Saturday 13 May 2023


Barbican, London
Thurs 4th May

If your idea of Irish folk is professionally genial types trilling “fiddle-de-i-de-o” in plastic Paddy pubs, Lankum are your necessary antidote.

They’re part of the same general Dublin scene as John Francis Flynn, last seen on the roof of the De La Warr. But a better compare-and-contrast would be, conveniently enough, the last folk gig attended before this - the Scottish duo Burd Ellen. Both are part of what I’m dubbing Drone Folk until a better name comes along. (Which hopefully won’t be long.)

Except Burd Ellen are bewitching, like if you listen to them too long you’ll never make it back out of that enchanted wood. While Lankum are definitely about this mortal world, less likely to be found in the faerie realm, and more the graveyard. Less Edmund Spenser, more Thomas Hardy. Its long been a truism that folk songs have a higher body count than gangster rap. But Lankum push that along more than a little, with mortality as inevitable as the closing rhyme. Like death in a folk tale, relentlessly stalking his victim, tracks are long, slow and - above all - patient.

’The Pride Of Petravore’ starts with violin and bowed acoustic guitar. It sounds like the creaking of the world turning, more the sort of thing the Kronos Quartet would bring to the Barbican, by a composter from some East European country you hadn’t known existed. They then throw a jaunty tin whistle tune over the top. Which only makes the thing more eerie. (And later add a vocal section, not to be found on the record, folks.)

So they can feel like they’re on a mission to take folk standards and twist them. ’The Wild Rover’ opens the set, and what’s normally a raucous drinking song in their hands become bleak as moorland. Even when they go in for reels, as they do for the finale, there’s something slightly unhinged, almost possessed about them. Their sound has been compared to Sunn 0))), Swans and My Bloody Valentine, all Lucid Frenzy faves but scarcely standard folk influences.

Except they more commonly work the other way up to that. It’s a bit like the way the Velvet Underground brought together folk and rock - not as a creative contrast but as though the two had belonged together all along, and somehow no-one had noticed before now. In their way, Lankum are quite a traditional folk outfit. Their albums come with sleeve notes relating how they came across these songs, described at one point as “long thought forgotten.” They play traditional instruments, at least most of the time. Radie Peat even sings with a hand cupped to her ear. They just bring out the unhurried nature of those songs and the natural drone tendencies of those instruments.

And this may be most evident in the Radie Peat songs, such as ’Go Dig My Grave’ or ’Hunting the Wren’, which glowers with a slow-building intensity under vocals which exude inevitability. Other instruments get added along the way, but not adding countermelodies so much as thickening the stew. And so, however much I loved the Burd Ellen gig, I guess in the final count I just love Lankum more.

A view which seems surprisingly widespread. I’d cynically expect them to be one of those bands who win armfuls of awards and occasionally sell a record or two. In fact the popular appetite for eight-minute dirges about death turns out to be quite high. The Barbican’s packed, and I’ve seen bands whose finale didn’t get as much enthusiastic applause as the opening number receives here. Is this because they’re so good at it? Or do songs about the inevitability of mortality capture the spirit of the moment? Probably both.

...and finally, correcting a heckler, Peat explained her name’s pronounced “Ray-dee.” Which means if she ever married Roddy Radiation she’d be Radie Radiation. I think we should try to set them up.

’Go Dig My Grave’, from Paris, a couple of days before…

(Feat. Jah Wobble + the Invaders of the Heart)
Chalk, Brighton
Sun 7th May

“Let’s just start, shall we?” Jah Wobble gets going with characteristic genial geezerishness. But we here at Lucid Frenzy Tower are more in the way of obsessive nerds, so we’re going to lead up to things…

Public Image Ltd’s, ’Metal Box’ is seen as a definitive Post-Punk album, but more than that it’s surely one of the classic albums of all time. A reputation underlined by personality clashes ensuring that line-up never recorded again. It stood alone, or so it seemed.

Then about a decade ago, John Lydon reformed PiL. Some accounts say he offered Wobble ever-more silly amounts of money to rejoin. But Wobble instead took up with the other ex-member, Keith Levene, as Metal Box In Dub. And though alas I never got to see them, reworked versions of those days were already showing up in Wobble’s solo let. (Presumably why two tracks from the first album, ’Public Image’ and ’Fodderstompf’, show up here.) 

When Levene sadly died last year, that looked to be that. Except Wobble subsequently released the ’Metal Box: Rebuilt In Dub’ album. And, as you may have already guessed, toured.

Though reasons for the separate reunions were decidedly personal (Lydon had, at different times, sacked both Wobble and Levene), music differences still ensued. New PiL… let’s call them that… were essentially a new band working to the PiL mindset, and treated those tracks as covers, to be reworked in their own style. While with Wobble they’re more like standards which need souping up and rejuvenating.

He recites one of the album’s lyrics, “I could be wrong, it could be hate”. And it’s odd to think back to the time where the arch-egoist Lydon was writing so much about self-doubt. But more the point here is what this says about the music. ’Metal Box’ was a bold statement, audaciously calling time on the old, but there was also something sketch-like, almost tentative about it. The mostly improvised tracks found their way by walking it.

Yet at the same time the thumping bass of Reggae sound systems had been a big influence. Chiefly channelled through Wobble’s bass, often the through-line holding those tracks together. And so these powered-up reworkings both take the music forward and bring it back to its roots. And to hear these tracks delivered with such resounding force is something of a revelation! Old chassis, new engine.

There’s little of the spaciness so associated with Dub. “In Dub” means, I suspect, in the Dub spirit of taking what’s done as raw materials for what’s being done right now. And let’s remember what got Wobble sacked from PiL, at least ostensibly, was reworking tracks for his solo releases. ’Metal Box Goes Dancefloor’ might better capture the sound. The album cover’s of a speaker, after all. With those thumping riffs perhaps even ’Metal Box Goes Rock’, which would have been heresy back in those anti-rockist days!

So ’Albatross’ opened the album, the New PiL gig I went to, and it does again here. In fact as the Wobble and Levene gigs had a different, more free-form feel, that gives us four separate versions! And those four versions could scarcely sound more different. So many different ways to get rid of an albatross.

Wobble also says “who wants some Dub? And some fun?” And, perhaps strangely, this is a little like seeing a band who’ve played these tracks for years, and now need to throw in changes to keep themselves sane. Snatches of other numbers, not necessarily other PiL tracks, are thrown in without warning or explanation. And the band lark about on stage even more than they usually do. (Leading to some lark-like dancing in the audience.) The combination is bit like being in the path of a jet engine while the Captain cracks gags over the tannoy, exhilarating but also discombobulating.

The only weak points… As mentioned after seeing Wobble before, he may be the walking, talking definition of a character. But he does lack Lydon’s characterful voice. Moreover, vocals on ’Metal Box’ aren’t the typical upfront audience-addressing affair, they work more as another instrument in the mix. And Levene’s guitar often seemed pitched to match Lydon’s tones. All of which makes them hard to emulate.

The gigs with Levene had a separate singer. Here his solution is often just to recite the lyrics, which is a little bit “don’t try, can’t fail”. It may work best when they’re just dispensed with, as they are with ’Albatross’ and ’Swan Lake’. And if there’s many assembled here who don’t already know the words I’d be surprised. (Honourable exception - ’The Suit’, where the words are pretty much recited anyway.)

Also, the keyboards can be a strangely normalising element. They only time they were used on the album was when they took the place of guitar. Here there’s points where they seem superfluous, or even actively getting in the way. They don’t really come into their own until the encore, where ’Metal Box’ is done with and they head more into the regular Wobble world.

In brief, going back to a classic album doesn’t need to be nostalgist or retrograde. It can even be a way of looking forward…

There seems a shortage of live footage, so here’s the studio version of ’Albatross’

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