Saturday 25 March 2023


Patterns, Brighton
Fri 17th March

Recent releases from Canadian punk band Fucked Up have been, respectively, a long and involved metafictional concept album about love and revolution, a reflection on growing older in the punk scene, and an even longer, even more involved metafictional concept album about I’m still not sure what. They don’t get overly confused with the Germs.

They’d always possessed a remarkable ability to combine seemingly contradictory elements. I mean, before you get onto punk and concept albums you have to start with hardcore punk and tunes. But the last-but-one release, ’Dose Your Dreams’, which I initially feared might be their ’Sandinista’ turned out to be more like their version of ’The Gift’. It branched out in so many new directions the centre was no longer holding, it was part something expanding and part falling apart.

Much was unreproducible live, with the result its tour had only a passing resemblance to it. They’d demonstrated a remarkable longevity, essentially running with the same line-up for more than two decades. But at that point some speculated this was the finale, others just took it as read.

Yet as ’One Day’, the title of their new release, suggests they’ve gone back to their more immediate roots, played a back-to-basics revolution on themselves. What do you do when you reach the end? Seems you start again. Except as the title also suggests, this comes with a twist…

While there could hardly be a more central hardcore credo than everyone plays together in a room, this was recorded this in relay form, passed between band members with each having a one-day deadline. (The alert reader may be able to guess from this whenabouts it was recorded.) The lyric “what could you do in just one day?” isn’t really all that speculative.

They boldly front-load the set with new songs, running most of them through together. Which keeps up the energy, but does deprive us a little of Damon Abraham’s engaging stage persona. Is it as good as their classic gigs of yore? In truth, no. The highlights for me were the main set ending withe the double-barrelled blast of ’Glass Boys’ and ’Joy Stops Time’. And after me saying last time that this isn’t really the right venue for the band, look where they’re back.

But it is good, just not as good. And it feels like we got to live in the parallel dimension we’d have otherwise wanted to, the one where that Canadian punk band we all liked so much didn’t split up but found a way to carry on.

There was a further twist, not obvious till I’d got the CD and taken it home. This is the first album since they're first not to be dedicated to a theme. Yet the album so about spontaneity and new starts is lyrically dominated by the past, how it’s neither recapturable nor escapable. 'Lords of Kensington’, for example, is about yuppification undermining Toronto’s DIY scene. (“So now I’m caught up in the past/ Just trying to change the facts/ We over-wrote the map/ Now I’m trying to get back.”) Alas as a Brighton resident I have no way of relating </sarcasm>.

There seems a dearth of decent footage of this tour, so here’s the video for the title track. Keeping to the tradition where the band appear only obliquely...

The Hope + Ruin, Brighton
Tues 21st March

Gina Birch is from the Raincoats, of course one of the greatest post-punk bands if not one of the greatest bands. But as said after I last saw them, they were largely based on a double act. Portugese born, Ana da Silva always seemed beguiling and inscrutably cool. While Birch, English both by birth and manner, was much more an everywoman. I always associate da Sliva with second person songs, and Birch with first person. And she’s touring, perhaps remarkably, her first ever solo album. Would Birch alone be just half the picture?

When I say alone, the others in the trio join in on guitar and keyboards, with frequent swaps. (Bar one number where they all take up bass.) There’s no live drummer but programmed beats which rarely imitate a real drum sound, And the others also add catchy pop harmonies, often over skanking rhythms. They jerk their heads in an equally synchronised manner, like a post-punk Shangri Las. While Birch’s vocals are more stated or ranted. At time she seems to be channelling Marianne Faithful, existential torch songs.

As was common in post-punk, the Raincoats tended to sneak up on their subjects obliquely. While songs here can be more polemical, waxing lyrical on feminism or paying tribute to Pussy Riot. But they can also be laugh-out-loud hilarious. A whole number is given over to refusing to wear stilettos, going into some detail over more preferable forms of footwear. Which makes the whole set quirkily engaging and infectiously fun, never po-faced.

There’s precisely one Raincoats track, their only cover, ’Lola’. And as with the Raincoats lines like “girls will be boys and boys will be girls/ it’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world” are less befuddled wail then cry of glee.

Punk nostalgists are always quick to tell you then was the time, and things can’t happen now. Missing the bit that if you make something happen… well then its happened, hasn’t it? First Slits guitarist Viv Albertine decided she was neither going to rest on past glories nor swerve up golden oldies, but break into something new. Now Birch has done the same thing. Or, as she put it itself in her album title, ’I Play My Bass Loud’. Remind them of this.

And here’s that very song from that very… okay, from Rough Trade in London if you must know. Still closer than normal…

Manchester Collective
Kings Place, London
Fri 24th March

The programme kicked off with ‘Carrot Revolution’ by Gabriella Smith. (The curious title coming from a Cezanne misquote.) It was one of those pieces which almost need a sign up on stage saying “it’s supposed to sound this way, honest,” as it scrapes and slides it’s way through varying tones and tempos. But rather than a difficult listen it’s lively and exuberant, the players jigging and swaying on-stage like this is one of those gig things.

My probably entirely wrong reaction was to think, as some contemporary composers become influenced by rock music, so had Smith been by klezmer. She’d develop rhythms which seemed just about to take over and turn things in a more regular beat-driven direction, for it all to take some unexpected corner.

Edmund Finnis’ second String Quartet was described as going from earth to air. And as the instruments fluttered and shimmered, it was exceptionally beautiful to listen to. But it didn’t prove terribly memorable, as if suffering from the ‘pretty face’ syndrome. It seemed the least contemporary-sounding work from the first half, though in fact it was written for the Collective.

Moor Mother’s ’DREAM CULTURE’ (in caps, it seems) was different again. After twice dodging the challenging bullet, we were now struck dead centre. Largely cello based with electronic tones breaking in, it was dark and brooding, one of those pieces which envelops you. It had everything the Finnis piece didn’t, and vice versa.

Before the headline work, they placed a section from Schubert which Crumb quotes from. (Though when it came it was inevitably too distorted for me to notice.) This passed pleasantly enough, but I confess such stuff just makes me think of stately homes and Gainsborough paintings. However, they did smartly use the opportunity to segue straight into the Crumb….

People who survived the Sixties will often tell you they were volatile, violent and chaotic, and notions of frolicking barefoot in the park only possible with a heap of hindsight. Political activists, particularly if black, often quite literally didn’t expect to survive. (We may have escaped the most extreme of that in the UK. But Crumb was American.)

And, written in 1970 and subheaded ’Thirteen Images from the Dark Land’, ‘Black Angels’ seismographs that Sixties. Let’s not deny it’s challenging. sometimes feels like the musical equivalent of a wild weather event, complete with eerie calms.

Those unlucky-for-some thirteen ‘images’ are crammed into barely twenty minutes of music. Which leads to a huge variety of sound compressed together. It can feel like there’s more musical ideas in those twenty minutes than most composers manage in a lifetime. But at the same time the mood range is confined - to turbulent, mournful and sinister. There’s no breath-back moments, it’s like a day with no break in the storm clouds, or a horror film which is just the scary stuff. (And that analogy’s not much of a reach, some of it was used in ’The Exorcist’.)

Though at times it feels less a reaction to and more an invocation of all that. To misquote Ken Kesey, less a seismograph than a lightning rod, calling down the storm. The staccato vocal utterances (labelled ‘Ancient Voices’ in the score), often just recite numbers in various languages, following Crumb’s interest in numerology. But they sound witchy conjurations, almost reminiscent of the vocals in some of Goblin’s soundtrack work.

There’s a running debate about what the references to ‘electric insects’ in the section titles comes from. Some have suggested the helicopters then strafing Vietnam. But as many of the effects require electronic amplification to work, it seems more likely it’s simply the instruments themselves. Crumb introduces some aids, such as glass rods and thimbles. But one interesting feature is for all that it is still a work for string quartet. Composers from this time were often moving into electronics and tape effects, particularly so when trying to map their times. Crumb sticking with strings has its own effects, like a dread warning being imparted by a once familiar voice.

Last time I saw this performed I heard a note of optimism in it. This time, to put it bluntly, I didn’t. Which is perhaps due to our own times growing darker. And probably makes it all the more important a work to hear.

The Manchester Collective seem a young and enthusiastic bunch, introducing the work without info-dumping a slew of obtuse music theory on you. And in the interval they turned Crumb’s score to face us, proudly pointing out it looked the scrawlings of a madman.

(This was being filmed... you know, properly filmed, so may yet show up somewhere.)

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