Saturday, 21 July 2018


Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, Thurs 12th July

On my second sighting of the Cosmic Dead, 
I remain as convinced as ever of the virtue of their collision of space rock with noise. (And before anyone starts, I know officially space has no sound to make noise in.)

Among the many reasons to despise New Age music is it’s fondness for star field backdrops, like they see the universe as some giant chill-out room complete with twinkly little lights. The cosmos… the actual cosmos is vast, unknowable, full of convulsive forces which would tear us apart in an instant. The drummer’s T-shirt promises “the light will devour us all”, which seems to sum the whole thing up quite nicely.

In fact since last time the band have had their own upheavals, and now sport both a new drummer and keyboard player. They start, perhaps unexpectedly, by singing and playing along to the pre-show Abba track over the PA. They then launch into a full-on noise number, with just a repeatedly chanted mantra vocal at the centre of the primordial chaos. This proved a baptism of fire for some, and numbers had thinned out before that track was done. Each to their own, I suppose.

Things coalesce a little more after that initial big bang. The penultimate track even has something of a groove, with the singer spinning seemingly spontaneous words about seagulls. (After someone in the audience kept shouting about them.)

Then the final number is lumbering, monstrous and very definitely riff-led. As if the sonic assault wasn’t enough on it’s own the band, while playing, dismantle the crowd barriers and venture out into the audience. As they handed out mikes to budding primal screamers, I assumed things would only degenerate, plunging into ear-shredding chaos until the plug was pulled. But they somehow managed to regroup back on stage and hammer that riff back into shape.

Which seemed to sum up the whole thing. They’re illustrating very much the opposite of the steady stake theory of the universe. Creation and destruction not as opposing poles but ebbing and flowing tides of energy. You’re probably wondering if I’m going to go on and say it was both lucid and frenzied. The answer is yes. Yes I am.

Lo-fi but from yer actual gig! Watch out for your lugholes…

The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 14th July

Preoccupations channel the music of the post-punk era, to the point be they could be a Factory signing who somehow fell through a time vortex and found themselves in contemporary Canada. There’s the freak disco of A Certain Ratio (as sighted only recently and in this very venue), 
to the point that when they spot a mirror ball aloft they ask for it to be lit up. But there’s also the haunted spaces of Joy Division and the “raining shards of glass” guitar sound of Keith Levene.

The guitarists often swap over to keyboards, though you’d often not know which was chosen sight unseen. Band member Scott Munro has commented “my ultimate goal would be to make a record where nobody knows what instrument is playing ever.”

They use cross-rhythms, the drummer in particularly could often be playing in the opposite direction to the rest of the band. (In, you know, a good way.) But the rhythms are themselves often pretty off-kilter, which makes for music weird down to it’s very marrow. The result sounds spectral and visceral at the same time, like a hand passing through a wall that still punches you in the chest.

Most people will know about the controversy over the band’s original name. Now they are no longer trading at Viet Cong, there doesn’t seem much reason to still bring the thing up. But in a way it shows how dodginess differs through the generations. Sixties anti-war activists would often uncritically champion the Viet Cong, in order to neatly divide the world into Yankee Imperialists and freedom fighters. Whereas now the term’s just become a sign, detached from any context and interchangeable with other signs - the way the coins in your pocket are interchangeable. And the only thing worse than bad politics is no politics.

Different venue but same tour…

The Dome, Brighton, Tues 17th July

Despite his high reputation and multiple years of service, I wasn’t previously very up on American country artist Steve Earle. In fact the catch-up nature of the experience reminded me of seeing Richard Thompson in this venue seven years ago.

So much so, in fact, I’d be tempted to call Earle the Richard Thompson of country. Both have been making music since the late Sixties (’68 and ’67 respectively). Both gigs focused on recent material but kept up a high hit rate, despite Earle playing the best part of two hours. Both gigs focused on roots music, but weren’t so exclusive as not to pull on several roots. Earle took in rock’n’roll and blues, including a cover of ‘Hey Joe’.

Earle is regarded as a more political songwriter than Thompson, something that comes up in his choice of emblem (a skull combined with a hammer and sickle) and his ’tween-song chat. (He is, it transpires, not the greatest fan of his current President. Can’t imagine why.) But rather than polemics he mostly writes character songs, which is often the best way into politics anyway, so even there the difference isn’t so great.

There was a strangely familiar deja vu effect where I’d keep imagining I’d heard songs before. Even if I have heard more Earle than I remember, it couldn’t have been in those numbers. I suspect it’s more a mark of their rootsiness, they work in so well they feel like they’re already in your blood on first hearing.

I may be remiss not just on Earle but Country in general. After the Thompson gig, I did manage to catch up on him at least a little. Whereas, several years back, after seeing Emmylou Harris (again in this venue) I vowed to start digging into her catalogue. But alas life intervened. There’s neither enough hours in the day, nor days in the week. Hopefully, I’ll have more luck in Earle’s case. If anyone has a favourite album to recommend…

From the gig! Yes, really, from the gig…

De-la-Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sun 15th July

This “dispersion” was described by organisers Lost Property 
as “an all day building takeover at the historic and magnificent De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill”, as a warm-up for the full-on Fort Process in September.

Among all the noise assaults and musical experimentalism, The Legend of St. Winiborde was something of a surprise - though a welcome one. It was effectively a throwback to 1972, when folk music, left field strangeness and children’s TV didn’t seem like exclusive categories. It was a part sung part narrated fable, somewhat in the tradition of Oliver Postgate. The music went from charming naive melodies, illustrated by both the calm measured-voiced narration and the slideshow of simple lino cut drawings, to stranger instrumental sections.

Ostensibly it was quite a conservative story, how the natural harmony of a society is disrupted by someone who dares question things. Yet the evil apprentice figure became semi-sympathetic, perhaps even the protagonist. In other words, even his disruption became part of the natural order.

Whereas Plurals most definitely were leaving behind standard instrumentation. Two of the trio had guitars, but used them sparingly and as input devices, rather than as primary instruments. They also utilised radio voices, though I’m not sure whether they were recorded or plundered live from the airwaves.

The most common complaint about this sort of music is that it doesn’t go anywhere. But that’s just imposing rules on it from other genres, which don’t apply. First, it did develop, in the sense of shifting gears, building sounds up until they mulched into a drone, they graffiti-ing noise guitar on that wall of sound, before returning to the more ambient beginning.

But more importantly, it’s not intending to go anywhere so much as open up a space for you to get lost in. The band’s name surely comes from adding things together, not taking them forward. But there’s more to it than that…

Recently deceased Steve Ditko, genius comics creator (hurrah!) and Objectivist tub-thumper (boo!) took as his credo the phrase “a thing is what it is”. And if that sounds confining then fortunately its not even true on it’s own terms. Metamorphosis happens in nature all the time, and failure to notice it is Cro Magnon thinking calling itself common sense.

And a great appeal of this type of music is that a thing doesn’t have to be what it is, that it can’t be broken back down into notes like a sentence into syllables. Particularly with the addition of the radio voices, it had a liminal ‘between stations’ feel. Even what you hear you only semi-discern, like spying the shapes of objects in the fog.

Pursuing the radio metaphors, Johanna Bramli was less on my wavelength. Her set had its moments but was marred for me by some saccharine la-la vocals, which I just found New Agey.

The visuals, on the other hand… There’s no absolute need for a visual element to this type of music. The only thing I’d say is when there isn’t, arranging things in a traditional audience/ performer face-off becomes a bit redundant. But when there is, it should be done like this. Anything suggesting the tropes of rock videos or even any kind of narrative is clearly out.

This focused on “the brink of nature”, as the indicia said to an otherwise unremarkable exhibition elsewhere in the De La Warr. It’s the point where the natural tips into the abstract - roving close-ups of the pattern of tree bark, rock surfaces or the tide lapping on the shore. It’s not about introducing the foreign but reframing what you already see, finding the strange in the familiar.

The one thing you could say about this warm-up, without fear of contradiction, was that it was quite definitely warm. The De La Warr was essentially built for days like this, when the Channel becomes a turquoise colour field you could almost mistake for the Med, and ‘the English Riviera’ almost becomes a viable concept. (I took a few snaps, which I’ll post at some point.)

And Bolide were to conclude the afternoon playing from the outside bandstand. It would have been splendid to soak up their sounds and the sun from deckchairs, in such salubrious surroundings. Alas they were beset by sound problems, meaning half the band couldn’t hear the other half. (Something of an impediment for improvised music.) 

It concluded with someone audibly exclaiming “Thank God that’s over!”, who turned out to be a band member. Still, a grand day out overall - with the full Fort Process yet to come. It was a highlight of last year’s season, so hopes are high.

St. Winiborde and Plurals, though neither from the Dispersion…

Us true obsessives then hung around, littering up the normally neat De La Warr past sundown, awaiting...

De-la-Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sun 15th July

is a series where Radio 3 tour new music venues to broadcast… well, new music. I think I have previously seen precisely two events which might be described as new music at the De La Warr, one of which was earlier that day. CafĂ© Oto it ain’t. But no matter, it’s a decent venue.

I only really took to one track from Jobina Tinnemans’ set, ’Silt’, where strummed strings were combined with some almost Goblin-like otherworldly vocals. In general, her work seems to stem from specific places and aiming to convey the weirdness of the local landscape. But that track, written about and first performed in Iceland, seemed the only one to genuinely stir up something.

Conrad Sheldrake’s shtick was to turn samples into songs - combining sound files as though they were instruments, one as the bass line, another the rhythm track and so on. He’d often run through those samples before launching into the song, foregrounding the elements which made up the collage.

His first song was dedicated to Carroll and Lear, and generally things had a comedic, absurdist edge to them. Which is something inherent in pop music anyway, waiting to be drawn out, the thin line between “Awop bop a loo bop a lop bom bom” and “Goo goo g’job.”

I kept feeling I should have liked his set more than I did. He was doing the sort of stuff I’d normally go for and was executing it effectively. The only formal drawback was his less than characterful voice. But, at least to me, he somehow failed to achieve lift-off. There was perhaps too much of an emphasis on cleverness, which can mar the bright clear pictures of pop songwriting.

It may well be that neither were natural live performers, so we were not hearing them at their best. (Rather summed up by the description of “sound artist Jobina Tinnemans performing a piano-based set”.) There’s something almost animist to electroacoustic music, as if sounds are held to embody a spirit, and so work like spells upon the listener. Whereas once the sound is detached from its source it becomes like a butterfly on a pin, something merely aesthetic.

In Sheldrake’s case, the set may have worked better had the sound files had been linked to film clips. By seeing those sounds produced (even if not live) may have linked them more with their source in our minds. But you have to take what you get.

My heart did not leap at the news Trevor Watts and Verion Weston played free jazz, a genre to which my general reaction is “respectfully disagree”. But parts of their set ventures into blues and soul, at times played surprisingly straight, at others put through some kind of organic distortion filter. True, at others, they veered back over to the other side of the highway. But I fared better than my expectation.

In the end, none of the three acts really grabbed me. Each seemed in it’s turn like the other act, the bit I was willing to sit through before my thing came on. So the night was neither a resounding success nor a crashing failure. Based on this exposure, I’d say the state of new music is fair to middling.

You can hear the whole thing on Radio 3 from Thursday.

Coming soon! After that surprise burst of music stuff in a normally relaxed July, the gig-going will now abate for more than a month. At which point the September spate will most likely arrive in earnest. Until then…

Saturday, 14 July 2018


To be precise, Inverness, gateway to the Highlands. More Scottish pics to follow at some point. As ever, full set on 500px.

Coming soon! Well hopefully, me getting some data from my dead old hard drive. Otherwise, very little coming soon...

Saturday, 7 July 2018


Old computer now deaded. In the midst, I kid not, of my writing my most scintillating newest blog post. Replacement purloined, despite dent caused in pocket of public sector worker. Hence my ability to write these words. But now that post plus others imprisoned on old machine. (Don't ask me if it was backed up unless you want to see a grown man cry.) The lead they sold me to transfer data over doesn't fit one of the machines. To be precise, it doesn't fit the new machine they were selling me the very same time as the lead. Should those posts ever be liberated from their current captivity you'll be the first to know. In the meantime, here is some light music...

Saturday, 30 June 2018


De-la-Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, Wed 27th June

This improvising trio got me trekking out to Bexhill through the legendary Yoshimi, here trading as YoshimiO, previously seen playing with Japanese noisenauts Boredoms and her own band OOIOO. I only found out on arriving that they also comprised Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, also known to answer to Lichens, who I’d previously seen playing with trance-out wizards Om. (The third player, Susie Ibarra, stems more from the jazz world and was previously unknown to me.)

Ironic then, that Om provided the closest match to them. Certainly they were neither as song-based as OOIOO nor as devilishly destructive as the Boredoms. Though that match worked more in terms of spirit than sound, the promoters explaining Lowe’s “practice is strongly rooted in exploration of moments and the hypnagogic state.”

Unlike so much impro music they weren’t ceaselessly frenetic but measured. And, perhaps not entirely by coincidence, each player took up their principal instrument and worked it. YoshimiO and Ibarra, facing one another, drummed together. Yet Lowe’s electronic contributions, more often than tones or squelches, produced more beats. The result was quite a rhythmic set for an impro outfit, even if those rhythms were quite unorthodox.

They sometimes sounded like a string quartet squashed flat by a steam roller, at others like the waddling of a bug. (Think of the Fall of ‘Bug’s Life’ or ‘Dr. Buck’s Letter’.) Instead of a ready-made contrast you therefore got a much more creative interplay.

And atop the rhythms both YoshimiO and Lichens sang. At times they genuinely sang, at others they seemed to have become mantra monks gone mad or taken up Dr. Doolittle’s talk-to-the-animals routine. Quite early on, I became convinced that YoshimiO had hit on a means of calling to an ancient aquatic race, and that they’d soon be stepping out the sea and heading for the venue.

Combinations of impro artists seem to come and go with bewildering speed, the speed daters of the music scene. While others like the Necks can last for decades. The plan seems to be to make Yunohana Variations into a going concern, and we can only hope that happens.

Same tour, different night...

Saturday, 23 June 2018


Tate Modern, London

”Art must be everywhere – on the streets, in trams, in factories, in workshops, in worker’s apartments.”
- Mayakovsky

Art Made For Sharing

This is the third art exhibition I’ve seen devoted to the centenary of the Russian Revolution. And what might sound like overkill doesn’t even feel like enough. Partly because of the importance of the event, partly because each show had the smarts to take on it’s own remit. 

Only the Royal Academy’s ‘Revolution’ boldly tried to capture everything, by packing out it’s succession of cavernous Victorian rooms. The Design Museum’s ‘Imagine Moscow’ took unrealised architecture, albeit exploiting the (considerable) overlap between architectural plans and art. 

While this show focuses on posters, graphics and art for reproduction. Designer David King amassed a vast collection of the stuff, totalling over 250,000 objects, before his unfortunate demise the year before last, bequeathing the lot to the Tate.

As previously seen, the painters more-or-less divided between those who took up the revolution and those who took advantage of its new-found freedoms. Whereas every single one of these images was purposefully made as agitprop. (The term ‘agitprop’ even stems from this time, via the Department for Agitation and Propaganda.) Some even came with an injunction that to tear them down was a “counter-revolutionary act!”

At one point there’s a photo of St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum in 1941, which instead of art merely displays empty frames. The actual art was being more safely stored in the basement, from fear of Nazi bombing. But the image still tells a poetic truth. Because of course reproductive art was the logical place for agitprop to go. As the show puts it:

“Unlike the precious, unique paintings and sculptures owned by the ruling class before the revolution… the mass produced image...became the focus of the new artistic culture… Art became accessible to millions through prints, posters, journals and photobooks.”

Production itself was often a “collective practice”. To this day we still don’t know who some of these artists were.

And so this message mixed with the medium. In ‘Soviet Union Art Exhibition’ (Victoria Kulagina, 1931, above) it’s as if the poster’s not just dominated but being put up by the construction worker within it, the upper left edge fuzzy as if still being stuck down.

While the lithograph ’The Train Has Reached Us From Far Away With Precious Gifts’ (unknown artists, 1919, below) is a poster which shows the effect of all these posters (if, inevitably, in an idealised form). A train unloads not food or machine parts but books, with figures who look like they should be unpacking already avidly reading. There are murals alongside the side of the train, which also adorned trams and even steamers.

With the first room working as a kind of ante-chamber, entering the exhibition proper you’re hit with a wall full of these propaganda posters. Described by Michael Glover in the Independent as “a furious flurry of visual stimulation”, it’s an early injunction not to generalise. There’s abstract art marshalled into political purpose, stuff so crudely straightforward as to effectively be folk art next to modelled and fully realised figures, boldly Futuristic geometry, full-on science fiction, in the many languages spoken across Russia. See for example the eyeball-assaulting apocalyptic ’The Nightmare of Future Wars’ (1920, below), written in Tartar.

”The Time of Monsters”

But let’s step back a second to the art of the first, failed revolution of 1905. Neither of the other exhibitions stretched back this far. While King devoted a whole book to it; his first, ‘Blood and Laughter: Caricatures From the 1905 Revolution’ (1983). As Cathy Porter describes in the introduction, “a flood of satirical journals poured from the presses, honouring the dead and vilifying the mighty [containing] drawings of frenzied immediacy and extraordinary technical virtuosity.” King estimates there were more than 380 of these journals, dodging their way through or just defying censorship. These were cheaply printed, often in black and white or with one spot colour. (With blood red a favourite.)

Alas the exhibition rather sidelines these, neither starting with nor devoting much space to them. Perhaps because they're not really Modernist, there’s no causal link, no neat timeline, by which they can be roped up to Malevich’s black square or Lissitzky’s red wedge. They are, in short, unTateworthy. Yet this is precisely what makes them both interesting and powerful.

Perhaps partly because the Russia of 1905 was still-more backward than of 1917, they’re rooted in folk images. They sometimes echo the tradition of the World Turned Upside Down, one even featuring the classic image of of a man bearing a donkey. But while that tradition was based around an annual festival, these images are not celebratory but morbid and funereal. After all, this period was sparked by a massacre – Bloody Sunday. (January 1905, when Tsarist troops opened fire on an unarmed demonstration.)

Skeletons, black horses and carrion birds endlessly recur. Their world seems an inversion of peasant life, where the land yields up only death. In ’Future Fable About Present Reality’ (1906) Death draws a line of black warhorses to drink from a blood river; in the back cover to ‘Bee’ (1906) a skeleton farms skulls and bones; while ‘Field, Oh Field Who Has Strewn Thee With Dead Bodies?’ (1906) is self-explanatory.

Police reports often referred to the contributors not as communists or anarchists but nihilists. Though in Russia there was a self-avowed Nihilist movement, the term’s most probably being bandied as a cross between a generic description and a smear, as ‘anarchist’ so often is. Yet despite all this, it’s oddly appropriate for the images’ tone. And as this would be a revolution that would fail, this makes them seem fitting as we look back on them.

But their defining characteristic is the marriage of the scathingly satirical to the phantasmagorical. Hence for example ’The Moscow Vampire’ (1906) is a monsterised version of Moscow’s oppressive Governor-General Dubasov. In one publication Gorky described the old order as “more animal than human. Morbid, lustful, intoxicated with suffering, cruelty and blood, their one aim to gorge themselves, their one pleasure to have power over others”. Gramsci was to say “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters”. (True,not until 1930 and it’ssomething of a mistranslation. Butit’s too appropriate not to use.)

But when you combine the conventions of political cartoons with phantasmagorical imagery, aren’t they actually more likely to clash? One is by nature demeaning, bringing down the mighty and powerful. (Think of our current crop of Tsars and Governor-Generals – Theresa May, Boris Johnston, Donald Trump. Do they resemble all-powerful otherworldly monsters, or are they just petty creatures, fumbling with powers handed to them by their money and status, walking examples of the banality of evil?)

While the other is by nature unnatural, suggesting things on the border of our perceptions, whose mere existence may be enough to break our world apart. Fantastical literature often makes explicit the notion of the liminal, spaces overlapping ours which we’ve so long trained ourselves to shield our eyes from that we no longer realise they exist. They never look like metaphors, they look more like the fullness of reality laid bare now the artist has stripped the illusions from our eyes.

Furthermore, personifications of concepts can be frustratingly anti-political, a way of shutting down any consideration of the social causes of phenomena. War and Famine just show up like surprise guests, arbitrary arrivals. But here they’re so visceral! Those shrieking faces simultaneously shock us and mock us with their familiarity. They never seem reducible to allegory, even if that was their original impetus.

Boris Kustodiev’s ’Invasion’ (1905, above) did make it into the show, albeit retitled to ’Moscow: Entry’, and is interesting for two reasons. First it has compositional similarities to his later ’The Bolshevik’ (1920), discussed as part of the Academy show. Both feature a gargantuan figure striding out of an avenue, which lies like a ditch around his ankles, coming towards the viewer. But these similarities merely underline the differences.

His Bolshevik stands boldly upright, face proud yet impassive. He arises out of the masses who surround his feet, their champion. Whereas the invading skeleton steps into a no-mans-land between two warring groups, representing neither side but the conflict itself. Hunched, grimacing, bloodied in hand and foot, he’s a feral beast.

There’s a similarity between him and the horse-riding skeleton of ’Peace and Quiet’, (1906) who gallops over a landscape strewn with corpses. The situation depicted is not triumphalist but out of all control… in fact the artwork itself seems out of all control! The artist seems merely a seismograph, a mute witness, channelling forces beyond him.

Factories Make Workers

Dmitri Moor’s post-revolutionary ‘Death To World Imperialism’ (1919) similarly personalises the enemy, in a work as visually striking as any of its 1905 forebears. But two things happen at once. The art is much sharper and slicker, coloured concentric circles making up an elegant sun. And the fiery-eyed serpent is not some beast from beyond but a clear visualisation of capitalism. It might as well have the word stamped on it, as allegorical cartoons can do.

While the amassed, unified ranks of sailors, workers and peasants are not victims beneath it but worthy adversaries. It’s like the conceit in a horror film where being able to name the monster, reduce it to a specific meaning, is akin to being able to defeat it.

For all that, however, the monster figure is still characterised as unnatural. The serpent does not belong to the buildings (seemingly a fusion of factory and living space), it’s extra-diegetic, a thing from outside inserted between the workers and their workplace. In many ways understandably, given that this was during the war with the Whites, when Russia was under attack. But which still suggests that all that’s wrong with capitalism is the capitalist, that the problem of capitalism reduces to a problem of ownership.

After all, through this time wage labour wasn’t just continuing but being ruthlessly expanded. Though it may be we see the weakness of such an image more clearly now. For as time went on such images of monstrous capitalists became more and more anti-semitic, built on the insidious lie that once we rid ourselves of one scapegoat group all will be fine.

Similarly Adolf Strakhov’s ’Emancipated Woman: Build Socialism’, (1926, above) aligns and compares the red banner of the poster girl with the factory chimneys. She herself has not just a steely gaze but a metallic grey complexion, as she looks past us to the future. You’ve compared her to machinery before you even meant to.

While in Aleksandr Deneka’s ’A Puzzle For the Old Man’ (1926, above), God gazes aghast at women labouring in a factory. In another meta device a thick black frame is introduced in order to place him outside of it, gazing as if through a window. The ‘natural order’ of things is reversed. Unlike the serpent, God’s already been banished.

”The Journey of Modernisation”

Gustav Klutsis’s ’Under the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin’ (1933, above) is a clear echo of Isaac Brodsky’s painting ’Vladimir Lenin and a Demonstration’ (1919), again part of the Academy show. In both, scale displays the relative importance of the revolutionary leader and the masses. With the twin exceptions that Klutsis is less interested in fidelity to pictorial space, and that he gives us four leaders for our money. 

Of course, this is Stalin keen to insert himself into a lineage, as usurping Kings would. (Though he later had Klutsis killed regardless. Contrary to the official slogan, the innocent had very much to fear.) But more’s going on...

Under the four heads there’s an orthodox Marxist version of a Darwinian timeline, more clearly viewable in a larger version here. To the left, under Marx, they’re something of a disordered rabble, clutching primitive weapons. (Presumably representing the revolts of 1848.) By the time we reach Stalin they’re marching boldly out of the frame, beneath a power line. And these evolutionary timelines, described in the guidebook as “the journey of modernisation”, are everywhere.

Alexander’s Dienkenka’s 1937 mural plans for the Soviet Pavilion at the International Exposition only exist as three ‘painterly sketches’, which the show arranges as originally planned. Two long works, labelled ‘1917’ (above) and ‘1937’ are placed facing one another and leading into a third - ’Stakhanovites, 1937’. Each long work effectively doubles as a timeline in it’s own right; in ‘1917’ ostensibly workers take up arms for the revolution but they also leave the fields for the town. 

In ‘Stakhanovites’ a parade of model workers stride boldly out of the frame. The once ubiquitous revolutionary red now exists only at the sides of the image, the main figures are in shades of white which barely distinguish themselves from their background. It’s as if they’re marching into a secularised heaven.

At one point in the show a schoolbook quotes Lenin: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”. Communism and industry were then seen as synonymous. History was teleological, urbanisation and industrialisation were not merely prerequisites for communism, but steps in it’s inevitable development. 

In short, as part of their factory fetish, history was itself conceived of as a production line. Basic materials went in one end, and were transformed by inexorable processes into sophisticated products. And people were similarly transformed through this process, from simple peasants into self-aware proletarians. Except unlike famous quasi-Darwinian timeline instead of an abstracted upright man at the far end, in this quasi-communist variant there’s a worker with a cap clutching a hammer.

Today, as we’re mired so deeply in neoliberalism, those neat lines look absurd and schematic. But back then it was widespread. True, it’s so widely disseminated in the posters as it was such a handy get-out for the Bolsheviks. Anyone who pointed out that they were still wage-labourers working for a boss class could be dismissed as overly impatient. All we had to do was wait for things to take their course. (Contrary to popular belief they never actually claimed the Soviet Union was communist, instead it was held to be ‘socialist’ or proto-communist.) But it wasn’t a notion which started with, nor was limited to them. Which only made its use more effective in their hands.

The Fold-Out Future

What might be the most ingeniously creative material of the show are the “montage books” of El Lissitzky and Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers, or Rodchenko and Stepanova, an outpouring of ingenuity – often with elaborate inserts and fold-outs. ’USSR In Construction’ (1935, cover above), was roughly A3 in size, its twelfth issue ambitiously featuring a fold-out parachute. Its subject matter was always some aspect of the USSR and it was perhaps a metonym of the USSR as it saw itself – bold, over-size, innovative.

El Lissitzky himself insisted ”in the new order of society there will no longer be small groups producing luxuries for a restricted stratum of society but… work [will be] done by everyone for everyone.” Yet despite such lofty goals, the show suggests these fancy affairs, with their high production values, were more often used to impress foreign contacts than shown to the workers.

For the 1928 International Press Exhibition Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin designed ’The Task of The Press is the Education of the Masses’ a twenty-three metre photomontage also reproduced as a brochure. In yet another meta gesture it’s subject was the Soviet Pavilion itself (below), with it’s three-dimensional and mobile elements.

Yet we were feeling exceptionally skeptical, we could claim the Pavilion was an idealised version of a factory sprung from the brow of a clean-fingered Futurist, like Alexander Dienka’s ’Textile Workers’ (again from the Academy show) full of smoothly moving parts, without the grease and sweat.

From Tragedy To Farce

King collected so many pictures of Trotsky his house came to be nicknamed “Trotski-lodge”. And he wrote a whole book, ’The Commissar Vanishes’ (1997) on Stalin’s subsequent attempts to ‘disappear’ him and other similarly inconvenient figures from history.

Here a room is given over to reiterating this point. Though it’s a point most were familiar with to start with. And if anything these laboursome pre-Photoshop patch-ups seem innocents in the art of smooth stage-managed lying, compared to Fox News and Russia Today. The time spent on them seems still more mistaken when you think how quickly 1905 was rushed over.

Admittedly, it best demonstrates what a black farce the purges were, like a game of Murder in the Dark with deadly consequences. This is best caught by the cover of King’s book (below); as more and more of Stalin’s compatriots displease him they’re removed, until the whole group is gone – leaving him alone.

And something else crops up. When we look back on the era, our natural tendency is to assume everyone sussed Stalinism but also saw the sense in staying scutum. But the show also displays personal copies of official photos, also amended. Some reviews suggested this would have been done out of compliance or fear, but the images themselves don’t back that up.

Some have the offending figure neatly cut out as if that image was cancerous, in others it’s vigorously excised in a frenzy of scratching – either way, unlike the more surgical official changes, the eye’s naturally taken to the act of elimination. A fearful soul would more likely have thrown away the whole photo. They’re more the actions of someone, after a bitter break-up, scouring their ex from their holiday snaps. Which may suggest more kept the faith under Stalinism than we like to think.

Propaganda As Mass Production

After a Thirties largely devoted to Uncle Joe and glowing grain fields the war years saw a new quality in propaganda art, perhaps reflecting its newfound purpose. Even the hand-stencilled images of the Civil War era returned, out of sheer necessity, often produced by TASS (the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union). But the formal similarity reveals the changes. These works are much slicker, and so look more modern – in the wrong way. Once everything looked slightly rough and ready, like maps scrawled quickly on a napkin of places semi-built. Now it looks realised, complete, no space for change or addition. This is propaganda as mass production.

After Stalin had reversed many of the equality measures for women, war requirements drove a return to the emancipation imagery, as seen earlier with Strakhov. Fedor Antonov’s ’Let’s Rebuild Stalingrad’ (stencil poster, 1943, above) features a woman brickie. Though, sporting some unlikely lipstick, she looks more like a posing model while the less photogenic workers are kept out of sight. It suggests by this point that Moscow was competing with Hollywood as much as Washington. And for another example take Victor Koretsky’s photo-posters, often retouched with paint to achieve the required hyper-reality. (See ’Red Army Soldier, Save Us’, 1942, below).

Similarly, the photographs of Yevgeny Khaldei are searingly powerful images. In ‘Murmansk’ (1941, below), the remaining chimney breasts of the bombed city standing like graves to the gone buildings, reminds you of Ballard’s phrase “war is surreal”. But he was not above pasting in those foreboding clouds from another image. He also took the famous ’Soviet Soldiers Raising the Red Flag Over the Reichstag’ (1945) as Berlin was taken, which most people now know was staged.

Learning Nothing From History (A How-to Guide)

Michael Glover commented in the Independent “this exhibition is for the likes of we old-guard pinkish nostalgists”. And sadly he may be right. In a complete contrast to the endless swill unleashed during the centenary of the First World War, and despite the two events being so inimically connected, it’s notable how muted the centenary of the Revolution has been. In fact it’s barely been noted outside of galleries, reduced to an aesthetic movement. (When, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated, you can’t even understand the art without the political context.)

But alas even that has been under attack. Numerous educated idiots have been insisting these shows should never have happened, lest it lead attendees to try and re-annexe East Germany after they’ve exited via gift shop. (Which seems part of a wider trend. There was for example Peter Hitchen’s absurd response to the black comedy ‘The Death of Stalin.’)

The point here isn’t that I’m not a Stalinist, though obviously I’m not. The point is that I don’t even know any bloody Stalinists, because it’s not a remotely credible position. So the notion that “the metropolitan elite” had some secret Stalinist agenda to unload, via the cunningly devised means of curating shows at central London galleries… of course it’s beyond ludicrous. King himself devoted a whole book to cataloguing the terror of Stalinism (‘Ordinary Citizens: The Victims of Stalin’, 2003), a subject which came up in all three exhibitions. Stalin bad. Known thing.

A favourite argument was to ask whether there’d be a similar exhibition of fascist art. Somewhat overlooking the Tate’s Futurist and Vorticist shows. Or the Estorick collection of (mostly) Futurist art now celebrating its twentieth year. All achieved without attracting Antifa mobs.

But then of course the point of such stuff isn’t to sound convincing, it’s to set an agenda. It’s the equivalent of a boxer taking a broad swipe. He know it won’t land, he just wants to keep his opponent on the defensive. You can respond by insisting you don’t support Stalinism, only to be endlessly told your protestations are too feeble and you need to try harder. Pretty soon, you’ve devoted days to the hopeless task. While all the time the actual questions go unasked.

Besides, if we’re to reduce art to it’s political surroundings in this crudely deterministic way shouldn’t we be saying that, for example, Turner exhibitions shouldn’t go ahead because of the horrors associated with enclosure and enforced industrialisation? If you’re going to be an idiot, you could at least be a consistent idiot.

But more to the point, this is from the very same berks who tell us we need to “listen” to the far right, because otherwise we’re not being “inclusive”. We all became wearily familiar with the false equivalence between fascism and communism, where calling for all Jewish, gay and disabled people to be murdered was seen as interchangeable with saying workers should get the gains of their own labours. But now we’re sufficiently softened up by that, to the point everyone repeats it back without ever thinking to run a sanity check on it, it’s time for the next step.

From now on, we need to listen to fascists, otherwise it isn’t fair. But no-one should ever listen to us, because that wouldn’t be fair. Quick, look away! Don’t even consider the idea another world might be possible. It’s like stepping on the cracks. Those Russian bears will get you.

Coming soon! More behind-the-times art reviews...

Saturday, 9 June 2018


Brighton Dome, Sat 2nd June

Time was, when Smith was most decidedly retired and my chances of catching her live were nil. Now I’ve seen her so many times (most recently here) that her son Jackson, who used to stand out as the token young person of the band, now blends right in. I didn’t even know who he was till Mom introduced him. And though those gigs have often varied widely in nature, they’ve one constant…

What should be a staple feature of seeing an artist live, being in a room crammed with other devotees, gets turned up to eleven. There’s more audience euphoria after each track than most artists can muster for a finale. One voice cries out “marry my Dad!”, while pointing furiously at the seat next to his. Other artists might have clocked up more hits, but there’s things you can’t buy in the shops.

One caveat, however. When Smith returned, with 1996’s ‘Gone Again’, she defeated expectations by bringing out new material which matched the old. But it’s now been five years since the last, ‘Banga’. And this is very much an oldies set, featuring nothing more recent than from ‘Gone Again’ and merely merchandise on the stall. Moreover, barring the covers, there’s precisely one track which didn’t appear on the retrospective ‘Land’.

True, the setlist is changed from gig to gig. But it does suggest Smith’s work has become something of a set canon, when once it was an ever-evolving mercurial force. The songs are still played powerfully and purposefully, not subsumed by the rock heritage industry just yet. But it suggests things are post-peak, that we’re dealing with a system not just closed but sorted, delineated.

Then again… the one song I didn’t know, a highlight of the show, was back-announced as a Midnight Oil cover. Employing the little grey cells I figured this must be from the one album of hers I don’t have, the all-covers ‘Twelve’. On arriving home the internet informed me two thing; the track’s ‘Beds Are Burning’ - and it doesn’t appear on record anywhere. Hopefully it will show up on something one day. The strength of it may be the way Smith bends it to her own purpose, much as she did with ’Gloria’.

As said after earlier gigs Smith’s music has the power to ascend, and the instrumental break in ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’ was nothing less than soaring. Curiously then, the only weak link was another cover. Lennon’s ‘Mind Games’, which does a whole lot of soaring itself, should be a natural for her. Yet somehow it was leaden, with Smith reading the lyrics from paper. (The only other skippable track, a Velvets medley with the band swapping vocals, seemed designed to give her an off-stage break.)

Things finished on ‘People Have the Power’, a song with a strange history. Released in 1998, on one of her less liked albums, it was written as a dream of what’s to be. But at the time, in the cultural and political desert of the late Eighties, it still felt like an out-of-touch rock star trusting things to “the kids” they hadn’t met lately – less dream than fantasy. Yet now, with all the upheavals in America, it’s proven uncannily prophetic.

“It didn’t go like I planned”, she says at the end, “but it was better”. Something she could say after every gig she’s done, I’d imagine. After an earlier encounter I commented how, after losing so many greats, it was good to know we still had Patti Smith. And since then Mark E Smith and two guys from Can have been added to the list of the lost. But we still have Patti Smith.

Proof I wasn’t making it up about ’Beds Are Burning’ (from Dublin)...

The Greys, Brighton, Wed 6th June

The dark folk of Cinder Well is centred round Amelia Baker’s mournful voice, strong yet undemonstrative. Songs often start off with just that voice accompanied by her guitar, or a foot-powered drone device. (Which may or may not be called a shruti box.)

The strings work their way in slowly, at times merely providing punctuation, but at others filling up into their own section. While they can be richly melodic, they never seem to quite leave behind that original drone sound. The way tracks are song-like but come in sections, and the way they can jump in scale between intimate and epic... for a rough comparison think of A Silver Mount Zion without the klezmer.

I suspect I’m always saying that the good folk music doesn’t sound old-timey but timeless. And this feels true for Cinder Well in two senses of the term. Remorselessly slow-placed, and accumulative, it imposes its own sense of time upon you. But it also feels untied to any era. All those times in popular music you’ve heard the new thing exultantly described as “so now”? I don’t suppose anyone’s ever said that of Cinder Well.

At some point or other, folk music crossed over into singer-songwriting.Not always, I’ll concede, with ill effects. But what was once a collective form of music came to concentrate on the self. Here, even though the band are clearly a vehicle for Baker and her songs, there’s a universalism to it. Songs refer to “everyone neck deep in their heads”, like peoplehave becomeprisoners within themselves, selfie-snapping their solitary confinement, when once human experience was considered something common.

Also, much folk music seems concerned with preserving what’s been. Again, not necessarily a problem, but something we all too often see the downside of. Whereas Cinder Well often flip the picture, focusing on the ineradicability of the past, the weight of memories. 

An approach which ironically always seems closer to your actual, original folk songs, always more likely to involve murder or damnation than a computer programmer in a smock trilling “nonny nonny no”. The track which seems to set out their mission statement (“Do not look for me where birds sing/ You will not find me there, my beloved”) turns out to be… well okay, not a folk standard penned by “Trad” but from a poem dating back to 1911, commemorating a factory fire in Manhattan. (The Grenfell Tower of its day.)

Their choice of “haunting” to describe their sound… for folk circles, that might seem generic, but it actually works very well. The dilapidated timber house on the cover of their CD is an effective image for them, illustrating the title track (‘The Unconscious Echo’) which conceives of our craniums as haunted houses.

From what little I was able to construe, Cinder Well are less a regular outfit than a pick-up band from the musical chairs of Baker’s circles. (She mentioned a year’s gap between recording the CD and these live performances.) 

And their methods may be more DIY than limelight. The CD doesn’t even mention a label, suggesting DIY production, while one of the few YouTube films of them (not the one below) is from an environmental protest camp. The upside of which is that there’s no-one to regulate or mediate what gets made. Whereas the normal downside that things too easily pass you by. Then at other times, the stars align and you end up seeing a great band in a small pub…

From a barn in Washington state...

Coming soon! Blog hols...

Saturday, 2 June 2018


Yes, more Brighton graffiti. Alas the Old Market is another graffiti zone we've recently effectively lost, as some new development's now gone up there as well. Corporate hell awaits! As ever, full set over on 500px...

Saturday, 26 May 2018


The Barbican, London, Fri 18th May

This double serving of the contemporary string quartet Kronos kicked off with ‘A Thousand Thoughts’, a “live documentary” film with co-director Sam Green narrating in person as they played live. It looked back over the ensemble’s history, dating back to 1973.

This was at points gimmicky, prone to some Californian philosophising and the live presentation made Green more central a figure than he needed to be. But it did possess a good-humoured style, and the good sense to locate their origins in Seventies New York through verite footage of streets and subways rather than the usual cliched images. (Reagan, check… punk rock kids, check… Studio 54, check… they come up like clip art on a bad business presentation.)

The biggest takeaway… Though the ensemble are not themselves composers they have an active working relationship with their composers, many of whom have written especially for them and many of whom (including Philip Glass and Terry Riley) are interviewed herein. Which was probably just the way music worked until comparatively recently, when ‘classical’ became a heritage industry.

The biggest highlight… the quartet playing along to a film of a throat singer becoming more and more unhinged, until she finally broke off laughing to a spontaneous round of applause.

The greatest surprise… such passing reference to their reworking of Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’, which always seemed their crossover ‘hit’ at the time. Certainly it was the first I heard of them, and at the time I’d no idea they’d already been going for well over a decade. Perhaps they now see it the way Hawkwind do ‘Silver Machine’, as something of an albatross.

The second half was a collaboration with the Malian group Trio Da Kali. Not having heard the album, and perhaps still half in mind of the contemporary-meets-traditional soundworld of Xylouris White, I was surprised to the degree that the quartet merely sat in with the trio - more companions than collaborators. They often played in unison, a highly unusual thing for a string quartet to do, underlining Hawa Diabete’s vocals. Not, you understand, that was any kind of a drawback...

The Trio perform Griot, which is some combination of history, storytelling and praise singing. Though the programme spoke of their sound being “as wild as possible”, in fact they were measured and calming, with some elegant yet understated melodies. The nearest Western equivalent would be Gospel, albeit not the Gospel that led to Soul. The programme also mentioned Mahalia Jackson.

Though the programme also spoke of the Quartet having the words translated to aid their playing, I always enjoy not knowing. It’s the glossolalia effect of words sung in a language you can’t comprehend, which always feels like they’re singing of things otherwise beyond expression.

The only downside was too many solos on the Balafon (a kind of marimba), which seemed to jar with the otherwise collective spirit. But then I am a curmudgeon when it comes to solos.

Brighton Done, Thurs 24th May

Then, completely by luck and not in any way by clever planning, I was hearing more Malian music less than a week later. Only this time it couldn’t have been any more upbeat.

Les Amazones ranged between desert blues, with a trio of women singers delivering some mesmerising choral vocals, and energetic, uplifting Afro Beat, where they’d more take turns to sing lead.

Music always feels more involving when it seems spontaneous, not in the sense of improvised but of happening in the moment. It comes across as organic rather than mechanical, and minimises any sense of separation between performer and audience. You’re hypnotised into thinking you could just step up and join in. (Fortunately for all, I didn’t act on this impulse.)

And this was underlined by the way the singers casually swapped hand-held percussion, seemingly as the moment took them. The finale ran through a bunch of staggered endings, like they didn’t want to leave the stage any more than we wanted to see them go - the equivalent of when a friend gets up to leave but falls into a cycle of saying “I’ll be off then”.

I can sometimes be a little cynical over seeing African music in a setting like this. Too many middle class white folks convinced they’re doing something terribly, terribly multicultural. Too much generic approval for anyone who looks like they fit the ‘African’ part. But then there’s times when the thing just works.

From Jools Holland (but really, don't let that put you off)…

Saturday, 19 May 2018


St. George’s Church, Brighton, Thursday 17thMay
Part of the Brighton Festival

As the above image might suggest, Xylouris White are an odd-couple duo. Jim White’s the drummer from the Dirty Three, who now looks like Steve Pemberton playing the part of a rock drummer. George Xylouris looks like an old Greek guy with a beard and a Cretan lute, which is exactly what he is.

But perhaps the magic of the thing is that it’s not self-conscious fusion food. ‘All music is music’ seems like one of those platitudinous statements like ‘all religions are one’, it might sound fine but doesn’t get you very far in practise. Except, every now and again, it does.

Xylouris, originally taught traditional-style by his uncle, doesn’t seem to modify much what he’s going for the rock duo format - but it all fits anyway. White doesn’t play beneath but alongside him, fully occupying the place he sits on stage. His free-flowing, exuberant drumming seems to mostly be called “avant-rock”. In fact, having played together for five years they’ve become like old-style travelling troubadours, seemingly only deciding what to play from one track to the next, sometimes by playing snatches at each other.

The music doesn’t just have a sonic range, but seems able to operate on different scales, from close and intimate up to rising flights which grow more expansive and ever-higher, like a bird catching an updraft. They’ll go into extended wig-outs, with no muso egoism.

Support act Daniel Blumberg had one of the most “have they started yet” starts I’ve encountered in recent years. And it wasn’t long after I realised they had started, then over the tapping and scraping of instruments and harmonica wails the guitarist started to sing. At that point, had he hurled himself through a hoop of fire, I’d scarcely have been any more surprised.

As things went on it swapped between some Neil Young style ‘country blues’ and free-form instrumentals, but rather than switching it ebbed and flowed between them. Plus the instrumental sections were quite unpredictable, from stray lines it was left to you to join together, to a great sonic wallop. The Festival says he “weds an improvisational, free-music ethos to raw emotional songwriting”.

Not from Brighton (like that’s something unusual)…

The Spire, St. Mark’s Chapel, Brighton, Wed 16th May
Part of the Brighton Festival

Dubbed by the Festival as “a show as lively as electricity itself,” Robbie Thompson’s electro compositions were synched to a Tesla coil which would “audio-reactively” emit flashes of electricity in time to the music.

From this description, I’d expected some full-on affair, designed to stir that coil into greater and greater action, an electronic version of bear baiting. Yet the music was quite varied, seemingly requiring two laptops and a synth. It included swooshes, stabs, blasts, beats and even a ‘space lounge’ mid-section. At its most effective, it would manage to lay one of these elements on top of another.

And this proved both to be its success and its weakness. At points it scattershot, particularly in the opening section, feeling it’s way rather that striding ahead. And, with some smart sound design at points, it was a shame not to have had quadrophonic sound.

The event was billed as an audio-visual “spectacle”, with the coil placed centre stage. And, placed just before the Chapel’s altar, it did make for a perfect setting, like something out of Seventies science fiction. It was even miked up, so as well as reacting to the sound it contributed to it. 

But it seemed a somewhat reluctant leading act, and even when stirred sparingly you soon got used to the electrical shots. It may not be an entirely fair comparison, as the scale of the events were so different, but Stockhausen’s ‘Cosmic Pulses’ at the Barbican was a more effective inducement of synaesthesia.

I did wonder if, rather than inspiring the piece, the coil was hit on to overcome the standard “nothing to look at complaint” made of electronic music. And, assuming that’s something which needs a fix, it’s true the coil’s taking things in the right direction. Narrative visuals, anything that smacks of a rock video, always seem to re-familiarise this music, take away its unique energy. 

And different lighting effects were used on the Faraday cage it was placed in, to some good effect. Though this was taken further by Conrad Shawcross’’Slow Art Inside a Cube’ work at the Hayward’s ’Light’ exhibition, which moved a light source around a cage to play with shadow effects.

But ultimately that fix has to be about getting away from the staticperformer/audience face-off, creating an environment for people to pass through as they feel like. Last year’s 'Siren’ 
isn’t really a direct comparison, as that was more installation than live performance, but it might still serve as a guide.

Skip past the irrelevant support band in this (not from Brighton) clip...

NB I have no idea how I ended up reviewing two X bands in one go, but as Yo La Tengo were last time presumably we're working backwards through the alphabet so expect a profusion of W's next week....