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Saturday, 16 March 2019

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY LIKES A GOOD STONE CIRCLE...

...and fortunately Orkney is festooned with them! Plus Maes Howe, which is a Neolithic burial chamber rather than a stone circle, but impressive all the same. No villagers chanting "Happy Day" were present at time of visit...

As ever, full set on 500px.







Saturday, 9 March 2019

TOTAL IMMERSION: LIGETI (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

Barbican, London, Sat 2nd March


The Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti… you’ve probably heard his music even if you don’t know the daunting-sounding name. For Stanley Kubrick was wont to use it in his films, principally ‘2001’. And his influence remains strong enough for the Barbican to stage a day-long series of concerts, of which I was only able to catch the evening.

Though he was composing earlier, the Sixties saw him hit on his mature style. He’s quoted in the programme as saying “I have always been looking for an alternative to the 12-note temperament”. And he became interested in what we’d now call World music, not to imitate or incorporate it but to find life outside the conventions of Western harmony. Imagine if visual art had not been confined just to subject matter but to colour, with three agreed shades or green and purple unheard of.

Instead, in the pioneering ’Atmospheres’ (1961), he used ‘sound masses’ where instruments cluster together rather than contribute individual lines, producing ‘adjacent’ sounds to one another which need to be heard in combination. Imagine the difference between ballet, where figures dance in synchronisation but stay separate, to circus acrobats climbing and jumping all over each other. And the piece is exhilarating to listen to to this day, particularly to witness regular classical instruments emitting such unearthly sounds.

His mention of “12-note” refers to then fashionable Serialism. And it’s notable that, quite unlike Serialism, the piece has great dynamics. It just achieves them without the normal standards of musical progression. It’s been described by Harold Kaufman as "a magma of evolving sound”.

The next piece, at least chronologically, was ’Clocks and Clouds’ (1972/3). In a nice anecdote, the programme explains the title comes from a Karl Popper lecture he attended. The then-standard notion of physics was that the sub-atomic world, with its quirky quarks and other weirdly behaving particles, was one thing and the clockwork order of the stars and the planets another. Whereas Popper insisted on a continuity between order and chaos, between clocks and clouds.

I’ve often compared contemporary music of this era to experiencing a weather front. And by extension of Popper’s metaphor, much of the appeal comes from perceiving an order to the music which you can’t quite discern. It’s like receiving an alien radio signal which is compelling for hovering on the periphery of decipherability. The voices in ’Clocks and Clouds’ particularly suggest this. And, possibly by co-incidence, as Ligeti grew up in the Eastern block, he first heard contemporary music by illegally tuning into German radio stations.

The programme also included ’San Francisco Polyphony’ (1973/4) and two much later pieces, after Ligeti had returned from a break from composing. In the intervening time his sonic cosmonaut adventures had fallen more into earth’s orbit. As suggested by the tiles of both ’Piano Concerto’ (1985/8) and ’Violin Concerto’ (1989/93) their return to convention even extends to having a lead instrument. There’s quotes from the man to suggest that, once the unexpected is expected from you, the thing to do becomes the expected.

It’s true that ’Atmospheres’ packs more in it’s nine dense minutes than ’Violin Concerto’ does in twenty-eight. And the concertos might have worked better programmed alongside one another, despite their greater length. But their most interesting feature was their lack of interest in, to use a current political term, ‘centrism’. Instead of making their prridge meh they span the dial all the way from the most regular clocks to the most ungraspable clouds. The programme describes ’Violin Concerto’ as “a labyrinth in which some paths were familiar, some weirdly unfamiliar, and one could never guess when the music might flip from one to another.”

And ’Violin Concerto’ in particular is interesting for a return to folk influences of his younger years. At times the lead violin seems to be echoed in a distorting mirror of the ensemble, where they’d mangle his melodies and hand them back to him. Yet at others they’d provide melodies of their own.

Though Liegti knew Stockhausen, one of the other great contemporary composers of the era, he only very briefly dallied with electronic sounds. In fact, though the music’s quite different, there’s more of a parallel in approach to the American Minimalists. Both saw World music as an escape from an impasse Western composition had mired itself in, and so stuck to ‘standard’ instruments. Both eschewed a hierarchy of instruments and musical progression. Both later decided that their own rules now risked becoming restrictions, and tried to reconcile themselves with the Western tradition.

Depending on your whereabouts and whenabouts, you may be able to hear this concert on the BBC iPlayer.

And you’ll know this…

Friday, 1 March 2019

“SOMETHING HAPPENED ON THE DAY HE DIED”: DAVID BOWIE’S ‘BLACKSTAR’


Bowie’s ’Blackstar’… okay, I’m coming a little late to this one. But its very existence is heartening to me. It may have taken someone who hailed from the days from when ‘LPs’ were ‘released’ (instead of ‘items’ being added to ‘feeds’) to rekindle the feeling of an LP being released, but let’s just focus on the fact we got there.

And for me it’s extra sweet. Before the end of the Eighties I’d finally got over my fervent youthful denunciations of his “selling out” and simply stopped thinking about him. Then, slowly and surely, it became the musical equivalent of people’s paths diverging only to come back together later in life. As if he’d become bored of attending award shows and glitzy parties, and decided he was really one of us outsider types after all. Culminating in an album that genuinely bears comparison to his Seventies stuff.

So it seems gloriously old-fashioned the way so many people devoted so much webspace to raking over every utterance and studying the cover for “clues”, even if there was little of quality analysis amid that width. They roved from Norwegian villages to computer code, hoping to overturn so many stones that surely something useful will be stumbled upon. But however absurd the exercise it does hearken back to the days when an album being released was an event, like a monolith being found on the moon, around which the rest of life would have to reorient itself.

And I wonder if, with the title track in particular, it wasn’t preloaded for that response, to both provoke and stymie it. With any piece of music, you’ll hear the sound of the voice before you take in any words, which will inevitably colour the lyrics. And there’s two distinct vocal lines in this song, even if both are provided by Bowie himself. The ceremonial voice which opens the track is like the musical equivalent of a Greek chorus, describing things, setting the scene.

The other voice, sounding more like a regular Bowie vocal, slips between first and second person. But both are concerned with the actions of a character. It behaves like a lead vocal, the ceremonial voice slipping into backing vocals when it’s around. In other words, the first vocal frames the second, both in form (the song being palindromic in structure) and in content. As if the track has its own inbuilt audience. In the video he ‘plays’ the two voices as different characters.


“At the centre of it all” is nothing that radiates but a blackstar, defined as a set of absences (“I’m not a filmstar… a popstar… a marvel star” and so on.) A corpse in a spacesuit. Bowie often demonstrated a Dylanish disdain for pinning songs to ‘meanings’, and here the compound word title brings together ‘centre of attention’ and ‘blank slate’. Maybe his last words to us all were “you try making some sense of this stuff if you want. Me, I have somewhere I need to be…” While at the same time saying, in Lennon’s teasing words, “here’s another clue for you all”. And, to quote him from another track on the same album, “ain’t that just like me?”

So why do that? Bowie had a wry sense of humour. But that’s not the whole of it. Scanning songs for ‘clues’, like they’re puzzle games or detective stories, is clearly not the right way to respond to them. It borders on category error. But in its klunking, gormless way it clutches at something important. Art is not a work email or a note left out for the milkman. It’s not a switchboard for conveying straightforward information. The artist only launches the artwork, lets it loose in the world. From thereon in, it’s up to you, the listener, to make your own sense of it.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

‘CARNIVAL OF SOULS’



As I’m going to be cavalier with PLOT SPOILERS here I’m just going to assume this classic horror film doesn’t need much introduction from me. Besides, it’s become public domain so can be watched on-line by anyone who has a mind to. Here’s the edited highlights… 1962… American independent feature… produced not so much quickly as guerrilla style… no success even as a B feature… director, producer and co-writer Herk Harvey consequently never made another feature… later became cult classic… powerful cinematography… eerie and atmospheric… all of that.

Clearly this is not a film that’s about its plot or even its themes, they’re really just a means by which it might evoke its creepy atmosphere. Something that’s very often true of good films, which will create their own world rather than mimic an existing one, but more true of a film like this. Its mood haunts you as much as it does its chief character. However, as a holder for that mood it does create a mystery.

And there’s a predominant theory for deciphering it. The majority of the film is a dream sequence that, in a pre-echo of ’Inception’, plays outside of clock time, between the crashing car hurtling off the bridge and hitting the water. Which is why we return to the bodies in the car at the end, after the character Mary had initially seemed to somehow escape.



Seen this way the menacing Man who Mary keeps seeing (above) is Death. Self-described as “a person of strong will”, she attempts to impose her own death-defying narrative where she not only defies the crash but starts a new life in a new town. Death, inevitably enough, catches up with her. While, already touched by death, she can’t make any real contact with the living.

And there’s certainly arguments for this. She’s horrified by and runs from him. Yet at the same time she’s drawn to the liminal space of the lakeside Pavilion. At one point at a bus station she can hear nothing save for a distorted tannoy announcement that a bus is leaving. She boards it, to find it full of ghouls welcoming her aboard. In the well-known climactic ballroom scene, the ghouls dance in couples while the Man stretches out his hand to her - as if this is the company in which she belongs. Even as she runs from Death she’s drawn to him, in a sublimated death drive.

There’s also the recurrence of both water and the spectral, swirling organ music. In fact the film seems to associate the two - we first hear that music as the camera moves into close-ups of the river. In Freudian psychology, often beloved of horror films, both bridges and water occupy a liminal space between life and death.

And if there’s two hallucinatory scenes within the main film they’re normally regarded as, in a further pre-echo of ’Inception’, a dream within a dream. (At least one isn’t actually a dream, but that’s how they’re commonly referred to.)


All of which is laid out with rather witless literalism by the poster tagline “she was a stranger among the living” (above). Later reissues came complete with “is there death after life?” and “she escaped death, now it wants her back.” Though all this telegraphing may well not be Harvey’s intent. Distribution rights soon fell outside his control. And with at least one poster which went for the absurdly salacious (below), it seems reasonable not to take them as authorial statements.

But…

‘Invaders From Mars’ (1953) is another American independent production built around a film-long dream sequence. But it’s noted for the “dreamlike Surrealism” of its design. While the majority of ’Carnival Of Souls’ is set in an ostensibly ‘real world’. (Filmed on location in Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Late City.)

For example, the petrol pump attendant who describes the Pavilion to her is assigned the horror movie role of the Harbinger. But his description is simply informative. (And remarkably close to the actual history of the place.)

If the film’s conceit is that this is all a dream or hallucination Mary’s having, which we get to experience, then to include scenes she’s not present in is a strange decision. Admittedly there aren’t many of these, but they occur. In one, almost at the finale, her final footprints are traced by a cop. The ghouls pursuing her, being spectral things, have left no marks - while hers just end, as she’s taken. Which ‘makes sense’, within the narrative logic of horror films, of what’s just happened. Which would be a peculiar scene to insert if Mary was imagining the whole thing, Pavilion setting and all, from inside a car currently striking a lake.

And more importantly, if the main part of the film is a dream sequence, why are the dreams-within-a-dream so distinct from it? They’re as ‘dreamy’, as disruptive of narrative rules, as it is naturalised.

In a famous quote Mary says “I don't belong in the world - that's what it is. Something separates me from other people.” And she’s often shown literally shutting people out, from her room in the boarding house or locking her car doors. You could picture a scenario where she seemingly escapes the crash, yet is heartbreakingly invisible to her friends and family. But that’s not the film we see.

The “something” that separates seems there from the beginning. The film starts with another girl driving the car she’s in, eagerly accepting the boys’ challenge to a race. Yet when we cut to Mary she looks at first detached and then apprehensive.

Her work as a church organist is partly devised to mark her out as alongside but not part of the congregation, turning down a social invitation to meet them. Yet she seems to have the job lined up before the accident, and travels off to it very shortly afterwards. And another character confirms: “She’s always kept pretty much to herself.”

And if it’s not death that prevents her from belonging, that would seem to work better the other way around - it’s this detachment from life which pushes her towards death.

Seen this way, the Man isn’t death so much as… well, man. There’s times he just appears, at the car window or in the boarding house hallway. But he will also displace, and be displaced by, other male characters. This includes, in a bit of a cheesy shock, the Psychiatrist in his office. But she also imagines the Man’s hands grabbing hers over the organ, which then transform into the priest’s. (A moment captured on the film poster.)

Look again at the opening. Boy racing is a staple of films from this era. But they will almost always involve girls as passengers, choruses to the action. Here a car of boys races a car of girls, which more accurately sums up the teen years when the two sexes start to take a sideways interest in one another.

Which seems to conflate the near-universal wish for a place in the world with the desire for a man. Mary claims to have no such desires, and with her work as a musician seems set on financial independence.

This was a time when ‘nice girls’ were supposed to have no sexual yearnings of their own. Yet at the same time a rejection of male desire was medicalised as ‘frigidity’. Which seems something of a Catch 22.


The film would make an interesting compare and contrast to Polanski’s ’Repulsion’ (1965). Which creates a paradox. We watch a woman succumbing to hysteria, where the more she cracks the more thrilling the film becomes, her hysteria equalling our enjoyment. Yet in both films we don’t just take on the protagonist’s perspective, we see the world quite literally through her eyes. (Apart from Mary, it’s only us who see the Man.) So both films are structured in such a way as to invite sympathy for her.


Take for example Mr. Linden (above), who literally sticks his foot in her door and continually tries to ply her with drink, is clearly presented as a louche, predatory creep. It’s not our seeing him that way with hindsight. Yet, rather than responding like a smalltown innocent, Mary’s immediate response is to keep trouble at bay. This is shown less as ‘frigidity’ and more as levelheadedness. She does consent to go out somewhere with him, but that’s an indication that she’s so desperate for human company that even he’ll do. Any louse in a storm.

So despite the archetypal hysterics perhaps we could see her as a pre-feminist heroine. The impossibility of her situation becomes a microcosm of a woman’s place in this era. Alone in a man’s world, effectively deprived of solidarity from other women, she inevitably cracks under the pressure. Yet, a person of strong will, she goes down fighting. Which would be a tempting line to take. It would mean that, while the film may trade in sexist tropes, it also challenges them.

However, there’s multiple problems with this. First, Mr. Linden seems more a detail of the film than a component. It would be relatively easy to edit him out without leaving much of a hole. (One reason he may loom larger in the film than he might is that Sidney Berger’s smarmy, hyperactive portrayal is so effective in a film where wooden acting’s the norm.)

More interestingly, he’s very much the exception to a rule. While almost all the other men in the film are presented as reiterations of a type - someone older and not just unthreatening but relatively kindly. The Man therefore becomes something like their id figures. In short, the Man’s not just the Man, he’s the anti-Father.

There’s one passing suggestion she sees “her folks” before she leaves for the city, to which she gives the evasive reply “No, I can't. I.. I must hurry. I've got to leave.” Partially of course this refers to the classic fool’s errand of trying to outrun death. But why bring her folks into it at all?

That evasion, what if it hints at child abuse? This may sound like a lot of narrative weight to load onto what’s essentially an ellipse, but given the censorship rules at the time its something which could only be referred to obliquely.

Young victims can sometimes form a bifurcated view in which the providing parent and malevolent abuser are conceived as two separate people. Which would perfectly fit the succession of kindly father figures and their recurring ghoul-like shadow. Though, rather than retreat into ‘frigidity’, the abuse victim will more typically fall to the other extreme, failing to maintain non-sexual relationships. However, ‘frigidity’ does more match movie psychology - it takes well to the screen, doesn’t risk censorship and seems more sympathetic.

So is the film really about a woman’s mind trying, and inevitably failing, to rationalise child abuse? Has the real horror happened before the film starts, and Mary’s hallucinations manifest as some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder?

Perhaps. But when rival interpretations of an artwork prove persuasive our first question should be whether they really need to be seen as rivals, whether we have to choose between them. 
Is the Man Death, Man or Anti-Father? Maybe the best answer there is yes.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

‘SOUL OF A NATION: ART IN THE AGE OF BLACK POWER’

Tate Gallery, London


”I mean to tell it like it is. I ain’t subtle and I don’t intend to be subtle, so long as America remains the great white destroyer”
- Dana Chandler

The Body Is Graphic

Ask people to think of a medium associated with Black Power, and they’re not going to come back with visual art. Even this show’s title obliquely alludes to that, while the curators compiled an accompanying playlist. For music was not only a ready form of black expression, it was an open channel by which that expression could disseminate. We saw before, with Pop Art that despite the Sixties being so visual a decade visual art struggled to keep up with other media. Were there visual artists who equalled the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron in significance? Let’s see what we can find…

It’s certainly true Black Power was partially about image. Its central tenant was that representation of black people – cultural or political – is a task which might sometimes be undertaken by black people, and in fact that make make for something of a change. And that representation applied to culture as much as politics.

Something more the case than in earlier phases of struggle. Civil Rights often deployed the slogan “I am a man”, establishing a fundamental equivalence between black and white folks.It was at root integrationist. And so its practitioners tended to favour a sober-minded look, formal dress countering the black criminal or delinquent stereotype.Whereas the Black Panthers’ original ten-point programme began with “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black community.” It was at root autonomous. So Black Power tried to reclaim the black look from the negative stereotypes it had become associated with.

(Disclaimer:Purely for convenience I’m going to pretend Black Power was one discrete entity. Even though it wasn’t. It didn’t reduce solely to the Black Panthers, who hadt heir own highly virulent debates.)



And the poster image is… well, a good poster image of this. Barkley Hendricks’ self-portrait ’Icon For My Man Superman’ (1969, above) is as the title suggests very much an iconic picture, flatly descriptive, double-framed with a minimal background. It’s not an attempt to convey psychological depth. It’s a statement which comes out intothe world, as bold and direct as any presidentialhead carved into a mountainside.

With his S-logo shirt, folded arms and impassive shades, Hendricks looks cooly assertive without being aggressive. He subtitled the picture with a quote from Bobby Searle, “Superman never saved any black people”. The message, as the Guardian’s Laura Cumming puts it, is “Hendricks has no need of Superman. He saves himself.”

(Slightly later, in 1975, Gil Scott-Heron wrote a very similar message with ’Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman’: “Understand that if we’re gonna win/ We've got to get together, stay together, be together, stick together”.)

The effect of this may be hard to grasp, particularly for those born to a later generation, in a different country and – above and beyond all the others- white.For example, me. But imagine if the only popular images you’d ever seen of people like yourself were savages, criminals and rubber-lipped clowns. Then one day you spy people justlike you butbrimming with pride over the way they are, and insistent you could be too. Black Power quickly became a walking, talking symbol of itself.

It’s significant that the term ‘cool’ originates in black culture, even if it now means little more than owning the latest smartphone. When striving to get a grasp on what’s cool, where else is there to go but Wikipedia? “Cool was once an attitude fostered by rebels and underdogs, such as slaves, prisoners, bikers and political dissidents, etc., for whom open rebellion invited punishment, so it hid defiance behind a wall of ironic detachment, distancing itself from the source of authority rather than directly confronting it.”

As Norman Mailer said: “Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day… no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk.” And how can you respond to that situation other than making a conscious display of sauntering? When the world ruthlessly shoves its weight on your shoulders, what are you going to do but shrug it off with the most carefree gesture possible?

As the term dates to the jazz scene of the Forties, by the Sixties the association was well-established. So Black Power was able to take elements of cool as it chose (self-confidence, autonomy) and combine them with its apparent opposites – righteous anger, collectivism. It was cool and incendiary simultaneously. You can see those all at work in Hendricks.

Focus just for a minute on Hendricks’ afro. This worked in a very different way to the hippies growing their hair, which for all their talk of “going natural” always involved taking on a new identity. The afro was based around the idea that black identity had up till now been suppressed, that if they wanted to get by black people were expected to make their best impersonation of white folks. As the poet Amiri Baraka wrote in ’In Our Terribleness’ (1970) “our beauty is BAD ‘cause we have something like an inner sublime, no longer conforming to white notions of beauty.”

And one of the many means by which Black Power is treated in an institutionally racist way is that the focus is always on its effect upon white society. Whereas it’s primary catchment was black people. It says so much that you even need to point that out.

As AO Scott of the New York Times points out: “Images of black men in black leather jackets and berets, brandishing firearms and raising their fists are part of the collective memory of the ’60s. At the time, those images inspired a wave of publicity and recruiting… Gifted at political theater… they managed, at least for a time, to be both glamorous and grass-roots… They helped to popularize the slogan ‘black is beautiful’ and to promote an aesthetic of pride and self-sufficiency.”


See for example the cover of the Black Panther newspaper featuring Huey Newton (above), with a gun in one hand and a spear in the other, surrounded by African paraphernalia, described as a “warrior king”. This fuses the raised fist of radicalism and the afro of self-beliefinto one neat and powerful statement. The newspaper’s designer, Emory Douglas, was titled the Panthers’ Minister of Culture. While the black activist Angela Davis famously appeared on an FBI ‘Most Wanted’ list sporting a crowning afro, is seen belowon another Black Panther cover.


In Black and White


Interestingly, having said all that, the show also includes art from the earlier Civil Rights era. This focuses on the Spiral group, who formed in 1963 in the context of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington. Reginald Gammon’s ’Freedom Now’ (1963, above) has the immediacy of a newspaper photo, a punchy, immediate image in stark black and white. Yet what’s interesting about it are the collage elements. The chanting heads are placed beneath the marching feet, the slogans on the banners cropped out. On a second look, the heads themselves aren’t attached to protesting bodies but clustered together and overlaid on the canvas.


Both more interesting and more collage-like is Romare Bearden’s ’Pittsburgh Memory’ (1964, above). Why so much collage? Civil Rights had followed both a mass and a media-centred strategy, taking segregation from being the South’s dirty little secret and projecting it over national newspapers and TV screens. In which it had been successful, perhaps successful enough that there was no need to duplicate those images in art.

Plus there’s often a sense with Dada that it used collage less to manipulate reality than to hold a true reflecting mirror to capitalist society, a society fractured into an incoherent jumble of elements. This combines with the Sixties notion of times too volatile to capture ina single clear image. Instead all the artist can do is compress the elements withina frame, and leave them to fight them out.

Yet, even given all that, perhaps what’s most remarkable about Bearden’s image is that, counter to any standard notion of agit-prop art,there’s no representation of white authoritynor any notion of protest. With the equally collaged background it might be an image of urban alienation, thosefaces reflecting what they see. Or thetwo jumbled-together heads mightbe a roadmap of road jams, representingthe alliance of Civil Rights groups held together more by urgency than commonality. (The indicia tells us Bearden had originally tried to get the whole Spiral group to collaborate on a collage, but been rebuffed.)

Abstraction Versus Agitation?

You could compile a show about the age of black power, or about black art in America during this era. Either would be a valuable thing to do. But this exhibition never quite decides which of these it wants to be. And the result is that any friction on the borderline between the two is magnified.


William T Williams ’Trance’ (1969, above) is a geometric work influenced by Abstract Expressionism, with perhaps the bold colour blocks borrowed from Pop Art. Is there any reason for it to be hanging in a Black Power show? My somewhat cynical response to the abstract artist who bestows his work with an agitational title is that he’s just setting up his response to the guy who asks him how this fancy-schmantzy shit is supposed to be helping the soul brothers. Things aren’t true or effective just because you say they are. 

As previously said of Abstract Expressionism, it exhibited a general existentialism for those who lived in peace and abundance. Hardly the lot of black Americans. You were less to indulge in existential angst while cops were beating you up.

Yet the Smokehouse Associates also favoured geometric abstraction. But they were muralists working in Harlem, and the context of grey housing projects completely transforms their work. As Emory Douglas put it pithily ”the ghetto itself is the gallery for the revolutionary artist”.

But then some jazz wafts in and, as it’s wont to do, screws with this straightforward tune.

Jazz was the default example of something black culture was recognised for. (Even if it had been venerated more in Europe than at home.) And it had previously influenced Abstract Expressionism, its departure from song structure paralelling art’s move away from direct representation. Williams called jazz “abstract music’ and named his piece above after a John Coltraine number. And if I can’t see much of a jazz influence in it’s neat angles and sharp distinctions, I do find something closer in Sam Gilliams’ ‘Apr 4’ (1969, below)


That date refers to the murder of Dr King the previous year. A connection which might well be tenuous, existing nowhere but the title. But, in contrast to Williams, the canvas (achieving by staining) suggests depth and detail rather than asserting it. Which does seem something to do with jazz’s bending and blending of musical rules. Meanwhile, Jeff Donaldson’s ’Study For the Wall of Respect (Miles Davis)’(1967, below)combines a portrait with abstraction by combining Davis with a representation of his music. (The study was done to add Davis to a Chicago mural.)





Another work whose inclusion could be debated, though for separate reasons, is Faith Ringgold’s ‘American People Series#20 Die’ (1967,above).Figures are placed at right angles to one another yet at the same time overlapping, as if they’re trying to occupyseparatespacesand failingly straddling one another.The checker blocks of the background magnify the sense of arepeating pattern. Partly due to the elongated shape of the frame it looks like a street scene, even if no actual detail supports that reading. This punches the horrific image home, making it look more everyday.

It’s certainly a powerful work, but what to make of it? Ringgold has a long history of activism relating to race and feminism, as an upcoming example will prove. And the indicia suggests this was a reaction to the sanitised way riots were reported. But, bizarrely, it looks more like race war phobias of white supremacists such as Charlie Manson than a Black Power statement, allied to the popular phobia (persisting to this day) that riots are a result of mass hysteria.

Yet even this ‘race riot’ reading gets convoluted, with the men and women sporting such gender-coded clothing. (All the women wear the same orange dress, all the men white shirts and ties). While a white boy and black girl huddle together. In fact it’s often ambiguous who is instigator or victim, or even attacking who. Is the women to the left running to safety with that child, or attacking the half-cut-off black figure with the child raised like some kind of weapon?

Perhaps our readiness to read race into the conflict is part of the point it’s making. Michael Rodger described it in the New Statesman as “a scene of slaughter in which everyone is the victim”. This is the war of each against all, an effect enhanced by the either/or of the checker background, in which race difference is but an exacerbating factor. It’s naive look makes it seem like one of those drawings made by children who’ve seen war scenes. (And, equally bizarrely, the artist often worked in children’s books.)

The Subjectivity of Objects

The one thing you hope for with group shows such as this is that they introduce you to artists, or better still scenes of artists, you previously had no idea existed. And this show delivers par excellence with the Los Angeles Black Arts scene. These artists counter any easy distinctions between public and agit art carrying a black power message, and gallery art concerned only with aesthetics. They were gallery-based, but if their message was less in your face than others, it was no less potent.


Their methods were often similar to Rauschenberg’s, employing the potency of found objects. For example Noah Purifoy’s ’Watts Riot’ (1966, above), was made from debris found from the riots in the black neighbourhood of LA the previous year.


Whereas Bettye Saar gathered not trash and detritus but readymade images from commercial objects, focusing on depictions of black people for white consumption. By combining them into assemblages, but partly just by foregrounding them, she exposes the malevolence beneath the folksy reassurance. ’The Liberation of Aunt Jemima’ (1972, above) employs variants of a mascot character for pancake mix, still in use today. 

The main figure has clearly been given both the lips and expression of a clown. She has a maid’s broom in one hand, yet Saar’s given her a liberating rifle for the other. In ’Sambo’s Banjo’ (also 1972), Saar added a lynched ‘sambo’ mascot to a banjo case, plus a photo of an actual lynching.

Such cartoonish images are so disparaging they can seem worse than pointedly racist caricatures. At least, once framed by others as a threat, you’re freer to see yourself as a threat. Particularly given their widespread use, your natural reaction is to want them removed from public show. Which is not necessarily wrong, of course. Yet Saar’s subversion of them seems a more powerful response. It’s as if she treats them as malevolent spells, which can’t be repressed by being hidden but whose orientation must be changed. And if that notion only works metaphorically, then art is metaphorical.


In later works Saar became interested in ritual objects from the history of black culture. The altar-like ’Mti’ (1973) dates from this era. Works of this era have a mystery, as if exuding a powerful magic you can’t define, but there is also something slightly mournful about them. They’re quite unlike the normal New Agey raiding of other cultures.

After The Revolution Wasn’t Televised


Faith Ringgold’s ’United Sates of Attica’ (1971/2, above) is named after a notorious prison where adherence to Black Power was likely to get you sent, leading in part to an inmate riot in 1971. It contains the phrase “this map of American violence is incomplete. Please write in whatever you find lacking.”

Except by now, to misquote ’Jaws’, we’d need a bigger canvas. Not only is there an ongoing debate conducted on the streets of America over whether the lives of black people should matter or not, the prognosis isn’t even looking good. We’re constantly told those resisting oppression must somehow be the cause of it, an argument which might seem to break the most basic rule of causality but which nevertheless gets magnified by repetition. The racist far right are openly exultant over the direction things are taking, which seems less than a good sign.

What help can Black Power give us? It’s reliance on heroised images might seem more problematic today. Even at the time, those images travelled further than their political actions. And many read a programme from their militancy, assuming the Panthers only ever got into armed standoffs with cops, at best a gross distortion. But now those images are all that remains, the picture is still more distorted.

People today tend to imagine Black Power was all a pose, a piece of radical theatre which happened to be conducted on the streets. Afros were grown, guns waved and slogans spouted. A view which, ironically, is true of many other aspects of the Sixties – as captured in George Melly’s phrase “revolt into style”. The debate then gets conduced over whether police repression was an appropriate response, to something which was ‘dangerous’ or merely ‘harmless’.

As ex-Panther Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin put it: “I think that what you got today is style over substance. You've got a lot of people who talk about militancy and they get the Black Panthers style, but they don't have any programme and they don't do any practical work in the community.”

Equally, the temptation to counter such media spin and distortions by merely championing the achievements of Black Power may be an equal but opposite mistake. It was a movement of young people, who in most cases had little to no prior political experience, who were suddenly catapulted onto a national political stage. Against a hostile media and still-more-hostile cops. Inevitably, mistakes were made. Our aim should be not to criticise those involved, but to avoid making those same mistakes again.

All of which inevitably evokes a debate about the effect of heroic icons, whether they’re enabling or just enthralling, whether they encourage people to become their own Superman or leave the citizens of Metropolis looking to the hopeful sky expecting rescue. The same room that contains Hendricks’ self-portrait, for example, also has a Warhol Pop Art screenprint of Muhammad Ali. In a commodity-based society radical content doesn’t auto-innoculate art against merely being consumed like everything else. The Panthers themselves often complained they could be treated as a resource to call on rather than a group to participate with.

But that’s to blunder into a tangled debate which is never likely to be neatly resolved. The one thing to remember is that even static images do not remain static. As the culture that surrounds them changes, inevitably they change too.

Angela Davis, for example, later came to lament her afro’s ubiquity: “I am remembered as a hairdo…it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion.” But there’s a crucial point here. For that to happen, first the politics of liberation needed to be smashed, in order for its constituent pieces could be prised apart. Davis’ “hairdo” now appears in lifestyle magazines the way that the culture of defeated colonial subjects appears on plinths in the British Museum, mere objects of contemplation. But once they were functioning forces.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

LOW/ THE RESIDENTS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

LOW
St. George’s Church, Brighton, Thurs 31st Jan


Previous Low gigs, including those held in this very venue, had a campfire intimacy to them. Their sparse, involving music and guitarist Alan Sparhawk’s engaging personality seem to transform large venues into small ones. Though they don’t play what you could call folk music, their gigs can feel more like folk gigs than many folk gigs.

This time however the trio are backlit by banks of neon tubes (one for each member) on which projections play, effectively making them into silhouettes. And Sparkhawk only really chats to the audience for the encore.

For, not unlike Fucked Up - yet in their case more than a quarter century into their career - Low have embarked upon a radical change of direction. With the new album ’Double Negative’ heralded as a career highlight. (Fun fact! ‘Double Negative’ was one of the names I initially toyed with for this blog.)

Though I’m yet to hear the new album properly, initial findings confirm both of these. The old Low, of the haunting melodies and plangent harmonies, is still there. But, to borrow a term from Pitchfork’s review, it’s been “warped’ by studio glitch, tone and effects, until it only occasionally comes into clear view through the haze. 

It has an effective visual metaphor in this video for ‘Quorum', where everything you might expect to see in a Low video appear but in a cut-up fashion. (Another video has an ominous Lynchian poledancer. Not even kidding.) Resident Records have chimed in with “the band are here to question everything we know about them.”

Live, the change is not quite so complete. The old Low are there in front of you, and (insofar as I could tell) the only effects came from pedals. But the change was nonetheless considerable. Particularly with the long drone-like instrumental sections, which created a kind of monochrome psychedelia - sounding somewhat like My Bloody Valentine at their most out-there.

Many reviews pin this change to recent political events in their native America, over which the band have conceded they are not best pleased. (Can’t think what.) That Pitchfork review, for example, compares the title to Trump’s inability to use one over Putin. (Clue, Donny. When it’s a double negative there are two of them.) Etherial as ever, they’re hardly direct protest songs to be filed with Neil Young’s ’Let’s Impeach The President’. But there may be something to that.

I’d tended to think of the classic ’Sunflowers’ as the definitive classic Low track. It’s mood seems to evoke a world which can only ever be inexplicably mysterious to us, so the only thing we can possibly do is surrender ourselves to it. And it’s tempting to say that the always nocturnal band have now got darker. The newer songs evoke that kind of insomnia paranoia, where something preys on your mind without ever revealing to you precisely what it is.

Except that’s more neat than accurate. Low always were a blend of numinous and ominous, it’s just the balance of those elements which has shifted. Something made clear when they play ’Sunflower’ to conclude the gig.

There was one disappointment to the night, which was all my own fault. I’d seen Richard Youngs just over two years ago, where he’d obligingly offered the audience a choice between sets. I’d plumped for what he described as “one long piece about Winter” but been outvoted. Not knowing he was supporting, and having foolishly taken a short cut to the venue which proved anything but, I arrived to find him in the midst of what sounded very much like one long piece about Winter. While we were in the depths of the bleak mid-winter ourselves, snow falling at the windows as he sang. Alas, missing the first half proved to be like missing the first half of a film, there wasn’t really any catching up. Perhaps another Winter…

’Always Up’, from Glasgow…



Then back to the same venue a week later for…

THE RESIDENTS
St. George’s Church, Brighton, Thurs 7th Feb


The last time I saw the Residents, on their Fortieth anniversary tour, I confess I had been more intrigued than enthralled. It didn’t really dispel the notion that the point of them was to be obscure and legendary, with the musical component somewhat ancillary. At times they seemed to be going out of their way to be concept and performance artists posing as a band.

And not only had more than five years elapsed since then, but Hardy Fox had sadly died - leaving then with just one founder member. (Who I won’t name here due to their pseudonymous-till-death policy.) So I tried to keep a lid on my expectations…

As it turned out, they were much better than the previous time. There was no in-character audience banter, in fact no-one spoke to the audience at all. They remained masked, strange and remote. They were back to doing what they do best, a sinister twist on showbiz, flipping America onto its dark underbelly. Keys were minor and malevolent, rhythms irregular, and the rough-voiced singer sounding like a movie matinee villain inexplicably handed a crooner’s role. It’s quite often melodic, but melodies which would seem to have been left out to go sour.

Luke Turner’s Guardian review comments how it “treads “a fine line between terrifying and unselfconsciously daft”. And having watched a grown man in a cow costume sawing on a harmonica the way John Cale sawed on a viola, I can confirm.

There were a couple of classic covers given the glass darkly treatment, including a particularly unsettling ’It’s a Man’s World’, with the singer creepily eulogising “a woman… or a girl”. Though it was harder to tell the covers from the originals than you’d think… in fact, than would seem possible. The song I now know to be called ’From The Plains to Mexico’ had such classic lyrics (a knife fight over a girl followed by a lifetime of regret), I assumed had to be a classic I just didn’t know yet, but apparently not.

This tour, billed as ’In Between Dreams’, is self-described as “focusing on dreamlike material from the group's vast catalog.” And the set was interspersed with animated films, where dreams were purportedly recounted by celebrities such as John Wayne and Mother Theresa. In one Richard Nixon dreamt of becoming a blues singer, with Kissinger on keyboards and Al Haig on guitar.

…which might sum up the mood better than anything else. Providing the nightmare side to the American dream may seem all-too-obvious on paper, but they slip into the role like a comfy cow suit. They’re American/anti-American in the way Dada was art/anti-art. Belonging to their target just allows them to strike it all the harder.

The only downside is that, however successfully the menacing mood is conveyed, it is one mood. So while the gig is given variety and momentum, in mood terms it does hammer and hammer down on a single nail.

The main set ends with the looped phrase “there is no more to say now,” as one by one the band exit the stage. But the opposite may be true. Perusing the merch stall shortly later, I asked what the closest CD to the gig was. This standard-seeming question seemed to bemuse, but the chap finally tapped one. Yet ’Intruders’ has it’s own quite different theme - “Ghosts, angels, ex-lovers, doppelgangers... Intruders are seen as alternate beings stalking the corners of our consciousness… unseen and the uncontrollable spirits stuck in the seams of our minds.” Precisely one track from that album made the set list, ’Voodoo Doll’.

It seems this tour began last March, yet the album was released that October, mid-run. The CD advises us to “watch for DOUBLE TROUBLE coming soon to a theater or drive-in near you!”, suggesting some sort of live iteration of the album. Which is perhaps still to come. But the fact both new concepts could be thrown up near-simultaneously suggests that, forty-five years in, the Residents are very much not a spent force.

That cover of ’Man’s World’, but from the French leg…

Friday, 1 February 2019

FUCKED UP/ MESSTHETICS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

FUCKED UP
Patterns, Brighton, Thurs 24th Jan



You don’t necessarily expect a band chiefly thought of as hardcore punk to start their set with wah-wah guitar. And things gets stranger when the guitarist then pitches in some Madchester vocals, with the main mike left unattended. Finally frontman Damian Abraham (aka Prink Eyes) erupts, in about every sense of the word, his Gruffalo roar a gratification finer for being delayed.

And there seems a story behind that. The last-but-one album, ’Glass Boys’, had featured the lyrics “Life turns a page/ When we turn away/ The kids just aren’t the same/ New ways to vibrate/ I can’t hear, I can’t relate/ I can’t change again”. Leading to the suggestion its theme was “growing old in the punk scene while trying to stay true to one's youthful ideals”. (Though to listen to it was as musically impassioned and inspired as ever.)

Whereas the new album, ’Dose Your Dreams’, arriving four years later, opens with the lines “I came the way I always do/ But the things here all seem somehow new.” There’s some suggestion the band had come to regard Abraham’s distinctive voice as a bit of an albatross. Which would be like Sabbath saying that about Ozzy’s voice. But perhaps it’s so distinctive, so dominant it’s like having an obelisk in the centre of your lounge. You’ll end up arranging everything else around it.

The gig gives almost a visual metaphor for that. The previous times I’ve seen the band were in the larger Haunt, which gave Abraham more scope for stage - and often off-stage - antics. Much of what makes him such a great front-man is his ability to engage with the audience, often at quite a literal level, without getting lost in it. He is, at heart, a free range chicken. Here the smaller venue, complete with crash barrier before the stage, pens him in. Even if he continually presses ragingly against it, he’s like a battery hen pecking its cage.

Those vintage Fucked Up gigs did for your ears what spinach did for Popeye’s arms. They were all-pistons-firing shots of energy, with those added catchy tunes ringing in your ears. Here the new songs scatter like corn - some catch alight, some sound merely mainstream rock, a few like some kind of in-joke. At times all they do is disrupt the momentum. While, when they get back to the songs of the days of yore, Abraham passes around the mike, sure all assembled know those words.

Buying the album at the gig, and discovering it to be a double CD, my first thought was “okay, they’ve gone and done their ’Sandinista’.” Which, for the youngsters among you, means a band no longer sure what to do and so spreading out into trying anything. Seen that way, ’Glass Boys’ wasn’t their mid-life crisis moment at all - that’s actually happening now.

And, on first listen, I was somewhat befuddled. Even with ’Glass Boys’ effectively walling off the more-of-the-same option, it’s less a departure than a set of departures of each track from the last. It sounded like Abraham’s voice being put through a series of musical blind dates. But, it does coalesce more.

The conceit, insofar as its decipherable, seems to be that the Neo-like central character drops out of his workaday life, falls into the bigger picture and embarks on some kind of shamanic journey. Hence Abraham’s voice appearing in a series of strange encounters. (He’s called David, making this a nominal sequel to ’David Comes To Life’. Though rather than recording ’What David Did Next’ they’re really just recycling the name they hit on as a signifier for the everyman.) 


It seems entirely possible this concept was born from necessity, a thread to run through what would otherwise be a highly disparate album. (The band have said it arose some while into recording.) Still, it’s fun for all that.

I’m still not sure I’m quite ready to agree with the Guardian’s five-star review and claim it’s “an extraordinary palette of sound… the best songs of the band’s career”. There are tracks best filed under ‘fought and lost’. There’s numbers you wouldn’t recognise as Fucked Up tracks until Abraham starts signing. There’s numbers you wouldn’t recognise as Fucked Up tracks because he doesn’t sing.

This new direction seems to have come about through guitarist Mike Haliechuk and drummer Jonah Falco’s newfound dominance. They both sing at points (both on album and during gig) and, it cannot be avoided, don’t have particularly memorable voices.

But the highlights are high indeed, worthy additions to the band’s canon without being merely more of the same. It contains brilliantly bonkers moments, such as a boy’s choir joining in the final chorus of a spiky punk song. It closes with ’Joy Stops Time’, a worthy addition to their catalogue despite sounding like nothing before it.

In a genre particularly beset with bands who couldn’t keep things going, in an industry that seems to more and more favour crowd-pleasing predictability, that seems a particular accomplishment. Perhaps there’s simply too much of it to ever come to a final judgement about.

The main problem, with an album heavily dependent on guest artists, may be the band beinhg challenged by ways to perform it live. Though even given that the set list is full of eccentric choices even by the band’s eccentric standards. ’None of Your Business Man’ kicks off the album with some very high kicking indeed but, despite no obvious impediments, doesn’t make the gig. Whereas the really-not-even-bad-in-a-good-way ’Love Is An Island In the Sea’ inexplicably does.

That wah-wah opening, which in police parlance I now know to be the title tack ’Dose Your Dreams’, segueing into the classic ’Son The Father’



MESSTHETICS
The Hope + Ruin, Brighton, Sun 27th Jan



During the support slot, I suspect it was not my eyes alone alighting on the king-size cowbell at the back of the stage. An icon which signifies the drum kit of Brendan Canty. For Messthetics regroup one of the greatest rhythm sections in modern music - Canty and bassist Joe Lally, ex of legendary post-hardcore band Fugazi.

Yet, though they may be the ‘names’ of this all-instrumental trio, the outfit’s dominated by the guitar playing of Anthony Pirog. Armed with an array of pedals, he’s able to make his guitar sound ever-changing. He’ll go from soaring arpeggiating, which verges on prog, to the most thumping heavy riffing. More than once, he seemed to be playing two lines at once. (I couldn’t tell you whether that was done through looping or sheer dexterity.)

Canty effectively duets with him, playing far more expansively than in Fugazi but always rhythmically. (The nearest comparison spied on these shores in recent months would be Jim White.) Whereas Lally tends to be the one holding it together. In fact, while Canty does something new to our ears, even amid the sonic assaults Lally looks as calm and measured as he ever did in Fugazi.

The challenge in describing Messthetics may be in not making them sound merely musoish, when the effect of watching them isn’t chinstroking so much as exhilarating. It’s not a series of guitar solos, it’s very much a trio and very much not a guitarist with a backing band. But it manages to retain that let-loose, all-holds-off feeling guitar solos can convey as they’re launched into. Only it keeps that feeling for pretty much the whole gig.

Amid the overall furious pace there’s a couple of slower, more serene numbers. One’s played mid-set, like a pastoral valley between jagged peaks. Canty plays brushes during it, surely a sight never before beheld.

Though there’s CDs for sale by the door, it’s very much a live experience. The thrill lies in seeing it all unfold in front of you. Catch ‘em if you can.

Same tour, but Newcastle. And with some cowbell action…



Coming soon! More gig-going adventures...

Saturday, 26 January 2019

BANG ON A CAN ALL-STARS/ JULIA WOLFE’S ‘ANTHRACITE FIELDS’ (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

BANG ON A CAN ALL-STARS
The Dome, Brighton, Tues 15th Jan



One facet of Bang on a Can, the All-Stars describe themselves as: “freely crossing the boundaries between classical, jazz, rock, world and experimental music, this six-member amplified ensemble has consistently forged a distinct category-defying identity, taking music into uncharted territories.”

Last time I saw the All-Stars themselves (rather than extended family members), the programme was built around a concept - samples and field recordings. Hewing consistently to the concept led to a night which was intriguing but inconsistent musically. This time the programme was bound to no theme, and no piece was less than fully involving.

Two numbers might get classed under the general tag ‘ambient’ - Philip Glass’s ’Opening’ (from ’Glassworks’) and Brian Eno’s ’Music For Airports 1’. As a big Glass fan, and someone who mostly finds Eno’s ambient works only formally interesting, I expected to find myself favouring the first option. Added to which Eno’s work wasn’t written to be performed but constructed from tape loops. Had I been asked beforehand about the wisdom of transposing it to live musicians, I’d doubtless have said no.

Which is another reason to be glad that no-one listens to me. However much I enjoyed the Glass, the Eno most won me over. It gave off a sense of slo-mo dynamics, of suggesting it was slowly but surely building to a climax which never came. The sense of ceaseless anticipation made the piece compelling.

But, beholden to no other task, the set maxed out on variety. The closer was the invigorating’Horses of Instruction’, by British composer Steve Martland. It somehow found the perfect balance of contemporary composition with the rambunctious involving feeling of beat music, Blake’s smart horses and blazing tigers combined into one creature. The jazzy syncopated funk workout, complete with honking sax, transformed the body language of the players. As they swung and swayed along, an ensemble became a band before your eyes.

Some local stalwarts refer to ‘Old Brighton’, a bohemian spirit the town had before it was overrun with hipsters and everything became monetised. Formed in ’92, Bang On a Can seem similarly ‘old New York’, before the “Disneyland for the rich” thing, when a wide variety of people were crammed together into a few islands. The music of your neighbours would inevitably seep into your apartment, and so the natural thing to do was mix it all up.

They carry with them the all-important understanding that great music doesn’t stem from the brows of lone geniuses, in ivory tower isolation, but from collaboration and cultural cross-fertilisation. They’re not just good, they’re exemplary.

From the sublime (‘Music For Airports’ performed in an airport, with announcements added ambience…



… to the spirited! ’Horses of Instruction’, also not from Brighton…



JULIA WOLFE’S ‘ANTHRACITE FIELDS’
Bang On a Can with the BBC Singers
Kings Place, London, Sat 19th Jan


Though this new composition was by Bang On a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe and cited the All-Stars first, it’s based around the chorus. (The programme explains it was commissioned by an American choral group.) The All-Stars do nothing, or contribute quite minimally, for long periods. Not previously realising I had any preconceptions, I soon found I had to switch them off.

Like Wolfe’s earlier ‘Steel Hammer’, the work has to do with American labour history. However unlike either ‘Steel Hammer’ or ‘Cruel Sister’, it wasn’t based on folk songs but something more buried. In both senses of the word.

Anthracite was best-quality coal. Which didn’t necessarily translate into best working conditions for the guys who dug it. In the programme Wolfe explains she grew up in Pennsylvania near the mines. Yet the family car almost always turned in the opposite direction to them. Neither modern composers nor their central London audiences tend to be ex-miners, which is part of the point.

For example, the movement ’Breaker Boys’ is based on recollections ex-miner Shorty Slick gave to a documentary. My initial response was concern that transposing his words onto a choir might run a little close to speaking for someone. Why not just do the Steve Reich thing, I thought, and just run a recording of the voice? Especially when Wolfe often uses Reich’s trick of using the cadences of speech for rhythms.

But in fact, just as Slicks’s job was to sort rock from coal, the reciting chorus sorts out his feelings and leaves us with the brute facts. For example how soon you’d lose your fingernails to the work. And much of the texts used are just that - texts. Dry information, often provided in a list format. The opening movement, ’Foundation’, recites names from an index of mining accident. As Wolfe notes in the programme, “the list is sadly long”. But supplying that sadness falls to you.

And you can see how this works all the better from the time the piece does the opposite. ’Speech’ comes, as you might expect, from a speech. Given by a Miner’s Union president, on paper its involving and effective. (“If we must grind up human flesh and bones in the industrial machine that we call modern America…” is its start.) 

But as performed the words are sung not by the choir but solo, in an emotive rock/folk style, which serves to rob them of their effect through over-enunciation. When an artist merely lays an idea before you, leaving you to pick it up, you’ll feel it more solidly in your hand.

Overall the work’s eclectic, inventive and compelling, ranging between ominous drone, scatting jazz and polyphonic choral music, It’s so densely packed it feels longer than its hour duration. (In, you know, a good way.) But the upside is simultaneously the downside, and it feels more uneven than ’Steel Hammer’. Mostly because of ’Speech’, but also in parts of the final movement ’Appliances’.

A short documentary on its creation…


Coming soon! More gig-going adventures...

Friday, 18 January 2019

“HIS DARKNESS INCREASES”: CURRENT 93'S 'THUNDER PERFECT MIND' (TOP 50 ALBUMS)



“My aimless feet
”To be in the world
”And not of it
”That's the aim of the pain
”That's the aim”

“In The Heart of the Wood”

Convincing yourself you're about to make your last album, that’s often proven an effective spur for artists to create their best work. By deciding to stop, what you do is start. There's no need to hold anything back. All bets are off. Should you want to try something new or different, it's now or never. Many people, for example, think of 'Hex Enduction Hour' as the Fall's finest moment, for this reason. But I’ve a better example...

Much as the Fall’s Mark E Smith had before him, by 1993 David Tibet had become dissatisfied with his own output as Current 93 and decided to deliver his swan song. And besides, the whole business of ends and beginnings... that was a fairly appropriate mindset to be in when making 'Thunder Perfect Mind'.

The band has originally produced menacing industrial soundscapes, perhaps best dubbed “tape-loops-for-the-end-times”. The name had come from Crowley. Previous albums had already been heading into a more Neofolk direction, and were characterised less by an aggressive nihilism and more by (a very unorthodox) Christianity. 

Keenan’s post-industrial history ‘England’s Hidden Reverse’ vividly illustrates this. It’s peppered with pictures of the band in graveyards and squats, posing moodily amid underlighting and sporting occult symbols. Then you hit a 1988 photo of a colourful, expanded line-up sitting around a tree on Hampstead Heath, looking like an extended family of troubadours, a latter-day Gong.





But 1993 was the point Tibet really got there. The album was even recorded in Topic studios, essentially Muscle Shoals for folkies. It’s a similar history to Swans. You can’t help but respect the deranged commitment the early stuff showed, the unrelenting viscerality of it all, the visions of Noddy crucified in the sky and so on. But it yielded to work not just more accomplished but richer. It's like watching a headstrong adolescent mature into an adult. Once it happens, it changes even your memories of that adolescent.

Though it did bring problems of its own. The slightly bizarre title is taken from a Gnostic poem. And Current 93 are sometimes presented, dauntingly, as something you need to do extensive background reading before you can actually listen to. But you don’t actually need to learn the Coptic alphabet or study the Patripassian heresy or any of the rest of it. Tibet might need to do that stuff to create it, but it doesn’t follow that you have to in order to listen to it.

In fact Tibet himself has said “Everything I love is essentially simple. I read complex theology but what interests me most are the simple phrases at the heart of it… What moves me most are profound simplicities and Current’s music is very simple.” Which, not un-coincidentally, is the best way to take this album. Which contains the lyric “To pull them apart/ We butcher the essence/ And cripple it’s meaning.” Plus the Blake quote on it’s cover, claiming those “who strive to ascend into Heaven by means of learning” will be “repelled by the celestial spheres”.

And a large part of the break made by ‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ comes here. Early plans to make an eschatological concept album, what Tibet later self-mockingly referred to as “an apocalyptic ‘Tommy’”, ended up condensed into the first number, ’Long Satan and Babylon’.

Which was a large part of the getting there. But still we can't skip that opening track. It frames the album, sets the mood and creates the imagery. So let’s take a brief detour through esoteric Christian heresies and non-canonical saints. (At least as I see it.) Satan’s machinations have locked Christ out of his own creation (“a Christ spun out of the worlds”) hence itis dominated by Long Satan and Babylon. The tangible Christ, who bled real blood on the cross, is gone. They exist, in the physical sense. While he doesn’t.

And so we inhabit “a world ripped away from its centre.” It admonishes the listener “Though the world makes dark shadows/ You must look in your heart”. Silence is referred to throughout the album, as a state of loss, of Christlessness.(Religion’s association with sound and Babylon with the material is common in Christianity, and has an obvious appeal to a musical artist. It reappears on several other C93 tracks.)





Which ties in with the legend of St. Eustace. About to hunt down a stag, he sees a vision of a crucifix between its antlers and converts on the spot. There’s a painting of this vision on the album sleeve,while it’s referred to a couple of times in the lyrics.Of course the original legendis about seeing beyond the surface of things, like a curtain being pulled back. But Tibet, I think, is as interested in the disjunction – the way the two things, body and spirit, can be associated but not in the here and now combined.



This is mostly referenced'In the Heart of the Wood and What I Found There'.As Christ appears in various natural forms (wind, flowers and so on) the song evokes the tumultuous newfound activity of Spring, as songbirds reappear on branches and hares frolic. (The picture of Tibet on the sleeve shows him under May blossom.)There’s an association of Christ with nature, in particular with flowers, so strong it virtually collapses the distinction between Christianity and paganism. (Tibet’s also described “apocalyptic, pagan and Christian” as “all things that interest me”.) 

Romanticism frequently treated the forest as the very source of life. Just as I strongly associate the later album ’The Light Is Leaving Us All’ with Autumn, this very much puts me in mind of Spring.

Yet it's one of those early Spring days which still has a chill to the air – light and fecundity without real warmth and the consequent feeling something vital is missing. Sounds are bright and melodic yet somehow also plaintive and mournful. Check out for example the trillingly haunted backing vocals on ’A Song For Douglas After He’s Dead’.

For Christ is still spun out of this world. Light is of course a standard image of revelation in Christianity. But light is by definition unearthly. Like the crucifix between the stag horns, or possibly the stag itself, these are appearances – pictures made of light. It's like Plato's vision of shadows on the cave wall being the only thing caught in our vision, only made from light. Tibet used the phrase “the sadness of things”, later using it as an album title. By this I think he means “the sadness inherent to physical life”.

And like the cross and the antlers, the instruments often seem a strange combination of opposites. There’s the acoustic guitar and recorder on ’Mary Waits In Silence’, the violin and cello on ’A Silence Song’, the combination of vocals and backing vocals on ’A Sadness Song’ and on ’All The Stars Are Dead Now’… well, we’ll get to that. While the appeal of that album-titling Gnostic poem seems to be its embracing of paradox. (“I am knowledge and ignorance… I am war and peace.”)

Which in another paradox is simultaneously what puts the ‘neo’ in neofolk, the work of someone who came to the folk tradition from outside, and very much part of that tradition. That mournful recorder sound, for example, comes straight from ‘Stairway to Heaven’. After seeing Richard Thompson live some years ago I wrote “[the] Spanish term duende is sometimes translated as ‘soul’ but a better definition might be ‘exquisite sadness’. It seems peculiar indeed that we lack a direct English word for the feeling I associate more with English folk, that everything is bound up with its opposite, that joy must always border sorrow and vice versa.”

“Empires Cannot Last”

But despite this new direction there’s still no shortage of Tibet’s third great love -armageddon. It remains true, indeed to this day, that if you’re tired of Current 93 you’re tired of death. As I said of a more recent gig: “Though almost always trading in apocalypse, they revel in the double meaning of the term as both destruction and revelation.”

In fact as the album progresses it reintroduces more elements from the earlier Current 93. But rather than abandon the folk elements it finds means to combine the seemingly incompatible styles. The epic nine-minute ’All The Stars Are Dead Now’ starts off acoustically, and even as the apocalypse descends the original melody continues. Tibet’s vocal sgrow sonic trails as if the song’s inside some ever-expanding, ever-more-distorting hall of mirrors. Up till now the album has sounded expansive but spacious. With this track that sound starts to thicken.

Which is followed by the still-more-epic, sixteen-minute ’Hitler As Kalki’sounding like the Doors as a Mariachi band booked to perform at the end times. (Typically, Tibet claims on the sleeve notes this was a prophecy passed to him by the spirit of William Blake.) This time we really are at the end of all things, with Hitler presented as an incarnation of the destructive Hindu avatar Kalki.



But the end of all things doesn’t turn out to be the end. The album closes with the serene ’They Return To Their Earth’. The segue becomes a thematic microcosm of Tibet’s career, from the savage wastelands of meaning conjured up in the Industrial era (later self-described as ”the time of building broken Gods”) to a kind of redemption. Yet at the same time, as the title says, the song is all about return. The sadness of things is gone, the music is lush and rich. The bucolic agrarian imagery reminds me of German Romanticism (“blonde hair moves in the blonde corn”) but on a more primal level of my own childhood - that feeling of belonging, of everything being in its place.

“The pestle grinds the mortar
”The mortar turns to dust
”And the metal turns to rust
”Words they fail
”And fall apart
”The corn it dies
”And is reborn”

The album couldn’t finish any other way, it wouldn’t be complete. And yet for a long time, it didn’t. The version I bought was an expanded reissue which (bar some live ephemera) does end on that track. But, though it had been recorded, somewhat inexplicably it was one of the numbers left off the original release. (Which ended with a short spoken word section.)

Finding my mind unable to process that particular piece of information, I decided to dispel it by creating my own consumer’s cut. Which ensures that the four concluding tracks run together - ’Anyway People Die’, ‘All The Stars Are Dead Now’, ‘Hitler As Kalki’ and ’They Return to Their Earth’. Just as they should have been.

”How All My Hearts Felt”

So the album’s an account of all things, the end times and beyond, of death and rebirth. Actually, that’s only the half of it. Here mythological figures such as Lilith co-exist on the album with Tibet’s friends, lovers and collaborators.Tibet had two recurring dreams while making the album, Kalki manifesting as Hitler and his ex-girlfriend Suzanne appearing to him as a spirit. Tibet said of this new direction in his work “all I know about is myself, and I don't even know very much about that.”

None of this is really given any context. If you know a little of Tibet’s biography, you pick up that for example the Irish place names will for him be associated with his frequent collaborator Steven Stapleton, who had moved to the West coast. But as with the Patripassian heresy, that’s not really the point. The point isn’t even the juxtaposition between the two.

’A Lament For My Suzanne’ could be taken primarily as a song of lost love. Yet ’In The Heart of the Wood’ is like two tales Tibet’s telling you simultaneously, seeing visions of Christ in a woodland clearing and wandering Irish clifftops with old friend Mary. Like the cross and the antlers, they have to be taken together.

Just as “the personal is political” became a phrase, in Current 93’s universe the personal is also eschatological. Deranged visions of the end times and diary entries overlap. Yet it never sounds intimate, like much acoustic music, but big and spacious. The couplet “I'll take a knife to your heart/ And London Bridge is falling down” captures the shift between the scales. As I wrote after first seeing the band: “Everything has an epic grandeur and yet is so personalised, with many songs about friends and collaborators, as if there’s no barrier between the ultimate and the everyday.”

“Swastika, I'm Told”

Guitarist Douglas Pierce was a huge influence on Tibet and his change of direction. Some have even claimed the whole turn to neofolk hinged on him. His contribution was musical. In quite a literal sense. As Tibet remembers it: “[None of us] could actually play any instruments and because we were involved in the experimental/underground scene, nobody we knew could play any instruments either. None of us had any need to… but when I met Douglas I just thought – this is a whole new area to explore.” He seized upon chords played on a guitar like it was a brand new, unexplored means to make music.

But there’s a rub. Tibet said later “I definitely had a lot in common with Douglas… but I didn’t share his specific interests, for instance his fascination with the Second World War.” Which was putting it rather delicately. Pierce’s fascination with the Second World War was a very particular one – with the losing side. His own band, Death in June, named to commemorate a fascist faction, are listed by the respected Southern Poverty Law Centre as a purveyor of hate speech and have been met with pickets and protests the world over.

And Tibet then foregrounds this by explicitly dedicating as song to Pierce, ’A Song For Douglas After He’s Dead’ which more-or-less explicitly refers to his “interests” - “crooked crosses”, “blood and soil concepts” and “the honour of violence”.

Let’s be clear. There’s no reason to believe Tibet ever entertained such sympathies himself. In earlier years, unusually for someone on the Industrial scene, he had close links to the anarcho-punk band Crass. Steve Ignorant and Annie Anxiety had even given him guest vocals. And even on Pierce’s tribute song Tibet sings “Empires cannot last/Where blood and soil's concepts/ Have faltered and failed.” He dedicated ’Hitler as Kalki’ to "my father, who fought Hitler,"including a wartime photo of him in the lyric booklet.

Yet all this has an extra significance here. Industrial music, like punk before it, had appropriated Nazi imagery for (often puerile) shock value. (For example Throbbing Gristle’s ’Zyklon B Zombie’.) But actual fascist sympathies didn’t arrive until the post-industrial era, in other words when the music took on a folk influence. Which shouldn’t be a surprise.

Fascist propaganda builds on the mythology of a static ‘eternal past’, some golden age of belonging where everybody knew their place, which was then ruptured by some rather hazily defined onset of modernity. Consequently, it often finds folk music of use. A scene which can conceive of ‘the past’, and thereby ‘the music of the past’, as if it’s some homogenous block. Which often then gets associated with notions of the homeland, songs being “pure England” and so on. Of course the truth is the complete reverse. Time was never still, nor are folk songs a window onto any kind of golden age. Folk music is not a tableau, an un-changing scene, but the opposite - a seismograph of ever-changing times.

Yet this leaves a folk scene which must be ever-alert to incursion. As Woody Guthrie knew long ago, folk instruments must be set to kill fascists. Eliza Carthy, when told far right nut and failed politician Nick Griffin called himself a fan of hers, responded by saying openly “Bollocks to Nick Griffin”. Whereas, in failing to make the right decision, Tibet made the wrong one.

And this all seems worse now than it did then. The petulant adolescent egoism weaponised into political stance, the fascism as personal brand and lifestyle choice, the provocative demands for attention then the whingeing when that attention arrived, all topped with dollops of self-congratulation for being so risqué… in brief this hipsterisation of hatred was a dress rehearsal to today’s alt-right.

So how could this have come about? Perhaps Tibet, with misapplied generosity, presumed Pierce’s fixations were mere eccentricities. But inevitably, there’s more. ’A Song For Douglas’ refers to Pierce’s teeth, later echoed in the repeated refrain “teeth teeth teeth”, which convey’s Kalki’s devouring. Yet Kalki, while a terrifying sword-wielding warrior, ends a dark and chaotic age where people are at their furthest from God, and starts a new cycle of time. So fascism, though evil, becomes part of the grand plan. In short, Tibet incorporates Pierce’s belief system into his own.

In fact the song is best heard not as tribute but displaced self-portrait. Tibet seems to have a mind that turns the concrete into symbols. “The wind carries smoke from a world that is burning” as he’s hunched over a book, perceiving the ashes as “patterns”, as occult symbols to go alongside those he is reading. Even the “mask on the wall” could refer to Tibet’s own dark side, the part the rejoices in the oncoming fire, the devil that lurks in even the most devout Christian. Well, it work for me.

This is not only widely regarded as the best C93 album, it’s also one of the most accessible – so makes for a good jumping-on point. (Though take note the term ‘accessible’ is a relative one here.) For those with more scruples than me, it’s the last album to involve the notorious Pierce. So if you’re tempted to start with the next one, ’Of Ruine, Or Some Blazing Starre’, be assured that though very different it’s almost as good.

All quotes otherwise unsourced come from David Keenan’s much-recommended post-industrial history, ’England’s Hidden Reverse’.

And that consumer’s cut playlist on Spotify. (Yes I did pull the track ’Thunder Perfect Mind’ from the album ’Thunder Perfect Mind’. I am contrary like that.)