Columnfortably Numb: Psych Rock For August Reviewed By JR Moores

JR Moores takes a look at the latest psychedelic offerings, after a bit of on-brand '90s nostalgia. Home page photograph: Paper Birch

The introductory paragraphs to the latest instalment of my increasingly digressive, every-other-monthly psych column will principally concern the 90s Glaswegian alt-rock band Urusei Yatsura. Who says I don’t have my finger on the pulse?! The reasons for this will become clear, eventually, but please accept my apologies if the subject’s too niche. Really, I have a book to promote, which I should be banging on about instead. Just thought I’d throw that hashtaghumbleplug in there. It is pre-orderable (or "orderable", if you prefer) from your online or high-street hardback merchant of choice. I’d direct you towards one that pays its taxes, instead of firing its founder into space for a few minutes because somebody spent too much time as a child watching Star Trek on his own. My book is about HEAVY MUSIC, in almost all shapes and forms.

You wouldn’t say that Urusei Yatsura were crushingly heavy. Mind you, their second album did contain a lyric about reading Metal Hammer magazine and fancying the bassist from nu-metal’s most circussy band, Coal Chamber. So there’s that. The sprightly Scots were a dab hand with the ragtag guitar noise, however. Unfortunately, by the late 90s, the act of replicating Sonic Youth wasn’t particularly cool anymore, unless you did it in a Spiderland-lovin’ Mogwai vein, and even Pavement had grown sick of Pavement.

I was never fortunate enough to see Urusei Yatsura live. I bet they were great. There’s some nice footage of them on YouTube, playing in Harlow, circa 1997. Looking every bit Scotland’s answer to Thurston Moore, Fergus Lawrie is wearing a touristy "I Heart NY" t-shirt, which wasn’t the done thing back then, not since Damon Albarn had formally declared that anybody who liked any kind of US culture was a stinking, unkempt philistine (or words to that effect). The exception to that rule being Albarn himself, of course, who went on to make the Americanophile Blur by Blur.

Urusei Yatsura were card-carrying nerds and proud of it, naming themselves after a Japanese manga series (shortening this to "Yatsura" in certain territories, for copyright reasons). They sang about collectible dolls and cassette tapes and toy tigers and Kraftwerk and Kubrick and robots and anoraks. The latter they rhymed with "Scooby Snacks". This was before Simon Pegg popularised and monetised the whole geek schtick with his character in Spaced and subsequent movies. (Note that word, "character".) This bunch also, no doubt, spent too much time watching sci-fi TV shows as children. Yet they didn’t get to travel into space or hang out with Tom Thumb Cruise. Them’s the breaks!

John Peel loved Urusei Yatsura. The public, less so. The band got some decent write-ups in the press, but always seemed more comfortable in the lowlier zine world than degrading themselves by wooing the glitzy gatekeepers. As Graham Kemp, now playing in Calacas, said recently, "I remember walking away mid-sentence at The Brat Awards because the editor of the NME was creeping me out with his coked up dead eyes."

After the ironically titled (and brilliant) Everybody Loves Urusei Yatsura, the band announced their split with a website message which thanked all their fans and begged them never to enjoy Toploader. Lawrie, Elaine Graham and Ian Graham continued as Projekt A-Ko, also named after a Japanese cartoon. Their sole album, Yoyodyne, had to be ordered direct from the band, being so underground it didn’t even have a barcode.

When I was 18 or thereabouts, I conducted a short email interview with Urusei Yatsura, all evidence of which is lost in the ether, under the pretence of starting my own fanzine. I never did anything with it, and didn’t dabble in any form of music journalism for another decade or so. That is not a reflection on the quality of the answers provided, by the way, but on my own roundabout path to whatever this is. I’ve just written a book about music (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that), which for a long time was as equally unimaginable as viewing the Earth from a rocket. Urusei Yatsura’s stuff recently resurfaced on Bandcamp, where its ragged glory can be discovered and rediscovered once more. Remember, kids. It can take a little while before things begin to fall into place.

Paper Birch – Morninghairwater

(Reckless Yes)

Paper Birch features Fergus Lawrie of Urusei Yatsura, Projekt A-Ko, etc. and Dee Sada from NEUMES, An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump, and other assorted outings. The duo formed in May 2020, recorded this debut album remotely, in their separate cities, and also started work on their next one, without actually meeting up in real life. Puts your shoddily assembled Zoom trivia quizzes to shame, doesn’t it? They take turns, and sometimes sing together, over the lo-fi take on My Bloody Valentine that we’ve all been longing for while Kevin Shields twiddles his thumbs and awaits the release of the coveted Britpop MI5 files. Perhaps it’s unfair to reach immediately for the MBV comparison, as they’re not the only fuzzed-up, effects-drenched, tuneful indie experimentalists who ever lived. ‘Love For The Things Yr Not’ is more acoustic than the rest of the batch. Other moments up the electronics quota. ‘Barbara Ann’ takes The Beach Boys as its starting point, ending up more like The Jesus & Mary Chain. ‘Blue Heartbreak’ is another poppy number (slathered in pedal noise, of course), with one of those delightful melodies that Glaswegians, historically, seem especially good at composing. ‘Curse Up’ and ‘Cemetery Moon’ are both breakup songs, the latter set in a graveyard. Other tracks, like ‘Elegy (As We Mourn)’, deal more directly with the events of the past year or so. Though Paper Birch surely have a bright future ahead of them, I’ve been wondering about the longevity of all these lockdown albums. "Music is more than mere decoration," writes John Doran in Jolly Lad. "It tracks both the passage and the measurement of time, on several different levels… All of these records – to one degree or another – are markers that I throw down into the void behind me and shore up against the void in front of me. Most of them are living mnemonics, connecting me to people, times and places." Will we want to revisit the ghastly pandemic era, via music, and plunge ourselves back into that headspace, or would we rather put its many horrors behind us? Sung by Sada, the fifth track on Morninghairwater is a particularly forlorn and quietly furious song concerning the rise in domestic violence cases over lockdown. Its "can’t escape from this house" refrain is almost unbearable to handle if you’re a person with any empathy at all. Refuge and other charities are doing what they can. Please consider your support.

Upper Wilds – Venus

(Thrill Jockey)

Hope is delivered in a lively form, courtesy of Upper Wilds’ own lockdown album, Venus. It is billed as a collection of love songs, which the straightforward titles make clear. They’re not all tales of romantic love, however. ‘Love Song #2’ concerns Cousin Amy, a very real symbol of human resilience, who has spent the "plague times" exhaustively working as truck driver to keep her family fed, by delivering the flour supplies where they are needed. ‘Love Song #5′, meanwhile, suggests that love is not the cure-all elixir The Beatles once considered it to be. As made clear in its lyrics, love’s mortal limitations are no reason to write off its undeniable power. As for Upper Wilds’ calculated aural chaos, these chaps rip it up like no other band. They could be likened to a faster Dinosaur Jr, perhaps, although that does little justice to the sheer distinctiveness of Dan Friel’s sound and technique. He fidgets riffs out of his instrument at an alien pace, plastered as they are with effects that wail, howl, churn and screech so violently it’s unclear whether he’s quite in control of his Frankenstein pedal board. With only three members, Upper Wilds manage to resemble an entire robot battalion who are out-rocking a giant end-of-level boss, based on the Greek hound Cerberus, and if you peer closely into its bright fur, those three growling dog heads look eerily like those owned by the ex-members of Hüsker Dü. Ten days after the release of Venus, Friel tweeted that he was "genuinely confused by both the lack of reviews/coverage and the fact that Thrill Jockey only has two copies left," which rather leaves those ludicrous metaphors I’ve just written seem even mooter than usual.

Orchestra Of Constant Distress – Concerns

(Riot Season)

Throughout the years, some pretty ugly material has been put out by the Riot Season label. That Shit And Shine grindcore album, for example, and the post-Butthole Surfers brownness of USA/MEXICO. Even by Riot Season’s standards, the sound made by Orchestra Of Constant Distress is uglier than the inside of our Home Secretary’s soul. The phrase "reluctant improvisation" stands out in the blurb. Their take on noise rock is so repetitive, with so few obvious changes within each punishing piece, it almost feels as though the band hate making this music as much as your parents would hate hearing it. Having said that, it’s remarkably engaging. Perhaps engaging isn’t quite the right word. It’s engaging in the same way you can’t take your eyes (or ears) off the sadistic kidnapper who’s tied you to an uncomfortable plastic chair in the basement and is waving his mallet dangerously close to your nose as he gesticulates with frustrated rage. Maybe this is what Rammstein think they sound like. That could explain a lot. The so-called Orchestra do get a bit action-packed (for them) during ‘Exposure’, at least in terms of the busy rhythmic clattering. Rein it in, lads! Who do you think you are? Black Midi?! ‘Presence’ is much more like it. This fourth track is so slow and deep it’s as if the instruments are trying to down-tune themselves, as the musicians are playing, as some sort of ill-conceived means of escape. The following song is titled, aptly, ‘Unreleased’. There’s another one called ‘Difference’, which isn’t that different from the rest of the LP, although it is likely to be quite different from what most upstanding citizens would consider actual "music". If it is possible to contract a good headache, Concerns will give you one.



ZAHN (full caps, please) are an instrumental unit (yes, let’s use the word "UNIT", such is their heaviness) which features two members of Berlin’s HEADS. (full caps again and even a full-stop for that one, thank you) and Felix Gebhard from Einstürzende Neubauten’s live set-up. The first couple of tracks will remind you that The Jesus Lizard would’ve still been really great even if they didn’t have David Yow hurling himself around at the front, yelling about autoerotic asphyxiation accidents, and pulling his pants down. That’s right, think The Jesus Lizard’s very own vocal-free ‘Tight ‘N Shiny’, and try not to remember what Yow used to do while that track was being performed. (Spoiler alert: he smoked a cigarette, casually, and exposed his balls. Those were different times, weren’t they? These days, you wouldn’t be caught dead smoking onstage. Not unless you’re that bloke from The Murder Capital. Ooh! You’re as hard as Rod Liddle, you are! Really sticking it to the small venue owner who now must pay a hefty fine.) Stay tuned, though, and ZAHN by ZAHN (I guess the full caps provide the shouting that’s lacking on the actual record) has a lot more to offer in the singer-less rock stakes. The sparklier moments might bring to mind the energetic space-rock of Mugstar. ‘Gyhum’ is more abstract: a pleasurable seven-minute rumble, eventually decorated with industrial beats and a wailing sax. The crunching noir-rock of ‘Aykroyd’ is, apparently, not a tribute to the star of Blues Brothers 2000, Pearl Harbor and the under-performing Yogi Bear reboot. Its title is "just a word that looks and sounds cool." Fair enough. A noise-rock version of ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ is the last thing we need.

Obey Cobra – Oblong


Cardiff, hey? What a city. It’s the Earth home to Dr Who (sometimes), James from The Panicked Meat Streakers, the real Captain Morgan who that rum is named after, and Obey Cobra of Oblong fame. "Oblong?", you ask. "What the Dickens is that?" Well, it’s an album, obviously. Not got the hang of this yet? The record in question opens in a pretty epic fashion with the slow, synthy and staggering ‘OK Ultra’. (I would have called that one ‘Ultramega OK’ myself, in full tribute to Soundgarden, but then I am old and daft). ‘Capita’ is a bouncier rocker, based around a nice ‘n’ simple riff, with some excellent shouting and chanting thrown into the mix, and a slight undercurrent of Mr Bungle nightmare big-top music. ‘Sunflowers’ lurches in a darker fashion, perhaps with Lydia Lunch or Come in mind. Other tracks have a greater kosmische feel, and the mood really gets heavy around the track six or seven mark. They even manage to round things off with a pounding electro casserole that sounds as if JG Thirlwell is trying to fuck shizzle up by remixing the track through a broken fax machine’s sense of ennui. Sorry, I don’t know what that last sentence means either. The point is, this lot have a great many strings to their proverbial psych-rock bow. An Oh-bow Cobra, perhaps? My apologies, again.

Electric Wizards: A Tapestry Of Heavy Music, 1968 To The Present will be published by Reaktion Books on September 13. It includes a short section on the way Britpop and nu-metal temporarily ruined everything

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