip hop, jungle etc are all being jumbled up. Not being tied to a particular
scene or community = freedom to drift.

"All the people I know make music in their bedrooms, and it's more personal
'cos you're not thinking about clubs. When I go to a studio, at Rising High or
Mo' Wax, I see people working with the specific intention to make people dance.
But working in your bedroom, it's more like art."

Out there on the perimeter, they're all stoned immaculate. Vibert once told
an interviewer that drugs were his greatest influence: "they're my best mate,
they changed the way I heard everything".

"Actually, I said 'hash is my best mate'!", says Luke.  "That's not true
anymore, but originally it did open my mind to different sorts of music. Cos I
was a bit narrow-minded.  Smoking went hand in hand with getting into dub and

Dope is one reason Vibert's work is so disorientating.  Another is the
queasy fluctuation of pitch he often employs, making the Wagon Christ stuff sound
like a cross between Schoenberg and jazz-funk. Luke explains that there's a
feature on his sampler that allows him to modulate pitch and explore fractions of
a tone. This 'microtonality' is shared by lots of avant-garde composers and
non-Western musics (e.g.  Indian ragas), which sound weird to our ears because
they break with the clear pitch intervals that govern Western classical and pop
alike.  Hip hop often has that dissonant quality too, because, Luke explains,
"when you put samples together, they're usually not going to be in tune.  If you
get them synched up time-wise, they're almost always off-key.  And that's a
wicked effect--the samples sort of gnaw at each other!".


Listen to Bedouin Ascent's recent LP "Music For Particles", and you quickly
realise that, for its 27 year old creator Kingsuk Biswas, percussion is the
thing.  The Bedouin sound --a shimmying mist of drum machine
polyrhythms and synth tics, interwoven with ribbons
of ultra-minimal melody--is steeped in the influence of African and North Indian
Classical music (the latter thanks to Bis' Bengali background).

"Western music emphasises harmony and melody over rhythmic complexity," Bis
explains. "The most empty music, I thought, was the most melodious music, and
it's easy to indulge in that with an electronic keyboard. But with West African
percussion ensembles, melody is the product of 40 drummers jamming together; the
boundary between melody, rhythm and harmony is blurred.  That discovery was the
holy grail for me!," he gushes, adding that he aims to achieve the same effect
with drum machines and computers. "As for Indian classical ragas, that music
contains some of the funkiest rhythms on the planet!".

Dub is another crucial influence; as a ten year old he'd listen, amazed,
to Dave Rodigan's late '70s show on Capital. "It was mad, mental music, beats
stopping and weird noises, lots of toasting." Later, after a spell as a punk-
rocker, he got into the Adrian Sherwood/On U skool of dub-terrorism and early
'80s avant-funk (A Certain Ratio, 23 Skidoo). Then came electro and street soul.

Being Asian, Bis says, gives him the "privilege" of being marginal. "It's
made me more objective, cos I'm less involved. I can look at the cultural
institutions that surround me and just laugh at them. Because of this, my music
background is very broad, I'm willing to penetrate anything I encounter and find
something positive in it."

After a period of guitar-noise experimentation, Bis got into electronic
music circa 1988's aciiied explosion. "At the time, I was listening to minimalist
composers like Steve Reich, and it was thrilling to see music based on the same
ideas become mainstream. To go to a club and hear things that were far out was
really exciting.  That hasn't really changed--the barriers between avant-garde
and populist music are still totally irrelevant".  Enthused by the idea of
'aciiied as avant-gardism for the masses', and inspired by performance art, Bis
actually busked his early electronic experiments: "I'd take my drum machine out
into shopping centres in the middle of Cardiff, and people would gawp!".

"Music For Particles" stems from these early days. (As with most art-tekno
boffins, Bis has a huge backlog of material; hence the timelag). "Particles"
chimes in with the lofty titles of his earlier releases--1994's "Science, Art and
Ritual", EP's like "Pavilions of the New Spirit" and "Further Self-Evident
Truths"--in that it's informed by Bis' interest in the 'new mysticism in
science'. This is the convergence of the latest theories in physics (quantum
mechanics, chaos theory) with the ancient mystical intuitions of the East (Zen,
Tao, etc). Bis is not eager to spell out any of this stuff, though.

"I've never been a preacher, I'm very much an amoralist and a spiritual
anarchist. But there's stuff in the music for those open to it. And if not, fine!
We don't all have to be mystics and eso-terrorists!".

Bedouin Ascent's rhythm-as-melody aesthetic has much in common with jungle,
which Bis loves ("I can't wait for the weekends, it's pirates all the way").
Thankfully, he's savvy enough to be wary of 'intelligent jungle', preferring
instead "jungle that isn't trying to sound like jazz, but is being itself."
Sensible chap, but after all, this is the bloke who uttered the pearl-of-wisdom:
"'intelligent techno' was the most unmusical phenonemon ever".

"Intelligence, as far as I'm concerned, is not a musical virtue. A lot of
the stuff put out as intelligent techno was beautiful, but calling it
'intelligent' misses the point: it was about human enquiry and the abstract, and
those are to do with intuition, not intellect.  Primitive impulses.  Just the
fact that there are thousands of people in their bedrooms each making thousands
of hours of this music--for no money whatsoever, believe me!--indicates there's a
compulsion to do it.  Intelligence is just one facet of music.  Personally, I
like to leave things as open as possible, 'cos it's in possibility that exists


From Gas's vapourspace to Steel's cranium-mulching distorto-thrash, from
Global Electronic Network's bleep-scapes to Cristian Vogel's mantric austerity,
Mille Plateaux has one of the most provocative and stimulating catalogues in the
realm of experimental electronica.  But what's really unusual about this
Frankfurt-based label is that there's a whole buncha theory behind the weird
noises emitted.

Mille Plateaux was founded in 1994 as a sister to the more
dancefloor-oriented hardtekno label Force Inc. According to founder Achim
Szepanski, the aim was to resist the formulaic, self-regulating tedium of trance
and ambient, which Achim disses for their "insistently kitsch and conservative
melodic/harmonic content". Instead, Mille foster a new, "deconstruction-ist" form
of electronic music, based around the opening up of "a continuum of infinite
variations in which the sound material molecularises... Music without center,
radically fractured, heterogenous and conflicting." Music that tries to simulate
the sound of the universal 'rauschen' (a German word meaning both 'rustle' and

A crucial influence is the theories of Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari;
Mille Plateaux is named after their "anti-fascist" manual, "A Thousand Plateaus:
Capitalism & Schizophrenia". Hack your way through the forbidding prose, and
you'll find that Deleuze & Guattari's anti-hierarchical, nomadic thought has lots
of applications to music, from the flow-motion funk of Can to the cut'n'mix
aesthetic of hip hop and jungle.

Achim is particularly interested in D & G's concepts of
"deterritorialisation" and "reterritorialisation".  Subcultures and musical
revolutions like punk or rave begin with  "deterritorialisation" (the dissolution
of boundaries and rules, a breakthrough into new cultural space), but are always
inevitably "reterritorialized" (from within, by the emergence of orthodoxies and
self-imposed barriers; from without, by corporate exploitation). Rave started as
anarchy (illegal parties, pirate radio, social/racial/sexual mixing) but quickly
became a form of cultural fascism.  Achim talks of how "techno today is
stabilised and regulated by an overcoding machine (the combination of major
labels, rave organisations, mass media)". Similarly, Ecstasy--once liberating,
enabling ravers to merge with the sound-system to become a gigantic "desiring
machine"--has become brain-bludgeoning escapism, with punters necking more and
more pills of dubious origin.  Decrying ravers who use E as "a mother substitute
(Ecstasy can be your new Mommy)", Achim talks of using drugs to experience "audio
hallucinations" and other forms of schizophrenic experience.

Attracted by its "paranoia" and sensory chaos, Achim and Force Inc were
precocious fans of UK hardcore breakbeat.  Alongside Mille Plateaux, they set up
the Riot Beats label to document the fledgling German jungle scene. The sub-label
is run by Alec Empire, a whizzkid who makes Kraut-jungle tracks under various
aliases, leads the agit-prop hardcore unit Atari Teenage Riot, and puts out
sombre experimental electronica under his own name via Mille Plateaux. According
to Empire, Germanic jungle is already over and a new sound--breakbeat-based but
much ruffer, noisier and punk-rock aggressive--is taking over.  He calls it
"digital hardcore".

Achim is disappointed by UK jungle's recently aquired respectability and
self-conscious 'seriousness'.  "It's only a rip off of Detroit sounds, cheap
melodics like trance," he snorts. He's equally disgusted by trip hop, dissing it
as acid jazz gone digital. Mille Plateaux's riposte is "Electric Ladyland", a
compilation of mid-tempo breakbeat trax that shun trip hop's cheesy, mellow
samples in favour of harsh, abstract sonorities.  Achim is also gathering
together a collection of essays about electronic music entitled "Maschinelle
Strategeme", which will be translated into English eventually, and planning a
tribute LP to Gilles Deleuze, who committed suicide a few weeks ago at the age of
70.  Mille Plateaux: theory and practice in perfect (dis)harmony.


Oval's "94 Diskont" is the most swoon-inducing record I've heard since My
Bloody Valentine's "To Here Knows When".  Imagine Spacemen 3's "Playing With
Fire" pulverised into a million fluorescent splinters, then tiled into a 'musaic'
of refractory shards.  Beautiful, in a insidious, unsettling way.

But to respond to "Diskont" as 'beauty' is to severely misunderstand Oval's
intentions. According to Markus Popp, the Berlin trio's impetus wasn't musical so
much as critical: to expose the "conditions and constraints under which music in
the Nineties is created", and by extension, to interrogate the entire
technology-mediated nature of today's information society.

"Experimentation in music, at least nowadays, is for most people a tame,
safely 'guided tour' through MIDI software and hardware," says Popp. "Most of the
music produced by using this equipment proved to be no more than a predictable
effect of the hardware or software involved."

What he means (or what I THINK he means) is that the sequencing programmes
(e.g. Cubase) used by most artists in techno, jungle, et al, enforce a
standardised sonic syntax that subtly restricts the scope for truly unforeseen
sounds or structural innovations.  One way of circumventing this imaginative
lockdown is to exploit the machine's hidden faults or devise improper uses never
intended by the manufacturer. Just as Hendrix made guitar feedback aesthetic, and
hip hoppers abused the stylus and turntable, Oval f*** with digital technology. A
lot of the unearthly drones and disorientating tics that comprise "Diskont" were
created by vandalising CD's with paint, then playing them; other effects came
from dismantling MIDI hardware.

"Vandalising?" says Popp. "In my perspective, the CD treatments are only a
humble attempt to re-establish a decent, tangible, material basis for one of many
possible musical stances in the 1990's. It's our personal, tiny aesthetic margin
for intervention from within software."

Taking the unhappy CD player's anguished noises--glitches, skips, unforeseen
cybermusik the machine makes as it tries to 'guess' what's missing on the
disk--Oval painstakingly constructed the material into the audio-maze that is
"Diskont".  Much effort clearly went into making something endlessly listenable
and queerly 'beautiful', yet Oval have confused their admirers by insisting in
earlier interviews that music is NOT one of their interests.  Turns out this
isn't strictly true.

"Our effort constantly oscillates between a very conscious and affirmative
use of music technology, and an often clueless, 'critical' abuse of that
technology... We always wanted to offensively suggest something 'new' from
'outside' or 'before' the digital domain. 'Before', in that everything we have
released so far could easily have been done on a couple of reel-to-reel tapes

'Reel' is what my mind does after protracted exposure to Popp's labyrinthine
discourse. But such "cognitive dissonance" is in perfect alignment with what Oval
do sonically. Aural Op Art, "Diskont" confounds your ear's gaze.


Sometimes the world of experimental electronica resembles nothing so much as
a kindergarten, full of little boys playing with tekno toys, smearing texture-goo
on the walls and molding sample-stuff like Play-doh. Nobody fits the 'adventure
playground for the imagination' metaphor better than German duo Mouse On Mars.
Andi Toma and Jan St Werner met in a health-food store when they both got
embroiled in an argument over who should get the last packet of Muesli.  They
decided to share it.  Then they discovered they both made music, and decided to
share sounds.  Like the Start-Rite kids of post-tekno, they set off to create
some of the most captivating, enchanted-with-itself electronica around.

Adding weight to the kindermusik theory, their 1994 debut "Vulvaland" got its
title from an imaginary island in "Ausenberger Puppentiste", a kids' TV
marionette-show.  "It's called Lummerland," says Jan, "but we adapted it to
Vulvaland. That's our idea of a utopia that's here and now, not in the future
where you can't reach it.  Everyone has their own kind of Vulvaland where they
like to go.  With the new album "Iahora Tahiti", it's like we've left Vulvaland
and are now ready for adventures.  'Iahora Tahiti' could be a pirate cry--'we
conquer Tahiti!'"

MOM treat their machines like playmates. "We don't like to control them,"
says Andi.  "We trust them, let them do their own thing.  If the computer goes
mad because there's a thunderstorm coming and too much static in the air, and it
makes a strange noise, we are very happy to use it. The machines have maximum
freedom, the people have maximum freedom; they should care for each other."
"There's always something about a machine that's unique," adds Jan.  "You have to
find those hidden features, because this is what makes the machine interesting."

MOM build up their music from multiple layers of exquisitely naive,
music-box melodies.  "I like music-boxes a lot," says Jan. "It's magical--like
someone smiling really strangely.  I always get, how you say, a goose-skin?
Goosepimples!".  Simple melodies are preferred, because they don't distract from
MOM's real priority, "the melody of sound": succulent, stroke-able textures, and
stereophonic effects that make you feel like you're inside a 3D, fairytale

Andi & Jan are inspired as much by the Beach Boys and Krautrockers Can and
Neu!, as by techno.  Appropriately, they're all set to embark on separate
collaborations with fellow Neu!-heads Stereolab and MOM's post-rockin' Too Pure
labelmates Pram.  Brian Eno has also declared an interest in working with them.
Right now, though, there's Microstoria, Jan's side project with Oval's Markus
Popp, which has spawned the remarkable album "Init Ding"; Popp describes it as
"even more abstract, immaterial and unintentional than Oval, in so far as most of
the tracks actually played themselves."