Sunday, September 30, 2007

Scorched Earth

Watched Apocalypse Now again last night – must be the tenth time or so. It reminded me just how perfect it is as a movie: how brilliantly constructed it is, how every element feels right, but feels almost to have organically grown (I can't actually imagine anyone committing the physical act of writing the 'Playboy Bunnies' scene.) I don't just mean the narrative elements – there are barely any at all, making it easier to get it right – but the 'feel' of the material, the very substance: the lighting, colour, texture, symbolism, dialogue, performances (it helps that the film has the kind of cast list that would elicit gasps from me). And that fact alone makes it even better: as the first serious Vietnam War film, released only 4 years after American troops left, it got the entire genre absolutely right; really, every Vietnam War film produced since has been completely superfluous, because Apocalypse completely captures the nightmare atmosphere of the conflict, without making moral presumptions. It is, instead, a construction designed to show us exactly what war is – base brutality raised to the level of an art form.

Whilst the War provided a focus for the New Left and student activists, their protests were ultimately of little use, because they really had no understanding of what the war was. Only those who have never been to war can dismiss it as transparently pointless and brutal, and those involved as hired killers; Coppola shows us, in the form of Captain Willard, and the members of the Air Cav., men swept up in the distorted psychic currents of the war, "sucked up the river, into the jungle", fighting and murdering people because that's what happens, abusing the South Vietnamese (washing them into rivers with boat wakes, searching boats and shooting on sight) not because it helps in the fight against the Viet Cong, but precisely because the impulses of aggression and domination have become the norm, ontological facts, and suffuse every inch of the landscape, every frame of film with their searing but sullen colours. Kurtz represents the exact pinnacle of this process, exterminating Viet Cong with his army from his temple fortress, with a clinical disinterest, only wishing to talk about childhood memories of flowers and read poetry out loud, like a Victorian aesthete. His interest in warfare has passed beyond the point of practical interest to aesthetic disinterest, his extermination techniques near-enough perfected: "The strength of will required to do that… If only I had ten divisions of these men, our troubles would very quickly be over." (This corresponds with the often non-verbal nature of the film, in which Coppola shows us, as at the end, in which the temple is silently bombarded with bombs and napalm, the concrete nature, what Alan W. Watts, translating the Buddhist term tathata calls 'suchness'; such attitudes toward warfare are highly cultivated within Japan, in which Zen's treatment of everyday life and craft as the source and substance of awakening is a prime influence. It might be no coincidence that much of the last ten minutes of the film is filled with shots of Buddha statues, nor that Kurtz has his head shaved in the same way as a Buddhist monk.)

By contrast, we're presented with the absurdity of the 'Playboy Bunnies' scene, in which the girls deliberately play up to the obvious implications of girls wielding guns (dressed, BTW, as a cowgirl, an Indian, and a Yankee troop (I think), representatives of the bloodshed that lies at the root of modern American culture, perpetuating the nightmare these original acts of extermination started off) only to find their show comprehensively bum-rushed. All the details of that scene feel right, from the cheap beat band and mom-and-pop stage host, to the way the girls recoil from the black guys clamouring in the crowd. What is more, it reveals quite plainly the stupidity and brutality that lies at the root of right-wing attitudes to sexuality: the family must be supported, and modesty enforced in young women, but they simultaneously they must act submissively to the men who 'defend our way of life'; the right-wing simultaneously discourages promiscuity (with, of course, beatings and ostracism amongst other things), and encourages the use of rape as a weapon of war. The right-wing attitude to sex is dominated by a deviated obsession with domination and power, an obsession that is short-circuited by human lust, and so produces a distorted mirror image of both. In the vision of warfare-as-discipline that Kurtz represents, and that the Viet Cong unconsciously subscribe to ("Charlie didn't have a lot of time for R&R… All he had to look forward to was cold rice and a little rat meat.") the human element is not merely dominated, but transcended, pushed aside; the soldier goes past the world of human sympathy, turning his fellow beings into mere material for his destructive vocation; sexuality, the fount of mankind's reproduction, is stopped up. The G.I.s' attitude to sexuality is the one that's warped, not Charlie's.

Charlie, of course, is also the name of Mr Manson, who appears briefly, leering out from a newspaper photo: appropriately, as he displayed the same kind of contempt for the oversexed inhabitants of Laurel Canyon; Manson held the same kind of extinction-focused eschatology as Kurtz, and supposedly ended in the same rain of fire that destroys the temple at the very end of the film. The nightmare that was the end of the Sixties pivoted around the madness emanating out of Southeast Asia, and the presence of Manson's image seems to confirm that the world outside of Vietnam really was going insane. But unlike Ballard, for whom the apocalyptic air of the end of the Sixties was a product of the same "white heat of technology" that began it, the matrix of image and sensation in which Vietnam's napalm victims played their own small part, Coppola reaches back, through Bataille and Artaud's renegade Surrealism(s), and Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, to something black-hearted and non-human, animating events beneath the surface of "the illusion of affect" (K-Punk) – "The horror. The horror."

Monday, September 24, 2007

Workload Management For Beginners

Just so you know, reviews such as this last one are no longer going to appear on here, but shall instead appear in their proper place - i.e. here or here (yes, that's right - and I'm very happy, or will be as soon as the CDs I'm meant to be reviewing actually fucking arrive.) Instead this shall constitute the general modus operandi around here (with any luck.)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Return Of The Natives

Club Anemone
The Central, Poole

For me, music has always been an almost entirely asocial thing – a subject and map of private obsessions. The bedroom was my venue, headphones and stereo speakers the media. Lists of records, books and magazines on music pile up all around. That mysterious one-way relationship – between record and listener, ear against the speaker, lyrics whispered under the breath, door closed against the world – was what music meant to me.

No wonder I find gigs hard. Having to find topics of conversation between bands, fumbling around people and things, looking around for people I know (which is always no-one), having to remind myself that what’s coming out of the speakers is made by the people right in front of your nose. Especially this music, which thrives on intimacy, on the sensation that there’s nothing but you, guitar and voice in a room – generally referred to as ‘folk’, but tonight that term seems pretty fucking nebulous. Perhaps the somewhat dingy lighting in The Central, and the sparse stage – upon which tonight’s compeer and organiser, Paul Hardsparrow sits – will help matters. Hm.

“I’ve only had 5 minutes to prepare, so if I forget some things…” Well, he did warn us. Hardsparrow picks out languid, flowing melodies, punctuated by glorious nonsense, delivered in a deadpan near-monotone, like Daniel Johnston circa 1991, if he hadn’t been insane at the time. He quite frequently stops, lets a single strum float, his face caught in an embarrassed smile, or asks us to bear with him as he starts again. It’s the singular charm wrapped around these ideas pouring from his slightly-balding head that pulls him through: only a handful of people could sing songs about fighting squirrels (“This other squirrel came up and bashed him. He went flying about three feet, horizontal” he tells us) and being spied naked as a young child by a paedophile (“Gordo is a paedo/And I’ll never go back to that lido” runs one variation of the chorus; he has to stop the entire song twice), and still get the audience to laugh with him in the intervals.

Quickly enough, Art Pedro is on stage – a member of Fife’s Fence Collective, probably the most famous DIY label in Britain – and busily chugging away at his guitar. He sings pleasantly, almost breezily, about paranoia and the urge to kill everyone giving you funny looks as soon as you leave the house, about loneliness, adultery, people being twats; I’m actually happy that this is live, as his presence – fumbling with his harmonica, not quite able to sing in time with himself because he has to read the words from a sheet of paper on his knee, scrunched up in a Tamla-Motown tee – is so endearing. When Lou Carpenter comes on and harmonises with him, and chides him for forgetting his lines, it’s the icing on the cake, her soft vocals curling through the songs like cigarette smoke, twisting around his guitar picking.

Just as I’m finished checking out the non-raffle (e.g. “free stuff on a table”), Ceylan Delicanli takes the stage (Animal Magic Tricks having been unable to play). Now this is what I think of, when I think of ‘folk’ – a frighteningly pure voice (she apparently beat Frances AMT in a ‘who can sing the highest’ contest), the most charming of guitar melodies, lyrics burnished with the silence of midnight reveries, the gaps between people and things, the passing of time. Thinking about it, your average ‘proper’ folk song – i.e. a song created by, uh, folk – is about as violent as your average power electronics one, and often a lot scarier (listen to Martyn Bates’ and Mick Harris’ Murder Ballads series if you don’t believe me.) So this – chilling the blood and warming the heart in turn – is just what ‘folk’ is meant to do; the world outside briefly disappears, as if the guitar were some talisman in a magickal ritual; we’re literally spellbound.

George Thomas (minus his usual Owls – unless they really are a one-man band, and we’ve been fooled all this time), takes up position behind his Ace-Tone organ, mutters an introduction, and proceeds to inform us “Don’t mess with me/’Cos I’m the former heavyweight champion of the world” over clip-clop beats, nervously fiddling with his hands. I suspect this sort of thing would come under the ‘antifolk’/’truecore’ banner so provocatively and recently raised by Mr Everett True, but then again I don’t really give two fucks about classification; Thomas glides through bizarre, theatrical (in the Endgame sense) songs and slow-burn ballads, his voice sometimes no more than a whisper, floating on moody organ chords. No, it’s not a recreation of the often brilliant and frightening intimacy of his recorded work, but something as good, if not better, a weird performance of supposed intimacy undermined by comedy, and the sheer physical presence of Thomas, a single isolated figure in the darkness, lumberjack stature towering over his organ. “I heard that Saint Eskimo were going to… uhm… play some soppy ballads… so I wanted to play some ballads… from the 80s,” he tells us. You can only laugh, or else you’d cry.

And then, of course, Saint Eskimo, composed of Golden Ghost – an elfin figure, her hands in pockets, glasses crouched on her tiny and beautiful face – and Viking Moses! – waistcoat-and-cravat-clad maverick, eyes burning and hair wild like he’s just wandered out of Wuthering Heights – who gather round either side of the microphone. An electric guitar picks out lines like the trails of fireflies. Their voices intertwine on songs like ‘Folly Of Man’, alternately lusty and playful, childlike and charged with low-key passion. They trade glances (and, occasionally, the guitar), or play coy; at intervals Golden Ghost hunches her shoulders and stares at the floor, like she’s genuinely hurt, and it’s so endearing it near breaks my heart. The songs are all ballads of the best kind, whether reimagined 80s pop songs or moments like the lambent, aching singalong ‘Baptism Dress’. And just occasionally – as, towards the end, they thank the audience for having them in endearing Midwest accents – they look as if they’re really, really enjoying themselves. Guitars are unplugged. An inflatable crab glowers down from the top of a speaker. Maybe public songs aren’t so bad after all.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Yes, more promotional idiocy - this time Pavement-munching caustic-pop-mongers Dutch Husband, who are launching their debut album, joined by out-of-town madmen Delicate Hammers and jerky-angry legends Monkey Head Transplant. A pound for an evening's pleasure - a most fine deal.

Northern Excursion

Up to Leeds this last Thursday for the University Open Day – certainly the place serves my purposes (good English department, Brutalist architecture, males outnumbered by females four-to-one) and there are, allegedly, traces of independent culture still stirring within the city (the annual Chinchillafest DIY festival, the regular Subdub nights at the West Indian Centre, a number of DIY labels, not least the marvellous Jealous Records, a Green Action Food Co-Op in the student union, the pub where Mekons and Gang Of Four drank, if it’s still standing).

Wandering around the campus, though, I kept getting the sense that there was something not quite right. For a start, the people didn’t fit the place: almost every single person I saw was easily identifiable as middle class, and certainly only one or two people could be identified as working class. Thus the quite marvellous interlocking concrete lines and glass expanses were awash in a sea of every current female-student sartorial cliché imaginable: the shemaghs, silk scarves, tiny leather jackets and faux-Sixties floral-print dresses were in full and deathly effect; the stench of hipsterdom, diffused as it has to the previously unwashed masses, filled the place. Of course, whilst I can always appreciate this (on a purely aesthetic level), one has to wonder what the architects, designing for the purposes of working-class enlightenment – not in the sense of fruit-juice-and-book-learning Victorian philanthropy, but the creation of a chunk of the post-capitalist future in the present as a means of advancing the eradication of capital – would think of such a situation. My mental picture of Leeds was, of course, based on thirty-year old information - a smoke-blackened wasteland stuffed with interesting people, perpetually suspended between the punk explosion and the miners' strike.

Walking toward the city centre my suspicions were further confirmed; I suppose it’s my fault, having cultivated a romantic view of Yorkshire and Leeds based on various sources – David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, Rip It Up And Start Again, Factory Records, M.E.S.’s meditations on the Northern occult – it could never live up to it. That combination of Socialism, mysticism and the Northern reputation for righteous ire proved extremely alluring. But the fact is that the place is now quite terrifyingly gentrified – admittedly with more of a delicate hand than, say, London or Brighton – with about five shopping centres squeezed into the central precinct and the entire place apparently populated by Southern hipster-students. This isn’t merely happening, of course, in Leeds but across the North, and the world. This can lead, in some cases, to more interesting things, but rather more often it seems to be producing exceedingly boring cultural product - the very people meant to be in the forefront of advancing culture are retarding it with their ass-backwards approach to the business of creation and maintenance of said culture. "Focking students" - all those horrid NME-Carling-'indie' (note, not 'independent') bands one has stopped listening to the radio to avoid. One wonders how far our neo-liberal masters plan to push this process of blanding-out before the event horizon of some black hole of homogenised boredom is reached.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Monday, September 03, 2007

Found in evangelical literature from local preacher.
Lord, it's been a while since I did one of these. Very satisfying, I must say, as it allows one to be as crude and nasty as possible.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A couple of shows coming up, for anyone in the Dorset/Hampshire area:

An evening of "irregular song" at Poole's The Central, organised by "electro-shanty" singer-guitarist Paul Hardsparrow, under the name Club Anemone. Featuring cracked-mystic folk types Saint Eskimo (a collaboration between members of Viking Moses! and Golden Ghost), intimate Mancunian bird-disturbers George Thomas & The Owls, maverick Fence Collective affiliate Art Pedro, local wonder Animal Magic Tricks, and Mr Hardsparrow himself.

A little closer chronologically is the latest in BhOne's series of gigs at the Central, this Friday:

Including very slightly disturbing singer-songwriter Michael Wookey (who supported The Fall with his band the last time they played in Bournemouth), Animal Magic Tricks, the appropriately frightening Creepythinguy, and Martin Roberts' magisterial Powdered Cows.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Hallowed Scrapings

I-Bar, Bournemouth

In Michael Reeves’ 1967 film The Sorcerers, Ian Ogilvy, as the representative of the arrogant, self-indulgent youth of Swinging London – following his French girlfriend around the beat dungeons of Chelsea and Kensington - is taken home one night by hypnotist Boris Karloff, portrayer of Frankenstein in James Whale’s original adaptation and scion to generations of horror fans. Placed in Karloff’s new machine, resembling an electric chair, he’s bombarded with a kaleidoscopic torrent of noise and light, analogue electronic whooshing and psychedelic flashes. Karloff and his wife, who resents the years of deprivation caused by the scandal that ended his psychiatric career, let him loose, leaving him with no memory of the event. Now able to control Ogilvy’s mind, the wife indulges her whim for fine furs, speeding and violence. When he visits his former lover, he listens to Cliff Richard's 'Out In The Country' on a Dansette, then proceeds to kill her with a pair of scissors, the soundtrack screaming for mercy. Almost a proper 180-turn on Jacques Attali’s theory of noise-as-the-political-economy-of-sound: the tinny-45 beat-group sound of the contemporary, swallowed and immolated by the noise of the old, the fragmenting signal of horror.

On a Thursday night, as the last of the summer revellers prepare to swarm the meat-market battery-clubs of Bournemouth, we’re down in the basement of I-Bar, probably the most clinical venue in town. Fridge Noises, their backs to the audience, rattle out a flow of click-beats interweaved with meandering electronic blasts and live bass. Their keyboardist – looking for all the world like a smaller version of Bournemouth’s own Chris Moss Acid – seems intent recreating the entire history of Krautrock synth arpeggios in one evening, the bassist hitting it at seemingly random intervals. Fuck, I’ll never fathom improvising. I have to plan tying my fucking shoes, for Christ’s sake. But they weave around the sparse beats with more expertise than their experience (and age) warrants, producing a head-nodding, synth-splurging mass of goodness.

With minimal set-up required, Animal Magic Tricks comes on. Frances Donelly’s entrancing Fisher Price meditations are given another shake-up, as she goes from singing literally over the pulses of a toy instrument to ‘Redox’, a tidal wash of noise topped by her wordless siren vocals, which build into terrifying screams before she turns the din down and produces a guitar, picking out the prettiest of melodies and vocalising over the continuing cracked-glass sound. It strikes me that her music is not so much about corruption – the naïf, twee elements of her performance blackened by the violence and cruelty of human relations – as damage, the gradual corrosion that occurs over a lifetime; the ambivalence of her work’s seemingly naïve warmth and beauty, tempered by the scouring cold of digital electronics and her damaged vocals lends a thrilling charge to proceedings, resolving in the hypnotic cadences of her final number, imagery of blood boiling reverberating in shimmering piano chords and burbling atmospheres.

Slate Caverns seems to know a thing or two about atmospheres: having apparently ditched the hip-hop beats he deployed the last time he was seen in these parts (at the #Forbidden Planet# David Lynch Special) instead carving out a slab of sound so heavy and unrelenting it could have been used to kill Catholics during the Reformation. A shifting mass of cavernous electronic throbs, punctuated by occasional blasts of feedback, peaking into teeth-grinding sonic pain, twists of feedback and glowering bass frequencies sounding like they might crack the speakers at any moment. Ah yes, this is exactly why I listened to noise in the first place; the only thing to add would be the spectacle of Dominic Fernow’s amp mutilation, but Slate Caverns’ marvellous beard almost compensates. Vocal samples flash across the surface: "Are. You. OK?" Damn right I am.

Sadistician, meanwhile, uses nothing but a trumpet, a mike and an antiquated computer – no laptop pussyfooting for him. With a mock metal-snarl, he starts the assault: a rollercoaster ride of every conceivable sound source – random arpeggios of jackhammer beats, caustic synth blasts, casual guitar shredding, even a sample from He-Man: Master Of The Universe, everything occasionally dropping out to leave deadpan chatting samples from TV talking heads, before accelerating back into the torrent. Imagine if IDM, instead of dying in the late ‘90s, "gorged on a thousand software patches", as Louis Pattison put it, but continued to grow like the sci-fi monster it should have been, to city-crushing proportions. Sadistician adds his own cookie-monster roar to the mix at intervals, the noise stretching far past what feels like the thirty-minute mark, then accelerating even faster, sounding like some monstrous hybrid of gabba and black metal. He’s finally encouraged to give up as Planet Monkey! starts trying to set up.

PM!’s brand of heavy-duty analogue sound-sculpting connects better in the frigid angles and severe surfaces of the I-Bar basement than the cosy Portman Green Room, where I last saw him play. It’s certainly clearer now what he seems to be after: the channelling of electricity, the manipulated impulses of silicon, into blocks of sound verging on the solid. Crouched over a host of equipment far behind the monitors, the Transformers cartoon playing in the background, the phrase ‘sonic sorcerer’ springs to mind – as with all of tonight’s acts. And whilst the music could use some more motion – or, at the very least, more volume – it’s still a powerful, alchemical effort. As he hops from the floor to the wheels of steel for a DJ set, most go out, into the night air. The efforts made to put together tonight’s show have definitely been worth it, and with the potential to become a regular night, this is beginning to look a singularly important event: a black hole of inspired heaviness situated right in downtown Bournemouth.