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Sunday, 10 December 2017

Flying Saucer Attack - 'Futher' (Drag City)

Right about now feels like the time that Dave Pearce's music is due for a comeback, not that he ever went away, or became unfashionable. He just became less prolific, and seems a million miles away from any sort of music scene politics these days, still making music how he wants and releasing it now and then (the last being the Instrumentals 2015 record which I have not heard yet). I remember reading about Flying Saucer Attack in zines and other pre-Internet media in the early 90s; reading one particular publication, the name of which I can't remember, it seemed (to me) that FSA were aggressive sci-fi space-rock, as they were reviewed alongside more punk-orientated material. My teenage mind couldn't handle that type of diversity yet, because when I finally got around to hearing them (these were the days where one had to struggle to actually hear the things one read about, especially on a high schoolers budget) I was disappointed; it sounded too abstract, too empty to me. Of course that changed later on, once I started to investigate minimalism and drone, and to make my own music which wasn't a million miles away form this sound. Further is probably now the record of theirs I appreciate the most, as it feels like the best balance between all of FSA's various tendencies (folk song vs drone piece, harmony vs dissonance, lo-fi vs hi-fi). Owning it on CD gives it a glassy shimmer, and on a track like 'For Silence', which moves between all of these tendencies, I can only imagine how it must sound coming from vinyl's dynamic range. Acoustic guitars are dominant, and there's quite a lot of arpeggiated picking, making this more obviously folk-based than I was ready for as a teenager. Listening now, I can really hear the saturation in British traditional music, even if 'To The Shore' sounds more like Labradford than Shirley Collins. This reinvention of British folk form was something else totally lost on me not just as a youngster, but later when I discovered and really fell in love with FSA; it's only now that I really feel this is truly the next step in a lineage. Rachel from (the wonderful) Movietone was still a core part of the band here and her voice on 'Still Point' creates a spooky ambience that most directly recalls the strong tonality of the British female voice; that the song is drenched in delay and reverb doesn't inhibit this comparison, but if anything amplifies it. This is music that can be taken in peripherally, as a semi-ambient bouquet of suggestions, or full-on direct into the centre of one's skull. 'In the Light of Time' and 'She is the Daylight' function perhaps as the two anchors of this record, both built around Pearce's earnest voice, over delayed arpeggios, the mildest percussive elements (just tapping the guitar body, I think) and then the bright light tones that drift overtop, like the album artwork rendered into sound. This music has aged very, very well, and the close connection I feel to my physical body when listening to it separates it from that which is based in trends or the cultural context of the time. It's easy to lose oneself in this record, and somehow it feels short even though it's 'proper album length'. 

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Flop - 'World of Today' (Frontier)

And here the Flop story ends, and it couldn't happen in a more beautiful and fiercely contemplative manner. Actually, if we're talking pure aesthetics of sound, World of Today only slightly pulls back the big, loud hard rock sound of Whenever You're Ready; the grandiose, stadium rock riffage is still here, recorded like a brisk autumn wind, and on this November morning I couldn't think of a more suitable record to listen to while watching the grey sky slowly brighten. World of Today was released after the band broke up, back on the Frontier label, and is a rare album that I prefer to have on CD than vinyl, since it was squeezed onto a white 10" that is mastered terribly. Maybe someday it will get repressed with the extra 2"s that it deserves, but I'm going to have a slow campaign of winning over fans to Team Flop until then, to build the potential market. Oh, capitalism - if there was justice in the world, then every man, woman and child on earth would receive a 12" 180g vinyl pressing of World of Today in their postboxes tomorrow, and together we could start to understand the frustrations and resentments of mankind, collectively. Because this is an album that is very much about the torment of the individual, struggling to acclimate through schooling ('North Mason Middle School'), child-parent relationships ('Eggs and Ash'), post-adolescence ('Of Today'), childbearing ('April Ate Our World'), labour (the brilliantly existential closing cut, 'Two Martians Working', as perfect a coda as could be) and escapism ('Waste of Space'). If this sounds like a bumpy journey, well it's true that World of Today is less accessible than And the Fall of the Mopsqueezer. The only single was the opening cut, 'Act 1, Scene 1' which is a dark, existential rumination on the corporeality of being, and sets the tone for what is to come. There's unmistakeable darkness throughout this record, and you can hear it in Willoughby's voice - it's hitting a slightly higher register, and there's none of the exuberance heard before on songs such as 'The Great Valediction'. That's not to say he underperforms here - in fact, there's still an enthusiasm and joy for music, and exhibit A of that would be the cover of 'Yellow Rainbow' by the Move. This is a remarkable rendering of an already remarkable song, and the 60s acid imagery of the original takes on a malevolent tone with mid 90s guitar production behind it,  and in the context of the rest of this album. Yet throughout, the essential fairytale nature of the song is never lost as Willoughby sings with almost reckless abandon. If I'm making this out to be a dour, miserable trip, then I'm doing a bad job of conveying the pure joy (no pun intended) of World of Today, at least as a listener. The catchy hooks and musicianship are more integrated than ever before, and you get delicate guitar jangle ('Eggs and Ash' is a beauty to listen to with Kurt Bloch's production) and shifting time signatures ('Of Today'), as well as some of the most earworm-forming (albeit dark) lyrics imaginable. Imagine a fifteen year old version of me singing 'You'll get more disillusioned with age ... you wait!' alone in my bedroom. (In case you're wondering, he was right, I did. We all do, which is one of the lessons of World of Today). This record represents the peak of Willoughby's songwriting in Flop, and some of the most personal moments that I've discerned from his work.  Hell, it represents the peak of songwriting in general, from just about anyone. It's hard to pick a single highlight but maybe it's the penultimate track, 'Miniaturize', which begins with a masterfully epic jangly buildup before it's autobiographical raison d'être is delivered with such mastery that I wish stadiums and arenas were filled with thousands singing along: 'Solemn as a child / in stoic reticence'. The melodic high point may be the back-to-back punch of 'Around' and 'We've All Seen Better Days', the latter being one of the moments of relief and empathy that comes here. I  can only wonder about the residue of failed relationships here, as well as a general questioning of one's purpose in life. That this came out of the Sony-catalysed bad juju makes sense, and if it's a band falling apart then it's channeled through one man questioning everything. I meant to post this a few days ago but once I started listening to it I kept listening to it over and over, so I've listened to this about ten times in the past week and just want more, and I've been listening to it consistently since 1995. I've never met another Flop fan in person, and only a few people who remember them at all; certainly no one whose life was so affected by this record as a teenager. I realise that there's a lot of great records that had I invested my formative years into them might have impacted me as much as this one, but I'm glad I ended up with this one being so important.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Flop - 'Whenever You're Ready' (Sony 550/Frontier)

Are you ready for a hot take? Here goes: Rusty Willoughby is one of the greatest unheralded songwriters currently alive, and his best work stands up against the best work by Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Roy Harper or anyone else you might want to put in that canon. And that best work, for me, falls squarely within the boundaries of the three albums recorded by Flop in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately I only have And the Fall of the Mopsqueezer on cassette, which lies outside of the purview of this blogging project, so we must start here with their major label debut-swansong, Whenever You're Ready. The story of Flop, whenever it is written, which is rarely, is always the same - being from Seattle, they got signed to a major label in another case of right-place-right-time syndrome, this being one of the more crippling examples. They recorded this stunner of a second album for Sony, but because the major majorly fucked them around w/r/t promotion and marketing and general support (Steve Albini is always right!), the band collapsed in a mess of bad vibes and their third album, originally meant for Sony, went back to their first label, Frontier. We'll get there soon enough – oh, hooray for it being Flop Day on this blog! Willoughby's previous and future band was Pure Joy, who are also great, and fell somewhere in-between the Paisley Underground sound of Rain Parade/Game Theory and the crunchier melodic punk of Fastbacks (for whom he briefly played drums). For Flop, he brought in Bill Campbell on second guitar and the sound thickened immediately, especially on this record - er, sorry, CD. Campbell's guitar lines do a lot of chugga-chugga and pickslides and things that you hear on metal records, though it's not metal in the slightest; but it's hardly soft rock either, despite the acoustics of 'Parts I & II' or the psychedelic residue throughout. Generally, the production here is thick and booming, which is evident from the kicking drums on the opening 0:01 of the disc; one would situate this closer to the 'hard rock' genre than pop-punk were it not for Willoughby's angelic, soaring voice and the incredible hooks in his songs. Instead, Flop ends up in a maligned liminal zone which was doomed, even for the time; too heavy for radio play, too brainy for the heavy scene. But the songs are sophisticated, sometimes beyond belief;  that opening cut ('A. Wylie') is about An Unsocial Socialist by George Bernard Shaw, so that indicates from the get-go that this is a far cry from whatever Mudhoney and Tad were writing about at this time. Second cut 'Regrets' mixes beautiful poetics ('And the leaves are convalescing / the sun is warming the baby seed') with verses of urban alienation over palm-muted heavy rhythm guitar. Willoughby's lyrics often implicate scientific/medical imagery (though more so on the later Pure Joy recordings) and mix in just enough pop culture references to conjure songworlds that are relatable while just ambiguous enough to create intrigue. A cursory listen may suggest this is merely a competent punk-pop album, a product of its time, but it's so much more. And maybe the competing tendencies of Willoughby and Campbell make the music so much more interesting; the sinewy guitar lead underneath the driving speed of 'Eat' gives it a catchy, clear direction; the production of 'A Fixed Point' makes it sound like if 'The Ballad of John and Yoko' needed its batteries changed; the back-to-back punch of 'Night of the Hunter' and 'Port Angeles' is an experience of pop perfection. The former has some of the most clever and quotable lyrics of Willoughby's career ('Solvents, glue and heroin/ she said "I don't want to do that at all" - and it's a song about the Robert Mitchum movie through and through!) and the latter explodes family tension with religious imagery. Legendary UK producer Martin Rushent engineered this and for me, as a 15 year old, I didn't initially glom onto Whenever You're Ready as quickly as the other two records, maybe because the production felt so heavy. But now I can't imagine this any other way. There's hardly anyone around who remembers Flop and probably even less as passionate about them as I am, but I urge you to investigate these three records, because for over 20 years they've been  endlessly rewarding and get better with age. The same can't really be said for the weirdly retro artwork, though again, I can't imagine this record looking any different by this point in my life - a life that has been mostly lived with Flop as some part of it.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Faust - 'Rien' (Table of the Elements)

Table of the Elements – now that's a great label, one that managed to make the compact disc form beautiful and desirable, while emphasising an axis of musical experimentation that embraced the past and present. And what could be a better fit for that aesthetic than Rien, the 1994 'comeback' album from Faust, or at least two of the members. This is a fucking impressive collection of dark juju improvisations, with a few guests (Michael Morley, Keiji Haino, and Steven Wray Lobdell so that's an impressive mix of guitar gods, too) and a thick, spacious roar that burns throughout (even during the quiet parts). While the classic Faust albums all had some sort of songforms present here and there, this abandons that in favour of pure horizontal sound painting. This rages with a focused intensity, hardly the sound of nothing as the title indicates, and it moves in often spellbinding ways. This is still, at times, rock music; the long jam whose title is just symbols is built around a pounding drumbeat and has some vocals, chanting 'listen to the fishes' (which makes sense given the symbols); it's the most Faustesque track, the link to the 70s, as there's that ragged kosmische structure that provides a basis for mega-psychedelic layers on top. The last few minutes gel into a high-level drone piece, where the industrial basis emerges; losing oneself in this is a quarter-hour well-spent. There's a heavy sense of dynamics throughout Rien; 'Eroberung Der Stille, Teil II' spends its first half building up around layers of metallic scraping, until the bottom suddenly drops out and allows space for a new, nocturnal malevolence to emerge, with a guitar/theremin interplay that screams for understanding but offers none. The second track, '?', likewise drops to nothing near the end and with a sudden straining to make out detail, attains transcendence. Closer 'Eroberung Der Stille, Teil I' builds a foundation before turning, as if to look at adjacent scenery, and finding a conclusion in some neoclassical strings, melodic yet uneasy. Rien may or may not be classic Faust – I'm not sure how to grasp the lineage of the band, since the original was a market-based assemblage by a marionette-pulling producer, and was always implied to be a freeform collective anyway – but it's a fantastic accomplishment, a very different flavour to the 1970s records but as rewarding. There's still the same sense of the studio as instrument here, which maybe is thanks to Jim O'Rourke's production; it's hard to know what he contributed and what was the vision of the musicians, but a perfect balance is felt between live instrumentation and creative editing. The bilingual, spoken credits at the end remind me of old Robert Altman films, and that's sort of controlled chaos is a nice metaphor for Faust's greatest work, which this definitely ranks up there with.

Faust - 'Seventy One Minutes Of...' (ReR)

Usually if the duration is in the title, I find the task of listening daunting. Maybe that's the reason I never gelled with Seventy One Minutes Of Faust, which is really a combination of their last LP Munich & Elsewhere with some 70s-recorded miscellany, released much later. This hodgepodge lack of cohesion is also part of the problem - even though there's some great, zany art rockin' at play here (the blown out "Baby', or 'Don't Take Roots'), it's certainly not a coherent, self-standing statement like So Far or IV. And the presentation is murky and confusing - the titles are even hard to read on the back of the CD, the artwork rote and uninspiring. It feels a bit like the Faust version of Incesticide, scraping the barrel for completists, at least before their 90s reunion and subsequent split into two competing strains of Faust. Listening today, it's a lot better than I remembered it being, though there's no classic cuts, and the fact that there are seven tracks named 'Party' makes it hard for any to be memorable. These 'Party' tracks are actually the stronger material, though I'm not sure how many of them were intended for release; the fidelity is very crisp (the electronics on 'Party 1' float above the gurgling improv swamp, sounding like something from a more contemporary electronica-indie scene) and they just feel a bit jammy, even for Faust. There's some alternate versions of known Faust commodities; the first 'Party' is a slower take on the song from the beginning of Tapes, with a really nice layer of spacey guitar that brings this into Cosmic Jokers territory. 'Party 5' sounds like British art-rock, maybe some post-Art Bears RIO band. The closer, 'Party 4', includes everything and the kitchen sink (and lots of babbling in English and German). Despite how satisfying most of these tracks are if taken individually, it somehow doesn't add up to feel like much. Yet this stays on the shelf, and will be upgraded to a vinyl edition if one comes by, because, well... you never know.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Fathmount - '6-string Renderings' (New American Folk Hero)

I still have a CD player! It's just that, see, I moved, and when I got to my new place my CD collection sat in boxes in the closet for a few months until I finally constructed some sort of shelf for them. And now they sit here again, but are flanked by a bunch of things in front of the shelves, which is the nice bonus that I don't have to look at them (cause who wants to look at CD spines in 2015, amirite?) but also means I often forget I have them, and thus this Elbow Cinderblock Glass Mastered Constructor Bags universe I've been chipping away at over the years gets neglected. Picking up where we left off, we being me of course, I/us find this jewelcased CDr by Fathmount, who is apparently someone named Wilson Lee. I found this out with Google, see, which has little else to say about Fathmount. But the title give you a hint of what's inside; it's electroacoustic improvisation, built around hammered string, and recorded in a close-mic'd manner for some high spritzy parts and in an ambient room vibe for the deep lows and low-mids. The five tracks all have names like 'Rendering acoustics' and 'Rendering Feedbacks', and the tendency is towards the building of a personal soundworld rather than any flashy showoff guitar techniques or clever editing. 'Rendering Acoustics' has very irritating interruptions in the vibe, some cheap DOD-fuzz, and a plodding monotony that, despite the language I used in this very sentence, is pretty great. 'Rendering Feedbacks' is a dense wall of electroacoustic buzz, with some screaming electronics (or, I guess, feedbacks) gesturing towards an overcast night sky. It's a bit of Birchville Cat Hostel. 'Rendering Pitches' has a staticky assonance around its various tones, and then 'Rendering Layers' comes crashing in like a teenage fuzz guitar symphony - it's a series of power chords played with 4-track line-in majesty, and it could be a demo from the grunge years, eventually attaining a buildup of overtones and making it resemble a minimalist composition. The closer, 'Render harmonics', is pretty much what it says; it's not completely clear what the difference is between 'rendering' music and simply 'playing' it, but the overintellectualisation of Fathmount really ends there. The harmonics are nice and irregularly spaced, making this feel akin to a pastoral, environmental experience as opposed to some rigid, mathematical exercise. Most of the pieces on this disc outstay their welcome, and there was such a glut of string-based electroacoustic drone people from this time people that it's hard to make this really stand out. But it's relatively controlled, and makes nice work with the amateurish home-recording tools that were so commonplace.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Zusaan Kali Fasteau & Donald Rafael Garrett ‎– 'Memoirs Of A Dream' (Flying Note)

You can count me among the fans of the Sea Ensemble's 1974 ESP-Disk album We Move Together; it's one of the less heralded ESP titles, coming so late, and maybe due to it not really fitting into any prevailing jazz scene at the time. Don Garrett is one of those figures who was integral to the 1960's free jazz movement without being recorded that many times. He played on Coltrane's Kulu Sé Mama and in the Archie Shepp band for a bit, and was generally described as being an energetic, visionary figure who knew and worked with just about everybody, without ever carving out much of a name for himself as a band leader or soloist. His long-term relationship with Kali Fasteau (they were married during the 70s) led to the Sea Ensemble, a duo group that somehow sounds like so much more. I came across this double CD at some point in my exploratory jazz phase and often throw it on when I want to escape into the fluid movement of wind. These are two live concerts, and they are flowing, evocative improvisations. The first disc is live in Leiden, 1975, and in two 15-minute tracks they start a whirling ball of organic sounds rolling that never really stops, though it has its ebbs and flows. It finally comes to a gentle, slow resolution where the air, channeled by these two, finds a resting place. The second disc is live in Turkey, 1977, towards the end of their relationship. This is divided into twelve tracks, all untitled, and has a less crisp, more woody fidelity. They start by speaking an introduction with some abstract language and then blow through some intense interactions. There is a lot of piano and upright bass, as well as the wind instruments heard so prominently on the first disc. The fidelity makes it sound a bit like a recording from the 1920's or at least the pre-modern times; this gives it even more of an otherworldly feel than the instrumentation does. There's a good bit of vocals here, sprinkled overtop like a spice, and the two get into a push-pull thing sometimes, particularly when both on wind instruments (I can't always tell what's what; some of the flute-like sounds feel too wooden in origin to be a proper flute, but then not quite a shakuhachi sound either). When it gets more of an edge (the double-bass bowing is warm and wet, but there's a more sharp, grating bowed instrument later on that when plucked sounds like a sitar or something Indian), it stands out from the other tracks. This musical freedom, where a jazz basis is synthesised with the pulse of worldwide traditional music, feels more like a way of life than a genre. Though many of my favourite 'jazz' artists trend towards this type of output (Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, etc.), they're really outliers when compared to the standard jazz narrative, of Wynton Marsalis and Lincoln Centre and public radio and all that shit. Maybe this is just a bunch of hippie shit, but these artists found their path and stayed committed and true, and you can hear it between the notes and spaces of the recordings. The passion here is expressive, but it's as much about the overall artistic vision (visually, as well as in the way they lived) as it is about the sounds themselves. I find inspiration here more from that aspect than from the actual recordings, because as pleasurable and psychedelic as it can be to be carried on Fasteau and Garrett's flying carpets, it's more of a call to arms, to get off this laptop and pick up my busted-ass clarinet and start exploring my own outer spheres. That's not to diminish how great this is - it's an hour and a half well-spent, alive and breathing.