Monday, March 26, 2007

New Ghosts

The notice taped to the door of the Barfly made it clear: "These New Puritans have had to pull out at the last minute." It's at this sort of time you begin believing in God, just to have someone to blame it all on. Feeling like M.E.S - "The supernatural are in league against me!" - I went in anyway, even dancing, at one point, with the most beautiful woman in the building, so the night wasn't fucking lost. But walking back through 3AM London I was still humming 'C16th'.

Really, I shouldn't expect anything else from them: These New Puritans have made most of their identity through mystery, their oddly-filmed webcasts; their webpage spattered with cryptic fragments of writing and news updates dotted with links leading to pictures of boiling water and trees speeding past; the debut EP released on 7" vinyl in an edition of 500. The only evidence of their being real I have is an MP3 copy of the debut 'Now Pluvial' EP, likely to disappear into digital smoke itself, given my luck. And even this seems not to be a work of human hands: the sound is dense and incandescent, the bass metronomic and pounding, the vocals condensed, sharpened into another element in their 'icepick-in-the forehead' (to use a Zappa phrase) rhythms; digital splinters crack from the sound, and even the guitars sound inhuman and assaultive, their distressed noise reined into a strategic pattern; they change time signatures on a dime, and even the occasional periods, as on 'En Papier', where most instruments drop out, the calm is haunted by mildly buzzing synths and distant vocals, a lull before the next storm.

This formidability is heightened by a cryptic pretension that is wonderful to see when every 'indie' band is systematically 'democratising' music by removing any element that actually produces excitement. While Razorlight and their lab-spawned ilk have white jeans and bad television, These New Puritans have numerology, Kaballah, the mystic networks of the mixing desk, John Dee, Greek pottery, J Dilla, Hedi Slimane, This Heat, the great god Poseidon, samplers, sacred geometry... Jack Garrett's voice sounds disconnected, distant, buried beneath effects, barking a torrent of repetitious invective on topics of righteous obscurity. As Nietzsche said, "All profound spirits need a mask". Smoke and mirrors don't get much better than this.

The distancing effects of the band - their reliance on the mediation of technology and, in the form of resident photographer and webcast director Discordo!, artistic distortion - signal something close to what k-punk calls an "ontological rupture"; the screeching and digital noise, the disdain for the audience's supposed cravings, the disconnection from the subject of the discourse of 'popular music' - sentimental idiocy - firmly place them in the lineage of music disrupting the Romantic myth. As the silicon fortress of Western civilisation expands and deepens at a still-terrifying pace, These New Puritans are channelling the decaying signals of humanity's traces - music, magic, place (they're interested in psychogeography), history. Coming from Southend, a town so faded, so steeped in a rotten past that it's literally become a ghost of itself, where there really is no future, the band have constructed one - the ghost of tape hiss and dissolved glory transmuted into malfunctioning machine-punk.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Treading the Labyrinth

"There was the other culture, a culture destroyed but still inside us alive. In this sense I knew not only with my intellect I knew with my senses and my body that the West was not the only civilisation."
--Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth Of Solitude.

I've just seen Pan's Labyrinth; I'm certainly not ahead of the game, it's been preceded by months of enthusiastic notices in the press, even in our provincial arse-rag of a local paper, even claiming a BAFTA for Best Foreign Film, (as if that should demand a separate Goddamn category - why can't they put it up for Best Film in total?) I'm very happy, in a whimsical, fairytale-drugged kind of way.

What struck me first was the sheer quality of visual imagination displayed, on a par with the best of Terry Gilliam's work (think the scene in Time Bandits in the cave where they confront the villain - yeah, that good.) The use of CGI was sparing and wonderfully constructed, a lovely contrast to the stupidity of Hollywood's digital over-saturation - the fairies and insects were the only real instances - and the extremely interesting animatronics; I can't remember precisely whether the Faun or the Hand-Eye Monster were CGI or animatronic, something which is to the film's credit.

As the film wound on, what interested me most was the perspective it took on fantasy. Most fantasy films follow the sanitised, Disnified vision of Western fantasy, in which the virtuous always triumph and no-one is ever killed or hurt properly on the side of 'Good'. But look back into the sources of Western fairytale - the folk tales of Eastern, Central and Northern Europe, later partially codified into Grimm's Fairytales (about which, note, Gilliam made a recent film) - and there are no happy endings: Little Red Riding Hood is never rescued from the wolf's stomach, the tales are coated in blood and filled with savagery. In the film, Ofelia/Princess Moanna must kill a giant toad (which vomits up its own innards) and sacrifice the blood of her infant stepbrother; she is guided by the Faun, who, despite being her "humble servant", is a sinister figure; she must outrun the Eye-Hand Monster, a child-killing creature of legend whose room houses a pile of tiny shoes next to a sumptuous feast table, and who bites the heads off of two of Ofelia's fairy guides. It makes you remember why children were scared of the figures of folk tales coming to get them in the night; it reminds me of night terrors revolving around snakes, werewolves, vampires and sundry other nocturnal creatures. But what I found more interesting was the way in which it locked into myth: the myths of primitive cultures are even more bloody than the fairytales of Europe - think of the killings of Ymir in Norse myth, of Oedipus, Agamemnon, Perseus and countless others in Greek myth, the blood sacrifice that brought the world light in Aztec myth, etc., etc.
The film is filled with echoes of myth, from the taking of the forbidden grapes (the Fall from Eden), to the journey into the Underworld, the appearance of the Faun, and the symbol of the labyrinth itself. These seem, as much as anything, to play, unintentionally, with the notion of 'collective unconscious', Joseph Campbell's archetypes of myth belying the 'real' world, a world that exists only arbitrarily, filled with mediocre cruelty and sordidness. The most evident terror of the 'real' world is that of the Fascist plague running through Spain, and the film brilliantly reveals the central realities of Fascism: total callousness towards human life ("We will kill them all", the Captain says of the Communist guerillas), a belief in hierarchy with the believers at the top, a sexual repression that oozes out in misogyny and the urge for domination, the belief in technology as the beneficiant of the ruling classes. In the world of Fascism possibilities close down and down. In contrast, in the world of myth anything is possible: reading books on shamanism and magick recently, I was intrigued, watching Pan's Labyrinth, by the elements of ritual involved - the creation of the door using the symbol of the door (like a big, extremely useful sigil), the final bloodletting in the labyrinth, the blood dripping into the labyrinth-shaped pool at the bottom (the labyrinth symbol itself has pentagram-drawn-on-the-floor-like properties) and the way in which they achieve things, evading the binding chains of logic or matter. This blood-and-magick-drenched myth, with fauns that "smell of earth", labyrinths "there even before the mill", is posited as the real, authentic, ancient culture against the 'fake' culture of Fascism: Fascist and nationalist rhetoric revolves around notions of 'resurrected culture' and 'blood and soil', but there is no connection between the Fasces on the military cars, the creak of leather and jackboot, and the men and women who have inhabited the woods around the new camp for generations. One is reminded that Spain, for all of its Catholic culture, something very important to Spanish Fascism, is an extremely old country, with a primitive culture that goes back far further and is still present, to some degree, in the cultures of Catalonia, Aragon and the Basque Country.

In the context of magick, it's also interesting to note how the concept of narrative and literature is treated: the Fascists despise it, Ofelia being censured for carrying books of fairytales; the Fascist Captain discarding a murdered man's Anarchist pamphlets like dirt; the Captain preferring to listen to sentimental songs on the gramophone. By contrast, knowledge, as transmitted by books, is held in high esteem by the mythological creatures who inhabit the film: Fascism is the ideology of ignorance and half-truth, something dispelled utterly by the magickal sigil-words and self-revealing truth of myth. It's no wonder that mystic sects like the early Gnostics chose to preserve, rather than their lives, their sacred texts, impenetrable to most but seemingly worth something - in turn linked to the love of children for the knowledge of books, an innocence carried by the primitive soil-culture of the woods-people but despised by the Fascists. The reality of freedom contained in magick - the ability to do anything - and in the marvels of fairytales (the children in fairytales are always fighting to be free of their parents) finds analogues in the dream of freedom pursued by the Communist guerillas, and the vanished Spanish Republic.

But what is important about myth is that, as with the Book of Crossroads in the film, it is the 'book that writes itself'. The concept that myth and symbology form a framework for humans to orient their understanding of the world is an old and semi-proven one: man seems to have an inherent need to generate narrative alongside phenomena. But where does this compulsion come from, what purpose does it serve? Some anthropologists claim it comes from the need to explain scary phenomena and to remove the fear; but given the amount of terror generated by myth - look at the Old Testament, at Aztec sacrificial practices, at Pan's Labyrinth for fuck's sake - it's not by any means sound. In Pan's Labyrinth, at least, there seems present something about which Artaud wrote in 'On The Chimeras': the myth-creatures find no exact analogues in Spanish culture or any other I know about, but instead, "beat... anew with a separate life that seems to precede Mythology and history, and not, as in Shakespeare or other poets, to issue from them." The labyrinth symbol, used so often in mythology as the symbol of obfuscation, of confusion and indirection, is reinvested with meaning, as both a literal labyrinth and a symbol of revelation and escape, its spawned symbols of the Faun and Faeries coming to life beneath the gaze of the camera.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

"That horrible Everett True music."

The Finches - The House Under The Hill

I've been on a bit of a crazed art trip recently. Not to say I've been enjoying proper art - the last time I went to a gallery was a few weeks ago - but music art. One of the many good things about the DIY explosion that's happened with the Internet is that it allows people to create art that actually goes alongside music, rather than design created by marketing departments. My love for These New Puritans, Wolf Eyes, Daniel Johnston and Jandek have been the impetus behind my own misguided attempts at 'making art'. And misguided really is the word for it: the fact that I don't have the fucking technology, or skill, to make anything meant that everything I made had to be destroyed. The second attempt was more successful, in the same way WWII was more successful than WWI: the body count was higher, making for a more successful Hollywood treatment later, with the Americans in charge.

But what has interested me the most has been The Finches (MySpace): after reading a review in last month's Plan B, I was intrigued by the fact that the singer, the marvellously-named Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs, does the artwork by hand. The fact that the album was loved by the ever-whimsical Everett True put me off it, though, and I investigated no further. But seeing the artwork on the back of this month's Plan B - yes, I am a groupie - made me change my mind. Lurking beneath my scarred, paint-splattered shell was, I suppose, a childhood love of anthropomorphism, of cuddly animals. The fact that it was made by woodcut, like the Eastern European folk art or art brut I love so much, made it seem even more special. This little picture simply broke my fucking heart.

In that last post on '1997', I mentioned a "genealogy" of that music; that wasn't precisely what I meant. It would be stupid to talk about exact ancestors to bands like Los Campesinos!, it's useless to talk about movements or even about history, but it's also useless to pretend that I'm approaching this music in completely virgin mode. I know about, I've heard bands like The Wave Pictures, Herman Dune, Silver Jews, The Chills, The Wedding Present, June Brides, The Bodines, etc., etc. If you want to talk about melancholic joy, these are the people to fucking talk about. And these were influenced by The Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman/The Modern Lovers, The Slits, early Mekons... gah, what the fuck is the point in talking about history? It's dead and gone. This is here, this is now. This is all company to what we know, to what we feel and love: it's the sound of humanity, of memory and childhood and society and all those things I thought I could do without as a teenager. But even Sam Beckett felt it: have you ever read Malone Dies? It's one motherfucker of a sad, memorial novel. And The Finches are the equivalent of that passage where he describes watching the burning gorse bushes from his window as a child. I can see so many overlaps in art like this; it issues from a place all of us have: the last refuge of being, where we keep our myths and symbols; the place where we incubate faith; misery and joy coat and coagulate around the sum of our lives.

I'm not simply writing to accompany the MP3 at the top here. It's just to say.

P.S. The results of my ill-advised foray into artwork may appear on the Web soon. I honestly can't decide whether it would be worth it.