Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Friday, June 06, 2008
Instal Festival 08 Part 4
The end of (a) history: seasoned festival-goers might be incredulous at the amount of verbiage being layered on what, for them, would be a perfectly ordinary February long weekend; just another year. Keep in mind the sheer level of wide-eyed naivety that went into the moments that made up my Instal: not merely my first festival, but my first solitary trip north of the capital. Where I come from is at least 100 miles from anything resembling excitement (the annual Unsafe Festival, now three years old, excepted), and the idea of just going to a festival is a mind-boggling feat in itself, the kind of thing that makes my father blow out his cheeks and mutter “Well, I don’t know about that, it’s a bit far…” So when it came to the final day of Instal I felt, almost instinctively, a sentimental attachment to the passing day.
I woke on Sunday morning full of plans for this last day. The proprietress suggested, in difference to my thoughts about the Botanic Gardens, the Museum Of Transport in Kelvingrove. Eventually, I settled on going to the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, of whose fine collection of artefacts and artworks I had read in the guidebook. The walk into central Glasgow – past the flat concrete monolith of Tennents’ Caledonian Brewery, a monument to apathy and self-hate; past the shrivelled smokers outside the Irish pubs and gewgaw emporia of the East End; through the beautiful Glasgow Cross and into the eighteenth/nineteenth-century heart of the city – was becoming lovingly familiar to me. I decided, seeing as I hadn’t beforehand, to try the underground system, descending at the St. Enoch Centre station, noting ruefully that I could have gotten bus information on my first day from the SPT centre right next to it. Fuck, as if you can change the past. Glasgow has, I’m pleased to say, the cleanliest, nicest most efficient subway I’ve ever seen – although I must admit my only other experience is the monstrous rabbit-warren of London Underground.
The weather, though more subdued in its niceness than the day before, was still extremely pleasant as I strolled from the Kelvin Bridge underground station, through the (heavily cultivated) beauties of Kelvin Park, to the Kelvingrove Museum, the ornate red-brick Gothic (never heard of such a thing, have you?! And yet it was there!) growth I recognised from across the river the day before. Unlike the increasingly infantile tendency of English museums towards ever-greater ‘interactivity’, Glasgow knows how to do museums: I wandered, first, through the short gallery showing examples of prominent nineteenth-century Scottish art, into the central gallery; the roof lifted up above my head, and my vision was populated by glass cases filled with every type of stuff imaginable. Squashed-looking metallic African masks, stuffed songbirds populating a tree, the blackbird’s mouth open in mute song, Chinese good-luck figures in their ornately-accurate painted robes, even a stuffed hare leering down from a cross-beam. There was a room dedicated to the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh – Glasgow certainly knows how to look after its favourite (or only, if you prefer) architectural son, displaying the delicate, almost Art Nouveau designs he made for furniture and cutlery (originally for the Willow Tea Rooms, on Sauciehall Street).
There was a vast section on the first floor dedicated to the depiction of Scotland in its art, where I ran into Allan Upton again. Allan’s a very nice guy, but, as I’ve mentioned before, we don’t have much in common; so, I bid him farewell, and went off to admire the various objects: a stag’s head mounted on the wall, pictures of Robert The Bruce, ‘traditional’ Highland dress (military, not civilian – keep in mind, all those pictures of guys you see in tailored jackets, kilts and caps were engaged in the process of emptying the land they stand in of people). They had, believe it or not, the original of Dali’s Christ Of St. John Of The Cross; an exquisite medieval Italian Madonna and Child apparently rescued by a German officer during the Second World War; they even had an entire gallery devoted to indigenous cultures, from the former pearl-fishers of far northern Scotland to the tribes of now-depopulated islands in the Pacific. It was, to put it mildly, mind-bogglingly eclectic. As I walked outside, heading back over the River Kelvin, I looked winsomely at the Museum Of Transport, and wondered how long it would be before I came back. There was no way I wasn’t returning; the second city of the empire had only just begun to give up its secrets. I ate my sandwiches, watched the clear but reedy rush of the Kelvin, then headed back to Kelvinbridge station. I’d debated whether or not to stay, but in the end knew I’d regret not going. Compromise, always the way.
What I went to see I had to wait for. It was completely ridiculous that I had brought a book, notebook and paper with me, and yet I couldn’t just sit down and wait when in the lobby of the Arches. For some reason I was compelled to take part in some activity, look as if I were a human being. Eventually we were lead from the lobby to the St. Enoch’s tube station I had emerged from ten minutes earlier; we certainly must have appeared a motley crew to the staff as the others bought tickets in turn. Lord alone knows whether anyone from authority knew what Arika were planning to do – namely, a concert on the underground. There had been a kind of dry run on the Thursday before Instal, but I doubt there were so many people there; we had about 15-20 people in the party, Ruaraidh Sanachan – a wiry young man with a carpet of red beard and a mischievous glint in his eye – hauling along his suitcase, a leather-jacketed friend carrying a couple of boomboxes. I was chuckling like a naughty schoolboy, knowing something the teacher doesn’t, as the next train arrived and we got into a slightly-less-than-half-full carriage, the mob slowly sluicing through the door and settling down.
Sanachan – a.k.a. Nackt Insecten – sat a little way across and down from me, opened the suitcase as we moved away from the station, plugging leads from almost invisible equipment into the boomboxes, and started chewing on a wire, tweaking knobs, summoning a sick, disturbed buzzing twisting into sudden piercing metallic tones, a constant bright drone rattling away in the background, like an element from a Terry Riley piece played in a wire factory. I craned to see, stuck my camera over the shoulder of the commuter next to me – in retrospect, it’s pretty astonishing I didn’t get a punch in the mouth – looked around at the faces of our co-conspirators, seeing occasional bobbing heads and pleasant smiles – even Allen, usually inscrutable behind glasses and beard, looked happy enough. Sanachan chomped on the wire like it was shocking him, not the other way around. At each stop he looked nervously behind him, turning down the volume slightly before cranking back up the attack as the train moved off. At the third stop, he shut off the equipment, closed the suitcase, and stood next to the door like a good citizen, the whole mob of us getting off like nothing had happened. Just as we waited for the next train to arrive on the other platform, a suit came rushing down the stairs, looked at Sanachan and declared superciliously “This is to let you know, we’ve had a noise complaint. We’re going to leave you with a warning.” Ah, it must have been that guy in the carriage chatting agitatedly into his mobile. Cunt. Although, to be fair, a noise complaint just proved Nackt Insecten was doing his job properly.
As the train travelling back to St. Enoch’s came along, we could see there were few carriages thin in population, walking along quite a lot of its length before squeezing into one already half-full with commuters; by the time we had gotten in, there was nowhere even for Sanachan to sit, and the centre of the carriage was choked with bodies. Sanachan and his helpers set up on the floor next to the carriage door, powering up his equipment into a low-down drone of burning menace, occasional peaks of shearing metallic noise standing out against the rumbling of the train carriage. Hilariously, the balding, paunched commuter next to him sat with his IPod buds in the whole time, crossing his arms defiantly and closing his eyes, occasionally looking at his phone. Presumably that’s how he spends every commute, and it’s very sad that he refused to even be slightly interested in the excitement happening right next to him. There was such communal happiness between all the fans in that carriage, I would have hoped it might pry open the deaf and dumb solipsism that holds an iron grip on metropolitan life, even if just for a little while. Nackt Insecten picked the underground as a venue because it forms an important part of his life in his daily travels, and one would hope people could at least be persuaded to participate, even in attention.
We walked out of St. Enoch’s without running into any more suits, and back along Argyle Street to the The Arches. I decided, since I wouldn’t have long enough to travel back to the West End before Marginal Consort started, to see the Self-Cancellation talk. I walked into the side room – with a bunch of chair/pouf things arranged in two bracket shapes and a row of bleachers in front of them. Stewart Home, stood in the centre, announced what the idea was behind it: the participants would talk, without making any pretence to organised discussion, clashing and meshing with each other, drowning each other out, until the entire conservation was essentially inaudible to the audience, who were invited to join in. And that’s what happened: Kenneth Goldsmith started by talking to Gustav Metzger about Day, his book based on the text of an issue of the New York Times; within a few seconds one of the others began reading out from a text; Home began playing a DVD, the volume set to loud, about the his Art Strike, him framed onscreen in sunglasses, apparently dosing about. Soon everyone was talking, and even some of the audience were chatting above the din, a couple reading aloud from books they’d pulled out of packs and pockets. It reminded me somewhat of being in primary and secondary school, where I always ended up in the noisiest and most disorganised of classes, struggling to work amid the constant throb of conversation. I tried to make notes about the last night’s performances, but couldn’t get very far, read silently from The Tin Drum. Home himself began declaiming something, I suspect a text from one of his books – an apocalyptic vision of London’s class hierarchy being overthrown, the bourgeoisie cast into a burning Thames. The idea was, I must admit, more entertaining than the execution – the self-cancellation being implemented here one of information, which had begun to exponentially increase around the time Metzger first discussed the concept, in the ‘white heat’ of the sixties. It also oddly – given the way he seemed to dominate the ‘ensemble’ – paralleled Home’s own approach to information, mirroring the hi-impact, oversaturated textures of books like Cunt and Red London.
Afterwards, I popped down to the Wandelweiser room again, though all of the musicians were out, only a few hardy souls sat on the other side of the room, and a grey-and-short-haired woman in a cardigan sat on a chair in the corner, listening to one of the Ensemble’s CDs at low volume in the background. I struggled to continue my notes – three days of almost total solitude away from home comforts was, I thought, beginning to get to me – my brain seeming to freeze up. I felt exhausted, sick at heart, and reluctant to leave as I walked back to the designated Arch.
As I walked in the darkness was pierced only by a lighted area further down the arch; distant, watery synthesised sound seemed to echo down this former tunnel. I sat on a chair just outside the circle in front of me: four tables positioned in a St. Andrews’ Cross, each with a speaker stack looming behind, and, seated at each table, Japanese men – grey hair, slightly withered frames, wizened faces, two of them wearing wiry spectacles. I read the accompanying handed-out blurb: “When people think of improvisation, which is made up of sounds, they think of playing music. But the activity that takes place here is not limited to playing.” I had a small look around the circle: I could see Kazuo Imai (although, stupidly, I didn’t recognise him at the time) rattling around with various objects; I thought I could see the guy in front, on my left, wearing an orange robe, and surrounded by a halo of light, working on some kind of string instrument; an odd collection of noises, all seeming to escape from some other realm, gushing out of a sonic wormhole, trickled from the speakers, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. I read a bit further on: “Individual speakers are placed next to each participant to accentuate the respective positions of and the differences between the performers…. Then each performer, using his own mixer, adjusts the volume level as he sees fit…. The PA that puts everything together is either turned down as low as possible or turned off, to make clear the position of each performer.”
Suddenly, it clicked in my head: So, you would receive different sounds depending on where you were in the room. Almost all of the audience – who were now multiplying, filling up most of the chairs and quite a lot of the empty floorspace – were either sat or standing static, but I figured that this set-up meant we would be encouraged to move around, test the shape of the sounds. From there it began, but I can’t really say much about the chronological shape of the next three hours, only that it ended. Perhaps more than any other, this particular breed of free-improv warps the sense of time; I’ve read a couple of reviews since that pinpoint highs – “one hour in, as a great, arcing crescendo finally diminishes and splinters, I find myself close to tears”, Euan Andrews wrote in the April issue of Plan B – in time, but I find it impossible. It’s as if the moment-to-moment process of construction leaves each fragment of time and sound out of anything more than a general context, i.e. the sounds that were occurring alongside it at that moment. When John Cage staged a full version Erik Satie’s Vexations in 1963, the team of pianists involved (including Cage himself) later reported an odd effect: the feeling that they were no longer aware of the passing of time, even as they were concentrating on getting the tempo of play right, and counting their repetitions, ready to hand on to the next pianist, such was their immersion in sound and the process of playing; the next day they reported a change in their frames of mind, feeling that experiences were more vivid, more concrete, less subject to the feeling of passage and dissolution. In short, time seemed to stand more still.
I seemed to move around each of the tables as my whim took me, watching each performer while listening to the constant breeze of sound coming from all directions, then moving on to something else. I watched one of them, black cardigan complementing his aged face, sat behind a table covered with small instruments, pedals and a mixer, blow down a recorder and a detached pan pipe, saw an improvised bow on a wire between two plastic cups, plucking at it; later – I’m not sure how much later – he was plucking a kalimba close to the mike, tentatively, as if afraid of bringing out a sound he didn’t want, and sawing quite furiously at an electric viola that looked more string than body, clouds of noise and clanking coming from behind me. Kazuo Imai, not long afterwards, was repeatedly picking up a log and letting it fall, its grey metallic thud ringing out on the concrete, again and again as he threw it more and more furiously, like an obsessive caber tosser (pun not intended). He then started attacking a metal bowl full of pebbles, rattling them around and down on the ground, the sounds attacking in random formation; he took a few back to his table, where he had a contact-miked metal plate, on which he dropped and scraped the pebbles while rolling a contact mike around in his mouth, processed noises coming out his speaker like the final shriek of a drowning man.
The sound seemed to coalesce and change in the most mesmerising of fashions: at first the sounds, arriving from all sides, were small, almost isolated – scratching, metallic arcing sounds, barely audible synths – but they seemed almost to line up, each player not merely exploring each technique for the sake of it, but to complement (or challenge?) the next player, the sounds gaining volume and density in literal concert. I remember quite clearly the sheer density of noise at several points – the orange-robed gent sawing away on what looked like a bonsai tree with a string between two branches, roaring, disfigured noises issuing from Imai’s speaker – but have no idea how we got there, no way of tracking these things as an arc on a graph in time. I started to wander more frequently around the area, making notes on what I felt was going on, people staring at me whilst I scribbled in the notebook; I sometimes sat down on the chairs, simply noting, thinking, watching – many in the space seemed to be art students or graduates (‘bohemian’ would have been the dreary term I’d use to describe them – the kind of trenchcoats that never cost less than £80, delicate necks cocooned in expensive scarves, some with cardigans and patent leather slip-ons, bowlie haircuts to go with them), and I felt almost as if either I or they didn’t belong there, socially speaking, that I would be chased out for being such an inveterate, cursed, rotten-to-the-core loser, underclass scum who shouldn’t be there (this despite the number of glasses-wearing, garret-living types; that, and the number with shaved heads and Red Stripe cans); but, as always with these things, I can never resist them aesthetically. After a while, there was almost a sense of plateau: it was no longer a case of boredom fought off by stimulus, as one might describe the majority of human existence; each musical activity was repeated so many times before change, or sounds sustained to such a length, that they could no longer function in that way. If one tried to concentrate on a musician, to trace the decay, movement and change of their sounds, it quickly became boring; it was, oddly, better simply to allow the sounds to sink into you, not to grasp at the sounds, but to think around them, on their surface (there was a Walter Benjamin quote that sprang to mind: “[the] process of assimilation, which takes place in depth, requires a state of relaxation which is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience…. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself."
I wandered away for a short while, into the merch area, where a very few people were hanging out, the guy who ‘served’ me in Volcanic Tongue the day before behind the table; I hoped he wouldn’t recognise me, as I listened to see what the sounds were like through the wall (I could hear dampened synth-squalls, like the roll of thunder from distant clouds). As I walked back in, the gentleman in the orange robe – who had, earlier (I think), been displaying some magnificent swordplay moves with two branches, their eerie whistlings inaudible in the rest of the room – was sat down at his table, one hand on a synth blasting out something like the white light of heaven – an overwhelming thunderhead of undirected synth noise, like the choirs of angels had been ring-modulated – the other hand sawing away madly on this string tree of his. I could feel my body almost shaking, any barriers of resistance finally collapsing, my heart in my throat. I stood there for (at a guess) ten minutes, but it might have been half-an-hour for all I knew; then I walked on to the table in the far right corner, where I watched the guitarist – a tubby guy wearing a big sweater, thick glasses, a well-trimmed smattering of beard – bowing away at what looked like a tiny violin in his lap. By this point, I could see time was creeping on – I was checking my watch every time the need appeared – and they knew it; they had each settled into their own kind of odd groove, narrowing down to one species of activity. Imai was frantic, had gone from throwing and rattling pots, throwing objects at the guitar he had laid on the floor, to standing behind his desk, rattling and smashing objects onto his miked-up plate like a man raging against the dying of the light, ranting and gurgling into a contact mike stuffed into his mouth.
Imai had been responsible for the coming together of this ensemble, back in 1997, as a partial reunion of East Bionic Symphonia, the free-improv unit they had formed in Tokyo in the 1970s. Marginal Consort was an experiment of curiosity – Imai wrote in the blurb that as his colleagues had worked in “somewhat diverse fields” he wanted to see “[h]ow… their respective outlooks [had] been shaped by the intervening 20 years” – that had become an experiment in memory; free-improv is, more than any other, a music that exists only in memory (with all its attendant degradations), its recording a pharmakon to memory, a strange double. A short time before they were due to come to Glasgow, fifth member (and Fushitsusha bassist) Yasushi Ozawa died of lung cancer; the fifth table, empty but for the mike used to record the set, was for him. I think – and so do a lot of others – that they believed that this Marginal Consort might be their last. Suddenly, the guitarist – who I later identified as Kei Shii – put down his violin thing, and picked up an electric guitar – it looked like a Gibson SG whose body had shrunk in the wash, the neck remaining the same size – and began simply scrawling slashes of noise over the mix – clangs, taps, scrapes, black whorls of noise, psychedelic holy winds pouring out of the amps all around us. After a short while, he stopped even that and pulled down a wire suspended just above his head, beginning to bow it, summoning up the most remorselessly metallic scraping sound imaginable. I sat down in the row of chairs between him and Imai, a few chairs down from Bryony McIntyre – an absolutely angelic woman, immensely talented and bursting with vitality – the Arika organisation’s official photographer, and wrote. I think that I was trying to get it all down, to feel out all the branches and roots of the experience, to place it all in words before it slipped away, because I knew it would be no good trying to do it later (and, despite every word written here, it isn’t.) After a couple of minutes, I thought of getting up and doing one last circuit. I hadn’t checked my watch. The bright-white burning corona of sound was beginning to die. Slowly, each of the participants ceased, let their equipment breathe its last. Imai had stopped vocalising, was making only the smallest of scratching noises, like a kid at play realising he has to go home. He stopped, turned off his electronics, so that the only sound remaining was the slow bubbling of air through the jug of water on his desk, which I could hear. He cut off the air flow, and the stream slowly stopped. The lights were dimming.
Applause. I could barely feel any part of myself. It thundered around in the sudden silence (if that makes any sense). It felt like death had, just for a moment, been conquered. Here was - or had been - something irrefutably of life. Even Barry Esson looked a bit tearful before he asked us to leave whilst they got ready for the next gig. I walked out into the near-dusk - 7 o'clock in February, in the West of Scotland, ain't all that bright - called my parents, telling them I was alright, unable really to tell them anything of what had just gone on. After two minutes thought as to what I would survive on, I decided "Fuck it" and ate at the Pizza Hut at the end of the road (something I still feel was pretty stupid.) I came back feeling slightly sick and a lot poorer, and sat in the Wandelweiser room - which had become something like a sanctuary to me, along with the other avant-reprobates sat in the seats across from me, who included Jarrod Fowler and his beard - where the musicians had returned. I took a little wander around, took photographs of Robin Hayward's tuba and Rhodri Davies' harp, which stood like alien growths out of the smooth pine floorboards. I tried to think of it as being almost a Zen Garden, but each second I felt uneasy, self-conscious, each creak seeming to upset the atmosphere. Solitude, 'thusness', for the masses, isn't possible. I tried to do some more writing, went my way back to the Arches.
Tuesday, June 03, 2008
A Forthcoming Attraction
Thursday 9th June 2008
The Dog Frog
Doors 8PM, the first band shortly after.
Sunday, June 01, 2008
"List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to."
Well, here goes.
1. Talk Talk - 'The Rainbow'
Spirit Of Eden, the other great album of 1988 (Daydream Nation having assumed Canonical Status now, courtesy of the shits at Pitchfork and Dadrock Monthly), was the last CD I actually bought from a record store, and it's the one I've been playing most. This sweet, subtle opening cut, which drifts in on lonely trumpet and keyboard drones like aeolian harps, somewhere between Morton Feldman and Max Eastley's quietest moments, sparks, at 3 minutes in, into the world's most melancholic and least scrutable elegy. It would take more effort than it's worth to describe what happens, and such efforts couldn't possibly convey its sheer trembling grace; Mark Hollis' fragile tenor, Tim Friese-Greene's harmonium, piano, guitar and organ, and Nigel Kennedy's (!) violin draw, together, a portrait of a new English pastoral that has nothing to do with nationalist sentimental ruralism, drawing lines between Richard Thompson's Henry The Human Fly, Miles Davis' electric period and Bark Psychosis' Hex.
2. Modest Mouse - 'Dashboard'
'From the Number One album...' is a phrase which, on its own, is generally enough to turn my stomach. Not that I can be fucked to buy We Were Dead...; 'Dashboard', which I've been known to listen to at least once or twice a day, is enough. A rhythm so propulsive it could launch jets, complete with near-funk horns (take that, whitey!), topped by Isaac Brock's manic bark, grappling pithily with the death-wish ("Well you told me 'bout nowhere, it sounds like some place I'd like to go-oh-oh-oh-oh"). But what I really love is the section just before the end where it subsides, Brock seemingly dropping into a talking blues style, muttering regret about his tendency to obstinate, uh, regret ("I was patiently erasing and recording the wrong episodes/After you had proved my point wrong"), before the song shoots up again, the stoic affirmation running through its verses ("We've yet to crash but we might as well enjoy it") running forward in one last communal singalong. Lovely.
3. Miles Davis - 'Spanish Key'
I got The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions for Christmas, and started listening to them again after reading this recent Blissblog post - the extra material, whilst nice, isn't essential; the six tracks of the original album could take a lifetime to explore. While the combined 47 minutes of the first two tracks, 'Pharoah's Dance' and the title song, could discourage listeners from going any further - I usually need a lie down after listening to either of them - they'll lose the chance to hear 'Spanish Key', where Miles directs an expedition to the outer edges of funk. The rhythmic elements, while providing a relentless, ass-shaking momentum, add to the texture; the 'melodic' elements - Miles moaning the main theme through an echoplex of cosmic doom, Wayne Shorter's lithe, snaking soprano and the bubbling electric pianos - give constant rhythmic jolts. Everything, in effect, is reduced to piggishly rich timbre and constant, unstoppable movement. And even this was only a prelude to the volcanic, avant-garde convulsions of Agharta, Pangaea and Dark Magus. It is, of course, also the missing link - if you'll pardon the Paul Morley theft - between James Brown and Shy FX.
4. Robert Wyatt - 'Just As You Are'
I only started listening to this last week because I'd been speculating on what I would put as the best albums of this year, come the end, and it occurred to me I'd never listened to what The Wire had deemed as last year's best album. 'A mixed bag' would be the best description, and whilst the hair-raising threnody of 'Out Of The Blue' is probably my favourite track off Comicopera, this lilting jazz duet between Wyatt and Monica Vasconcelos is oddly comforting in its beauty, in spite of the content: co-written by Wyatt and his wife Alfreda Benge, about his drink problem and occasional insufferability, its an oddly moving testament to co-dependence - something I myself can barely imagine - its necessity and impossibility. Wyatt has testified in interviews, and in songs since Rock Bottom, to how Alfie has basically been the only thing between himself and death all these years, and domestic reality, here, doubles as a resignation to the business of living: "I'm never ever going to change a thing/I'll try to love you, just as you are". When Wyatt, after the guitar-spangled bridge, comes in - "I know you despise me, for not being stronger/What can I do?" - with that mutter marked with age, my heart rises to my throat (again.) Ah, fuck. Hope is the hardest of burdens, but there's no choice, not until the song ends.
5. Alastair Galbraith - 'Ember'
I've only just gotten into Alastair Galbraith's work, through the proselytising of Jon Dale and The Broken Face's Mats Gustaffson - 'Ember' is one of the largest fragments on Mirrorwork, and I could have named half a dozen others I've loved recently. The mystery and beauty of Galbraith's work is, despite his position as an "artisan songwriter", implicitly Modernist, and just as archaic as they were: Pound and Eliot's invocations of Dante, Virgil and the Bible are echoed in Galbraith's imagery, Eliot's "son of man" stood on the seashore, in communion with a nature dumb and beautiful in its abstraction. On 'Flickering Birds', he ends on the lilting refrain "The sea was drumming me on" as his guitar quietly rolls in waves; on 'Ember' he sees "The fire the day went out", his violin moaning a quiet elegy. The mere, and ultimate fact of extinction seems, when you're listening to it, never to have been put so beautifully.
6. Nadja - 'Bliss Torn From Emptiness'
I don't really feel I should, or can, pick out a song by this band, so this is going to have to stand in for their entire catalogue, which I've been immersed in the last couple of days. And 'immersed' is the right word: their music is vast, swelling, blackly aqueous. This track is also the entirety of the Bliss Torn From Emptiness album, 48 minutes of washing tides of feedback, peppered with machinic cymbal cracks like the bobbing of buoys. If I were to ask you to imagine Sunn O)))'s 'Bathory Erszebet' from Black One being stretched on the rack by La Monte Young, that might give you a good idea: the crushing, distortion-coated blows of doom metal smeared into huge clouds of drone that billow like solar flares, coming closer to the decaying textures of isolationism. It's only after 5 minutes that it settles down into something relatively normal, a big, cyclical fuzz riff and four-square percussion marking out the territory, then being, very, very, very slowly swallowed by the overdriven mess of overtones that gradually takes (non-)shape. Heard through headphones, it feels both intimidatingly vast and curiously intimate; even, when bassist Leah Buckareff mutters the refrain "God" over a glacial bed of drone, erotic. 'Bliss' is about right.
7. Xiu Xiu - 'Under Pressure' (feat. Michael Gira)
I mentioned hope, but I forgot, almost, about the new Xiu Xiu record, which I've been meaning to post about since I got it in April; but that would mean a) writing about the whole Xiu Xiu catalogue, and b) writing about some stuff that I really don't feel I can put down on paper. It's difficult enough doing it indirectly, through fiction, without bringing into the unremitting glare of ostensible 'non-fiction'. So, for now, I'll just write about Women As Lovers in isolation: 'Under Pressure' isn't actually my favourite song from the album - the recipient of that dubious honour changes from day to day - but the one that caught my ear immediately when I first heard it on their MySpace. Jamie Stewart has said that they - and I say 'they' because too many fuckwits see Xiu Xiu as simply "Jamie's project", a simple record of private pain, an angle that ignores Caralee McElroy's invaluable contributions (and notice it's the 'girl' who gets ignored in such narratives) - recorded this cover for its "relentless positivity". My mum's copy of Queen's Platinum Collection was the most shameless part of the soundtrack to my adolescence, and the melody of 'Under Pressure', rising and pumping to a peak of unbearable tension, is something inextricably trapped in my memory. Beginning from slow, tentative rim-shots, out from the dying air-raid at the end of 'Guantanamo Canto', the unmistakable notes ring out from John Dietrich's guitar, a chorus of sizzling saxophones pave the way for Stewart and Michael Gira to sing out lyrics that took utter despair to the top of the charts: "It's the terror of knowing what this world is about/Watching some good friend screaming 'Let me out!'" Caralee takes up Bowie's little aside - "Chipping around, kick my brains round the floor/These are the days it never rains but it pours" - before the sax scribbles out Freddie Mercury's glossolalia. After the characteristic dip, Gira comes back with the first line of the next verse, an explosion of free drums and sax behind him: "Insanity laughs, under pressure we're cracking". Jamie Stewart gives the screaming performance of his life, demanding another second here on earth: "Can't we give ourselves one more chance?/Why can't we give love one more chance?" Gira, Stewart and Caralee's voices dance into the tumultuous final verse, a chain of explosions exhorting the will to life in their own desperation to communicate: "Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night/And love dares you, to change our way of caring about ourselves/This is our last dance/This is ourselves." The pain at the heart of this song is at the bottom of every meaningful plan for utopia: a place where, perhaps, where a love could actually exist that doesn't exterminate its holder(s) in the process. A myth, I know. But what the hell else do we have, now?
I don't seriously expect a response, but, just to see what might happen, I'll tag:
Neil at Feast Of Palmer
And - unlikeliest of the unlikelies - Jessica Hopper.