The Haunt, Brighton, Tues 14th July
What happened to hip-hop... sometimes I feel it could break my heart. Pioneering bands like Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan audaciously tore music apart and reassembled it in a different order, to the point where it felt there was no real putting it back together again. They unleashed rule-breaking sonic assemblages which should by any rights have sounded insanely cacophonous but for some inexplicable reason always pulled together.
But all that innovation just led to the likes of Puff Daddy (or whatever he's called this week), rhyming badly about how many consumer durables he either owns or has for sale over some randomly chosen cheesy disco track. It went from the sonic equivalent of graffiti art, colourful unexpected and transformative, to the plain tagging of a wall.
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Nothing is more conservative than a failed revolution. And perhaps it's no different to the Beatles and the Stones “influencing” Oasis. But the result is that I tend to treat hip-hop the same way I do black metal. I love the idea of it, but so rarely do I take to any actual examples I figure I'm better off sticking with the idea.
Cannibal Ox, for example, get labelled 'underground hip-hop' when they are surely the truer inheritors of the great Wu-Tang tradition. Yet as Christopher Dare said in Pitchfork they're in many ways “like a musical negative, an inverse reflection of hip-hop history, full of everything DJ's cast aside, from Sega sound effects to electro-industrialism, gear-work grooves malfunctioning, synthesizers belching, a menagerie of digitalia.”
Like both Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan, they hail from New York and make urban music. Not in the marketing sense of 'made by black people and therefore most likely edgy', but reflecting the urban environment. Their classic, and until very recently only, album 'The Cold Vein' is dedicated to “New York City, the Mecca of Hip-hop” and seems inspired less by music history than by a walk around the city block.
Marshalling the insistent force of repetitive beats may inherently evoke the urban environment, as in the otherwise quite different Godflesh. Pere Ubu named an album 'Dub Housing' after seeing a street on repeat, repetitive beats evoke repetitive landscapes. But as William Burroughs said the city is itself like a real-world collage, things thrown together randomly and ever-shiftingly, and the lyrical logorrhea and sonic assemblage of Cannibal Ox's music takes in both.
'Cold Vein' slips from one line to the next between the social realism of streetwise ghetto tales, grandiosely science fiction images and Marvel comics references, never giving you the chance to catch up. (It's bizarre but not all that unusual for New York natives use both the real and the media image of city equally for inspiration, like one accentuates rather than dispels the other.) Its New York is a “rotten apple... evil at its core” and an Iron Galaxy, described by the somewhat excellently named Sumo Kaplunk as "like a wildlife documentary on the concrete jungle seen from an alien perspective”. The lyrics seem at once stream-of-consciousness surrealism (Vast Aire getting mid-way through one track, commenting he “used a word twice”, and going back to the start with a substitute term) and some fully fledged Burroughsian mythology, released in cut-up and piecemeal fashion.
“Now the environment's a product of me” they rap audaciously on 'Ox Out the Cage' (not alas, a track they perform live), which may be the key to the whole thing. It's like they've got a rhyme to counter every brick and body in the city, and figure they might as well set the lot off at once. A while ago we looked at the way George Bellows’ turn-of-the-century paintings of New York celebrated “the strenuous life”, and however different in style Can Ox’s turn-of-the-millennium music has same spirit to it – the individual in constant conflict between being crushed down by the mighty city and rising up to meet it. They become critics and embodiments of the city simultaneously, and like the city they're describing they're abrasive, overpoweringly forceful and strangely compelling all at once. Picking it as one of his favourite albums, the Guardian's Dan Hancox called it “the true soundtrack for the end times”. And its one of those releases that somehow doesn't stop, you can't imagine listening to and not hearing something new in it.
The alert reader may notice at this point in the gig review that I have not said much about the actual live performance. And its perhaps an irony of hip-hop that it started as a live affair, as a DJ and a rapper performing in a park, but soon became a studio sound. It passed quickly from its 'Hard Days Night' era to its 'Sergeant Pepper'. Part of its collage quality is to present sounds arranged at different levels, your ears assaulted from every angle. While a live PA can have a flattening and blurring effect, like watching a 3D movie without the special glasses. Indeed when their one-time collaborator, and 'Cold Vein' producer, El-P was in town I hummed and hawed over this, and ended up not going.
Their new album 'Blade of The Ronin' seems to have got the thumbsdown from critics, rather witheringly compared by Pitchfork to a new 'Paranormal Activity' sequel. Yet live I sometimes found myself favouring the new tracks, not having a recorded version in my head to hold them against.
On the other hand, rapping is about personality and the interplay of characters, possibly even more than punk. And its surprising how much being able to put a face to a voice has transformed the way I listen to 'Cold Vein'. Vast Aire is like the Chuck D of the band, an unstoppable force, gesticulatingly working the crowd as he spins lyrics. Yet Vordul Mega is less Flavour Flav than hip-hop's Brian Jones, a semi-spectral presence drifting across the stage with half-closed eyes.
I have already squirrelled away my ticket to GZA this Autumn, so expect further reports of live Hip-hop shortly...
Not from Brighton, but the classic album opener 'Iron Galaxy' from a Dutch festival on the same tour...
...and for the sake of comparison the studio version...
Barbican Centre, London, Sat 18th July
With a better claim than most to be the father of Minimalism, any appearance of the legendary Terry Riley is not something to be passed up. You would of course be disappointed if he was promising a programme of his best-loved tracks in note perfect order. But then of course his freeform methods of creating pretty much make that an impossibility from the get-go. Instead he's showing up for Station to Station, a self-styled post-Sixties Happening, where he'll compose a new piece while in situ (titled 'Bell Station III') while on view to visitors. And he'll perform it... well, this very evening. With Riley the unexpected is unsurprising.
And as he walks on he certainly looks the part, an almost perfect double for Robert Crumb's Mister Natural, even pressing his hands together when taking applause. Yet surprise arrives along with the other players. Minimalism normally operated through small ensembles, agile guerilla units against the regimented rows of symphony orchestras. Yet not only do countless players march on stage, they even bring with them a children's choir.
As the baton is passed back and forth between a solo Riley and these amassed ranks, the point of the exercise would seem to be a creative juxtaposition between the two. Yet the two were so different it was hard to even contrast them, it felt like two separate programmes spliced together. Worse, the ensemble's interruptions served to cut against the all-important mesmerising quality induced by Riley's performances.
The ensemble's pieces were palatable enough, the clear children's voices made them feel almost Christmasy (bizarrely enough for a hot July day), but in the twinkly rather than the schmaltzy sense. The best piece matched those freshwater voices against woozy jazz brass, finding a creative juxtaposition within a piece rather than between them. Yet overall they weren't especially memorable. If asked blind to guess their composer I would have suggested Sid Vicious or the guy who wrote the music for the R Whites lemonade ad before ever coming up with Riley.
Riley's solo performances took advantage of their un-ensembled nature to become more free-form, and were most likely semi-improvised. They also meshed well with Austin Meredith's film backdrop which, with its held semi-abstract images, was involving without being attention-grabbing. He swapped instruments for each piece, and for his best number took to what I assumed was an electric organ but discovered later was a synth... well he was playing it like an electric organ. The notes naturally swirled and clustered around the instrument, as if making patterns in the air. It bore a similarity to the classic 'Persian Surgery Dervishes'.
But his raga singing and prepared piano were listenable yet not exceptional. Anyone blind-dating the gig, hoping to catch up with what made Riley so important... well, in all honesty I don't think they would.
It might be overtly romantic to expect the man to still be making music as innovative and captivating as in the days of yore. It might be verging on contradictory to demand something brand new that also holds up against past triumphs. At the age of eighty, the remarkable thing might be he's still producing work at all. And ultimately it doesn't really matter. Riley's longevity was assured a long time ago, and proven more fittingly two years ago in this very venue when two separate ensembles performed two wildly different versions of his classic 'In C'. Musicians often face a dilemma between enabling new work to happen or keeping alive the great compositions of the past. With Riley's indeterminate, unprescriptive scores there's no need for such concerns. Every time someone plays one of his works it will sound new.
Events conspired against my seeing any other Station to Station events. I would have been curious to see Suicide's Punk Mass, keen for Beck and would have loved to see the Boredoms with eighty-eight cymbal players – but alas events intervened. Whether the whole event truly was a Happening or merely a festival trading under a more attention-grabbing name, I'm not really the one to ask. I retain, however, my natural skepticism. Getting to see rehearsals live seems a bit of a thing currently (PJ Harvey was also at it earlier in the year), but feels more like the logical next step from the way everything – including rehearsal tapes – now gets released. But witnessed rehearsals doesn't seem very much to do with the 'no audience' spirit of happenings. I took in two art instillations while at the complex which were notably not just bad but bad in identical ways – gimmickry stuffed with New Age platitudes.
A different performance inside a video instillation in France three years ago. Only excerpts but sounding distinctly better than the night I went to...
...plus some classic back-in-the-day footage, just because it would be foolish not to...