THE POP GROUP
Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Sat 25th Oct
I had wondered if, after so recently seeing Hawkwind again, this would be another guilty pleasure gig – an old post-punk band reforming to perform tracks from a classic album. After all, last time I saw Mark Stewart he was glaring down the lens of a BBC4 documentary to firmly state “punk isn't about asking forty-something old blokes what punk is”. Moreover, the Pop Group were the walking, talking definition of music as an unstable element. They were like a Hadron collider - throwing together their heady cocktail of punk, funk, dub, noise and more, just to see how it all combusted. Reproducable? I'm surprised it was ever captured in the first place.
Then again, as the reformed band put it - “let's face it, things are probably even more fucked now than they were in the early Eighties, and we are even more fucked off.” (I offer fulsome apologies, of course, for their use of that inappropriate word 'probably'.) And perhaps more to the point this was my first and, for all I know, only chance to see so legendary a band.
Simon Reynolds famously pointed out that Public Image were able to take up the essence of dub without the cliches, so avoiding sounding like the usual clod-hopping white-boy imitators. And the Pop Group, all self-styled 'funketeers' before the dawn of punk, are similarly able to plug into funk. Some of the most laid-back music suddenly sounds agitated, sharpened into a weapon, but like it had been intended to be played that way all along.
At times the rhythm section sound so tight you can hardly conceive they go back to inhabiting separate bodies afer the show. But then seconds later they can sound engagingly ungainly; you're never sure if they're cleverly deconstructing the music they'd only just been throwing out or just breaking apart. (Back in the day, they could be provocatively vague about that in interviews.) And those opposites crash together most in the figure of frontman Mark Stewart, gargantuan yet ungainly. As he rages and punches the air he's like a combination of an apocalyptic blood-and-thunder prophet and care-in-the-communty type suffering an attack in Tescos. (All of which does also mean that, if you listen back to those classic albums, they can be maddeningly uneven. The silver lining has a cloud.)
Of course the curse that normally befalls bands isn't that they get worse but that they get better. They become tighter, more professional, and lose the looseness – the unstable elements that had made them so idiosyncratic and unpredictable. Had I seen them back in the day, would I think the same of them? Probably, but I hadn't so I didn't.
Hilariously, with echoes of when Half Man Half Biscuit played against Culture Shock, anarcho-punk surviors the Mob are playing across town this very night. It's like those old oppositions will never die. The anarchos forever portrayed post-punk as the music of posers and empty aesthetes, playing with gestures and taking polariods of themselves while Babylon burnt. While they sang about a laboratory animal they'd just liberated, we sang about a book we'd just read.
Yet, while I'm in no position to tell you how the Mob sounded, I simply can't imagine a band more impassioned and committed than the Pop Group. Almost the last thing Stewart says is that the gig's put on in association with the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, before launching into the classic 'We Are All Prostitutes' for the encore. Yet, lyrically, songs could be defiant calls to arms or dread warnings, but they both sound similar. Stewart's shrieks and yelps were always a far cry from bold, declammatory statements. The band's prevalent theme was not so much revolt as tribulation, the chaos to come. (“Our children shall rise up against us.”) At their best they were a band you couldn't fail to be absorbed by, yet they seemed innoculated against the idea you could follow them. Like the lyric from 'She's Beyond Good and Evil', there's no antidote for them...
No decent footage from Brighton, so here's something from Manchester. (With a very cool backdrop...)
...and speaking of 'Where There's A Will', this this is something of a gem. Back-in-the-day footage from Belgian TV, with the band showing a somewhat... deconstructive approach to lip-synching...
Brighton Dome, Sun 26th Oct
At times, I confess to having something of a love/hate relationship with Mogwai. Their epic soundscapes can seem no less than soaring, as if looking down on straight song structure from a majestic height. Yet it can also sound expansive yet arid, portention at the expense of substance, cinemascopic in width yet screen-thin in depth.
One way to look at them might be as the counterbalance to Sigur Ros. When catching Sigur Ros live, I became quite insistent their music shouldn't be portrayed as “merely some kind of template, a big cavernous space onto which the listener can project what they want to imagine”. A description which ironically does seem to stick to Mogwai, so often used in soundtracks. Put their music on top of almost anything and it would most likely magnify it. Sigur Ros may be like a Romantic painting, and indeed live they used quite bucolic nature imagery as a backdrop. While Mogwai come with a gleaming bright lighting rig that borders on abstract art.
They pre-load the set with some of their softer material, and to be honest nearly lost me at that point. They seemed a shadow of their former combustible selves, and I came to long for some fire in the bellies of those guitars. Plus, while I'm quite happy for their tracks to include the human voice, conventional lead vocals don't seem to lend to their strengths at all.
From there, thankfully, guitars started to spark up and more sonic variation appear. One track, unusually foregrounding keyboards, had the prog-meets-arcade-game ring of Goblin. For another the band lined up at the front of the stage for a wall of fuzz guitar. But one with the sweetest of tunes held within it, like a butterfly in a bottle.
And yet once the noise arrives it came to be the quietest parts which spoke the loudest. There's something to those stately tempos, like they're the antidote to the modern world of just-in-time economics. (Slow being the new fast, and all.) There are those who dismiss the band as ponies with one trick – dynamic contrast, setting up the noodly kindling of a track to toss a guitar explosion in midway. Yet, for example, '2 Rights Make 1 Wrong' is almost a spiritual for us unreligious types, combining the genuinely hymnal with a kind of Christmas-lights twinkliness. (Maybe they're one of those bands you really should see on a Sunday.) But it took set-closer 'Mogwai Fears Satan' to sum it all up. Yet there is a guitar outburst mid-way, but the loudness is there to enhance the quiet parts rather than the other way around. It's the sonic equivalent of looking at a colour field painting, music to bathe in. The guitar notes sounded so delicate they were almost dissolving as they reached your ears.
If I didn't like everything they did... well, I don't like everything that Mogwai do. But when these guys get good, they can get very good indeed.
Talking of 'Mogwai Fear Satan'... (Alas it cuts before the end. And at times the camera can't capture the full range of sound. But surf YouTube and that would seem to be the general rule.)
Concorde 2, Brighton, Monday 13th Oct
Antemasque are a successor band to legendary American hardcore outfit At the Drive-In, featuring vocalist Cedric Bixier-Zavala and former bassist Omar Rodrigues-Lopez, now on guitar. ATDI were like the featherweights of hardcore, balancing out the piledriver heavyweights like Black Flag or Nomeansno. (Maybe Fugazi were the welterweights. I am probably reaching now...) Their tracks were writhe, wiry and dynamic, capable of taking unexpected moves. Had you been foolish enough to try and wrestle one, you'd have been held to the floor before you knew it.
Music Emissions called them a “chaotic balance of adrenaline and intellect”, which seems about as close to pinning them as anyone's likely to get. Though commonly dubbed 'post-hardcore' they were more like a hardcore and an art rock band somehow happening at once – Sonic Youth and the Ramones as conjoined twins.
Yet, though a keen ATDI fan who never managed to see one of their frenetic live shows I couldn't muster the enthusiasm to see either of the earlier successor bands, the Mars Volta or Bosnian Rainbows, when they came to town. Which, judging by the relative size of venues, was a common choice. They seemed to have all the intellect yet a deficiency of the adrenaline, taking things in a jazzier, proggier direction which left me less than keen to follow.
Not so this time.
Yet if I'm here because Antemasque are back to the patented ATDI sound, in a way that could bring its own set of problems. Not having been in the room at the time I can't offer any special insight, but its notable the band split soon after hitting their creative peak with the acclaimed 2000 album 'Relationship of Command'. Perhaps they simply figured their work here was done. As Omar himself has commented “if you're not moving forward, you're stagnant. And that's no way to be”. Which left me initially apprehensive of Antemasque sounding a bit apres.
Notably, however, they play no ATDI tracks and seem keen to strike out on their own. Truth to tell their trajectory may well be the opposite direction to the Mars Volta, straying more into conventional rock territory. Guitar solos start to creep in, and at times you hear the echoes of Led Zeppelin. Watching Cedric's unmissable wild mane in mid-toss, whereas once it resembled the MC5's Rob Tyner now its starting to look like Robert Plant. Now as the record shows I love Led Zeppelin as much as the next music fan, and besides its more a raw Sixties sound than stadium rock they're channelling. But my feelings are mixed as to whether its a sound Omar and Cedric should be straying back to. It can at times feel like avoiding stagnation via reverse gear. Perhaps significantly they've reverted to the world of singles, releasing no less than four in the month of April.
Yet overall, if they don't match previous heights they're still coming up with damn fine tracks put across with no small amount of conviction. And their lack of adherence to the old sound is made most unmissable by a lengthy trance-out soul track, the sort of thing Van Morrison went in for in the Seventies. Turning up late in the set like beamed in from elsewhere and featuring Cedric uncharacteristically cooing, it was about as enthralling as it was unexpected and swept the whole of us away. It suggests perhaps than rather than old-timers living in the shadows of past glories, Antemasque are a new band still forming their sound. I would tell you the name of it if I knew myself.
This isn't it...
Coming soon! Probably more music stuff...