Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Turning Back The Tapes: The End Times' 2007, Part 1

“Nothing to say, not a squeak. What’s a year now? The sour cud and the iron stool. [Pause.] Revelled in the word spool. [With relish.] Spooool! Happiest moment of the past half million.”
--Sam Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape

“The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells too, by Jove! – breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated. And there, don’t you see? your strength comes in, the faith in your ability for the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the stuff in – your power of devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking business. And that’s difficult enough.”
--Joseph Conrad, Heart Of Darkness

What is a year now? A surprisingly large amount, actually. They say that adolescence – roughly between the ages of 13 and 20, these days – is meant to be the best time of your life, the short period between your growing aware of what the world offers, and being laboured with responsibility, such that it can’t be enjoyed. Having spent most of the past 5 years in a fug of misery, ranging from general disappointment and melancholy to barely-able-to-move depression (clinical, I’m pretty sure, but certainly undiagnosed at the time, if so), I wouldn’t usually be inclined to agree. Indeed, despite having discovered how to socialise (and drink – the two were massively interlinked) at the end of last year, I predicted a miserable year to close out my adolescence. And, what do you know, a lot of it was, in fact, miserable: between massive Seasonal Affective Disorder (brought on by the rainiest spring in memory), depression, exam nerves, poverty, taking on a mind-numbing call-centre job, and a stupid tendency to attempt to numb myself with drink, I was near-incapacitated for most of the first third of the year. I was then forced to near-abandon my entire social circle, quit my job (yay, even deeper poverty!), quit drinking and submit to as many hours as possible of gruelling, awful revision, every day, until the end of June. (At which point this blog re-opened for business…) Oh, and continual unemployment from July to the start of November, general entropy and hopelessness, blah blah blah.

But… it seems to have turned out alright. It would be impossible to excavate and analyse every contributory factor in that outcome (and would make for horribly dull reading), so I’ll just thank some of the people who’ve made it possible, in their turn. It’s impossible to pinpoint any time between last November (when this blog was re-activated after an eight-month hiatus), that might be said to be the turning point, but that’s probably about right. Watching an interview with Jarvis Cocker on The South Bank Show back in (I think) October, I was struck when he mentioned that “I kept expecting to get to this big moment, when suddenly everything’s brilliant, and everything’s going to be alright in the future. And I kept waiting, and waiting, and this thing didn’t really arrive, and things changed of themselves.” (Or words to that effect.) It’s not so much a matter, as I believed, of learning how to live, as a matter of finally settling into the damned business like, y’know, everyone else. My days are more busy now than they ever were in education; I'm doing what I choose to do, and getting involved more than ever before. It may not sound like much, but this is the kind of stuff I never thought I'd say. Anyway.

Personally, the jury is still out as to how this year has done for music – whilst bloggers and major-league critics like Reynolds, K-Punk, Woebot, Nick Gutterbreakz, and - in a different sense, and more horribly - the professional gripers and point-missers at Mojo, The Word and the major dailies, have made more and more accusations of music ‘slowing down’ in terms of innovation and goodness, many have pronounced it an extremely fine year, from the Pitchfork and Dusted e-zines, to the greater blogging hive-mind, to the esteemed Plan B magazine have been reporting on an embarrassment of musical riches – the new Burial album, M.I.A.’s Kala, Marnie Stern’s In Advance Of The Broken Arm, Dan Deacon’s Spiderman Of The Rings, new albums from Robert Wyatt, Les Savy Fav and Battles – some of which I’ve actually, ahem, gotten round to listening to *grimaces*. Unfortunately, my ears have been directed to other places this year, for a massive variety of reasons – penury, rediscovering some of my old loves, but mostly combing through the archives of music history, following threads, investigating, getting too excited about things I’d discovered to pay much attention to what was going on with everyone else. No doubt I’ll eventually get round to listening to most of the albums that have been included on my ‘Should Have Listened To’ list, but in the meantime I’m just enjoying myself. Certainly, reading the few Year-End things that have emerged so far, I find it hard to believe that nothing good has emerged outside of the Britney-bassline-Burial camp that’s set tongues a-wagging among K-Punk et. al. I wonder whether the ‘archive effect’ that K-Punk bemoans – technology giving people access, essentially, to the entire recorded history of music, and the attendant reissue industry – is necessarily a bad thing: one of the reasons for my excitement this year has been the ability to pick good things from all over time; furthermore, its effects on production are not necessarily bad: I certainly can’t imagine the likes of Plan B fave ‘Atlas’ by Battles, existing without such cultural time-travelling. Perhaps the slight downer attitude on the part of the major critics is a result of aging, disenchantment from having ‘heard it all before’ (whereas I haven’t, and needn’t pretend I have.)

By the sake token, scanning over the ‘official’ Best-Of-2007 lists – mainly that of the Observer Music Monthly, and occasional flicks through the music channels – I feel that this year will probably be judged as not-exactly-vintage: any list that includes Manu Chao, Klaxons, The View, Mark ‘that covers cunt’ Ronson, Arctic Monkeys, and Kate Nash for best singles, and The Good, The Bad And The Queen, Kings Of Leon’s worst album, Arctic Monkeys (again) and Arcade Fire for albums, must be rather embarrassing. But if, later, 2007 is judged as some kind of year of musical drought, there will be plenty of evidence to point to and say otherwise.

But, seeing as I can count the number of new albums I’ve bought this year on one hand, this Top 20 list is compiled from all my purchases for the entire year:

1. Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back/Fear Of A Black Planet

In hindsight, I was just about ready for this. After two months of unemployment, and a handful of local gigs (including the last two Reckno events), I was, by turns, dejected and ready to rip apart anyone who came near me. And heading out, in new shoes, one morning, mulling over the Urban section in Dragon Discs, just down the road from me, and finally buying them; walking around town, meeting Chris from True Swamp Neglect on the way back, and putting Nation Of Millions on, not knowing what to expect… and... ABSOLUTELY FUCKING BRUTAL. Like some kind of kaleidoscopic videotheque, a Burroughs cut-up of the funkiest beats of the twentieth century, prophecy, ass-shaking, electricity… I could say alternately how much I loved the Bomb Squad’s production and the raps, but the two operate symbiotically, Chuck and Flav’s vocals sucked into the whirlpool, scratched and stretched, and at the same time calling the amazing propulsive razor-edit grooves into being for the purposes of propaganda, of empowerment in the face of downpression, of independence and righteousness. If anything, it was this that made me quit drinking, that finally turned me off self-destruction in the name of any thing or experience, because nothing could fuck with my mind and my world like this, nothing gave me a better feeling… And it’s even fun in places: the rockist Method acting sham of ‘authenticity’ is dropped, and Chuck, Flav, Terminator X and Professor Griff can drop jokes, trade banter (the start of ‘Caught, Can We Get A Witness’, the middle of ‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’), big themselves up (‘Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic’), set off amusing samples (the “you dope pushing, using your position as a DJ to sell drugs!” in ‘Terminator X…’), interject randomly (Prof. Griff’s “Yo, I ain’t milquetoast!” line in ‘Louder Than A Bomb’)… The sheer raw, rattling cut-and-paste energy of ‘Bring The Noise’, ‘Louder Than A Bomb’, ‘Night Of The Living Baseheads’, ‘Rebel Without A Pause’, makes sure you motherfuckin’ know musical innovation needn’t be at the expense of an ascetic, Puritan attitude, that musical amazingness needn’t be separate from serious political intent… Fear Of A Black Planet I don’t dig so much, not least because the Bomb Squad’s production is so amazing that Chuck and Flav seem intent on hiding behind it, and it’s full of filler (‘Meet The G That Killed Me’, ‘Pollywannacracka’, ‘Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man’, ‘Leave This Off Your Fuckin’ Charts’, ‘Final Count Of The Collision Between Us And The Damned’) but at least ‘Brothers Gonna Work It Out’, ‘911 Is A Joke’, ‘Welcome To The Terrordome’ and ‘Burn Hollywood Burn’ are bona-fide classics. It’s hard to believe that musical retards like The View, whom boring pub rockers The Clash would have been embarrassed by, still exist twenty years after this: what the hell went wrong? And what can we do to make it right?

2. John Coltrane Quartet – Live At Antibes 1965

If there were an award for ‘Musical Find Of The Year’, this would get it: possibly the most badly-packaged album ever – it claims on the sleeve to be A Love Supreme, features almost no sleeve-notes, says nothing about the musicians or the music, and just features a badly-cropped blue-tinted picture of Trane on the sleeve – it turned out to be a live recording, now out of print in its main edition, of the ‘classic quartet’ performing ‘A Love Supreme’ in its entirety on the only occasion they did so. And if that opening sax motif – just a handful of notes dotted among the clouds of cymbal buzz, bass and piano chords – weren’t enough, then the austere-but-generous groove will do to seduce you. After a couple of minutes that crawl a little thanks to some overenthusiastic honking from Trane, and an uncharacteristically stumbling McCoy Tyner solo, by around the 14-minute mark, as Trane’s tenor rises out of the ensemble, you’re absolutely enraptured. The melodic code that spirals through the suite, like words through a piece of seaside rock – that sudden, irresistible swell of notes that Trane pulls off again and again, with almost telepathic support from the rest of the Quartet, so yearning and wrenching, but not miserable; neither minor nor major key, if I’m not mistaken - simultaneously holds the entire thing together, and allows it to shoot off into the stars. The soloing is exploratory, but not over-indulgent, the ensemble passages spare in their materials, but rich in content, and the playing is more forceful than the now rather tame album version, imbuing it with the energy, space and danger it needed, outside the realm of the studio, Trane’s occasional screams and honks making more sense in this context. And there are bits – like the moment after Jimmy Garrison’s bowed bass solo, when the entire ensemble suddenly swells, and Trane comes up like a killer whale out of water, or after the Garrison solo at the start of twenty-minute second track ‘Impressions’, when Elvin Jones' cymbals lead the way for the rest of the Quartet to surge in – when you just feel as if let loose. For rather obvious reasons, I’m not a praying man, but just listening – whether late-night, or on cold morning walks, birdsong just audible through the headphones – to the roar and quest of this ensemble… ah hell.

3. Scott Walker – The Drift

It was inevitable. A year after everyone else, and six months after first listening to Tilt, The Drift floated into my life like a black, glowing mist. I bought it around the same time as I got last year’s star noise album, Wolf Eyes’ Human Animal; it’s not difficult to guess which one scares me more. And whilst there are still bits I can’t connect with – the guitar lunge of ‘Cossacks Are’, ‘The Escape’s spastic arpeggio-and-harmonica of a chorus, chintzy acoustic and incongruous Donald Duck impression – they shouldn’t even really be remarked upon. This whole album is one big glowering mindstate, a portrait of humanity through an utterly uncompromisingly powerful lens, an entire world in silicon (or shellac, if you prefer). Even watching 30th Century Man, and seeing how the effects were achieved – punching a miked-up pork shoulder, whacking a box with a cinder block and scraping it with a dustbin, forcing an orchestra through horrifying recording and playing conditions – and reading the revelatory interview Walker did with The Wire last year left me none the braver, not much more the wiser. There’s little to no explicability in The Drift, no easy answers, precisely because he’s pursuing a new language, trying to speak the words of the posthumous (in Blanchot’s sense), or the post-human, a time when there will be no language, no subject to speak. He is becoming words without a speaker, sound without articulation. “Alive/I’m the only one left alive,” he sings on ‘Jessie’, just the voice in silence, where before it was nothing but stark baritone guitar and screaming string drones. There is nothing necessarily human about this music – and if there is, it’s the last human – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: I wrote, back in July, that “there’s a distinct sense of claustrophobia in the texts, paradoxes and difficulties, mortality, desolation and disease, the sheer awkwardness, the difficulty of material being, hemming you in”, but by the same token it allows the voice, the sound to float free, to drift. The music operates on the level of a sound virus, an enveloping nightmare free of any agent. But anyway…. the sound design, the burnished-black, tactile texture, the by-turns velvety and hollowed-out beauty of that voice, the sheer alien amazingness of the sounds, and the odd touching moments – the trembling finale of ‘Clara’, the stark stanzas of ‘Hand Me Ups’ (“Shrugged off/the/splintering white bone/Teeth shaken/out with/a stroke/Brain running/down along spear… I felt/the nail/driving/into my/foot/while I/felt the/nail/driving/into my/hand”), the pathetic elegy of ‘Buzzers’, and that ridiculous “psst-psst” on ‘A Lover Loves’, which ends with “everything/within reach” – make this easily the album of the decade thus far. Not a hole I’ll disappear down too often.

4. Panda Bear – Person Pitch

Who? You know, the guy from that bunch of wishy-washy hippies, Animal Collective? Although I might have gotten rather excited about the campfire-psych/New Weird explosion a year or two ago, it had, by now, somewhat passed me by; I never did bother buying that copy of Sung Tongs, and probably never will. Same with black metal/Van Halen aficionado Joseph Stannard, who reviewed Person Pitch in March’s Plan B, and immediately set my saliva glands a-flood. Hearing ‘Bros’ a couple of weeks later, I was almost tempted to part immediately with my dwindling money. Fast forward to the beginning of May, and, having abandoned what constituted my ‘social circle’ (ha!), and spending all day, every day, at home, revising, I finally bought a copy – as sleeping aid and bulwark against exam-induced psychosis. And, from the first, hypnotic chorales of ‘Comfy In Nautica’, it was so much more: the ‘pop narcotic’ in excelsis, a melted opiate dream featuring the Beach Boys, Gregorian chant, West African pop bands, Ricardo Villalobos, Basic Channel, Giorgio Moroder, Galaxie 500, and Seefeel; not simply a headrush, but an extraordinary long-distance swim of an album, like (as Stannard noted) “discover[ing], miraculously, that [you] could breathe underwater.” The occasional defence of pop music on the grounds that it articulates fantasies that people need to work out is rebuffed by the frightening mundanity of most pop; only Panda Bear comes close, like the early Jesus And Mary Chain, in constructing a sound as intoxicating as his wild thoughts. ‘Bros’, though not the longest track, is obviously the centrepiece: a weightless, enveloping dream, like the Platonic Ideal of a pop song come to life, in which every sweet-as-sugar sound is mirror-reflected into infinity, the beat – shimmering like sunlight through the surface of water, seen from below – mutating and reiterating like a fractal. And no matter how many mixed similes I slap on top of it, I can never really capture the sheer, utter beauty of listening to it, the quietly ecstatic pleasure of listening to it, never wanting it to end, and never envisioning it doing so. And that’s just the third track. There’s still the serene space-pop of ‘I’m Not’ and ‘Ponytail’, the whirpool of ‘Good Girl/Carrots’ (which gets me dancing even if there’s no room to move) and the amniotic bliss of ‘Search For Delicious’; and if all those titles, and many of the lyrics, suggest a certain infantilism – an accusation often levelled at the boyish Animal Collective, but particularly the cute Noah Lennox – then that’s far from the case: all of these songs simply suggest another means of viewing the concrete fabric of everyday life, the increasing tribulations of adulthood, of dealing with them not by retreating, but by realising that subject and object, past, present and future can blend into one, that you can make your own world within this one – all you need is a computer and a few ideas. Panda Bear is there to tell you that it’s actually OK, things actually will be alright, despite everything: “Things get better/Wait and you’ll see… it’s not that easy, but/I don’t want for us to take pills”, he says softly, a smile on his face. “Try to remember always/Just to have a good time.” I’ll try.

5. Ghostface Killah – Ironman

My favourite Wu-Tang moment: the bit on Raekwon The Chef’s ‘Guillotine (Swordz)’, where Ghost drops the couplets “14-carat gold slum computer wizard/Tapping inside my rap pain causes blizzards/Do I like the kills for ice Trife like botta digits/Gorillas injected with strength for eighty midgets”, which never ceases to put me in stitches; the rest of his turn on that song simply leaves me on the floor. As it is, Ironman – in which Ghostface, the most talented warrior of the Clan, was finally let completely loose, and the RZA had sharpened his technique to an unequalled razor edge – flies past Only Built 4 Cuban Linx into the upper echelons of this chart. Ghost, Cappadonna, Rae’ and a host of co-conspirators including Method Man, U-God, Inspektah Dek and the unfairly neglected Masta Killa deliver an unrelentingly inventive verbal hailstorm over easily the most impressive beats of the RZA’s career – from the heartbreaking, fractured soul of ‘Camay’ and ‘Motherless Child’, the vinyl-hissing gospel storm of ‘Black Jesus’ (whence was born Kanye West’s entire aesthetic) to the bangin’ cyclical funk of ‘Daytona 500’ and Cinemascope epic ‘The Soul Controller’ – with more double-take, jaw-drop or belly-laugh moments than can be counted – ‘260’s horn-filled drug-dealing story, worthy of Irvine Welsh, ‘Poisonous Darts’, in which Ghost uses the word ‘psyburst’ and mentions the sleeping gas umbrella from The Prisoner, the whole of ‘Winter Warz’, which has provided with me with a new journalistic catchphrase (“My technique alone blows doors straight off their hinges”), the whole of Cappadonna’s turn on ‘Daytona 500’, Ghost’s increasingly abstract, mind-melting flows in the record’s final third, and, just for balance, his tender, unsentimental ballad, ‘All That I Got Is You’ describing his childhood (“Seven o'clock, pluckin roaches out the cereal box”) and giving thanks for the gift of his own kids. More than any rapper to emerge during the 90s, Ghost is complex, and (unlike, say, Tupac) good with it: he may play the hustler or player, but by reaching back into black music’s storied past – the rich seam of biblical sorrow that runs from the blues, through gospel, soul and conscious hip-hop – his work becomes so much more rewarding, a sampled ghost-present of heterogeneous power. Motherfuckin’ bulletproof indeed.

6. Talking Heads – Remain In Light

“Vision of a psychedelic Africa”, huh? I can dig it. Although I didn’t bother until, almost randomly – as if the coincidence had been pre-programmed – they played ‘Once In A Lifetime’ on MTV2, and I caught it during a rare revision break. The next day I bought a copy of Remain In Light. The nervous, massed funk of ‘Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)’, and Crosseyed And Painless’ whilst compelling, failed to overwhelm as I’d expected; it was nice to have someone say for me “Can’t stop/I might end up the hospital/Changing my shape/I feel like an accident”, but ultimately this wasn’t quite what I’d bought it for. But then: the floodgates opened. ‘The Great Curve’ spills out of the speakers with a generous, spirited groove, the kind of funk that shakes both asses and continents; “the world moves on a woman’s hips” – it certainly does, and it was this song that gave me the strength to admit it, to grind the fucking shitty egocentric, life-hating view I had of women, and dancing, and love, and beauty, and all those other things, into the fucking ground. Despite Walter Benjamin’s arguments to the contrary, I’m sure even some recorded music still carries a ritual, magickal function; this album confirms it by drawing links between the holy-roller ecstasy of American funk and the possessions and ceremonies of West African religions, between the all-night amphetamined dancing of Northern Soul and the 12-hour dances of initiate shamans, between the jubilant torture of the best free jazz and the uproarious shriek of township brass. The swaying, aquatic lilt of ‘Once In A Lifetime’ – easily one of the 10 best songs of the past 30 years, or whatever – a pop song about shedding the inherited psychic detritus of Western civilisation, of burying yourself beneath the water, moves both the bones and the heart; and it’s not merely about a renewal – it is that renewal itself; you can feel the water washing down through your body as you sway your arms to the chorus: “Letting the days go by/Let the water hold me down”. Drenched in watery synth, bass and percussion kicking like ripples, David Byrne’s voice disappearing in the ecstatic chorus, warping under effects, breathing underwater: just perfect. The odd ‘Houses In Motion’ and ‘Seen And Not Seen’, by turns itchy and a bit sinister, are followed by the utterly incredible ‘Listening Wind’, a psychedelic clockwork toy of a rhythm topped by whistling-wind synth, David Byrne telling the most pathetic story of resistance – something I no longer even thought possible – that soundtracked so many exhausted, serotonin-depleted afternoons; and finally, ‘The Overload’ which I would love even it were just for the lines “A gentle collapsing/The removal of the insides/I’m touched by your feelings/I value these moments”, and that chorus… a black, swarming hive of a song – a psychedelic daymare on a par with any of PIL’s nightmares, constructed entirely out of effects and skeletal Joy Division drums. An album of love, of darkness – the only things I need to know about at the moment.

7. The Birthday Party – Live 81-82

Found in possibly the scummiest second-hand CD shop in Bournemouth, this is, undoubtedly, the best album by one of the greatest groups of the Twentieth Century, recorded in the brief span between formulating the rusted-razor attack of Junkyard and turning dull-as-dirt. From the opening version of ‘Junkyard’ – a sprawling death-machine of a groove, bristling with sharp edges and rust – to the closing version of The Stooges’ ‘Funhouse’, featuring sax by Foetus’ J.G. Thirlwell and some incredible, death-scream guitar by Roland Howard, and the youthful Nick Cave’s screams literally overloading the equipment. It should be mentioned here that The Birthday Party, like forefathers The Stooges, basically have two songs: a slow one, and a fast one. They’re both good – the former represented by a lumbering ‘King Ink’ that’ll buckle your knees with bass pressure, the face-scouring guitar-scrawl-and-crawl of ‘The Friend Catcher’, and the Dario Argento nightmare of ‘She’s Hit’; the latter by superlative versions of ‘A Dead Song’, ‘Zoo-Music-Girl’ (“My life is a box full of dirt/My life is a box full of dirt/Our lives are boxes of dirt…Oh God, please let me die beneath her fists!”), an incredible ‘Blast Off!’, a raging hurricane of guitar barbs flying round a bass-and-drum groove, and the psycho-knocking-on-the-door relentlessness of ‘Hamlet (Pow Pow Pow)’. The Birthday Party seem to be the only band apart from the Pop Group from that era who were interested in true ritualistic rock – not as in ‘band and audience join together’, but transfixing catharsis, a theatre of cruelty that could only be achieved by artificiality and distance. They may rock to kingdom come, but they’re not rockist – incredible talent is directed at setting up the messiest of musical brawls, Tracey Pew and Phill Calvert’s rhythms the only stable element in a maelstrom of overloaded guitar scratch and Nick Cave’s auto-destructive howls; they slash again and again at the monsters, try again and again to attain satisfaction, but ultimately it’s them who calls up the monsters, whose psychic mechanisms ensure they’ll never be satisfied, and will destroy themselves in doing so. It’s like The Holy Bible 13 years ahead of time; in fact, it’s better than The Holy Bible, because The Birthday Party realise that self-destruction in the name of intellect is useless when it’s just as easy to get stoopid. The most eviscerating Lacanian punk album ever.

8. Young Marble Giants – Colossal Youth (3CD edition w/ Singles And Salad Days and John Peel Session 1980)

It would be ridiculous to simply reprise the words I wrote back in August, so I’ll just note here that I’ve changed my mind: the album’s not perfect, but only because ‘The Taxi’ is a bit dull. Otherwise, this is utterly I.M.M.A.C.U.L.A.T.E., from the tunes’ frightening litheness, the album’s sound sequencing, and the restrained spite and despair of the lyrics, to the Moxham brothers’ way with a rhythm, the bittersweet tones of Alison Statton, and the utterly heartbreaking, weightless groove of ‘Wurlitzer Jukebox’. Add to that the perfectly-formed ‘Final Day’ and ‘Peel Session’ EPs, and – despite complaints from certain quarters – Simon Reynolds’ scholarly, masterful sleevenotes, and you’ve got one timeless pleasure.

9. Galaxie 500 – On Fire/This Is Our Music

If ever there were a group proving that the ‘studio-as-instrument’ approach works with rock bands, it’s Galaxie 500: drenched in reverb until it’s difficult to tell what’s the original sound, and what echo, the combined winter dreams of these two records were a perfect accompaniment to a summer spent staring into puddles; they’re even better now, when my time is spent staring at frost. While Naomi Yang’s persistent, melodic basslines, and Damon Krukowski’s drumming – leisurely, full of cymbals, providing more texture than rhythm – provide a highly flexible spine to these songs, it’s Dean Wareham’s out-of-tune wail-and-croon, like Lou Reed on ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ if he’d gone off his meds, and evanescent guitar scrawl, a swirling pool of liquid treble drenching everything, that fills up most of the space, and makes the songs so delectable. The contrast between the marvellous viscerality of the solos on ‘When Will You Come Home’, ‘Another Day’, ‘Fourth Of July’ and the beautiful Yoko Ono cover ‘Listen, The Snow Is Falling’ and the molasses effect of the shimmering reverb is what gives their songs such a magnetic pull: the keening lines of guitar on ‘Ceremony’ are a dream of a million fireflies, all moving in slow motion. I spent so much stressed time over the summer, trying to forget about my unemployment, buried beneath these records – afternoons spent agonising over hopeless applications, trying to take the edge off; evenings slipping away in red wine and echoed vocals; going to sleep, head filled with glowing fog, feeling a breeze lift you up – and their bittersweet, helpless, yearning apathy – the temptation to simply sink into an oblivion of mild sweetness – was one of the things that helped me remain sane, if only by reminding me such possibilities existed.

10. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Fuckin’ ‘landmark’ apparently. As if I could give a shit. There are definitely bits on here I could do without – ‘Clan In Da Front’, more or less a waste of space and the less-than-interesting ‘Method Man’ (I prefer the ‘Skunk Mix’ version added as a bonus track.) But apart from that, the debut album by the Wu represents the purest manifestation of an aesthetic that shook hip-hop – and still shakes many listeners – to their very core. The MCs’ contrasting styles generate enough friction to set off anyone’s powderkeg: though not yet fully formed, all of the mike wreckers here are young, lean and hungry, resulting in some quite amazing posse cuts (‘Bring Da Ruckus’, ‘Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber’, ‘Protect Ya Neck’) and a general quality level such that some of the lesser MCs (U-God, Method Man, Inspektah Dek, the RZA) would be star turns on anyone else’s LP. From Ghost’s laser-guided, unstoppable attack, firing off tongue-twisters and hitting every chink in the listeners’ armour, to the GZA’s slithering, oily flow, effortlessly laying down calculus-complex metaphors (and, indeed, similes), to ODB’s erratic, um, uniquely idiosyncratic style (“There ain’t no father to his style – that why he the Old Dirty Bastard”), there’s more than enough moments that compel repeats, and yield more detail and delight with repeated listening. The unceasing vigorousness of the rhymes combines with the RZA’s unique production style – a stitching-together of all the fragments no other producer would touch with a metaphorical barge-pole (melancholy piano licks, pop-soul choruses, slick strings, fingerclicks for percussion on ‘Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ To Fuck With’, what sounds like cutlery, or Eraserhead-style steam jets on ‘Protect Ya Neck’, distorted bass and horn skronks on ‘Wu-Tang 7th Chamber), ends clipped off, all filtered through vinyl hiss, weak sound (that weedy organ on ‘Wu-Tang Ain’t Nuthin’…’) and over-compression – to turn the entire Clan into an inexorable, inhuman groove machine, inserting themselves beneath your skin, burrowing inside your head, dispatching ostensible enemies by the dozen. “This style is immensely strong, and immune to nearly any weapon; when it’s properly used, it’s almost invincible.” Maybe not quite, but you’d better believe the hype.

To Be Continued...


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