Friday 28 October 2022


Chalk, Brighton, Sun 23rd Oct

I last wrote about Dublin-based noise rock outfit Gilla Band after they appeared in this very venue six years ago, back in the days when things still went by the old names. They were then Girl Band, it The Haunt and my blog was… okay, some things never change. That was for their debut release and they’re now up to their third (‘Most Normal’). But its quality not quantity, innit?

Two Gillamen swap between guitars and electronics, though you’d be hard pressed to tell one from the other by sound alone. They can play audaciously stripped-back lines, sometimes just tones, colour fields not as serene Rothkos but shrieking hues.

Perhaps unusually for a noise-based band there’s a string dance music element, further evidence it shouldn’t all be seen as happy-clappy hedonism but willing to engage in sonic abrasion of its own volition. They’re professed fans of the Contortions, where No Wave cross-bred with disco. And the finale’s their storming cover of the Industrial Techno track ’Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?’. Last time they opened with it, and it’s effectively become their identifying song.

Which leaves the singer Dara Kiely often contributing the most melodic element. True, his penchant for frenzied Malcom Mooney-style madness mantras isn’t going to get him calls from Coldplay any time soon. (One lyric lists the various manufacturers of “shit clothes”.) But you could imagine more Death Grips-style vocals going with that music. He’s enough to keep them attached to something like regular rock music.

Famously they started out while still in secondary school, as an Indie band modelled on the Strokes. That’s never really quite gone away, and it serves them like a gift. Rather than flying off into free noise or falling back into white boy blues, they’re able to go further into what they were already doing, with greater and greater intensity.

None less than the Guardian called this new release a “turbulent masterpiece”. And it’s true that Kiely has been open about facing mental health problems, which he does seem to have used for musical inspiration. But at the same time it’s a common error to see music just as displaced autobiography, one which can steer you away from actual listening. And there’s a definite sense of humour to it all. Even if you missed it in Kiely’s lyrics it’s there in his voice.

Let’s compare them briefly to two other noise rock outfits who have showed up here. Show Me the Body had a much more angsty vibe, a sense that down these mean streets a power noise trio must strike up. While Lightning Bolt conveyed the sheer exhilarating thrill of throwing up a racket.

It would be temptingly easy to say Gilla Band exist in some midpoint between these two, like the Change UK of noise. But I don’t think they’re anything so fixed, they’re more able to straddle both spaces at once. Like the proverbial glass of water which can be half full and also half empty, all depending how you look at it.

Kiely was meet ‘n’ greeting the merch queue after the gig, demonstrating a highly Irish ability to treat a long line of strangers like long-lost friends. I made some quip to him about the meaning-defying lyrics. “I don’t know what they mean,” he replied, “but I believe in them.” And I think I probably do too.

From Leeds…

The Con Club, Lewes, Sun 16th Oct

The brainchild of double bassist Vincent Bertholet, Orchestre Tout Puissant (“All Powerful”) Marcel Duchamp “mix free jazz, post punk, high life, brass band, symphonic elements and kraut rock, [and] make a transcendental, almost ritualistic music.” They’re named part in tribute to great African ensembles, and in other part (of course) to the arch-Dadaist.

Not kidding about that Orchestre tag, quite remarkably they have more members than words in their name. The most recent release and publicity photos features twelve members, but I counted thirteen on stage, including double drummers, twin marimba players, electric guitar, strings and brass.

Though to my mind they’re more an ensemble than orchestra. There are times when they play with counter-rhythms. But mostly they use their amassed numbers to all leap upon a groove. Their credo being “the more the merrier”. There’s a few points where they allow a second’s pause before the full outfit kick in, perhaps not a new trick but an effective one. The result is a set which feels pretty much all highlights.

The vibe they give off is some Arkestra-like collective, who practice eleven hours every day at the commune and then take turns to stir a big pot of mung beans. But, for a Swiss-based band they seemed to have a fair few English members, including the two main singers. Most vocals were choral and harmonious, floating over the music. Their unshowy ‘unrocky’ nature gives it much of its engaging quality.

But also… one of those singers turned out to be Jo Burke, last seem singing a cappella folk songs in a Sussex field. Her declamatory open-tuned cry made perhaps a strange fit the the syncopated beats. I couldn’t say why it worked, but it sure seemed to.

There’s a virtuous combination between their constant inventiveness, where you have little to no notion what might be coming next, and the infectiously uplifting quality of it. Perhaps the ‘Marcel Duchamp’ and ‘Tout Puissant’ parts of their name represent those two elements. Probably not, but I like to think so. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that even I might have been smiling.

A slightly different (and don’t tell Rees-Mogg but less English) line-up to the UK tour, but still very much worth a watch…

Saturday 22 October 2022


A Spotify playlist that soars! The notion here is for tracks that are mightIly mysterious, the musical equivalent of that celestial city you see floating in the sky, strange towers semi-hidden by clouds. Or something like that anyway. The image is a Frank R Paul illo from an old 'Amazing Stories' pulp. Don't be put off by the title of the opening track, which is awesome and not at all happy-clappy.

Popol Vuh: The Christ Is Near
John Cale & Terry Riley: The Hall of Mirrors In the Palace of Versailles
Sleep: Giza Butler
Cluster: Im Süden
Tangerine Dream: Nebulous Dawn
Föllakzoid: Pulsar

Saturday 15 October 2022


“Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.”

After ’The Plague’ and ‘The Outsider’, ’The Fall’ (1956) marks my third Camus novel. And the first not to be set in his native Algeria, but… well, is that Paris or Amsterdam?

Though it’s the backstory in Paris that forms the spine of the narrative, this is not like those films that are one long flashback bookended by a brief framing device. Instead Camus repeatedly throws us back into the present. Just as soon as we might be getting used to Parisian life back we are in Amsterdam. And there seems to be two reasons for this.

First, the setting is established so a mood can be pinned to it. Which isn’t weekend break by the canals. In fact this so differs from our modern view of Amsterdam you need to imagine we’re in some fictional town which just shares the same name. Perhaps in France in those far-off days, it was seen as some rough-edged port you didn’t venture to unless bulk-buying Tulips. But it’s still remarkable how foreign it is here, somewhere where “life becomes denser, darker.” A stolen painting, searched for throughout the world, can be hung prominently in a harbourside bar, as if we’re somewhere in Patagonia.

And the Dutch play no greater role than the Arabs in the Algeria-set works, the book’s very structure denying them speaking roles. A grunting brute of a barman, devoid of any French, is the closest we come to a native character.

And this sense of being in an un-place, off the map is carried through into the sights. Or, more accurately, lack of them. The sheer absence of topography, the featureless flat landscape bordering the flat sea, is repeatedly evoked, the way a character can be brought back onstage to again pointedly say nothing. The limbo of Amsterdam represents the modern condition; we’re adrift in it, sailors without ports, bereft of landmarks by we could navigate.

“Isn’t it the most beautiful negative landscape?… A flabby hell, indeed! Everything horizontal, no relief: space is colourless and life dead. Is it not universal obliteration, everything nothingness made visible? No human beings, above all, no human beings!”

Second, this keeps alive the notion that the narrator, Clamence, is not writing but talking. Ostensibly, he’s talking to another character. But in effect his words pass right through the space they only formally occupy, with the result he is talking directly to us.

With dialogue that keeps incidentally describing the surroundings, it’s very similar to reading the transcript of a radio play. In fact, that medium might have even worked better. Camus’ sometime compatriot Sartre wrote about this aspect of radio in ‘The Reprieve’, where a young woman listens mortified to a Hitler speech…

”The great plain of Germany, the mountains of France, had dissolved, he confronted her as an absolute enemy, outside space, he was threshing about in that box of his – he’s looking at me, he sees me. She turned to her mother, to Ivy: but they had suddenly receded. She could still see them but not touch them. Paris had drifted out of reach, the light from the windows fell dead upon the carpet. Contacts between people and things were imperceptibly disintegrating, she was alone in the world with that voice… He was addressing her as though they two were alone, his eyes glaring into hers.”

A monologue on the radio feels like it’s been spoken straight at you. Even if others are in the room with you they become somehow marginal, for that voice is speaking to you. It can even feel like it’s already in your head.

And the novel needs this because of an essential difference to ’The Outsider’. There, Meursault made no attempt to persuade you of his way of thinking, he just asserted it and that was all. This time, Clamence is a devilish tempter. The novel becomes his book-length attempt to drawn you in, lure you over to his side, a tirade couched in soft words. (“So you know the Scriptures? Decidedly, you interest me.”) Amsterdam and its environs are the wilderness where the tempter always lurked.

The titular Fall he recounts is his own, from a successful and highly regarded defence barrister specialising in “widows and orphans” to someone who haunts seedy bars in Amsterdam. But as anyone who knows the story of Faustus will tell you, devils are nothing but fallen angels. The novel’s therefore full of inverted imagery; in a book titled ’The Fall’ he has a ceaseless desire to scale physical heights, he is a “judge-penitent”, declared a (kind of) Pope by compatriots because he is the most debased, and so on.

And the easiest route for fallen angels to take you is the one they have marked out themselves. His clever-sounding words, and his recounts of his actions, are like a breadcrumb trail leading to an abyss.

So he paints all virtuous acts as performative, helping a blind man cross the street only to bask in the gaze of onlookers and so on. And it tends to build from this banal-sounding example. Virtue really only exists in the eyes of others, therefore is ultimately self-serving.

Then, with no meaning to things, without the possibility of any genuine attachment between people, what is there left to hold off the ennui than turn life into a sport? Realisation of this is made to seem a form of sophistication. You, sir, unlike those others you are smart enough to get this.

I was surprised how many reviews portrayed Clamence as an abject character, his narrative one long confession to a non-existent Priest. They clearly read quite a different book to me! Why then, for example, would he be declared Pope? The relations are entirely the other way round, he is Mephistopheles to our Faustus. Try the following quote:

“After prolonged research on myself, I brought out the basic duplicity of the human being. Then I realised, as a result of delving in my memory, that modesty helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppose.”

Jimmy Maher calls this “a work absolutely drenched in Christian symbolism.” Which is the perfect phrase, as “drenched in” differs from “composed of”. Unsurprisingly for Camus, if the book borrows heavily from religion it is merely borrowing. Clamence is neither intended to be a Devil nor there to represent one, simply devilish in nature. We are used to talking about moral questions in religious terms, so Camus appropriates those terms. Just as questions of debts and obligations would translate more easily into Francs and Cents than Guilders.

As with the notion that ’The Plague’ was some kind of analogy for the rise of fascism, people are keen to see something of the post-War world at work in all this. You could indeed pen a tale about someone’s life of success and plenty being upended by Nazi invasion, causing their worldview to be rent in twain. Most likely, people already have. But that has nothing to do with this book.

True enough, there is one reference to Jewish people been taken from Amsterdam to the camps. But the claim soon reaches rather desperate levels. A bar named Mexico City is enlisted and turned into a reminder of the genocide against the Aztecs. As a bar of that name really existed, it seems more likely Camus went for some local colour than any such flight of fancy.

In fact the events which precipitate Clamence’s Fall precede, and are not at all associated with, the War. So instead of bombing raids and death camps, this Fall is strung along events such as a road rage incident, one so minor he acknowledges himself that those who witnessed it would soon forgot it happened.

To do otherwise would tie the novel to a specific era, when it wants to make its concerns more about the modern condition in general. Were it the War we’d soon be telling ourselves that people were driven to terrible things in those terrible times only to survive, and reassuring ourselves that we are lucky to be living now. There would be a barrier between us and the text.

Of course Camus is not Clamence, and his purpose isn’t to stop us helping the blind cross the road. In fact, the sequence where Clamence refuses to aid the Resistance, when Camus was widely known for taking the contrary course, seems to consciously oppose the two. The precis on GoodReads says:

“His… discomforting monologue gradually saps, then undermines, the reader's own complacency.”

And this seems pretty good description of authorial intent. I suspect you’re intended to go through a process, first considering shutting your ears, but finally decide to engage head-on with his anti-moralist tirade. His purpose is to expose and then burn away that complacency, all the false and performative actions until hopefully some core is left at the end which will hopefully be true meaningful action.

I found, however, I wasn’t reading things that way. I had a tendency to think “ah, the Devil, there he goes again”, like getting a repeat tele-sales call. True, he does a better job of setting out this stall than some alt.right nut baying about “virtue signalling”. But that’s just to talk about style. It can feel a little like getting a poet to pen a tele-sales script, it’s comes to be worded so much more evocatively but is ultimately still about flogging you wares.

Evil - at least to me - is not richly seductive, mellifluous in its malevolence. The effects of evil may be terrible. But evil itself is fundamentally banal. Donald Trump, for example, is someone rich and powerful who would like to become more rich and powerful than he already is. Less Mephistopheles spouting infernal wisdom, more a simple-minded boorish braggart. Falsehoods are not beautiful, as in the opening quote, but easy and cosy. Had Clamence approached me in a bar with his patter, I’d have just made my excuses. There’s better things to do in Amsterdam…

Saturday 8 October 2022


When I came to read Sartre’s post-War Road To Freedom trilogy (starting here), I devoured it like a meal prepared specially for me. Then when I came to his pre-War ’Nausea’, I was constantly chewing, and sometimes re-chewing, without ever successfully digesting anything. And I seem to now be having a similar reactor to Camus’ ’The Outsider’. (Though it was written during the war, 1942 to be precise.)

In ’The Plague’, a game is played over who is writing the novel. Ostensibly, it’s one of the characters. But stylistically we’re aware that it can only have come from an accomplished writer. Here, like a character actor putting on an accent, Camus takes the tone of his first-person narrator, Meursault.

Which means that from the first, ’The Outsider’ is written in the most flat and direct prose. It’s more the tone of a police report than a novel. While at the same time his unreliability as a narrator is never forgotten; he often fails to hear things, or makes assumptions which he later concedes must have been mistaken. And there’s no more clear-cut way to get this over than starting the novel with the blunt announcement “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”

And this implies the central paradox. We see Meursault only through his reactions to other characters and events, to which he has precious little reaction. This leads to the most famous passage of the novel, possibly of Camus’ writing:

“She asked me, a moment later, if I loved her. I answered that it didn’t mean anything, but that I probably didn’t love her. She seemed sad. But while preparing lunch, for no reason at all she suddenly laughed in such a way that I kissed her.”

Camus giving up his prose is like a talented artist reverting to stick figures. It seems such a sacrifice to make, there must surely be a very good reason for doing it. And so inevitably we set to work with what we have, and try to parse Meursault’s lack of reaction. So those limitations are inevitably passed onto the reader.

Though it’s clearly intended as a shocking twist, we’re now no more able to read this novel not knowing of the murder than we are watch ’Citizen Kane’ and wonder who Rosebud is. A friend has got into a feud with an Arab, leading to Meursault taking the guys’s gun from him. But then later, Meursault returns to the spot and shoots the Arab himself.

We saw how some were keen to find an anti-fascist message into ’The Plague’. Unsurprisingly they do the same here. Meursault’s non-explaining is to be associated with the occupation of France. At a time when more active resistance was impossible, silence became a form of non-collaboration. Which at times it did. But, even if we could take murdering an Arab as an anti-fascist gesture, it’s simply untrue to say that Meursault stays silent or is wilfully uncompliant. As we’ll see, he explains things as well as he’s able.

A character in ’The Plague’ rails against capital punishment, clearly ventriloquising Camus’ own view. Yet in this book where capital punishment plays so central a role there’s no innocent party under injustice, nor even (as they’d commonly be understood) any mitigating circumstances. Meursault is guilty. He shoots someone. He tells us so himself. The trial has a different purpose.

First, let’s note that the moment is literally pivotal. We jump straight from the shooting to preparations for the trial, a consequence made to seem inevitable. And at this point the narrative effectively flips over, from Meursault talking about others without making any real effort to understand them, to a trial in which the officials talk about him the same way.

Guilt being established, they jump straight to talking about whether the crime was premeditated. But, with no real means to establish this, they jump to an assessment of his character. And so they spend more time discussing his response to his Mother’s death than the shooting.

Small details, such as his accepting a cup of coffee while sitting up with the body, are seized on. Which is strangely extra-diegetic, like the second half of a book is handed over to critics of the first half. It’s decided that he displayed insufficient mourning at the funeral, so should be guillotined. Hence Camus’ oft-repeated gag "in our society any man who does not weep at his mother's funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death."

What are we to make of all this? In 1947, Sartre provided an Explication. (Which can be read here.) Camus himself wrote an afterword in 1955. Both suggesting the short novel was unfinished business.

Camus himself said “the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” And, ostensibly at least, this is easy enough. He has simply failed to provide the outward signs of mourning which society requires. We are dealing with a free thinker, scorning such performative rituals, who follows his own maps, who loved his Mother in his own way and will mourn her similarly.

And certainly the alternate translation of the title, ’The Stranger’, works better. Meursault is shown to be living in a large town, holding down a regular job, eating in restaurants and going to the beach. He’s not outside of society, but estranged from it.

And this misreading is made more dangerous by being so neat and thereby so appealing. Let’s take the quote above in full. Asked straight out if he’d “felt any grief on that day” he replies “I’d rather got out of the habit of analysing myself and that I found it difficult to answer his question. I probably loved mother quite a lot, but that didn’t mean anything”. It isn’t always noticed that the first part is reversed from his comment about his mistress. But what’s salient is what stays the same, “that didn’t mean anything”.

It’s not the conventions around it but the human connection itself which is being questioned, seen as absurd. Ultimately it’s impossible to truly know whether he loved his Mother, for him as much as for us. We take on habits, perform rituals, diarise to send a card on Mother’s Day, with which we try to paper over this space. While Meursault lives with the space.

Unsurprisingly more fulsome, Sartre found significance in the writing style, pointing out how it differed from regular Camus. He saw it’s aim as: 

“…to insert a glass partition between the reader and his characters. Is there really anything sillier than a man behind a glass window? Glass seems to let everything through. It stops only one thing: the meaning of his gestures. The glass remains to be chosen. It will be the Stranger’s mind, which is really transparent, since we see everything it sees. However, it is so constructed as to be transparent to things and opaque to meanings.”

And he relates this to Camus’ predilection for reported speech:

”Camus irons out the dialogue, summarises it, renders it frequently as indirect discourse. He denies it any typographic privileges, so that a spoken phrase seems like any other happening.”

He uses the above-quoted famous passage as an example of this. We’re not told “my saying I didn’t love her made her sad”. We’re told “I answered that… I probably didn’t love her. She seemed sad” - this then that, as if the two events might have happened co-incidentally, with no causal link. Which he describes as “the discontinuity between the clipped phrases that imitate the discontinuity of time.” We use novels, perhaps texts in general, as tools to make things more explicable to us. This does the reverse.

In the Court both Prosecution and Defence create their own Meursaults. In opposition to one another but both explicable within their system. To do this they must exclude the real Meursault. Hence his comment that the process seems to have nothing to do with him. They combine to form what he describes as a mechanism, one from which he must escape but cannot.

With Rieux in ’The Plague’ we are guided to imagine he has ‘hidden depths’, there are things about him which we only glimpse as he focuses on recounting external events. The challenge is to find Rieux the man inside Rieux the narrator, stitching him out of hints and clues.

Meursault conversely, is the subject of his own story. And the challenge is to accept that these few bald statements are all there is of him, though they seem so inadequate. When asked whether he loved his Mother, for example, there is no more to him than the answer he gives.

And, as had Sartre’s own ’Age of Reason’, the novel ends on a point of realisation. He recognises his situation is absurd and accepts “the benign indifference of the universe.”

This is, insofar as I can tell, the intended reading. But there’s a problem with it. It does precisely what the Court did, jumps back to the funeral by leapfrogging over the murder. In a long essay Sartre uses ‘murder’ once and ‘kill’ twice. It comes to be treated as a merely precipitating event, we need a crime in order to get to the trial.

We don’t just look out. In a sense our minds detach from us and we look at ourselves as an outside thing, in order to make sense of ourselves to ourselves. Whereas Meursault seems as much a stranger to himself as anyone else is. In Sartre’s terminology, he is to himself a fact he perceives without being able to grasp its meaning. A situation he calmly accepts.

The Court questions whether it was premeditated or impulsive. Go back to the murder scene, and it’s one of the few passages which seems to have been written by Camus in his own voice. The main word for which would be ‘feverish’. When asked why he shot the Arab, he can only talk about the sun being hot. Which provokes laughter, but seems his best effort to explain it. (And the sun’s fever-inducing powers on the human mind also appears in his story story ’The Renegade’.)

Which is neither of the Court’s options. The nearest to them would be compulsive. Circumstances drove him to it, even if they were chance circumstances. He speaks of being “pushed” by the sun, (“the whole beach was reverberating against me and pushing against me from behind”) and wanting to seek shelter. But he can’t get to the rocks while the Arab, his antagonist, is there. One way of reading the scene would be that his craving was for solitude, the only way of achieving which was by removing other people.

Sartre comments “If there were a grace of absurdity, we would have to say that he has grace.” And there are times you can see what he means…

“He then asked me if I wasn’t interested in changing my life. I replied that you can never change your life, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t at all dissatisfied with mine here.”

And perhaps my ultimate inability to parse the book is this combination of murder with any form of grace. Meursault seems to me to be exhibiting less grace than a deficiency, or at most a passive acceptance of the problems existence throws at us.

Readers will need to ask themselves if they can manage this. My answer would be “it’s a meaningless question, but probably not”. To me, human relations are les external forces we encounter, like hills and valleys, but things we create between us, like roads and bridges. And there’s no reason to see the things we create as any less real, any less solid in our lives, than the things we encounter.

Further, the tale unavoidably rests on the notion that the victim is “only” an Arab, that the game hands Meursault cards to play that could spare him the guillotine, cards that would not be awarded were the roles reversed, in order for us to watch him indifferently decline to play those cards.

Two of Camus’ three novels and several of his short stories are set in Algeria, and its sense of place is often evoked. But out of his Arab characters this is quite possibly the main one, and soon after appearing he’s dispatched in order to precipitate the plot. The emphasis is all on that Meursault killed, the who deemed unimportant.

So, much like ’The Plague’ later, exploitation of the colonised Algerians isn’t shied away from. But it is simply assumed, taken as a fact of life. We’ve all heard a lot lately about there supposedly being no need to say Black Lives Matter. Here there is a need to say Arab Lives Matter, but at the same time there would be no point. The Arab character isn’t even granted a name.

From the little I could glean from ’Nausea’, it’s about a first-person narrator who comes to accept the essentially arbitrary nature of reality, where the only meanings are the ones we impose upon it. Perhaps Sartre was disposed to speak up for ’The Outsider’ because he sensed a similar intent. ’The Stranger’ gets closer to that, but is pretty much the definition of problematic.

Saturday 1 October 2022


 Yes, 'twould seem Lucid Frenzy has hit its fifteenth anniversary. I thought about how to celebrate this momentous moment. Then thought that I'd write a post saying that Lucid Frenzy has hit its fifteenth anniversary. This is it, in fact.