TV On The Radio: Nine Types Of Light

If the magisterial TV On The Radio had, by September 2006, acquired a reputation as doomsayers, it was only their response – as true artists – to a geyser of fear in full profusion midway through Bush’s second term – there or thereabouts the very belly of the beast. Two years on and within a tortuous hair’s length of salvation, Tunde Adebimpe hollered on ‘DLZ’: “This is beginning to feel like the long-winded blues of the never”. Now, years after the war, they put the pieces back together again under the soft light breaking over peacetime, LA County.

Nine Types of Light is an album about finding yourself again in the quiet. “In isolation: a transformation” sings Adebimpe on ‘Killer Crane’. In a recent interview with The Guardian Adebimpe spoke about the strain of adjusting his mindset to the new era, after a decade of dread and defence: “Panic can become a very fruitless security blanket and it makes it easy to default to the negative” he confided “…The truth is you’re lucky to feel anything”. On ‘Second Song’ it is the enveloping power of music that stymies Adebimpe’s night-terrors (“when the night comes I’m feeling like a pyro”) and for once he “doesn’t have a single word to say”. Blissed out, with his “restless mind” quietened, he informs us that while we struggle to define the “heartless times’ he’ll be getting down to the business of making babies, like any veteran worth his salt.

On the album’s centrepiece ‘Killer Crane’ Adebimpe departs their new lodgings in Sitek’s LA digs and travels out to the Pacific; the trembling low-end building the suspense. On the edge of America he releases his trauma, memories and dark thoughts to the wind, in the form of the titular representation / psychic projection / power animal / wot-not. The killer crane soars “after the reign / after the rain-bow”. Over the chorus’ flower-child woodwind and cello-like synths he remembers the times before the strife, a vision of long-ago happiness he once dreamed about on the frontline: “Sunshine / I saw you through the hanging vine / a memory of what was mine / fading away”. It ends in mellow harmony, with a couple of strums of acoustic guitar flicking the switch off again. Adebimpe is “suddenly unafraid”. Truly a timeless depiction of redemption.

To paraphrase Ron Kovic, it’s as if for TV On The Radio America feels like home again. Bathed in a dusky vapour, the euphonious opening three tracks exhale nine years of tension. The first – ‘Second Song’ is a study in relaxed simplicity. There’s church organ, a piano and a crescendo that positively gleams. Whereas before the horns and brass would convulse and alarm, on Nine Types they pump your chest full of melodic goodwill, while the synths at the beginning of ‘Keep Your Heart’ – gossamer, pinkish chem-trails – might have been molten and diabolical a couple of years back. Then there’s the woozy little fireflies spinning and flitting around the verses of ‘You’ or the plaintive oriental xylophone at the start of ‘Will Do’. “The plan was to make music in real life, for real life” Sitek told Rolling Stone. Throughout, the arrangements are sketched and the production is unobtrusive and forgiving, shorn of the hi-tech grandstanding of yore and culled of both that beastly quality and the live-wire paranoia that plagued the high end, while the vocals are one-take and unfinished. As opposed to the poly-rhythms of before, its most transcendent moments are steadied by Bunton’s metrical, softly luxuriant hip-hop beats. Exampled in the barely perceptible (but indispensable) electric caramel that coats the YYY’s ‘Turn Over’ and ‘Gold Lion’ it’s Sitek’s skill as a handsome texturologist which benefits Nine Types… most keenly.

It’s not all tenderness and summer evenings though. As Adebimpe attests on the twitchy ‘No Future Shock’ he still sleeps with his gun. The ogreish funk carnage kicked upon ‘Repetition’ echoes the thoughts of men constantly looking over their shoulders, eyes peeled for the next sign of danger “the cracks will be obvious before too long” Adebimpe frets on ‘Repetition’. A throwback to Return To Cookie Mountain, the swaying and brilliant ‘Forgotten’ is a typical New Yorkers’ take on the Orange State, full of mordant foreboding and talk of plastic paradise. It’s a strange land they’d rather just forget: “Hold tight / our lover’s day written into the sky / we’ll fade into the night” caterwauls Malone. Final track ‘Caffeinated Conscious’ almost sounds like Faith No More while ‘New Cannonball Blues’ is stern and domineering (unfortunately save some swooping Stevie Wonder-like brass, like ‘No Future Shock’ its a very stilted, uninspired relation to the vibrant pop-funk which populated Dear Science).

Since their inception the Brookynites have obsessed over a cataclysmic idea of romance, forever married to the defiant image of those lovers kissing beneath the shadow of the Berlin Wall – “and the guns, shot above our heads / and we kissed / as though nothing could fall”(they even went as far as covering ‘Heroes’ for the War Child album). It’s a macabre notion of romantic endeavour best summarized on Dear Science’s ‘Stork And Owl’ as such: “Death’s a door that love walks through / in and out / in and out / back and forth / back and forth”. The dilemma is, how do they sustain the passion of love in their love songs, when their protagonists are no longer shagging like it’s their last night on earth? The quintet have always appeared to subscribe to Oscar Wilde’s view that the only true romance is a doomed one. “They spoil every romance by trying to make it last forever” quipped the writer, “…the very essence of romance is uncertainty”. Now that life seems less perilous, is the power of their heartbreakers somehow depleted? Another of Wilde’s truisms comes to mind – his conviction that “Where there is no extravagance there is no love”.

Nine Types of Light offers a far less opulent, dramatic ecology when compared to their earlier work. But it speaks of a more mature, less fatalistic, more realistic notion of love; one of caring, understanding, patience, soulful connection. Obviously it’s a less arresting interpretation, but it grows on you until its lambent warmth is in your bones, much like the album. The bombs no longer fall but “we’ll fall together in time, just the same…” Adebimpe harks on ‘Killer Crane’. More poignantly in the context of the entire album and TVoTR’s new musical era, as he sums it up on ‘Will Do’: “You don’t want to waste your life in the middle of a lovesick lullaby”. John Calvert


John Foxx: Interplay

After a run of relatively oblique collaborations, Interplay sees John Foxx’ return to the role of pop architect, ably assisted by The Maths (aka Ben Edwards, Benge) who has graduated here with flying colours from studied technologist to certified song producer. With his memory banks reset by Edwards’ box of retro delights, Foxx has taken the opportunity to reassert the grand arches of the mind on the pop of his salad days – a formula which rapidly became intellectually superficial and increasingly less expressive in his wake. Foxx’s methodology seems to be “Elaborating outwards on his internal structures”, as he put it in a recent interview with Ballardian historian Simon Sellers. The result is roughly what Ultravox would sound like in 2011 if Foxx had never left.

Benge came to Foxx’s attention with his Twenty Systems LP, which with a ‘gear-gasmic’ attention to detail documented the development of the synthesiser in a year-by-year account of 20 individual machines introduced from 1968 to 1987. Obviously a dream appointment for the Londoner, Benge has seemingly played Rick Rubin to Foxx’s Johnny Cash – emboldening the old hawk and acting as a conduit to his former self. Comprised entirely of early analogue tech, with Metamatic’s Arp Odyssey, the CR-78 drum machine and the seminal Yahama CS8o (think Vangelis) recommissioned, Interplay even manages to invoke some of the hand-made charm, the novice imperfections and the happy randomness which riddled early synth-pop. And with Foxx joyously letting rip for a spectacular vocal performance, there is also a little of the gaiety the electro pioneers displayed as they lived out their small-town dreams. Benge is a fetishist, this much is true, but his ability to draw out such intangible essences marks him out as an artist first and foremost. The Twenty Systems project was an almighty testimony to the unfulfilled potential of the synthesiser, but more importantly where Interplay is concerned it was a treatise on how technology alters meaning.

It’s important to note that Interplay has nothing to do with regression, nor does it descend into over-familiarity. In fact, although the title is in reference to Foxx’s purportedly syncretic relationship with his attuned collaborator, it could just as easily describe both Interplay’s genuinely vital interaction with electronica’s ongoing evolution and the push-and-pull between a contemporary feel and Foxx’s classic sound.

The album begins with the sound of Foxx being sucked backwards into the mainframe, first discorporated then reformed within the corridors of perpetual circuitry. Abruptly the audio snaps into focus, assuming into a lockstep pitter. From here on in we rove a non-space virtuality, an interzone if you like. The 808 beats and EBM modulations click and clack like wire-frame fingers against the perspex backdrop, before ceding to the wet silver solder of various piercing effects, while Foxx’s vocals – taking from William Burroughs’ croak on the Naked City recordings – lag and surge on a mutilated channel. It’s in homage to the New Yorkan cold wave which the duo feasted on throughout the process; a scene which with its mythology of ‘controlling electricity’ (i.e the hands-on appeal of rudimentary synths) chimes loudly with Foxx’ increasing disdain for imitative software. Additionally Schoolwerth & Co’s devotion to harsh beauty and lo-fi violence matches Foxx’s descriptions of the original step-sequencers; that being the sound of the loudest overdriven guitar note played forever with just the application of a single finger – the same technology Foxx has been getting to grips with again on Interplay. That said, if you compare Foxx’s breadth of reference to the Wierd / Captured crew’s hermetically sealed pastiche – all circumscribed beats and slavish mimesis – you will soon get an idea as to where the new breed are going wrong.

‘Shatterproof’ is followed by the satirical, pop art ‘Catwalk’, a high-fashion surface-dream in the Bowie/Roxy/Madonna/Fischerspooner vein, with a slight tang of The Idiot-period Iggy to match the story charts Foxx’s journey through the night in a (self-effacing) quest to land a model. A highpoint of the year so far, the archetypal Foxxian sound is paired with some bulldozing sub-bass. It’s a retro-active dream come true and perfectly communicates Foxx’ exhilarated lust as he meets with the marauding flash and ugly underbelly of the fashion world – a hulking universe all of its very own, both seductive and sinister in equal measure.

On ‘Evergreen’ Foxx returns to his long-running preoccupation with an overgrown future London. There’s borrowed imagery from Ballard’s The Drowned World – tropical ruins and such like – beneath which Foxx models a sort of memoir; bearing witness to an unremitting hunger for innovation spanning a 30-year career: “I will always return to this place / for a glimpse / for a trace” he testifies “ever changing / ever new / ever restless / ever true” – the life and times of The Quiet Man, an artist perennially “overlooked and never seen / ever lost / never found” but “forever evergreen”.

Then comes ‘Watching The Building On Fire’. An expertly composed Ballardian allegory, John and his robotic gamine (Ladytron’s Mira Aroyo) scour the landscape. They see a man fall 1000 miles away, plunging from a flaming 1000-storey building located “at the edge of today”. Helplessly they relive the scene endlessly – across “a million lifetimes” – both hypnotised and tortured, always crashing in the same car. Again and again the man falls, with the duo paralysed within the looping memory. There’s a vaguely soporific air, a future daze – unshakable no matter how immediate the song in question. The vague suggestion is that actually it’s the duo that die in the fire: “sometimes you find out too late” intones Fox, while in the breakdown Aroyo whispers “Looking out from this window / over all the streets / shadows far below us / moving like a sea.”. You can assume she jumps. The track fades out into infinity with the duo trapped for eternity. Not until then do you consider the 9/11 connection. Like with the “building on fire” the images of that day – the blue sky and grey plume – will be relived in pixels long after we are dead. It’s an unforgettable collaboration – weirdo, sublime pop – and a serious thrill for acolytes of the genre.

Led by a voyaging Kraftwerkian rhythm, ‘Summerland’ is a gentle preamble to electro kiss-off ‘The Running Man’, featuring ‘real’ bass and guitar that propel the song towards a slightly hostile climax. Next up is a dose of ethereal darkwave in the shape of ‘Falling Star’. Listening to the naif preset rhythm and snow-pure synths, you can sense how far the countless years of reinvention have taken Foxx from his lowly beginnings. A contender for ‘the big single’, the cyber-gothic ‘Destination’ – with its big ululating synth riff a la ‘Plaza’ and super-massive chorus – is Foxx at his most straight-forwardly epic since The Garden.

To finish, the sombre Roedelius-esque ‘The Good Shadow’ hangs tenderly in a far-off firmament. Foxx’s voice is fading, merging with the white background. “I’ll always be with you” he reassures, retreating into the great beyond, “every day / every day”. You can bet it’ll be an emotional experience for the long-time fans. Somewhat comfortingly, somewhat tragically and in a super-chic acceptance of self, Foxx promises himself to the shadows, where he will drift the sacred geometry of the city, of all cities, for all time, as was always his ‘destination’. Time is a modern concern after all, and age is only a state of mind. A decade of copyists – from La Roux to Led Er Est wiped off the map: they should very well bow and curtsy at the feet of the man.

Nearly every year the 58-year old finds time between lectures to upload another vessel from his ever-flaring mind, so doubtlessly this won’t be the last we hear of John Foxx, but Interplay is such a perfect summation of his career that a more poetic and poignant full stop to his grand adventure would be very hard to imagine. John Calvert

Zwishchenwelt: Paranormal Activitat
May 8, 2011, 12:11 am
Filed under: Album Reviews, Recommended Albums, The Quietus

Released on Richard D James’s Rephlex imprint, Zwishchenwelt (German for ‘the inbetween world’) is an international project helmed by surviving member of the legendary Drexcyia, Gerald Donald. As an undying exponent of 1st-wave Detroit techno, typically of Donald Paranormale Aktivitat is deserted, coldly mechanical and devolved sounding. He fills gaseous environs with the sound of contracting metal and retro Roland effects that spit battering acid and blue sparks onto the tense, prowling beats. It gives the impression of a hissing, grinding machine, moving scorpion-like through the snowy forests of his now native Germany. If not for the Siren-esque vocals preserving a very frail sense of the human, its sparse ambient workings would stall in the freeze, suffocating the fascinating sci-fi story at its core: a future-occult mystery where every night a blood red sun sets on the ghosts of Russian sailors, and the glare burns cataract-riddled eyes through the interstices of venetian blinds.

Based around an extremely sinister field of pseudo-scientific research known as parapsychology, the “frontier science of the mind” according to the bods, Paranormale Activitat presents a series of cinematic moodscapes channelling ideas of precognition, thought transference, mind-to-mind interrogation and various other face-whitening practices which alas are the stuff of complete fiction. Like much of Donald’s music it’s shot through with the corroded, rusting esthesis of peak-era Detroit c. 1985, which as a truly gifted audile he conjures with almost claustrophobic verisimilitude, evoking that certain ‘something in the water’ that pervaded the year. With Reagan’s all-conquering reinstatement and the “Star Wars” initiative threatening to destabilize the MAD treaty, that certain something could be summarized as fear – measuring way off the Geiger scale in the year Alan Moore began work on Watchmen. In 1981 USA defence spending was at 178 billion dollars. By 1986, it was 367 billion

By combining the two elements within such futuristic currents, the powerfully transportive Paranormale Aktivitat works like some type of alternative history of cold war espionage; a ‘second reality’ (track 11) where militarized psychokinesis is real and the almighty minds of nuero-gods clash along the Iron Curtain, their retaliations echoing back and forth like tracer fire in the lonely night air above alien Russian architecture. Methodically and meditatively elicited by a patient producer in Donald, it’s a world you could get lost in, where psychic spies hunt KGB agents for state secrets, eliminating moustached spooks through flaking plasterboard with vein-bursting, orgasmic focus. As the album continues, all kinds of shadowy figures and dangerous scenarios come to the fore amidst the throbbing, sulphuric conditions. On ‘Materialization’, in the grips of Capgras psychosis British double-agents chase mirrors and slamming doors in the deserted corridors of labyrinthine Moscowian hotels. On ‘Enigmata’ unremarkable-seeming moles relieve dim-witted sentries of their door keys, and on ‘Remote Viewer’ we watch behind a two-way mirror as bureaucratic overlords fall at the mercy of red-lipped femme fatales, who move like cigarette smoke around your body before escaping through the bowels of crumbling European cities on ‘Telemetric’. It’s a suspenseful, hypnotic invocation of your footsteps-in-the-alleyway and bugged light-fixings stuff, radiating intrigue and smoking gun dread. If you turn the lights out you can almost feel a pistol in your hand, and a silencer in the other.

“Vina” is one such super-powerful enchantress appearing on ‘Telekenisis’, whose “pleasure is high / [and] her focus key”. “She can brand you with her iron mind” Beta Evers intones, in an icy germanic accent “Good luck Vina / She makes hearts stop beating”. In sharp relief with the metallic backdrop, Ever’s luring, breathy dispassion creates a clever juxtaposition, forging a connection between the fear of Red indoctrination – symbolically a penetration of the mind – and penetration of the sexual kind.; a reoccurring motif in the tradition of late-Cold War horror.

It seems fitting that Paranormale Aktivitat was build from invisible lines of code, transmitting virtually around cosmopolitan Europe. Constructing Paranormale in increments, New York DJ/producer Susana Correia, Spanish producer Penelope Martin and vocalist Evers emailed parts to and fro with Donald until everything tessellated. They’ve composed a sleekly finessed album in physical isolation from one another, tangibly heightening the atmosphere of disassociation and paranoid silences.

Thematically, the obvious reference point is Scanners, buts it’s the sights and sounds of Ken Russell sci-fi horror Altered States most keenly felt on Paranormale Aktivitat, especially at its most cosmic on ‘Cryptic Dimension’ and ‘Apparition’. Referenced by a host of industrial and grindcore bands including Godflesh, Ministry and Agrophobic Nosebleed, the film is based on John C. Lilly’s sensory deprivation research conducted in isolation tanks under the influence of psychoactive drugs like Ketamine and LSD. Like Russell’s cult classic, Paranormal Aktivitat is hyper-vivid but flooded with the nagging suggestion that the dream, whether you like it or not, is real. Scanner’s tagline read: “Welcome To The Outer Reaches of Future Shock”, which for Gerald Donald is merely a good place to start. John Calvert

The Streets: Computer & Blues

You’ll have to meet us halfway on this, but Mike Skinner’s swansong plays like a cracking old wake – Skinner’s of course. Convenient, eh? Naturally, we’re talking about the Bostonian family saga, pitchers-to-the-heavens, Motown-finale type, not your… well… funereal wake, with the cucumber sandwiches, the concerted frowning, the ‘somebody please say something… anything’. There’ll be the quiet moments of reflection (‘We Can Never Be Friends’); teary smiles (‘Roof Of You Car’, ‘OMG’); a little boozy dancing (‘Without You’, ‘Trust Me’); some of Dad’s air guitar (‘Going Through Hell’); surprising revelations (‘Outside Inside’); the odd unwelcome appearance (‘Those That Don’t Know’) and after brushing over the mad Howard Hughes years at the end – a solemn toast goodbye, in the shape of ‘Lock the Locks’. Most of all there’ll be the glad memories of your best times together, when the man was in his prime. The self-produced Computers And Blues is such a surefooted return to the Skinner’s glory days that you wonder what he’s been at since A Grand Don’t Come For Free. Storing his wee in jars, probably.

He lost his way in quite spectacular fashion on the shrill, cloying A Hard Way (two words: Pranging Out). While Everything is Borrowed regained some of that lost ground, it was a second consecutive album of cheap and flimsy build. The songwriting was sedentary and the barebones production both uninspired and half-hearted. Vindicating his worst critics, Skinner had become a caricature of the people he was smart enough to satirize, or worse – a tuneless novelty act of sorts, more Danny Dyer than Ian Dury. It was a confounding undoing of the man who introduced grand narratives, character arcs, and even some intertextuality to dance music, as best seen on the immensely fertile AGDCFF, arguably the greatest British concept album the pop charts could entertain since the 70s.

Computers, by comparison, shines. Despite the moody artwork and the title – vaguely suggestive of some type of techno alienation – it’s a hopeful album, golden and thankful (accounting for Skinner’s anxious introspection, that is) For the most part he stays commendably loyal to the organizing theme, occasionally sprinkling electronic nods to ones-and-zeroes and digi disorientation, evoking a kind of hip hop The Sophtware Slump and espousing the man-machine schtick without the usual embarrassing results. Ultimately, though, the concept is a Mcguffin. Computers is about Skinner’s future, which over the course of the album he resolves is going to be just fine, diamond, and so on.

With its immeasurably more intricate, substantial production, such as on ‘Computers And Blue’ it’s as if Skinner is finally ready to make an effort again, for old times sake; one for the road. He restores intensity to his sound with ‘Outside Inside’, and in dynamic, dramatic ebb and flow with his ruminations he incorporates a host of both narrative and abstract vocal cuts – mostly female. Pulse-quickening boosts of energy, they add big splodges of colour and dimension to ‘A Hard Way’’s rudimentary matrix and Cohen-esque air of one-man-and-his-troubles. There’s also, finally, some bass – sultry and satisfying on ‘Outside Inside’ and the brief ‘ABC’, re-injecting a bit of urban London into the equation. After plinky dreck like ‘Never Went to Church’, which was as if Peter Andre burst a slimy peck and out popped Gary Lightfoot, this is all extremely refreshing. Perhaps the nadir of his career, it was a firm example of Skinner’s weakness for grandiose aspirational moments getting the better of him, or to be cynical about it: his attempt at contriving another ‘Dry You Eyes’. The ‘meaningful’ bits can and do work (the “picking up to run” outro on ‘Empty Cans’ is a genuine lip-wobbler) but up until Computers the outcome was all-too-often inane, cod-profound melodrama. ‘Blip On A Screen’ and the acoustic ‘We Will Can Never Be Friends’ avoid the same fate by a hair’s length, but remain the weak moments here.

That said, it’s the passionate, euphoric songs that elevate the album – easy and bushy-tailed crowd-pleasers like the feel-good ‘Without Thinking’. The most addictive home-made chart-filler since Jamie T’s ‘Sticks And Stones’, it rivals any of his best singles, while ‘OMG’ ignites into the kind of sugared femme-garage Jaimeson and Sweet Female Attitude made in the early Noughties. Another corker, ‘Trust Me’ applies a gladdened Philly soul-disco backdrop to a brisk insight into a day in the life of Skinner: the homebound stoner. ‘Soldiers’ is either about poverty or metaphorically Skinner’s meditation on the Afghanistan conflict, which sounds about as advisable as Richard Bacon at a holocaust conference, but it’s another genuinely moving outing. Aged by Procol Harum-style Hammond organ, the bliss-infused ‘Roof Of Your Car’ has Mike stargazing in hot summer pastures. Skinner’s fame and riches excepting, it smacks of the type of scenario that crops up Ken Loach dramas like Sweet Sixteen or Spike Lee’s Clockers, in which an alert working-class figure in the Mark Renton vein adjourns to the countryside for a taste of life outside the urban prison. A clutch of deluxe Skinner-pop, these tracks serve to remind you that, firstly, that he can write a tune, but more acutely of how utterly likeable he is. Owning any kind of personality in pop is rare, but a wholly genuine, endearingly flawed charisma is precious, and he will be missed in quite the same way Jarvis Cocker was during is post-Pulp Parisian exile.

There’s nothing of the unassuming genius that informed ‘Blinded By The Lights’ and the epochal ‘Weak Become Heroes’, but Computers And Blues pips even AGDCF for tunes. Right down to ‘Puzzled By People’, beginning aptly with a sampled “Love Is The Answer!”, it’s an extremely listenable parting gift. His last salute before passing the baton to anthem-maker Example, ‘Lock The Locks’ begins with elegiac horns. Explaining his decision to depart the airwaves, Skinner confesses with slight contrition that “Even though it looked random, my heart had left / I was just going in tandem”. Computers And Blues is a fitting end to any act’s career; life-affirming, triumphant, reconciling and best of all a novel turn from Mike Skinner: a genuine British original; supremo purveyor of “dancing music to drink tea to’. So, let’s put on our classics and have a little dance, shall we? John Calvert

Wire: Red Barked Tree

Despite fear-mongering from the messageboard Taliban, and some irate letter-writing from pearl-clutching oldies, Red Barked Tree is a Wire album, through and through. Amongst the primary colours and even numbers still resides that perennially cunning unit.

It’s ironic that in 1977 the punk conservatives denounced their subversive archness as apathy or vacuity, and today in another guise – stylistic departures like the philosophical ‘Adapt’, the folk-rocking title track, and ‘Bad Worn Thing’ – it’s perceived as compliance, meekness and ordinariness. Red Barked Tree‘s critics are put-off by a perceived air of mid-life conciliation, or disgruntled that post-punk’s very sharpest of postmodernists would stoop to such creaseless co-option. They deal here in decorous guitar-band regularities, emotion, and literal concerns – unabashedly direct and bouncily zealous. And in terms of form, hardly a crumb of cheeky conceptualism is mustered between 11 tracks: it’s all reason and logic.

It’s useful to remember, though, that however astringent the band got on Pink Flag, or dark as 154, the blowhard guttersnipe punks always sounded histrionic and bloated next to Wire’s kittenish response to the movement, and what they saw as the endless possibilities it proposed for the future of art. As has always been the case, it’s a joy in the creative process that defines the Londoners, a larksome quality appearing here in a far easier, more naked incarnation. The very same sense of ‘play’ that informed their debut is buried, somewhere, on lairy efforts like ‘A Flat Tent’ and mod-rocker ‘Now Was’; an essentially good-natured and unpretentious approach once adopted by their greatest admirers, Minutemen. Red Barked Tree reclaims the essence of their best work – the irreverence, the serene self-assuredness and the melody, but it’s their lesser recognized attribute – a gamely grace – that eclipses all else here.

Sounding wholly refreshed and with big mouths intact, the trio have pulled together a freestanding, populist record with such winning flair it’s hard to imagine a young British guitar band performing with as much class, purpose, or presence. By turns brash (‘Smash’), and cutely curt (‘Two Minutes’), Red Barked Tree finds Wire liberated, fitted for their glad-rags, throwing caution to the wind and almost intoxicated, at times to the point of senselessness. In the process sacrificing a little of the mystery of Send and the evidently transitional Object 47, the soiled new wave of hate-letter ‘Please Take’ (a sequel to ‘One Of Us’) and vitreous pop like ‘Bad Worn Thing’ take Wire further than ever before from the ‘neurasthenic’ anti-punk of yesteryear.

That said, the gently grooving rhythms, the sing-along choruses and the excited chord changes find their footholds in the calibrated constriction of ‘classic’ Wire; namely some crisp dynamics, punchy playing and the repetition – protracted to the point of concussing the listener on the surging ‘Moreover’. And while the majority of the tracks are full-bodied and forceful, and often frothy with fuzz and friction, they are carried by sparsely efficient drumming, which when pitted against the low bass region gives rise to an anxious undertow. Naturally, as products of the post-punk generation their songs are full of contradictions: simultaneously friendly and unfamiliar; arithmetical but rolling; and rabble-rousing but vaguely neutral. The overall outcome is a sound much like a summer cold – woebegone and chilled but caressed with ripples of tingly heat, valanced by Newman’s nacreous rhythm guitar that twirls though the wet, refined production beautifying everything it touches.

One of the many proverbial life-isms that litter Red Barked Tree, on ‘Adapt’ Newman exhorts: “Go east / Go north / Go south / Go west / Leave mouths open / With your best / Adapt to change / Stay unimpressed”. Amongst other readings, it’s likely lyricist Graham Lewis is reflecting here, smiling back on three decades of tampering, deconstruction, and the rearranging of the weights and measures of music. More so it’s perfectly encapsulating of a joie de vivre only now have they got around to basing an album on. John Calvert

Gatekeeper: Giza
May 7, 2011, 10:09 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews, Recommended Albums, The Quietus

After a hard day of yakking up stomach lining and wanking for Richard Kern on a marble panther, Milo Cordell – CEO of Merok Records – likes nothing better than a bit of scouting, occasionally throwing up a next-season buzz act to get excited about. Hunting dangerous new prospects like a brow-mopping chickenhawk, at last count the label co-distribute more than a daylight-intolerant reprobate or two, not least the black-veined Comanechi, dragging their rabid grunge set around the capital by the hair, and Salem, who crack-sick and mumbling have scarified the musical landscape last year with King Night’s goth pleasure-dome. At the fainter end of the label is New York’s Blondes and Teengirl Fantasy, whose tactile memory music is time-slowing, a far off kick-drum orientating the listener around a kind off REM-disco, with subliminal prog-house drifting from across a lake.

Hailing from (tellingly) both Chicago and Brooklyn, Merok’s newest prize-fighter falls somewhere equidistant to several of the imprint’s most lauded groups. Chosen from the loose assortment of horror-phile dance acts orbiting Kompact’s Fright Label, Gatekeeper and their like-minded cohorts have received huge support for their sound, dubbed ‘surrealist ebm’ by influential blog 20JFG. They’re an obvious candidate for the Merok treatment, really, given Giza’s purgatorial setting, the swarming interference and the memory recall (those dialogue samples are gleaned from YouTube – glo-fi’s official zoetrope). On their waxy 12″ EP, the abiding inspiration was Carpenter-style yearbook horror – a sterile menace signifying white Porsches and clean blades, absent parents and deserted locker rooms. This follow-up to ‘Optimus Maximus’ expands their sound into more exotic pastures, taking much the same direction as (again Merok’s) Crystal Castles did for their second effort; a more coloured, liquid and substantive album.

The most all-out danceable track they’ve hitherto come up with, ‘Chains’ begins the record with a kick-starting motorcycle. As the burly mule races into the distance a jump-scare primer triggers the type of cyclonic modulation perfect for road-battles and low-camera speeds. Reminiscent too of Brad Friedel’s ‘Tunnel Chase’ for the Terminator OST, the tarantula-like pattern shuts down on a freezing motif.

Piloted by a lead-line Soulja Boy could get with, ‘Storm Column’ rides along on a synthetic male choir – with a little more black magic pollution you’d have a euro-stern Salem doing foundational techno. ‘Mirage’ meanwhile applies a detuned acid bassline to compressed gongs, pan-flutes and droning monks, lending an air of exotic adventure to proceedings, while ‘Giza’ borrows ‘Final Search’ from Friday The 13th and sees the duo at their most Jack-O-Lantern; shunting the listener around on a rickety ghost train with stock howls, shrieks and lightning strikes drop in random fashion. The mini-album comes to a close with ‘Mirage’ and ‘Oracle’; a couple of hard laps around the “CG hell-scape” as they are calling it, resuming again with the caustic arpeggios and stone-breaking beats. Their ability to make hooks and devices from movie effects whilst keeping it functioning as dance music takes real panache.

Although gift-wrapped in high-end production, Giza is also brilliantly period-precise; replete with dodgy imitative synths, digital emulators, imperfect programming and tacky presets. That you can almost hear the mouse clicking on the over-pitched effects is entirely intentional. It’s in perfect synchronicity with their video-collaborations with the Thunderhorse FX house and the collective’s retro-fetish for early-Nineties 3D animation (their homepage also boasts a playable demo of Doom), and the duo are releasing the promos on VHS tape.

Set within a tangible virtual space, both unreal and noxious, the impossible architecture of H-pop’s Rorschach-ian processes zigzag up the walls, all but undetectable within the fog. The songs are chock-full of vaguely familiar references, the gated tom rolls are particularly evocative (tip-of-your-tongue, finger-clicking familiar – either Near Dark or The Running Man? Help me out). Pressing any number of sub-conscious buttons, Giza‘s bells and alarm fall so far below the threshold of control or understanding the effect is almost frightening, or supernatural in this case. Chiller-wave, anyone? John Calvert

Teeth Of The Sea – Your Mercury
May 7, 2011, 9:49 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews, Recommended Albums, The Quietus

Oh sure, it must be pretty sweet in dreamy old Orange State, San Francisco. I mean, we go on holiday for that kind of weather. It’s only natural then that Cali psyche-rockers need only drop a particularly tart pear-drop before they’re suckling god-milk from the teats of unicorns. Over here though, humping a Redwood all the way to Venus is a little more difficult to put your faith in. Without the Harley’s, the unpopular wars, or the dry firewood, the hippy ideal has never translated accurately in the grimy confines of soot and cement Britain. Punk though, that was much more Blighty; all crap and botheration.

So forget river-swimming on mescaline, Your Mercury isn’t psychedelic, its psychological – the trip never feels chemical. In fact, Teeth Of The Sea’s epileptic, infinite and disturbance-vexed second album sooner calls to mind the altered states of mental ill-heath – psychotic delusions transporting the lifers to self-constructed worlds; touched, tasted and played in from inside a locked room. What use is a clear night sky for stargazing when amber light pollution is amplifying the voices in your head?

Potent and full-blooded next to their debut’s amorphous, blurry post-rock, Your Mercury crafts a distinctive alloy of transcendental juju and Noise’s junk art sensibility, toughened with marauding sci-fi Brit-prog, and occasionally blessed by minimalist ambience in the 80s post-Cluster vein. Most importantly, a nameless sentience pervades, which – to swipe K-punk’s theory of the ‘anamorph’- is something you can only see if you’re looking askance. This is a crucial factor in separating London’s neo-pscyhe cognoscenti from your vintage weed-and-lasers binman prog. “Its caught on, the ghosts are swarming” Mark Fisher declared this year, and swarm they do on the always compelling, enormously impressive Your Mercury.

It’s an album of transmissions and crackling emanations – mayday signals ghosting from a London swallowed by a magnetised groundswell. Kicking off the heavier front-end, auspicious primer ‘Ambassador’ begins with an axel- grinding hit of noise, precipitating two overdriven, regenerating bass notes that sit in your stomach like an old iron rudder. Motes of digital language, foamy detritus and pitch-bent screams flare up atop the stentorian trudge, with blue streaks of crazy-horse guitar flailing alongside. As we pass through the eye of the storm, diced horns reform from some skulking trip-hop track, quivering dizzily before a final gust scatters them into a twinkling starburst.

Complete with a syncopated house beat and creepy Dr Who effects, ‘Cementery Magus’ keeps the pressure on, before the sound of tweeting birds segues into ‘Your Mercury’ with its Goblin-cribbing intro. A liturgical, noirish leviathan, it builds with a solemn trumpet and tribal toms before striking with all the might and majesty of a Gothenburgian cathedral organ.

On ‘Midas Rex’, out of a palpitating bruise emerges the kind of atomising light sculpture characteristic to the Mego label sound. As quickly as it takes for the arpeggio’d synths to become discomfiting, it retreats under what sounds like breathing, and also a brush stroking hard across a canvas. Eno’s opaque but emotive melody-poems are invoked on ‘Mothlike’. Though it lasts no longer than twenty seconds, a solitary loom of melody betrays the big heart Teeth Of The Sea obscure behind that prankster image.

The track serves as perfect sedation for falling into ‘Red Soil’, which for its opening four minutes repeats the first two lines from Harry Dean Stanton’s monologue in Paris, Texas: “I knew these people / these two people”. Over tremulous strands of guitar, another man replies to the recording with either “I knew these people” or “these two people”, generating a peculiar rhythm and ratcheting up the suspense. They crown just above the clouds in heralds of screaming virgins, before a murderous finale of heavy playing, marshy bass and reckless drums evokes swooping valkyries and monstrous artillery. We’re back in nightmare territory again on ‘Horses with Hands’, and if the tap-tap of rim-hits and the sickening keyboard notes don’t get under your skin, then the rupturing bass drops and snippets of gagged weeping will. They finish with ‘Hovis Coil’ which is a disappointingly cliched slice of post-rock but ends in brilliant fashion – a surge and then STOP. Radio silence. We’ve lost signal. John Calvert