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Noel's Foul House: New Weird Britain In Review
Noel Gardner , July 12th, 2017 10:46

Noel Gardner tunnels through the British underground and digs out tasty tubers belonging to The Telescopes, Sly & The Family Drone, Bamboo and a whole loada goths

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Appropriately for a column focusing on one small, insular island, a lot of the music that buzzes past the Foul House radar is of the up-close-and-personal type. That is to say it’s best appreciated in the proverbial live setting, often in small, unconventional spaces. What the indie scene of yesteryear termed the ‘toilet circuit’ (marking it out as distinctly British, as Americans of course consider the world ‘toilet’ a vile profanity), except comparatively broom cupboard-sized.

Some bands make more sense in the flesh: that’s an uncontroversial truism. Some of those bands, though, accrue enough of a reputation as a live band that it becomes a millstone. When you’ve been left idiotically deaf, sprayed with others’ perspiration like so much podium champagne, jostled from pillar to post as if in the thick of a medieval football match and flooded with serotonin and good cheer, plonking on the equivalent album back at your hovel can feel hollow and lacking. This is very subjective, clearly (I’ve often heard it said that there’s no point listening to Lightning Bolt albums, for example, and couldn’t disagree more), but it definitely casts a shadow over Sly & The Family Drone.

Not the throwaway comedy venture their name might indicate, but certainly not stonefaced either, this Basingstoke band’s gigs are a hoot: setting up on the floor, two drumkits and myriad electronics build to peaks of primal rhythm & noise before audience members are invited to take over on drums. The result is, invariably, blithering off-time chaos, equally ridiculous as ritualistic, and never not fun. They’ve released an LP, Unnecessary Woe, and a few tapes, but seem not to be thought of as a home listening band. Might this be changed by Molar Wrench (Hominid Sounds), a collaborative LP with Anglo-Dutch free jazzers Dead Neanderthals [a recent inclusion on tQ's Albums Of The Year So Far list]? As it goes, they too are a group whose air you’re advised to share: mangled, blaring saxophone/drums maximalism that can approach Borbetomagus levels of extremity, and which has found favour among metal and noiserock types. Otto Kokke and Colin Webster’s dual sax interplay on these four tracks will make or break Molar Wrench for most: bullying, unignorable bouts of Peter Brötzmann-like guttural gurgle and piercing blasts of reed damage. ‘Muck Man Part 2’ toys with a kind of drifting ambience for half its duration before the drums of René Aquarius and Callum Buckland summon the barbarians to the gates. Neither member seems to care much for the perceived ‘conventions’ of jazz percussion, really, but their approach to the traps on the 11-minute title track – freeform, but hitting with the woodchopper heft of a doom metal drummer – is invigorating, and turns the spotlight away from the woodwind section for a while. Unsure of the creative process behind this recording (is it composed or improvised, live or edited?) but it turned out ugly beautiful.

Stephen Lawrie has now been recording as The Telescopes for thirty years, discounting a decade-long cross-millennial gap, and this month sees the release of As Light Return (Tapete), his ninth album. Slotted in among the post-Spacemen 3 dronepop herd in their first flush, then signed to Creation and part of their post-MBV shoegaze crop, the band dissolved in the early 90s before Lawrie revived the name in 2002 as a solo vehicle, becoming decidedly more abstract. I recall seeing a Telescopes show around this time, a murky, crouched-on-floor pedal-tinkering affair that took pretty much everyone by surprise. Regardless, Lawrie – plus collaborators such as Vibracathedral Orchestra’s Bridget Hayden – has persisted in this fashion for far longer now than Telescopes mk. 1, and this five-song LP strikes a beguiling balance between conventionally song-based psych-rock and no-boundaries hypnotic freakiness.

Recorded with St Deluxe, a Glasgow band whose pleasure I can’t claim to have had, As Light Return generally has a tangible structure, but its guitars are lo-fi and sludgy, the rhythms running in circles, Lawrie’s vocals dialled in from the land of Lackadaisica – or, on ‘Hand Full Of Ashes’, the bottom of a deep well. None of which sounds too complimentary, I’ll wager, but it generates a similar vibe to the early Flying Saucer Attack singles (where they sounded like a shoegaze band recording into a ghettoblaster), which is always a welcome distraction. ‘Something In My Brain’ swirls a wah pedal down a plughole, lumbering stoner slowcore like Codeine sparring with Bardo Pond, but the real mettle-tester is ‘Handful Of Ashes’, which bears no apparent relation to ‘Hand Full Of Ashes’ and is 14 minutes of shrill guitar feedback and strafing electronics. That guitar is in fact the only one to appear on any of the recordings in this column! Until we get to the final item, which features a hundred or so of them.

Ocean Floor – aka Aonghus Reidy, an Irishman domiciled in Bristol – specialises in ecclesiastical-sounding compositions for keyboard which evolve with a slow dignity and are an ideal sleep aid. (Again, know that’s an unambiguous compliment.) Jupiter, his debut album, was a superlative set of studies for analogue organ: blurry ambient minimalism in the spirit of Charlemagne Palestine or Pauline Oliveros. Four Shadows (Aphelion Editions), its EP-length follow-up, employs synths but maintains a similar timbre.

Beatless and beatific, the sustained, droning chords of ‘Airglow’ suggest 70s Berlin School electronica and 80s new age in equal measure before ‘Shadows’ shakes its wig a shade more with some spacerocky delay. ‘Night’ circles back to the new age vibe, albeit scuffing it with disquieting bassy tones, before the closing ‘Slumber’ centres itself round a filigree toy piano-sounding melody. If you have the chance to see Ocean Floor play a church organ set, do so; Four Shadows, meanwhile, is a fine if brief showcase for his prodigious talent.

Gnod’s Paddy Shine lurked in the last edition of Foul House, enlisted by Gareth Smith of Vanishing to record that group’s very good self-titled CD. This time, it’s his own solo vehicle Ayn Sof. Gong Gallery (Concrète Tapes) is so titled because it documents a performance featuring four gongs, recorded in the gallery room of Islington Mill in Salford, and finds Shine joined by James Kitchingman – I guess it’s quite tricky for one person to play four gongs in the manner captured here. Thirty-seven minutes broken into two tracks for the purposes of the cassette, the duo sound eager to explore the acoustic possibilities of their chosen sound source, yet adhere to a less-is-more principle, often letting room ambience and judicious tuning do the work as struck, bowed, teased or otherwise manipulated gongs cross tonal paths. Accordingly, it sometimes feels a bit like a field recording taken somewhere with more meteorological phenomena than human activity, yet an equally profound meditative quality, and is best appreciated with headphones.

The Gong Gallery tape is already sold out, but if you’re an insatiable hog for that format, the very limited 2016 release of Bamboo’s second album, The Dragon Flies Away, seem to still be available. Mind, it’s just been reissued (and remastered) by Upset The Rhythm on higher-fi formats, as its lush, measured, micro-orchestral pop soundworld warrants. A duo of Rachel Horwood, who you may also know from joyously great postpunk band Trash Kit, and Nick Carlisle, here Bamboo rustle up a quasi-concept album about Hannya, a mask used in medieval Japanese theatre, and the range of emotions it’s used to convey.

Meticulous constructs of synth, glockenspiel, flute, banjo and, yes, gong, there’s a fusion-y cleanness to much of the production here: Carlisle’s bassline on ‘Hannya’ gambols and gleams like TNT-era Tortoise, Horwood’s vocals have a pensive, wistful quality that echoes Laetitia Sadier. Bamboo don’t ‘sound British’ in any identifiable way, to these ears, but are perhaps descendants of a strain of very prim, middle-class British music: specifically Virginia Astley and Kate Bush (the latter as observed by Upset The Rhythm, who I don’t imagine get the chance to trot out that comparison often). There’s even an avant-minded corruption of bluegrass rhythms on ‘Wake Up Your Heart’, but ‘Like A Sparrow’ is The Dragon...’s centrepiece and high point, the duo’s vocals multitracked and looped to abet the impression of a stage-filling chorus line in a bizarre off-off-Broadway musical, which is what this song sounds like. Grown-up but never greying, this album is a great and endearing artefact which I can picture acquiring a large audience. Enough to add a few zeroes onto its initial 50-copy run, at least.

Theo Alexander is a London-based pianist whose small catalogue to date is broadly in the modern minimal classical lineage: brief, pretty pieces which ripple modestly and atmospherically. Blank Editions have just released his latest work, Points Of Decay – a cassette limited to, I regret to repeat myself, 50 copies. It’s on his Bandcamp if you can’t find it for physical sale, although the format seems appropriate here: rather than the clean sound Alexander usually works with, the listener hears a single recording played through several different devices at once, at several different fidelities. The resultant layers coalesce into a distressed, murky whole, a blanket of audio fuzz becoming part of the picture: the post-production techniques of The Caretaker and William Basinski seem clear precedents for Points Of Decay, although the music isn’t necessarily that similar. The composer’s only stated influence, as it goes, is Samuel Beckett’s proto-hauntological one-act play Krapp’s Last Tape, and this doesn’t feel overreaching – one can imagine this, unlabelled, being hauled out of a box after 30 years, too deteriorated to perform any nostalgic function but more worthwhile for what it doesn’t reveal.

Rory Salter’s two hardcore bands, Pinkgrip and Mea Culpa, have both been reviewed in my other column. Nervous Energy, Salter’s tape label, was featured in the first Foul House (specifically Days Fade, Nights Grow). Now here’s a Nervous Energy cassette of field recordings, impulsive singsongery and zero-audience-underground punk spirit by Tweedle, which is Salter on their own, presumably at home, or at least not in a conventional recording studio. Guess I must be a fan! The Tweedle Demos is rife with Dictaphone (or more likely downloaded smartphone app) crackle, bedroom-soldered synth buzz, snatches of poetry, gnomic prose or diary entries. A few tracks have a spirited punt at DIY electronica – ‘Silicone Slick’, ‘Good Loop’ – others spill over into noise territory, albeit the prototypical cassette culture noise of, say, Storm Bugs rather than yer transgressive edgelord gear. Like Russell Walker’s Charcoal Owls project, as reviewed in the last Foul House, Tweedle scribbles over the understood lines between public and private consumption; maybe I shouldn’t even be telling you about it, but until someone tells me to stop I’m still gonna.

Drily pisstakey band names don’t get much better than The Modern Institute, a trio from Glasgow whose members are also found in the city’s leftfield dance and skronky noiserock scenes. Plus, in the case of vocalist James Stephen Wright, a grounding in conceptual art. Granted, artists using their practise to take aim at the circles in which they move are a time-honoured tradition, but more of them should do it using music, especially stripped-to-the-bone punk electro radness like The Modern Institute’s self-titled 12-inch, released by Night School.

More pop-sensible, and danceable, than their debut tape Another Exhibition, the six tracks here average under three minutes each. Their rhythms are sparse but sleek and steel-tough, a reading of electro somewhat akin to Dopplereffekt or Aux 88 – ‘Arabic Eight’, probably the EP’s best and most complex cut, combines frantically building drums and a tweaking synth riff to Detroitian effect. ‘Shiver And Quiver’ is like one of Perc’s more dancefloor-bewildering album tracks, a chaotic coalition of teeth-chatter hi-hats and Wright’s camply serious vocals. There’s menace and humour in equal measure on this record, but like Throbbing Gristle, one never cancels out the other. Get this record before the other Modern Institute make them change their name.

If this column was being written in the early 80s, it would probably cover many of the bands who feature on Silhouettes And Statues (Cherry Red): a five-CD, 83-song box set roping together eight years’ worth of British goth music. Opening with Joy Division’s ‘Shadowplay’, thus casting Unknown Pleasures as the foundation stone of the genre (although the earliest track here is actually Clock DVA’s ‘The Female Mirror’, from 1978), Cherry Red don’t shy away from including the big, some would say obvious, hitters. As with the label’s other UK-centric genre overviews (proto-metal, early electronica, indiepop), obscurity is a byproduct of the exercise, not the goal. So sure, if you’re someone with the constitution to listen to six hours of old goth bands, you probably know The Birthday Party’s ‘Release The Bats’ and The Cure’s ‘The Hanging Garden’ and PiL’s ‘Flowers Of Romance’ already – but by most people’s standards, Silhouettes And Statues dives pretty deep.

Goth didn’t die in 1986, of course, but that year makes sense as a cutoff point for this collection: most of the bands on it had either broken up or were in the process of attaining a leathery rockist piggishness that flies against most of the finest moments here. It evolved as a broad church. Plenty of selections are electronically-driven (Portion Control’s ‘Fiends’ has proto-Front 242 vocal sneering and whipcrack techno beats, revelatory for its 1982 release date; The Legendary Pink Dots, too, are way ahead of what most underground groups were doing with synths on ‘Love Puppets’) – bridging a gap between goth and industrial, likewise less danceable acts like Attrition, In The Nursery and Danielle Dax. Others sail close to the harder attack of early-80s anarcho punk (1919 and Part 1 are both revered by today’s pack of hardcore-adjacent goths).

Some bands on here – The Chameleons, Cocteau Twins – are generally thought of as indie, if more because of what they went on to do. Some are basically straight rock songs with a shade more reverb or dark imagery: Brigandage’s ‘Angel Of Vengeance’, a blowsy female revenge fantasy which sounds like PJ Harvey five years in advance, or Rose Of Avalanche’s jangly ‘LA Rain’. And some won’t confound many expectations of what this whole carry-on sounded like, but are just pure bangers: In Excelsis’ ‘Carnival Of The Gullible’, Blood And Roses’ ‘Spit Upon Your Grave’, The Wake’s ‘Patrol’, Inca Babies’ ‘The Diseased Stranger’s Waltz’.

Some bands are rather obviously absent, presumably because Cherry Red couldn’t licence them: Siouxsie & The Banshees, Killing Joke, Sex Gang Children and Danse Society. The sleevenotes are a bit hodgepodgey, varying between Allmusic-type biogs, old interviews and first-hand accounts by band members, and the font the title is written in on the front looks like it came from one of those free download packs (I know this kind of thing doesn’t really matter, but anything which touts Joy Division as its template has a duty of care as regards graphic design). Nevertheless, Silhouettes And Statues is a laudably exhaustive artefact that shines a black light on some deserving names – many underappreciated, even while goth is in one of its more fashionable periods – and listening to all of it in one go has proved a draining, educational experience.

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George Street
Jul 25, 2017 12:32am

Thanks for this: useful snapshot of an albeit certain definition of weird. Well written too.

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