Medicine and Duty- Flags and Cannons


This Brighton-based improvised music trio, made up of guitarist/bassist/keyboardists Matt Colegate and Jack Cooper, along with drummer Andy Pyne, evolved from the acclaimed Raised By Wolves and are part of a collective of forward-thinking, experimental acts that also includes Burning Idiot Noise and Puffinboy. Medicine and Duty, however, is arguably the most far-out and unhinged of all of them, operating in a wide-ranging sphere that puts them alongside such cosmic fellow travellers as Sunburned Hand of the Man, Merzbow, Lightning Bolt and Boredoms, and in the tradition of illustrious antecedents from Sun-Ra and Ornette Coleman to Can and Faust to This Heat and James Chance and the Contortions. It’s far-reaching shit.

Cannons and Flags opens with the startling, foghorn warning signal of ‘Going Down With the Ship,’ an urgent piece of no wave skronk built upon an insistent, one-note guitar drone spiked with virulent Teenage Jesus scrape shards of high-pitched unpleasant surgical noise. Barely audible beatific vocal harmonies attempt to sooth our terror as the pummelling drums kick in and we feel ourselves lurching towards the unfathomable depths of the vast dark universal ocean, where Cthulhu doubtless waits.

 ‘A Better Place for Now’ recalls Holy Fuck in the way the untutored analog electronics and primitive guitar klang gradually revolve around the stuttering drums until a heavy, hypnotic, killer kraut dancefloor groove emerges. Urgent calls for prayer in some lost ancient language begin ‘Distinguished Gentlemen Be Aware’ -a language that is nevertheless disturbingly familiar on some subconscious, atavistic level. From electronic squiggles, free form tribal drum rolls and percussive tapping it grows increasingly disturbed and frenetic, never settling, always in motion and up in the air, simulating the jangled effect of several days’ sleep deprivation.

‘Mechanical Surgery Solutions’ is the sound of some hideous industrial machine or Kafka-esque torture device, the needle cutting intricate patterns deep into the victim’s body. Yet it’s an oasis of sinister calm after the preceding number, generating dread white English dub sonics almost in the manner of Cabaret Voltaire. Gradually the rhythms coalesce into something more assertive and menacing, and then it’s time for ‘The Tour Guide,’ in which a diatribe in what I now recognise as the ancient language of Mu (or is it some obscure Lemurian dialect?), is rhythmically chanted in the manner of turn-of-the-millennium art rockers Life Without Buildings. Guitars and drums interject and weave around this fascinating vocal discourse on the flora, fauna, history and architectural magnificence of the lost continent.

The chants and wails grow ever more ecstatic on the title track, a frenzy of orgiastic drumming and wild, Dionysian celebration that is nevertheless continually undercut by subdued, melancholy piano chords. It’s as though even in the hour of their greatest triumph, the people of Mu are still tragically aware of their imminent demise, along with that of their entire culture. Which of course is just as it would have been with a race of people so advanced that they occupied several different time streams simultaneously, and in both directions.

Indeed, ‘Last of the Lives’ begins with a sombre and spartan memorial tattoo for those brave Lemurian warriors prepared to go down with their country. Electronic noise stabs are arranged around appropriately seasick guitar wails, and as the music grows ever more hectic, impassioned and uncontrolled a hypnotic voice tells of the unimaginable courage and suffering of those hundreds of men, women and hermaphrodites who all died with their third eyes open.

‘Mars Battalion March’ is a spiky, sparse and brief interlude of quirky reflection before ‘Life Like Life Support’ once again evokes Holy Fuck with pummelling drums and repetitive electronic whistles and belches that may be a last ditch attempt from a dying civilisation to communicate with our alien brethren from beyond the stars. The results though are scrambled and overloaded- joyous to listen to, but as we know, historically tragic. This song uses the metaphor of the competing stimuli of a man with several hearts beating in different rhythms simultaneously, while hooked up to an erratic life support machine, to convey the intensity and chaos of those final, desperate days of Mu.

But then again, what if all of this is completely wrong? on ‘Theories Demolished,’ guitars, keys and drums all lock into a primal ur-kraut groove as the eloquent lyrics urgently refute all of my pat interpretations, ironically using the formal court language of High Lemiurian to devastating effect- a way of speaking, of course, that was expressly evolved in order to observe the intricate protocol of a decadent empire, so full of ambiguity, allusion, double-meaning and now-impenetrable subtleties that the speaker is never definitely committed to one opinion or point of view.

 ‘Baby Please’ is a temporal anomaly- stray bass notes escaping from a Joy Division rehearsal circa 1978, in a disused mill complex still haunted by the vicious ghosts of dismembered Victorian schoolchildren. And suddenly we’re in howling, churning hardcore territory, beyond the valley of At The Drive-In. Whatever it is, she ain’t doing it.

The last track, ‘Whale Hunting’ is an epic finale. Great titanium-hulled longships set sail across uncharted oceans in pursuit of fabled magnificent beasts, each one the size and temprament of a modest post-war housing development. Here we have all the pathos and drama of that life or death struggle, driven by the martial drums of the whaling ships’ oarsmen and the haunting but deafening cries of the whales that the Lemurians hunted into extinction with laser harpoons and sonar nets, all of which are represented sonically on this song. Is it a metaphor for the state of music in 2008, sinking beneath the waves of corporate indifference yet paradoxically illuminated by the very technological innovations that threaten to destroy it? Probably not. But it’s worth considering.       

Flags and Cannons is a Foolproof Project-

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