Sunday, 31 October 2010

TIME FOR SOME COMICS BUZZ

Comics production news may have been awful quiet of late around here, but here's some stuff I added to the new Buzz Comic site. (Courtesy of site admin guru and all-round nice chap Indra Shann.) There’s some old strips and one-pagers, but also sample pages of some stuff in the can – in it’s first public showing! (Panel above by Martin Meeks.)

Progress on ’Plot Thickens’ 4 may be slow – but it is happening!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

MORE GIG-GOING ADVENTURES: DRUM EYES/ MELT-BANANA

Jam, Brighton, 13th October
After missing the start of both Mudhoney and Jonathan Richman, I pointedly arrived unfashionably early to make sure I was there for Drum Eyes in the support slot - having been favourably impressed by them on a previous occasion. Whereupon they pulled the post-punk trick of confounding my expectations with an entirely different set.

Their previous outing had been like the last word in metronomy, a single piece which snaked it’s way along the whole length of their set. With such a large ensemble , it felt like an exercise in getting the maximum number of people to employ the minimum number of notes for the maximum amount of time. Every now and again it would show small signs of breaking away from it’s trance-groove, only to have the drums break in and snap everything back into line like a barking sergeant-major. The entire audience nodded appreciatively along, spellbound, as if in a slo-mo movie.


This time the art-event was replaced by a set, and the ensemble condensed into a five-piece band. A pretty unorthodox band, sporting two drummers, but nevertheless a band. My surprise turned to disconcertion when they opened with a Kraftwerky synth-pop melody. Thankfully a little patience saw them first shred this melody, then bury it under the steamroller of some pounding riffs. (In the parlance of the constabulary, this is a number I now know to be named ‘Future Police’.)

Though formed by local boy DJ Scotch Egg (who normally makes music using the sound chips of old games consoles), it may be more telling that Drum Eyes often feature former Boredoms drummer E-Da. Their sound is closest to the Boredoms’ ‘Super ae’ incarnation, when they were employing extensive amounts of drummers to channel the sound of Neu! as much as humanly possible.

Certainly, they took the Neu! formula of combining ascents with plateaus, where forcefully driving riffs would burst through into serene floaty passages, before abruptly kicking off into yet another ascent. On paper that may seem little more than the beat/trance-out/beat sandwich structure used by every single dance track ever. But the distinctions between the sections is so much greater, and yet the transitions so natural, that the comparison is simply transcended.

There’s of course a big debate about whether bands today can capture anything beyond the form of Krautrock, or whether it’s just a bunch of latecomers hopefully clanging. And of course, it would be absurd to pretend we were in some Free Arts Lab in Seventies West Berlin and The Man was about to be overthrown. But the set had for me the same sense of fearlessness, of heads-down dedication yet also of rule-eviscerating inventiveness, of music being boiled down and remoulded in their hands. Numbers didn’t advance from A to B in neat little diagrams; tracks surged forward, took on lives of their own, merged into one another. Robyn Hitchcock once said the Soft Boys were able to play with all the types of plasticine without them becoming one colour. But the description works better for Drum Eyes.

I was so impressed, I bought the company. (Actually I just bought the CD...)

Alas, neither this gig nor the earlier  ensemble piece seem available on YouTube. Instead here’s something from last year in London...



I have now lost track of the amount of times I’ve seen Melt-Banana. For over a decade, they’ve regularly treated Brighton to one of their maelstrom gigs, and they’ve yet to do any thing less than storm the place.

They perform as if they’re ceaselessly lobbing percussion grenades into the audience, intense bursts of energy compared by their own website to “roller-coaster in amusement park”. Singer Yasuko Onuki twists and convulses, spitting words out in such a staccato, machine-gun style that I only realised she was singing in English by reading about it.

They could perhaps exemplify our title term ‘lucid frenzy’, combining absolute dementia with utter clarity, wildness with focus. Completely disparate elements can be drawn into their orbit and transformed into part of their sound. They stem from the Tokyo noise scene (home of the unadulterated noise-waves of Merzbow), but seem equally influenced by bubblegum pop! The catchiest of melodies can ride their riffs, like a surfer aloft on a wave. There’s a jaw-dropping degree of commitment to their live performances, but also a wry humour and sense of absurdity.

I’ve often thought their trademark to be the ‘short sharp songs’ section, where they rattle through a whole series of numbers which can be as short as seven seconds! I’m still not quite sure whether these are some kind of Dadaist provocative joke or actually the epitome of their sound, which is probably the point in itself. Certainly they aren’t snippets or samples from longer songs, but tracks in miniature – delivered bonsai fashion. Perhaps they’re the other numbers’ future, compressed into neat pellets of energy like pills replacing meals in old SF films. (Certainly, if they are just a joke, they’re one the band take seriously enough to add to their CDs.)

However, over the years it seems their sound has mutated. This night that section was relegated to the encore (explained away by them being “short of time”). Instead the opening, and more free-form power electronics/drums section was extended from the last time I saw them. (Though again lit only by the roving light of the band’s head torches, as if we’re in some primeval cave ritual.) Their most recent, live CD covers only this sound, under the rebranded name of Melt-Banana Lite.

Their performance here doesn’t seem to have made it onto YouTube either, yet for some reason almost all of last year’s gig at the Engine Rooms has! Here’s a highlight from then...


Postscript! I’ve left it too late to properly review this Telescopes gig from Hector’s House, which happened back in mid August. (It was actually frontman Stephen Lawrie playing with the amassed guitars of London space droners One Unique Signal, but why split hairs?) But the blur effect on this video makes such a perfect corollary for their smeary sound that it would be foolish not to pass on...

Friday, 22 October 2010

ARI UP TRIBUTE (aka A VERY BELATED GIG REPORT FROM 2003)

This gig report was included in Ye Olde Print Version of ‘Lucid Frenzy’ back in 2003, after a gig at the Pressure Point that June


Remember that irritating ‘Greatest Brit’ vote the Beeb inflicted upon us a while back? My incensed flatmate was driven to staple a giant sheet to the lounge wall, for us to come up with a contrary list. Trying to lower the tone, I stream-of-consciousnessed up some names, and looked back when I’d finished to find I’d included ‘Ari Up out the Slits’. (Ignoring the fast she’s semi-German, but then so’s the Queen.) I don’t think I’d actually put on a Slits song in years, but I guess stream-of-consciousness naturally takes you to her.

Flash forward a few months, and rumours are circulating town of a reformed Slits gig. Opinion is divided. The news that Ari’ll be the only original member there is enough to swear off some. I’m divided, too. I love the classic Slits, the Slits of those early singles and Peel sessions that seem to come straight from the beating heart of chaos. The journo phrase “reggae influenced” doesn’t cover it. By this time the streets were clogged with clueless white kids fumbling with nicked reggae licks. The Slits, beyond that, took that loopy Lee Perry dub sensibility, where you tear apart a song and re-assemble it into some insane Frankenstein re-order. Only they didn’t accomplish this in post-production, tinkering with controls between spliffs, but made it happen live before a bemused John Peel engineer.

What’s more, they then shoehorned this dub freakery to some pounding glitter-stomp beats, like they were thrashing out the buzzsaw original and conjuring up the barmy dub remix at one and the same time. That sounds impossible. In fact it still sounds impossible even when I’m listening to them doing it. I play my old tapes like a baffled outsider, with no idea how they’re keeping it together, or whether it’s some secret magic only they held or just a happy accident.

By the time it came for them to do proper grown-up albums the spark had, by almost universal agreement, fled. The band split and Ari vanished for Jamaica, where she languished from that day to this. This outcome would suggest the pure accident option to be more likely. Isn’t it a hopeless dream for just one ex-member to recapture what was already lost over two decades ago? But I’m swung when I hear the new band have new material, suggesting at least an attempt at more than a greatest hits package. There’s still trepidation, but I go.

As soon as Ari takes the stage one thing becomes clear – she’s still crazy after all these years. More than common tall, she sports a hat apparently made of knitting balls perched upon her dreads, and dances by rubbing her arse over the other band members like a cat on heat.

It also becomes clear that, despite the audience-luring name on the posters, the band’s really the Ari Up Experience (a phrase she uses) who only sometimes raid the Slits back-catalogue. She’s as devoted as ever to what Marley called the ‘Punky Reggae Party’ (a song she covers), but the intervening years of Jamaican sun ’n’ spliff have tipped her towards the reggae end of things. Some of the angrier Slits covers don’t quite work; songs in her hands have gone from bricks to chuck to lumps of play-dough to mould and reshape.

The nearest sound-bite I could muster for it was ‘Drunken German Countess Fronts Demented Reggae Band for Party Set’. But you probably need game shows, British innuendo and the surrealist politics of desire in there as well. It’s partly great because it’s so funny, but not in a hackeneyed jokes sense. Just to hear her demented whooping and chirruping makes me laugh, just like hearing Captain Beffheart’s voice makes me laugh. ‘Shoplifting’ is no po-faced anarcho-screed about what’s wrong with ‘the system’, but a joyous celebration of all the neat stuff that’s yours once you just slip it in your pocket. 

Songs stretch out and sometimes merge, sometimes crash into each other as she swaps everything around and launches into yet another rant or anecdote without warning the band first. Someone shouts for ’Typical Girls’, but she’s forgotten how it goes.

People keep getting pulled on stage. Some are pre-arranged guest slots. Others seem to be old friends who get dragged up anyway. (One ex-Slit original has to be dragged and carried up.) More just get dragged on for the sheer sake of it. Those too drunk to dodge it find themselves forced into doing backing vocals for some song they never heard, or subject to some totally tangential line of interrogation.

In short, it’s impossible to work out what’s been planned and what just happens to be happening. Events constantly teeter over some abyss but, just like the old days, somehow stay focused. She’s like the eye of the hurricane, forever stirring up more chaos only to alchemically transform it into something. She seems to need the chaos, like a sculptor perpetually needs more clay. It’s like her mind’s working twice as fast as ours, and in twenty different directions. As soon as things are working smoothly, she needs to throw in another wild card just to keep herself interested.

At one point she rails against “tourist punks” who “didn’t get the point”. “Bring back anarchy in music!” someone shouts into the mike in response. (She’s been passing mikes about again.) The problem for the management is more getting rid of it, however. They finally succeed only by turning all the house lights on.

My toes curl to think of it now, but in my badge-wearing anarcho-fixated youth I thought of chaos as a bad word. Chaos was not what we were about. Now I see it as just another word for creativity, only shorter.

Her powerful yet self-depreciating personality is the show, good as the music is it’s just a launch-pad to get her going. She’s the strongest character I’ve stood before since Patti Smith last year. Though like Patti, and unlike Rotten or Iggy or even Mark E Smith, she’s never turned her personality into an asset, never caricatured herself. Her sheer lack of fear in continually pushing things and just trusting to fortune is compelling and intimidating at the same time.

Where from here? A clue lies in her frequent heartfelt pleas to interest us in the merchandise stall, as “we’re really skint right now”. Park punk legend, part Big Issue seller. T-shirt sales made here presumably count for more once you’re back in Jamaica. My guess is when she’s toured enough for the next few years worth of ganja and sarnies at Kingston prices she’ll disappear back again. And then when that runs out she’ll be back in the Pressure Point, crowned by knitting balls, funking geriatrically like nothing’s happened inbetween. Greatest living Brit? Pretty damn close!

...actually, from the obits, she only spent part of her post-Slits time in Jamaica. (Among other destinations, she lived among the tribal folks of Belize.) This clip’s from the Concorde show a year ago, which I couldn’t make. Despite the presence of original Slits bass player Tessa Pollitt, I’m not sure it rivals the earlier Pressure Point performance. But I still wish I could have been there...

"SHE ATE LIFE UP AND SHE SPIT IT OUT" RIP ARI UP




Truly one of the greats.
"She ate life up and spit it out" said her manager Jeff Jacquin.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

NOT THE LAST WORD AT ALL ABOUT THAT 'BLOOD OF A POET' BUSINESS

“Its exegeses were innumerable. If I were questioned about any one of them, I would have trouble in answering. My relationship with the work was like that of a cabinetmaker who puts together the pieces of a table whom the spiritualists, who make the table move, consult.”

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

STEVE SEVERIN’S LIVE SOUNDTRACK TO ‘BLOOD OF A POET’ (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES OF A SORT...)


Duke of York’s Cinema, Brighton, 17th October

Since Siouxsie and the Banshees disbanded in ’96, founder member Steve Severin has carved out something of a career for himself as a soundtrack artist. This was but one of many things in life which passed me by, until he came to Brighton to provide a live soundtrack to one of my favourite films - Jean Cocteau’s ‘Blood of a Poet’.

As were many, I was a big fan of the Banshees back in the day. But of course it’s cool (and probably truer to their spirit) for Severin to be doing something new and different, and not playing ’Hong Kong Gardens’ to the nostalgia circuit. So you’re better off forgetting all you’ve heard before and listening afresh to what’s happening now. And yet the promise of the name can’t be banished, it continues to stir up expectations. You may want to hold that thought while reading the rest of this review...

I did at times wonder if the piece was devised as a kind of musical sweet and sour, alternating between rolling synth washes and outbreaks of industrial clatter. Yet this would suggest that the film somehow swaps between dream and nightmare sections, while the whole point to me is that it’s some unnerving combination of the two.

Cocteau is often depicted as the dreamer against Bunel’s nightmare visions, the Jung to his Freud, but this debut film is actually astonishingly savage. (The ‘flying child’ sequence alone is enough to give me the heebie jeebies!) It’s all about artists being compelled to create works which then entrap them, like devil imps. Or how love for the other is but a sublimated eroticised death wish... truth to tell, I’ve no real idea what it’s about, but of course that’s all part of its compelling quality!

Ultimately the soundtrack didn’t really capture the film I was watching. It was all perfectly serviceable. But is serviceable enough for such a film? Don’t we need something mad or else the soundtrack will simply act as the straight man?

Like lot of live soundtracks, I also found it lacked silence. It’s like the way workmen will always act busy when the boss shows up, put a musician before a live audience and they want to be seen to be doing stuff all the time. Yet a great artist knows the value of not doing something. In Georges Auric's original score, the scene where the Poet falls through the mirror into endless blackness is kept eerily silent. Any sound simply stains the impact of such as scene!


I may perhaps be skeptical about the use of electronics at all. Cocteau used the bare rudiments of film, but grasped them with such deranged determination that he shook life into them. Perhaps the ideal soundtrack would be similarly rudimentary, music concrete or something utilizing the simplest of music room instruments – recorders and triangles bent into something sinister.

Of course, with a film that so determinedly defies interpretation, you could have a dozen wildly different soundtracks and none of them be ‘wrong’. But the ideal accompaniment for me might come from the sadistic tape loops of Nurse With Wound. Or, were they not so all-fired English, the pared-down, cut-up menacing whimsy of Volcano the Bear.



Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...

Sunday, 10 October 2010

GIG-GOING ADVENTURES: BLACK MOUNTAIN & MUDHONEY



BLACK MOUNTAIN
Brighton Concorde, 8/9/10

“Another one like that one!”

Sometimes a heckler sums up a night. It was like this Vancouver-based five-piece had planned to serve up retro country rock, till you thought that was the only dish on the menu, then every so often throw in something different. (Such as a morse code guitar line like something from the Ex.)

...but alas the somethings different never really gelled into a permanent presence. The dominant sound was somewhere between the Band and a more countrified Deep Purple, with swirling organs and (at times) the howling vocals. You could say they were never doing it less than well. But this particular ‘it’ is something we’ve heard an awful lot of, by this point in history. Despite the high points, as the set ended in... yes, really... a long-winded rock-out, I was ready for the exit before the end.

The staging perhaps didn’t help, with the backlit band appearing almost as silhouettes. I once saw Tricky backlit only in red, an unnerving device which fitted the edginess of the music. Here it just created a distancing effect, surely the very thing great rock music cuts against. (Nor would this seem to have been an accidental effect, as reviews of other nights have reported similarly.)

This shouldn’t be taken as an anti-rock statement, for I’ve been through all that post-punk anti-rockism. (Which was, after all, a historical movement not some kind of universalist statement. It was designed to jettison baggage so should never become baggage in its own right.) Since then, if anything, I’ve become quite attracted to rock music all over again, with its promise of unhinged abandon at such a remove from the dominant mores of post-modernist ‘irony’. Going back to rock music is cool. But you’ve surely got to reinvent it for your own era, not just reproduce it, not just try to recreate the Seventies note for note.


Then, a little less than a month later, in the same venue we had...


MUDHONEY
Brighton Concorde, 5/10/10

Ask most people about grunge, and the default name will be Nirvana. Yet ask any grunge fan and they’ll tell you it was Mudhoney who set the scene. Nirvana merely slipped out of grunge, just as things were getting underway, to eclipse their shadow. They bore the same relationship to Nirvana as Burning Spear did to Bob Marley, one bringing it to the masses but in a poppified form, the other sticking firmly to the roots.

And grunge had a peculiar relationship to rock music which made those roots matter. Coming after post-punk and hardcore, its raison d’etre was virtually to reintergrate rock music into punk. After years of pretence, suddenly it was okay again to admit you liked the Stones or Led Zeppelin.

But it did this in a particular way. Grunge saw rock music as something that had become adulterated. So it acted like a sluice gate, separating the clean, pure water from that nasty, smelly, black viscous stuff. Then, with impeccable logic, it kept the black stuff and slung the water out. Grunge took rock back to its gutter-level roots. It wasn’t music you could play to your music tutor and claim it could improve or elevate you. It gloried in sounding skuzzy, nasty and fucked up. Not for no reason was Mudhoney’s first single called ‘Touch Me I’m Sick,’ a chorus-line delivered like a rallying call.

But of course what you really want to know is it worth seeing four middle-aged white guys now, more than a decade after their formation and well past grunge’s heyday? Isn’t that dragging out your old flannel shirt, just like the gonzo punks do with their studded jackets?

In fact, by some transformative magic, everything that should work against the band ends up going for them. At the point where most bands have tired of their hits, and serve up desultory versions so they can get to new stuff no-one actually wants to hear, Mudhoney remain a live act of incessant force. The time they’ve been together is just time they’ve had to get good at this, putting more killer tracks at their disposal. The set has an incessant force, pausing only for the briefest of mumbles to the audience before leaping into the next number.

Alongside all the rock stuff, Mudhoney’s main punk influence must be the Stooges. Their success is their ability to convey that angsty, fucked-up feeling most of us know so well. (With just enough black humour and self-parody to carry it, the honey lacing the mud.) It’s a feeling that seems to lend itself most to musical expression, to distorted guitars, furious drums and slurred, bellowed vocals. I’ve no idea whether that’s a universal rule or just a generational thing. Perhaps kids these days get it all out through those computer games, and their grime nights are just places to hang out. But Mudhoney still do it for me...


Coming Soon! Further gig-going adventures...