Sunday 27 December 2015


'Tis the season for list-making so without further ado, films and TV shows which I rated this year. (In top tens, but no particular order beyond that...)

'Inside Out'
'Dance of Reality' (The return of Jodorowsky, yay!)
'The Lobster'
'The Martian'

Three films I firmly intended to see yet failed were 'Ex Machina', 'It Follows' and 'Bridge of Spies'.

...which means I only blogged about two of my favourite films! Then again, that's better than I did for TV shows...

'Wolf Hall'
'The Walking Dead' (season 5)
'This is England '90'
'Fargo' (season 2)
'Homeland' (season 5)
'London Spy'
'The Last Kingdom'
'The Bridge' (season 3)

The TV shows of 2015 which somehow passed me by despite best intentions were 'Humans' and '1864'.

(Reader, please note we are a terrestrial establishment here at Lucid Frenzy towers, and know not of your 'Jessica Jones' or 'Game of Thrones'. Nor, before anyone asks, did we deliberately write a list just to keep 'Doctor Who' off it.)

Some random witterings follow...

I may be the only member of the viewing public to compare 'London Spy' to 'Alien'. As I've said before “an effective component of the Company's ruthless inhumanity is the way they lie unseen, existing only as offstage orders”. (All lost in the sequels, alas.) And here we see a similar thing, only with officialdom. Danny (played by Ben Wishaw) is occasionally able to identify the strings being pulled, but never trace them back to those tugging them. It's like we live our lives as the audience of a stage illusionist, perpetually falling victim to misdirection and applauding the wrong things.

(SPOILERS in this para) At first the worry was it was so atmospheric with so little concrete happening, that it was painting itself into a moodily lit corner. As it turned out, it played the thing about right. (Even if the very last scene tried to wrest some feelgood out of a fire that should really have burnt everything down.) What seemed the style eventually became the theme. Alex's invention was akin to creating light in a world of shadows, so of course the shadow-dwellers must amass to save their habitat. Plus the gay element wound up the 'Daily Mail'. Really, what was there not to like?

As said, I haven't made any attempt to list things in a rank order. But 'Fargo' I'm fairly sure I'd place on the bottom rung. Though jumping back to the Seventies, it duplicates roles from the previous series. So Lou Solvenson (Patrick Wilson) can take the 'good cop' badge from his daughter Molly, while Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) displaces Lorne Malvo as the urbane antagonist. But the triangulation breaks down with Ed and Peggy Blumquist (Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst), who fluctuate between being Hickcockian innocents swept up in the storm and reprising Lester's petty scheming. (The early-offed used typewriter salesman seems introduced partly as a Lester equivalent, as if to undermine his similarities to Ed and Peggy.)

And so it moves further away from the original Cohen brothers film, where the provincial hicks may have been kooky (with their “oh ya” accents and all) but ultimately prove themselves smarter and stronger than the more worldly criminals. Here, rather than being spread around the town, human decency is confined to the cop characters and their family circle. And by moving away from the Cohens they move towards Tarantino – snappy dialogue, non-linear storytelling puzzles (sometimes as an end in their own right), foregrounded cinematic devices (such as split-screening) and above all an assumed audience reaction of hip irreverence. Perhaps everything will end up Tarantinoeque in the end, including Shakespeare adaptations and the forthcoming remake of 'Camberwick Green'.

(More SPOILERS here) Apart from Lou, the character who really shines is the Indian hatched man Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon), largely because he's so taciturn and direct when everyone else is verbosely circumlocutory. (Imagine if Gary Cooper had been on the redskins' side.) But it does mean that, when he tires of everyone and tries to bump them all off, you kind of know how he feels.

Yet for all that its a better example of the style than anything Tarantino himself has come up with lately. It's often genuinely inventive, and the characters are striking if cartoony. Above all, despite its greater length, it doesn't have the same loghorric meander. And, being set in such a bywater, it avoids the 'theme park Seventies' which now seems so ubiquitous. Don't expect endless sideburns and hessian wallpaper here.

'The Last Kingdom' did at times seem undecided whether it wanted to be a tale of derring-do akin to 'The Musketeers', following the adventures a he-man hero who gets his shirt off a lot, or something as morally muddied as the Dark Ages probably were. And sometimes it was able to make a creatively ambiguous virtue out of its indecision, with Uhtred (Alexander Dreyman) performing some great deed them offsetting us by hacking down a thieving servant.

While having a neither-Saxon-nor-Dane protagonist was effective, if they wanted things as dark as the age they needed to play the supporting cast up more. More moments like the clash-of-values scene where Saxon first parleys with Dane. Perhaps the introduction of Alfred (David Dawson) needed to wait until Uhtred meets him, but from there more could have been done with him. The way he can go from pure-hearted ascetic to monarch capable of cold ruthlessness, while its clear that in his mind both come from his Christian faith, is fascinating and has something of the ring of truth.

But above all its Guthrum (Thomas W Gabrielsson) who needed more development. Perhaps the adventure aspect demands one crazy warrior Dane for Uthred to fight. (When he defeats one before the finale, another conveniently appears.) But Gurthrum is needed as the head to the swiping hand, the Dane with a brain amid berserkers. We're shown how they don't win their battles through greater savagery but more superior tactics, and how the Saxons have to emulate them to defeat them. But still, scenes between them can feel like a meeting of the Secret Society of Super Villains. (Denmark probably won't be taking this series as a swap for 'The Bridge'.)

And a consequence is that characters don't really develop in any way. As the plot rattles on they repeatedly spark off against one another, and even change sides, without ever changing inside. It's hinted Guthrum's last-minute conversion to Christianity is politically motivated, which in history it almost certainly was, but this receives almost no narrative attention – it happens in the background as Uhtred rides boldly off. Similarly, Uhtred's frequently telegraphed headstrong nature goes nowhere in plot terms.

And the attitude to religion in this sort of thing is fast becoming a cliché. Christians are endlessly having their blind faith in an interventionist God dashed, their devoted praying hands lopped off by the brute reality of Danish broadswords. Yet paganism, particularity in the form of seer Iseult, is indulged to the point of being presented as a working system. Surely if we're all too growed up now for one set of superstitions the same should be true for another.

The appealing thing about 'The Bridge' is that of Nordic import TV in general - it has the courage to work as a novel. Rather than set everything up in the first episode, then provide eight hours of running round before hurriedly wrapping everything up for the finale, it takes its own time to evolve. Key characters won't appear until several episodes in. 'The Killing' even ended. (Unlike that American remake...)

Of course its the box-set/catch-up technology which has enabled this. (You couldn't miss an episode of 'The Bridge', any more than you could skip a couple of chapters in a novel.) But that technology exists everywhere. Perhaps what really delivers is combining it with the old-style remit of public service TV. (Tak to Sveriges Television of Sweden and Danmarks Radio!) Inevitably enough, Nordic Noir frequently questions the social democratic model of Scandinavia, much like the BBC of old would bite the hand that fed it more readily than commercial media.

The surprising thing to hear was that Saga's new parter Henrik (Thure Lindhart) was only written in when Kim Bodnia (who had played Martin) declined the offer to re-appear. Because the whole thing ends up hanging on him. Like Hathaway in 'Lewis', even as you can see how he's written to fill a hole he becomes a character in his own right. Cleverly coded on first appearance to come across as a creep (like many, I first assumed he was a perp) he gets Saga in a way even Martin couldn't. The point where he tells her “this is what you want, right? To talk about the investigation not all the problems in your life”... well, I must have had something in my eye.

'Witnesses', conversely, proved you don't have to be Nordic to be noir. You can even be French, provided you set things on the north coast in order to capture the statutory washed out look. In an eerie case of synchronicity, there was even the same staged crime scene of the model nuclear family.

Five seasons in and 'Homeland' is not just doing that faux moral ambiguity thing it does, its become the byword for it. I used to try to think of a snappy name to employ, but “the Homeland syndrome” works well enough. Yet even as it gives the name to one rule it breaks another. It's now jumped more sharks than there can be in the Pacific. (Quinn falling in with a bunch of jihadis while in a city the size of Berlin. What are the odds, eh?) Yet alongside the absurd contrivances it can still serve up riveting plot twists. And as a child of the Cold War, to me its almost nostalgist to see the Russians back as the bad guys and Berlin as some kind of front line.

'Walking Dead' rather than setting itself in one locale like earlier seasons, smartly divided itself between the poles of Terminus and Alexandria. And having been through Terminus changes their reaction to Alexandria completely. The phrase “you're the butcher or you're the cattle” resounds through what follows.

'This Is England' - apart from showing how spookily distant 1990 now is, while none of us want things to run past their shelf-life, there's scope for one more season there, surely. And I enjoyed 'Wolf Hall' so much I even thought I should read the books. (I didn't, admittedly. But I thought about it.)

Perhaps what's most striking overall about this list is the absence of comedy. 'Fargo' could be called a black comedy, while 'This is England' has humorous elements, but that's about all. Was there simply little to laugh about in 2015? Excepting of course that video of Donald Trump and the eagle...

Saturday 19 December 2015


Fans of these Isle of Wight photos will be disappointed to hear this is the last of them. Then again, as those fans were pretty few and far between perhaps that won't matter much. As ever, full set over on Flickr.

Saturday 12 December 2015


Brighton Dome, Monday 30th Nov

The “anarchic Brechitan street-opera trio” the Tiger Lillies last appeared in these parts the Festival before last, with their take on Coleridge's epic poem 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. Now they're back with another theatrical song-show. Lulu was the protagonist of two expressionist playswritten by Frank Wedekind between 1895 and 1904.

And many times since. As singer and main man Martin Jacques states in the programme “today the figure of Lulu is one of the most widely known characters in fiction... in many ways Hamlet is perhaps Lulu's closest equivalent, widely recognised but nevertheless mysterious, the inspiration for countless re-interpretations, but without a stable or agreed core meaning.”

In other words, neither are fixed texts. Each iteration of them doesn't re-recite the canon, nor do changes negate what went before – it just adds on another layer. Except of course the Prince's story is about having the power to choose and being paralysed by it. While Lulu's is about being given no choice at all. Though a figure on stage she never sings or speaks. All is narrated by Jacques in the character of malevolent lowlife Shig, her primary pimp and ostensible 'father'.

She first appears pushing flowers at the unaccepting musicians. If it's reminiscent of flower sellers on the street, there's also something childlike and innocent about her movements. For much of the running time she's held between two projection screens situated behind the band, imprisoned and shown off like a fish in a tank. She'll dance to one side, then back again. At one point the struts of a bannister are projected, which come to look like prison bars. Oddly, I was most reminded of Mark Fisher's quote about Carroll's Alice – this story is Lulu's, but she has no place in it. She's essentially a sexualised possession, a flesh sex toy passed from one 'lover' to the next.

In the programme Jacques continues “it was hard writing the songs for 'Lulu'... you have to breathe the putrid air.” And it shows. For one thing, the Tiger Lillies aren't just renowned for their black humour, they celebrate a tradition which commonly found dark humour in stories of sexual abuse. That kind of salaciousness is not confined to cabaret of course, it also appears in blues or rock music, or for that matter tabloid newspapers. But cabaret is more associated with a 'decadent' era where such things went on, or at least happened more openly.Which gave proceedings the unsettling sense of walking a tightrope. I'm a Tiger Lillies fan largely because I share Jacques' black sense of humour. And even I found myself willing them not to screw up and slip into rape gags.

They don't. And yet when they don't, harsh as it sounds for damning them for doing the right thing, they lose something of themselves. That black humour has always been the killer app of the band, the carefree irreverence to offence of songs like 'Hammering in the Nails'. They're not without this, they just hold it in check in places. They have to hold it in check in places. Yet it still feels like they're performing with one arm tied behind their back.

And without the humour we're left with just the black. To use Jacques' analogy, theres a whole lot of putrid air to breathe. It's like hearing the low notes of the piano hammered over and again for seventy-five minutes. Moreover, the sheer arbitrariness of the story adds to this sense of inevitability. You could swap the order of her 'lovers', or cut some out completely, and lose little. For she's but a flower petal on the wind.

With the suggestion Lulu may not have been murdered by Jack but a copycat killer, perhaps planning to pass the blame, its clear that if Lulu stands for our innocence Jack stands for our corruptibility and hypocrisy. They're both part of us. Notably, Jack's the only character to have a song addressed directly to him.

Yet I also overheard a fair few people emerging afterwards to say they found the message obvious. (“Is anyone here likely to think its okay to sell a young woman into prostitution?” and so on.) Which suggests the links between then and now aren’t being made, as if sexual exploitation is considered only a subject for history books. Perhaps a better way to challenge misogyny isn’t to meet it head-on but glove-puppet it and expose it from within. I’ve never heard Lady Sings It Better but the approach seems interesting – take the most misogynistic lyrics you can get hold of, and have a group of women belt them back at you. It also counters the ludicrous-yet-prevalent notion that 'political correctness' is about being too namby-pamby to use those illicitly thrilling bad words.

Ultimately, Jacque's schema works not wisely but too well. In his insistence on the harsh male-dominated world Lulu finds herself in, in his foregrounding of her silence within it he perpetuates that silence. At one point she's compared to a sponge and, rather than a character, she's no more than the accumulation of what a patriarchal world will do to a woman if given the chance.

I confess I'm not sure what I'd suggest to improve proceedings. Perhaps Lulu discovers a voice and gets a song of her own, only briefly before she is killed. Scenes such as when Shunning gives her a gun and orders to shoot herself, and she instead sticks a hole in him, could have been made little moments of proto-feminist triumph. Some hint somewhere she doesn't have to be a total victim or hapless innocent. But perhaps the whole project was intrinsically flawed. After 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner' was such a full-blown success, I wondered if this might have been an earlier prototype of a full-length show, now brought back out from the desk drawer. And while when I checked I found it's first appearance was 2013, a year after 'Mariner', that still feels the way it is.

Brighton Railway Club, Mon 23rd Nov

Most gigs, you'll see at some point all the equipment shunted off stage and the house lights go up. Yet there aren't too many where that's your signal the main act's about to come on. But then there's nights when you know to expect the unexpected.

With the lo-fi DIY indie-punk of Beat Happening, the deconstructed dance music of Dub Narcotic and the founding of the influential K records Calvin Johnson has done much to break the punk mould. If he didn't ship records, he made waves. The stereotype of angry white kids swearing against the system never quite withstood him. Kurt Cobain tattooed himself with the K logo, while Courtney Love namechecked him on 'Olympia'. (Well, depending on which version you listen to.)

Tonight, alone and entirely unamplified, he diffidently strums an acoustic guitar like his eyes might have flicked over a chord book for the first time while backstage. His baritone voice, the sound of deadpan, is delivered from a Easter Island impassive face above a tight black sweater. It has less the air of a punk event than something which might have happened in a Greenwich Village folk club in 1963. But probably didn't.

And it was the absolute absence of anything remotely resembling punk music which came to be the most punk thing about it. It worked as a projection of the artist's personality, to which the actual music and words were mere means to that end. (I'm really not sure that would come over so well on record.) He exudes a childlike 'Being There' persona, while displaying a master comedian's gift for timing, including mutiple meaningful...

...pauses. Entirely unaccompanied, he recites the nonsense dance lyrics of a Dub Narcotic number like they're metaphysical poetry. Returing to the neologism I coined for Goat it's bironic – simultaneously a self-parody and in deadly earnest. You laugh out loud and are entranced at one and the same time. The bizarre choice of venue, a place down a residential cul-de-sac which no-one present seemed to previously know existed, made for the perfect setting.

It perhaps veered too far towards straight songs at times, at which points my attention did start to wonder. I wondered if the best numbers had been written for some different setting, and were now sparking off on the incongruity. As he encores with a cover of 'Diamonds Are Forever' you find yourself thinking “this song is actually really stupid” and “this song is actually a classic” at one and the same time. Which is probably the whole night in microcosm.

From Manchester. But there was punk rock floor-sittin' apleanty at Brighton too...

...and from back in the day, D Narcotic go...

Mentioned in dispatches! After having previously written about both Jeffrey Lewis and the Cravats, there's not really much I could add. But tehre's some YouTube clips just to confirm the things happened. The Lewis clip is not only from elsewhere, but features one of his cartoon lectures he didn't even perform down here. (He said it might be hard for people to see given the venue.) While the Cravats clip is from Brighton but doesn't have much in the way of sound quality. But then that's what makes it punk innit, y'get me bro?

Saturday 5 December 2015


Mutations is the self-styled sequel to Wire's Drill festival from this time last year, put on by co-curators One Inch Badge and promising “a creative mass of genre hybrids and expression, delivering some of the most inspiring, creative and interesting music the world has to offer”.

Of all the acts, the festival was chiefly sold to me by Om - a band I've long been keen to see live. If their name alone isn't enough to suggest their trance-out sound, imagine Pink Floyd's 'Set The Controls For the Heart of the Sun' - there's the same relentlessly steady pace, the same sense of measured expansiveness. Or, as they sprang from the rhythm section of doom band Sleep, imagine doom without... well, without the doominess. Ever wondered what doom would sound like with just the transcendence, with none of the oblivion? Wonder no more.

Perhaps the most significant thing about Om is the way they can actually play so little yet conjure up such a vast sense of space – like each instrument is a flickering flame in a huge cavern. If the bass is the bedrock of their sound, its chief accompaniment is not the drums but the recited vocals. (Assisted no doubt by bassist and founder member Al Cisneros also being the vocalist.) Amil Amos' drums, liberated from their usual back-up role, throw almost dub-like rolls around the Cisneros that open up the sound.

The third member, Robert Lowe, has the commendable restraint to contribute either tambourine or nothing at all for long periods. At times he takes to a keyboard, a teeny-tiny thing still capable of providing a rich organ sound. At others he contributes vocals which could only be compared to choirs of angels. (Quite possibly from some choir-of-angels effect. But whatever the effect is, its effective.) Sometimes I'd watch him waiting, waiting. Then sing a couple of phrases and sit back again. The calm restraint was enticing in and of itself.

And rather than building the set up to a finale they have the quiet confidence to instead slow it down. Tracks extend in length and get simpler, for one extended section only bass and vocals. Though they're more hypnotically regular than drone, they perfectly epitomise something I said of drone music some time ago:

“While drone is sometimes dismissed as bliss-out and escapist, it doesn’t have to refer out to anything else in the universe because it already encompasses the universe. It doesn’t merely encompass the sound of the big and the small, it denies the distinction between those sounds. 'As above, so below' is an important concept in drone. Blake’s conception of 'infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour' is just up drone’s street.”

Before the set, we were talking about how much of a Marmite band they were – how liable to induce a polarised reaction. For me, its not too strong a word to describe them as magnificent. Then at the end I looked round after an hour of being mesmerised, to find half the room had decamped to venues elsewhere. Each to their own...

Next up on my must-see list was Josh T Pearson. His career to date consists of shrinking from a trio to a solo player, then recently expanding back up to a duo. And in the process sounding the least expansive yet. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

His first band, Lift to Experience, a trio of Texans who played Texan-sized music - psychedelia multiplied by post-rock turned up to eleven. Released in 2001, their one album almost fits with Godspeed's ambiguous apocalypse. Except in their case it was never clear whether the Biblical imagery was the only thing which captured their mighty, expansive sound or vice versa. Whichever, they were best summed up by the lyric “And I can hardly wait to hear that great trumpet sound/ Pouring down out across the land”.

His next record didn't appear until a decade later, a solo album of what Wikipedia calls “epic acoustic ballads”. Songs seemed sung with the weary reflection of someone much older, surrounded by regret and discarded beer cans. This time the defining lyric was 'Woman, When I've Raised Hell'. The brooding quality of wisdom reached too late. As if Lennon had jumped from 'Sgt. Pepper' to 'Plastic Ono Band' with nothing in-between.

The Church venue makes for the perfect setting for such songs. Pearson has a five-finger strum technique which sounds as much classical as country, combined with an ability to make his own voice sound like a choir.This can create a huge range, both sonically and dynamically, with things rising to a crescendo then falling to a mumble. It hardly seems possible to be coming from one man and his guitar.

Then midway through he introduces his new performing partner Calvin LeBaron and the tongue-in-cheek name the Two Witnesses. They sing actual old-time Pentecostal hymns, or new songs in the style of them. (Plus a cover of the Velvets' 'Jesus', never a bad thing.) Reflecting this cleaner, new direct new music he has a cleaner appearance – now shorn of beard and with a white-hat cowboy look. In their unadorned simplicity, those hymns must be about about the hardest of styles to emulate. There's nothing really to them apart from their effectiveness, they just remind you what a great songbook the hymn book really is. But, against the odds, Pearson comes through. Only the final number, playing up the gay element of singing about “his love”, was pastichy.

From the sublime to the ridiculous... only you know, the good kind of ridiculous...

Anecdotally, I got the impression most people's must-see was Lightning Bolt. And they may well have been higher up my list had I not seen them before. They comprise noise-guitar and still-more-noisy drums. If there was such a music genre as 'dayglo cartoony noise', that would be Lightning Bolt. Himself a cartoonist, drummer Brian Chippendale almost takes on the persona of a cartoon character onstage – masked and using a distortion mike throughout, even when speaking to the audience. Much like the great Melt-Banana, amid the sonic onslaught is not just melodies but catchy bubblegum pop tunes.

The surrealist George Bataille once claimed...honest, this is going somewhere... once claimed that the drive to make art was rooted into the infantile instinct to despoil pristine surfaces. That's why the child doesn't stop colouring when they get to the edge of the piece of paper. Similarly, Lightning Bolt seem to stem from the child's love of making noise. Rather than the nihilism so associated with the genre there's something joyous and uplifting about the whole thing, even as its rough and abrasive. Certainly, you can rely on a Lightning Bolt set to put a great grin on your face.

Metz had the unenviable task of following Lightning Bolt and pulled it off, but having blogged about them before I wouldn't have much to add.

The Ice Maiden vocals of Chelsea Wolfe may be as much a cliché as her too-much-mascara all-black Goth look... in fact they may well be the same cliché. But her music is as inventive as her image isn't. I was even reminded at times of Swans, the same punch-packing sonic savagery and willingness to go into sections of atonal noise. While at others I was reminded of the wall-of-sound of Phil Spector. Perhaps the problem with the studied dressing-up of Goth is, contrary to Lightning Bolt, its cartoony without knowing it. While Chelsea Wolfe's set truly did take shamanic flight for shores unknown. Hopefully she'll be back in Brighton soon...

Blanck Mass is the solo project of Benjamin John Power, one half of the inimitable Fuck Buttons. And the solo set ranked alongside the double act. Perhaps sounding similar to the parent project, but then sounding like Fuck Buttons is hardly a downside. There's the sudden drops you'd expect from dance music. But as often Power would overlay one section above another, sometimes then pulling it away to re-expose the beat beneath, like dance music's answer to 'Sister Ray'. Ultimately, I can only repeat what I said after seeing Fuck Buttons: “For a band who can go some way out there and fear no abrasion of the ears, it's intriguing how they can also set a crowd a-dancing.”

Dan Friel mixed throbbing discordant electronica with rinky-dink Casio tunes. Not alternating between them or juxtaposing them, but melding them together. It was a musical chimera, like the body of a tiger given the head of a purring house-cat. All provided by what looked like the most boffinish piece of home-made kit, leads and wires bedecked with fairy lights. The sheer impossibility of it dazzled your ears.

Despite the dodgy name, Montreal's Ought are a force to be reckoned with – propulsive post-punk with perhaps a dash of the Strokes. In a similar trick to the Fall of Flipper, the ever-insistent music is overlain by a singer sneering with arch disdain. It's like wanting to diss the whole world at once, with a band was the best way of blagging a public address system. It's the type of punk which isn't angry at its audience – just disappointed.

To combine dream pop with shoegaze guitar might seem an obvious idea. But perhaps doing it requires quite different skill sets – the melodic sense and self-discipline of songwriting versus the tight band dynamics that allow a bunch of people to take off together without getting lost. My Bloody Valentine, for example, might have often sounded like their tracks had pop songs inside them. But they stayed inside, like the gooey centre of a chocolate.

Widowspeak, however, seem capable of combining both. Singer Molly Hamilton would stand front of stage, intoning breathless sugary vocals, a little Stina Nordenstam only less little-girl and affected. Only for the band to then huddle together to create intricately interlaced guitar lines. It was like being read a bedtime story, then having your dreams take flight. Genuinely ethereal.

Arcimago started out with an intriguing question – what if Goblin had been an electronica act? )And ironically the performer was Italian, Ugo Negroni.) After all, doesn't electronica sound non-human yet possessive? Alas, as it went along it swapped strange electronica for more regular beats. Nice while it lasted...

Nature Channel served up some spiky garage rock fit to put hairs on your chest, then announced they'd not be gigging for the next six months. As soon as you come across a band... Wild Cat Strike (that's them above) provided Americana so languid steel guitar came in. Which they'd then splice with outbreaks of wall-of-sound guitar. While Saintsenaca popped over from Ohio for some of your actual from-America Americana. Some other stuff too. And of course I couldn't see everything.

Generally the festival seemed well-planned, acts starting on time and venue sizes working coping with the punters without leaving latecomers stuck outside. (If any of that did happen, I didn't see it.) And it was great to be rushing between venues when the rest of town was going mad for the Black Friday consumerfest, despite the fact it wasn't even Friday. There was, however, a strange swapping over between what would be the most intuitive Saturday and Sunday nights. While Saturday night finished up with everyone in a church in Hove listening to acoustic music, Sunday culminated with the double bombardment of Metz and Lightning Bolt. Followed by a club night going on till one. (Which by that point I was feeling too middle-aged to attend.)

Which was compounded by Christopher Owens' Saturday set not being headliner material at all. It's not so much that I didn't take to it, though I threw in the towel after two numbers. It's that most people didn't even stay as long as me, upping and leaving as soon as Josh T Pearson finished. All this most likely stemmed from the festival being planned slightly too late, when all the regular venues already had their Saturday nights booked out. But it would be worth considering should One Inch Badge decide on a follow-up...

The inevitable vidclips, a few from the festival itself but mostly from thenabouts. You'll figure it out...

Coming soon! More gig-going adventures...

Friday 27 November 2015


(You guessed it, another art exhibition reviewed after its over)

Among the Carvers

If you bothered to read the critics, you'll know this show was given a poor press. Some of that thunder can be dismissed as simple art snobbery. Hepworth, as we’ll see, progressed from high-minded Modernism to the best form of populism. In other words, she let the rabble in. Jonathan Jones’ review falls into that category, even if he shies from saying so outright. (But then he's... oh,just see for yourself. It's not a parody. It just reads like one.)

But the most common diss is to claim a disservice is being done to her. Which suggests the real target is curator and now outgoing Tate Director Penelope Curtis. Who, true enough, at times staged some high-concept and quite spectacularly ill-advised shows. And this is but one example of her preference for sculpture, which seems to have have irked those who don’t share it. Yet she was also Director, for example, for the highly successful British Folk Art show. The real reason for the knives is almost certainly down to some London arts scene version of office politics, which the rest of us can safely disregard. Nevertheless, just for once let's take the critics as a starting point.

For, while not necessarily co-ordinated, the attacks take on a remarkably similar form. Laura Cumming indulges in one of the typical laments: “her works are heavily alarmed or locked away in glass cases so that you can’t touch them, as Hepworth strongly urged… [while] the more austere her work, the more sterile it looks in the subterranean galleries at Tate Britain. The groupings of pristine abstract forms… look especially stark and unnatural in the artificial lighting.” And this from critics who said not a word when Joseph Cornell's interactive assemblages were kept behind glass!

Beneath those vitrines the first room shows the 'direct carving' movement of the Tens and Twenties. Practitioners included Eric Gill, Jacob Epstein, Henri Gauider-Brezeska and Hepworth's first husband John Skeaping. Which is fine company. Certainly its enough to get the critics fulminating. Alistair Sooke writes in the Telegraph: “By (rightly) making the point that Hepworth and Moore weren’t the only artists innovating during this period... the show reconsiders her early contribution as less pioneering, and more in keeping with a trend. At a stroke, her artistic courage is undermined.”

Sorry, what? It's acknowledged that this was a movement, but we shouldn't be allowed to say so? You can of course stuff any artist with pioneering courage by disregarding their context or their contemporaries. Picasso would have sole credit for Cubism if we eliminate Braque, Dali for Surrealism if you drop Ernst and so on. But the point is we can talk about Braque and still see Picasso as an important artist. Sooke is in essence suggesting Hepworth's artistic reputation can only be maintained by denial. In short, he's the one doing the undermining, even if its cloaked by gallantry. Besides which, artists developing through movements, through reflecting current circumstances and influencing one another, even if its not always formalised or made up into a manifesto... this is news to some people?

Analogously, in the vidclip below, Sooke praises the show for minimising the comparisons between Hepworth and Henry Moore. Yet, both Yorkshire born, they met young at the Leeds School of Art and, to quote Wikipedia, “established a friendly rivalry that lasted professionally for many years”.

Let's move on to the thing itself. Sculpture, and direct carving in particular, was then seen as “lower in status” than painting, as more of a craft rather than an art. ('Art sculptors' often worked only on the maquette, or template model, leaving the creation of the actual sculpture to assistants.) And much of this movement seems to be about a contrary luxuriating in the low status, in being an artist willing to get your fingers dirty.

But the desire to get your hands on the materials also shows an interest in the materials themselves. They're not considered incidental to the subject, like the proverbial blank canvas, but inexorably tied up with it. Notably the subjects are often animals, and the titles simply descriptive. The human subjects are often similarly impassive, defined by what they are doing – see for example Hepworth's 'Musician' (1929/30, below). Things are simply what they are. As the show says, there is often some of the “hieratic and stately” quality of ancient Egyptian and Mexican carvings.

The wide variety of materials on display suggest an interest in different forms of wood and stone, as if they were your real subject. Hepworth herself said at the time "carving to me is more interesting than modelling, because there is an unlimited variety of materials from which to draw inspiration. Each material demands a particular treatment and there are an infinite number of subjects in life each to be re-created in a particular material. In fact, it would be possible to carve the same subject in a different stone each time, throughout life, without a repetition of form.”

The show talks of her “allowing the natural form of the wood to shine through her carving”. And indeed, in a work like 'Torso' (1932, below) the base of the sculpture remains a rough wood block. But there's also a paradox where the material cannot be too dominant. The two have to blend together. Whereas the patterned lapiz-lazuli of Skeaping's' Buffalo' (1930) becomes obtrusive and distracting.

As might be suggested by the method, the success of the art often comes from reduction – from chiselling away until you're left with the essence of a thing. Epstein's' Doves' (1914/15) are sweeping blocks of stone with the merest hint of dove about them, an assured triumph. While Skeaping's 'Fish' (1929/30) gives his subject an almost cartoony circle for an eye. (And keep that eye in mind.)

Nevertheless, there is something of a Year Zero approach to direct carving. As ever, you go back to basics when you feel you've taken a wrong turn. And once you've realigned yourself, you head off again in a fresh direction. The musical comparison might be the blues boom of Sixties Britain, which allowed bands to head off into psychedelia, hard rock and other frontiers.

Conjoined With Nicholson

Next up is Nicholson. By '31 Hepworth had separated from Skeaping and was sharing both her studio and life with Ben Nicholson. At which point you might start to wonder if the more feminist-minded critics start to have a point. Victoria Sadler, for example, complains “the effect is to undermine Barbara completely by defining her by who she was in a relationship with rather than on her own terms”.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but actually the answer is no. In fact, if paradoxically, this focus on her husbands is arguably too kind to Hepworth. It takes the emphasis away from Naum Gabo, which was using both stringed and pierced forms before her. (This fixation with linear innovation within Modernism always seems to me to be something of a trap. Yet it is the language these retrospectives often deal in, with the neat chronologies they throw up on the walls.)

But most important was Nicholson's take on Modernism. It then often felt like a continental import to Britain; like olives or camembert cheese, a product which simply didn't grow here. So British Modernism tended to be merely imitative of continental innovations. Whereas, to again quote Wikipedia, Nicholson's “gift... was the ability to incorporate… European trends into a new style that was recognizably his own.”

Tate Brit's previous ’Picasso and Modern British Art’ was anchored to one of Penelope Curtis' more hopeless conceits, and for the most part to get anything out of it you needed to blinker the intended through-line from your sight. But Nicholson was one of the few British artists able to ingest Picasso without becoming a mere disciple, and so emerge from it unscathed. Works such as 'Au Chat Botte' (1932) display a Horlicks-drinking, raincoat-wearing English take on Modernism – almost numinously drab. And, not unassociatedly, Wikipedia also mentions “he believed that abstract art should be enjoyed by the general public”, rather than be uber-fashionable continental chic for elite metropolitans. (As with the fish eye, watch out for that one.)

Plus, unlike Skeaping Nicholson was not a sculptor but a painter – making it unlikely Hepworth would simply absorb his influence directly. Hepworth herself said of their relationship "as painter and sculptor each was the other's best critic." A comment perhaps embodied by her 'Two Heads' (1932, above). While Moore was ceaselessly carving Mother and Child figures, Hepworth fuses together two adults. Its hard not to see the figures as Nicholson and herself. Similar profiles of the male head seem to have been recurring figures for Nicholson. While the incised, cartoony eye recalls the round fish eye of earlier. And, while the male head does dominate, its presented as a joining of minds as much as bodies.

 The Limits of Abstraction

As the Thirties progressed, Modernism came more and more to have its head. And it decided that head was square. Or pure oval. Possibly triangular. Certainly anything but head-shaped. The show does describe the appeal of this tendency to 'pure form' very well, as “an idealist belief in the universal language of abstraction as the appropriate response to the rise of a right-wing totalitarianism in Europe”. In short, Esperanto for the eyes. And the rise of fascism threw up opportunity alongside motive, as continental artists increasingly needed to flee persecution. They'd figuratively, and sometimes literally, turn up on Hepworth and Nicholson's doorstep.

The problem is that aesthetically this was an ill wind which almost beached Modernism. Nicholson, by the time of his white-on-white reliefs, is a good example of an artist who had painted himself into the corner of pure form and lost everything that was once interesting about him.

But the ill wind swayed Hepworth herself. 'Three Forms' (1935, above) is an example of a less effective, less resonant work of art which at least we get to blame on the Nazis. If the direct carving works seemed merely formative, merely the start of something, 'Three Forms' seems its end. I confess I'd like to draw three cartoony faces on it in the manner of 'Two Heads'. In a sadder universe Hepworth might well have ended down that cul-de-sac, with only perfect spheres for company.

”The Sea Is Never Far”

Happily for our world, she not only sprang back but into her mature phase. Reports seem to vary as to when she moved to the town with which she’s most associated – St. Ives on the Cornish coast. Wikipedia suggests either 1939 or 1949, while her dedicated website weighs in on the second. Perhaps she settled there gradually. Whichever, it was Hepworth the St. Ives artist who endured over the abstract internationalist. And this seems the place where her mature phase as an artist begins. Earlier on, it is likely this show lied not and she was merely one among many, perhaps even a disciple to Epstein and others. No longer.

The sea might seem the least sculptural subject of all. Imagine the pointlessness of a bronze of rolling waves. Yet Hepworth used this to her advantage. The BFI film 'Figures in a Landscape', shown as part of the exhibition has a fruity voice-over by Cecil Day-Lewis which frequently tips over into self-parody. But when he says “the sea is never far, it shapes the rocks, hollowing those caves” he makes a valid point - the sea itself acts as a sculptor. And more important still, she sought to capture the sea without slavishly duplicating its surface features. And a feature of this work is the way it never quite resolves into either abstract form or naturalism – its, to coin a phrase, 'just abstract enough'.

It often reminds us of the way nature can give us geometry, in its stones and seashells. The trademark holes in her work she called “caves” and “hollows”. The bold colours of a work like 'Sculpture in Colour (Deep Blue and Red)' (1940, above), recall the way an exposed interior of a stone or piece of wood can be be a strikingly brighter colour, before the sun wears it down. (She said herself “except in two instances I have always used colour with concave forms. When applied to convex forms I have felt that the colour appeared to be 'applied' instead of becoming inherent in the formal idea. I have been very influenced by the natural colour and luminosity in stones and woods.”) Even her radiating spoke strings, perhaps the least naturalistic element of her work, still suggest the ribbing patterns on seashells.

And perhaps she was almost poised for this. The cartoony features of earlier never return. But they always acted as a cross between a counter-weight and an anchor rope – pulling her art back from toppling irrevocably into the neat geometry of pure form.

And more than we notice any of this we sense it, so we don't react to these works as something abstract, austere or removed from our lives. Yet its just as important that these suggestions never become more than that. We find we can relate to the work without ascribing a fixed meaning to it. 'Pelagos' (1946, above) is described by the Tate's website as potentially resembling “a shell, a wave or the roll of a hill”. When Hepworth spoke of it resembling “the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills” the important word is “tension”.

Let's do the very thing Alistair Sooke told us not to, and compare Hepworth with Henry Moore. Rather than diminishing her or making her his understudy, this brings out everything that's singular about her. As is well known, both Moore and Hepworth disliked galleries and preferred their work to be shown in situ. But from that point, they may well differ. As said over his own exhibition, Moore's work has an autocthonian dimension. While Hepworth's muse may well have been the sea. To this day Moore has a sculpture park set in the Yorkshire countryside, and Hepworth on the Cornish coast. As Herbert Read said in 'Modern Sculpture' “She has gone directly to nature, to crystals and shells, to rocks and the form-weaving sea”.

Further, while there are some reclining figures, mostly early on in this show, there's nothing to Moore's degree. Its like two painters, one working in landscape and the other portrait. (Or at least square format.) And Hepworth uses this to group her figures. Of course all artists benefit from having their work accumulated, that's why everyone wants a solo exhibition as soon as they can get one. To get an idea what an artist is doing, you need some dots to connect. But there's something more with Hepworth. Her works don't accumulate so much as gang together.

There are sometimes several forms on one base as in 'Group (Concourse)' (1951, above), like semi-abstraction's answer to a crowd scene. The mere act of placing forms together is almost enough to make them more figurative. Try imagining one of the forms in 'Forms in Echelon' (1938, also above) taken in isolation, and the effect would be quite different. As the show says “she liked to display her sculptures as if in conversation with each other, so that they become more of a group than an example of individual figures”. And this changed relationship between them changes their relation to us. They don't belong on some high Olympian plinth, but set in surroundings. They need to have a place in the world.

For all that Moore was willing to plasticate or even break apart the human form, Hepworth had a greater tendency to abstraction. This could be down to the way the 'pure' human form is assumed to be male. Give it any female attributes and in the popular imagination it becomes 'womankind' rather than 'humankind'. For example Moore's 'Family Group' (1949), part of Tate Britain's permanent display, identifies the mother primarily by her skirt and longer hair, and the father simply by the absence of these. Formally speaking, they're not that different to the identifying figures we find on loo doors. There is admittedly no firm evidence for this theory, and it may merely be projecting more contemporary thoughts back in time. But for Hepworth semi-abstraction might have been a route out of a man's world.

Art For A Modern World, A Modern World For Art

Ironically the two great post-war British sculptors are also known for each creating an important set of drawings. You could perhaps play compare and contrast endlessly between Hepworth’s Hospital and Moore’s Shelter series. For example, both are built up through shading and contour lines. Yet Moore's wartime shelter drawings looked back to the underworld of Greek mythology, it's faceless figures shades. Whereas in 'Concentration of Hands II' (1948, above) the surgeons are masked but in the way a superhero might be masked, so they can stand for a concept. The composition means the picture's emphasis falls not on their faces but their working hands, the masks just de-emphasises them further.

But this time the differences aren’t so much the differences between the two artists. Though separated by only five or six years, everything had changed in the meantime - they effectively belong to different eras. The NHS was bright and newly born when Hepworth drew it. As the Doctors work on the human body, so does post-war politics on the body politic and the sculptor on her block. (A comparison made directly in some of the other drawings, such as 'Fenestration of the Ear', 1948). Like the NHS, Hepworth sees art as playing a public role.

In these days of blockbuster shows and Tate expansionism its difficult to reconstruct just how much Modernism was initially shunned by a distrustful British public. Taking up internationalism meant quite literally to abandon nationalism – to turn against any possibility of a sizeable domestic audience. And yet, both Moore and Hepworth broke this bind to become popular artists. The show presents Hepworth as quite single-minded in her career, careful in how both her work and her own image were presented. (For example arranging her studio to be more photogenic. Film of her also excluded her assistants, fitting the 'single-handed genius' notion many then had of artists.) But while she might have helped herself along, that hardly seems the whole story.

Neither did Hepworth or Moore blunt their edge out of careerism. Firstly while their work can be talked about it doesn’t require explaining in the way, say, Cubism might. And people generally sense that it’s okay to look at a piece and simply say whether they like it or not. The public has a way in. But further, in a rare case of the ‘avant garde’ actually behaving the way its supposed to, it would be truer to say Britain finally caught up with them. There was a widespread post-war feeling that merely defeating fascism wasn’t enough - people didn’t want to go back to the way things were. Benevolent public institutions seemed our antidote to the ego of wartime dictators. This was to be the era of the Common Man.

So, living in a newly invented world, they needed a newly invented art to go with it. And alongside this reimagined nation, the internationalism of the Abstract Modernism era returns – only in a more optimistic, less defensive way. Hepworth submitting designs for the rebuilt Waterloo bridge and exhibiting in the 1951 Festival of Britain, celebrating post-war reconstruction, must be seen in this context. As Fiona McCarthy says, she was “eager to take an active part in Britain's postwar reconstruction - by making public sculpture for new schools, for civic centres, taking art out of the studio.”

The show displays 'The Quarrel With Realism', Le Corbusier's article from 1941 from the magazine 'Circle'. (Co-edited by Nicholson and with Hepworth was heavily involved.) “What will become of painting and sculpture? It would seem that these two major arts should accompany architecture. There is room for them there.” While Hepworth herself said in 1946 “one of the functions of sculpture is to fulfil the demands and conditions of a given site. Present conditions restrict this idea so that the sculptor works mainly in his studio and eventually, if he is fortunate, a suitable place is found for the sculpture by somebody who has the money to buy it. This means that the creation of large sculptures is restricted; but is partly compensated for by the growth among all kinds of people of a love for sculpture.... This kind of appreciation will help to develop the sense of form (nearly atrophied in Western civilization) until it becomes a part of our life in the way that poetry, music and painting have been and are increasingly part of our life.”

And the new taste for public projects proved both a context and a market for large, site-specific sculptor. Once a hospital might have hung in it's lobby a broad oil of its generous benefactor, for the rest of us to walk respectfully beneath. The creation of institutions such as the NHS allowed for sculpture to celebrate the doctor or surgeon, or perhaps just the idealised human form.

Perhaps the crescending example of this is her largest work, the 6.4 metre tall 'Single Form' outside the UN Secretariat Building in New York. It was built to commemorate the former Secretary General (and personal friend of hers) Dag Hammarskjöld, but of course is not at all a personal portrait. Speaking at its unveiling in 1964 she commented “the United Nations is our conscience. If it succeeds, it is our success. If it fails, it is our failure." (Moore similarly created a work for the UNESCO building in Paris in 1958.)

That much of the public art of this era, donated to public bodies or spaces, is now being sold to private hands or (yes really) carted off by banks encapsulates perfectly the difference between their era and ours. Everything not bolted down is now to be flogged off and everything bolted down to be unbolted on order for it to be flogged off. (It is of course worse when day centres close or one of the world’s richest countries leaves people to die of destitution. But that’s not a defence, just a way of reframing the same critique. Since when was that made the choice we had to make?)

As part of her plan to take art out the gallery and studio Hepworth made collage cut-outs of her sculptures, against both natural and architectural environments. (Some of which have only recently been rediscovered.) Being more abstract than Moore, her work perhaps fitted the urban environment better. But perhaps what's most surprising is how adaptable they are.

The snappily titled 'Photo-collage with Helicoids in Sphere in the Entrance Hall of Flats Designed by Alfred and Emily Roth and Marcel Brewat, Zurich' (1939, above), which was used for the poster image (up top) sees one of her works plinthed in a sleek Modernist pad, the sort of thing we saw Jacob Shulman photographing in 'Constructing Worlds'. A modernist work in a modernist environment - of course it fits! But when you see 'Photo-Collage with Helicoids in Sphere in the Garden of Redleaf, Penshurst' (1938, also above) it also fits - so well it takes you a moment to realise they're the same work. Similarly the later 'Theme on Electronics (Orpheus)' is shown at Mullard Electronics Centre in 1957. Yet there's also a photo of it from the previous year, in her garden. Hepworth's motive may well have been commercial, enhancing sale potential by expanding reach. But we're less interested in intent than effect. This ambidextorousness of her work is in itself a feature of her popularising of Modernism.

One Last Twist

In the mid-Fifties Hepworth made a series of works using the tropical hardwood Guarea. They're considerably larger works given a room of their own, recalling the Elm Figures of the Moore retrospective. And like the Moores they seem grand and ostentatious rather than potent. They look tasteful, like heirloom furniture. At the time I called the Moores “reassuring”. By that point he was washed up. But with Hepworth there's almost literally another twist.

The following room is given over to the bronzes she exhibited at the 1965 Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands. Much effort is put into recreating the once-outdoor pavilion indoors, even down to wallpapering the back wall with a forest scene. This is pointlessly gimmicky, but it doesn't matter much when the new material gives Hepworth such fresh life.

After the perfect geometry of earlier, surfaces are now roughly textured. If you encountered their mottled copper greens while walking outdoors, you'd be hard pressed to figure how naturally weathered they were. Spoke strings vanish while holes multiply and almost take over. Hepworth stretches and twists the material, in a way simply not possible with wood or stone. 'Oval Form (Trezian)' (1961/3, above) looks almost like an enlarged twist of tagliatelli. Other works seem to evoke geometric symmetry only to bend their way out of it, such as 'Curved Form (Trevalgan)' (1956, below). It's a long way from the direct carving days. The works don't necessarily look like they were made, it seems entirely possible they might have grown that way. Perhaps they were once purer forms, but were hurled into Hepworth's elemental sea and emerged looking like they do. They were compared at the time to the younger generation of sculptors associated with the term Geometry of Fear, such as Eduardo Paolozzi or William Turnbull.

Fiona McCarthy writes of the tendency of critics to place Hepworth in Moore's shadow. “When his triumphant 1948 exhibition at the Venice Biennale was followed by Hepworth's lower-key showing two years later, the international critics assumed she was his pupil.” And in some ways this continues. Though we may be less negative about women artists these days, perhaps Hepworth has been running with that handicap since then. Moore's most recent Tate retrospective was five years before this, without critics savaging it in the same way.

Yet however great an artist Moore was, Hepworth was almost certainly better. If the task of an artist is to capture their era, Hepworth took that task on more successfully. Yet paradoxically her art is also more fluid, less tied to a fixed meaning or set of meanings. And she carried on creating innovative works after Moore's effective career was over. She was Britain's best post-war sculptor.