Albums of 2011- part one (10-1)

January 10, 2012

   

   

10: Bill Wells and Aidan Moffatt, Everything’s Getting Older

The former Arab Strap man teams up with the Glasgow indie scene’s favourite jazzer to make this masterpiece of mid-life reflection. Inevitably there are echoes of the Strap, and also prime-period Pulp in the way ordinary, everyday experiences are dissected and set to music, and the prosaic is made poetic in the process.

9: Baby Dee, Goes Down to Amsterdam Damn Damn

The sheer pleasure of hearing the full breadth of Dee’s repertoire, in a live setting with a band and a thunderous Steinway grand piano, could have got this double CD set even higher in my favourites of the year. Only my reservations about whether live albums really count, and my familiarity with many of the numbers on here, held it back to number nine.

8: William D Drake, The Rising of the Lights

There are moments when this album gets a tad too whimsical and precocious for my tastes, but it remains a beautiful, warm, intimate, enigmatic collection. And in ‘Me Fish Bring’ it contains possibly the finest single song I’ve heard all year.

7: Sarabeth Tucek, Get Well Soon

I was surprised to find myself rating this album so highly at the year’s end, but it’s true that every listen uncovers new nuances and fresh subtlety. In a soundbite: imagine if Neil Young had teamed up with Karen Carpenter to make the follow-up to On the Beach. A lonely, late-night classic.

6: Bill Callahan, Apocalypse

Beyond a couple of songs (‘Cold Blooded Old Times,’ ‘Dress Sexy at My Funeral’) I never really followed Bill Callahan’s career as Smog. Then I was stopped dead hearing this album playing in my local record shop. Then I was asked to review it (by the Quietus, natch). It’s a beauty; a deadpan, post-grunge Astral Weeks, no less. And like Astral Weeks, I still don’t know what it’s really all about, and don’t need to know, either.

5: Trembling Bells, The Constant Pageant

No longer content to be pigeonholed as an electric folk group in the Fairport / Pentangle mould, Trembling Bells explode in all directions on this glorious, dizzy, joyously melodic and catchy prog-pop-folk-rock confection. Also features probably the only mention ever of the West Yorkshire village of Mytholmroyd in a prog-metal anthem.

4: Wooden Shjips, West

The Shjips’ third album proper is their most dynamic and fully-realised yet: a loose concept album about death and rebirth masquerading as a loose concept album about San Francisco and California. That killer Neil Young inspired rising riff on ‘Home’ emphasises the distance between Wooden Shjips and Ripley Johnson’s other project, Moon Duo: once almost interchangable, it’s now clear that while the Duo make fabulous mutant rockabilly pop, the Shjips are a rock band to be reckoned with (see the Quietus for full review).

3: The Horrors, Skying

The style vultures and trendspotters watch eagerly; what will The Horrors sound like next? Are they goth? Are they krautrock? Is it their shoegaze album? Have they gone- gasp- baggy? Skying is all this and more, a veritable catwalk tribute through the golden years of British alternative music (say, 1977 to 1993- an extended eighties, basically). There are nods to everyone from the Psychedelic Furs to Suede, Simple Minds to My Bloody Valentine and more. By turns gloriously amateur and breathtakingly adept, and still hiding odd corners that reveal themselves fleetingly and for the first time on each listen, this album is far more than just flavour of the month. Still my favourite indie boy band, basically.

2: Puro Instinct, Headbangers on Ecstasy

A kind of feminine, American counterpart to Skying, this overlooked album just has the edge for me. There’s something altogether strange and magical about it: two young sisters from Texas taking the gothic Scottish post-punk pop of Strawberry Switchblade or early Altered Images and pulling it through a hazy shoegaze filter, with a little help from the esteemed Ariel Pink. Melodies like candy floss, echo-laden, unsophisticated harmonies, haunting, spiralling guitar solos; glass brittle yet gossamer soft. The term Dream Pop has never seemed so appropriate.

1: Arbouretum, The Gathering

And so my album of the year is this lumbering, monolithic slab of stoner folk-rock: if Richard Thompson had joined Black Sabbath, or if Loop had merged with My Dad is Dead. But the apocalyptic overtones of almost every song seemed entirely right for 2011’s lowering mood; those slow, uncoiling solos the right way to gradually release the tension. Stormclouds gather overhead, but beauty is never far away. The stars shine down on the burning city, and Arbouretum are heading for the border.

Albums of 2011- part four (20-11)

January 9, 2012

  

20: The Bent Moustache, Pastures New Seasons Turn

Anglo-Dutch ensemble led by the mighty Ajay Saggar (ex-Donkey, ex-Dandelion Adventure), deliver a jooyous and accomplished LP that sounds like a first rate John Peel radio show, with My Bloody Valentine and The Fall most prominent among the influences, but all splattered with trumpets, violins, distorted vocals, feedback and shonky rhythms. Top banana!

19: Tinariwen, Tassili

The dinner party dilletantes may feel they don’t need another Tinariwen LP in their lives, but their loss is our gain; this latest selection of mantric desert psych blues finds them adding brass sections, western guest musicians (Nels Cline, Tunde Adebimpe, Kyp Malone), and their first English language song, ‘Walla Illa’, a trippy chant that in my parallel universe of choice found them miming on Top of the Pops three weeks running.

18: BILL, Spielweise 2

Hans Joachim Irmler from Faust again, this time in collaboration with Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, To Rococo Rot guitarist Robert Lippok, and world music expert Clive Bell. And it’s as good as you’d hope- classic krautrock meets contemporary German electronica, gamelan and Arabic grooves. BILL is a killer.

17: Moon Duo, Mazes

Not as strong as last year’s Escape, nor the ‘Horror Tour’ EP they released this Halloween (which might be my favourite thing of theirs so far), but Mazes will still conjure 2010/2011 in my ears when I listen back in whatever far-flung future I’m offered; echoing, claustrophobic, monotonous, magnificent.

16: Transept, TRSPT001

Straight outta Norwich like a turbo-charged Tangerine Dream, this debut album from the Transept duo marks them out as the new space-rock contenders. Took a while to grow on me- and alas, missed out on a review at the time as a result- but now its full glory stands apparent. Anyone who calls their record label Dronehenge has to be great, right? Right!

15: The Lowland Hundred, Adit

Both more accessible and less immediate than their stunning 2010 debut, Under Cambrian Sky, Adit finds the Aberystwyth duo experimenting with relatively conventional song structures, recalling the jazz-tinged melodies of Mark Hollis, Robert Wyatt and the mature Scott Walker. Paul Newland’s vocals, incidentally, are more than worthy of such esteemed comparisons. see The Quietus, again, for my full review.

14: Luke Haines, Nine and a half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and early 80s

Mr Haines’ continues his ever-deeper and more obsessive excavations through the rubble of a 1970s adolescence, this time with a creepy concept album of sorts, built around the likes of Kendo Nagasaki, Big Daddy, Rollerball Rocco and other half-remembered names from the time Tiswas inevitably cross-faded into World of Sport on a grey Saturday lunchtime. Whether this will mean much to anyone under the age of 40 is a moot point, but this is still a glorious folly, song intros referencing the music of the day as much as the lyrical nods to liver sausage sandwiches and Cry Baby Jim Breaks.

13: Cat’s Eyes, Cat’s Eyes

Faris Badwan often sounds like a young Marc Almond on this romantic, melancholy pocket symphony (just 28 minutes long), while Rachel Zeffira comes over like the lost Shangri-La, mascara running as she’s left behind in a haze of motorcycle fumes. Not just a pastiche, this is proper pop music that works on every level.

12: John Maus, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves

Gloomy, melodramatic early eighties synth pop, re-imagined for the post-chillwave, hypnogogic pop set. We’re back in Berlin, waiting on an empty film lot in a long raincoat as the dry ice billows around our pegged Bowie pants. Vienna? Nope, means nothing to me.

11: Grimes, Halfaxa

Montreal’s Claire Boucher may have been influenced by Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux, but she goes further out than they ever could, deconstructing electronic pop into shards of melody, reflections without substance, endless echoes through endless symmetrical rooms. The twentieth century seems like a lifetime ago.

Albums of 2011- part three (30-21)

January 8, 2012

     

    

30: The Feelies, Here Before

Comfort listening: chugging, Velvet Underground guitars, tambourine, NY cool, understated, lovelorn melodies and scrungy solos. Curiously, I never really listened to the Feelies in their 70s glory years, and maybe that’s actually why this comeback sounds so fresh to me.

29: We Are Enfant Terrible, Explicit Pictures

Great French electro-pop; trashy, catchy, knowingly throwaway but inventively melodic, and surprisingly innovative and edgy, too. And that’s before you even listen to the (English) lyrics…

28: Flare Acoustic Arts League, Big Top / Encore

High quality, high melody/melancholy indie pop anthems from one of the voices on Magnetic Fields’ acclaimed 69 Love Songs. Sometimes sounds like Morrissey joined The Stranglers. Great version of the Psychedelic Furs’ ‘Merry-Go-Round’ too.

27: WATERS, Out in the Light

I was definitely unduly harsh in my Stool Pigeon review of this album, suggesting that it really fell apart after the excellent first couple of songs. Listening back now, I can’t think what I disliked about this grungey powerpop gem, like Sparklehorse dragging Cheap Trick through several hedges sideways (and not Bryan Adams as I may have previously suggested…)

26: Fairewell, Poor, Poor Grendel

A late contender for the list, this odd, dream-like album perhaps covered too many stylistic bases for its own good, starting off with Boo Radleys-esque melodic shoegaze and expanding outwards from there. Fairewell’s genius may still be sinking in.

25: Ramesses, Possessed by the Rise of Magick

One of two releases from Ramesses this year, and while the half-studio / half-live Chrome Pineal didn’t really do it for me, Possessed by the Rise of Magick quickly transcends its generic doom metal beginnings and moves towards territory both more melodic and adventurous; like Joy Division weighed down on the moons of Jupiter.

24: Eat Lights Become Lights, Autopia

See the Quietus for my full review of this heartfelt homage to all things krautrock and motorik: Neu!, Can, La Dusseldorf, Cluster and, especially, Kraftwerk are all present in this double LP’s every groove, but it never feels plagarised or second-hand; rather, a re-imagining of future days that never quite came into being.

23: White Hills, HP-1

The latest installment in WhiteHills’ epic odyssey of fuzzed-out spacerock doesn’t quite hit the heights of last year’s eponymous breakthrough record, but they’re still way ahead of most of their so-called peers, staking out new territory and leaving naught but scorched earth behind them. Droning synths and angry, anti-consumerist lyrics come even more to the fore amid the usual savage crunch of overdriven guitars.

22. Birdengine, The Crooked Mile

Dark, freakish, cabaret-folk-noir from Lawrie Joseph Tilbury, aka Birdengine, conjuring a unique, surreal universe from wax, callipers, shadows and string. See the Quietus for my full review, or better still, buy it now from our good friends at Bleeding Heart Recordings (no relation!)

21. Radiohead, The King of Limbs

Sourpuss Thom Yorke and his posh prog boy band ahead of White Hills and Birdengine in my end of year poll? I’m as surprised as you are, but this is Radiohead’s finest moment since Kid A. Again, I reviewed it for the Quietus, and was the only critic to suggest that it sounded more like John Martyn than James Blake, more krautfolk than dubstep. Even better with the addition of the two tracks (“Supercollider”, “The Butcher”) that they released after the event.

Albums of 2011- part two (40-31)

January 6, 2012

 

 

40: Damon and Naomi, False Beats and True Hearts

On which the pair update their post-Galaxie 500 dream pop template to incorporate more classic rock moves, fuzz and grind, with occasionally sublime results.

39: Low, C’Mon

Low do Low. C’mon.

38. Dark Captain, Dead Legs and Alibis

Dropping the ‘/Light Captain’ half of their name, Dark Captain more than hold their own next to the aforementioned indie legends. Harmony-laden folk-rock narcotics with a motorik pulse.

37. North Sea Radio Orchestra, I, A Moon

The North Sea Radio Orchestra’s strongest album to date, with acoustic krautrock segments added to their usual beguiling chamber orchestrals. This is also Craig Fortnam’s most personal release under the NSRO banner- search www.thestoolpigeon.co.uk for my interview with the NSRO leader on the subject of this album and its inspiration.

36. Julia Kent, The Green and Grey

Simple, classical cello instrumentals from a member of Antony’s Johnsons. Subtle and understated, you feel their absence acutely when the CD ends.

35. Baby Dee, Regifted Light

Another largely instrumental album in the classical tradition; another former associate of Antony and the Johnsons, for that matter. But Dee edges it on the strength of her songwriting and personality. “I want that pie…!”

34. Liz Green, O Devotion!

Manchester’s oddly old-fashioned folk chanteuse delivers her long-awaited debut album; spare, sweet, affecting and out of time.

33. The Coathangers, Larceny and Old Lace

All-girl lo-fi punk band from the states, whose sense of melody and sparsely experimental arrangements lift them above the pack. Like if the Lunachicks had gone in more of a Swell Maps / Subway Sect direction…

32. Maria and the Gay, Greatest Hits Volume One

More lo-fi punk rock, this time from Manchester’s answer to the Moldy Peaches. A pop sensibility worthy of the B-52s or the Go-Go’s underlies these scurvy council flat rants, the fanzine loneliness and the pritt-stick production values, and there’s an ace cover of Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding’ to boot. Sent to me by Robert Lloyd of The Nightingales, which is nice.

31. Magazine, No Thyself

An ultimately disappointing comeback from one of all-time favourite bands still manages to be my 31st favourite of the year, and maybe not as bad as my Stool Pigeon review made it out to be. Worth it for the comedy-porno second track alone, this often descends into knowing self-parody and often sounds weirdly like the great lost Brighton band of the last decade, Celebricide. Still not a patch on Real Life, mind.

More to follow!

Albums of 2011- part one (50-41)

January 6, 2012

Okay. I know nobody gives a damn about these lists once January 1st has rolled past, but I’ve been giving this a lot of thought and a lot of re-listens, and this is my own personal Top 50 of 2011 for posterity. Of course, it’s based solely on what I happen to have heard; if your favourite, or many of the albums that have topped similar polls elsewhere, aren’t included, it’s probably not because I’ve dismissed it as crap, but that I just haven’t had a chance to listen to it (that means you, PJ Harvey). I get sent a lot of random stuff; some of it I love, some of it I don’t so much. Maybe half a dozen records on this list I specifically sought out and bought; the rest was just sent to me and maybe I woldn’t have ever come across it otherwise. Some I reviewed at the time; others I didn’t, and hopefully their inclusion here will go a tiny way towards making up for that. One or two I maybe reviewed too harshly at the time, and have gotten more into their particular charms since. The order is as correct as I could make it; sometimes, a cluster of records together are really all equally as good, and their positioning is somewhat random. And finally, as I said before, it’s a personal choice: cultural and sociological significance be damned, this is just what I enjoyed listening to.

 

50: The Memory Band, Oh My Days

Folk, pop, rock, soul- you can’t quite pin this CD down. And if at times it gets a bit too much like Morcheeba play The Wicker Man, then it’s redeemed by having the good taste to cover Sandy Denny, Graham Bond and that spooky ‘Come Wander with Me’ song from The Twilight Zone.

49: Delicate Steve, Wondervisions

Weird electro-tropicalia, or something. Unclassifiable. Intriguing.

48: Motorhead, The World is Yours

Angry, outlaw, hi-energy rock n’ roll, with gentleman Lemmy as some fiery, scorched earth, existentialist preacher; still vital, still resisting cartoon caricature and being safely filed away as a “national treasure.”

47: Luther Russell, The Invisible Audience

A sprawling, double album odyssey through 20th Century American music, from ragtime to rock n’ roll, blues to grunge and all points in between. Search www.thequietus.com for my full review at the time.

46: Bong, Beyond Ancient Space

Three mammoth, epic, heavy metal drone tracks: nothing much happens, but there’s the constant ominous suggestion that everything could explode at any moment. Pretty much sounds exactly like you’d expect from the title.

45: Ane Brun, It All Starts With One

A tad polite, yes, and half the tracks will probably end up selling luxury goods on TV adverts, and Jose Gonzales is on there for fuck’s sake, but something about this record got under my skin. Maybe it’s the voice, or the space in the production, the sparseness and reverb; whatever, it’s a keeper.

44: Rutman’s Steel Cello Ensemble: featuring Ginsberg, Hentz and Irmler

So there’s this 80-year old artist, right, and he’s built this massive fucking steel sail which he plays like a cello, and gets these old krautrockers (including Hans Joachim Irmler from Faust) to jam along on drums and wah-wah guitar and samples with the resulting drone. Of course it’s great.

43: Six Organs of Admittance, Asleep on the Floodplain

A step back, certainly, from last year’s stunning Luminous Night, but a new album from Ben Chasny’s Six Organs is always welcome. Business as usual: pastoral acoustic picking, flecks of psychedelic electricity, much loveliness and a spice of violent dischord.

42: Alex Monk, The Safety Machine

Another one I reviewed for the Quietus, if you want to check it out, but basically this is high-quality drone music that fuses electronic, synth-based soundscapes with modal acoustic guitar playing and even songs, with words and singing and everything. Ominous and engrossing.

41: Kreidler, Tank

Instrumental, post-industrial post-rock from Germany, that rocks. Not thrashy or noisy, this is motorik in a non-obvious way; hard-edged, dark, winding, propulsive, addictive.

 

Next chapter to follow soon!

The Silver Apples- an Interview with Simeon

October 6, 2010

 

As the music of the late 1960s is continually reassessed, it seems to be coming true that the first shall be the last, and the wayward, uncommercial geniuses elevated to the heights at the expense of major icons like the Beatles, Dylan and the Stones, their previously pristeen reputations tarnished through sheer over-familiarity. The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and Nick Drake are now household names, while the likes of The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Tim Buckley and the MC5 aren’t far behind. And coming up fast on the outside are The Silver Apples.

 Obscure and almost forgotten 15 years ago, the Silver Apples- a duo of Simeon Cox III on a home-made synthesiser dubbed ‘The Simeon,’ and drumming prodigy Danny Taylor-  are now hailed as pioneers of electronic music, and urban psychedelic shamans to boot. Taylor’s drumming wove trance-inducing patterns around Simeon’s freaked-out siren wails, generated, according to their first LP’s sleevenotes, from “nine audio oscillators piled on top of each other, and eighty-six manual controls to control lead, rhythm and bass pulses with hands, feet, knees and elbows.”

Brutal, hypnotic, minimal yet melodic, their haunted junkheap grooves were too much at the time even for the far-out freaks of their native New York, yet they scored a Top 100 LP with their 1968 self-titled debut LP, and were maybe set to break through the barriers that saw them consigned almost to novelty sideshow status by fans of foursquare rock, when a heavy lawsuit from Pan-Am Airlines effectively took them out of the running overnight.

The world’s most experienced airline- which went bankrupt in 1991- took umbrage over the sleeve of the Apples’ 1969 second LP Contact, which depicted our hairy heroes looking somewhat spaced in the cockpit of a Pan-Am jet, and then sat amid the inevitable smoking wreckage on the back cover, Simeon pickin’ a lonesome banjo philosophically. Previously cleared with the company, this slapstick set-up nevertheless outraged the sensibilities of some high-up exec who stumbled across it in a store, and immediately brought full corporate weight to bear, not only getting album withdrawn, not only getting the band banned from the airwaves, but threatening them with massive legal shitstorm if they so much as advertised a gig as Silver Apples anywhere in the known world. Add to that their record company, Kapp, getting subsumed into MCA in 1970, and the duo were left high and dry, the plug pulled midway through recording a third album, The Garden, tapes of which would finally see light of day in 1998.

With such a story, someone should make a film about them, you may think. And hey, funnily enough… The Silver Apples: Play Twice Before Listening is pencilled in for an early 2011 release, after being over ten years in the making. This indie documentary is a labour of love by San Francisco School of Performing Arts graduate Barak Soval, and follows on from his acclaimed Andy Warhol documentary, Valerie Says. It was to talk about the film that the esteemed Stool Pigeon music paper sent me to talk to Simeon back at the end of August, when he was playing a short UK solo tour under the Silver Apples name.

Simeon is an engaging, professionally courteous interviewee, with a boyish enthusiasm that belies his seventy-four years as much as his physical and mental alertness. There’s certainly little noticable sign of the partial paralysis that is a permanent momento of a late-night road accident on Halloween, 1999, when the Silver Apples van was forced off the road after a triumphant comeback gig in New York City, and Simeon was initially reported dead on the scene. Neither would you think him in any way impaired watching his performance later that night, before a rapt audience of devotees in Hove’s St Andrew’s Church, coloured slides and projections playing over him as classics like ‘Oscillations’ and ‘A Pox on You’ are loudly teased from his jumbled tabletop of gizmos- Holy Fuck are just one of the modern bands to owe the Apples a massive debt of influence- until finally one by one the watchers rise up from their pews to dance, as though touched by the Holy Spirit at some revivalist prayer meeting.

  Focussed and articulate, his speech is still peppered, charmingly, with slightly archaic hippy slang, and he is genuinely emotional when recalling Danny Taylor’s untimely death in 2005. A certain understandable rancour also shows when discussing the extensive bootlegging of his band’s work, despite his claims to have risen above it. Mainly though he seemed happy and relaxed: living for the moment, modest and approachable but pleased that his musical legacy is finally getting the recognition it deserves. 

A drastically shortened version of this interview originally ran in the Autumn 2010 issue of Stool Pigeon, and all photos below are the work of Sam Collins, whose work can be seen at http://samuelcollins.wordpress.com

or at  www.flickr.com/photos/mercurymountain/

 

So, about the film; when did you first hear about it, and how did they approach you?

Simeon: “Yeah, they approached me initially. I guess it was by e-mail; he just e-mailed my record label and said he was interested in doing a documentary.  He had just completed one about the Andy Warhol days in New York, and he said it was being shown at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and that it was his first full-length documentary, and that he would like to do as his second full-length documentary The Silver Apples’ role in the 1960s underground scene in New York, which he felt hasn’t been documented”.

 “As he did this Warhol piece, enough mention was made of Silver Apples that it piqued his interest, and the more he looked into it, the more he saw that the Silver Apples did play a fairly large role, even though it was very underground and very under-exposed. And so he asked permission to just follow me around. He has offices in San Francisco and in New York, and so when we were touring he could catch us at both coasts and get a lot of concert footage and do interviews, and he said that what he wanted to do was dig up people from all over the country, and eventually Europe and Asia, musicians who were well-known, who were influenced by us”.

” And we thought, that’s all very good, fine, I don’t care if you’re onstage filming me, just do what you gotta do. And so he began, and this was, I’d say ten years ago, and it’s still not released! Because, I guess in his mind, the Silver Apples story just keeps on going. Like the little bunny with the drum, y’know, it just keeps on going! So it’s finally, I guess, in its final editing stages, and there is a sort of ten-minute trailer that’s been produced, that’s out and is being pushed around now. I don’t think it has signed distribution yet, but there are several possibilities, and he’s keeping all that under his hat until he has something he can actually announce. So, I don’t, I know less than you do, probably. But that’s pretty much where it stands”.

“It’s got some fun footage of me playing with Danny, when we finally found Danny; it’s got some amazing old photographs that were dug up from the New York City archives, of us playing in the parks and things, and some interesting statements from people, from all different bands, bands that I admire a lot. Mark from Devo actually demonstrates how he used to sing ‘Oscillations’ against a little toy machine, and he sings “oscillations, oscillations,” Devo style… Blur’s in it, they talk about how it’s influenced them, through the Krautrock thing that they’ve been influenced by so much… Faust is in it, speaking of Krautrock, and they talk about the beginnings of it, and how we were definitely part of the picture of the beginnings… so it’s interesting historically. I’ve only seen the trailer a couple of times and it’s interesting because I’ve never seen the footage of me playing with Danny, and so that… I totally enjoyed that part of it.”

 You say it’s been ten years since he started making it, so that must have been not long after you came back to performing again… Is it still focussed on your involvement in the sixties, or has the focus shifted more to a document of your current, or, you know, second wave of activity?

 “Yeah, it’s kind of grown more into, I would say, the second wave part of it, just because that’s the part where he has the most stuff available. It’s really hard to get stuff prior to then. There was almost no video shot during the day, what was shot was on film, and I just don’t know how much film has survived from back then. We found some audio tapes that survived, so maybe film has the same shelf life, I don’t know, but apparently New York City does have some shots, some film, in its archives, that is of us playing, and they won’t release it for a commercial enterprise, they would only release it for a museum showing or something like that, so Barak has not been able to get his hands on that particular footage. But it’s out there. Maybe that’ll change one day. And maybe that’s one of the reasons he’s delaying the release so long, because he’s been negotiating with them for a couple of years now, once he found out they had it”.

 Also you mentioned that his starting point was that The Silver Apples were being mentioned a lot when he was making the documentary on the Warhol scene. What was your relationship with that scene? I know that you when you arrived in New York in the sixties you were originally an artist; did you have any kind of relationship with that Warhol scene and the people involved in that?

 “Yes, both socially and to a certain extent musically. Socially of course we all hung out at Max’s Kansas City and everybody knew everybody. And one of Warhol’s trips was to take somebody who had absolutely no talent, or in his mind no experience or talent or training, and make them into a, quote, “superstar” of some kind or another. People with no acting abilities… the people in the Velvet Underground were basically beginning to learn how to play their instruments, but he jump-started them into stardom, as sort of like, this is what publicity can do, this is what publicity is all about, he was a big publicity person. He did the same with Nico, putting her with the Velvet Underground once he got them established, and he wanted to do the same thing with Ultra Violet, and Ultra Violet became part of his superstar stable, as he’d call it; he wanted to put her with Silver Apples, in the same way as he’d put Nico with the Velvet Underground”.

“So we spent some time rehearsing with her, and I think we actually went out and did a couple of gigs with her, but neither Danny or I liked the idea of having a third person in the band. We felt very personal about our music, and didn’t really ever fully embrace it, and finally we just said no, we don’t want to do this. And um, it didn’t sit well with the Warhol camp, and so we were a little bit estranged from that scene after that. We just sort of said, we can live without it, we don’t need the Warhol publicity machine behind us or anything, and so we went our separate ways after that.”

 I’d imagine that you’d be aware that it might be a bit of a double-edged sword maybe, to be just seen as a Warhol project…

 “Yeah, we had already had an album that had ridden the Billboard 100 charts for ten weeks; we were fairly established, we were already dubbed ‘the New York sound’ and were commissioned by the city of New York to play all these concerts, in the city, and to entertain all the people during the hot summer days. We already had a career going, we were touring, we had a second album that we were working on, and eventually a third. And we felt like we had a career. We didn’t need this whole Warhol identification which really didn’t exist anyway; we never were really a part of it. Our studios were within blocks of each other, and our hangout was Max’s Kansas City, so we knew each other. But we just never really embraced the whole idea, and so consequently were a little bit estranged from it, or not included in the writings about it and stuff like that”.

 Did you have any kind of relationship with the Velvet Underground?

  “Only to say hi”.

 You didn’t play any concerts together?

  “No, we went to a couple of their performances. What Warhol would do, he’d rent a vast space, like a, one of his favourite places to rent was the old Armoury, up in midtown Manhattan, and he’d put on these sort of lightshow things, and have the Velvet Underground on a stage out in the middle of the floor, and he put on these big lightshows and stuff, and it was just part of the underground art scene/ happening/ performance art scene, you know. And so we went to a few of those, and also we were sort of, I guess you’d call us the house band at Max’s for about a year, we were the only band allowed to play there for a year. And so the Velvet Underground used to come up and hang out with us and watch us play”.

“I remember particularly the drummer, Moe Tucker, was just fascinated with Danny, because she was learning how to play. At that time she was just tapping on one drum, she didn’t have a cymbal, nothing, she was tapping on one drum. And that’s about all she could do, was just keep time, but she really wanted to learn how to play drums. And Danny was an amazing drummer. And so she’d just come and sit in a booth, as close to the stage as she could get, and just stare at Danny for hours”.

” The others hung out, because everybody else did. I mean, all the famous artists were there, poets and other musicians from other bands, and it was just a great hangout. All without fans coming up and wanting autographs and stuff, you know, you had to be on the list to get in, and only people in the business were up there, so it was kinda good, in that respect. It was a nice place to go where you didn’t feel like you were being ga-ga-ed at and stuff”.

  

 I saw a little clip of the film where you’re speaking about the influence of bluegrass, and also that, to you, you’re hearing Fats Domino as a big influence on your writing. I know that you grew up in New Orleans and before that East Tennessee mountain country; is that kind of bluegrass and rhythm and blues your first musical love, in a way?

 “In a way. My first was bluegrass because in my grandma’s house in Tennessee, there was always bluegrass on the radio. She kept it tuned to the Nashville station and there was always either bluegrass or some kind of country music on. And so as a child I just kinda had it in my background. Nobody in the family played, or anything like that, but it was just, the kind of sound, the kind of chord structures, the simple melodies, the types of harmonies, the simple melodies, those kind of things, were sort of subconsciously buried into my head, because of that childhood experience in my grandma’s house”.

“Down in New Orleans it’s a totally different scene, of course. It’s jazz on the one hand, which is sort of the traditional look of New Orleans, or sound of New Orleans, and then down in the Storyville, Rampart Street area are all of these black nightclubs where the real, to me, nitty gritty of music in New Orleans is played, or at the time, in the fifties and sixties when I grew up there. And I used to sneak out, I’d tell my mom and dad I was going to the high school to go to a dance or something, and me and a couple of buddies would ride the streetcar down to Rampart Street and go into these clubs, and watch Fats Domino, and Big Mama Thornton and Joe Turner, and all these guys who are these now-famous rhythm and blues people who developed that whole genre. And there they were just playing in bars. And so we went into these places, and we’d be the only white people in there, but nobody cared. I mean everybody thought that music was the whole trip anyway, and so everybody was there just for the music”.

“And so Fats Domino became my idol, and still is, to a certain extent. I hear him all through my music; the simple structures and the basic way he put songs together. Keep it simple. And so, I hear him all through my stuff. And I guess you could say he is the key to, when I did start going out and doing stuff, it was my latching on to his principles that guided me into where I went, in the beginning, when I was sort of like, where do I go. So that’s how he fit. I don’t actually do his kind of sounds, his chords and stuff, but it’s that idea, the approach to music that he influenced me with”.

 I think it’s that mix of very different musical instruments, certainly in the early Silver Apples stuff, that makes it very distinctive. I mean you’ve got the electronics, which you were pioneering; nobody was really doing music like that, but I think you can hear the bluegrass element on the early records, which is a very odd mix, you’ve got Danny’s amazing drumming on there, and some of the melodies are almost folky; I don’t know if that was a kind of Greenwich Village influence?

 “Yeah, it was just part of the sound of the time. I had played in a jug band before I got into rock n’ roll; I played spoons, and washtub, and sang, and all those jug band songs are very folky, kind of simple, three chord, jug band songs. It was part of the way I learned how to play music”.

 Were you consciously combining things, or was it just the things that you were absorbing, coming out? Was there a conscious decision to say, we’re going to throw this into the pot, and maybe exclude that, or was it fairly natural?

 “All we knew was that we couldn’t play one song after another that sounded just like each other. We had to have some variety. I had monkeyed around with a banjo, off and on, and could do some picking; I had monkeyed around with a recorder and could play that okay; and so we just went ahead and did it. There was no formula. It didn’t seem strange to us to put a banjo in with electronic sounds, because there’d been no precedent, you know what I mean? There was no reason for us to feel like there was anything wrong with that. So we were just doing it for variety. Now people think that was so strange, because I guess if you went to a techno, you would never hear a banjo being played”.

 So it’s like electronic music has become a lot more formalised since then.

  “Yeah, it’s now been defined, it now has parameters and things that people expect, and all musicians that want to do it well, do it within these boundaries. It’s like, if you want to play blues, you do it within the boundaries that are set up in the blues expression. But for us there were no boundaries, it was there, a wide open field for us to just play with. And so we weren’t inhibited at all, to just break out a recorder and play along like you’d play a bop thing”.   

 I guess it was undefined to the extent that you were literally building your own equipment, weren’t you?

  “Oh yeah, yeah. That was another thing; that, in many ways, would influence the way that we would write a song, whether or not I could technically do it”.

 Do you have a background in electronics?

 “No, nothing. I was strictly try this, try that. I mean, many a times I’d be, get the fire extinguisher! Smoke coming out of everything”.

 And the gear you’re using now, what relation does that have to your original gear?

 “Well, most of the oscillators are the same pieces of gear, basically. They’ve had new tubes and new parts here and there and stuff like that, so it’s not exactly the same, but… they are the same, I was using old Hewlett Packard World War Two vintage oscillators and that’s what that is. And the modernisation of it is that instead of having fifteen or twenty of these boxes that I carry around with me, all tuned to different notes that I key in with telegraph keys, now I have these same oscillators in my studio that I just sample. So I have the same sixteen buttons up there that would key in oscillators normally, what it does is it keys in the samples of those same oscillators. And so I have the same sounds, it’s just done much more conveniently and much more compact”.

 Yeah. So you have kind of taken advantage of digital technology and things being available, that you don’t have to just scavenge from scrap heaps…

  “Oh, I wouldn’t be able to do a tour like this with all that junk”.

 Okay. During the years that you weren’t playing, did you hang onto the gear; was the stuff just in the attic?

 “Yeah, it was stored at my brother’s house. Part of it was lost in Hurricane Frederick in 1979; part of his house was flooded and some of the gear just floated away, I guess. It’s maybe out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico someplace, mixed in with all that oil. But some of it survived; enough of it so that I could reconstruct it, once I decided to come back. Plus those things are available on the internet; you can get those old oscillators still. They’re quite expensive, but you can get ‘em. I mean, I was paying two dollars, three dollars for the same oscillators that are three hundred, four hundred dollars now”.

 So what was the impetus to come back when you did for the first time, in the late nineties?

 “About a hundred people e-mailing me, saying if you will come play my club I’ll pay you x number of dollars. You really need to get this sound back out here, people want to hear it”.

 Had that been going on, had they been getting in touch for a while?

  “Yeah, over a period of time. Once the German bootleg came out, then Jack here, the guy who’s tour-managing me now, put out that ten-band tribute, I mean that came out and that got things going again. So, I mean I didn’t have a clue where Danny was, so I just decided, okay, well I have a friend who’s an electronic musician in New York, maybe he can help me put this thing together. And he found a drummer, and I said why don’t you sit in with me, just to sort of like fill in the gaps, and maybe you can help me put this thing together…”

 “We started working with the drummer, we started the same way Danny and I did: okay, this is called ‘Oscillations,’ this is how we’re gonna do this…! And the more we played as a trio, the more I began to feel like, this is not bad, if I’m gonna come back, I don’t have to come back exactly the way I was before, why not come back with this sampled, synthesiser fill-in sound, and he can do the occasional harmonies, and I felt a real nice thing. We could do the old material and we could branch out and do some new material based on what he could do. And I enjoyed playing with him. And so that’s the way I came back, as a trio”.

 I actually saw you when you played in ’98, you played in Brighton. I was at that show at the Arts Club. It was a good show. And then you did find Danny again, or did he find you?

  “No, a radio station found him. They were playing one of our songs, ‘I Have Known Love,’ on the radio; Danny’s sitting at the phone company, on his job, eating a sandwich, at lunch break. He’s got the radio on. What? That’s… us, that’s Silver Apples! What the hell? So he picks up the phone and he calls the radio station. Says, I’m astounded you’re playing Silver Apples. Oh, well, we get lots of requests for them. He says, well, I’m gonna send you guys a contribution or something, cos that’s my music. And they’re like, what, who are you? I’m Dan Taylor. Oh my god, do you know Simeon’s been trying to find you for two years!? He says well, I’ve been right here…!”

“So the radio station called me, and I caught the next train to New York, and rented a car, and drove up to his place in Kingston, and there we were, we were together for a weekend, and caught up, and decided well, okay, yeah, we’ll go find you some drums. And we went around to some second-hand shops and found him some drums and got him started again…”

 So he’d completely stopped playing?

  “Completely stopped playing. As had I. We just both decided, when the band could no longer perform, because of the problems we were having with the legalities and stuff, which had nothing to do with me and Danny as musicians or as people, we loved each other, and so when we couldn’t be Silver Apples anymore we just didn’t want to be musicians anymore. If we couldn’t be Silver Apples we just wouldn’t want to do anything. I mean, I maybe could have got a job as a session man, add little two dots and boop-boop-boops to things, on peoples’ records, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. And Danny didn’t just want to go and play in a straight rock n’ roll band again, after the Silver Apples experience, where he could do all this creativity. So we just neither one of us played music again”.

“And it was amazing, after we found the drums for him and got him together for a rehearsal with me, it was as if we’d just finished a gig at Max’s Kansas City and were working on a new song. We just fell right back into it so quick it was amazing. And so with only a couple of days rehearsal, we were ready to go back out again. And of course we had bookings like crazy at that point, and were playing in New York, we played three gigs in New York, and then we had a van accident, and couldn’t play anymore”.               

 And that was when you broke your neck…

 “Yeah. Yeah, I couldn’t play after that. For two years I couldn’t play, going through very serious spinal rehabilitation. Yeah, I was a mess”.

 And then, by the time you gradually recovered, then of course we lost Danny, sadly.

 “Yeah. The timing was amazing. By the time I was back on my feet he was so sick that he couldn’t play, and wheelchair bound and then, eventually, his heart just failed. He was only 55 years old”.

 But now you’re back out on the road again…

  “Well, I decided it would be unfair to ask a drummer to fill Danny’s shoes. And Silver Apples wouldn’t work without a drummer who was trying to drum like Danny, doing the patterning instead of the beats, and that kind of stuff. So I just decided that since we are in the age of sampling, why not just sample Danny from all of the tapes of rehearsals that I have of him, just sitting there, playing his drums. I’ve got all his sounds and I’m totally familiar with his patterns, and the way he played. I can always go back to the source, the records, and figure things out. And so I just have him sampled and sequenced. He’s still my rhythm section. All the drums that you’ll hear tonight are Danny, sampled. And so it’s like he’s here with me, electronically. I think he’d like that. I really think he would think that was a groove”.

 “I just decided that rather than put another drummer through the frustration of not being able to express himself, and to be compared to Danny, which would be awful, for any drummer; not that he would be badly compared, but he would always be compared, he would never be himself. He would never be free. And so I just didn’t wanna get into that. And so I’ve been solo ever since. And actually, I’m enjoying it. It’s kinda fun to be out there by yourself”.

 And you can tour in a little hatchback.

  “Yeah! Yeah, it’s cheaper, no vans!”

 During the period when you were away, were you listening to cutting-edge music, electronic music, and thinking, maybe not necessarily that they were influenced by you, but possibly thinking, you know, our time could really have come, we were ahead of our time? You were talking about the links between you and Krautrock, which came a few years later with bands like Can and Neu! Were you aware of that, and seeing the link with what you’d been doing?  

 “No, not really. I learned about that later, in the nineties, when I was back out in the business and talking to other musicians. That’s when I began to realise that there were bands back there when I wasn’t even playing music who were playing my music from the day, and being influenced by it. I was completely unaware of that. And when I got away from the music business I just like, I’d listen to talk radio or something, the occasional progressive rock station here and there, but I really wasn’t into it, I just sort of burned out”.

 Were you just leading a regular life, or were you like painting, or…?

 “I was painting, and as a day job I was working in an advertising agency as a designer, a graphics designer. Basically what I was doing, I was racing sailboats for a hobby, you know, just keeping myself busy. Painting and trying to get galleries to show my stuff. It was through that art scene thing that I discovered Silver Apples again. One of the artists that I had met at a show in Brooklyn said she was gonna have a one-person show coming up in the spring, and would it be okay if she used my music. And I said, well sure, good luck if you can find it. And she said oh, it’s everywhere, it’s all over the place. You can just go into any record store and buy it. I said, what are you talking about? She said, well, your new releases. I’m, what? And that’s how I found out about the German bootleg, and the tribute, Jack’s tribute, and other things. I had absolutely no idea that any of this was going on”.

 “So I went into a large record store in New York and I said, do you have any stuff by Silver Apples and they said yeah, they took me over to it and there it was, a whole bin full of stuff. And I said holy criminally, where did you get that stuff? And they named distribution and they said why? And I said well, that’s my music. And they said, you’re the long-lost missing-in-action Simeon? And I said, yeah. And they said, would you mind signing some of these? So I sat there and had a record signing afternoon in that store, signing my bootlegs”.

 Yeah. And not getting a penny from.

 “Not getting a dime, and I’m sort of in a state of shock, so I’m just doing anything anybody tells me. Is this what you do, you sit down and sign your bootlegs? I mean, I didn’t realise the significance of that until later, I thought, what a damn fool I was! But yeah, I was a naïve, uneducated person at that point in terms of the music. I had to get re-oriented. And that guy that you saw me playing with, Christian, the keyboard guy, he was very much into, he was almost a musicologist, you’d call him, I mean he really had the whole thing nailed. And he educated me back, schooled me”.     

  What’s the state of your back catalogue now, are they legit releases that you’re getting money from?

 “Yeah. MCA licensed the two albums, the two initial albums, to Scorpio Music, and Scorpio has put out both of them in very nice re-release form, they’re out now. And they’re in the middle of doing Garden. And of course the MCA re-release on CD, the double album on CD, is still out and selling, I still hear about that one, and I see it in stores. And that’s been 12 years since that thing came out”.   

 I’m certainly glad to hear it, because there are still dodgy copies. Radioactive Records…

  “Oh yeah, and Phoenix…”

 Who are the same people, essentially, aren’t they.

 “Are they really? I have no idea”.

 I think because enough people figured out that Radioactive aren’t legit, they re-branded as Phoenix. But it’s the same company, and they’re still in mainstream record stores, the vinyl versions.

 “Oh yeah, I see em everywhere”.

 Yeah, which I guess pushes the legit versions aside…

 “Yeah, it hurts the sales of the legitimate ones, even now. Now that we’re re-releasing the real ones, I’d like to see that stuff pulled. There was a time when I was happy that it was out there, because it was helping me to continue to build the band again. Now, it’s starting to hurt me”.

 I think that a lot of people don’t realise they’re bootleg labels, because they’re in the stores…

 “Even the store owners don’t realise though! They think they’re buying from legitimate companies, yeah. Most people didn’t realise that TRC was a bootleg. They thought that was a licensed thing. They made tons of money off of that. I mean, they sold tens of thousands of those things. I never saw a nickel”.

 Yeah. But at least it has worked out, and you’ve got legitimate stuff out there now. A lot of bands…

  “Oh yeah. And I’m having a good time and I don’t really care about that. It’s sometimes annoying if it’s brought up but it’s not something that I dwell on, that I think about, you know”.

Thanks to Simeon, Sean at Mutante, Stool Pigeon, Jack Trevillion, Phil PIO and Sam Collins for the photos.

Apologies

November 4, 2009

Hi all,

Sorry, I’ve not been here for a while. I’ll get back to it soon. In the meantime, I’ve been writing for the Quietus website, and my first feature- a retrospective on Bowie’s Lodger LP- has just gone online: http://www.thequietus.com/articles/03161-30-years-on-david-bowie-s-lodger-comes-in-from-the-cold

Please have a look. You can also check out some album reviews I’ve been doing from there. Feel free to leave comments, etc.

Normal service at Hell is for Hipsters will be resumed as soon as possible. Sorry if I’ve said I’d review your CD and haven’t yet- I will get round to it. Rest assured I sleep uneasily, tormented by guilt. Oh, and thanks for stopping by.

 

 

Astra- The Weirding (Rise Above)

June 25, 2009

 Astra

 

   It’s official- the New Wave of Psychedelic Prog (a term that seems to have won out over the equally applicable New Wave of Progressive Psych) is here to stay. The phrase was originally coined, in somewhat tongue in cheek manner, over on the Head Heritage Unsung forum to describe Astra’s Brighton-based Rise Above labelmates Diagonal, and their fellow travellers Wolf People, but San Diego’s Astra have firmly claimed the genre for their own.

In truth however, there’s little on The Weirding, the band’s debut album, that’s ‘new’ at all: this record wouldn’t have sounded out of place at any point between 1969 and 1975. And yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find any one album of that era that so magnificently covered all bases and magnified the cliches of the genre- right down to the Roger Dean-like, airbrushed fantasy art sleeve- to such epic and marvellous extent. Astra draw on the West Coast psych, hard rock, folk rock and metal end of the prog spectrum- there’s none of the real experimentalism of Van Der Graaff Generator or King Crimson here-  but within this limited range they’ve produced a record of such epic grandiosity and occasional sublime beauty that it’s hard not to be swept away by its obsessive dedication to its own metaphor. 

 It begins with ‘The Rising of the Black Sun,’ an appropriately anthemic instrumental overture of prancing, duelling guitars that sets the scene perfectly for the fifteen minute title track. A wistful flute introduces a vocal melody partway between Saucerful of Secrets era Floyd and Argus era Wishbone Ash, describing the environmental desecration of the planet (a loose concept- you knew there had to be one- for the record), before wah-wah guitars usher in a Black Sabbath-esque bridge and then a languid, space rock middle section. Then it does it all again on the way out. 

‘Silent Sleep’ once more recalls Wishbone Ash, with its Mellotron, double-tracked guitars and rather fey close-harmony vocals, although the endless descending arpeggios and chorus-effect guitars also bring to mind the 80s gothic rock of The Mission or The Cult, while making said bands seem almost restrained and under-achieving in their approach. Burbling analogue synths usher in the ballad-like ‘The River Under’, before the audacious seventeen-minute instrumental, ‘Ouroboros’ in which, like the titular snake that devours its own tail, Brian Ellis’s guitar winds in and out of organ and Mellotron dominated soundscapes, working itself up to a state of apopleptic fury before returning to its previously established melodic theme- and then dropping back in the final five minutes to let the moog synth take the high ground once more. It all builds to a spectacular, Kashmir-esque conclusion of hard rocking guitars and mellotron strings.

After that, ‘Broken Glass’ is a brief oasis of calm, an almost acoustic psychedelic ballad, fading directly into ‘The Dawning of Ophiuchus’ which itself is a five minute instrumental prelude to the closing track, ‘Beyond to Slight the Maze.’ This revisits to some extent the title track, giving The Weirding a somewhat circular feel. Its descending chords more than ever before suggest some early seventies Pink Floyd/Black Sabbath hybrid, as pastoral verses give way to doomily anthemic choruses and an extended, keyboard-dominated outro.

At nearly eighty minutes, this largely instrumental and unashamedly grandiose album can start to seem like a drag if you’re not in the right mood. There’s pomp and prettiness galore, but little to genuinely involve you- it’s all flash and mirrors, and for all the muso showmanship the songs are actually simple and repetitive affairs at bottom, following the same repeated descending chord structures throughout. But that said, its easy to succumb to its obvious, sentimental charms, particularly in the company of a bottle of good red wine or certain other combustible comestibles when one’s inner 70s rock man emerges cro-magnon like from his sub-conscious cave. Ridiculous, overblown and out of time as it may be, something about The Weirding is also quite wonderful.

The Present- The Way We Are (Loaf Recordings)

June 19, 2009

 

The press release: “Touchstones include the music of La Monte Young, Dimitri Shostakovich, Wolfgang Voigt, Cluster, Black Dice, Claude Debussy, Aphex Twin, Can, Arthur Russell, Boredoms and Brian Eno, and yet it sounds like none of these.”

 Well, there’s a thing. Reminiscent of the then-unknown BS Johnson punting his first book to publishers with the casual claim that he’s the sole heir to Joyce and Beckett; both hugely self-aggrandising and off-putting to anyone hoping to make commercial capital from your work.

The Present’s debut album, World I See came out last year and was an interesting, intermittently engaging and admirably experimental work, mainly noted due to its Animal Collective connections. The Present is the project of NYC based Rusty Santos, producer of Panda Bear’s rightly-acclaimed Person Pitch LP as well as AC’s Sung Tongs, working in this case alongside a couple of mysterious accomplices known only as Mina (who brings the Japanese pop and folk influences), and Jesse.

With The Way We Are, Rusty, Mina and Jesse have not only followed up with an almost indecent swiftness, they’ve leapt light years ahead. If The World I See sounded pretty way out last year, now it sounds like faltering baby steps compared to The Way We Are.

The album doesn’t play all its aces at once, though it’s clear from the off that this is gonna be a heavier trip than its predeccesor. Opening track, ‘Medman’ sounds like vintage Radiophonic Workshop stuff; incidental Dr Who music soundtracking some Silurian or Sea Devil-like monster emerging threateningly from the deep… it even reprises the clunky, ominous rhythm of the classic theme tune. ‘Saltwater Trails’ is more atmospheric and subtle, but no less sinister once it catches ahold, like sirens luring you out into deadly quicksand… at first alluringly ethereal, then before you know it you’re up to your neck in musique concrete, and all kinds of degenerate spirits and marsh ghosts are being unleashed around you.  In fact, if the first track was Dr Who, this is Sapphire and Steel– voices of long-dead children echo in the distance, some spooky playground chant, the unknowingly departed mutter feebly to each other as all manner of psychic disturbances crack the ether. Do not play this with the lights out or under the influence of… well, actually, maybe do. It could be awesome. If you want your hair to turn white overnight, say.

Fading imperceptibly into ‘Space Meadow,’ we’re suddenly in smoother climes, three-and-a-half minutes of retro sci-fi ambience, inside the head of a valium and synthi-martini dosed 24th Century housewife awaiting her space pilot hubby’s re-entry to their satellite dream home, blissfully orbiting a cold dead planet. But ‘Shapeshifter’ marks the moment when she realises that someone’s spiked her drink: time speeds up and slows down in jerky bursts, her spatial perception starts strobing erratically, and all her digital labour-saving gadgets are malfunctioning and bursting into disobedient half-life at once. Is that the sound of an oxygen leak? Is that hubby knocking at the window, floating lifelessly asphxyated in space?

 ‘Press Play’ finds us back where we started, in vintage Dr Who territory: some hallucinatory March Of The Cybermen, intense, claustrophobic and quasi-operatic. It’s another mini-masterpiece of wordless electronic dread, but all of this is merely an overture for the album’s epic, 32-minute title track: the main act, the thing itself.

Solid clusters of sound dominate the first two minutes, like pressurised steam hissing from between solid metal plates. But then a distant, almost tribal rhythm emerges from behind the lonely singing of satellites, the ancient ghost of earth mysteries and rituals bleeding through into the modern machine age of digital communication and virtual language. After about five minutes this phases into an almost random confluence of urban noise, like jumbled radio waves passing through space, industrial vibrations with still the hint of the natural underneath it all and, for all the confusion, a sense of order, of directedness, even of a serenity beneath the chaos, just waiting to be tuned into. Indeed, as we approach the ten minute mark the chatter falls away and only a profound drone remains, like a mighty ray of light or some universal omnichord. Delicate piano melodies dance around an ineffable alien core that is still somehow warmly familiar. The planet breathing? There is something of Gaia theory to all this, of an alternative Koyaanisquatsi for the more complex, digitally-rerouted 21st Century.    

At the fifteen minute mark, nothing and everything is happening: in the new age minimalist stakes we’re nearer to Steve Reich than Phillip Glass. Gradually, more thin sonic layers are slipped in, one on top of the other, building up the levels of sound almost imperceptibly until, another ten minutes on, you realise you’re dealing with a veritable cacophony: still Reichian, but Richard James and Boards of Canada have dropped in for tea, and Eye from Boredoms is banging at the door. And after half an hour has passed, you realise it’s not a tea party at all, but a seance: calling up all the brutal, unquiet spirits of our age. And then, with an unsettling suddenness, it’s over. And silence doesn’t sound the same as it used to anymore.

The press release: “A kaleidoscopic trip influenced by New York City, The Ocean, Mountains, The Sun and the Trees, Andy Warhol, Yukio Mishima, David Lynch, Friedrich Nietzche, Buddhist Mantra, Mass Transit, Cats, Birds and life. Life in all its myriad complexity and confusions, in all its transcendent beauty and its horrendous brutality.” Which normally I would dismiss as pretentious twaddle. But in this case, one feels they might actually be understating things.

The Way We Are is an ambitious, breathtaking, resolutely forward-looking record. Not for the faint-hearted, nor the jaded thrillseeker. But for those interested in the serious and thoughtful avant-garde of digital music, look no further.  

  The Present? Sounds like the future to me.

The Warlocks- The Mirror Explodes (Tee Pee Records)

June 14, 2009

   The Warlocks’ last album, Heavy Deavy Skull Lover, was a sprawling, self-indulgent freak of a record, pushing the sonic envelope in terms of way-out guitar sounds and atonal feedback dirges. The first impression of The Mirror Explodes (the band’s fifth), is that they’ve taken a step back and made a calmer, more conventional and reflective album. These things are relative, of course: the Stooges/Velvets/MBV influences are still obvious, but the drums are less pounding, the feedback more controlled, the evocation of some manic, chemically-assisted blitzkrieg on the end of the night replaced by a sense of hollow entropy, of momentum lost and ravens come home to roost. More than ever before, singer and songwriter Bobby Hecksher is at the heart of this record, which seems to map out a disturbing personal odyssey, the details of which are left mercifully undisclosed, while the overall tone is all-too-clear.    

   Opener, ‘Red Camera’ starts off like classic Warlocks- a slow monotonous Stooges riff, mogadon drumming, and glassy, echoey shards of space-rock digital FX. Bobby’s haunted, off-key vocals recall Lee Renaldo- the George Harrison of Sonic Youth- on his minor-key, one-per-album SY songs like ‘Mote’ from Goo. The lyrics, as throughout the album, are all-but inaudible, but random phrases drift out, ominous and sinister. “I’ve already been there- to the hospital.” The feeling is lost, lonely, cavernous and lysergically damaged- an epic bad trip.

   ‘The Midnight Sun’ pastiches Isn’t Anything era My Bloody Valentine, with monotonously strummed acoustic guitar, plangent waves of detuned feedback and droning, submerged vocals as everything is sucked backwards while still struggling forward, caught in the gravitational pull of some self-inflicted black hole. ‘Slowly Disappearing’ also recalls early nineties British ‘shoegazing’ bands (Lush, Chapterhouse, Slowdive, Pale Saints), but there’s none of the celebratory yearning or reaching for beauty of classic shoegaze. Once again, the mood is despairing and disoriented; anguished isolation. Bobby sounds like he is indeed slowly disappearing- down the plughole, perhaps.

   ‘There is a Formula to your Despair,’ despite its slightly embarrassing Sixth Form Emo title, turns against the tide slightly: here is hope, albeit of the most stoic kind. Bobby’s high, cracked vocals climb over a pulsing, echoing, minimal blues that recalls Spiritualised or Spacemen 3, but perhaps most of all Galaxie 500: “Everyone feels this way.” It’s a palette cleanser of sorts for the album’s centrepiece: ‘Standing between the Lovers of Hell’ is a slow-burning, stomping psychedelic monster, a churning, caterpillar-tread groove broken in two by an echoing Sisters of Mercy guitar solo. This will surely be the defining song of the live set when they tour this album over the summer.

   Unfortunately, after ascending to this peak there’s nowhere else to go but down. Which isn’t to say that ‘You Make Me Wait’ is inferior:  but despite Banshees-esque chorus bass and guitars moving like tectonic plates, it still seems closer to Bobby’s old allies/rivals the Brian Jonestown Massacre, which could also be said of the stripped-down, shoegaze blues of closer ‘Static Eyes.’ Between them, ‘Frequency Meltdown’ is a six minute instrumental jam that, while effective enough, sounds like a warm-up number or a studio outtake.

   Undeniably flawed then, but still creepily fascinating, The Mirror Explodes may turn out to be The Warlocks’ most memorable statement. Bobby sounds bewildered, burnt out and betrayed, and whether his demon is drugs, depression or just life turning to shit in the everyday manner matters little. The specifics may be obscure, but it’s the generalities that we can all identify with at some point or another. The title is apt: The Mirror Explodes is a record to keep you company in the wee small hours, when you look at your reflection and it all comes apart and the shards cut you bloody, your only companion through a dark night of the soul. Like Skip Spence’s Oar, Syd’s Barrett, or more recently, the Television Personalities My Dark Places, it’s uncomfortable, unsettling, but profoundly real. The Mirror Explodes is a damaged classic.