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Wednesday, 21 November 2018

DOCTOR WHO: ‘KERBLAM!’




Even while watching ‘Kerblam!’, I found myself speculating what the commentators on Eruditorum Press might say. And sure enough many (if not so much El Sandifer’s original post) were decrying it for being having a pro-capitalist agenda. Yet if I was to write something to pacify the masses, I doubt I’d mention the labour process at all. I’d probably write a rip-roaring escapist adventure story, to make sure everyone was sated before they went back to work on Monday. More like, you know, all the other stories so far. To even mention how the infrastructure functions, how stuff gets delivered, seems to already be exposing the strings.

Besides, this rather over-emphasises the political agendas jobbing writers are likely to have. A more likely explanation would be headline-chasing. Just like a writer noticed the ubiquity of satnav and tried to wrangle an episode out of that, now it’s the turn of Amazon.

And from there, the script boxes itself in. The enforced “10% organics” quota suggests things started out with a corporate plot to conspicuously hire then quietly bump off the actual human workers, in favour of the more efficient machines. The Doctor originally, and somewhat uncharacteristically, claiming to “love Kerblam” before discovering how it’s managed. The dirty truth is hit on.

But if it’s set in an Amazon workhouse… sorry, workplace… particularly one with soothing-voiced robots in it, there’s nowhere really for it to go. “Amazon = bad employer” isn’t a plot twist, it’s a truism. Okay then, let’s swerve round that wall. Let’s go out to emphasise all that bad stuff and then make the actual villain the caretaker. What, no caretaker? Okay then, the cleaner.

But then those swerve marks show. As other Eruditorum commentators say, there’s orphaned plot lines and multiple other signs of late-on rewrites. Let’s take just one. Even if we’re willing to accept an innocent worker’s death as collateral damage in trying to prevent more, how could the computer system know the cleaner would be there at that precise moment to witness it? Way too many variables lead up to that point.

It’s true this twist swerves the episode away from any criticism of Amazon. But that needn’t be terminal. We already have the multiple bombs in the basement plus the teleport, which reads like a recipe. The humans could beam away while the whole warehouse gets blown. Even if that left just a smoking ruin for the Doctor to shrug and walk away from, the character’s done that before.

Instead the ending walls this off, with a rejigging of that organics quota. Which clearly accepts the Amazon premise, that our choice is between badly-paid, soul-crushing jobs and penury. But the key word there is “accepted”.

At Kerblam orders are issued down at you to stop chatting and work harder. Your every task is determined, your every movement monitored. But try to follow that chain of command up and it goes nowhere. The bullying boss isn’t in charge, he’s having to snoop around on his own system. But the system isn’t in charge either, it’s reduced to cries for help. Kerblam just is.

And more widely there’s a focus on distribution and customer services combined with a complete lack of interest in production. Kerblam packs and delivers stuff. But where do they get the stuff from? It just seems to appear.

In ‘Fires of Pompeii’, finding they can’t change the big event they settle for a small difference. And they do the same thing here, by deciding to hand Den’s pendant over to his daughter. Ultimately, the (likely) fact that this wasn’t written from a neoliberal agenda is precisely what makes it neoliberal. Amazon and its agenda is treated like the volcano, as an inescapable fact of life. Just like the banks were too big to fail, Amazon is too big to be thought beyond. Even in a science fiction setting such as this it can only be tinkered with.

In short its problem doesn’t lie in a failure but in its success. The twist is, on its own terms, effective. This is a way more workable story than Chibnall’s efforts. But it’s true success is to tell a story for our time. Where we already know Amazon are bad, but on the other hand you can order stuff just by one click. It demonstrates how neoliberalism has conquered and stultified our imagination.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

DOCTOR WHO: ‘ROSA’ VERSUS ‘DEMONS OF THE PUNJAB’



If ‘Doctor Who’ isn’t being written to generate material for middle-aged folk to blog about, there’s no reason why it should be. In fact, I can more think of reasons why it shouldn’t
be. If it doesn’t always make much in the way of sense, that’s scarcely something new.

But it does need to entertain the people watching it. And as a writer Chibnall isn’t even good enough to be particularly bad. The word for him would be perfunctory. It’s like he makes lists of the sort of thing which might be expected to happen in a ’Who’ episode, then presses shuffle. If Davies and Moffat could aggravate through bad habits and lazy over-use of tropes, that was partly because we knew they were capable of more. Chibnall is best given up on. I’d rather write about that wall over there, quite frankly.

Yet there’s a twist in the tale. Up till now, in New Who the historicals have been a weak point. With few exceptions, they were dire celebrity cameos set in Theme Park Britain. Like those stagey re-enactments they always insist on sticking in documentaries, only with worse plots. Yet there’s two interesting episodes of this season so far, and strangely both have been historicals.

Both departed from standard ‘Classical’ storylines, with their togas, crowns and cloaks. And while the mixed-race Tardis crew might have looked like tokenism up until now, these involve minority folk penning the dialogue. ’Rosa’, about the Civil Rights campaigner Rosa Parks, was by the black writer Malorie Blackman. (Chibnall had a co-writer credit, but didn’t instigate the story.) While ’Demons of the Punjab’ was by the Asian writer Vinay Patel.

Stranger still, they’re so unlike one another they may as well be bookends.

’Rosa’ is exemplary, but it is alas a bad example. Segregation is surely a cut-and-dried example of racism as a structural phenomenon. But that’s just overridden here and it’s made the usual matter of individualised malevolence. The weight of the law becomes a cartoon Baddie Southern Policeman. The bus driver’s even willing to give up his day off for a chance to be racist. (The actual Parks asked her arresting officer “Why do you push us around?” To which he replied “I don’t know, but the law’s the law.” We got crappy muzak over that bit.)

And by a remarkable coincidence anti-racism turns out to be a matter of individual conscience. Had Rosa Parks happened to have walked home that night, Civil Rights would never have happened. Really? People had refused to move on the bus before her. The significance of her case was that she was connected to the Civil Rights movement, and they used the occasion to launch a city-wide bus boycott. Black folk made up the majority of riders, and their boycott had an estimated 90% participation rate. Despite heavy repression, it won. (Parks was constantly correcting the notion she was “old” and “tired” at the time. “The only tired I was”, she stated, “was tired of giving in.”)

Individual acts of conscience are not, and have never been, enough to challenge corrupt and oppressive systems. That always takes mass action. Yes, Parks was a figurehead of Civil Rights. But it pushed with its body. The irony is that, if not for the boycott, not a single one of us would know Parks’ name today.


It’s also exemplary of how bad a fit this sort of story is for ’Who’. In the one right decision, they realised the Doctor can’t get actively involved in the Civil Rights struggle. (Imagine her giving Parks a motivational speech about opposing racism. Actually, no, don’t.) But then the Doctor needs something to do other than watch. So they concoct a parallel story with the Alien Racist. And they become almost like Good and Bad Angels, one trying to cancel the other’s actions out so the main story can proceed as we know it.

He’s not so much poorly characterised as uncharacterised. As he tries to scupper the bus journey, he’s like Dick Dastardly, setting diversion signs and rolling boulders onto roads - but without the iconic appeal. His motivation is more arbitrary even than the bus driver’s. In fact there’s no motivation for racism, we’re just supposed to take racism as the motivation. Yet you can see the problem. Take him out of the plot, he leaves a hole. But put him back in, he just makes another hole.

This story could, in fact should, be dramatised. But it should be a straight docu-drama. Which could start off with Parks’ refusal to move, then broaden scope to the boycott, the counter-repression, then success.

Though if you were going to do it in ’Who’, the clue’s in the final scene where Parks is arrested. Dispense with the silly alien sub-plot and do the whole episode like that. Time travel becomes something like white privilege. It gives you a power, but one you can’t use for good. The Tardis crew have to ensure something happens which they really, really don’t want to see. Nobody would want to just sit back and watch this. Everybody has to. There’s something inherently conservative about stories which Restore Time’s True Path. It’s not something that can be avoided so it’s best played into.


There’s been relatively wide agreement about ‘Demons of the Punjab’. It’s not just met the faint praise of being the best episode of this season so far, it’s actually a good episode in and of itself. But unfortunately, they’re still sticking in the aliens. I agree with just one of those.

I suspected that this might be an above-par episode as soon as I heard the subject matter. Why would anyone pitch a story about the Partition of India to some ratings-minded BBC Exec unless it was a dream project of theirs?

But once made it has an advantage. The problem with Civil Rights is that people assume they already know the story and where they stand on it. There’s either the uphill task of breaking down all that just to get started, or the plain sailing of confirming prejudices. Partition is so poorly known its dramatic fresh territory, it presents opportunities rather than problems.

You could perhaps fault Patel’s summation of it. The decision to have no British characters bar the time travellers has upsides but also downsides. Despite the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ aspects of the story I’m skeptical there would have been many un-arranged marriages at the time, let alone cross-religion matches. (Though I’ll defer there to anyone more knowledgeable than me.)

But it does get over the key point. The ethnic violence and mob mentality was not some return to primitive savagery, stuff the British had been nobly keeping the lid on through their rule. In fact, till that point people had lived together peacefully for generations.

And Patel not only fills in a knowledge gap, but give it analogues for our times. Borders are arbitrary impositions on the landscape, which merely impose division. They don’t keep you safe, they do the very opposite. And the younger brother, radicalised by “the radio” and “angry men with pamphlets”, is a clear forerunner of today’s alt.right seduced into hatred by rabble-rousing rubbish on the internet. It’s the older brother, the one who saw war, who wants peace.


When the Doctor corrects “demons” to “aliens”, of course we’re with her. Only to find she has it wrong as well. Their early malevolent look is perhaps oversold, which makes the switch something of a trick. (They communicate by pushing their thoughts into people’s heads, then abruptly stopping when it’s time to turn good. And the line “or we will stand over your corpses” is asking to be misunderstood.) But overall it’s effective. In plot terms they turn out to be the very opposite of the Space Racist, they never had any intention of getting involved.

More to the point they’re not a bad example but a good one. In ’Who’, aliens are often demons - negative aspects of our self-image, Daleks the lust for power, Cybermen the drive to conform and so on. Every now and again it flips this to offset us. But this does something extra…

They’re former killers who have now dedicated themselves to mourning the unmourned. (“We are changed. Our past is no more. We are no longer assassins. Now we are witnesses.”) A switch which seems something we white British are yet to accomplish. They’re something we aren’t.

The Doctor gives the death toll as more than a million, it could have been near two. Accounts vary as to British culpability. But at a minimum the colonial authorities stood by and let the massacres happen. We - the white British - are not only unchanged, we are even regressing. It’s become fashionable all over again to see the Empire as something to celebrate, and leave the bodies unwitnessed. And if that keeps up our past will be more.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

JOHNNY MARR/ ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE/ DAMO SUZUKI/ THE SEEN (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

JOHNNY MARR
Brighton Dome, Fri 9th Nov



I first saw the now-legendary Smiths in this very venue. They finished the gig with ’Meat is Murder, the first time I ever heard that track. Naturally enough, it seared itself into my still-young brain. It was not just a great gig, but one of the gigs by which other gigs should be measured.

No matter how often it’s done, it’s still weird to see them used now as a signifier of that era. Because back then they seemed the very antithesis of all about them. As wrote Simon Reynolds in ‘Shock and Awe’: “The Smiths represent the common people, all those marginalised or left behind in the enterprise-culture Eighties.”

In sound and look they represented a a kind of template outsiderhood. You belonged if you were gay, straight but sensitive and unmacho, celibate by design, celibate despite your most strenuous efforts, not necessarily celibate at all and pretty much all the rest of it. The message was - to us, the outside is the inside, uncool is our cool. In the words of the song “You shut your mouth/ How can you say/ I go about things the wrong way?”

But of course a lot has happened since then…

The first thing Marr does on taking the stage, before speaking, is a quick flurry on his guitar. And he is of course not just a great but an exemplary guitarist, with a signature style you recognise in just a few seconds. Tony Curtis’ description of Marilyn Monroe’s walk, “it’s like jello on springs”, pretty much covers it. He studiously avoids show-off displays and cliches. And while he does run into solos these days, they’re always short and sweet.

At which point it occurs to me I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him sing. (Despite this album being his fourth. Sometimes things pass me by.) Whatever you might say about Morrissey these days, and let’s take all that stuff as read, he had one of the great character voices - a classic case of Not a Good Singer, But A Great Singer. Marr’s voice is admittedly less strong. At best there’s a Bernie Sumner purposefully grey quality to it.

And this is most apparent, inevitably enough, with the Smiths songs. ’Bigmouth Strikes Again’ may well need the big mouth behind it. But there’s a powerful version of ’Headmaster Ritual’. ’How Soon is Now’, effectively the Smiths anthem, already quoted up above, concluded the main set. The vocals are perhaps more intonatory. But it’s based around a pulse over which other elements are orchestrated. It’s effectively an extended remix of itself, the ’I Feel Love’ of outsiderhood. Not a recipe for a live number. Yet somehow it becomes little short of heartstopping.

He also manages a storming version of Electronic’s ’Getting Away With It’, which I’d previously dismissed as filler. Though admittedly the other Electronic track was filler.

But the gig’s about, and dominated by songs from, his new album ’Call the Comet’. Not all tracks are memorable, but some shine. There’s the jangly, exuberant post-Sixties sound you’d expect, but elsewhere things are sharper and punchier. One, which in police parlance I now know to be called ’New Dominions’, verges on electrobeat. Marr without Morrissey is revealed to be more Mod than Indie, focused and cool rather than effusive and exuberant.

The gig may be summed up by his warning that i-phones needed to be charged before breaking into ’There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.’ Then, after the obvious finale, seemingly unable to resist, calling out “let’s do one more!” He could have done that a few times over without much disagreement.

I believe I may have mentioned 'How Soon Is Now'...




ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE
Patterns, Brighton, Fri 2nd Nov


Psychedelic warlords Acid Mothers Temple are of course no strangers to Lucid Frenzy’s shores. Because, after all, who could pass up another chance to see them? All you can really be sure of in advance is that psychedelic freak-outs will be involved, and they’ll play some version of ’Pink Lady Lemonade’. (Essentially, their theme number.)

Ever shifting, they have a new vocalist. The most remarkable thing about which is that she’s actually a vocalist. At times the vocals are even given space to dominate the number. (I’m not clear whether Cotton Casino, credited on the new album, is a pseudonym for Jyonson Ysu, credited for the gig. It gets tricky when those line-up shifts combine with their love of wacky pseudonyms. Whichever, the gig seemed to involve more singing than the album.) An early number floats past like a cross between Black Sabbath’s ’Lagunae Sunrise’ (if you don’t know it, Sabbath’s least Sabbath track) and dream pop. At other points she chants and wails like a dervish.

Guest artist Geoff Leigh, of Henry Cow fame, (who’s not on the new album) started off playing more than a little tentatively on flute, as if unsure what his contribution should be. But he became more involved as the gig went on, and fared better when pumping on sax for the more freak-out sections. (His default instrument, so I’m told.)

The gig somehow felt like a completely spontaneous event while also a carefully orchestrated study in contrasts. A stripped-down groove just seemed to getting tighter and tighter, before breaking into ’Pink Lady Lemonade’. (Told you that would come up.) The finale, which I now know to be be ’Cometary Orbital Drive 0011’ started with another of those mesmerising mantra riffs the band seem endlessly possessed of, before building a huge free-form freak-out around it.

It’s something of a cliche to describe psychedelic bands as sonic cosmonauts. But Acid Mothers Temple do genuinely earn the analogy. They’re fast becoming to psychedelic music what Miles Davis was to jazz.

Speaking of ’Cometary Orbital Drive’, from Norwich two nights later…



DAMO SUZUKI
The Con Club, Lewes, Sat 3rd Nov


I’m not sure now which I’ve seen more out of Acid Mothers Temple and ex-Can frontman Damo Suzuki. But I keep coming back to both for the same reason, the utter disregard for predictability. I always say, when you’re tired of trance-out, long-form musical improvisations with shaman-chanted vocals, you’re tired of Damo Suzuki.

This outing features many of the same players from Zoff as previously, though not an exact duplication. And, perhaps for that reason, things kicked in more quickly than at other time.

The previous gig had gone through peaks and valleys, picking up a head of steam, pushing forward, then gliding down the other side. This time, though it had its share of dynamics, it involved more subtle shifts and gradations. As often with improvised music, you’d hear something sublime rise up but have to accept it would shortly be gone again, and contented with the way it would just be replaced with something else.

Then for the finale everything did pick up that head of steam. In his Can days they called those pulverising riffs Godzillas, presumably for the way they’d mightily strike aside all before them.

Alas, what got going quickly was also quickly gone. They played for less than an hour, which with little doubt left the audience wanting more. But perhaps that’s a disadvantage of this type of music. When the players themselves can’t tell what’s about to be unleashed, it’s all but impossible to plan things out like that in advance. You have to take what comes.

This time there is footage from the gig. Of course you really need to hear the thing as a whole, but it might give you a flavour…



That’s two Dictionary Pudding gigs into two successive nights. And two dollops of evidence that the good folks there don’t just put on notable headliners, but endeavour to fill their bills as best they can. (Even if a tardy show-up like me often ends up missing the support acts.)

Supporting AMT, it would be tempting to describe the Hare and The Hoofe as having asked the reality-warping question “what if Prog could be fun?” Which isn’t quite right, for while they tend to perform song cycles they’re beat-driven affairs packed with verve and energy, with few to none Mellotron solos. They’ve coined the term “popepretta” to describe them. They come complete with absurd stage costumes and vocals reminiscent of the theatricality of of Gilbert and Sullivan.



Supporting Damo were Adrena Adrena (as covered a while back) and Chop Chop, with their edgy but catchy off-beat funk, as if insistently repeating only a fragment of a melody behind stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The singer seemed a mixture of wildly agitated and effortlessly cool. Their only merch was a lyric book, with a download code for the music, suggesting he may primarily be a poet.



THE SEEN
Onca Gallery, Brighton, Wed 7th Nov



Part of the Aural Detritus Concert Series

“Three’s a crowd” may well be a maxim invented by and for impro musicians. The genre relies on players listening intently to one another, no-one having any notion what those others will do until they’ve done it. Which makes it easy enough to see why the more manageable duos - okay, sometimes trios - predominate.

Mark Wastell, conversely, has thrown such caution to the wind, and has been convening the large impro ensemble the Seen since 2002. (You have to say ‘convened’ rather than formed, as they never play with the same line-up twice.) Intrigued if this would even prove possible, I watched some clips on-line. And concluded they worked by building up a drone-like wall of sound, which each player thickened rather than added an individual line.

As it turns out, I was quite wrong. Though there were (count ‘em!) eight players the performance started out quietly, and ethereally, a composite of fragmentary sounds. The introductory section seemed to me to be made entirely by contact mikes, though I’m always getting that kind of detail wrong. It creaked, ratted and shook, like the door opening to the spookiest of haunted houses.

From there it sometimes did build up into that wall of sound, but not in any even or schematic way. Moving through various sections like taking the scenic route across itself, it included feedback, full-on ambient sound sources and stuff that might have actually come from some kind of instrument. It was numinous and exploratory – like exploring the rooms of some old mansion, your every sense stimulated and alert.

They played for a little less than an hour. And what wasn’t quite enough for Damo Suzuki would normally be a much longer time for a full-on impro outfit. The large ensemble, rather than turning into too much confusion, kept things both effective and moving. Pretty much every player dropped out at some point, awaiting their moment to come back in. So however much there were highs and lows in terms of dynamics, musical quality was pretty much a constant.

From elsewhere, from last year. Though it was enjoyable, if something to a challenge, to try and match players to sounds at Onca, this shadowy underlit venue does more to match the mood of the music…



Coming soon! More gig-going adventures...

Sunday, 4 November 2018

THE PIXIES/ ROBYN HITCHCOCK/ OTHER WORLDS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

THE PIXIES
The Roundhouse, London, Thurs 1st Nov


Thirty years after their 1987 debut, to grasp the significance of the Pixies you need to picture the scene prior to them. Because really, there’s much more to it than the “influenced Nirvana” thing. Back then, loud guitar music pretty much meant hardcore punk. Music which had once seemed liberating which now felt confining, which had once seemed righteously wrathful and now felt self-righteous. Perhaps worse it had fractured into a bewildering number of sub-scenes, incomprehensible to outsiders. It often felt like music had been dropped and broken by someone who was now refusing to pay for it.

Then the Pixies came and stuck it all back together again. In the wrong order, or at least in combinations never before tried. Their mission statement combination of Husker Du with Peter, Paul and Mary is described as “jarring pop” by Wikipedia.) Not for nothing does their most famous song start with the line “with your feet in the air and your head on the ground.” Being so against the grain probably suited their natural waywardness.

Joey Santiago’s soaring guitar lines were combined with a gleefully base sensibility, a contradiction they overcame with a gift for catchy melodies and generous servings of surreal black humour. They were hard-hitting but deft and agile, the results simultaneously punchy and delirious.

For this anniversary tour, the good news is that they’re playing several nights at the Roundhouse rather than lose one to an arena. The less good news is they’re playing the first two albums, ’Come On Pilgrim’ and ’Surfer Rosa’ right through. Which aside from everything else, walls off their third release ’Dolittle’. When they were very much a trilogy.

However, though some tracks inevitably draw more applause than others, it does prove how free those albums are of filler. And they don’t stay strictly faithful to the originals, particularly with intros. (Though, with mischievous literalism they insist on reading out the tween-song studio chatter from notes.) And Paz Lenchantin makes a surprisingly good stab at standing in for Kim Deal. A a talent that comes more to the fore as they reach the second album, where Deal contributed more.

They did make the odd decision to insert extra songs between the two albums. This led to the live favourite, Lynch’s ’In Heaven’. But oddly even there they played no ’Doolittle’ numbers. (Only ’Tame’ at the end of the set.) The tracks they did play seemed so different (not bad, but different) that, not knowing their stuff post ’Dolittle’, I assumed they must be from the post-reformation albums. Wrongly, it seems. Whatever, they did break the momentum a little, like switching channels mid-film. It seems previous nights they reserved the extra stuff for the encore, which I’d imagine worked better.

But of course the chief question is - do the guys still have it? The answer to which is yes. In fact it seemed to capture the spirit of the gigs of yore. Our feet were in their air and our heads on the ground, as promised. I spotted even some of the balding pates heading into the mosh pit. And speaking of feet and heads…



ROBYN HITCHCOCK
Rialto, Brighton, Mon 29th Oct


Had you told me at the start of the Eighties, when my young self had just hit upon the Soft Boys, that decades later I’d be watching main man Robyn Hitchcock play an acoustic solo show in a venue normally used as a theatre… I’m not sure what I’d have said.

After all, the point back then was their combination of psychedelic weirdness with punk energy. And psychedelia was itself primarily a sound, a distorting mirror held against the neat verse/chorus structures of regular pop music.

Of course Hitchcock’s music has mellowed over the years, as have we all. But he plays more than a few numbers from the old days. (If nothing earlier than the third and final Soft Boys album.) Some are reworked. ’Heaven, from the slightly later Egyptians, was originally a soaring and euphoric album closer. Here it becomes more delicate and wistful.

But mostly he foregrounds and plays into the more stripped-down format. Not least by giving the sound man a series of ever-more grandiose and impossible directions for each number. (I wondered if he had some Simple-Simon-Says code system for when he actually had to tell him something.)

It works because from the start Hitchcock was such a strong songwriter, in the way Surrealist artists gave impact to their delirious imagery by being masters of composition. A solo acoustic set inevitably throws more of a magnifying glass over the lyrics. Many of which are blatantly a series of surrealist non-sequiturs shackled together by the thinnest of through lines.

Yet each line sparkles like a jewel strung in a necklace. If they’re impossible to make sense of, they’re equally impossible to dismiss. Lines like “I’m a house that burns down every night for you” or “You can’t build a palace without any drains” haunt you with the suggesting that they just might add up to something after all.

Infrequently but persistently, Hitchcock’s peppered his surrealist flights of fancy with politics. Now based in America, he adapts the lyrics of ‘I Wanna Destroy You’ to fit recent events in his adopted home country. (It’s a great number but why he didn’t pick the more pertinent ‘The President’ I’m not sure.)

By coincidence, just before I came out I watched a news video following the Brazilian election, with crowds chanting “the dictatorship is back”. A reasonable reaction, you might think. Except this was the new President’s supporters, cheering on the guns of an army convoy. As there’s no way to respond to that sort of thing with reason, that pretty much leaves us with surrealism. Which is the way it happened last time, where Surrealism’s apex coincided the fascist rise to power, putting one at loggerheads with the other.

Not from Brighton. In fact, not even a track he played in Brighton. Still good…



OTHER WORLDS (GIACINTO SCELSI + JOHN LUTHER ADAMS)
Barbican, London, Wed 31st Oct



The Italian contemporary composer Giacinto Scelsi I always think of as quite transcendental. And indeed, he was highly influenced by Eastern mysticism. ’Uacuctum’, however, doesn’t look East and could not be any more foreboding. Though written in 1966 it was not performed until 1987, and is receiving its UK premiere right now. Though that seems to be as much due to the problems of staging and performing such a work as its unusual nature.

It is, in the best possible way, an assault course for the ears. As percussive thunderclaps crash across the piece, a succession of rises and falls like a musical storm, vales of temples are rent in twain. While the chorus emit the most unearthly wails and tones. It’s this which grants the work its effectiveness, as human tonsils emit not the familiar but the most unearthly sounds. I was reminded of the cosmic awe and dread of Konstantin Youn’s Symbolist painting ‘New Planet’.

Scelsi’s subject was the decline of the Mayan civilisation. Much like his contemporary Stockhausen’s ‘Hymnen’ there now seems something uniquely Sixties about it. Not just its fascination with apocalypse but the way it seems to channel the ancient and the Futuristic simultaneously. But, much like Stockhausen’s ’Hymnen’, this should be seen as a feature of the work rather than a weakness.

Though a short work, its divided into movements. Which marks its only weakness, as they create pauses which do take away some of its momentum.

The title in full is… deep breath… ’Uaxuctum: The Legend of the Maya City, Destroyed by the Maya People Themselves For Religious Reasons’. Which refers to the much-popularised theory that, so deeply rooted was their conception of circular time, they tore down their own cities as a way of resetting their clocks.

The idea that people were so in thrall to their own cultural notions makes them appear thrillingly exotic. It’s such a good story you feel something of a killjoy for pointing out it’s almost certainly not true. I thought more of the Biblical tale of Babel, or at least the popularised version where God smites the Tower and confounds people’s language. The chorus represents the Mayan people, struck wordless by such apocalyptic events, as if along with their world their comprehension has been reduced to rubble.

The American composer John Luther Adams is a different American composer to the American composer John Adams. (Sometimes written of on this blog.) I hope that’s cleared that one up. Though, working against any confusion, their styles are highly different. I’d be tempted to describe this Adams as Neo-Romantic, though I’ve no idea whether he’d like that term or not. For many years he tried to combine composing with environmental activism, before having to accept one had to give.

The two works make for a masterful combination because they’re so distinct. Where Scelsi was jaggedly dynamic and unearthly, Adams’ ’Become Ocean’ (2014) is softly undulating. Above a base layer of harp and glockenspiel the instruments don’t add their own lines so much as combine, into a rich sonic loam. You hear the distinction in timbre between, say, strings and wind. But it doesn’t seem significant in the way it does with other works.

A (refreshingly unobtrusive) film show projects the sea as they play, and the music does evoke the swell and flow of its subject. It’s part of a trilogy, the others referring to the air and earth. Against Scelsi’s mighty conflagrations, Adam’s sea is powerful yet ultimately a gentle giant. The programme quotes Alex Ross, “the loveliest apocalypse in history”.

The one thing it has in common with the Minimalist work of the other John Adams is its disinterest in an over-embracing structure. Listening to it becomes a fully immersive experience. Yet, like Scelsi, it conceives of circular time. It has an overall palindromic structure, with other mini-palindromes nested within it. (Which I confess I don’t think I’d have noticed without the programme.)

Adams wrote, in the score itself: "Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.” This suggests at cyclic time on a wider scale than the turning of tides. However, the link to climate change doesn’t quite ring true, and suggests he was simply loathe to give his other career up after all. This sublime piece is scarcely a warning. And perhaps this sort of music always works better when connected to metaphysical themes than political concerns.

To compare this work to a painting as well, I happened to see Diego Rivera’s ‘Communicating Vessels’ in a Barbican exhibition that afternoon. In Romanticism nature - and particularly the sea - has long stood for the unconscious. Here Rivera compares the relationship of the conscious to the unconscious mind to the flow of water. Adams points out we need to become more ocean.

Which might bring up another question. The work avoids the great pitfall of Romantic music, being merely imitative of nature. But could it be claimed it falls into the other pitfall, where nature is less a thing in itself and more a repository for human thoughts. Adams’ ocean is powerful, but more providing than destructive. Yet that’s why we need to partner the work with Scelsi’s, to give us both halves of the equation.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

PILLS TO PURGE MELANCHOLY (ANOTHER SPOTIFY PLAYLIST)



’Pills To Purge Melancholy’ was a song collection first published in 1698. I have updated it slightly for this version, though it starts off in semi-traditional vein with the dark folk of Cinder Well and rum deeds recounted by Eliza Carthy. 

Classic Dutch post-punk band The Ex make their playlist debut, despite their gigs frequently being covered on this blog, after their recent conversion to Spotify. Whether that’s a good thing or another nail in the coffin of DIY values is of course another matter. And extra points for anyone who spots which band employed Daleks for backing vocalists…

Cinder Well: Insulation of the Silence
Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band: Mrs. Dyer The Baby Farmer
The Mekons: Dickie, Chalkie And Nobby
Bob Dylan: Can’t Wait
R.E.M.: King Of Birds
Preoccupations: Manipulation
Wire: Indirect Enquiries
The Ex: Bicycle Illusion
Bo Ningen: Psychedelic Misemono Goya (Reprise)
Lou Reed & John Cale: Starlight
CAN: Call Me
Xylouris White: Wind
Black Sabbath: Hand Of Doom
Fucked Up: Generation

”Don't go through this for nothing
”Don't waste it all
”It was a terrible blow
”Knowing what we know”

Saturday, 20 October 2018

CURRENT 93 + NURSE WITH WOUND/ BO NINGEN (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

CURENT 93 + NURSE WITH WOUND
O2 Arena, Shepard’s Bush, London



Having spent the day in London, I arrived at the venue an hour before the doors opened. To discover a queue already so long it was taxing security’s ingenuity over where to put us all. With many folk who seemed to have travelled from foreign parts just to be there.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s been over three years since “everyone's favourite hallucinatory cuneiform super-group” (as they style themselves) played London, while Nurse With Wound barely perform live at all. (One between-gig gap lasted twenty-one years. I once considered a trip to Glasgow just to catch them.) The two together is pretty much the dream ticket for us post-industrial obsessives.

Nurse With Wound began with some inspired shaking and rattling. Only main man Steven Stapleton seemed to be playing anything electronic, everyone else in the ensemble has an actual or extemporised instrument. From what little I could tell, at least part of what he was doing was treating the other players until you could no longer tell the ‘real’ sounds from the processed. Always an effective way of achieving the uncanny.

From there they went into something more like ambient funk. This developed as it went on, and it was very much a buzz to see people dancing to NWW. Though it was the most conventional part of their set. But then… If generally thought of as specialising in Dadaist sound collage, in practice they’re more unpredictable than that. They’d started off like an improvising troupe, working off and around each other. (Not unlike their actual origins as a trio.) But they became a band, with an effective rhythm section. A very off-kilter band, true, but still a very effective one.

Beneath a fractured lead guitar the rhythm was lurching but firmly controlled, like a great beast familiar with and able to utilise its own weight. It made me wonder where that dumb cliche ever came from, where pre-punk bands got dissed as dinosaurs. If dinosaurs had made music it would have been awesome, and this could well be our living proof.

Their final number was, formally speaking, more familiar - electronic beats with weirdness piled up on top of them. But the beats were so relentlessly menacing and the weird sounds so weird it transcended any sense of formula. It points to the problem in spatial phrases such as ‘edgy’, which suggest you require a norm to react against. Stapleton’s been following his own pulse since ’79, and there could be years yet to come.

As with their last outing, Current 93’s set was the new release, ’The Light Is Leaving Us All’, in track order. Front man (and sole constant) David Tibet’s speciality may be song suites rather than individual tracks, disregarding all that ‘end of the album’ chatter. (The merch stall was doing a brisk trade in vinyl.) And as usual he’d completely shifted the line-up, with only two players reappearing. (Reinier van Houdt and Ossian Brown.)

With the last album/gig I’d thought of them as a jazz cabaret act double-booked with a left-field experimental troupe, playing aboard a schooner sailing into the night. Whereas this was more a return to the earlier album ’Of Ruine or Some Blazing Starr’, described as “courtly” by David Keenan in his splendid and essential history of post-industrialism. But there was also a hefty dose of folk pastoralism, with folk artist Alasdair Roberts stepping in on guitar and snatches of birdsong peppering the set.

Some while ago, I found midwinter to be the most fitting time to see Sigur Ros, when light has become a rare and precious substance. Similarly, this time of year – when the light still shines but a chill is rising – was the right time to first hear this album. Virtually the opening line is “the shutters shut dark”, with “the light is leaving us all” reiterated on each and every number. (Pitchfork are probably correct the album started with the title.) In fact as I’ve been striding through these low-sunned, leaf-littered Autumn days the phrase has kept running round in my brain. Let’s remember Autumn’s original name was the rather more religious Fall. But still, that’s setting rather than theme…

With folksy song titles such as ’The Postman’s Singing’ and ’The Kettles’ On’, Tibet’s perennial theme of the end of all things gets applied to provincial England. Which might sound like that thing where you juxtapose the horrific with the childlike. (You know the sort of thing. “Dude, it’s a kid’s cartoon character with like a hatchet in her head! Bodacious!”) Of course this is nothing so trite. 

As Aimee Armstrong puts it in the Quietus “Tibet’s music is very English and is primarily concerned with a queering of this supposedly idyllic landscape.” And “queering” is very much the right word here, rather than “despoiling” or “rending”. Is Tibet coming along and unsettling that folk pastoralism, or just revealing what was queered to start with? If we knew, he’d be doing something wrong.

Just like the band historically travelled from noisy industrial soundscapes to neofolk like there was no real border to cross, the music here morphs between one state and the other as if defying you to spot the join. In their world one thing is always found in the other. The present-tense title suggests an ongoing process, rather than a sudden event. The poster and CD image, which might initially seem to depict possession, are demonstrated to convey the opposite - mapping the soul’s departure via the light leaving the eyes.

The highlights were high indeed. The keyboards would pummel and the violin and hurdy-gurdy drone like the Velvet Underground had been reincarnated as an English folk band. But overall the set seemed uneven, straying too far into the straight folk pastoralism. The first time I saw this band, I found it too overwhelming to take in. This time, there were parts I waited out. Bizarrely, given the long queue to get in, a fair section of the audience had decamped before the end.

At the time I assumed the album must have it’s share of sameyness, a default setting it needed to rise above. But, listening to it afterwards, it’s actually consistently strong - in fact I’ve been listening to it as intently as I did ’Field That Fell’.Partly it may be that the previous venue, the Union Chapel, suited the band better than a regular rock haunt. (Current 93 isn’t Saturday night music. Even if it is Saturday night.) But perhaps the action of playing the songs through blunted some of their individual idiosyncrasies, even if they’re made to be heard together.

A brief snatch of Nurse With Wound…



…plus C93’s opening two tracks (which I’ve tried to wind to the point they actually start, if it doesn’t work for you jump ahead past the four minute mark)…



…. and finally, the ‘video’ (actually just the film backdrop, but still cool) for ’Bright Dead Star’…



BO NINGEN
The Haunt, Brighton, Thurs 18th Oct


It might sound arbitrary to start out by comparing Bo Ningen to the last band I saw in this venue, especially if I admit upfront they don’t sound anything like each other. While Preoccupations’ sound is haunted, Bo Ningen’s is most definitely spirited. But both not only switch between guitars and keyboards, they modify everything to the point where it’s hard to tell one instrument from another. Which leads to an enticing sense of off-kilterness, of nothing sounding quite what it seems.

My previous reviews seemed happy to label them a psychedelic/acid rock band, something their Wikipedia page says they don’t understand. True, at times they sound like Hawkwind’s space rock, or Sabbath’s ponderous heavy riffing. Though formed in London the band’ are all Japanese by birth and there’s many Japanoise elements, such as the furiously barked vocals.

But they also take in dub, with one highly dub-drenched track, and for another number stripped-down, urgent funk. They come across as a band with their own style, but who are ever-restless in the expression of it, never falling into a pattern. Young fellows all, they look to be another band exhibiting the upside of the YouTubeability of music. Rather than cleave to one genre and hone it, the natural tendency is to take everything that catches your interest and throw it all in together. They describe themselves as “fusing disparate sounds and influences into a fierce, eclectic torrent of grooves”, something they live up to.

The psychedelic part comes from their devotion to sonic bombardment and sensory overload. Guitars sound like they need to be cranked up, like old cars, somehow got overwound and are now shooting off all over the place. The finale’s a brain-melting wig-out. Which maybe went on a little too long, but was the way to end their set.

Graeme Virtue in the Guardian calls them “the Mothras of invention,” a tag so apt I’m now going to pretend I said it.

Not from Brighton…

Monday, 15 October 2018

DOCTOR WHO: ‘THE GHOST MONUMENT’



The standard response to the debut episode seemed to be Whittaker good, Chibnall bad. I’m sympathetic, but not sure it’s quite that simple. Capaldi always gave a great performance, as you’d expect, but that performance seemed the whole of it. You could watch individual scenes of his which would seem great, but they never added up into anything. The Whittaker Doctor, well I feel I know more about her already. And that sense of underlying consistency does suggest a scripter’s hand.

Curiously then, the companion roles still seem like placeholders. Ryan’s foregrounded character traits are straight out of Screenwriting 101. Will he ever come to call his step-Grandpa his Grandpa? And overcome his fear of ladders… sorry, debilitating disability. Yet that’s more than Yas gets, whose whole identity seems to be Someone You Can Talk To. I’m now semi-seriously considering the theory there has to be three companions, to conceal the deficiency of any one of them.

The script was clearly designed around delaying their stepping into the Tardis, so it could be given its own episode-dominating reveal. And to get them there, the choice of a Great Space Race isn’t so bad a concept. Nor is the Tardis as a Ghost Monument. Alas, however, they just get thrown away. What was the point of so carefully coding one racer as ruthless, and the other as genuinely motivated, only to have that let's-team-up ending we’d already seen in ’The Hunger Games’?

How about this for a better idea? They stay split in two groups, aiding the two different drivers, for most of the episode. Initially press-ganged, each group slowly becomes convinced their driver is the righteous one who must win at all costs. Only to run into one another at the very end.

And uh-oh, through lines. Weren’t we promised they were done with? Who will the Timeless Child turn out to be? A whole load of mystic woo set on repeat, which then gets wrapped up in the final episode with something off the shelf? Or worse, it might suggest they’re going down the Dark Revelations About the Doctor route again.

And all that business of the Doctor repeatedly noticing the planet made no sense is somewhat undermined when it actually makes no sense. It remains no more than a succession of hazards. Ryan was right to compare it to ’Call of Duty’.

It’s actually the through lines which disguise all this. Of course this doesn’t make much sense right now, because we’re all heading towards great revelations in the future. You see, this throwaway planet is all to do with the throwaway enemy we saw last time. Everything deferred. Keep watching. Ironically, having a series of standalone stories wouldn’t just lower the bar, encouraging you to see the show more as frivolous fun. It would push each story into standing on its own merits.

So did the first episode work better because the emphasis was all on the Doctor, the one component that’s actually working? And we’ve already hit More Of The Same? We’ll see, but it seems likely. Despite my one-off review turning into a two-off, I really don’t intend to write about it weekly. And I will actively resist saying anything publicly about the next episode. Judging by their previous attempts at historicals, and the patronising nonsense most people seem to have swallowed about Civil Rights, it’s going to be trite and noxious simultaneously.

Friday, 12 October 2018

JAMES MCVINNIE PLAYS PHILP GLASS/ THE GODFATHERS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

JAMES MCVINNIE PLAYS PHILIP GLASS



Minimalist music seems to be most associated with strings. But the organ is actually a great instrument to hear it on, because it straight away dispels so many misconceptions. This is music which is mistakenly assumed to be stark and austere, made for people who demonstrate their wealth by having precisely one piece of furniture in their entire house. While the sound of the organ is warm and resonant. It’s impossible to reduce it’s flows and surges back into individual notes. And it fits Glass’ music like a glove.

Glass may well be the popular face of Minimalism. Still, McVinnie started things off with a short talk, which seemed based on the idea that while the world’s got used to later Glass the earlier years still take some easing into. He used 1976’s ‘Einstein on the Beach’ as the switching point from l’enfant terrible to  star guest of the Brighton Festival.

And it was bizarre (in a good way to watch McVinnie at the organ for 1969’s 'Music In Fifths’, his hands occupying such a small area of those amassed ranks of keys. But, as ever, you don’t need signposting so much as the willingness to give the work a little time to… you know… work. As ever, what initially seems reductively simple soon beguiles you, until you can no longer tell simple and complex apart. They start to become just different ways of looking at something. Which is in fact the way we do look at things.

McVinne then smartly went into the Finale from ’Satyagraha’ (1979), a richly melodic work. And he closed proceedings with the classic ’Mad Rush’ (1989), a rival to Pruitt Igoe’ as his ‘hit’ and fully deserving of its reputation.

Yet the highlight for me was the opening ’Music In Similar Motion’, also from 1969. Interestingly, this work wasn’t composed for the organ or even a solo instrument. In Glass’s words, it had “an open score which can be performed by any group of instruments”. And in fact it works by building up line atop line, like acrobats forming a human pyramid. In other words, an ensemble piece. Yet that turns out to be precisely what makes it effective for the organ, as it builds up layers of sound all by itself.

The organ works were interspersed with piano pieces. Which mostly felt like the bread in the sandwich. Perhaps the piano is simply a more familiar solo instrument, or fares badly when one-on-one against the fuller organ sound. Yet many of Glass’s works are scored for either piano or organ, and in general I’m a fan of his piano pieces. The best-known version of ’Mad Rush’, for example, is on piano.

So it may be the piano pieces in themselves just weren’t great. In particular the two ’Etudes’, from 2014, weren’t post-Minimalist so much as non-Minimalist and sounded no more than some bloke plonking about on the piano.They suggest, alas, a degeneration in Glass’ composing to the point he now just sounds like everybody else. Had I heard them blind, I don’t think I’d have guessed they were by him.

Truth to tell, I didn’t have particularly high expectations of this event, which I thought might be too much of a ‘proper’ recital. For quite a long period, Glass forbade performances of his compositions not by his own Ensemble. Though there may have been a financial element to this, I’d suspect that also he didn’t trust classically trained musicians to be in sympathy with his work. Perhaps not as extremely as when the BBC Symphony Orchestra would ‘interpret’ popular hits of the day, but along similar lines. My mind may have also been influenced by not enjoying so much a previous performance of McVinnie’s, though there the problem lay in the Squarepusher piece. (And, when I go back and read my own blog post, I’m reminded that he finished that set off with some Glass then.) So, despite a couple of weaker works, my overall response was very pleasant surprise.

Not from the night but a piece McVinnie played (even if I hopelessly don’t mention it anywhere else)…

>

THE GODFATHERS
The Hope and Ruin, Brighton, Thurs 11th Oct



If I say you could learn everything you need to know about the Godfathers’ from their song names, I mean it in a good way. We are, after all, talking about titles such as ‘This Damn Nation’, ‘I Want Everything’ and ‘I’m Unsatisfied’. Articulating the sense of how it feels to be young may be the default form of rock music, which might make it sound like trodden ground. Yet the Godfathers excelled in articulating the inarticulation.

Their sound combined punk energy with Mod sharpness, all amphetamine attitude with guitar lines slicing like Stanley knives. They even affected a sharp-suited image, very different to the charity-shop apparel of indie then all around. (I’d assume the clobber led to the band name.)

Which seems strange in retrospect. Seventies Punk was itself about returning to the live-wire energy of the mid-Sixties even while it pretended it wasn’t. Yet going on to make that connection overt still seemed to make a huge difference. Mark Deming may resolve this when he says: “they gave their music a level of craft and polish that made them accessible without blunting the rage.”

Yet their greatness also proved their limitation. I was initially excited to discover them, yet without my making any conscious decision they soon dropped from my frame of vision.

But then the adolescent mind really only has four settings - “it’s all about me”, “I pronounce this world wanting”, “I am extremely angry about about a thing” and “sex is great (from what I hear.)” All of which you can fit on a three-minute single quite comfortably. Perhaps their attempt to take things back to the mid-Sixties was too successful, making their natural habitat the single in a world now based around albums. (Denning comments how their album sales never matched their singles.)

Alternately, perhaps they hit a problem normally thought to beset later bands like the Strokes. They needed to hit the ground with all cylinders firing, to get everyone’s attention. But as they’d already mastered what they wanted to do there was nowhere for them to go.

Yet, at my age, that sense of how it feels to be a raging adolescent seems something to rekindle. So lucky for me, they’re back. (Since 2008, as it happens. Nobody tells me anything.) In fact only frontman Peter Coyne remains from the first time. But they’re as sharp as they ever were, new songs fitting in easily with the old. ‘Defibrillator’ in particular was enough to shake your fillings loose. They still want everything, they still want it now. They are, truth be told, in exactly the same style as the old. But if a thing’s working, why not keep working it?

The only downside was that they didn’t play their two cover versions, Lennon’s ’Cold Turkey’ and - compellingly if improbably - Rolf Harris’ ’Sun Arise’. But they promised to be back, so you never know your luck…

’Everything’, from Edinburgh (he said alliteratively)…



…plus my first ever sighting of the band, under their original name The Sid Presley Experience, from ’The Tube’ in 1985…

Monday, 8 October 2018

DOCTOR WHO: ‘THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH’


I’m not likely to go back to reviewing New Who on a weekly basis. Frankly, I’ve discovered that it works best for me when I don’t pay it too much attention. What’s the point in continually testing the load-bearing weight of something when it’s already been proven to have such a thin back? But seeing as this is a whole new era, with a whole new team both before and behind the camera, let’s take a quick peep.

The storyline is pretty perfunctory, plus predictable. Is there a big film reboot currently going on in the cinema? There normally is. And is that getting recycled for this reboot over here? You betcha. But that’s the norm for new Doctor stories. Everyone’s going to be looking to the new star anyway, so what’s the point in trying to distract from that? Better to just go with it, and serve up something familiar.

Mostly it has the feel of a Children’s Film Foundation outing, some hijinks around cheap and accessible locations. Which isn’t a criticism. I’d rather that than more of the Lonely God stuff. But this leads to strange tonal inconsistencies, when at arbitrary points it suddenly goes dark.

Take the deaths. We had one Tragic Death, where a lethal fall somehow leads to someone passing away peacefully, without messy blood or any particular sign of broken bones. But again, the inherent absurdity of that isn’t the problem, it's best treated as a trope. The problem lies in the way it contrasts with two Terrible Deaths. One so grisly it Cannot Be Shown Onscreen, and must be covered up even within the story. While the whole confused last-minute alien teleport thing seemed based around avoiding an untidy fourth body.

And these inconsistencies seem to have induced quite a schizo response, like people could only parse one or the other. For example in El Sandifer’s comments section, one person found it “a kid's adventure show slotted into a prestige BBC procedural”, while others remarked on “the dour, dry, grim, miserable tone.”

Perhaps the show is just prone to such clashes. It’s a teatime horror story, after all, with both an adult and a child audience to satisfy. But in that case the smart thing would be to play the contrasts up. Suppose for example the line about finding this fun was transposed to their entering the warehouse, only to be confronted by the worst of those Terrible Deaths. The problem’s then twisted to work in the story’s favour.

Ryan’s dyspraxia, conversely, seemed a muddled attempt to get over a similar muddle, by playing fast and loose with the character’s age. He’s specified as nineteen but it allows him to do ‘child’ things, like learn to ride a bike, which might work for a younger audience without the problems associated with an actual child actor. (On the other hand Andrew Hickey, who himself has dyspraxia, found it a positive portrayal. So what do I know?)

But then (as already said) it’s all going to centre round Jodie Whitaker’s performance. Which, luckily, is highly effective. The whole thing’s somewhat like listening to a supposedly new but actually standard song, played fairly ploddingly but with a compelling vocal. I doubt five people running round Sheffield would have kept my attention for a full hour if not for her.

And, good news for me, her Doctor’s very much in the Tom Baker mould. Eccentric charisma becomes a kind of force within the story, as much as for the viewer. Standard responses just get dispelled, as reality warps to his/her personality.

Capaldi’s abrasive maverick frequently came into conflict with authority. Perhaps his most identifying line was “Who’s in charge here? I need to know who to ignore.” Whereas Whittaker just disregards authority, seeing it as something extraneous, water to her oil. When Yasmin tries to give her police rank, she’s told what’s needed is her name. Whitaker even rejects A&E, insisting “I never go anywhere that's just initials.”

But Baker was irreducibly alien. (Possibly even when not in character.) Whereas Whitaker’s never too strange. There’s something quite regular and matter-of-fact about her attitude; if the aliens invade, your natural response is to roll your sleeves up and tell them to push off. Whoever she bumps into at the time... they'll be enough to get enlisted in the struggle, surely. (Only in the Whoniverse would you gain intel on an alien invasion by going round the bus drivers.) Which is why the T’Zim Sha/ Tim Shaw gag works. You’re never sure whether she’s shrewdly disarming his aura of menace or simply repeating back what she heard, and you sense she probably doesn’t know herself.

Unsurprisingly, understandably, the Beeb is now angling the show back towards the casual viewer. Who was never likely to be found saying “Well I never, a Mondassian Cyberman is back.” But at the same time, in casting the first female Doctor they made a fairly bold move.

Within the episode itself, little is made of this. Only the title plays this up, or possibly her ‘lack’ of a sonic screwdriver. After all, these all-new characters don’t know this Doctor as anything else. In short, it works the way it always does. Whittaker performs well in the role, and just gets on with it. But the idiosphere were insisting before the first trailer she only got the job through political correctness gone mad.

Yet there is one moment of truth to all their ‘Social Justice Warrior’ conspiracy theories. Now she has been cast, if that pisses off a misogynistic bunch of dickheads so much the better. Of course, despite their threats they won’t stop watching the show. (See also: the super-rich threatening to leave Britain if Labour get in.) And even if they were to actually go through with a boycott, it would barely dent the overall viewing figures. (“It’s about the casual viewer” is really just a variant of “it’s the economy, stupid”.) But they will be looking to exploit that particular fault-line. If the viewing figures don’t increase, they’ll blame it all on central casting.

Of course they’ll do that anyway. But then we’ll have another ’Force Awakens’ situation, where they’ll just make themselves look more stupid than normal. And the audience appreciation figures look good. This time, I suspect the lighter tone of the opening episode will stick around for longer. So perhaps the audience response might too.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY IS ON ORKNEY

...including Stromness and the island of Hoy. Which contains the Old Man of Hoy, the highest sea stack in the UK. Also taking in John O'Groats along the way. More to come. As ever, full set on 500px.







Saturday, 29 September 2018

FORT PROCESS/ HUGO TICCIATI'S 'LOOPING TIME' (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

FORT PROCESS
Newhaven Fort, Sat 22nd Sept



So happily, perhaps the only music and sound art festival to be held in a Napoleonic fort got a sequel. (Actually a second sequel, alas I gormlessly missed the first occurrence.) Again it promised to “cover the cornerstones of improv, experiments, dance and noise”. With multiple events going on simultaneously, I can only concentrate on a few highlights here. Someone else’s path might not have crossed mine at all.



Most accounts I read from the last event focused on how brilliantly inappropriate it was for such an event to take over a venue based around war defences. Perhaps “make weirdo music not war” could be its slogan. But as I watched a sound installation emit spectral bleeping from the fort’s ramparts(‘Arpeggi’ by Mike Blow, handily pictured) I think I find it more splendidly appropriate.

Perhaps I just spent too much of my seventies youth watching ’Doctor Who’ and the like. But those were the days when budgets for location shooting stretched no further than Surrey, while the Radiophonic Workshop was at the show’s disposal. So the alien was often conceived of as a sonic aesthetic, strange sounds that required decoding. While the military provided the role of controlling parents, locking the weird away from us, causing us to seek it out. (Perhaps significantly, another of Blow’s installations, ’Arpeggi’, “uses hacked ex-military hardware to create music.”)



Many installations worked interactively, as what Blow called “automatic music”, collaborating with either the audience or the venue. In Adam Bastana’s ’A Room Listening To Itself’ (also handily pictured) microphones were arranged radially, to pick up from speakers. To add some audience involvement I lightly tapped one speaker, to hear a drum roll slowly spread round the room.

At other times it was the other way, the venue seemed to interpret the work for you. The sub lows of Disinformation’s ’National Grid’ were smartly located in the deep Caponier tunnels. So, while the indicia spoke of links between the grid network and the human body, I thought more of the echoes and resonances in caves which are supposed to have stimulated the first human music.

Maria Marzaioli’s ’PWM’ used four audio loops culled from improvisations. With each loop of a different length, new combinations were constantly being created. But, particularly with the use of recognisable instruments, it was almost impossible not to listen to as a ‘real’ quartet. This time the work may have influenced the setting. For I found the sound bleed (particularly between the indoor works), not distracting but enhancing of the overall effect - as if the whole festival became one meta sound art work.

The programme described Ore as the “originator of the truly singular genre Tuba Doom”. Ah, those genre tags always start off as a gag! But give it six months and at a gig you’ll run into some bozo insisting he was into Tuba Doom before anyone else. In fact, he will probably turn out to be me.

Wandering, soaking stuff up, I stumbled upon their set mid-way. A tuba and trombone player were working just slightly out of time with one another, creating an enticingly ‘bent’ effect. Already pretty minimal, that actually proved the dynamic centre of the piece as they shifted into unison for the finale. It seemed forever half-emerging out of drone, as if something shifting into view. Minimalist in the Morton Feldman sense, where the sombre meets with the serene. If music like this doesn’t progress much, it’s because it marinades. Like a fermenting spirit its taste becomes stronger and stronger.

Franco-Finnish trio Ritual Extra were similarly minimal, in fact so slow to start you wondered if they’d resolved to play only for the super-patient. (Compared to these guys, the Necks plunge straight into the deep end.) Luckily, the wait was worth it. The drummer struck his cymbals softly but so rapidly as to produce a shimmering tone. While an acoustic guitar took up a more percussive role, strumming and thwacking, as clear-voiced folk chanting sailed across the both of them.

The absolute absence of any performance element was striking, each person’s movements economically concerned only with playing. The singer sat stock still, gazing into the middle distance, shifting only his mouth.

Alas this time I missed the ending, heading off as I was to see Rhys Chatham. Who marks a different strand of Minimalism again. Having previously worked with La Monte Young, Tony Conrad and Glenn Branca, tonight he was playing alongside only himself. In ’Pythagorean Dreams’, he’d switch between guitar, flute and some kind of mini-trumpet, looping down layers of himself as he went. The effect was rather like that game where you keep placing one hand atop another, ceaselessly giving off the effect of building up to some crescendo. Minimalist and musically rich at one and the same time.

I romantically imagined each loop had some in-built half-life, so nothing decayed away but each new element added to the expanding richness of the underlying sonic loam. He was probably just fading them down himself as he went, but that’s what I liked to think.



I’d watched some vidclips of AJA (above) before the day, which at the time I dismissed as “just a performance”. And true, her noise electronica is serviceable but bog-standard beat-bashing. (Certainly nothing to compare with Ewa Justka’s merciless intensity from the last event.) But, when you see it live, you can only conclude - what a performance! This time rather than work with the setting her act burst beyond its confines. Despite playing in a small and crowded room, lacking even the most basic stage, she came on as if she had Iggy Pop in her blood.

Noise music is notoriously for being ‘manpainy’. Think of the characteristic hunched pose under hoodie and over microphone. By way of cheery contrast, AJA sports - and fully inhabits - the most outrageously flamboyant costumes, from which she engages fully with the audience. After Tuba Doom perhaps we’ve hit on another new genre - Glam Noise.

In may day, women would often tell each other the expression “nothing better than having a good cry”. Yet of course there’s something better, and her whole act seems intent on proving the inherent value in having a good scream. So, despite all the volume, or more likely because of it, it’s a wholly uplifting experience to witness. The programme described her act as “cathartic”, not a word they were using in vain. And in this day and age, it’s often appealing to discover something where you do have to be there, which isn’t YouTubeable.

Overall Fort Process is one of those labours of love and (the right kind of) lunacy, put on by afficionados for afficionados, just to see the thing happen. It’s proof corporate crap hasn’t colonised the whole of our lives just yet.

Photo of AJA from the event’s website, other snaps mine. More where they came from here.

Some proper photos from Agata Urbaniak here

Last time I managed to post a video of the previous event. So let’s keep that tradition up…



‘LOOPING TIME’ BY HUGO TICCIATI + O/MODERNT CHAMBER ORCHESTRA
Kings Place, London, Fri 21st Sept



This concert, part of the Time Unwrapped season, focused on string-based Minimalist music.

‘Shaker Loops’ (1978) , while an early work of John Adams’, is regarded as something of a classic, and rightly so. It contains many Minimalist elements, including a basis in a pulsing beat and an ability to keep things simple. In the second movement, a double bass plucks at a solitary string at regular intervals.

Yet, perhaps in retrospect, it’s easy to hear how he was already moving into Post-Minimalism. An earlier version in Adams’ own words “crashed and burned”, partly because it restricted itself to a string quartet. Adams responded by ramping up the number of players, first to a septet and (as performed here) a full string orchestra - “thereby adding a sonic mass and the potential for more acoustical power.”

But rather than Post-Minimalist it should be thought of as Just Romantic Enough. The reference to the Shakers, a religious group from the American Pioneer days, already gives the music more of specificity than normally found in Minimalism. What amounts to a violin solo appears midway. It very much builds to a climax, even though it continues from there and ends somewhere much closer to the beginning.


And what could be more Romantic than imitation of nature? Adams has said himself the first movement in particular was inspired by the rippling of water, the surface refracting the sunlight caught by those amassed shimmering strings.

But ultimately, as is typical of him, Adams makes the unlikely combination virtuous. Much like nature, the piece belies our constructed notions of what’s simple and what’s complex and involved.

Angel’s Share by the Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur, was a UK premiere. As anyone who’s seen the Ken Loach film knows, the title refers to the amount of whiskey which evaporates during distilling.

The piece is full of ideas, and has some great sections. It opens etherially, with the violins and violas creating the most disembodied sounds. Quite late on, it suddenly breaks out into a folk dance rhythm. Yet overall it didn’t hold together. I found it kept slowly losing my interest, then doing something to suddenly grab it back, only to lose it again a short while later.

While the other three composers were still with us, Perotin’s ’Viderunt Omnes’ stems from the Twelfth Century. The ensemble entered from all four corners of the auditorium already playing, and segued surprisingly neatly into Philip Glass’s Third Symphony.

Symphonies may be antithetical to the strictures of high Minimalism, and indeed Glass didn’t embark on any until the Nineties when he was already leaving that behind. (This was composed in 1995.) It does make a good companion piece to ’Shaker Loops’, there’s even a violin lead in the third movement. (The programme uses Classical terms, such as “chaconne”, which I don’t claim to understand.)

But it remains a blend rather than a break, Glass finding a sweet spot where Minimalist mantras combine with rich and resonant melodies. And the Minimalist spirit may be retained most in it’s unhurried pace, creating something stately without any pomp.