Saturday, 26 January 2019


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…

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


“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.)

Saturday, 12 January 2019

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY GOES TO SPACE SHIFTERS... exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery made up of “sculptures and installations that explore perception and space”. As ever, more snaps over on 500px. (Along with identification of the pieces.)

Tuesday, 8 January 2019


Inevitably, we have the farce of Brexit reflected back to us in the form of a farce. (Albeit one presented as a “drama”.) Perhaps equally inevitably, in an era where mainstream political choices are confined to a choice between neoliberalism and aggressive right-wing nationalism, the long discredited Great Man theory of history is back. With the provisio that instead of being some speechifying Shakespearian type reducing us all to cheering adulation with his RP tones, he has to be some awkward but visionary outsider.

So here leave campaign director Dominic Cummings is the focus. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Cummings is remarkably close to his Sherlock, the same arrogance if less aristocratic. But more notably still, he’s a virtual duplicate of Mark Zuckerberg in ‘The Social Network’ - the virtually sociopathic outsider who creates algorithms to reduce other people to data, the only way he can manage them, and in so doing puts himself in a position of power over the supposedly well-connected and well-adjusted.

While Cummings is scarcely portrayed with anything approaching psychological depths, his tics are what make it onto the screen. While the characters at further and further remove from him are portrayed in broader and broader strokes. Banks and Farage in particular are such bumptious clowns they could have strolled in from the Commedia dell’arte.

Even as his personality disorders are laid out he’s heroised. His scrawling on the walls, endlessly contrasted with the snazzy Powerpoint sideshows of his smooth opposite number Craig Oliver, makes him the exciting underdog railing against a self-serving system. And as his prickly personality continually bursts the bubble of pompous Tory MPs he soon becomes someone to root for. (Because those smug twats really do have it coming.) He takes control of the narrative.

But Brexit isn’t about one man. It didn’t happen because Cummings was clever (if ranting endless spiel about “meritocratic technopolises” counts as clever), or because there’s Facebook nowadays. As he even admits himself at one stage, he was merely riding a wave he sensed but didn’t create. 

Brexit was very much not the sound of things going to plan, whoever’s plan you might pick. Brexit was the sound of things falling apart, of a centre that can no longer hold. The campaign manager cannot hear the focus group.

Hence Britain is currently hurtling precariously towards Article 50 without a clue over how even the transition period is supposed to work. To the point where not having any idea has to be reframed as a good idea, the non-option of ‘No Deal” absurdly being relabelled as an option. (And the extent of this certainly took me by surprise. I’d assumed political consensus around some variation of the Norway model.) Just as with first the Tea Party and then Trump in the States, the political establishment have let loose a tiger they have proven unable to ride.

One of the few moments when you start to sense the people beneath the algorithms was Oliver’s belated realisation that the real campaign had begun twenty years before. For twenty years (if not more) they’d squeezed working people harder and harder, all the while trying to stir up xenophobia in order to divide the poor from the poorer. For twenty years (if not more) they’d abandoned even talk of class to the far right, who inevitably enough always wrapped it up in talk of race.

They made their bed of the driest straw, then casually lobbed lit matches whenever they wanted people to look over to something bright and shiny. As Oliver says of Cummings “anyone can start a fire”. Particularly in those circumstances.

To understand the Leave vote you’d need to spend more time with the old Harwich couple who’ve not had a political canvasser knock on their door since the Eighties, who barely recognise their own MP when he’s sitting in their lounge.

Which doesn’t mean that if we had Cummings’ database, if we somehow gained access to the right people and came out with the right soundbites or correct data neatly displayed in incisive whizzy graphics, they’d immediately switch over to our side. Such notions are just a tweak to the idea it’s all about algorithms, not an antidote to it. Actual people don’t work that way. And besides, hatred can be as hard to kick as any other intoxicant. But it does mean the start of the solution lies there.

Cummings walks out midway through talking to them. As viewers, we follow him. We should have stayed in the room.

Saturday, 5 January 2019


Happy New Year, readers! (I think I’m just about able to get away with the plural form.) This Twenty Nineteen business is being eased into with a double helping of photos of exhibitions from last year. (Which I won’t be writing about in any other way.) 

First up is two simultaneous shows at London’s Royal Academy, the expansive ‘Oceania’ plus a smaller but perfectly formed Bob & Roberta Smith exhibition in the recently opened extension. As ever, samples below plus full set over on 500px. (Well apart from one Greek statue which it labelled NSFW and wouldn't let me add to a gallery!) Second part coming up. Then back to proper blogging…