Columnfortably Numb: September In Psych/Noise Rock By JR Moores
, September 2nd, 2016 13:50
Read, listen and learn about liner notes, lizard discotheques and lysergic evangelicals with JR Moores
Liner notes tend to be underwhelming affairs, especially where compilations and deluxe reissues are concerned. All too often you can tell the prose has been tossed off by some ex-weeklies hack who didn't make the lucrative transition to becoming an establishment-colluding right-wing columnist and is just trying to make a quick buck to ease the debt they've incurred from their unkickable addictions to cheap plonk, expensive vinyl, rolling tobacco, face-shrivellingly mature cheddar, unflattering jackets, mango chutney and Paper Mate stationary. Their mini-essays are full of typos, absent of insight and full of spurious claims about Jim Morrison, Morrissey or Huey Morgan being the voice of a generation.
There are, of course, exceptions to the convention of tediously hyperbolic liner notes. One example is March To Fuzz, the two-disc best-of and rarities collection by Seattle's Mudhoney. Across the several pages of its generously thick booklet, as they detail the hilarious genesis of such venerable compositions as 'Run Shithead Run', it becomes abundantly clear that Mark Arm and Steve Turner have never taken their band or any of its recordings remotely seriously (not to mention the wider music scene) and the chances are it's exactly that healthy level of blitheness that's been the key to their longevity. Another, albeit very different, triumph is the 8000-word pamphlet authored by the polo-necked commentator Maul Poorly included in limited pressings of the career-spanning 8-CD box set by Britrock heroes Reef, in which the Sartre-citing deep thinker reaffirms the Kierkegaardian credentials of Glastonbury's finest and makes a convincing case for the 1996 chart smash 'It's Your Letters' as proof that vocalist Gary Stringer was the NW Clark of the ladmag generation.
More recent than March To Fuzz and less fictional than Reefreshed: The Collected Reef, another addition to the pantheon is I'm A Freak Baby: A Journey Through The British Heavy Psych And Hard Rock Underground Scene, 1968-72. Compiled and annotated by David Wells, its three discs are a veritable treasure trove of largely forgotten heady heaviness - or heavy headiness - in which the contributions from provincial semi-professional weirdos frequently outstrip those of the better-known acts such as Deep Purple and Uriah Heap. As well as providing the necessary details on line-ups and discographies, and despite only having a minimal word count for each band biography, Wells' notes are crammed with fascinating titbits of info.
Predominantly working class and non-intellectual, heavy psych rock challenged the pretentiousness and technical prowess of well-educated prog rockers with the no-nonsense power of amplified distortion, years before punk threw its own safety-pinned hat into the ring with three chords and a fistful of amphetamines. "We were pretty incompetent at the start," admitted Mick Farren of The Deviants, "[and] we were pretty incompetent at the end." It's a punk-rock attitude of which Mudhoney would surely approve. The punk connection continues with revelations that Crushed Butler have been touted by some as "the first punk band", Factory were supported by The Sex Pistols and the fact that 'Do It' by The Pink Fairies isn't too stylistically removed from subsequent recordings by the likes of Black Flag or Rollins Band.
We also learn about Cycle who changed their name - what a shame - from Psycle because too few people would understand the pun. There's also Wicked Lady, a group that rarely played the same venue twice due to their aggressive performances and large biker following; Writing On The Wall, a "bunch of wild Scotsmen" whose fierce appearance ensured they always got paid; Second Hand, who channelled their dissatisfaction with "all the bullshit we perceived in the world" into a track called 'Rhubarb!'; and the tale of the psych rocker who eerily predicted his future career in Waste Management by having a photograph of piled-up garbage on his album's cover.
And then there's the sad story of Dumfries' Iron Claw, who were so smitten with Black Sabbath that when Sabbath's management got wind of their demo, they were threatened with legal action. It's a bloody good job Ozzy & co. didn't run with the idea of suing every outfit that worshipped their sound or we'd have very little to write about these days, including a whopping percentage of the entire heavy metal genre.
But let's not dwell on the past. Here's a scraping of contemporary psych and noise rock, some of which may or may not appear on a Cherry Red compilation in 40 years' time complete with anecdotes about legal threats and bin-bag collection.
Flowers Must Die - Sista Valsen
You'd be forgiven for thinking that the golden age of the EP is well over by now, lost to the mists of time along with the sabre-toothed tiger and Lemon Tango. However, a few labels of late have nurtured the kind of extended plays/ mini-albums/ short LPs/ long singles that leave you wanting more without feeling short-changed. This column has previously praised Womb Of The Wild by Goat offshoot Capra Informis and other notable Rocket EPs have included those by Oneida, Teeth Of The Sea and the fruitful Collisions split 12-inch series.
This particular release will be of interest if you've ever wondered what might happen if you took Amon Düül II, Träd Gräs Och Stenar, Bardo Pond, Hills, Goat, Jackie-O Motherfucker and Sunburned Hand Of The Man, crammed them all into a lava lamp that's been converted into a blender by Professor Denzil Dexter from The Fast Show, turned the setting up to eleven, pureed the bejesus out of it, poured the resulting viscid mixture into a mushroom soup and funnelled it into your iPod. If it didn't just short circuit everything, the result would sound a little like Flowers Must Die, a Swedish six piece named appropriately enough after an Ash Ra Tempel song.
While some bands like to explore their ideas by carefully spacing them out over the course of a full-length album, here the Flowers seem content to pack everything including their fabric paint-stained sink into just four tracks, making for an impressively hectic record of thick & gloopy astro-prog-freak-folk-psych-jazz. For me, the most visceral track is 'Kruta', on which the bass wants you to headbang, the drums compel you to march, the guitar line asks you to slink your hips towards the nearest lizard disco, and the space-rock effects will persuade you to flail your arms around like a drama-class tree blowing in a solar windstorm. It's a dance that's hard to pull off in this dimension and if anyone catches you trying they'll think you're having a fit. But close your eyes and try not to worry about that. Can't wait for their next thing. Flowers Must Die must not die.
My Invisible Friend - My Invisible Friend
Speaking of EPs, here's another humdinger and it comes courtesy of Parma, Italy, home of the ham. Unfortunately, the prosciutto analogy I was hoping to lazily deploy here is not going to work because I'm getting a more honey-glazed gammon taste from this young trio. The fuzz is meaty and murky while the mononymous Annalisa's vocals provide a layer of sticky sweetness. The second track is the most shoegaze-smitten of the three cuts, complete with the kind of melancholic gothilicious bassline that wouldn't sound out of place on The Cure's Disintegration LP, alongside some nifty guitar improvisation that suggests Kevin Shields is trying to run a mouse infestation out of his studio by threatening to spike the pesky rodents to death with his invisible notes. The Italians really go to town on the final track, for nearly 18 whole minutes, with a funky kosmische-influenced wall of reverbed noise, scaffolded upon a hypnotic motorik beat. 'Sleepless' eventually fades out with a soothing passage of noise that sounds like the cradled wail from the lovechild of a church bell and some passing traffic. Respect to whoever selected that track for the EP's "lead single".
Blown Out - New Cruiser
I don't remember Newcastle-upon-Tyne as being a particularly psychedelic city when I lived there as an undergraduate but then I did spend most of my time eating own-brand pasta and playing Mario Kart on Colin's Nintendo 64. It can feel like quite a dark city with its architecture straight outta the Industrial Revolution, ill-fated monochrome football team and long northern winters. That might be one of the reasons why the psychedelia it produces tends to be heavy or bleak or both. Newcastle has birthed Bong whose trance-inducing slow riffery can, at its best, rival the likes of OM, Sunn O))) or early Earth. Box Records issues plenty of ugly noise-rock stuff, including that produced by locals Foot Hair and Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, as well as hosting the terrifying doom band Khunnt. Even Richard Dawson, essentially an English folk singer with an acoustic guitar, can be as heavy as fook when he likes.
Led by Mike Vest, the instrumental trio Blown Out specialise in brain-engulfing side-long space-metal jams reminiscent of Acid Mothers Temple and Earthless. They're less prone to virtuoso noodling than those two, mind, or are at least modest enough to bury it lower in the mix, which is no bad thing. Blown Out aren't concerned with showing off their axe skills for benefit of technical wizardry nerds, they just want to pump out densely purple clouds of psych that you can completely lose yourself in for twenty minutes. You're not lying there on the sofa wishing you could play lead guitar and wondering where you left that second-hand copy of Prog Rock For Dummies. You're just thinking, "If only I had my own slave to turn the side over for me so I didn't have to haul myself up and could just carry on lying here conjuring pictures of volcanic eruptions with my mind." Where's Colin when you need him?
Kandodo/McBain - Lost Chants/Last Chance
Bristolian psych-rock heroes The Heads were one of the best acts at this year's presumably final-ever ATP festival, and certainly the loudest. They were so good, in fact, that I hear they even got paid. Kandodo is another of Simon Price's projects and for this recording he's accompanied by two fellow Heads, Hugo Morgan and Wayne Maskell, alongside the American interloper John McBain whose whacked-out desert-rock credentials are nothing short of impeccable. McBain played on Monster Magnet's earliest, weirdest and greatest material and if you haven't heard it already, your homework is to study the 32-minute track 'Tab...' and report back to me with an eight-page analysis on why it massively outperforms their more popular stuff like Powertrip. He also took part in Josh Homme's Desert Sessions, co-wrote Queens Of The Stone Age's 'Regular John', played in Hater and Wellwater Conspiracy with members of Soundgarden, is an occasional unofficial fourth member of Carlton Melton and participated in the severely warped Evil Acidhead.
It's not unusual for a press release to proclaim its object of hype to be a "modern masterpiece" but in this case I'm inclined to agree. What manner of occult sonic wizardry enabled this alchemic beast to be recorded over the course of just one weekend in a quaint little studio in Bristol? It feels more like Prometheus, Hermes, Perseus and a crack team of Argonaut veterans embarked on a decades-long odyssey to the summit of Mount Olympus in order to milk the purest, fullest-fat psychedelic fluid directly from the godly teat of Apollo himself. In another move of utter genius, the vinyl has been cut at 45rpm, enabling the listener to slow it down to 33rpm if they prefer, while a recording of the latter, warped-down version comes as a bonus disc with the CD pressing. Just like when John Peel used to accidentally play something at the incorrect speed, the slower version matches the quality of the "normal" 45 original, if not surpassing it, making this phat wodge of wordless space-rock doubly good value.
The Dead C - Trouble
(Ba Da Bing)
"Personally, I think of us as intensely psychedelic... We just stripped everything out of rock music and kept the psychedelic element. Fuck the rest of it." That's how The Dead C's Bruce Russell described his band's approach to The Wire in 2013. Formed in the late 80s, the fiercely independent New Zealand trio and their sprawling discography can be a daunting prospect for the uninitiated, especially given their mysterious lack of online presence, rare bouts of touring, pressings more limited than Donald Trump's grasp of foreign policy, and their mission to "turn rock music inside out" with self-described "hamfisted" and "cackhanded" musicianship.
The Dead C's latest release is as good a place to start as any, I'd say. It begins with a characteristic attempt to deconstruct rock music with the twenty-minute 'One' which brims with nonchalantly droning feedback and relatively gentle static fizz as Robbie Yeats' improvised drumming crashes and sputters and pauses and restarts and splashes around like a tranquilised jazz man flopping around an inhospitable home-birthing pool. At various points on the LP, the threepiece's tracts of abstract noise-rock threaten to slot into something vaguely resembling a traditional song - they'll lock into a short-lived cyclic groove, vocal mumblings will flirt with the notion of a verse, or a pseudo rock riff will edge its silhouette above the horizon - until conventions are coolly broken back down again before anything gets a little too chummily formulaic. Trouble's tracklist reads: 'One', 'Two', 'Three', 'Five', 'Four', presumably because The Dead C are firmly committed to always putting something in the wrong place. But doesn't a colourful pile of disconnected Lego bricks look at least as aesthetically beautiful as the completed pirate ship on the front of the box that the instructions unimaginatively implore you to build? Fuck the pirate ship!
Mild High Club - Skiptracing
Alexander Brettin may have majored in jazz at Columbia College Chicago but from his work as Mild High Club you get the feeling he might have spent a significant proportion of his extra-curricular time carefully reverse-playing 'Strawberry Fields Forever' in an obsessive attempt to decipher a vital subliminal message from the cakehole of John Lennon's alter-ego. Rather than forming a freestyle bebop quintet at the end of his studies, Brettin moved to Los Angeles where he now specialises in woozy postmodern psychedelia influenced by Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan and other "AM radio hits as blasting in from a parallel universe".
Mild High Club's second full-length is a short collection of succinct ditties showcasing Brettin's knack for dousing distinctively pretty melodies in lopsided audio wonkiness. Skiptracing's hazy backing tracks betray Brettin's technical skills more overtly and confidently than last year's debut LP with their occasional subtle flourishes of acid jazz and funk musicianship, even if they're usually rendered in a playfully Ween-ish pastiche way. A review elsewhere felt it necessary to cite Mac Demarco no fewer than nine times like some coach-trip bore who thinks they're the first person to have noticed that certain Primal Scream singles resemble The Rolling Stones but personally I'll take Brettin over Demarco or Ariel Pink any day. While he may be concealing or repressing his classical talents (and not necessarily insincerely; such genre slumming could be part of a mission to unearth a greater "truth"), I find Brettin's shtick to be less jarringly whacky than those other dudes and there's a special je ne sais quoi to his take on hypnagogic pop that suggests he harbours the ability and ambition, if in a somewhat laidback manner, to push further into uncharted realms than his rivals and forbearers. The world is Brettin's oyster. After all, this one bloke I've read a lot about recently started off playing jazz as a teenager and ended up becoming the greatest pop star the planet has ever seen. Did I mention that Skiptracing is also a concept album?
Wovenhand - Star Treatment
That Jesus fella was a psychedelic dude, right? Long hair. Sandals. Peace and love and all that jazz. In his widely discredited text, The Sacred Mushroom And The Cross, the archaeologist and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John M. Allegro even claimed that Jesus never existed and was actually a mythological figure invented by early Christians who were smashed off their noggins on psychoactive mushroom extracts such as psilocybin, which perhaps says more about the time the book was written than it does about Mary's boy child (publication date: 1970, the year of Rice and Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, as it happens). Still, if you stare at a sunlit stained-glass window for long enough, you'll soon be seeing other worlds and speaking in tongues.
David Eugene Edwards has used the Wovenhand project to explore his own devout Christianity but don't worry because it doesn't sound like Mumford & Sons, Coldplay, U2 or the other happy-crappy favourites of the Bible bashers. No, Edwards resides firmly in the downbeat Nick Cave or Low mould, only unlike them he's getting louder and louder. Having grown progressively heavier since its alt-country beginnings, Wovenhand's dense music now has more in common with Gallon Drunk than Giant Sand, and with a Swans-esque intensity it's almost as if Edwards is evolving into the pious antithesis of the heathen Michael Gira.
While this LP was apparently inspired by humanity's ongoing interest in the stars of the night's sky, Edwards still finds plenty of room for piling on the fire-and-brimstone Old Testament rhetoric about scriptures, serpents and sinning. His voice, the drums, the guitars and the swirling keys all sound so damn DEEP as they clatter powerfully along like The Bad Seeds besieging the Holy Land and by the time Edwards started wailing something about the "rattling reed of ruin" for a moment there I almost...
Next time: Why Captain Beefheart was a mouth-organist of his generation