Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Other Tuesday: This Mortal Coil, 'Song to the Siren'

This Mortal coil started life as the brainchild of 4AD Records founder Ivo Watts-Russell. A studio entity only, the group was something of a 4AD all-star unit, but evolved into a way for Watts-Russell to collaborate with new artists and other musicians not signed to his label.

With the power to wield the artists at his beck and call, the pedigree of talent collaborating on the debut album “It’ll End In Tears” is nothing short of stellar. We get; The Cocteau Twins, Howard Devoto, Dead Can Dance and Colourbox among others.

Mixed with some original compositions are a selection of songs by Watts-Russell’s favourite artists, covering such diverse ground as Tim Buckley, Roy Harper, Colin Newman and Big Star, all given the ethereal/ dream pop, bordering on Gothic ambient touch, which is associated with the 4AD label. Knowing the origins of the music one could be forgiven for thinking that the album goes to indulgent places but this is an unadulterated success, distilling the best of each artist.

With waves of lush, swirling arrangements drenched in echo and reverb this is luxurious music for the ears. The bands take on Buckley’s ‘Song to the Siren’ is perhaps their best known work, a barren, out of phase guitar line ushers in Liz Fraser’s impossibly wonderful vocal, spiralling into the heavens bathed in vast echo, shot through with sorrow, not so much vocals as her usual mysterious vocalisations. The track records undoubtedly her best performance, eclipsing even her vocal on Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’, or the Cocteau’s own ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’. A good indicator of the mood of the track is that David Lynch wanted to use it on ‘Blue Velvet’ but couldn’t afford the cost, eventually getting clearance for use on one of his most cryptic films: ‘Lost Highway’.

Where to Find: It’ll End In Tears (1984)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Floorfiller: The Sisters Of Mercy, 'Dominion/ Mother Russia'

After achieving early underground fame in UK, the band reached their commercial
peak in the mid eighties lead by singer and songwriter Andrew Eldritch and a drum machine he christened Doktor Avalanche, who were the only points of continuity in the ever changing line-up.

Despite Eldritch's rather insistent objections to the designation “goth”, their second album Floodland has been lauded as a classic album of the genre, what with Eldritch's emaciated vampire vibe and the theatrically gloomy nature of the music. The album marked a change of direction from guitar-oriented rock towards synthesizer-based soundscapes, a obvious attempt at something more commercial.

Jim Steinman of ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ fame, took on duties behind the desk leading rather inevitably to massed ranks of choirs, a 40-piece orchestra and a production so large it makes the term bombastic redundant. The driving dance-floor hit "Dominion/ Mother Russia", with its thudding bassline and blatant proto-house beat courtesy of Doktor Avalanche, is representative of the new appealing sound.

Eldritch hopes that the song is as epic in scope as ‘War And Peace’ and almost succeeds in giving the impression of him standing in the Siberian tundra belting out the chorus while being buffeted by icy gales. Lyrically we get such diverse tastes as Shelley's ‘Ozymandias’ and Dylan’s ‘Stuck inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues’ which shows you where we are, bordering in that grey area between the ridiculous and the ridiculously sublime. Thankfully it manages to achieve the latter…..for the most part.

Where to find: Floodland (1987)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Random Wednesday: Iggy Pop, 'Sister Midnight'

At some undefined point after the ‘Station to Station’ tour David Bowie decided it was time to get himself and his friend Iggy Pop cleaned up, go to Europe and enter back into normality. It’s ironic that everything about the resulting album suggested that they had gone completely off the deep end without any hope of redemption. Following the end of the tour, Bowie and Pop holed up in Château d'Hérouville, with the intention of writing and recording an album for Pop thus giving Bowie ample room to experiment. In fact purists have criticised the work as unrepresentative of Iggy Pop’s repertoire and simply a blueprint for Bowie’s subsequent work, something he later admitted to: “Poor Jim, in a way, became a guinea pig for what I wanted to do.”

But to denigrate such a startling and unique work in this way is to do it a supreme injustice, ‘The Idiot’ is perhaps the greatest of Pop’s career, a spectral brew of industrial, gothic, funk and krautrock (a mix that would inform post –punk later in the decade).

The opener ‘Sister Midnight’ is without doubt something special. With the automated squelching drum beat and bass it has an anxious walking dead quality, this is not so much James Brown as it is zombie-funk. The track starts with Carlos Alomar’s mesmerizing tumbling guitar figure built around the stark layers of bass and drums. The drum beat has a synthetic feel, creating a big ball of sound more like an electronic variant of what a drum should sound like and less anything organic. Pop’s voice is put upfront, to get as close to the listener as possible, no way to escape the menace. The lyrics are as devastating as the music, laced with Pop’s frank oedipal dream imagery and rabid crooning. No. 1 on the apocalypse jukebox.

Where to find: The Idiot (1977)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Punk on Monday: Black Flag, 'Nervous Breakdown'

When John Lydon sang about being the Antichrist in 1977 he was sowing the seeds for the legions of punk followers in Britain but also gave birth to a new sub genre of punk rock unique to North America. Heavier and faster than its British cousin, Hardcore Punk seemed to owe as much to metal as anything else blending the raw simplicity of the Ramones with atonal and microtonal guitar solos and frequent tempo shifts.

Steven Blush’s documentary film American Hardcore describes three bands - Black Flag, Bad Brains, and Minor Threat - as the most important and influential in the genre. California’s Black Flag are perhaps the most influential of all, primarily due to their tireless promotion of a DIY ethic and a herculean touring schedule which never seemed to end. Greg Ginn was primary songwriter and sole continuous member through multiple personnel changes, he cited ‘Black Sabbath’ as one of his favourite bands and his lyrics dabbled in the mixture of isolation, neurosis, poverty, and paranoia.

Nervous Breakdown was their first 7" EP, released in 1978, and remains one of the salient points of the genre. All the best bits about punk are present and correct, the singer barking like a rabid dog, a ramshackle frantic rhythm and a ludicrously cheap guitar sound.

Black Flag add their own particular stamp with the addition of needle point bass and
and the ever intensely physical presence in the drum department. The main guitar riff is an experience like undertaking a big sweaty stage dive into a heaving mosh and being tossed around unmercifully for the tracks two minute duration.

Where to find: The First Four Years (1983)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

New Sounds: Trivium, 'Like Callisto to a Star in Heaven'

Mention Trivium and you tend to polarise opinion rapidly. Are they metalcore? Have they evolved into a thrash/power metal hybrid? Or do they sound like Metallica junior, as many of their critics have protested? Most of the basis for comment on Trivium’s previous work has centred around the contentious issue of Matt Heafy’s vocal style.
When he screamed the critics liked it but the riffs were deemed immature, when he sang cleanly on ‘The Crusade’ in 2006, he was roundly criticised for so-called James Hetfield-esque singing.

Well, to whom it may concern, the screaming is back and Shogun finds Trivium in rude health, a band finally finding themselves as a unit and producing the album we knew was within their capabilities.
It’s easy to forget that band leader and front man Heafy was just 17 years old when the album 'Ember to Inferno' was written and recorded back in 2003, now they’ve grown up, happy to make a racket completely of their own creation and despite the odd fumble (the album isn’t perfect), they excel and prove themselves worthy.

Travis Smith’s drumming has always been the lead sail that has kept the Trivium boat afloat, and he doesn’t disappoint on 'Like Callisto to a Star in Heaven', showing the metal community why he is one of the most underrated young drummers around, whipping a nice controlled storm with a flurry of precision hitting. Heafy goes through the full gamut of his talents from death-grunt to midrange snarl to clean tenor, all the while shredding away like a demon with a barrage of false climax riffing and a sophisticated chorus that brings the band to new heights. A major contender.

Where to Find: Shogun (2008)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Lesser Spotted Tuesday: Neu!, 'Seeland'

Neu! were formed when drummer Klaus Dinger and guitarist Michael Rother split from an early, less synthetic version of Kraftwerk in early 1970s Düsseldorf. Though they were basically ignored commercially during their existence, Neu! is now considered one of the formative Krautrock artists but more importantly progenitors of a lost genre, obsessively minimalistic pop music.

The band dealt in ‘Motorik’, a term coined to describe the single minimalist 4/4 beat, which Dinger repeats continuously throughout most tracks. Although on paper this might seem a recipe for head scratching monotony, Dinger's virtuosity as a drummer generates a free-flowing groove, with a great sense of continuous forward motion designed to replicate the feeling of Autobahn driving.By the time of Neu! '75, Rother and bandmate Dinger had somewhat diverged in their musical intentions for the band, Dinger preferring a more aggressive, rock-influenced style, something akin to early punk music, while Rother quested after his own ambient predilections.

‘Seeland’ is the perfect example of the more ambient style of playing, the song is notable for its uses of samples, using natural sounds to create a futuristic headspace. Rother really shines, weaving intricate layers of delicate guitar and bass with the odd burst of soothing feedback. The band plays on, though it seems they’ve half forgotten the melody, the whole experience feels like being sucked through a black hole backwards. The enormity of the track is frankly immense, producer Conny Plank proves himself to be a master of texture, allowing his charges to blossom in the vast chasms of space.

Where to find: Neu!'75 (1975)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Atmospheric Sunday: Nine Inch Nails, 'A Warm Place'

Trent Reznor is no stranger to having praise heaped upon him, the Los Angeles Times considers him one of the most acclaimed creative figures of his generation and Spin magazine described him as “the most vital artist in music”, he’s had people like David Bowie clamouring to work with him, taken on the record industry (now technically an unsigned artist) and managed to transcend genre barriers to become something of a hero for groups as diverse as indie kids and industrial metallers.

In other words he’s sickeningly talented.

To record his third album “The Downward Spiral”, Reznor rented the house actress Sharon Tate was murdered in by members of the Manson Family in 1969, this should give you an inclination as to the the despair and often nihilistic visions found in the music.

It seems as though Reznor can write the perfect melody, deconstruct it and put it back together to make something new, something ugly, but Reznor finds beauty in the slaughterhouse vibe. Every thing on the album is designed for aural abrasion, clouds of static coloured by low-tech futurism producing a thrilling, synthetic version of hard rock. One track stands alone amid all the chaos, ‘A Warm Place’ is like a little bubble of calm in the middle of an apocalyptic riot.

On closer inspection the track lacks none of the unsettling qualities of its more brutal neighbours, if one listens closely, you can hear muted lyrics: “The best thing about life is knowing you put it all together” a document of Reznors conscious descent into oblivion(he became something of a recluse after the following tour). This makes the drifting ambience all the more disturbing, Reznor has found a womb of inevitability amidst the carnage. Menacing stuff.

Where to find: The Downward Spiral (1994)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday Fun: Primal Scream, 'Loaded'

You know, I remember reading somewhere that the whole pre-millennium tension thing burst a decade too early in ’89-’90, what with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communism and in culture the whole acid-house fad that had every band worth their fashionable salt going dancey on us all of a sudden.

Primal Scream were a fair to middling rock band who oscillatated between C86 jingle-jangle guitars and stonesy riffs before they started messing around with synthesisers and employing house DJs Andrew Weatherall and Terry Farley for production duties.Now the primals can never be accused of doing anything by half, so when they went dance they made sure to include the female soul vocalist, the drum loop and the extensive remix, on their watershed album ‘Screamadelica’.

Just one of the albums many (and it has to be said varied) delights, is that shambling baggy anthem ‘Loaded’. The track started life when Andrew Weatherall began remixing ‘I'm Losing More than I'll Ever Have’, from their previous album, with the result of stripping the song back to its skeleton, adding a wicked percussion line from an Italian bootleg mix of Edie Brickell's ‘What I Am’ and a sample of Gillespie singing a line from Robert Johnson's ‘Terraplane Blues’. Now you would think that too many disparate elements would spoil the broth, but added to the already heady brew is an audio sample from the Peter Fonda film The Wild Angels that gives the track its intro and some would say notoriety.

So we get an impossibly floaty bass, a classic guitar figure cutting through the audio fog and barmy samples all over the place… never too much of a good thing apparently.

Where to find: Screamadelica (1991)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My Random Wednesday: Genesis, 'In the Cage'

When we think of prog rock the first reaction is to shudder and think of all cringe inducing stage theatrics and the interminable instrumental noodling designed to showcase alleged virtuosity.

So when we get a prog tendency, the best thing is to go for the pinnacle of the genre and Peter Gabriel era genesis can argue to be just that. ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ is a curious album, in which Gabriel wove a intricate tapestry partly about the quest of the protagonist ‘Rael’ to find his brother, but with individual songs making satirical allusions to everything from mythology, the sexual revolution, advertising and consumerism. It’s a concept album so it’s wildly ambitous, bombastic (delightfully so) and more than a touch indulgent.

‘In the Cage’ is simply perfect prog , it’s one of the few songs from the album to remain in Genesis’ live repertoire to this day. Musically we get a chugging synth/ drum rhythm representing the clausterphobia that Rael experiences in his mental prison, before the track bursts open with Tony Bank’s infamous synth solo (remember them?), which provides a genuine shot of adrenaline into the prog body taking us onto some celestial plateau.

Every thing about this is epic, and it won't let you forget that. Lyrically it’s vintage, eccentric Gabriel, “drowning in this liquid fear” and so on. Three popular songs are referenced in the lyrics, “My Girl”, Del Shannon’s “Runaway” and “Raindrops keep falling on my head”, which only adds to the postmodern mystery.

Where to find: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Metal Monday: Pantera, 'I'm Broken'

Starting life as glam metal also-rans, Pantera played a major role in shaping post-thrash metal with ‘Vulgar Display of Power’ in 1992. By slowing down the tempos and incorporating a harder-edged vocal style they pioneered a new era of groove metal. 2 years later Pantera returned to much hype and fanfare, becoming the defining metal band of their generation. Dubbed the most extreme album to ever get to number one, ‘Far Beyond Driven’ was devoid of nearly all the Thrash Metal influences Pantera had on their previous three albums, settling for a driller-killer mid tempo groove throughout the album.

Much of the shift was due to Dimebag Darrell's more down-tuned and heavier, sludgy playing in the style of Tony Iommi from metal behemouths Black Sabbath. Anselmo's lyrics were also showing a new found maturity, far more personal than on the previous albums. Don’t be lulled into thinking that the band had shed the metallic mayhem with their new found popularity, this is the sound of raging young men spewing forth blatant raw aggression atop jackhammer drums and industrial guitars.

‘I’m Broken’, is archatypal of pantera’s classic sound, the song features one of guitarist Dimebag Darrell's most famous riffs (later echoed in Audioslave’s ‘Cochise’) and Phil Anselmo’s razor blade vocal style. Pantera officially disbanded in 2003 amid a war of accusations and in late 2004, Dimebag was murdered onstage during a Damageplan performance. Although Phil Anselmo has garnered much acclaim fronting Louisiana bayou metallers Down, he is destined to live in the shadow of Pantera's peerless canon.

Where to find: Far Beyond Driven (1994)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Classic Rock: Van Morrison, 'You don't pull no punches, but you don't push the river'

Following the dissolution of his marriage to Janet Planet, Morrison quit the California life and took an extended trip back to Ireland in search of a new source of artistic energy and purpose. The following album Veedon Fleece, was written quickly in a three-week blitz of creative activity that saw a shift in tone from his previous run of albums. The album itself is his most preoccupied with Ireland, as if he was consciously attempting to invoke the memory of ‘Astral Weeks’ and achieve the type of divine transcendence which made that album live in immortality.

‘Veedon Fleece’ contains some of the most ambitious and challenging work of Morrison’s career. He puts himself at the heart of it all, the weary traveller trying to immerse himself back amongst the “real people”. ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches’, is the gargantuan centrepiece of the album, which appears as a form of escapist fantasy among the other grounded songs.

As with all of his best work, the song sounds like the lonely troubadour standing in front of the microphone, entering a trance like state, and allowing the supporting musicians to follow his lead. They enter almost tentatively, one by one, but building, eventually giving life to a swirling, dreamlike choir of strings and woodwinds. The whole thing is delicately supported by Morrison’s voice, lying above it all manipulating from the heavens.

Lyrically the song takes us to exhilarating new places. He creates a new Celtic mythology, with the fleece as the Irish equivalent of the Holy Grail, a religious relic that would answer his questions if he could track it down, on his quest around the west coast of Ireland. William Blake and the Eternals and the Sisters of Mercy are added to the already bewildering mix, a symbol of everything yearned for in the preceding songs on the album; spiritual enlightenment, wisdom and artistic vision. Somewhat surprisingly, he subsequently revealed that the song owed a considerable debt to his readings in Gestalt therapy.

Morrison took a three year break coming back with the relatively lightweight ‘A Period Of Transition’ a man absolutely cleansed by the experience of ‘Veedon Fleece’.

Where to find: Veedon Fleece (1974)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Floorfiller: Cabaret Voltaire, 'Sensoria'

Born out of the proto-electronica scene of seventies Sheffield, Cabaret Voltaire were essentially a punk band who ditched the guitars and replaced them with rudimentary synthesisers creating a delightful variety of experimental electronic music, losing none of the aggression through the cold technology. Nowadays it’s easy to look back and hail the groups of this era as prescient visionaries shaping the techno landscape of the following decade but this is essentially industrial music, primeval and raw.

It wasn’t until micro-phonies in 1984 that they went all commercial on us and started turning all that punk energy into something to demolish your dancefloor, even getting some airtime on MTV in the process.

The original 'Sensoria' had meat put on its bones with a retooled 12-inch mix in 2001, something to really get excited by. It starts with a series of thudding beats, you know that familiar eighties ‘massive drum in a warehouse’ sound like the reverb’s been pushed into the stratosphere. The addition of a wickedly primitive bassline envelopes the sonic environment livening up proceedings nicely, the stuttering attack comes across as an experience not unlike being beaten repeatedly by a mallet. Acidic electronic licks, the catchy sample and upfront vocals build the track into a colossal exercise in rhythm.

Not so much something to rock the foundations as uproot them and steamroll anything foolish enough to cross the path.

Where to find: The Original Sound of Sheffield '83/'87

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Modern Sounds: Fleet Foxes, 'Ragged Wood'

Following a couple of well received EP’s, the five-piece seattle based folk-rockers released their eponymous debut album in June. The close harmonies are likely to invite comparisons with post ‘Pet Sounds’ era Beach Boys or Crosby Stills and Nash, but if you’re looking for a pithy comparison, a more likely fit would be to dub them this years Arcade Fire. They fit the mould as an off-kilter eccentric band who’ve taken the mainstream by storm, now hopefully they avoid the ubiquitous radio overkill.

The track bursts open like a window pouring refreshing sunlight on the dusty rooms inside. With a ramshackle rhythm it goes off on a brisk cantor flowing with the aroma of woozy acoustic guitar and arcane instrumentation creating a vast kaleidoscopic wash. There’s a real purpose here, like the music is trying to free its shackles to float off into the divine ether. Don’t be fooled by the dizzy atmosphere, there’s a serious intelligence at work amongst all the play The stop chord technique and celestial outro reveal a more subtle hand at work, one of pure pop craftsmanship.

Where to find: Fleet Foxes (2008)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Random Wednesday: Time Zone, 'World Destruction'

Afrika Bambaataa is generally regarded as the "Grandfather" or "Godfather" among the early pioneers of Hip-Hop, as well as the prime innovator of the electro funk sound. His third single ‘Planet Rock’ laid waste to the vapid nature of popular disco, introducing a colder futuristic vision, that borrowed heavily from Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ and ‘Numbers’. The latter in particular provided the perfect template for the breakbeat architecture that would become synonomous with hip-hop.

Bambaataa worked with different musicians for his experimental Time Zone project, which he would continue off and on into the nineties. Impressed by John Lydon’s
rabid delivery style, he had dub pioneer Bill Laswell arrange a collaborative session, the fruits of which produced the present track.

‘World Destruction’ is the first real rapcore song; predating Run-DMC and Aerosmith's ‘Walk This Way’, with its insiduous guitar line and a majestic synth figure. Lydon, fresh from his own experimentation with p.i.l., contributes a note perfect performance capturing the clausterphobic sense of impending doom perfectly. He shows us that punk and rap are two-sides of the same coin, both essentially aggressive, visceral genres.

Laswell contributed bass to the track, but the two main protagonists are clearly the stars of the show, brewing a storm with furious vocalisations backed by the ominous thud of the mechanised beat. One of those rare occasions in music when two genre leaders get together and make something at least equal to the sum of it’s parts, a little gem to cherish.

Where to Find: World Destruction Single (1984) &
The Best of British £1 Notes (2005)