Saturday 29 February 2020


Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, Fri 28th Feb

The prolific composer Julia Wolfe of Bang On a Can, long-term Lucid Frenzy favourite, has come up with another new work. And if this is the UK debut of ‘Flower Power’, the world premiere was only last month

Sixties nostalgia is normally pretty trite stuff, of course. And inn truth that title doesn’t bode well. But Wolfe, interviewed in the programme, was insistent she wasn’t reminiscing about tie-dye clothing but recalling the sense that the times were a-changeable. (“There was a sense that a better world was possible… a time of new ideas and hope.”)

Back then rock music was still young enough to be unburdened by its own history, doing something new just seemed its natural state. Literally and metaphorically, it was where the energy was. And Wolfe’s aim seems to reawaken that sense of musical invention in the hope it also reawakens the political invention.

It’s also true that psychedelic fondness for distorting sound came to overlap with contemporary music’s dissonance. Perhaps best symbolised in the famous (if actually very brief) meeting between Paul McCartney and Luciano Berio. And here the Bang Ona Can All-Stars share the stage with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

True, when the bands tried to literally cohabit with the orchestras things didn’t always turn out well, and they effectively danced over each other’s feet. (Have you listened to Deep Purple’s ‘Concerto For Group and Orchestra’, lately? Thought not.) But Wolfe, and Bang On a Can in general, have an almost magic ability to pass between genres.

It opens with a long series of overlapping held tones, against which the swings start to swell. It was enticingly suggestive, like the rough rock from which forms would later be carved. But, just as I was thinking it did sound like a very long intro to a psychedelic track, the beat kicked in with a vengeance. And even as this was full of forward momentum, the strings gave it a lift, advancing and rising at the same time.

The work didn’t resolve neatly into movements but perpetually morphed and shifted. The defining point might be the guitar playing alongside the string section, working in unison rather than one as backing track to the other. Only towards the end did the work start to become elegiac, confetti twisting from the ceiling like Autumn leaves. But the much Sixties music was itself eligiac!

Though the ensemble and the orchestra didn’t share the stage again, two of the other pieces were well chosen. One genre I simply can’t take to is opera, so as much as I love John Adams as soon as the singing starts I’m off. But I was soon to discover ‘The Chairman Dances’ has no voices, and is affect a non-album single from ‘Nixon In China’

The conceit seems to be that Mao’s missus (represented by the music) not only persuades the great leader to dance but entices a painting of him come to life. It’s the tropes confined of the statue summoned to life and the dictator re-finding his carefree youth, the painting presumably standing for the fixidity of ideology. As you’d expect from this description, it’s exuberant and boisterous, elegance combined with abandon like a big band number of old - essentially an invitation to dance.

I’d seen the All-Stars perform Martland’s ‘Horses of Instruction’ only a year ago, so might have wished for something fresher. But it’s not a work you’d easily get tired off, and there was no doubting it’s place here. As I said last time: “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 final work seemed like the wild card of the programme - Philip Glass’s Third Symphony. Minimalism may live in the interchange between rock and contemporary music, but it belongs to neither camp. If rock music is (jn Wolfe’s phrase) “electric energy”, Minimalism sounds more elegant, less a roaring jet-plane and more a solar-powered glider. Not as outwardly powerful but with an effortless perpetualness about it.

Interviewed for Radio Three, conductor Bramwell Tovey was asked whether he considered this a “proper symphony” - and said no. His reasoning seemed to be the four sections weren’t distinct enough, didn’t contain enough of their own themes, to be characterised as movements. But I don’t think he intended that as a criticism, not should it be.

Glass, after all, starts by restricting his sound palette to the sixteen string players of the orchestra. While written in ’95, some way after the era of High Minimalism, his earlier allegiences aren’t abandoned. He still intends to do more with less, the same themes being reworked in different forms and combinations as the piece turns. But its melodic lines are rich and, at least by Minimalist standards, extended.

You can hear the whole thing on Radio Three until the end of March…

Saturday 22 February 2020


“It was the trumpet that did it. Nevermind chasing after ethereal angels or earthly skirt . Chase that tune, scour the shacks, pester the sound boy…”

Hitching home for Christmas in (I’d guess) 1994 I snagged a ride, to be quickly taken less by the car than by the music the guy was playing. With little prompting as he drove he keenly elaborated on it. Crossing the South Downs, the car repeatedly climbed from and sunk back into valleys thick with white Winter mist. As whiteness yet again rose to surround us, and with the spectral sounds still playing, he broke off and turned to me. “Actually”, he said, “you died back there, by the roadside, and I’m taking you to Heaven”. It seemed quite convincing at the time.

And that music was ‘Bat out Of Hell’ by Meat Loaf… no, I kid, it was the one up there in the title - ‘Haunted Dancehall’ by Sabres of Paradise. I soon availed myself of my own copy, which I found to be on some new label called Warp. Who knows? Maybe they’ll go on to do other things. I played it to death and would soon propound to anyone that however great Andrew Weatherall’s much-acclaimed production on ’Screamadelica’ was, ’Haunted Dancehall’ was the real deal.

Earlier this week I got home from work to find he had died, despite being barely older than me. I dug the album back out, to find it does a wondrous double thing. It’s hugely evocative of the Nineties, bringing a past world back into being between your ears. And yet it’s not just the memory trigger of a bubblegum pop song, forgettable but fixed to a point in time, it sounds as great as when I first heard it in that mist-sailing car.

Though the album’s instrumental throughout (bar one outbreak of wordless harmonies), one track’s called ‘Ballad of Nicky McGuire’. Though that word has come to signify a slow song, the number cheesy DJs reserve for the end of cheesy evenings, its original meaning was a song with a narrative. And this title combines with the short text excerpts accompanying each track on the sleeve (ostensibly from some larger work which doesn’t actually exist), suggesting this is all part of a broader narrative we’re only getting glimpses of. And if that doesn’t sound a standard thing for dance music to do, we’re just getting started.

For that elliptical sense, of something delivered through hints and suggestions, is as much there in the music. Before House hit, Weatherall had been part of the Post Punk scene. Which had almost universally taken to Dub as a liberating force. And in many ways this is the ‘Metal Box’ of dance music, absorbing what dub did rather than reproducing some of the surface effects. Which, above all, was its sense of space. This wasn’t music which hit you in the chest but passed straight through you, leaving you wondering what had just happened.

Dance music had been all about either venerating or simulating the feeling of being in a club, depending on where you were when you heard it. “Everybody’s in the place, let’s go!” was a typical line. Significantly, with ’Bubble And Slide’ this album starts with someone leaving a club, the pummelling rain mixing with the echoes of beats in his mind. One way to listen to it is as following McGuire’s route home after that club, a psychogeographical journey through the capital’s night-time streets. (Well I did first hear it on a journey.)

The spiritual geezer, the rhyming slang visionary, the character who can have a revelation in a greasy spoon cafe, who was to become such a Nineties figure, perhaps reaches his apogee here. McGuire is as dedicated to his hedonistic lifestyle as a monk is to his chanting. He doesn’t go out to socialise or pull, but to become one with the infinite beat. (“McGuires steps were solid over Battersea Bridge. London bridges at dawn, fuckin’ magic, who needs fuckin’ India or somewhere, no toilet paper and loads of poncey beatnik types.”) And it remains quite a solitary affair. Other characters are alluded to, but the nearest we come to meeting one is a taxi he exits muttering “fascist wanker”.

And this co-existence of the everyday with the spiritual is kept up in the title. On one level, London’s clubs and bars are McGuire’s haunts – in the sense of his hangouts. But it also evokes the way ostensibly everyday places can be suffused with significance. (Imagine for example going back to the street you grew up on, and trying to see it as just a street.)

Some are wont to dismiss dance music as one-note, then go back to listening to Muse with very little sense of irony. Well not here it isn’t. Like the streets of London, there’s little telling what’s coming round the corner. ’Flight Path Estate’ is as spacey as spacey gets, the ’Forbidden Planet’ soundtrack on ganja, while ‘Tow Truck’ is a great lost spy-fi theme tune. But there’s more here than just musical variety.

Much of the enjoyment of rock music comes from the feeling of group cohesiveness, a bunch of people acting as one. I’ve quoted Robert Fripp before: “It has nothing to do with self-expression, it has to do with a group mind.”While much of the enjoyment of electronic music conversely comes from a more literal sense of one-ness. As I said of a Squarepusher gig: “It’s like its finally become possible to go inside someone's head, and finding inside it an infinite space filled with impossibly grand and huge architectural constructs. Like there's no intermediaries between thought and action.” Like taking a fairground ride through someone else’s synapses. From several-into-one to the multifariousness of the singleminded.

These are two quite different paths to take. But incredibly ‘Haunted Dancehall’ can slip from one to the other and back, sometimes within the same track, as if it allows for no such distinction. Though everyone (including me) focuses on Weatherall’s contribution, the Sabres were a trio, also involving Jagz Kooner and Gary Burns, which may have allowed them to morph between studio artists and band at will.

I’m old enough to remember the “rock is dead” era, where dance was supposedly set to come along and replace its bloated excess with something more communalising. And of course the dance scene is now stuffed with superstar DJs, often playing the very same arenas as rock stars and for the same amounts of money.

Andrew Weatherall never did that. Restlessly creative, he retained the punk ethos so much more than those who just stuck rigidly to the form, like they’d had one idea their whole lives. His back catalogue is essentially a whole series of side-projects from a day job he always refused to take up. These took unexpected tangents, and ranged from the awesome to the… well, not so awesome. (With some I’m still yet to hear.) Yet he always followed his own inclinations, never tried to create a career for himself. He had the phrase “fail we may, sail we must” tattooed on his arms, the rulebook of rule breaking. He was one of the good guys. He will be missed.

Saturday 15 February 2020


Concorde 2, Brighton, Fri 7th Feb

Fun fact! I last saw Julian Cope, playing another solo set, nine years ago in this very venue. At the time I half had it in mind that he’d effectively become a writer and antiquarian, and this might well be the last time I saw him live. Yet I now discover that someone I spent my Twenties near-obsessed by has put eight albums out without my knowing. So much for the internet keeping you informed.

As he has to remind someone shouting for the psychedelic wigout ’Safe Surfer’, only some songs switch to this one-man-band treatment. So if he somewhat curiously plays only two numbers from his latest release, ’Self Civil War’, that might be a factor. One of them falls a little flat as it is, ’Your Facebook My Laptop’ clearly being more of a rocker.

Yet the album I did acquire from the CD stall, 2018’s ’Skellington 3’ keeps up the Skellington tradition of a series of sketches, worked up and laid down quickly. (The whole thing was done in two days.) Which of course plays to Cope’s strengths, making mad stuff up on the spot then giving it a great hook. Yet while their more basic instrumentation would surely lend themselves to this show, curiously they don’t get a look-in. Still, there’s times I suspect Cope may be mildly eccentric…

Perhaps interestingly, the more epic numbers do translate. A version of ’Autogeddon Blues’ is nothing less than gripping. In fact it’s the earlier, poppier songs which tend to lose something. Of course they’re from far back, when he was still writing songs with titles like ’Passionate Friend’, before they were called things such as ’Cromwell in Ireland.’ But that’s not the problem. In fact one of the great things about Cope is that as he went culty he hung on to his pop sensibility.

It’s more that hearing those songs feels like opening a shiny new toy on Christmas Day, they seem to exude bright primary colours and invite playfulness. But when reduced to one voice and one guitar, ’Greatness and Perfection’ loses some of it’s greatness and perfection. Yet it varies from song to song. ’Treason’ fares significantly better, perhaps because it’s more wrapped around the vocal.

But really Cope’s such a character he could have just gassed on and left us all entertained. Even the great Mark E Smith needed your Auntie on bongos to make it a Fall gig. Cope can just show up. Rock music only really works when it’s aware of its own ridiculousness. Cope clearly knows he has to be both bard and clown, and excels in playing up both. When his playing hand seizes up and requires relief (not of the euphemistic variety), he turns it into a to-camera advert for the merits of Deep Heat. He explains his disdain for folk music: “That’s music written by the folk. You can’t have music written by the folk. It has to be written by professionals!”

At one point he recounts his Syd Barrett era, when the music industry has effectively written him off as an unsaleable casualty, pumping the audience for panto cries of sympathy. Which for me was a slightly strange moment. I first saw him, not more than half a mile from this spot, still in the throes of that time. And rarely has a performer seemed more frazzled, more psychically dishevelled. To see that figure turn into this consummate showman is truly something.

But don’t just take my word for it. This is ’Greatness and Perfection’ followed by ’Autogeddon Blues’, alas cutting off before the end…

Saturday 8 February 2020


Okay, it’s been some time since we had a playlist to play. Highlights this time include the Magnetic Fields’ love letter to their own id, the psychedelic revelations of the Dukes of the Stratosphear (XTC as if they were the walrus), Esther Phillips’ soul classic, Chris Wood’s lament for a time where the villain has convinced us all he’s the hero, the Delgado’s seductive melancholia, MONO's… well, they’re all highlights really.

The Magnetic Fields: “I Wish I Had An Evil Twin”
Lau: “The Death of the Dining Car”
Robert Wyatt: “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road”
Dukes of the Stratosphear: “Your Gold Dress”
Gil Scott-Heron: “Whitey On The Moon”
Esther Phillips: “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”
Louis Armstrong: “You'll Wish You'd Never Been Born”
Neil Young: “Off The Road”
Chris Wood: “Riches On The Bold”
The Delgados: “The Actress”
MONO: “Meet Us Where The Night Ends”
Gnod: “Learn To Forgive”

”It's not the proposal that comes that causes the pause
Straw men as they exit to the sound of applause”

Saturday 1 February 2020


Kings Place, London, Sat 18th Jan,

Being much taken by the trancey, Krautrock-style duo Tomaga after seeing them support Wire, and by Pierre Bastien after he demonstrated his Meccano-style music-making assemblages at the Fort Process festival, I was keen as a keen thing to see what they’d manage in combination.

Bastein didn’t exactly play lead, but as he produced sound from pipes, blown paper and the like Tomaga wove themselves around him. Last time they had matched each other for instruments, like musical symbiotic twins. This time they had more designated roles, Valentina Magaletti on drums and Tom Relleen on bass and keyboards.

As Bastien’s assemblages need to be set up in real time, the extra players keep the momentum up. And, though divided into distinct sections, they ran the set right through. I was particularly impressed by Magaletti’s drumming, circular patterns which marshalled the power of repetition without every sounding mechanical or production-line.

By lucky happenstance, I picked a seat close below Bastien and saw his hands at work. The very opposite of a laptop artist, all his music-making devices are open and upfront. There’s nothing up his right sleeve, nothing up his left. And the way the music is built up from these most basic of components helps to make his creativity feel so accessibly infectious. The only possible drawback to the trio was that the keyboards could at times obscure who was playing what.

Last time I described Tomaga as “simultaneously ceaselessly inventive and astonishingly tight”. And I don’t think I could put it any better. This gig is part of a short tour. But if I didn’t know otherwise I would have assumed the trio had been playing together for years. Only the truly talented can make hard things look so easy.

But don’t take just my word for it…

Cafe Oto, London, Sun 25th Jan

Iancu Dumitrescu ia a Romanian Spectralist composer last sighted (by me, anyway) at the Colour Out of Space festival of “exploratory sound”. I am often found arguing that this music isn’t as inaccessible as some claim, that it’s less about acquiring arcane knowledge and more to do with Yoda-like unlearning of popular music conventions. Well, in Dumitrescu’s case I suspect he is somewhat challenging, is not the most obvious jumping-on point for newbies and is unlikely to be introduced by Jools Holland in the foreseeable future. If you still want to hear more, stick around…

The UK version of the Hyperion Ensemble (effectively the band to his bandleader) played without notation, eyes affixed to the man. Which gave rise to the strange sense they were playing by interpreting his wild gestures alone. A sense intensified by him throwing in vocal commands, including at one point “no melody please!”

And afterwards I realised the venue blurb promised a night “consisting of some of the UK’s finest improvising musicians… conducted by Dumitrescu.” What’s more, “there is a kind of presence of the musician in this music that is both different from, and connected to, the presence of the musician within an improvising group.” So perhaps that thought had some basis.

Pieces are brief by composer standards, but intense. It’s like a zip file of sound, a whole barrage of musical information being compressed together. Dynamic range is vast but quick to progress. At times it feels almost like watching a film composed of inter-cut still shots, at others like one of those spiking graphs that show up on monitors in hospital dramas. There’s quieter sections, but even they are imbued with ominous tension. It was quite definitely more out there than the majority of noise rock gigs in its remorseless disregard of anything approaching musical convention.

The night had started with an explanation that his music’s made up of live instruments, processed sounds and pure electronics. Indeed, Dumitrescu jumped between conducting and laptop activity during the performance. The point, I’d surmise, is to take you to the point where you stop hearing those elements as separate things. Much classical… your actual, back-in-the-day classical music was at once too imitative of nature, too keep to capture and duplicate specific sounds, and too unable to capture its overwhelming strength. It was always grasping at trees and missing the wood.

There was a brief Q+A, literally one question. And while impeded by imperfect English, his argument seemed to be “whole galaxies are born and die. We are not among the cosmos’ concerns.” In contemporary conceptions of the unstable universe nothing, from atoms to stars, is a truly solid object you could plant your feet on. Dumitrescu’s pieces can feel like that universe in miniature, constellations forming and then as quickly breaking apart, chaotic in the moment and yet suggesting at a structure beyond our senses’ scope.

As if to emphasise this point, the night began with a piece by Ensemble member Tim Hodgkinson named after the Tuvan word for universe. Though mostly ‘Dumitrescu-like’, it had no electronics and felt primarily percussive. The Hyperion come readymade with two drummers, but that was found insufficient and the double bassists slapped their instruments as much as their strings while, conversely, the pianist took directlyto his strings. It was a cascade of shards of sound, music not built from blocks but still marshalled into a powerful force.

The second night of the residency this non-Metropolitan type was unable to make. Naturally that’s the night all the YouTube clips are of. It included a rare occasion of the man himself playing a solo cello, but I prefer these three double basses…

…and this, from Paris and nine years earlier, is a little closer to what I saw…