The Haunt, Brighton, Mon 3rd June
Now, in a change of pace, let's look at a longstanding cult band I don't know very well...
The Meat Puppets are now chiefly rememered from the main duo, brothers Cris and Curt Kirwood, contributing to Nirvana's unplugged session. (Perhaps inevitably, Nirvana seemed the more common name on the pre-set audience's mind.) But post-punk chronicler Simon Reynolds cites them as an example (indeed as his favourite example) of a band who were first inspired by punk, but later found they had to escape hardcore's constraints. (They were signed to SST, the label which more than anyone defined hardcore's sound then spent the next few years getting the hell away from it.) What they did next Reynolds calls a “throwback to psychedelia”; he depicts them almost like latter-day Jim Morrisons, soaking up drug-induced visions from the desert.
Since then various members have fought drug problems and done jail time; at last count they've split and reformed twice. Back together since '06 they're now the Kirkwood brothers, Curt's son Elmo on guitar and non-original but repeat member drummer Shandon Sahmn.
The first half of the set is given over to hard-hitting country rock, the stuff which sometimes got dubbed cowpunk. It's a pretty virtuous combination. They play with hardcore's energy but with country's rootedness and scope. Then gradually more free-form instrumentals start to seep in, the three guitarists sometimes forming a circle to better capture the harmonics, microphones forgotten. I'm not sure any of it sounds psychedelic exactly, but it can get pretty out-there. At one point Curt grabs and pulls at his strings rather than play them.
But best of all those points never seem like breaks. It's unlike the noise rock sound of Sonic Youth or Big Black, an urban scene which was also urbane. Even with Neil Young (who they in some ways resemble) there's a feeling of instrumental sections being inserted into previously existing songs. Here they seem to spring from the music quite organically. It all stays rooted, even as it shoots off into outer space.
And the band come over pretty much like that in personality. The brothers look so much like mechanics from some backwater gas station I wondered if there'd been some wires-crossed booking, and there were simultaneously some guys in leather trousers and poodle perms hopelessly staring at a pickup engine out in Arizona. They have the same blue-collar, getting-the-job-done attitude as the Melvins. (Perhaps they talk to us slightly more. But then the Melvins didn't talk to the audience at all...)
For a band that's been around so long, they seemed to attract a suprisingly young audience. Who seemed to soak up the spacier stuff, if not the slower moments.
VIV ALBERTINE GROUP
Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Sat 8th June
As you know already so I don't know why I'm bothering to tell you, Viv Albertine was the guitarist in the seminal all-girl punk band The Slits. (A band much beloved here at Lucid Frenzy.) Recently, after years working as a TV director, she re-started her music career.
She refuses use of a (very Spinal Tap-like) dry ice machine by explaining they're “an edgy band”. She's kidding, but it's not such a bad description. They're based in the spiky sound of those post-punk days. Imagine pop songs as pop drinks, only laced with something more chemical. But perhaps the coolest thing is the lack of any Slits shadow over them. (There's not a single cover version, nor any dub influence. About the only connection is the female genitalia reference in the acronym.)
There's another point where, introducing the song 'Needles', she tells us she once claimed it was about heroin but had to come clean and admit it was really UVF. As I've said many times before, life is too short to spend it trying to recapture your youth. Singing about what's current in your life, but based on what you've done before, seems a better way to go.
In which case I should probably prefer Viv's approach to the time Ari Up reformed the Slits. But while what she's doing is certainly braver, and this is certainly a better set than their last time in Brighton (when about half the gig felt like warm-up), I'm not quite sure I could say that. It's good stuff, it's very good stuff and I might well see her again. Perhaps it is simply the wrong idea to compare the two, and you should love each for its unique features. But Ari seemed able to retain more of the reckless, barely-in-control spirit of old.
'I Don't Believe In Love' from London...
THE BLACK ANGELS
Next up, a psychedelic band from Austin, Texas. Home, of course, to so much vintage psychedelia back in the day. And at times they seem to draw from that heritage. (They have for example, played with Roky Erickson of the Elevators.) But it's a particular well they're drawing from. They do have occasional forays into the world of retro-Sixtiesism, with swirling organ sounds and the odd shaken tambourine. At times there's even a discernible surf element, though who knows how far the nearest beach would be from Austin.
But mostly I am pleased to report they choose to sup from the poisoned well, conjouring Altamont more than Woodstock. (The clip below is called 'Bad Vibrations', which gives you a pretty good clue what they're up to.) Eerily underlit, like schookids telling ghost stories, they serve up lumbering riffs with twangy guitar overlays. A general mood of ominousness can break out into shitstorms of noise. Those riffs even suggest at a Fifties influence, the ghosts of Link Wray and Duane Eddy.
They wait for the encore before filling it with the longest and most involved track of the night; starting with just organ and vocals, then gradually ratcheting up into sheer white noise terror.
They certainly seem popular. The venue was rammed, the fullest of any of my recent visits. And everyone except me seemed to know each track as soon as it started up. I'd be tempted to call them "very good indeed", but that might be insufficiently Americanised. So instead I'll say they're "like totally awsome, bro".
In truth, the only thing I can really find to criticise is their name. Admittedly it's fitting and it's based not only on a Velvets song but one of my favourite ones. And Nico makes for a cool icon on their logo. But there's the rub! This growing tendency to name your band after a track by an existing band can feel like duplication. It's like those “then try this” sections on internet shopping sites, it's the re-enactment attitude to music that reaches it's nadir in Oasis' smudged photofit of the Beatles and Stones.
The irony being that, while they are perhaps one of the more openly influenced bands of my recent gig-going, Black Angels certainly aren't mere copyists and shouldn't be named as though they are. More soon! But better-named more.
Not from Brighton but London.
And if you like that you may like this – a full set from Rockpalast. Haven't got round to watching all of this myself yet to be honest. Let me know if it's any good, would you?
MISSION OF BURMA
The Haunt, Brighton, 1st July
“We're a band that takes a while to get going”, explains drummer Peter Prescott during a break. He leaves a pause before finishing the gag. “Like about thirty years.”
The jury' still out on how much he was joking. This Boston-based post-punk band had an all-too-brief heyday, producing one classic full-length album ('Vs' in '82), before splitting and being reconciled with... you guessed it... cult status.
True, they had a better excuse to bow out than most. Guitarist Roger Miller suffered increasingly from Tinnitis, a condition little accommodated by their characteristic blistering volume. (YouTube footage of later gigs show him resorting to rifle-range noise-cancelling headphones.) Pretty soon he had no choice but to go off and do something less noisy instead. Tonight he seems chiefly protected by a thicket of hair which, combined with the gap of time, leaves him almost unrecognisable.
From the days of Lennon and McCartney, classic bands are often powered by the creative frisson of two opposite but complementary creators. Bassist Clint Conley's songs tended to the doomy cool and anthemic thunder of the era, an East Coaster with ears out to England. While Miller's contributions tended more towards shredded noise. They marked the era when sonic assault and musical experimentalism seemed almost comrades in arms, and were part of the direction Fugazi, Sonic Youth and Big Black would take music. (There's Burma tracks which sound almost like Fugazi, years before Fugazi existed.)
Except with Mission of Burma there was in quite a literal sense an extra dimension. If George Martin could be claimed as the fifth Beatle, there is a far more clear-cut case for the fourth Mission member. Martin Swope would tape their live gigs, manipulate the sound and then feed it back even as they continued playing. Tonight, and since their '02 reunion, he's replaced by their only non-original member – Bob Weston. (Who charmingly if eccentrically still insists on using the loops and effects technology from the period.) Prescott has commented “we wanted to play this hammer-down drony noise stuff, but we also wanted another sound in there.”
Their single 'Trem Two'(above) pictured each band member, but superimposed over one another. And a better visual metaphor for the sound couldn't be found. Think not so much of 3D films as they are but as they're marketed. The music is loud and upfront, with plenty of attack to it. But it also has a kind of waterline behind that, beneath which lurk murky sonic depths, only half discernible.
The tape effects are particularly haunting when vocals are fed back while no-one's actually singing. But perhaps they become most evident at the end of the main set. In the traditional manner of the era, guitars were left against amps to create a howlaround. Except this was then taken up and treated. It was less a tape effects solo, more a mini noise symphony.
You may well be waiting to find what ignorant of this time round. Well I'd have to admit to being woefully unfamiliar with their post-reunion recordings. Yet I'm still kind of glad these dominated the set, even if they elbowed out some of my favourite numbers. They didn't mark any appreciable dip in quality. And they mark a band trading in music, not in nostalgia.
If there was a weakness, it was probably the one alluded to in the opening. Slightly chaotic gigs, with long gaps between songs, were commonplace in that era while distinctions between performance and rehearsal were scant. As Conlin comments jokingly “at least you know it's not manufactured”. And they keep to once-common-now-forgotten rules, such as rejecting set lists to make each gig unique and fresh. But then was then, and too much stalling spoils the supper, or however that saying goes. Could we not strike a bit more of a happy medium between professionalism and spontaneity?
But that minor grumble aside... overall, a legend that still lives.
This clip is handy in epitomising their sound by serving up a Miller and then a Conley track...
The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 20th July
Once described by a reliable source of gossip as a “folk-influenced experimental rock band”, Akron/Family are perhaps chiefly known for doubling up as Michael Gira's backing band Angels of Light when he's not busy reforming Swans. And in yet another sign of how little I actually know about culty music, despite having written about Swans not once but twice, I don't really know Angels of Light at all. But then that seemed all the more reason to finally check these guys out...
Let's start with the hardest to miss – the bass player. (Who, in our standard police parlance, I now know to be Miles Seaton.) Despite dressing ex-military, bearing the most stern of beard from a very stern set of beards and never breaking into such a thing as a smile, he effectively becomes the master of ceremonies. Possessed of that American outgoingness, he's forever encouraging us to overcome our English reserve and cut loose. He managed to get going a crowd singalong, substantial enough for the band to break off for a bit. The sort of thing bands can end gigs with. Here it happened in the second number. This clearly isn't going to be one of those “meh” gigs, where you're thinking about which bus to get home during the encore. This is going to be a gig you respond to, one way or the other.
It wouldn't be quite right to say they took off where the Meat Puppets left off, in our new 'post-rock' world. But let's go with the neatness of that anyway. There's the same sense of roots, though perhaps more in folk than in country. There's the same breadth of style, from achingly beautiful melodies to double-guitar assaults to full-on noise. (Though I called Seaton the bassist earlier, the band swap instruments with impunity. At one point they collectively join in on the drumming.) Like a weather system, the styles alternately replace and subsume one another – breaks of sunshine opening up into downpours.
But most of all there's the same effortless naturalness to it, the lack of any sense of self-conscious eclecticism – a feeling of just doing it.
It's also reminiscent of the apocalyptic folk of Bonnie Prince Billy, like now we're in the end days music's role is to soundtrack it. You keep thinking this must be the last number, as each track mounts to the point it seems impossible to follow. Yet when the gig finally ends it does it the way it began, with a stripped-back ballad, Seaton singing eyes half-closed.
None of my analogies really fit, to be honest. At the end of the day, they pretty much just sound like Akron/Family. If that's not an endorsement, I don't know what is..
Not sure anything from this gig made it onto YouTube. Instead, here's a full twenty-two minutes of them from Minneapolis, earlier this year...
Coming Soon! Would you believe it? More gig-going adventures...