A Pot Of Powdered Nettles
, May 10th, 2016 13:19
By all accounts, Ian Johnstone was a man who gave freely of what he had to those in need, throwing open the doors of his house on Tower Gardens Road in Tottenham, north London to provide sympathetic living quarters to those of similar artistic bent in need of a calm and creatively fertile place to stay. Among those who lived with Johnstone were Alexander Tucker and Daniel O'Sullivan, who recorded three Grumbling Fur albums under his roof, and it was also there that Johnstone painted the remarkable front covers for Coil's Black Antlers and their last album, The Ape of Naples, in memory of his partner, Jhonn Balance, who died in November 2004.
Johnstone passed away too in June 2015, leaving behind a void that also meant the end of the house as a creative hideaway among the urban sprawl. O'Sullivan and Massimo Pupillo of Zu had long planned a musical collaboration, and as tQ's own Luke Turner outlines so movingly in the sleeve notes to A Pot Of Powdered Nettles, they made their joint work come to life among the scattering remains of Johnstone's possessions. This album stands in memory of the sanctuary he had given to so many in a building that was rapidly emptying, on the cusp of transition from a welcoming home into yet another blank and soulless property acquisition let loose on London's febrile housing market. A Pot Of Powdered Nettles is Laniakea's final salute to a locus and a locale, and a fondly given farewell to their mentor and friend.
It's no surprise then that the four tracks of the album progress with a stately air of loss, a profound melancholy that is steeped in the sounds of the winds of change, whether natural or generated by the Indian Cinni-brand fans that swish and whirl in suitably transformative eddies. Similarly, the viola and cello that slide their mournful tones across the album speak of a dejection in their minor scales, but these most majestic of instruments also convey a higher meaning. Theirs is a transcendence that speaks in volume as much as Pupillo's grizzly bass guitar tears distorted fragments from the very air, like a sonic wrecking ball slamming into the crushed vintage organ melodies and drone which somehow rise above the anguish to offer a brighter vista in emotive chords and smears of powerfully affective effects.
O'Sullivan's voice sometimes sounds on the verge of collapse, fragile but gaining in strength as he draws deeply from the stream of consciousness of a man who was both a beneficent landlord and O'Sullivan's recently-born son's 'Godfairy', a sobriquet that raises a wry smile as much as it resonates with the nuances of an inclusive London open to human life in all its permutations - much as it seems that Johnstone's house was. When he begins to sing clearly on 'The Sky Is An Egg' of “Fear of moving forward, Fear of standing still … Fear of small spaces, Fear of photography and rotating devices”, it feels as if O'Sullivan is channelling both This Heat (a band that he would play with in its 2016 all-star ensemble manifestation as This Is Not This Heat) and some of Balance's lyrics from “A Cold Cell”, itself reworked in posthumous form on The Ape Of Naples.
A sense of place and its occupants comes across from the kids chattering at a nearby ice-cream van outside and the jingle of Tarka the dog's collar that fade out 'Zone In Parallel Rose'. Yet more connections are made by 'Calcite'. This, the longest piece on the album, features the haunted counter-tenor of François Testory (originally intended to be part of a trio with Pupillo and O'Sullivan), whose stunning interpretation of the theme from Are You Being Served? as 'Going Up' was the last track of The Ape of Naples, and made a fitting combination of wry camp and soaringly effective elegy to Balance's departure. Testory's surging placement among the finger bells, tape slurs, Dictaphone recordings and sudden, immense bass is almost ethereally pervasive, shimmering and elevating the unfurling rumbles into a beautifully sustained collage that likewise becomes a final paean to Johnstone and his emptying earthly home.
A Pot Of Powdered Nettles is as much a beautiful work of art as it is a fulsome tribute to a lost friend. Stepping outside the biographical and listened to dispassionately, Laniakea's music sounds possessed, inspired, driven into the realm of the angelic on the steady processional which the story and the music both tell, funereal yet celebratory. There's an irresistible emotional upsurge here, a power to the words and music that makes of itself an almost tangible presence, one that resonates with those profound feelings of loss - and yet more importantly, recovery - that follow every departure.