Saturday, December 29, 2007

Turning Back The Tapes: The End Times' 2007, Part 2

Top 20 Albums of 2007, Part 2:

11. Pharaoh Sanders – Karma

Just as the grey skies and subsequent catatonia of November began to lock in, with me mostly desperate and grim, trying to keep my JSA and sanity at the same time, I scored a triple: a new job, a first published review (it may not sound like much, but it was infinitely exciting seeing my name – I did a little jump and squeal), and what looked like a further acceptance into the local community. And, as I debated which Coltrane album to get next, I scored this for a fiver at a CD shop on the wrong side of Boscombe – rain running off asphalt and crappy storefronts, every gaze blank and sullen – (along with a copy of Pet Shop Boys’ Discography for 50p!) Sanders was the frontrunner in the post-Coltrane ‘deep jazz’ school, and this album, recorded in 1969, is one of the absolute best examples of that approach: revolving around 32-minute opener ‘The Creator Has A Masterplan’, it’s opulent, overcrowded, shamelessly maudlin (“People say that life is misery/But in him there is no mystery/so he sends to us his rainbow of love”), so vague in its religiosity it verges on New Age claptrap, and absolutely massively lovingly screamingly joyful. Dropping from a lush, billowing intro – Sanders’ tenor shrieking over fields of bells, piano, and bass drum – into a languid groove, Sanders twisting a pretty melody out of shape to James Spaulding’s flute trills and sunshowers of percussion, it snakes and winds through enormous collective rave-ups – Sanders accelerating, chasing that melodic fragment through a million variations, then finally into full-on shrieking, the vocalist wooping and yodelling, percussive forests and huge, cavernous ringings of twin bass and piano. Working its way through several of these collective romps, but always returning to that central melody, this is a celebration in sound, a jubilant odyssey. Second track ‘Colours’ floats by in a haze of bells, piano and cymbals, Sanders exploring tiny supporting melodies alongside baritone vocalist Leon Thomas, a simply lovely, earthly come-down after the spacey highs of ‘The Creator…’ Whatever the hell kind of notions of spirituality I might have, they’re not here; that doesn’t matter – it’s just a swim through bliss, an incredible uplift; a comfort not quite of this earth.

12. The Pop Group – Y

I remember searching Ebay for copies of Y a couple of years ago, and eventually coming to the conclusion it was just one of those albums I would never hear; listening to ‘We Are Time’, ‘Beyond Good And Evil’ and ‘We Are All Prostitutes’ was mind-expanding, but hardly world-shattering – having heard The Holy Bible, and read Rip It Up And Start Again, I knew something of the sheer power of the sound already. But when, on ‘Thief Of Fire’, the feedback and Mark Stewart’s bestial croak wheel round into a JBs groove slathered with parasitical itches of guitar and Stewart bobbing and weaving in volume, the entire sound always threatening to detonate, implode, or just collapse, understanding how astonishing this record must have been in 1979 isn’t even necessary: it still carries the charge of a future shock, the force of dynamite under a day-to-day reality that, a so-called ‘reality’ (read: ‘cultural hegemony’) that hasn’t changed in thirty years, merely gotten worse. Back in July, I suggested that the band’s ruthless eclecticism was “anti-imperialist strategy taken to its logical conclusion: not merely siding with the victims of colonialism, but deconditioning, the destruction of Western culture’s grip on the psyche of the band themselves”; it seems to me now that it was, more than anything, the act of following on from punk’s promise that “nothing is true, everything is permitted”; if everything is permitted, then why not use everything? It was, in the circumstances, the only reasonable demand: an impossible one – namely, that sound should collapse the entire stinking pseudo-world, that the so-called reality principle on which reactionary politics are founded should be demolished by the possibilities that lay in the deconstruction of sound. Thus, ‘We Are Time’ sounds like the entire world building itself up and tearing itself down from the inside, the absences as important as the building materials; ‘Savage Sea’ floats, evanescent, on the edge of hearing, and declares a state of permanent exile; ‘The Boys From Brazil’ conjures up a buzzing tribal jungle, the air thick with dub-frequency humidity, Stewart fading in and out of hearing where direction becomes impossible to tell. “To raise a sanctuary, a sanctuary must be destroyed – that is the law”, Nietzsche said, and Y was the attempt to really finish the latter, and begin the former; they didn’t succeed, but they left one hell of a impact zone in the attempt.

13. Dizzee Rascal – Boy In Da Corner

Again, 4 years too late: my discovery of grime proper came after both the ‘what-the-fuck-was-that?’ peak of ’04, and its period of potential crossover (which lasted, ooh, a week?) Back in its underground position, grime was in one of its most fertile periods, but felt inaccessible – its London-centric parochialism, the labyrinthine morass of low-quality control mixtapes, the lack of time preventing me from listening to pirate radio online; even the few Logan Sama shows I caught promised something which couldn’t quite come across on the few grime artist albums (even Wiley’s Playtime Is Over was a seriously mixed bag). So then, it’s back to ’03, to the “exploding station” (Marcello Carlin) of the decade, picked up for £5 at the appropriately-named Rhythms in Boscombe. Dizzee is easily the most psychologically fascinating MC to emerge in Britain since Roots Manuva: the macho boasts and manifold threats (“Take off your latch, I don’t even need a ratch/My butterfly leave you looking like a sieve”) that populate these assaults-in-the-form-of-songs are the other side of the coin to the pain, desperation and catatonic misery evident on ‘Sittin’ Here’, ‘Brand New Day’ and ‘Cut ‘Em Off’ (in which regretful, doped choruses of “I’m just crazy” alternate with cracked gasps that “You can never talk to me about Skengs (click, click)”); the passive-aggressive, self-assured front is revealed as a function of the deathly environment Raskit needs to survive in. An architecture of electricity – constructed out of crude bass bleeps, video-game effects, percussion like your face being smacked into concrete (the brutal edits of ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’), police sirens, gun-shots, and garage’s seductive textures chopped, screwed and uglified. The relentless alien power of the sound is multiplied by endless smile-raising details: the squelchy bass drum, synth interpolations, feisty female on ‘I Luv U’, Diz’s nervous, stuttering flow navigating through its angles on the lines “She’s a bad girl on the bus though/It’s Captain Rusko with a crossbow/She came, she got kicked off, yo/Nah it’s not a love t’ing, get lost hoe/Dizzee Rascal come down like snow/With freezing cold flows like Moscow” (so good I have to quote it in full), the Asian flutters on ‘Sittin’ Here’, the taut string rhythm, muchkin vox and hyperactive Wiley guest spot (“I’m a ninja turtle!”) on ‘2 Far’, the line “I’m a problem for Anthony Blair” in ‘Hold Ya Mouf’, the deadpan voice at the start of ‘Seems 2 Be’ telling us “To be honest, I am totally and completely on his dick” before the track drops into brutal electronic squelches, the twisted, barbed-wire drum pattern and sonar bleeps of ‘Live O’, and the contrast between billowing bass clouds and bright-as-sun strings on closer ‘Do It!’. It’s here that the album’s emotional power becomes utterly wrenching, as Diz struggles to glimpse light, fights against the down-sucking currents and admits, incidentally, that he might be losing (“If I had the guts to end it all, believe I would”) but he keeps on the fruitless struggle (“By the end of the night will be the day/Just pray that you see it”). The fact that he went, from this futurist blizzard of an album, to making circa-1988 hip-hop and circa-2000 garage on this year’s Maths + English doesn’t bode well at all for our future; but it’s good just to listen.

14. Burial – Burial

Again, again, almost a year late; but perhaps worth waiting for: I first read about Burial, on K-Punk, whilst hungover on New Years’ Day, eating cereal and waiting for my vomit-covered jeans and jacket to be washed. Immediately, the talk of ghosts, the fascinating namedrops I would later be able to appreciate, but which were then filled with the allure of the strange – Pole, Tricky, the hardcore ‘nuum, dubstep – even the cold, regimental design of the K-Punk page, made me want to listen. Then buying an MP3 copy off Boomkat, listening to it a bit, burning it to CD, putting it on high volume to feel the bass… For music that generated so many virtual column inches, it’s remarkably difficult to describe, to pin down, it’s such an engulfing, free-floating, marvellous and richly-detailed sound; it’s difficult not to reprise the words of others, to mutter ghosts of sentences… Burial is an urban séance, a communion with the next world through the medium of broken autotunes, old rave, jungle and 2-step records, and the resonant spaces of brick ruins; it brings the two extremes of deep, dubby ambient (Beaumont Hannant, Brian Eno, Boards Of Canada) and breakbeat propulsion into a molten, glistening, melancholy whole. Deep, dark synths, warm, enwombing bass and layers of interlocking clicks and beats, faded, heard as if through the fluctuating signal of EVP, are laced with flickering voices and clouds of crackle. Having never even been near the rave and jungle generations, I can’t listen to this as any kind of ‘requiem for the ‘nuum’; but the sheer, utter hurt in ‘Gutted’, ‘U Hurt Me’ and ‘Forgive’ makes me misty-eyed just thinking about it. This may well be a London album, but watching a computer screen, or walking round Bournemouth, late at night, singles or couples of zombie revellers staggering around hopelessly by you, the immense, overwhelming mass of the sea washing against the concrete breaks at the top of the beach, or bussing through the sterile affluence of Westbourne and the bleaker multicultural districts of Parkstone, still gives some sense of its awe-inspiring, magnetic power. When the crackle-swelled ‘Pirates’, a divination of the psychic currents of the city, drifting, fragmented pirate radio voices blending into rainfall and crackle, bass into the rumble of public works, woodblock beats into buildings flashing past your car, bleeps into malfunctioning office computers, drifts to a close, ‘Untitled’ gives us as good a description as any: “I happened to look in the mirror… And, I swear to God, I see something, I can’t describe… but it sure as hell is not my reflection.”

15. David Thomas Broughton vs. 7 Hertz – David Thomas Broughton vs. 7 Hertz

Broughton was one of the most highly-hailed new artists to emerge in Plan B this year (new to us, even though he’s been knocking about the Leeds scene for some years), despite not even having a new record out, except for this stopgap mini-LP/EP. But that's not the point, which is that Broughton is a revelation, and if I'd had the time to listen to this more, it might have ended up practically at the top of this list. Built around delicate acoustic melodies, sighing strings and Broughton's harrowed contralto, winding back and forth through lyrics whose simplicity infinite
ly amplifies their power: 'Weight Of My Love' draws together his hopeless unemployment ("Can't afford a pasty from the Gregg's bakery"), the house which he would build for his lover, the useless weight of death ("I'd build you a grave to sleep my life"); at 4.50, his voice begins to multiply, the trembling spectre struggling up from beneath the ground, through the speakers, the medium of technology giving revenance to the oldest of sorrows. Love and death mingle in one keening thread. On 'No Great Shakes', 7 Hertz's strings spin a web of fragile web of sound around which Broughton meditates cyclically on the knowledge of death ("There's only one thing worse than the thought of loss/And that's the actual physical loss"), his own ghost drifting after, casting out the same two syllables over and over. The ancient violence of 'Fisted Hand' visits itself upon the living, almost pastoral strings, guitar and clarinet lulling the listener into a quiet dance before detailing the thorny tangles of domestic violence ("Now I treat you with the rough touch of a man/Running rock in my fisted hand"), the murderous hatred, the helpless devotion playing off against each other. As the 20-minute slow-burn rave-up 'River Outlet' - an enormous storm of shrieking strings, looped fret scraping and Broughton's acoustic pounding - comes to an end, you feel washed-out, drained, ecstatic, shocked, haunted, buried, ALIVE. The most poignant, heart-breaking record of the year.

16. New Order – Substance

OK, so, 'Blue Monday'... There's not a whole lot more to say about this album than that it contains that song, in the 12" extended mix, and when you turn up the volume and hear that 'slap-slap-slap-slap-slappy-slap-slap', the synths rising around the drum machine like the corona of an alien sun... Manchester, Berlin, Detroit, Milan, sex, technology, sorrow, dead-eyed nerves, sheer 'what-the-fuck-is-that?' shock... And the fact that this went to No. 1 in the UK, bearing a sleeve that lost Tony Wilson (R.I.P.) money every time a copy was sold, and Ian Curtis, the poor fucker, not living to see this... About a third of this compilation could be shoved into the ashbin of history ('Shellshock'? 'State Of The Nation'? What were they thinking?), but 'Ceremony', 'In A Lonely Place', 'Temptation', Bizarre Love Triangle' (check out that intro! That's where Justice came from, kids! And that vocoder!), and the absolutely gorgeous weeping-synth-drenched Genet melodrama '1963' make this worth more than twice the price of admission (£8, since you ask.) If it weren't for Person Pitch, I would probably nominate this as the greatest pop album ever. Perfectly-crafted electronic menageries, the electronics manifesting the human, the machines, like HAL, learning to sing. And if that weren't enough, 'True Faith' is the greatest song The Pet Shop Boys never recorded with The Shamen, so heart-swelling that when Bernard sings "I used to think that the day would never come/When my life would depend on the morning sun" I just want to bound outside for a walk in the chill morning air. Indispensable.

17. Xiu Xiu – A Promise

‘Suicide, gender-bending, maudlin pianos, Whitehouse impressions – why is this not further up your chart?’ Silence, wag! In a year where I encountered positivity again for the first time since I was, ooh, 11, Xiu Xiu’s oblique, confrontational songsmithery – Jamie Stewart’s androgynous falsetto whispering, crooning or screaming about death, child-rape, self-mutilation and the utter, stinking misery that stalks the mind like a familiar shadow – wasn’t, really, what I needed or wanted; it was a tool that didn’t fit into my strategy. But… there’s still something darkly seductive about Xiu Xiu: Neil Kulkarni hit the nail on the head when he wrote, in his review of Fabulous Muscles, that they were “so desirous of brutalisation and the bliss of being buried you can feel the pull on their lips as your entanglement becomes more intractable, you can palpably sense Xiu Xiu’s need to shed the weight from their skeletons”. Moving on from the youthful sorrows of Knife Play, A Promise’s hollowed-out, blackened reveries, barely fashioned from finger-picked guitars, Asian percussion, bone-bare drum machine and smothered in strangulating electronic noise, sketch out the rudiments of stories, the gaps and silences in narrative suggesting the only way out of this stagnant nightmare – death. Thus the hopeless, suffocating relationship of ‘Sad Redux-O-Grapher’ leads to the incredible, weightless ‘Apistat Commander’, which alone makes it worth the price of entry – over mere ticks of rhythm, Jamie Stewart’s breaths mark out the downward pull, the logic of extermination; it explodes into a clanking, industrial requiem, firecracker electronics going off around Stewart’s lo-fi screams: “You left for someone/All of this hurt that’s wilted off/Oh this relief, it’s the oddest thing…” To call this music poignant wouldn’t be right: it’s dejected, fragmented, twisted, strangled, a musical map of the death drive, the alien virus of depression that spreads and destroys everything it touches (the album was written after the suicide of Stewart’s father). The rendering of Tracey Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ turns it into the chamber music nightmare you always wanted it to be; on ‘Pink City’ and ‘Blacks’ Stewart exhausts himself, rehearses final notes and explanations over eviscerating buzz and clatter; and the closing ‘Ian Curtis Wishlist’ morphs from fracturing electronics to delicate, barely-there strings, Jamie Stewart self-combusting, voice cracked, in a lo-fi haze. When I seem to have spent much of the last year trying to escape the dead weight of biography, the millstone of the past, here was a reminder that it’s not always possible; you just have to live as best you can.

18. Krzysztof Penderecki – Orchestral Works Vol. 1

Of course, it began with the Threnody - a enormous inorganic shriek of strings distorted beyond the mere sound of wood and horsehair, slipping into a swirling, skirling storm of tapping, screams, and bubbling pits of sound; the piece meanders through huge crescendoes and periods of tense stasis, rising up into an aching, creaking tower of noise about halfway through. It slowly builds back up, an insectoid skittering coalescing into a raging auto-destructive cacophony, an audio-rendering of the hell-on-earth inferno that consumed Hiroshima and melted its inhabitants. Followed by the 'sonorist snapshots' of Fluorescences for orchestra - moving from molten-metal industrial shimmer to alien screams to drifting darknesses punctuated by skittering strings and air-raid sirens - and De natura sonoris II for orchestra, a bare, spooky piece filled with sudden bursts of single strings, noises emerging out of a background of still, barely-there sound, Orchestral Works Vol. 1 collects some of the most fascinating and ruthlessly modern of Penderecki's work, pieces in which he was attempting to carve an entire new musical language through sheer force of will. This is the sound of the warning before the alien invasion, of cities being knocked out like lights, and you, a human being, standing there, listening, internal organs pumping and gurgling away (John Cage reportedly experienced an epiphany when, entering an anechoic chamber, he still heard sounds - the noise of his own organism.) The fact that the disc begins with the mature, largely post-modern Symphony No. 3, which deploys both post-Romantic techniques and modern small-ensemble instrumentation (bongos?!), and is rather pleasant and oddly melancholy, but hardly mind-blowing, means it by any means perfect. But, what the hey.

19. Dutch Husband – Fantasy Blanket And The Fall Chorus

A local band who released this, their debut album, after four years of intermittent work on it, Dutch Husband are about as traditional an outfit as can be imagined - two guitars, bass and drums are complemented by occasional trumpet and tuned percussion; the influence of Pavement, Silver Jews and Sonic Youth (the conservative Youth of Rather Ripped and Sister, not the experimental force of Daydream Nation) is apparent in the pretty melodies, slack vocals, oblique lyrics and occasional bursts into squalling feedback and enormous drum assaults. This shouldn't be the sort of thing I'd be caught dead listening to, but I don't really care in this case: from the storming pop-punk of 'The Board Vs. The Body Count', the grain of every instrument rubbing against the ears, through the frantic storms of the rest of the first half, to the weightless melancholy of the second half, the album is packed with too many good moments to delineate. Seeing them play for more than two hours at the album launch, in an over-crammed pub backroom, animating these songs into life-affirming, blood-pumping, was easily one of the best experiences of the year. The ambivalent beauty of the likes of 'Digital Wing' and 'Fall Chorus' draw a bridge between past and future, between despair and hope, soundtracking the micromoments when everything is suspended, helplessly...

20. M.I.A. - Kala

A late contender, picked up for £2.50 just before Christmas, and one of the few records I've heard this year actually recorded, um, this year. I've had reservations about M.I.A. in the past - her politics, are, to say the least, somewhat spotty - but the musical compulsiveness of Kala and parts of Arular may be enough to finally convince me to shut the fuck up and stop dithering. On this album, with most of the production duties, she sutures electronic futurism (the pounding rave/techno beats of 'Bamboo Banga' and 'XR2') to considerably more ramshackle exotica than her previous album, by way of DIY editing and hip-hop's cut-up aesthetic. The songs see her defend herself righteously against naysayers, revisit her past, indulge in fantasies about Bollywood star Jimmy Aja (whilst namedropping Darfur, the Congo and Rwanda), declare her own international electronic community independent ('World Town') and systematically delineate neo-liberalism's soul-destruction and its devastating effect on Third World economies, to a soundtrack of African work-chants, tribal percussion and explosive synths. And, on nominal closer 'Paper Planes' (followed by slightly icky Timbaland collaboration 'Come Around' on my CD), she samples the Clash's 'Straight To Hell', and somehow makes it sound good, stretching that reverb-coated guitar into a melancholic infinity. When I ponder over M.I.A. - and she's undoubtedly someone who provokes pondering - trying to get a grasp of the politics and ethics of what she does, it just slips away from me; she seems to perfectly reflect the multiplicity, the hall-of-mirrors shininess of the internet-generated identity parade that makes up the album's diversity of styles. She is, as kicking_k noted in an interview with her for Plan B, someone who "mix[es] signals: starting a debate rather than making a point." I'm not so sure I prefer my politics that way, but hell it's fine listening anyway. For flying in the face of cosy Western pop, forging her own internationalist aesthetic, and making such an addictive record, she sneaks into this list.

Book of the year:

Having managed to work my way through piles of the things (*cough*, after the fucking exams), and finished a few I'd always wanted to get out of the way (Beyond Good And Evil, Lovecraft's Bloodcurdling Tales Of Horror And The Macabre, James Kelman's You Have To Be Careful In The Land Of The Free, Joyce's Dubliners), I should really be a bit spoilt for choice here. But this would most probably go to W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants, for making a good but poor late summer better, reminding me of better times in London, and providing the launching-pad for the piece of writing I like the most out of everything I've done this year.

Thanks to:

First of all, a shout-out to the people who always need thanking - my family. They'll know the reasons why. Secondly, thanks to all Bournemouth types who've decided not to cast me out upon seeing me, particularly Tone, Frances, Chris, Steve and Martin. Thanks for the support and opportunities you've given me. Also, thanks to the people over at Plan B and their messageboard, for helping stave off despair every month, and giving me a few column inches to call my own; The Wire, despite their ridiculously high prices and occasionally looking like the Keiji Haino equivalent of Willesden Trainspotters' Society, should be thanked also for the occasional revelation. Finally, and not least importantly, some fellow bloggers, for providing cheap thrills, food for thought, and the odd explosion of brilliance - particularly K-Punk, Kek-W, Emmy Hennings, Owen Hatherley, Infinite Thought and Nick Gutterbreakz. May you all have a very good new year.


Blogger kek-w said...

...and you too, Dan.

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