New Weird Britain In Review For September By Noel Gardner

From scornful Liverpudlian frostwave to a cosmic and molluscular journey through time and space, your guide to the finest sounds in New Weird Britain returns for another month

Ultimate Thunder, photo by Andrew Benge

Unverifiable but true statement: a thunderstorm started as I sat down to review the self-titled debut album by Leeds’ Ultimate Thunder, sterling openers for the last New Weird Britain of (this particular) summer (in hell). Suitably, this eight-headed unit bring a downpour of garage, postpunk, prog, dub, Afropsych and krautrock that will refresh, leave you laffin’, and ultimately make you change your shirt.

Active for nearly a decade, though I believe Ultimate Thunder is their first recording – laid down in 2020, with members playing their parts over Zoom – in the past they’ve been more a project than a band per se, founded by guitarist James Heselwood with the intention of giving learning disabled people a musical outlet.

Released in conjunction with learning disability art organisation Pyramid, here the lineup sounds both cohesive and comprehensive: three people (Stuart Illingworth, Kenneth Stainburn and Alex Sykes) have synth or keyboard credits, resulting in a ceaseless burble of bizarro ‘tronics worthy of Hawkwind’s Michael ‘DikMik’ Davies or Fifty Foot Hose. Stainburn joins Heselwood on guitar, too, and whoever is playing what, they fry up some nicely sinister out-freakage; a three-strong rhythm section of Scott Anderson, John Densley and John Greaves embark on paradoxically locked-in rambles over nine songs.

Finally, there’s vocalist Matthew Watson, a keen ad-libber who nevertheless comes from the ‘less is more’ school of frontpeople. His seasoned cackle-croak painted post-production with a haunted console’s worth of echo and reverb (most heavily on ‘Bring The Science’, on which his vocal melody seems to reference Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’), on the evidence of Ultimate Thunder Watson taps the same ineffable source as Mark E Smith, Damo Suzuki and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Even better, his bandmates have access too.

In further crypto-prog groover updates, September brings a suite of them from The Black Albumen: again self-titled, six songs on a 10-inch lathe cut if you can source a copy, nine on the digi version readily obtainable from label Buried Treasure. More is more in this instance! This is the most recent alias of Glyn Bush, who has been around since early 90s dubby deep house duo Original Rockers; I’ve not followed him especially fervently, but this song as Lightning Head has never entirely vacated my head since I heard it on some mix twenty-plus years back, and a more recent album in his Magic Drum Orchestra incarnation was pretty neat too. The Black Albumen is totally different again, early 70s Canterbury style prog – the name references lower tier UK proggers Egg – with doom-funk basslines and organ that can ice the blood like Claudio Simonetti (‘When Rome Burns’) or drop hints at Bush’s deep house grounding (cf ‘Heptadecagon’). All of this is bolstered by vocalist Hanna Ylitepsa, who sings in Finnish: I don’t know if a song titled ‘Circle’ is a hat tip to the band of that name, but it seems plausible.

While there’s a good chance that someone’s reasons for hating prog are, in any case, fallacious and borne of received wisdom, The Black Albumen might be a good conversion tool for naysayers, as the more commonly cited issues – neverending songs, pompous lyrics, overproduction, no funk – do not apply here. Penultimate Bandcamp-only track ‘Frogment’, desert dub somewhere between Tortoise and Holy Tongue, is a further switchup and arguable highlight.

Bliss Archive is a Bristolian label set up by Felix Drake, who used to play in pre-Giant Swan band The Naturals. Its third release, Live @ Bliss Archive, is the first you can poke your eye out on the corner of – a 72-minute tape with a solo set apiece by Tara Clerkin and Pat Benjamin. The pair are bandmates in the Tara Clerkin Trio, but what we encounter here – recorded in March as part of a night of breakout experimental sets by all three members plus the Bliss Archive founder – is fairly distinct from the downtempo jazz-gone-club leanings of that project.

Clerkin offers a hazy sound collage with a tangible rhythmic bed (or several of them), created via CDJ manipulation. I’m not certain which parts are plundered audio and which her own recordings, though some of the jazzier excerpts sound fairly vintage. Sounds, too, like there was plenty of pitchbending, layering and cutting up drums on the fly: this probably would have been called ‘illbient’ in the late 90s, less than no problem with that here. Benjamin’s set is for solo piano hooked up to, I assume, loop pedals and other hardware, and so his own lithe, perhaps Satie-like figures are treated to backmasking, glitching and distortion, plus sections where he’s, effectively, both parts of a duo. More in these guises? Please!

Glasgow producer Murray Collier shuffles between a few aliases, Grim Lusk the most recently deployed for Diving Pool – a six-track EP of grippingly stumbling sludge-beat instrumental dance that’s analogue like oxen pulling 19th century farming gear. Not sure what stopped me checking for him before, save my own deep indolence, as the various intersecting scenes he moves in and/or bigs up are broadly my bag: most of the names he lists at the end of this interview, for one. Of his labelmates on Domestic Exile, which has released both Grim Lusk 12 inches to date, my fondness for Cucina Povera, Kleft and The Modern Institute should be a matter of record as long as this column stays online.

Collier’s grooves are jelly-legged and oft on the off-beat, saturated in watery dub treatment and cartoonishly upfront snare cracks. It reminds me of many things and none, from the 80s proto-techno made by restless industrial scene escapees to the lower-BPM parts of 90s drill & bass; the generative live alchemy of Matmos or Graham Dunning to Jamal Moss’ girder-raw Chi-house inversions. Diving Pool has its own quirks and motifs, though: the reviewer is both wildly up for witnessing it live and already cringing in anticipation of what he’d look like dancing.

Eternity Of Echoes, four cuts of austere, moody space drum & bass from Shiken Hanzo, notionally feels like an odd fit for Incienso, the American label which released it. Hanzo, a London producer whose real name is Ryan Fearon, doesn’t greatly resemble its roster standouts – DJ Python, Huerco S – but, in pulling equally from techno as d&b, he locates a deeply satisfying, emotionally resonant and crisply raveable hybrid sound, which makes sense as Incienso’s bag.

‘Darkest Entities’, kicking off this 12 inch, layers chopper-blade drums over sawing, phasing synth sweeps and dark-alley drones that are industrial in that big-budget OST kinda way. Photek’s seminal 90s productions are often invoked in talk of Shiken Hanzo – hardly wrongly, what with his scattered samurai imagery, but the ice-veined melodies of ‘Eightfold Blessing Of Amaterasu’ and anvil bass of the title track descend, one way or other, from Source Direct. The latter’s drums are something like motorik dub techno, which is a very nice niche to dip into, and with its belching bass and halftime rhythms ‘The Reaping’ is about as drum & bass as Fearon gets here. Real swish tackle for those who like anything from Instra:mental to the UVB-76 label’s catalogue.

The way this edition of NWB shook out has given you lots of repeat offenders on the label front, such as Northumberland tapeheads Cruel Nature, but all artists being covered for the first time. Empty House is a recently-coined alias of Fred Laird, whose shape has shifted between the UK’s psych, space rock and drone rock scenes in a 20-year career: a few albums on Riot Season as part of Taras Bulba, and a collab with Mike Vest named Artifacts & Uranium, stand out to me.

Blue Bamboo, the second Empty House tape on Cruel Nature, is naturalist, spiritually-inspired, passingly folky and occasionally beat-fuelled ambient music. Its starting point is organ drones, which more than a few contemporary artists have made their entire practise. Laird however adds a sizeable cupboard of instruments, many non-Western in origin, and digital post-production. You could probably stick a ‘fourth world’ tag on much of this release without risking a grave insult to either the late Jon Hassell or Laird himself, though there’s nothing terribly ethnocentric beyond the deployment of flutes, bells etc. Equally, consider the spectre of krautrock at its least ‘rock’ (an even newer, currently digi-only EH album features a Popul Vuh cover), the flutter and burble of Spencer Clark’s various modes, and fellow UK traveller Tuluum Shimmering (who I should also review at some point).

In an August’s-end drop of new tapes on noise label Outsider Art, Polexia! are outliers in a good way, with three songs of scornful Liverpudlian frostwave. A Burial, A Resurrection is their second release, but only one member, Johanna Connolly, remains from the first’s lineup: Danny Welsby has been replaced by Jezebel Halewood-Leagas, who might have an eight-syllable name but has contrived to convert Polexia! from a blown-out junk noise attack into makers of shiveringly fun industrial-pop drama.

It starts starkly, with a single repeated kick and whispered vocal mystery, but ‘Burial/Resurrection’ layers elegantly fuzzed-up synths and the uncomfortably matter-of-fact vocal refrain, “Your burial is my resurrection”. ‘Machine’ (“I am stuck in your…” goes this one) is brasher, bassier and more techno-adjacent – I could imagine it having come out on Optimo in the early 00s – and, to close, ‘BAG!’ is one of those wilfully obnoxious monologues in the spirit of No Bra’s ‘Munchausen’. We are meant to imagine a nightclub, I assume, as Connolly embarks on a rambling, one-sided conversation about lost lighters, her band’s name and her disdain for other people in the venue/city. By the end she has been drowned out by juddering noise, though in real life people like this just talk louder to compensate.

Three proper bleak items to finish this month, reflecting whatever aspect of ‘living in a society’ you consider most apposite, or perhaps because that’s the order which worked best. Jo Montgomerie, who lives in Manchester, has released her idiosyncratic, minimalist noise art through respectable labels Industrial Coast, The Helen Scarsdale Agency and – with her latest, Those Things Beyond & Within – Brachliegen Tapes of Kent.

I could have eaten a whole album of haunted, rumble-tone piano pieces like ‘Focus On The Constant’, which opens the cassette, but while the five tracks that follow are less obviously acoustic in origin, they’re comparably compelling – if a spot in between dark ambient, Maurizio Bianchi-type proto-noise and brutalist minimal synth is one that’s sweet for you. Montgomerie is a classically trained musician who chooses to, in effect, undermine that status by working with sounds most would deem detritus, and at its most abstract and forbidding Those Things… overwhelms you not through extremity so much as onerousness. Like being a wood sprite fighting your way through autumnal forest mulch. That’s me saying I really like this.

Thraa are also Manchester-based, though Andi Jackson – 50 per cent of the duo – is part of a sizeable number of heads who migrated there having started doing stuff in Milton Keynes. I know less about the background of Sally Mason, his cohort in this project, but having played their first gig in July, debut release Into Earth (released through Jackson’s Fr33zehead label on tape, Inverted Grim-Mill of Newcastle on CD) runs the gamut from heavy, snarling feedbacker guitar to airy, half-there ethereality.

With an evident liking for drone and doom alike, some of you jokers out there might suggest the album title is a declaration of Thraa’s music taste, but in truth these four compositions are rarely possible to pin down that glibly. ‘Move Among Them’ echoes Bardo Pond, via Mason’s unformed vocals and a soundbed of improv guitar, but it’s a Bardo Pond with no drums or rock influence; ‘Into Earth’ the song splices cleanish chords, a staticky underlay made on god knows what, and a more intelligible, sometimes singsongy Mason. If there are vocals on ‘Elgon’, this tape at its unfriendliest, they’re fully subsumed into the guitar-wall mire, but the 17 minutes of ‘Over Warm Stones’ offers respite – vox, and the FX afforded them, spiriting us to Liz Fraser country – even while one or both of Thraa use strings and pedals to spirit us down the plughole. A fine introduction!

Tombsnail’s Cosmic Dreamquest tape has a cool/goofy drawing of a snail chilling ‘neath the moon, which is useful if only to confirm that it’s ‘tomb snail’ and not ‘tomb’s nail’ (which would be a fairly good name too). The person behind it, another Glasgow dweller, goes by Lord Slime, just to underline the point. They – and Cloaked Order, a new Bristol label releasing this – also call it dungeon synth. You know people who profess a fandom for some genre or other, but everything they rate from it is the non-trad sounding stuff… pretty annoying, aren’t they? I’m like that with dungeon synth, I think.

I mean, this is a single 37-minute track (‘Cosmic & Molluscular Journey Through Time & Space’) with no melodies at all, or stylistic progressions, or strong evidence that this might have been composed in the sense one’d normally think of that. Rather, it is excellently relentless blackened drone that doesn’t break ground but balances its discrete sheets of sick tone just so, spacey throb and man-or-machine? howl fusing into each other. No snail references in the music itself, moreover, although maybe a snail would enjoy this.

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