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19 August 2017

The Hospitals - 'Hairdryer Peace' (no label)

Sonic Youth already released an album called Washing Machine, but that's a more apt household appliance than a hairdryer for reflecting the music of the Hospitals. The floor tom is the most prominently used drum and it's used in a way that sounds like when you accidentally put a shoe in your washing machine and it bangs around on every rotation; it's not quite the same as Moe Tucker, as it's usually supporting a thick wall of mid-range distortion, which I guess could describe White Light/White Heat which is definitely an antecedent, but, no, it sounds like something else. I don't know anything about these guys but vaguely remembered this record getting a bit of buzz when it came out, so I grabbed a secondhand copy for a few bucks when I saw it and don't think I ever listened to it until now. I'm not sure if the Hospitals were connected to the American noise underground or the garage underground, as the sound is halfway in-between. The fidelity is terrible, but there's a commitment to that terribleness that is somehow admirable and it makes this a compelling listen - well, that and that there are some well above-average song structures behind it all. It took a few songs to emerge - at first I thought this was the missing link between Wolf Eyes and the Not Not Fun/Night People style of homemade lo-fi psych. But then 'Rules For Being Alive' came on, a prominently surf-influenced song that made me guess a few things right - that they're a west coast band (hard not to be when you sound like this), that they might have some connection to Sic Alps (Discogs tells me that Mike Donovan was once a member), and that this record was made far more carefully than it might sound at first listen. The lyrics are clear and audible in places and seem to usually describe getting high, fear, or other states of altered consciousness. Everything else is really buried but it's a pleasure to pick things out; these guys step on the DOD pedals always a bit too early and there's some great vocal sea/sweeps, like if Phil Spector blew his budget on rancid tacos and had to make do with what he could. This is so obviously made for a cassette release which makes the vinyl pressing beautiful and ridiculous at the same time, and there's some really catchy songs ('Scan the Floor for Food', 'BPPV') if you can strain through it. Somehow while listening to this I smelled burnt charcoal, felt a musty wind, and kept thinking of The Bachs. Yet the ragged nature keeps this from being a retro trip, and like many great records it feels like an amalgamation of many underground rock currents circa 2008, when this was recorded. I'm not saying it's the Deceit of its day, but it's an exemplary case of white Dionysia of the time and I think it will stand up to future scrutiny.

Hugh Hopper - 'Hopper Tunity Box' (Compendium)

The catalogue number on this record is 'FIDARDO 7', what does that mean? A few years after 1984 we find Hopper leading a band through a number of compositions that much more closely resemble the jazz-rock fusion which Soft Machine was known for– especially at this point in time (1977). There's still elements of the warbly, underwater vibe of 1984 here, especially on the second half. The high point is a cover of 'Lonely Woman', which is undercut with an uncertain echo - a real beauty of a track, and the main reason I hold onto this record. There's even a reprise of 'Miniluv', the opening cut from 1984, though it doesn't resemble the original in any way, thanks to the fleshed out band - Gary Windo, Mike Travis on drums, a little Mark Charig (but not enough!), fellow Soft Machiner Elton Dean on sax, and some hot piano/organ playing by Dave Stewart or Frank Roberts, depending on the track. The fusion numbers aren't amazing but they're fine, which is how I feel about post-Third Soft Machine for the most part. Dean and Charig play nice together when they're there; 'The Lonely Sea and the Sky' is a lovely composition with a nice, rolling vibe. 'Gnat Prong' is a hard rocker, akin to Area at their most bombastic. No vocals, and good production, so it's a nice example of the era, while being somewhat forgotten against the bigger names and main projects from this scene. I somehow ended up with a lot of records that have this style/sound, far more than anyone should own, and while I like progressive rock (in theory) I far prefer the tracks here that use 'progressive rock' as a starting point rather than an example. I think there's a reason people will hunt down copies of 1984 but there's not much interest in Hopper Tunity Box.

2 August 2017

Hugh Hopper - '1984' (CBS)

'This is a very angry record,' starts the liner notes, though I don't really hear it - I hear something exploratory, cautious, and with great moments of drama. Maybe Hopper's found a way to process anger, to work with it and churn it into something beyond piercing bile. Hopper's the bassist from Soft Machine and on this first solo record he really goes into the outer limits, taking the (then-)sci-fi theme of 1984 as a starting point and really running off to create something otherworldly. There's a lot to be said about CBS releasing a record this experimental in 1973 - all of this from the corporation who would later bring you Kevin Can Wait! Hopper spends most of this record attacking his bass guitar from a gestalt angle, generating soundscapes with additional percussion and something called a mellophone. The long, moody opener 'Miniluv' sets the tone, consisting of deep bass drones that slowly explore the available space - it's a track very rooted in physical existence, reminding me of Maryanne Amacher's drone installation pieces, or something that would be on the French Futura label in the same decade. The second side's 'Miniplenty', also a long one at 18 minutes, picks up where this leaves off and incorporates some weird percussive sounds. There was an occasional twitchy, staticky sound that kept making me jump, mixed in a way suggesting that there's something happening on the other side of my flat and not in the record itself. It's a great effect and it adds to the nervousness of the buildup, which eventually gets resolved at the end of the record in a cacophony of sounds. There's some thick synth riffs, sound a bit like square waves, and other parts that you swear could be lifted from a Wolf Eyes cd-r circa 2004. There's only one track which stops this from being a total new age, dark psychedelic abstraction from start to finish, and that's 'Minipax I', which resembles a bit of a jazz-rock thing. It's not bad and has some sharp soprano saxophone playing by Lol Coxhill, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. I don't know if this was pressure from CBS to make something that would be more palatable to Soft Machine fans (and could actually be played on the radio) or if Hopper really wanted to include this - the same band works out more extended techniques later. And I suppose the only thing that makes it so identifiably 'jazz-rock' is that the instruments sound like the traditional instruments they are, and not like a Heldon outtake; as a composition I guess you could say it fits the mood of the record, with crunchy guitar chords and a slightly motorik beat. It's a minor quibble; 1984 is a great fucking record and doesn't really need those few extra minutes but they're not without their pleasures.