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.

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...

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Some Observations On Christmas Music

What is most insidious about Christmas is not its frantic and much-bemoaned 'commercialisation' - that has been going on since before I was born, and it's something I'm not too bothered by - but it's inescapability; Christmas music leaks into our private world, insinuates itself into our lives, whether we want it or not. Ostensibly public space is revealed as having been long-ago colonised by the forces of capital: no matter what shop you go to, or even if you wander into the town square or gardens, Christmas decorations, billboards, or Christmas songs heard over phone speakers (anywhere in the store at work), it invades our space whenever we leave the house, at any time before the big day itself. Witness the fact that we began playing a Christmas playlist in the middle of November: Christmas, in its diffused viral form - a composite of imagery and emotion mined from a massive history of sentimentality - spreads all over the latter quarter of the year, gradually infecting each part of the built environment.

It isn't the 'commercialisation' (as if it were that simple!) or the chronological spread (like particularly bad dryrot) of Christmas, but its overriding claims, the fact that it completely reprograms day-to-day reality for a month and a half, and not in a way I like. Not merely because I work in retail, and Christmas turns customers of every sort into psychopaths and idiots, but because it completely rearranges cultural time, to fill every available second with the worst of everything: I swear I haven't heard a single contemporary Christmas record this entire time, or, if I have, I wouldn't know about it - Christmas seems to bring out the worst in any artist or band, and automatically impose a template of boring trad instrumentation, sugary singing, flat sound and cookie-cutter sentiment. In fact, the only decent records I've heard at work recently were the new Roisin Murphy album, when we had no customers in, and The Pogues' 'Fairytale Of New York', which, rather than acting as the 'anti-Christmas anthem' it's claimed to be, simply chimes with the occasionally despairing ex-drunk in me, and lets loose those soaring, healing melodies. But what exactly does it say about our culture when every song playing over the speakers was recorded at least 20 years ago? Does Christmas simply reveal the state of total cultural stasis we're subject, or is it simply that the easily-translated sentimentality Christmas demands can only be gotten from music that milks so-called 'timeless' (read: old and ridiculous) feelings?

Bring on the bloody spring thaw, is all I can say. Merry Christmas to all End Times readers (yes, that's right, all two of you), and here's to hoping you survive the season alright. We'll be back shortly, with the first ever, labyrinthine, End Times Year End Round Up...

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Musical Interlude

In case you haven't guessed, things are getting a little tight around here in terms of free time and whatnot, hence the increasingly low and vindictive tone of this blog. So, to cheer you up (and following Mark K-Punk's superlative On The Corner Sessions review) here's some Miles Davis:

And, because, two years after everyone else, I'm finally getting into M.I.A., here's some of her:

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Price Of Pleasure

2008 sees the 100th anniversary of Mills & Boon – we’ve been sent a special display at work, commemorating said fact, along with displaying the M&Bs. The fact that I never see anyone pick up any of them, or serve anyone buying one, forces me to wonder how precisely the company has survived all these years; the total lack of subtlety (titles such as The Boss’s Christmas Baby abound), crude boilerplate prose and cheap design (“Three Great Stories Of Seduction In One!” a cover with the trademark bad photography and icky colour swathe) has made them less competitive in a market now dominated by the likes of Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz (who are, as their covers never cease to remind us, New York Times Bestselling Authors.) I should note here that I know about most of this stuff because my mother has vast numbers of the things – she probably reads more than me, and has read, at a conservative estimate, over a thousand, now scattered in various places; these days it’s mostly the more faux-sophisticated Romance-Crime crossover works pumped out by the likes of Roberts than the sweating, clumsy potboilers of M&B/Jackie Collins/Connie Mason, etc. she would be caught reading.

The people I see browsing around the Romance section at work are almost exclusively women of, uh, ‘a certain age’: past the mid-40s, and looking it – hair going thin, weak and grey, everything really beginning to droop – stretching on to the early-to-mid ‘60s, and definitely looking it (one customer, trailing the bags-on-wheels one often sees in this neck of the woods, smelled rather badly of urine.) This isn’t meant as a slight against them: for the most part they can’t help it. Romance novels, in fact, seem to feed on this kind of deprivation, this existential rot: they function as a sort of temporary portal out of these women’s situations. Actually, not quite, it isn’t mere escapism, as such – that implies the possibility, at least in fantasy or illusion, of the things described in these books (being ravished by ultra-handsome strangers, for the most part) happening to them. What it actually seems to represent is a completely separate world (which explains the popularity of historical and ‘paranormal’ (i.e. with werewolves and vampires doing the ravishing) romances), a means of enjoyment that is utterly vicarious. As opposed to the chattering-class Rachel Allen maternal types who supposedly don’t read such things (well they wouldn’t – they supposedly have, um, yr actual sex), the sheer poverty of life demands some other (or Other) object to which the attention might be temporarily directed, away from the usual mind-numbing tasks that make up the majority of each day; an idealised portrait of somewhere to escape to, deriving its power precisely from the fact that it can never be realised. The sort of women who read these books are hard-nosed and practical, never romantics: my mother, who came from a rural working-class background, was forced to raise two children, and pull herself, and my father, into the middle-class by sheer force of will. It’s a way of temporarily negating the quotidian; my mother says it’s a way of “switching off my brain.”

Romance novels form the archetypal template for all reactionary art: religion is no longer the “opiate of the masses” – that’s the entertainment-industrial complex, which continues to colonise our lives (not necessarily a bad thing, so long as it’s good pop culture). Every single one I’ve come across has been completely heteronormative: the archetypal whore/Madonna heroine meets the bulky (and the covers almost always show an enormous macho piece of meat masquerading as a person), and engages in shenanigans, is the brief summation of every plot ever written (or outlined and ghostwritten) for these things; any novels with gay and lesbian relationships are classed as ‘erotica’ and banished to the ‘Gay/Lesbian Writing’ section. They hide an essentially reactionary attitude behind apparent liberation - consider what the reaction would be if any of these novels were written by men, namely they'd be revealed as the misogynistic fantasies they are. They don’t represent the usual reactionary template of hetero relationships (married domesticity), but instead conform to the usual orthodox Freudian or Reichian notion of an unleashed pleasure principle as inherently liberating, with 'repression' as the only real block to enjoyment. Foucault, of course, blew this entire notion out of the water in The Will To Knowledge; the book was essentially a reaction to 'fucking is liberating' attitude of the trendy fringe of 1960s leftist theory, revealing this attitude as oppressive in itself; the only difference between it, and the world of romance novels, is the gap between reality and fantasy. Actually, that's not quite true: I don't think it's a stretch to say that most people's notion of relationships, and actual relationships, are based on the constructs of culture plotted most explicitly by romance novels, exercising power over biology just as much as Foucault's 'sciences of sexuality' - it's simply a matter of one (for example, bohemian/hipster society) managing to make a concept more solid than the other (misery-drenched working-class women), through the extra possibilities of privilege.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Listening To The Enemy

St. Aldhelm’s Church in Branksome was an absolutely fine place for a gig on the 26th – although more a recital than a gig. We were there to hear a performance of some of John Lloyd’s work (somewhere in the region of Quartet For The End Of Time-era Messiaen, or Morton Feldman’s small-scale works), a string quartet by Ian Tippett (a vile pre-Bach Baroque concoction) and Terry Riley’s In C performed by the SNMC Ensemble. As periodically happens, I’ve been getting more and more into experimental music recently – recent purchases have included Pharaoh Sanders’ Karma, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Orchestral Works Vol. 1 and Symphony No. 7, Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, the Safehouse Collective’s Safehouse 1 and Kopinski and Konikiewicz’ Zone K (both picked up at the Unsafe Festival). But there was one that stopped me in my tracks – The Topography Of The Lungs by Evan Parker. The reason I paid a tenner (a substantial amount for a man who buys most of his books from charity shops) for this record was its, um, ‘reputation’. Well, it’s got Derek Bailey and Han Bennink – both giants in their field – on it, and it’s been called “a milestone of the free improvisation genre”, so what’s not to like? Except… I put it on, on the bus home from the second night of Unsafe, and it’s really quite bad. The first minute or so of the 20+ minute ‘Titan Moon’ sounds like a trio of drunks stumbling an alley stuffed with musical instruments, turning over trashcans in their search for food. After a couple of further attempts to ‘get’ it, I just left it on the shelf. And that really fucking irks me – not so much the wasted money, which isn’t exactly life-threatening, but the fact that I couldn’t enjoy it. Was it something wrong with me? Why is it I can like, say, Autechre, but not this?

And thinking today about In C, I remembered a comment Oliver made on my ‘digital vs. RL’ post: “I've always wondered if you can separate the immediate enjoyment that comes from just hearing a sound, with conscious interpretation/application into a kind of contextual analysis that adds another layer of meaning and possible enjoyment.” The first, and most obvious answer, would be, um, ‘maybe’: certainly, pop music couldn’t be listened to outside of its context, because, by its very nature, it refers outside itself to other things, other emotional states and sensations, to narrative and language. Pop music, essentially arising out of a folk art – European folk song, British ‘popular’ and music hall song, black American music forms – was stuff bound, from the beginning, to the substance of the everyday (and the fantasy of love that pervades pop music is very much earthbound in its mundanity); it existed in the context of an economic system deriving from everyday life, and the pop business was intimately connected to the real-world cut-and-thrust of capitalism (think of all those soul songs about not being able to pay the rent, or the record-on-Friday-out-by-Monday, maximum profit market machine of the big pop labels.) Pop music, produced according to the demands of the public-at-large, reaches out; its content demands a context. (Or at least it should. That’s what pop music is meant to do. If such a thing as abstract pop – pop without content that refers elsewhere – could exist, I’d conjecture it would be frightfully dull.)

The only music I can really imagine that could be enjoyed without context/interpretation would be incredibly abstract. It would have to avoid signification of any kind (both linguistic and musical), avoid directly referencing any other music, would have to do away with any of the things that mark out ‘music’ (rhythm, melody, tone, time divisions), and would have to abstract its sound sources away from any recognisability (so the sounds wouldn’t sound like they come from instruments). Music like this does, of course, exist: examples would include the work of Phill Niblock, La Monte Young, and Charlemagne Palestine (when he’s not getting all mystical). And whilst some of this might be, um, trying for listeners, certainly, for the right listener in the right mood, it could be (and is, for many people) very enjoyable. (Although listening to a Niblock track on headphones earlier did give me such a tension headache I had to stop it!)

But there’s an inherent problem with this: this is musical categorisation with the logic of endgame. This kind of music is descended from the ‘high culture’ lineage that runs from Western classical music, through 20th-century avant-garde-ism (Debussy, Futurism and Dada), to the post-Darmstadt schools of conceptual composition – a culture that operated according to the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’. Aesthetics are refined and sharpened, procedures changed, ideas explored and envelopes pushed; meanwhile, pop music continues on its merry (or, these days, not so merry) way – and never the twain shall meet. There’s a passage in Mark Sinker’s essay ‘The RISE and SPRAWL of HORRIBLE NOISE’ that chills the blood whenever I read it: “Announcing yourself the world’s most undeluded is merely an aggressive way of saying ‘I have no friends.’” Out of context, it sounds like a frightening personal attack, but (hopefully) he doesn’t (quite) mean it so schoolyard-literally: throughout, Sinker repeatedly attacks the notions of noise-as-attack-on-social-conformity and experimentalists-and-fans-as-wised-up-elite – and whilst Sinker, a Xenakis and Niblock fan, never states it, the accusation that all abstract and experimental art (and its fans) is/are socially and philosophically fucked-up hangs over the piece. If the only content-component of the ruthlessly abstract music I’m talking about is sound itself, and the only enjoyment to be got from it is “pure enjoyment of tune and timbre”, then doesn’t this correspond to exactly the kind of misanthrope cliquishness and solipsism that Sinker despises in noise?
A personal note: one of the reasons why that section of the essay – aside from Sinker adopting exactly the same killjoy position that he professes to hate in critics – so disgusts and scares me is its, um, relevance to me. (Hmm.) Let’s see: music obsessive; listens to ‘experimental’ music; extremely socially awkward; given to, ahem, ‘black moods’; has about as many regular friends as fingers – I would seem to tick all the boxes here. Then, of course, there’s Malachi Ritscher – immolated himself around this time last year, a free jazz obsessive, whose self-penned obituary mentioned that “He had many acquaintances, but few friends; and wrote his own obituary, because no one else really knew him.” And of course, there’s Lester Bangs – whose “anti-social, fuck-‘em-up humanism” (as Sinker puts it), misanthropy, solipsism and self-loathing gave his writing its force were also what probably killed him (“one of the things that helped kill Lester Bangs was WRITING… rockwriting was the genre that gored Lester… a diet of rock and nothing but had rendered him too dumb to get out of the way.” – Richard Meltzer.) Or, indeed, Meltzer himself, whose bitterness, finally let loose in the opening-of-the-floodgates that is ‘Vinyl Reckoning’ might just be the contours of “a self-reinforcing spiral of blindness, not to say meaning-drained madness”, at the dark heart of which he lives on, battered and stoic. Maybe Steven Jesse Bernstein as well, who actually made music (the Bomb Squad-meets-David Peace psychodrama, Prison) as well as writing about it, before killing himself in 1991. And the late Ian MacDonald, on whom Ian Penman wrote a brilliant and touching piece at The Pill Box: “No one, I'm sorry, but NO ONE commits suicide at his age over the state of the world… I also hear the sound of a lost and lonely man, lonely most of all perhaps, and maybe that was in truth truly what he couldn't take, the state of his own world… You can’t just live – ALONE – in your head.” (Incidentally, Penman’s own writing on the divide between enjoyment of pop and this kind of abstract music – “I listened - or tried to listen - to a 3-cd Phil Niblock set and it bored the arse straight out my dayglo Bermuda shorts” – is raucously funny. They really have to give him more free rein in The Wire­ – we need more ‘Black Secret Tricknology’s!) It’s there, again and again: the inability to ‘reach out’ and engage with the wider world, with its massive overabundance of stuff, good, amazing, shit or just bad. In this context, the question of whether you (or, as an appropriate substitute, I) can, or should be enjoying music which does not relate to outer life – the human world-at-large – on just such an abstracted level, is absolutely fucking life-or-death (a slow death, mind you, but a death nonetheless.)

‘B-b-but surely then we should burn all our Borbetomagus and Richard Youngs LPs, and save ourselves from eternal damnation?’, I hear you cry. I’m not so sure, actually – I doubt that every AMM CD floating around out there is a potential death-trap waiting to happen (if they were, The Wire’s readership would be precisely zero by now.) This is not just because it’s possible for experimental music, contrary to what Sinker seems to believe, to be emotionally engaging in and of itself, rather than simply stubbornly sitting in its own pool of abstraction and hate – take the work of David Thomas Broughton, on whom there will be more soon – but because there are experimental fans who engage with it as human beings, rather than the misanthropes and death-bores Sinker characterises them (and, hell, us) as. There’s more than enough of them knocking around the Plan B messageboard – where I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time these days – and, indeed, Plan B itself, even a few on The Wire. Listeners are as important as musicians: they complete the circuit; and the redemptive power of this kind of music lies precisely in its ability to be processed, as opposed to merely consumed. This may sound like a rockist argument for difficulty-as-opposed-to-hated-pop-simplicity, but that’s not it. While I find it near impossible to write about pop music – some of which I’ve found I really love – experimental music remains a thread to be forever unravelled, a ravine with depths to be forever plumbed. Sinker himself, along with Emmy Hennings, k-punk, Reynolds, Penman, Plan B’s kicking_k, Louis Pattison and Frances Morgan, and The Wire’s Joseph Stannard and Philip Sherburne, amongst others, have all proved it is possible, and are masters of the form, in my opinion. The current situation vis-a-vis music within the populous-at-large - increasingly becoming totally disposable, mere background noise - not only reinforces a deepening downward spiral of quality in pop music (as producers become less and less bothered with quality, figuring the public are making no real demands, and are nothing but chumps to take money from), but also the increasingly antagonistic mindset of certain of the avant-brigade, esp. the American tape-drone-noise underground. The opposite approach - a mixture of maddened over-consumption, fevered processing and deep contemplation, depending on quality and type - is the one I seem to have fallen into, am determined to keep up, and see as the best solution to such a situation. The opposite approach may even be that the process of writing about music comes from some quasi-‘innate’ (haha) to investigate and categorise experience, to explore, and interact with, and try to understand, the world around you; writing about experimental music is not merely a means of engaging, as opposed to passive listening. Writing, despite its practical dimensions, is never a solitary occupation, especially blogging (although it may feel that way much of the time); as Blanchot writes in ‘From Dread To Language’, “A writer who writes, ‘I am alone’… can be considered rather comical…. How can a person be alone if he confides to us that he is alone?’