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23 June 2017

Home Blitz - 'Out of Phase' (Richie)

Before this album came out, Daniel DiMaggio had already released a handful of 7"s which affirmed Home Blitz as prime progenitors of a new wave of post-indie-post-punk, the mid-to-late 00s explosion of bands that descended more from the Swell Maps than the Sex Pistols. But this LP masterfully merged his more experimental tendencies to carefully selected hooks and home-recording choices, which makes it an extremely fucking satisfying listen. DiMaggio was becoming obsessed with Game Theory and Scott Miller, and you hear that right away in the opening cut, 'Nest of Vipers', but only after it first moves through a patch of Beefheart/Skin Graft skronk. It's all tension and release, and 'Two Steps' hits next as a slice of perfect, ragged lo-fi guitar pop, a 'Box Elder' for a new generation. A as opening gambit 1-2 punch, it's amazing. If I sound hyperbolic it's only because today's listen to Out of Phase comes at the right time; enough years have passed to put this in perspective and show its staying power, and the songs sound phenomenal in 2017. The 'experimental' tracks here, 'Live Outside' (the next descendent of titles that are ambiguous to whether the word is 'live' or 'live', after Joan of Arc) and 'Three Steps', are more than mere filler; they are moody field recordings that put the pop constructions into the context of New Jersey life, and they're essential to the flow of the record, much more than (for example) the jazzcursions on the Tenement 2xLP. DiMaggio's drumming isn't exactly Steve Gaddesque but it works, flailing on the cymbals and providing a bumpy bed for the pop hooks. His guitar playing is like a Dionysian Peter Buck, spazzing chords and frantic arpeggios, which inject the songs with the right amount of nervous energy. 'World War III', 'Nighttime Feel' and 'Other Side of the Street' could be parallel universe classics, saturated in the early 80s DIY aesthetic but married to more contemporary concerns. There's even a Cock Sparrer cover, 'Is Anybody There?', reimagined as a yearning plea for connection. The run-out groove on side A says 'Perpetual Night' but that was released as a separate 7", a shame since it's a great, great song too. Oh, I have an extra copy of this LP for some reason; if anybody wants it, make an offer in the comments!

The Holy Modal Rounders - 'The Moray Eels Eat The' (Sundazed)

The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders is a great record; it's fun, doesn't go on too long, and manages to convert its 60s-drenched anarchy into something that still feels meaningful. That's not to say it isn't clearly a document of its time, but just that the 'fuck it' approach to folk music was already rooted in something much older than the psychedelic rock at the time, and even though this is a heavily psychedelic record, it feels remarkably present today, even compared to classic rockers like Hendrix or Sgt Peppers. Of course, there's nothing like the Rounders being made today, at least not that I'm aware of; the folk-noise hybrid stuff that happened about a decade ago often verged towards absurdity but never with such reckless abandon, and anyway, the context was all different. One of the nicest things anyone ever said to me was years and years ago when I was playing them some of my solo music, which was somber, delicate and spare post-adolescent minimalism. My friend remarked that my personality seemed so different than the music I was making; he then put on 'Bird Song', from Moray Eels, and said that he expected my solo work to resemble something more like that. I haven't seen Easy Rider since before I was in straight-legged pants so I barely remember its moment of fame, but there's no better song to put on and dance around to, flopping my arms and moaning the mostly wordless vocal parts. The overtly drugged out songs like 'My Mind Capsized' and 'Half a Mind' have outlasted their era, and this version of Michael Hurley's 'Werewolf' is so drained and sparse that it's genuinely frightening. You have to squint to hear the residue of the American songbook, but it's there just as surely as I mix my metaphors. 'Duji Song' is like the world's most frightening, inside-out jug band; 'Take-off Artist Song' is deconstructed vaudeville at it's finest. I wish I had a copy of Indian War Whoop to complete the classic Rounders collection but it's been reish'd enough times that I'm sure it will pass by. In the meantime I'll consider this to be the pinnacle; even the cover art is beautiful, magnificent, lush and appropriate. 

7 June 2017

The Holy Modal Rounders - 'Stampfel & Weber' (Fantasy)

This is a mid-70s issue of the first two Holy Modal Rounders albums, originally recorded for Prestige in 1963-64. I was glad to find it because I like this early material of theirs; it's goofy but still relatively sane, at least compared to the later releases, and sometimes it's just nice to listen to. Unfortunately Prestige sequenced these backwards, with record 1 being the less memorable Holy Modal Rounders 2, but that's not the biggest crime, and it's easily solvable. The liner notes here are a gas - Ed Ward writes about the halcyon days of the early 60s NYC folk scene and how these two jokesters came around upsetting the apple cart, but nonetheless with a discipline and understanding of traditional musics that allowed them to break such rules. I don't know Mr Ward or what he looked like but I can't help but think of F. Murray Abraham in Inside Llewyn Davis, a blowhard reminiscing about some mythical era of which he's largely responsible for the myth. Or maybe I'm just sore cause he calls Indian War Whoop and Moray Eels 'close to unlistenable' - hey man, your liner notes are close to unreadable! Even the uncredited/technical notes to this reissue says that 'none of the albums recorded since these ... have been nearly as successful'. Maybe they're just speaking of commercial success but it feels like a cheap shot at the esteemed ESP and Elektra labels. Anyway. The second Rounders album, coming first in this sequence, has some lovely moments - Stampfel's banjo playing on 'I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground' is precise and ragged, and 'Junko Partner', written with Michael Hurley, is one of the only originals and a nice goof. But it is record #2, album #1 that I like more, maybe as it contains a few more original compositions, and the performances sound more fresh. 'Euphoria' could be the Modals raison d'être, capturing the simplicity and spirit of their early approach. 'Reuben's Train' is fierce and the fiddle cuts like a knife. 'Blues in the Bottle' is a great opener, and when Stampfel starts to play after each verse it revs up like a jet engine. 'Better Things for You' is maybe the best original composition on either record. This is only a decade or so after Harry Smith's anthology but these two clearly studied it like a bible. Clarence 'Tom' Ashley's 'The Cuckoo' never sounded so raw, and it's brilliant how the Rounders celebrate American music so joyously, tying it directly to the underculture which birthed it. This is music that takes itself seriously while also being able to laugh at itself; they realised the need to preserve these songs before they became enshrined in the same glass towers that ruined American jazz culture. Music has to live, and Stampfel & Weber found a humour, inherent in even the most serious subject matter, and also injected it with a streak of rebelliousness. I think actually the Rounders sound more radical today, as their quest was unsuccessful; folk music has become sanitised and its conservative tendencies emphasised. Harry Smith surely turns in his grave now, but maybe if enough people play Holy Modal Rounders records simultaneously, he'll stop, or at least pause.

Christopher Hobbs / John Adams / Gavin Bryars - 'Ensemble Pieces' (Obscure)

Not sure why I don't have this in the split LPs section; I guess I file it under Hobbs since he's the most present here in addition to being first-billed, having composed two of the four pieces and performing on Bryars's work as well. Eno's Obscure imprint was a great enterprise I think, and I buy any of them if I'm fortunate enough to come across one and it's affordable. The cover for this really captures my impression of the 1970s British avant-garde, showing some modernist urban building in a manner which seems like it comes from a film excerpt, perhaps some structuralist-materialist polemic. Ensemble Pieces is occasionally a bit dry, as 70s British avant-garde can be, but it's at least democratically dry if that makes sense. The word 'ensemble' is quite relevant as these are compositions in which the players have a great deal of agency, and the focus is on how the group performs, perhaps the only commonality between the three composers. It does raise the question of why, if the ensemble is the point of this record, the composers get the primary credits, but I guess old habits die hard. The two Hobbs compositions open both sides and 'Aran' is the high point of the record, a pulsing melodic work originally for 12 performers but here played (through the magic of overdubs) by Hobbs, John White and Bryars. It's all tonal percussion, beating around a pulse and resembling a Western hackjob gamelan, and I mean that in the most endearing way possible. The toy piano, wood blocks, and small cymbals all fight it out and there's an exuberance that is minimalist composition at its finest. 'McCrimmon Will Never Return' has the same sense of melodic investigation, though being a duet of Hobbs and Bryars on two reed organs each, it has a significantly more restrained sonic palette and takes on a mantra-like feel, like an Indian harmonium devotional except slightly neurotic and with the tonal conflicts being the focal point. John Adams presents three works and his ensemble players aren't credited individually, perhaps because the back sleeve needed more space for the liner notes. They move through three distinct pieces, the most unusual being the slowest, 'Christian Zeal and Activity', which features a strange radio interview tape played overtop. It's a predecessor to 'BBF3' I guess, but decidedly less apocalyptic. 'Sentimentals' closes out the side and apparently quotes 'Sophisticated Lady' though I didn't notice it; it feels the most rooted in academic composition though it's light and moving. 'John Philip Sousa', a tribute, is centred around a motorik snare drum and maybe the one of the three where one can most hear that this ensemble is self-conducting. Bryars' '1, 2, 1-2-3-4' is an odd exercise in genre collage on first listen, and the liner notes reveal the format of the composition, where the all-star cast (including Cornelius Cardew, Derek Bailey, Andy MacKay and Eno himself) are all playing along to dictaphones while wearing headphones. There's a sense of irony here of course, since it's a jazz ballad, but the format makes it sound like its' all falling apart, yet in a delicate way, not like the Portsmouth Sinfonia (though clearly related since this is Gavin Bryars after all). Bryars is the odd man out here as the others can all be connected somewhat to post-minimalist composition, at least in terms of structure, but this iconoclasm, even within the scope of this LP, is welcome.

5 June 2017

His Name is Alive - 'Home Is In Your Head' (4AD)

Because we're so out-of-sync with the compact disc portion of this project, our only dalliance with the great His Name is Alive comes with this LP edition of Home Is In Your Head, the second 'proper' album (a way I like to categorise His Name is Alive's many, many albums - 'proper' used to just mean 'is on 4AD', but that distinction no longer holds). At least for now - if we ever get back to the CDs then there's a whole slew of them and I relish the chance to write about each, so much that I may blow the dust off my CD player and get back to where we left off - Faust, I think it was? Writing about any HNIA record on its own is somewhat weird; merely describing the record would make it sound like a self-contained work, which of course it is, but HNIA only really make sense to me when viewed against the totality of their (or should I say, his) career. On its own, Home is In Your Head is a wonderfully schizophrenic assemblage of haunting songforms, experimental tape constructions, primitive synthscapes and maudlin string-driven work (largely acoustic guitar). Twenty years ago, when I was first exposed to it, I had never heard anything like this, but the above description could pass for any number of rediscovered oddities that make their way around the Internet in a contemporary afterlife. With that in mind, HiiYH does feel like a product of the 1980s home-taping experimental underground, though this came out in '91 so it could be viewed (perhaps) as a cap on the whole thing. Defever was 22 at this time and it's precisely old enough to have a mastery on his earlier ideas, with the studio talent to create something this careful and delicate; the moments of beauty, when they want to roar, are unparalleled ('Mescalina', 'My Feathers Need Cleaning', 'Dreams Are of the Body'). There's something simultaneously sophisticated and teenage about some of these songs; 'Are We Still Married?'  in its simplicity seemed merely wry at first, until I later lived it, at which point it amplified into being totally devastating; 'Chances Are We Are Mad' has youthful bloodrush, yet tempered by a intangible wisdom. And the title of 'There's Something Between Us And He's Changing My Words' says it all. The arrangements occasionally burst into wall-of-DOD pedal distortion, glimpses of heavy metal glory but only in quick flashes. The production is as wet and lush as its label is famous for; Karin Oliver's voice has enough reverb to be haunting without being cheap, and the thin acoustic guitar arpeggios are close-miked to create a wide sort of dynamic ('Very Bad a Bitter Hand', 'When People Disappear'). But I wouldn't call this folky, or poppy, or gothy, or anything obvious; its assemblage is that of a total vision. This was the last of the original 4AD HNIA albums that I came to, first digesting all of the more pop-orientated works (Stars on ESP and Ft. Lake remain my favourites, but they're all great, really) and it certainly feels like the most 'experimental', meaning that it's the least bound to songforms out of any of them. And that's again why I must think about HiiYH in relation to the other albums. Certainly if you take this as a stepping stone in the progression from its predecessor Livonia's dark liquidity through Stars on ESP's cracking sunshine towards the even further gospel blues R&B period into the wholeearth magic soundballs of Brown Rice and the more recent work, then it fits a logical path. But beyond the genre/aesthetic changes, this feels like a touchstone in the whole HNIA mythos, the artistic world Defever created in the 90s. That's what really clicked with me and continues to inspire me -- it's not just the beautiful songcraft but the themes, lyrics and gestures that recur in later albums. 'Are You Coming Down This Weekend?' would seem like a throwaway sketch on an initial listen, but to me it's a skeleton key, one that explains (for example) 'The Bees' on Stars on ESP and certainly informs the backgrounds of many many other songs. The bonus track ('The Other Body' I think it's called) feels like some clue left to be deciphered, and it's a fucking great song too, especially with it's sudden tape-splice ending. 'Love's a Fish Eye', in its own delicate way expresses the general philosophy of His Name Is Alive, if that makes any sense. Well, maybe it doesn't, maybe none of this does; but, maybe that's why art is/can be great - the world-building, the vision mediating reality, which one can define so precisely, and then invite others to explore. A long time ago I read an interview with Defever somewhere and I remember him referring to these earlier albums as adolescent (which he didn't mean disparagingly, and that's probably not the exact quote any but just how I remember it) and sure, those preoccupations are evident. I discovered HNIA at the tail end of my adolescence but somehow at age 37 they feel even more inspiring. I know I've grown with these records and I'm not sure how it would sound to someone hearing this today at age 18, especially given the access they would have, and the lack of obscurity of anything these days. So once again, without this turning into another nostalgia trip, I need to acknowledge that I'm glad to be the age I am, and to have been touched by this music when I was, because it planted a seed or something which continues to resonate two decades later.

Andrew Hill - 'Point of Departure' (Blue Note)

The lineup shifts slightly here for this, the third Andrew Hill album of 1964 - the vibes are gone, but we add two saxes and a trumpet, and a young Anthony Williams replacing Elvin Jones on drums. That substitution is felt immediately, for his touch is a bit lighter, and the album starts with 'Refuge', which gives lots of space for Hill and Richard Davis and leaves the brass instruments silent for long stretches. It's Eric Dolphy on alto (and later bass clarinet) and his playing throughout this record is fairly crisp, angular at times, and even a bit sneaky. Again, I'm impressed with Hill's approach to harmony, as he throws some chords in underneath the saxes that must be diminished or 7ths or 9ths or something, cause they seem to question the direction of the piece as a whole. Davis is great because he knows what to do with this – when to play with Hill and when to play against him. To make a bad analogy to football, Hill is like a brilliant midfielder, occupying the centre of the recording and controlling the flow, moving ideas between the rhythm section (defenders) and the brass (the forwards). There aren't many places where Kenny Dorham, Dolphy and Joe Henderson are all playing together, but when they do it's from a place of balance. What's impressive is how much this tries to extend the melodic, formal language of jazz without resorting to a total breakdown of structure. 'New Monastery', for example, actually swings, but while Dorham is declaring a melodic statement, Hill is colouring each rising trumpet burst with cluster of moody piano chords, which has an effect that is thought-inducing without being disconcerting. There's no reason not to occasionally let the groove carry a few phrases, or to have a solo here or there - but this is forward-thinking jazz, of course, a new avant-garde which seems to have been largely overlooked and one that's lovely because it doesn't need to make such a point of this. Dolphy is a nice presence here but it's not like he steals the album, apart from maybe some of the soloing on side two, and Joe Henderson has a really nice interplay with Dorham, especially on the last cut ('Dedication', which takes a somewhat more somber tone). There's a lot more out there, as his Blue Note career spanned the 60s; also I'm curious to know how his art developed further, and particularly how he may have sustained himself into the 80s and other periods where being a composer's jazz composer wasn't necessarily the easiest path financially. But sadly these are the only two records in the accumulation so once again we have to move on.

30 May 2017

Andrew Hill - 'Judgment!' (Blue Note)

The first thing that really hit me when I dropped the stylus was how fucking rich this sounded for a 52 year old record. I know I babble on here too often about the great sound of the vinyl, which is especially frustrating because words can't convey it, but here I was actually surprised; these Blue Note masters were quality. This is a stereo pressing too and I thought a general rule of thumb was to avoid early stereo pressings, but I tried pressing the mono button on my amp and the soundstage shrunk to a point of almost unpleasantness. Now, I'm not usually into vibes-based jazz, but Bobby Hutcherson doesn't even appear on every track here, and when he does it sounds magnificent, with the tones bright and ringing as a perfect counterpoint to Hill's piano. Elvin Jones sounds so distinctly like Elvin Jones, even though he's also influenced a million drummers in his wake; side one feels occasionally dominated by him, such as the drum solo near the end of 'Yokada Yokada'. The cymbals clatter through like slicing blades of light, and when songs stop on a drum break it's like being transported back to a smoky club in 1964. There's quite a few drum solos here, 'Reconciliation' and 'Alfred' also having them, though it fits in with the style of the record - a post-bop, melodic take that's avant-garde in construction if not a 'difficult' listen in the slightest, unless you're looking for catchy pop hooks. Hill's records interest me more for their composition than any white-heat playing and this is no exception (though the other one has Dolphy on it). 'Siete Ocho', the opener, pushes the vibes and piano against each other, escalating the tension while letting bassist Richard Davis establish a Can-like repetitive groove. 'Yokada' is whimsical, even flighty, and 'Alfred' (supposedly a tribute to Blue Note head honcho Alfred Lion) is the mellow ballad.  Apollonian to the core, the beauty of Judgment! is not incredibly obvious but distinctly rewarding. Davis is also a tremendously underrated bassist who was everywhere in the 60s, including on Astral Weeks which may be unfairly what he's remembered for the most, though his contribution to that is outstanding for that of a session player. I'm a native English speaker but find it very odd that we don't spell it 'judgement'. As great as this cover art is, that title just looks all wrong (but I know it's not).

Kenneth Higney - 'Attic Demonstration' (One Kind Favor)

For a record as legendary as Attic Demonstration, it's not a long listen, but it's pretty satisfying. Thankfully this reissue is easily available, because originals go for a fortune, as this was never actually 'released'. Higney, in the liner notes, explains that this was a series of demos he recorded to show his songwriting talent, and he sang these as drafts, without ever intending to be the ultimate singer or musician. This was pressed up as an LP to make it easier for him to send it to people (as this was the late 70s) but I don't completely buy that explanation. I mean, why would you put a photo of yourself front and centre if you're just trying to sell some songs to others? I think the answer is somewhere more in-between; clearly Higney was operating out of the privately-pressed lineage (though I guess it's hard to declare that as ever being a scene, being so geographically dispersed and also recording-based rather than concert-focused; I guess it's a scene that came together 30 years after the fact with The Acid Archives and all that). Additionally, the music is so fleshed out, a vision of dark ramshackle psych that is so complete (in how bare it is) that I would think a potential 'customer' would be overwhelmed by the flanged guitars shredding solos and the burnout pulse throughout. Well, no one bit. The instrumentation isn't credited to anyone specifically but the reissue liner notes thank a now-deceased musician named Gordon Gaines for the guitar playing; I wonder if he's also the bassist and drummer, or if this is Higney himself bashing around. I don't want to buy into a narrative that Higney couldn't sing or play, but certainly there is a rawness in the vocals that goes far beyond the Dylan/Reed school of the unschooled; at times the melody isn't even remotely clear, lost in a flurry of missed corners -- and you think a clear vocal melody would be the goal if one was genuinely trying to sell songs. Lyrics are printed on the back, which allows the lengthier tracks ('Rock Star' and 'Ley Us Pray') to be examined more thoroughly; the latter of these is the most fragile, and also populated with unclear characters (perhaps allegorical). Throughout all songs, though, the more visceral parts of Attic Demonstration jump out from the recording, burrowing into my mind, and making the lyric sheet feel disconnected anyway. I've always put 'Children of Sound' on mixtapes as it perfectly captures the dream of psychedelia after being watered down through a few years of disappointment. The cadences are often jerky (opening cut 'Night Rider' appears to start on the off-beat; 'Quietly Leave Me' feels like it's being made up as it goes along) and the mix is uneven too; again, I suspect this was meant not to be a serious foray into the music world but were any of these self-released items genuinely mistaken for stabs at greatness? In the annals of broken/outsider greatness I personally think Attic Demonstration comes from a place more primal, more desperate and more authentic than a lot of the others - it's a very male (hairy) attack on songcraft, but a convincing one, and it never slides even remotely close to novelty territory as many others do.

25 May 2017

Hevoset (Dekorder)

Two similarly named denizens of the Finnish early-00s tape underground made this collaborative tape, and Dekorder saw fit to reissue it on vinyl. Jan and Jani (from Kemialliset Ystävät and Uton, respectively) have similar approaches to sound, especially in how they make it, being solo artists who assemble crazy surreal soundscapes from tapes, loops, acoustic instruments and primitive electronics. I was reading an essay over the weekend which pointed out that the phrase 'lo-fi' is misleading, because fidelity refers to the ability of the recording to accurately reflect the actual sound, so therefore extremely overproduced studio albums by Queen or whatever are actually lo-fi, since they sound nothing like what those Queen songs sounded like when the band played in a room. This makes me realise that the Hevoset LP (as well as many, many others from the avant/tape underground) are actually extremely hi-fi music. I never saw Hevoset live, but I've seen Tomotonttu and Uton a few times and I know that what you hear is what you get. Perhaps 'tape-fi' is a better term, as this LP sounds like a cassette tape being played. The untitled tracks move from a variety of moods but it's always pretty thick, even when there's more spacious elements. The opening cut of side two is exactly that - tentative acoustic strings pinging around over a rumbling, narcotic drone, pulsing around a vacuous middle. Here the details are all there is, the central narrative is lost, and it's almost conventionally spooky, absent of the more gonzo elements I usually associated with Anderzen's work. Halfway through side 1 there's some crazy percussive bongos thumping around, a caterwaul vocal straining to get out through it all, and actually a good deal of space there as well. But then other tracks are screaming miasmas of affected keyboard tones, or maybe they are guitars or maybe neither; it's the Birchville Cat Motel school of soundscaping, though rough around the edges. The sound of the tape machine itself is often present, the same motor wheelgrind heard behind early 'bi-fi' (see, there's another one) recordings from the early 90s but here placed into an experimental soundnik scenario. I've always loved Jan's sense of motion and Jani's approach to texture; they combine beautifully on a track about midway through the second side where a melodic string figure is stumbling around a melting synth melody; they dart around each other and never quite converge.

16 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Western Culture' (Interzone)

This is the record for which the 'Thatcher anticipation' tag on the sidebar was invented, the swan song of Henry Cow, reduced here to a four-piece instrumental band and performing two side-long compositions, or song suites I guess. Not only is John Greaves gone, but so is the sock; Cutler's cut-out art (there's some nice alliteration) is actually really appropriate and nicely composed, just like the record itself. 'History and Prospects' is written by original member Tim Hodgkinson, and is one of the more genre-bending Cow compositions, though it's not exactly hip-hop or country music. Its opening piece, 'Industry', references the then-burgeoning industrial music scene, or maybe they weren't aware of that and it's just inspired by proletariat Marxism (or, perhaps by both); either way it's hot shit, with Frith playing a thick, almost dubby bassline between some modal reeds and a thick groove-beat. There's some electroacoustic work here, tapes and other noise, which make a few crashing percussive parts sound like Neubauten. Overall it's one of my favourite Henry Cow tracks, one which seems to look the furthest ahead not just in terms of electronic integration but towards Frith's later work in New York, in the 80s. 'The Decay of Cities' comes next, a bit more textbook perhaps, but that textbook is about labour statistics and urbanism, and it punches above its weight. Difficult music, maybe, but it's spacious and it's still recognisable as modern instrumental rock music, with the free/drone/noise parts used more like icing on a cake. Cooper's 'Day by Day', on the flip, is a little more conventional prog-Cow, or at least more fitting in the continuum of their Virgin-era records. I know now that Western Culture was their Abbey Road, recorded with it intending to be the end, so I can hear resignation in the heavy, ponderous rhythms and the probing, unresolved oboe/sax lines. But I can also hear connections to some of their past and future collaborators, showing them to be a band in the truest meaning of the word 'progressive'. It could be the acoustic guitar plucks here and there, sounding not unlike Derek Bailey, but also the spazzy bits of 'The Decay of Cities' which show the influence of the Residents and Ralph Records - a turn towards surrealist sound, perhaps another way that I see Western Culture more like a beautiful beginning (or collection of beginnings) than a somber ending.

14 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Concerts' (Caroline)

I was watching a really boring hockey game last night, and during the period breaks I read the Henry Cow page on Wikipedia; afterwards, this Wikipedia reading was the most memorable part about the whole experience, if that can give you some indication of how dull the hockey game was. I really had no idea how tense and difficult it was to be in Henry Cow. If you look back at the last three posts, I'm gushing about how confident and lockstep they are in their vision, without any idea that they were not only struggling to survive professionally (well, I may have guessed that) but also challenged internally in terms of the band dynamics. Unrest's brilliant second side apparently came together because they didn't have enough composed material, and they nearly killed each other making it, but it goes to show the power of the recorded output, because to me it sounds like a gang of geniuses improvising with one hive mind. Which brings us to Concerts, in some ways the most 'complete' Henry Cow release as it's certainly the most representative of what you might find if you had been blessed enough to catch them in the mid 1970s. At this point, Dagmar Krause is a full member of the band, sticking around after the Slapp Happy merger collapsed (another fact I learned from Wikipedia - the merger wasn't so easy and the two different approaches eventually tore them apart). And once again, the free group improvisations are placed in the second half of the record (the second disc, as this is a 2xLP set) and the 'songs' are pushed to the forefront. Another Wikipedia-learned fact (sorry, I'm a broken record) is that the unwillingness to integrate vocal-based songs and instrumental/free music led to the formation of Art Bears, essentially a split. It's almost a reverse trajectory from most other bands, because back on the first album it feels like they were totally comfortable with structure and exploration being so well balanced - in a way it would take many other artists years to figure out. Side 1 of Concerts is bookended by 'Beautiful as the Moon', which goes from the structured song into the outro jam, into what is credited as 'Nirvana for Mice', though I barely recognised it. This recording is fantastic - it's easy to forget that it's a concert recording - and the band is inspired. Frith switches between guitar and piano seamlessly and you see how little they actually relied on studio work. We get the beautiful 'Ottawa Song' (as far as I know, never released elsewhere, and it's a touching, distant grass-is-always-greener yearning for another place) and a Matching Mole cover, before 'Beautiful' is reprised. As one unbroken 23 minute piece of music, it's astounding, showing Henry Cow at what they did best. Side two is also fun, though the fidelity takes a hit. Robert Wyatt shows up for Desperate Straights's 'Bad Alchemy' and then sticks around for his own 'Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road'. This is a fairly straight cover, though given a lot of momentum from such a full band and with the thundering piano chords really making a feelgood moment, at least for those who love Rock Bottom as much as I. It's a nice way to cement Henry Cow in a scene of peers, and makes the second record all the more of a contrast. The Oslo improvisation that makes up side three is preferable to the fourth side's pastiche of two jams in Gronigen and one in Udine, but I tend to like mellow soundscape group improv more than when musicians collectively find a melodic structure. 'Oslo' starts off really murky, and while it builds (and provides space for Krause as well), it never stays in one place or forces itself into a song structure. The fourth side is build around some recognisable structures, but still twists and turns on a dime a few times.  Not unlike In Praise of Learning's 'Living in the Heart of the Beast', it starts to feel too immense to keep track of, and also, the sheer length of the record just starts to get to me by this point. The two records work well to be listened to as separate albums, separate bands even, and now that I've read more about their internal dynamics I hear a band starting to fall apart - which is totally not what I ever thought the many times before when I listened to Concerts (or parts of it). So this is surely the bias of what I read, which is why sometimes I'm happier not knowing anything about the background of music which I love. I can't believe no one has written a book about Henry Cow and the RIO scene - or maybe someone did, links in comments, please. The world could definitely use this, far more than we need another Springsteen or Dylan biography.

13 May 2017

Henry Cow/Slapp Happy - 'In Praise of Learning' (Red)

I have a lot of records; some would say 'too many', and I probably must concur, even though I find it hard to part with any. One sign that your accumulation is too vast is when you don't actually remember if you own a record or not. One of the many things I've enjoyed about doing this project over the past 8 years is realising these possessions and omissions, and now I've realised that I do NOT own a copy of Desperate Straights, the one credited to Slapp Happy/Henry Cow (in that precise order of credit, and which I guess came from the same sessions as this LP). I always thought of these two bands as having briefly merged for two albums, rather than merely 'having collaborated', and In Praise of Learning is probably the high point for both bands' careers, though I realise I said in the last post that Unrest was the best Henry Cow record. By now you should know to ignore my superlatives, anyway. But anyway, the distinct sensibilities of each band are perfect in combination, different enough to challenge and pull the musicians in new directions, but unified in their passions and penchant for adventure. This LP is credited to Henry Cow (except on the spine, where Slapp Happy gets some love), and this makes sense as this is much more of a Henry Cow album with Slapp Happy's spin, as opposed to Desperate Straights which is the other way around. Plus it has a sock on the cover, dyed red in case you had any fucking doubt about their politics. The opening cut, 'War', is the most explosive juxtaposition of the two ensembles, opening with Blegvad's voice briefly before Dagmar Krause (credited here by her first name over, a proto-Madonna if there ever was one) comes crashing in. This is the first Art Bears song for sure, with violent poetic imagery and rhyme soaring over a potent mix of musicians. Former Henry Cow member Geoff Leigh returns to guest and Mongezi Feza is also present; it's almost a pop song and a perfect introduction to 'Living In the Heart of the Beast'. This is Tim Hodgkinson's composition, and it's an epic number, taking up the rest of side 1 and moving through an absolute plethora of words, printed on the back sleeve like the polemic/essay it properly should be read as. This piece is hard to grasp, with its title the most memorable thing, but in its density lies many rewards. As it proceeds through several movements, it gradually takes on the role of the anthem, as if Henry Cow has figured out how to write aggressively political music that avoids cheap sensationalism or inconsistent wavering; indeed, 'Beast' finds its own footing by the end, where it comes marching to a conclusion over a what's probably the most conventional "progressive rock"-sounding moment on the record. Side two (as usual) has the free improvisations, though they are just the bread around 'Beautiful as the Moon - Terrible As an Army With Banners'. This sound is a bit more stripped down, with Greaves/Cutler locking into a plodding groove over which Frith's piano arpeggios perfectly complement Krause's rising and falling voice. I guess to some people her singing might be an acquired taste but I love it, and would buy any record of hers sound-unheard; I remember already gushing here about Babble and the Commuters EP, and this is another one of her greatest accomplishments. Her timbre is so uncompromising that it's a perfect match for Henry Cow, one of the most principled bands there ever was (to me, they approach Crass-like territory), and 'Beautiful as the Moon' finally releases in it's conclusion into a cadence that is actually catchy, probably the most hummable part of this record and of Henry Cow in general. The improv tracks on either side are both wonderful and I can only dream of what outtakes there must be; 'Beginning - The Long March' is a little punchier, but 'Morning Star' gets into some truly extended technique'z recalling eastern gong music as much as it resembles rock, jazz, or anything western, really. Cooper in particular shines here, especially over scraped guitar strings that occasionally sound like bowls of water rotating on a giant animal skin. The lyrics are printed on the back, which you really need to follow, and at the bottom is the (amazing) quote by John Grierson: 'Art is not a mirror - it is a hammer'. I find that as inspiring today as I did at 17, even if it feels like more of a struggle to believe it (or to implement it). I don't know much about the personal journeys of the Henry Cow people over the years, but they've at least managed to keep a public image that they have really lived this ethos without compromise. I'm not sure if any young musicians today listen to Henry Cow for inspiration, but they really should.

12 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Unrest' (Virgin)

Maybe their best record, Unrest takes the sock and darkens the hue, which the music mostly does too. Once again, the Cow (with Lindsay Cooper replacing Geoff Leigh) structure their album with the more open, improvisatory bits on side two and the tight, strident rock songs first. 'Ruins' is the highlight of side 1, a long Frith composition that has become one of their signature tunes, but I also love the piano playing at the beginning of 'Half Asleep; Half Awake'. I assume it's Greaves tinkling the ivories (though it's heavy on the black keys – somehow evoking the Paul Bley side of jazz without sounding of that genre at all) since he composed the piece. The piano that closes out the album, a distant yearning underneath some even more distant vocals on 'Deluge' might be Frith, since they're both credited. The more 'out' sounds on side two are really what drives me crazy though; 'Linguaphonie' I've listened to multiple times, trying to make sense of it. It's the Cow at their most electroacoustic, Frith almost stealing the show with the amplifier hum, heavy use of effects pedals, and radio static guitar which sounds almost completely alien; but Cutler is also a force here. It again hints at a jazz without fully committing, ending in a free cacophony that is the perfect lead in to 'Upon Entering the Hotel Adlon', a work so frantic you could tell me that it was a Skin Graft Records outtake from 20 years later and I'd believe you. Cutler is still kicking ass here, showing his hellacious attacking style that is usually hidden behind his spectacled, tea-and-biscuits appearance. This is also the next step in the too-obvious progression through politics that Henry Cow make; here things turn darker, realising the struggle of the intellectual improvisation-friendly progressive musician against a dying European post-war culture. Things get a lot more red soon (quite literally if we're talking about cover socks), and culminate in their last album which actually has hammers and fucking sickles on the cover. My politics mostly line up with these guys and I'm sure, certain actually, that Jeremy Corbyn has a copy of this record. I hope he uses the sprightly progressive bounce of 'Bittern Storm Over Ulm' to motivate his people to the polls next month. I met Cutler briefly when I was an undergraduate, after seeing him give a workshop about sampling, copyright and intellectual property. When we chatted afterwards and I told him how I was just getting into his back catalogue, he told me to avoid the East Side Digital CD reissues of Henry Cow, warning that they were mastered badly and to buy (of course) the ReR issues. I've heard Henry Cow on CD and yes, it did sound thin (though I don't know which version it was, and all CDs sound thin if you're a vinyl snob); but here on original Virgin wax, Unrest sounds fucking thundering. I know I probably go on too much here about how great and resonant these records sound on my Rega, but one of the reasons I kept listening to this over the past few days is just how pleasureable it sounded. The guitars have a real fire to them, but the sax and reeds of Hodgkinson and Cooper are perky and brisk, and give this a really complete, satisfying dynamic range.