Noel’s Foul House: New Weird Britain In Review For May

Noel Gardner brings us the best from the UK DIY underground, including releases by Lower Slaughter, Wolfhounds, Tomaga, JFK, Vom and Vanishing

There have always been hugely skilled and prodigiously talented people in abundance on the underbelly of weird British music. Sadly, their skills are rarely the type that pay the bills, or their talents beneficial to the balance. Selfishly, this allows us – their adoring but inadequately sized fanbase – to clasp them to our bosom in perpetuity, safe in the knowledge that their non-commercial instincts will keep them poor and unheralded forever.

The first four releases I’m reviewing in this, the second edition of Foul House, are made by or feature people who’ve been in the game for at least 30 years. In some cases, they’ve disappeared from view for a sizeable part of that time, but generally reinforce the feeling that there is no ageism, or perceived age restrictions, in these circles. David R Edwards started making music in 1982, as a teenager in a mid-Wales bedroom band, Datblygu. Their audience was inherently restricted by singing in Welsh, while by playing a strange, obtuse strain of experimental post punk and being lyrically scornful of their country’s cosy establishment, they ensured a spot in Wales’ margins too. Edwards, though, is regarded by many as a great and important rock wordsmith, one whose lyrics survive translation to English: the CD reissue of their three 80s/90s albums, and the vinyl version of their excellent 2015 reunion LP Porwr Trallod, both include this helpful gesture. And now he’s written a book of poetry, Dave Datblygu’s Search In English For The House Of Tolerance, which comes in bonus audio version so I can justify featuring it here.

Recorded into a crackling Dictaphone and coupled with wonky Dadaist music by Ash Cooke (whose label, Prin, has published this), Edwards’ soft-edged, declamatory growl of a voice suits his material. Haphazard of metre, most of these 35 poems run to less than a hundred words and are deeply introspective, even when training a torch on a vengeful and puzzling outside world.

Many of his bêtes noires can also be found in Datblygu songs from the 80s: the education system (his recollection of the “beefy crayons” of infant school is especially striking); rockism (“The only thing worse / Than guitars / Are those fucking pianos” – Cooke, impudently or not, drops in several piano parts across the CD); the culture of work (“Now I’m smoking and drinking / In a quite decent life / Of lovely unemployment,” concludes an ode to his late mother). We learn that Edwards attempted suicide in 2010, has slept with seven women in his life (I find this amusing on account of recalling an interview in the 90s with Keith Chegwin in which Cheggers, unprompted, laid claim to the same figure) and now spends his days at home avoiding his neighbours and listening to Philip Glass, Motörhead, Louis Armstrong and the band with whom Datblygu are most often equated, The Fall. Just reward for an unsung-by-those-who-can’t-sing-along hero of British underground music.

Southern English noisepoppers The Wolfhounds’ roots also snake back to the 80s, with their first significant profile boost an appearance on NME’s C86 cassette. They became more interesting with a subsequent turn into noisier, Sonic Youth-influenced pastures, though – David Callahan’s guitar style previewing his next band, early-90s Too Pure signees Moonshake. The Wolfhounds’ 2012 reformation has proved a creative one: Untied Kingdom (…Or How To Come To Terms With Your Culture), their fifth album overall, came out on the Odd Box label last year and is now being given a CD release and wider distribution by Optic Nerve.

Despite low expectations instilled by the cover art, which is literally just that viral photo of Manchester city centre from a couple of New Year’s back, Untied Kingdom is entertaining, energetic and acerbic. Often, songs feel like relatively genteel indie numbers sabotaged by their creators’ love of clanking rhythms, droning violins and J Mascis-ish guitar excess. Beginning the album with an a capella song, ‘Apparition’, is either knowingly uncommercial or just plain unwise, but the pie-eyed swagger & brass of ‘My Legendary Childhood’ is a bit of an anthem, while ‘The Stupid Poor’ and ‘The Comedians’ contrast folkish tenderness with pigsqueal dervish sonics.

While The Wolfhounds were living high on the C86 hog (joke), Anthony DiFranco was a teenager making bleak, intense industrial noise as JFK, and releasing some of it on notorious power electronics label Broken Flag. You’d imagine any kind of interaction between these two musical subcultures at the time would have been based on contempt, but 30 years on, the only shade in this column is the type offered by my Big Tent. Either way, Nganga (Chondritic Sound) – the new JFK LP, indeed his debut album under this name if you discount cassettes and compilations – is a lethal, driven update of the project’s aesthetic.

The psychedelic rock element of old is detectable – ‘Star-Killer’ smashes together space rock guitar and light-swallowing fuzz, in case you forgot that DiFranco played on several Skullflower albums – but these six tracks are built primarily from electronics. ‘The Scythe’ cranks a splattery breakbeat up to impossible hyperspeed, ‘Machinen’ is doom-laden industrial techno and the title track’s abstract assault would have sat nicely on Mego Records when they were releasing things like Kevin Drumm’s Sheer Hellish Miasma. ‘Zarathustra’, a melee of chopper-blade rhythmic judder and air-moving deep drone, makes you feel like an illegal helipad’s been built on your roof, before ‘Minerva’ tops proceedings off by overlaying a soothingly meditative church organ tone with a whack of back-masked staccato static. This’ll probably wind up as one of 2017’s best noise releases; get on board if yer of that ilk.

Russell Smith of Melting Hand is also an early 90s Skullflower alumnus, although as far as I can tell him and DiFranco never appeared on the same recording. These days, Smith’s back playing with his pre-Skullflower band, the reformed Terminal Cheesecake, whose other guitarist Gordon Watson joins him in Melting Hand too. Are you getting all this down? The quartet are completed by Tom Fug – who also plays in Luminous Bodies (with Watson) and Gum Takes Tooth – and Mike Vest, whose CV I’m not even going to attempt to condense.

Back to Melting Hand, though. Last year’s debut LP Highcollider was exemplary heavy syrup space dirge, and if you want more, and want it raw, the Swap Meat label have a cassette, Live In Europe 2016, featuring two 45-minute shows from Lille and Amsterdam. It’s landscape-flattening, brontosaurial, sweeps of phased guitar and out-to-lunch drums as buoyant and all-consuming as an industrial trawler net – ‘Carcel De Ibiza’ is just massive in both versions included here (the six-song setlist is basically the same on each side). Also, although the recording quality is pretty bob on, it’s neat that they left in the sound of French people chattering as ‘Slug Race’ kicks in, as it preserves a bit of experiential grit.

Primitive Arts, the 2009 debut album by Glasgow’s Vom back in 2009, saw them on an early 80s goth tip a few years before that slunk back into fashion, but it never really clicked with me at the time. This new tape Initiation (on At War With False Noise – it follows a 2013 LP, Altered States, which I passed over like a chump and which is naturally sounding cracking on belated listen) is on another level, though: a completely implausible midpoint between death rock and free improv. The former element is apparent in the relentless drums and rigid-yet-groovy basslines; the latter derives from Ewen McCulloch’s guitar, which sounds like the piercing, feedbacky bits from the bridges of, say, Bauhaus or Banshees records, except stretched over a whole album.

I could have imagined Clockcleaner moving in this direction after their Babylon Rules LP, perhaps, but as they didn’t, Initiation is about as without-parallel as guitarbassdrums gets in recent years. There’s even a sort of spacerock/postpunk/minimal synth number at the end titled ‘Old Gods’ that sounds like, I ‘unno, a band who played squats with Here & Now in 1982 or something. A chilly but wildly invigorating half hour, the jewel in this column’s crown: it’s some bullshit that the projected audience for this is only enough to justify releasing it on tape, and I speak as someone who loves tapes.

Vanishing by Vanishing is released by a predominantly tape-based label, Tombed Visions, but comes as a CD in a swish A5 card sleeve whose size demands it be stored in its own nonconformist space. Or on the DVD shelf, if you have one. John Doran wrote about this rich, keening, despairing album on tQ recently, in the context of music that expresses or suits an apocalyptic mentality. This definitely has merit as a response: cello and piano parts swoop and ripple with a dignified sureness that belies the clusters of distorted synths and bonecrack digital snares. It’s built around an electronic skeleton, but is a long way from quote-unquote dance music. A tool for the peace-desirous post-club host to clear out the coming-down, perhaps.

An instrumental version of this album would be pregnant with unease, but the spoken, stony vocals of Gareth Smith – the main brain behind Vanishing – gives it a further dimension. Derived, almost certainly, from real and profound emotions (on ‘Fountain’, he sounds close to tears), Smith’s targets are generally opaque, to be interpreted by each listener differently. The title of ‘Brighton 84’ presumably references the IRA bombing, but the lay listener would do well to pinpoint specifics in its imagery of (inverse?) nostalgia and cold inhumanity. At its harshest, ‘The Cleaners’, tangible layers of slow, grinding noise move across each other as Smith’s bellicose vocal goes through the FX mincer; it’s not a mile away from the latest Pharmakon album. Elsewhere – not on specific songs per se – I get a passing sense of Barry Adamson, Third Eye Foundation and Massive Attack circa Mezzanine.

As well as being a majestic statement, Vanishing stands as testament to the strength of the Manchester underground at present. Smith’s right-hand man here is Gnod’s Paddy Shine, the two having both been members of pre-Gnod group Stranger Son Of WB, with Julie ‘Lonelady’ Campbell among a cast of other adept locals.

Down in Brighton ‘17, with similar zest for collaboration, are Map 71, a duo of Lisa Jayne and Andy Pyne. Jayne is a performance poet who hooked up with Pyne, improv-inclined drummer in various projects, with the aim of giving her readings extra force – on the evidence of Gloriosa (Fourth Dimension), Map 71’s latest cassette, this was a canny move.

Crisp, springy percussive work sets the verse in motion on ‘Red Mass’ and ‘One-Dimensional Bang’, Jayne affecting a blank-eyed recital style which I suspect not everyone will warm to, but works for this listener at least. ‘Azeleas’ moves into trippier climes, haphazardly clashing layers of synth and click-clack rhythms likely unrelated to a drum kit, while on ‘CDM’ Jayne, audibly warming to her role, repeats the dictum “Controversial Dance Moves / Should not be attempted!” ‘Monoprint’, the words of which are on Jayne’s blog, adds some fizzy, scrawly early 80s DIY synth, and the closing ‘Default Slogan’ is bluntly concrete on both counts: single-word darts building to a portrait of grey suburban hell over a goofy loop of what might well be an accidental pocket recording.

London’s Tomaga are another duo blessed with flights of percussive delight, care of Valentina Magaletti’s intangible, wrist-dislocatingly limber playing style. You may have caught a tan from the glowing reviews afforded their last album, 2016’s Shape Of The Dance; if so, howsabout an EP with two remixes of tracks from it plus two brand newies? Greetings From The Bitter End (Kaya Kaya) is perfectly fine as a starting point, too. The title track zigzags and rumbles on a upward trajectory, a clanking industrial bossa nova interrupted two minutes in by the dawn-chorus cornet of Rick Tomlinson, who you may know as Voice Of The Seven Woods/Thunders – he’s duly ushered into Magaletti and bandmate Tom Relleen’s soundworld to blow pastel shades about the joint. A marimba enters the arena for ‘Liberating Mania’, which backs up both parts of its title with a wicked Can/This Heat drum dressdown and a fistful of sustained organ notes that’s got me itching to break out a Stereolab B-sides comp. And lo! Here’s Tim from Stereolab’s new band, Cavern Of Anti-Matter, whose rerub of ‘Gonda’s Dream’ makes fine use of the ASSERTIVENESS and VIBRANCY buttons on the console. Shit & Shine don’t shatter the delicacy of ‘A Perspective With No End’, either, despite painting it in their jerry-built dub techno image.

Charcoal Owls’ self-released cassette The Red Albums is the fourth – fourth! – release in this column to feature poetry in some form. It’s in a booklet packaged with the tape, and although his name doesn’t actually appear anywhere, is written by one half of the duo, Russell Walker – who you may know from his scratchy, eccentric post punk group The Pheromoans. Walker’s gimlet eye for the grey absurdity of British mediocrity is his greatest asset, and the ever-present factor in each of his groups (Bomber Jackets and The Teleporters being the other two). The scenarios he describes often appear connected by the frailest of threads, half-chewed memories punctuated by non sequiturs: a Robert Ashley opera rewritten by Stewart Lee, maybe. It’s hard to qualify why a standalone phrase like “the aunt online with her anti Islamic memes” tickles me so much, but it likely speaks to the relatability of banality (not that I have an anti-Islamic aunt).

The tape is an equally inscrutable, piecemeal affair: swirling, slightly nauseous synth pieces from the other Charcoal Owl, Tom James Scott, fade in and out of Walker’s Dictaphone recordings of the telly, the proverbial urban landscape and his own voice. Frequently, it gives the impression of having been recorded for personal, rather than public, consumption – the vocalist creasing up at some baffling private joke or rearranging phrases out loud to see which version sounds the best. Its precedents are the least song-based, most confounding Shadow Ring records, and the distilled worldview presented by The Shadow Ring’s Graham Lambkin via his Kye label (which Walker has previously recorded for). I enjoy The Red Albums a lot, but that degree of enjoyment may require being as big a Russell Walker fan as me, and I suspect not many people are.

Finally, a four-band seven-inch released by the Sligo-based label Art For Blind: Put Ears On Yourself Vol.1 features three British groups and one Irish, gambols at the nexus of punk, pop and indie, and would have been reviewed in the last Noel’s Straight Hedge except it didn’t arrive in time. (I reserve the right to redraw the boundaries for what music goes in which column at my leisure.) Milk Crimes’ ‘I’ll Be Back Soon’ is a euphoric garage-tinged rush with a hint of Joanna Gruesome and some triumphant, arguably widdly guitar. Trust Fund, like Milk Crimes based in Leeds, contribute ‘Splitter’: ostensibly accessible indiepop folksiness self-skewered by endearing awkwardness, in this case Ellis Jones’ falteringly high vocal and a drumkit that sounds like it was assembled from a kitchen cupboard. Dublin’s marvellous Sissy rock an early Sleater-Kinney vibe on ‘Nice Guy’, Leigh Arthur’s lyrics assuming the position of the (inevitably not actually) nice guy in question. And Lower Slaughter, now based between Brighton and Glasgow, contribute ‘Tied Down’, grungey noiserock with a satisfying kerchunk. Their first release since a change of vocalist last year, Sinead Young proves a very able shoe-filler here, and indicates that Lower Slaughter’s incoming LP on Box Records should be a doozy.

Quick addenum with the – perhaps unneeded, doubtless unheeded – aim of getting you to absorb the kind of sounds I’m repping here in a meatspace setting. Last month’s Fat Out Fest was relentlessly banging for three days, with Moor Mother, Islam Chipsy, Charles Hayward, Part Chimp and Cattle being the highlights of a lowlight-less secret world. Between now and the next of these columns, you can also hit up From Now On (featuring Islet, Yeah You and Yama Warashi – Cardiff, Fri 19 and Sat 20 May); the Gnod Weekender (Gnod, Vanishing, Surgeon, Giant Swan – Bristol, Fri 19 to Sun 21 May); Raw Power (Loop, Tomaga, Bilge Pump, Steve Davis – London, Fri 26 to Sun 28 May); queer punk celebration Bent Fest (Shopping, Slum Of Legs, Nachthexen – London, Fri 26 to Sun 28 May) and the welcome return of Supersonic (Richard Dawson, Jenny Hval, Laura Cannell – Birmingham, Fri 16 to Sun 18 June).

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today