The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

New Weird Britain

New Weird Britain In Review For November By Noel Gardner
Noel Gardner , November 10th, 2020 08:39

Noel Gardner is back with another dispatch from the bristling & thriving UK DIY underground

Mermaid Chunky

If you are required to celebrate Britain – even a new, weird, deliberately and pleasingly unrepresentative sliver of it – in public while simultaneously willing the full-scale destruction of its culture, there are cool and smart ways of squaring this circle. Take it from me, who attempts it every other month!

One idea is to interpret everything as a reaction against contemporary events, whether there’s admissible evidence for this or not. A fantastical escape from Johnson’s junta. Nihilistic noise that sounds like eggs cracking on gammon. Castlemorton callback counterculture rave for 2021’s wave of illegal parties. This stuff writes itself, and only makes me feel mildly appalled at myself.

Freya Tate and Moina Walker of Mermaid Chunky have a song on their debut album Vest titled ‘Newbury Bypass’. It doesn’t appear to reference the epochal protests that delayed its building in the late 90s (which I’m fairly sure neither member would be nearly old enough to recall), or indeed the bypass itself. One of them says things like “Look at this mighty fine saucepan. Twenty shillings a shilling,” over percussion made on, possibly, a saucepan. They, evidently, have taken the escape route, and after half an hour in their company you might ponder joining them.

Both of Mermaid Chunky currently live in London, but started a few years ago in Stroud, Gloucestershire. Not, in fairness, a town I think of as a creative hotbed, Tate and Walker cite the Stroud Valleys Artspace venue as vital to their flourishing. The duo appear to have since been led to one of the English capital’s brighter DIY-ish spots of recent years, the Total Refreshment Centre, where Kristian Robinson (who you may know as wonky electronica fella Capitol K) recorded Vest before releasing it on his label, Faith & Industry. It’s a six-song journey with no apparent map, opening with ‘a w w’, a gastropod-slow rollout of free jazz sax and wordless vocalising; ‘Friends’, an entirely soppy tribute to companionship, might elicit an “aww” while upping the ante a notch with eight minutes of hullo-trees-hullo-sky ambient house. ‘Gemini Girls’ is a bass-thumping schoolyard chant with a heart of darkness, and has its own video along with ‘These Girls’, a fine piece of ranty cosmic synth empowerment equal parts DFA, ESG and Bow Wow Wow.

‘King Of The Herbs’, which concludes the album, is liable to prove a goof too far if the theatre student vibe already hinted at is your Kryptonite when made explicit. A pastoral flute is permitted variously to loop, to solo and to play ‘The Skye Boat Song’; the tale told, of a Sir Basil, is suitable for children, arguably specifically. The acts Mermaid Chunky call to mind here tend to lean on a blithe naivete: Animal Collective, Peaking Lights, youthful Norfolkians Let’s Eat Grandma and fuckwitted freak-folkers Cocorosie. This isn’t a fashionable sound in 2020 – venture your own sociopolitical reasoning – and I reckon I’ve found the one record of its type I want to hear this year.

Edited from in-studio improvisations, the self-titled debut 12-inch by Holy Tongue rerubs dub for 20 blissful minutes. Live percussion and bass dances amidst FX and electronics, someone or something grumbles out back now and then, but you’re locked into what the echo units and woodblocks are conjuring. It’s This Heat’s 1970s walk-in freezer meets the 80s punky reggae of Singers & Players meets 90s-era attempts by, say, Moonshake or Ui to emphasise the ‘post’ in post-rock.

Dropped with little warning but not by strangers, drummer Valentina Magaletti’s recent collab tape with Marlene Ribiero was reviewed a couple of columns back, while her longer-running duo Tomaga were brought to a horribly premature end in August by the death of Tom Relleen, aged 42. In Holy Tongue, she’s partnered by Al Wootton, who first appeared in the late-00s paydirt era of lairy UK bass as Deadboy and released a pretty good LP of dubby garage, Witness, under his own name this year (Holy Tongue is also on his label, Amidah). ‘Misinai’, which gets all of side A to itself and thus luxuriates in big loud grooves, perhaps cleaves closest to dub as she was conceived by the originators, trundling along with ironclad cool and pinging springy reverb hither and yon. ‘Emet’ is more rhythmically experimental, literal bells and literal whistles vying for attention in Magaletti’s post punk shakedown, and segues into ‘Erev’, whereupon Wootton’s synths shiver and drone (in especially glassy manner around seven minutes in, of nine total) but he still manages to offload some tasty bass thunderclaps.

The second album-length (lengthy albums, at that) cassette by Salac is halfway peggable as industrial dub. Or gothic noise. Or emotekno, or have I gone too far? An Anglo-Irish duo – Max Kelan, also of shockrave Bristolians Bad Tracking, and Cliona Ni Laoi, whose Dublin project All Times Now Nothing debuted this year – Salac emerged about 12 months ago with their Sacred Movements tape on Avon Terror Corps; Illicit Rituals (Plaque) is doomier and more blown-out, cuts like ‘Drowned’ killing sound with the same hideous efficiency as Manchester’s FUMU, or Container at his muckiest.

There are dramatic soliloquies over pianos, screams layered over more screams, Kelan declaring “YOU WILL NEVER HEAL THESE WOUNDS WITH YOUR WEATHERED HANDS” (update: I didn’t go too far) and the bridging of Throbbing Gristle and 93 jungle via a serious outta-body zonker that’s called ‘Join Us/The Snake’ and goes the farthest in justifying the album’s title. Excepting the vocals, which are shared about equally, I’m not sure who to credit for what on Illicit Rituals: the most tearout moments rival, and to an extent resemble, the more straight-ahead Bad Tracking, but I suspect the point of Salac is to draw a veil of smoke over the mechanics of collaboration, and present the results as from a psychic beyond.

Organchrist, yet another duo, are also Bristol scene mavens of about five years’ standing, in which time they’ve ennoisened a variety of bills with their live hardware techno and released a few tapes, one in fact a split with Bad Tracking. Their latest, Skepasti, is delivered by the Tutamen label and contains four tracks, eight minutes apiece, of Kim Stanley and Joe Gavenlock at their most ripsnortingly peaktime. Organchrist’s taste for redlined distortion is, though, pared back here: ‘As I Crossed A Bridge Of Dreams’ allows a Detroit techno-style synth melody to ripple across a roiling bass drum and hints of frothing acid, while ‘Flood’ seems to genuflect to Jeff Mills at his 90s zenith, building tension via both the arrangements and simply jacking up the volume. Between these two EP bookends, ‘Dust On The Oscillator’ is percussion-forward and ominously rumbling, ‘Unauthorised Public Performance’ hammering, jerking and agitating in grainy analogue finery that’s worthy of anyone from Unit Moebius to Somatic Responses. Never got the impression before that Organchrist especially wanted to sound like ‘proper’ hard techno, but they’ve stepped into that arena very ably.

There’s been a real mushrooming of brutal cassette rave in the last two or three years, as it goes – mostly in pretty limited editions, but with checkpoints all over the world. On this island, Glasgow – canonically a consumer of maxed BPMs with its eccies – seems to be contributing its fair share, with producers such as Aden Melvin dishing mayhem. Melvin has a tape label, Hangman Satellite, and normally records under the name Ludgate Squatter. This time out he’s trading as Dreadful Activist and tilts in the direction of vintage Dutch gabber and American hardcore (as in Lenny Dee or Delta 9 type stuff) for a six-track meltdown on another node in this scene, the never knowingly understated Clan Destine label.

Vreselijke Hardcore is so relentless as to border on the cartoonish, but is produced with exactitude, even when the snares and kicks get distorted to apparent disintegration. ‘RT2’ is bombastic, precise schranz techno, so European it’s nigh-on problematic and a surefire (hypothetical) smash with 5,000 mutants in a disused French airfield. The scolding voice of Mrs Gilmore in Rosemary’s Baby is sampled for the Deathchant Records-type gabber of ‘Rosemary’; ‘Politix’ and ‘Psycho Thug’ also employ vocal loops, although I can’t actually make out the words within the maelstrom. ‘XL’, which concludes an authentically punishing half hour (honestly, I’m writing this fuelled by tap water on a cold Thursday afternoon and really feel quite dizzy), credits the contribution of Dreadful MC, whose muffled honking may or may not be Melvin himself.

Melvin/Dreadful/Squatter moved to Glasgow from Manchester, or so one reads. Anna-Marie Odubote, or Anz, is resident in Manchester “via London, Liverpool and Madrid” – going on the spiel of Hessle Audio, who recently released her second 12-inch Loos In Twos. After a fallow 2019 for Hessle, followed by a couple of recent singles by label co-owners Pangaea and Pearson Sound, autumnal produce from Anz and Laksa (following up the EP I reviewed in September’s NWB) looks like a label regaining its uppers.

Odubote herself has manoeuvred into a super-sweet spot of retromodern clubby hedonism since her debut, a trippy instrumental grime EP, three years ago. Stated inspirations – an NTS residency, slots in Manc clubs like Soup Kitchen and the White Hotel, eclectic DJ pals such as Tom Boogizm – have doubtless filtered into Loos In Twos, but it doesn’t sound like it’s cribbing from anyone or aiming to please an identifiable crowd. The massive, airhorn-worthy riff that punctuates the title track is textbook early-90s rave to the point where I’m half-convinced it’s a sample of something I really should be able to identify. ‘Gary Mission’, a track title you suspect has a story behind it, and ‘Stepper’ are less anchored to any era: the former is an ever-shifting stack of mathematical rhythms and pingpong bass, not aeons from someone like Gábor Lázár, and the latter is a sparse, relatively brief piece of percussive funk where a sampled vocal says something a bit like “go cat go!” but is not Elvis, plus I’m probably mishearing again anyway. Diamond of an EP, is the main thing.

Back to Glasgow for Time Together (Hues And Intensities), the debut album by Susannah Stark, a visual artist who arrived at music production by way of making her printmaking practise multidiscliplinary. Despite this being Stark’s first formally released music, it’s been taken on by swish Belgian label Stroom, and neither party has erred with this seven-song serving of gossamer dub-pop experimentalism.

As far as I can tell from the credits, Stark sings and plays everything on here apart from some guitar on ‘Unnatural Wealth’, a glorious confluence of ghosts and machines that groans and grooves like Th’Faith Healers or some of the weirder Fugazi songs. Prior to that LP closer, the vibe is more chill, in both senses of the adjective. Synth motifs are bright and unadorned – stark, you might say – and when coupled with a languid beat and a lyric like “Oh my friend/ I feel the future through your touch” (‘Saturn’), almost Balearic. Vocals are diverse in style: spoken word whose fidelity suggests it was recorded on an answering machine, full-throated refrains that could grace a folk-rock song, fragments of echoey gasps and intimate speak-sung exhortations to, it sounds like, a friend off-mic. That last one is describing ‘Remind You’, embellished with Nordic jazz trumpet and ambient twinkling and a (genuine) potential corrective against the onset of crushing despair. Maybe Time Together is a headspace thing, a ‘needs multiple listens’ thing or both, but this has turned into something really special over a few weeks.

Hereby, three new cassettes whose common factor is the involvement of noisy rockers from northern England, exporting their styles to a fresh platform. Chris Riviera, vocalist in respectively noisier and rockier Leeds acts Soft Issues and Cattle, debuts as Material Loss with a self-released EP of deeply bleak clicks&cuts micro-dub. Emptyset and Pole are two stated influences/reference points, though this 16 minutes is, overall, more hermetic and elusive than either: headphones are pretty well mandatory if you wish to wallow. Tap-drip glitches beam through beds of static, the aurally submerged clatter of a production line melts into the inspecific hum of the industrialised night. Moving slightly closer to the aesthetics of club music production, ‘SD-CLA’ repeats its plunging bass line beneath crisp electronic scrabble and ‘Alm’, freezing yet propulsive, could have found a suitable home on Pole’s label ~scape back in the day.

Ritual Luminescence (Fortification & Works) is the second tape by Radium Jaw: Sam Booth and Thomas Hopkin, both also creators of bad ‘tude in Newcastle band Foot Hair (Booth more recently released an album as part of The Shits, who are otherwise from Leeds). They seem to have had this project for a few years, but only shared music from it as of this spring: 20 minutes on their self-titled debut, half an hour here. No info as to what apparatus is in play, but as clanking/crawling industrial noise goes Ritual Luminescence sounds solidly analogue: feedback (could be guitar or electronics, maybe neither) dragged through an effects unit and/or bank of pedals with some semblance of semi-rhythmic battery baked into the glop. There’s care applied to these textures, mind, ‘Small-Time Traitor’ landing on a Ramleh kinda tip by spiralling up to near-psychedelic intensity while swerving psych tropes.

Back to Yorkshire for the first physical item by another duo of a few years’ standing, except they’ve filled out. Released by the Panurus label (taking us back to Newcastle), Dwindling’s Wretch - Memento finds Bobby Glew (also of Guttersnipe and Nape Neck) and Michael Waters (of some projects I’m less familiar with) joined by Kerry Hindmarsh, who trades artistically as Giblet Gusset and whose vocal style is much like you’d expect someone called Giblet Gusset’s to be. Or, if that strikes you as unhelpfully presumptuous, an eye-jabbing deluge of deranged yawps, hoots and squeals likely on nodding terms with catalogued human language but less definable as such. Four improvised segments, each longer than the last and culminating with 17-minute punisher ‘GARES’, Wretch - Memento drives no wave to the city limits and throws a juice-sapping generator party where guitars, drums and Hindmarsh’s “circuits” go into a toxic bonfire. Guttersnipe are worth invoking in a ‘for fans of’ sense more than a ‘sounds like’ one, and if I wedge Tunnel Canary, Hanatarash and Landed into this closing sentence you might be getting the idea that Dwindling are really wilding out here.

If someone was penning an equivalent version of this column in the early 1970s, who or what would feature? Attempting to answer this question would expose you to some storming music, if nothing else, but it’s safe to say that 46 years ago the ace faces admired by all for their direct line to the best of Britain’s underground – much like I am today – weren’t giving it up for The Glitter Band. Initially conceived as Gary Glitter’s backing group, but from 1974 adding a parallel incarnation without Real Name Paul Gadd at the helm, they were very much at the bubblegummier end of the era’s glam explosion, and floundered when pop fashion turned against them. The passage of time has found the group both cursed by association and subject to rehabilitation: Luke Haines’ lyric “Gary Glitter, he’s a bad bad man/ Ruining the reputation of the Glitter Band” sums it up concisely, while a piece written by John Robb for tQ in 2008 considers the bigger picture.

Recognition of the group’s strength as craftsmen and hook-writers, plus the distinctive schaffel-type beat hammered out by two drummers, leads us to Glitter Band founder John Rossall, and his first ever solo LP, The Last Glam In Town (Tiny Global). Pitched as the album he never had the chance to make back then, it’s been achieved with legwork from various (post)punks who partly kiboshed his career first time round: John Robb himself, three members of Birmingham’s Nightingales and onetime Drones member Mark Standley. (Intriguingly, Young Marble Giants and Mekons personnel also submitted songs which didn’t make the final cut.) Robb’s ‘Fear Of A Glam Planet’, standing on the shoulders of Porcupine Tree and Goldie Lookin Chain in respect of its frown-inducing dadjoke title, nevertheless sets things in swaggering motion from the off with impeccably gleaming guitars, a beat that bounces like a lobotomised Labrador and verses delivered in a strange conspiratorial croak.

Liberal slatherings of brass add Dexy’s-ish soul-rock pep; the album frequently pulls the trick of simultaneously sticking to, and transcending, its self-defined template. ‘Got My Groove’ has space rock guitars, ‘Neon Lights’ ruff jazz sax and proto-punk bass chug. ‘Equalizer’, written by Alan ‘I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll’ Merrill not long before his death in March, is closer to T Rex than Glitter Band but packs a godlike chorus either way. Invoking ‘authenticity’ in relation to glam rock is daft and point-missing, no doubt, but even if you’re sated by those who kept John Rossall’s flame in his absence – Denim, Giuda, Turbonegro – there’s much to be said for having the real deal, in a once-unfeasible new context that totally works.