Odd Future: Youth and Young Manhood
May 7, 2011, 11:12 pm
Filed under: Features, The Quietus

words_John Calvert

“This connection to rough or coarse behaviour also ties in to modern psychology. In psychological terms, you might think of a person’s struggle with lycanthropy as a struggle to come to terms with – or get rid of – his more primitive nature. When a man becomes a werewolf, his primal instincts, which aren’t necessarily considered to be appropriate, take over.”

Tracy V Wilson, ‘How Things Work’.

Both strange and frightening are the wolf gang.

By around the age of 30 the future begins to look odd, and the next generation even more so. Sometimes it takes a baby-faced, 17 year-old borderline sociopath in a hair salon to tell you your number’s up. Or seven more just like him; a skating band of child demons from Crenshaw, Los Angeles, who right now are the most exciting hip hop act on the planet.

Taking to the LA streets on a cocktail of pills, powders, cough syrup and weed, Earl Sweatshirt and the wolf gang run riot on the video for ‘Earl’. They stack on their ollies, collapse on the pavement, scream, bare torn gums, scrap, and play games with fake blood. They simulate pulling out their hair, teeth, and on one occasion a fingernail, eventually lying on top of each other in a mass heap of overdosed corpses. Both alien and alienating, the promo coveys a world faster, harsher and more dangerously alive than the average pace and weak clarity of normal adult living. It screams ‘We’re next, here’s the door’. Every generation wants to be the last, as Chuck Palahniuk writes. To watch these post-everything, for-nothing teens go at the world, it occurs they might just see the job through.

Fucked for innocence, flush for drugs, “Black Ted Bundy[s]/Sick as John Gacey” (Vince Staples), here lies the homophobic, religion-hating, woman-hating Odd Future. Theirs is a kind of shockcore grand guignol; Droog-rap founded on stubborn, off-sync beats and deformed, bug powder production – elephantine, electric and coursing with ‘all the dread magnificence of perversity’. Imagine if Butthole Surfers hallucinated a purple Jaberwocky with the head of Eminem and the third-eye of any number of trailblazers; Flying Lotus, Madvillain, RZA, Liars, John Coltrane, DJ Screw, PiL, Boards Of Canada – all are ripe for a ‘swagging’.

Sure to inspire universal condemnation is their penchant for a truly reprehensible subject matter. On nearly every cut, and with obsessive zeal, they rap about rape; the fantasies gratuitously detailed, sickening yet sometimes nihilistically comic. It’s indefensible and chillingly inexplicable, and inevitably the hand-wringing will arrive in a torrent. The air of amorality is overwhelming, the pay off quips wince-inducing at best (“It’s not rape if you like it bitch”) but the thrills are endless – if very, very guilty. But, when it comes to living art through your favourite artists, to coin a phrase: ‘Would you rather be a snake or a poisonous snake?’ Odd Future? They’d rather be wolves. Either way, evil always wins, so ‘dominate yourself’ as Pissed Jeans would prescribe. “I’m bad milk” says founder Tyler, the Creator “…drink it”.

In the growing number of interviews with Odd Future they make sure to pour scorn on nearly everyone except their beloved Waka Flocka Flame, taking aim at the Backpackers, black pop, LA’s homegrown ‘Jerk Rap’ craze, gangsta screwfacery, hip hop bloggers and hipsters (“Ain’t no hipster mista/Fuck you in your yellow skinnies”). As Simon Reynolds has pointed out, there’s a likeness to Big Black, who also enjoyed baiting the right-on liberals with repellent content, disregarding the right-wingers as soft targets. Odd Future, however, have a quite different (arguably more deserving) quarry in the faux-hemiam millennial hipster. Their condescension of hip hop culture, evinced by the likes of Spank Rock or The Cool Kids and dating back to Weezer, deserves a response like the Odd Future phenomenon, which in its extremeness defies clever-clever parody. Despite Tyler’s best efforts, though, they will subscribe by the busload, instigating a sort of cultural gentrification. It’ll be interesting to see how far this coterie of cool-hunters and cultural nomads will go before ironic detachment begins to look like tacit approval, when Earl Sweatshirt is writing lines like this:

“Hurry up I’ve got nuts to bust and butts to nut/And sluts to fucking uppercut. It’s OF, buttercup/Go ahead, fuck with us/Without a doubt a surefire way to get your mother fucked/Ask her for a couple bucks, shove a trumpet up her butt/Play a song, invade her thong/My dick is having guts for lunch/…As well as supper, then I’ll rummage through a ruptured cunt.” [‘Earl’]

Spitting bullets from under his salon hairdryer on the accompanying video, adoring concubine fawning to his left (look again and it’s a disembodied mannequin’s head) Earl Sweatshirt is ready to think you out of existence. He is to Odd Future what Jay Adams was to the Zephyr team – the youngest, the most blazingly talented and possessed of god-given flare. He’s also by some margin the most sinister, playing off Tyler’s bludgeoning production with casual, pustular scabrousness. It’s fun to imagine quite how the fat-backed top-earners will approach guest rapping and collaboration with Odd Future, after the teens inevitably go global. In their current form it’s difficult to see where a Jay Z or Kayne West figure would fit. Even Dr Dre would seem out of his depth in the brave new world of OF. Whoever it is that steps up, the chances are their star will be subordinated to Tyler’s uncompromising vision, while the wolves close in from all around. Maybe Miley Cyrus is interested?

As well as acidly iconoclastic, the collective are hyper-creative. Of a total of 250 tracks available on Tumblr, around 150 are sensational, especially that of the sub-2 minute efforts – dislocated, coarsely effective offensives, super-charged by a ‘try anything’ love of experimentation attributable to their tender ages. They design their own art work, which ranges from the innocuous, to obscene porn shots, bloody-nosed babies and cracked-mirror images of little girls. The fissures are reminiscent of scars from extensive brain surgery, or the blurred vision which results from prolonged exposure to their tumour-activating beats.

So, how to make sense of Odd Future? Post-YouTube teen cynics with little left to discover at an early age, they bear the scars of an anomie endemic to a generation of hyper-connected childhoods. Which, from the evidence of OF’s music, makes those 90s-born kids pretty combustible. It’s almost like ‘idle hands’ syndrome, which incidentally is the very same theory served up by baffled sociologists to explain the monstrous acts described by Odd Future.

Beneath the horror stories, though, you can detect the cold facetiousness peculiar to middle-class American kids – a trait perhaps less prevalent amongst their underprivileged peers, whom prematurely burdened with adult responsibilities live the trials of hardship through ‘4real’ hip hop, rallying behind talk of overcoming adversity and ‘thug life’ authenticity. When asked by Syffal what he wants to promote, Tyler’s answer was simply “hate” (and his act). In the Southern rap tradition they’ve exchanged reality for the beyond; regional identity, oppression and the acquisition of wealth for Ritilan and Jeffrey Dahmer. There’s little talk of smooth sexual prowess and Lamborghinis. There’s no objective to speak of at all, in fact, or anything approaching legitimate disaffection. Only a cruel contempt for generally every human being they’ve encountered in life or online – part and parcel, you feel, of the inured, hard-edged disposition native to big city adolescence.

It might be argued they’re just a bunch of teenagers playing at a effectively meaningless type of hooligan art. But that would be remiss of how anciently primal Odd Future sound. The more you listen, the more Tyler grows in stature, and the longer his shadow, the evanescent wickedness of young masculinity arousing before finally raging. It’s the type of senseless black culture bomb that would have Alex Haley turning in the grave Odd Future are about to dig up. Whether the product of advanced desensitisation or the modern disease’s final disaster (“Plenty of us are bastards. Most of us.” Hodgy Beats told the New York Times), what argument can there really be against the zeitgeist? Either way they’ve touched a nerve this last year – a naked lunch served cold to the establishment and the hop-hop royalty in equal helpings.

Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All are Tyler, the Creator (aka Ace, evil alter ego Wolf Haley, The Creator), screwed down dranker Mike G, the blunted-out Domo Genesis, star-in-the-making Earl Sweatshirt, Hodgy Beats and Left Brain (whom together are Mellowhype), singer Frank Ocean, The Super 3 aka The Jet Age of Tomorrow and producer Syd. Each party have released solo albums, available free on Tumblr (eleven between them in the last year including the covers heavy Radical and the original self-titled mix-tape). An even greater mystery than the whereabouts of Earl Sweatshirt (missing, presumed grounded) is the last name on the list – a silhouetted figure rumoured to take the form of a female. All but uncredited on the site but glimpsed on the periphery of their videos, she plays an unspecified but reportedly despotic role in production. In a recent interview Mike G described ‘Syd the Kid’ as “the brains of this shit.”

Currently trending on Twitter and set to debride contemporary hip hop in the next year and all years, here’s eleven of Odd Future’s best. Enjoy your immolation, let it hurt… the future often does.

1. Tyler, The Creator (featuring Hodgy Beats) – ‘French’

Less of a promo and more of an uprising, the spectre of Larry Clarke looms large on ‘French’, as the kids, basking in moral misery, partake in a kaleidoscope of abject skulduggery. At only one minute and 44 seconds long ‘French’ remains one of the great lifestyle introductions in video history, rubbing shoulders with the likes of ‘Nothin’ But A G Thang’ and ‘Lap Dancer’. When Tyler explodes onto screen you get the creeping sensation you’re watching history in the making. One of the best ‘What the fuck was that?!’ moments in recent memory.

The “Oh No, Mister Stokes” line is in reference to Chris Stokes, the music producer alleged to have molested Raz B and other members of R&B boyband B2K (of ‘Bump Bump Bump’ fame) when under his stewardship. Mocking your revulsion, Tyler simply turns his eyeballs backwards into a rather disturbed noggin.

2. Earl Sweatshirt – ‘Earl’

Produced by Tyler and Left Brain, the second track from the prodigy’s 2010 album requires a strong stomach, even for the most hardened of death metal lyricists. For all his puerility, though, the school-age rapper weaves phonetic pyrotechnics into his producers’ bellowing, toneless overdrives. A speaker-busting tour-de-force.

3. Mellowhype – ‘Gram’

From their impossibly strong BlackenedWhite collaboration, on ‘Gram’ Hodgy Beats and Left Brain feed their brand of stoner-funk macabre through a fitting Wurlitzer with the batteries dying. The discombobulated cycle of snares, kicks, and a pitched-down dog sample represents the avant garde side of Odd Future; more Flylo than Eminem.

4. Tyler, The Creator – ‘Splatter’

Reams of nightmarish imagery, Tyler at his most venomous and fat beams of Cronenburg-ian horror synths churning in the background like Wendy Carlos unconscious on her Moog – it doesn’t get any more squeamish than ‘Splatter’. “Someone tell Satan I want my swag back” Tyler growls before bringing matters to a merciful close with a leering ‘Abracadabraaaaaaaaaa”. If you can’t be good, as the old adage goes, at least be good at it. Thrilling stuff.

5. Domo Genesis – ‘Kickin’ It’

More studio trickery from Left Brain (with Tyler in tow). Domo Genesis’ heavy-eyelids flow dovetails perfectly with the production on ‘Kick It’ (christened ‘dystopian weed rap’ by The Fader), reminiscent of Outkast’s ‘She Lives In My Lap’ and co-produced by the besuited dwarf from Twin Peaks. Genesis has been been likened to both Curren$y and up-and-comer Wiz Khalifa, whose forthcoming album is also titled Rolling Papers, sparking accusations of plagiarism from Tyler on Twitter. The situation was quickly resolved, however, after Khalifa sampled Alice Deejay’s ‘Better Off Alone’ for chart-bound ‘Say Yeah’, prompting widespread laughter and some pointing.

6. Tyler, The Creator – ‘Oblivion’

From the Radical album, here the self confessed “depressed emo faggot” chokes up something altogether unique. A throwaway, two-and-a-half-minute descent into loathing and overt self-loathing, ‘Oblivion’ is driven by an relentless beat, turning the screws rightly. Part sadomasochistic atonement, part primal reverie – after the bizarre and distressing opening skit, Tyler proceeds to reverb his voice into nothingness (or ‘oblivion’), yet continues with a desultory stream-of-consciousness rap.

Most unnerving is his voice, which appears somehow different – gruffer and more intense. In other words, he sounds possessed. Stranger still, all his talk of conquering white meat, taking white drugs, murdering his manager with an iron, and his unexplained declaration “I’m just a white boy with no remorse” concludes with “I just need someone to talk to”. Extremely creepy. And they say Kayne West is conflicted. With Hodgy Beats in tow, the teetotal, fiercely atheist 19-year-old made his national television debut on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon this February the 16th past, performing his new single ‘Sandwitches’. As was predicted the notorious green balaclava received an airing.

7. Earl Sweatshirt (featuring Vince Staples) – ‘Epar’

Runner-up for best cut on Earl, ‘Epar’ contains the very best line from any Odd Future track hitherto – the much-quoted “You’re Fantasia and the body bag’s a fucking book”. By way of explanation, the lyric comes after Earl spots the remains of Vince Staples’ latest kill, stashed where he hides the “marijuana in the condom”. Staples warns him “Don’t touch it, or even look/You’re Fantasia and the body bag’s a fucking book”; the former X-factor winner is reportedly illiterate. M.I.A since July and due to miss Coachella in April, it remains unsure if and when Sweatshirt will turn up, but a ‘Free Earl’ t-shirt will shortly be available on the Odd Future site. And in case you didn’t twig, ‘Epar’ is rape spelt backwards.

8. Tyler The Creator – ‘Yonkers’

More abandonment angst, more schizophrenia, more vomiting. Released by XL Records who signed the teen on Valentine’s day, ‘Yonkers’ is the first single from Tyler’s imminent LP Goblin. Amassing 100,000 views per day since its unveiling, the accompanying video is written and directed by the teenager, a young man not yet old enough to know the meaning of compromise. With the cockroach and the telepathic (or ‘intra-diegetic’) rapping there’s a tang of William S Burroughs about it, while the spry arrangement fits perfectly with the verité touches and clean monochrome. Winner of best line goes to “Swallow the cinnamon” or the ‘sin-of-men’.

9. Mellowhype – ‘Dead Deputy’

Another inspired cut from BlackenedWhite, the exhilirating crunk lite of ‘Dead Deputy’ showcases Hodgy’s rapping and Left Brain’s signature production style. Incorporating singing and melody, the LP is comparatively leavening, but grimy enough to accommodate the dark influence of Tyler on two tracks. Left Brain energises the verbose rhymes and crunk-holler “Kill ‘Em All, Kill Em All” with a technical sophistication lightyears beyond his age.

10. The Jet Age Of Tomorrow – Journey To The 5th Echelon

Jet Age’s spangled, retro-futurist 5th Echelon has more in common with Odd Nosdam than Insane Clown Posse. Tonally in diametric opposition to the future as predicted by their associates, but no less odd, this subtlety beautiful album of acid-fried circuits and listless grooves reveals Tyler to be a shrewd scout and Odd Future as an act with both eclectic dimension and a seemingly endless supply of talent. There’s some rape and murder on there too, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. From a 19-song giant, the highlights include ‘Want You Still’ featuring a star turn from skeezy sweetie-pie Kilo Kish, and warping candy cloud ‘Her Secrets’.

11. Tyler, The Creator – ‘Sandwitches’ (live solo performance)

The Odd Future anthem, performed last Christmas in The Roxy, LA. Setting the tone for the punkish pow-wow that ensues, it begins with the Marshall Mathers-esque line “Who invited Mr ‘I Don’t Give A Fuck’/Who cries about his daddy on a blog/Cause his music sucks’. It’s another disquietingly candid slice of self-laceration from Tyler, whose father left home when he was a baby. Factor in the menacing build-up (worsened by the stage lighting, illuminating the black hole where Tyler’s face should be), that abominable two-note motif, and the crowd’s chant of “Wolf Gang…Wolf Gang”, the cumulative effect is something akin to The 1933 Nuremberg Rally, with Christmas decorations. There he was, Mr Hitler, ablaze with consolidated power and on the crest of total domination. The similarities are uncanny.

Tyler, the Creator’s next album Goblin will be released on XL Records.


Gang Of Four: Content
May 7, 2011, 11:03 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews, Album Reviews: Noted Artists, The Quietus

This record gives you migraine. Ha, funny one. Like in the song. But it’s true – a tangible stiffening above the neck and a centimetre behind the eyes. The impulse is to crack your jaw the way people crack their knuckles. A sciatic irritant of an album – exasperating, declamatory and asininely triumphant from start to finish – Content tests your concentration and the enamel on your teeth. Stand up, sit down, hyperventilate, bite your nails, grow a moustache, burn your clothes, rent a mini-digger, take a photo of a man walking, buy a monocle, laugh outrageously until you scare yourself, learn to fence, learn origami, burn your clothes, go to church, alphabetize you cereal boxes or wear a gas mask when driving, but do anything to escape its clammy grasp and the torturous void that is total neural non-engagement. It’s shoe shopping with your mum when you’re nine, it’s watching Blockbusters with Bob in 1986, it’s Human Traffic; the extended version, it’s waiting for Neil from work to get to the point of his story, it’s a Ron Howard film, it’s Broken Social Scene Play The Hits, it’s Mad About You starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt, it’s a sigh, in a Rumbelows, in Wrexham, 27 years ago, on a wet Tuesday. Your only lucid thought when listening to Content is something like “hmmph, this is disappointing, like the way life is, and always will be, forever”.

A repulsive bit of snark there, I hear you say… and if only the once great Leeds band deserved a more measured response. But after a week of desperately trying to like Content – entertainment on a par with an emergency tracheotomy – my critical faculties are shot, reduced to random sex sounds, Cockney rhyming slang and swinging punches in a cupboard.

After grimacing like emphysemic Russians for a couple of years they’ve managed a pellet of something approaching the sound of ‘quintessential’ Gang Of Four. Once a radical new mode of dissent – a weeping laugh, dancing the h-bomb – so numerously has it been stripped for parts that any semblance of treasonous cool and incisory newness has long since perished, bleached in the fires of 2004, besmirched by the shit-flecked tendrils of lesser spirits. You’d have thought they’d have picked up on this fact. It’s possible they did, but calculated that collecting their long deserved reparations was going to take playing it safe.

Only it’s not just safe; this is a defanging. Out goes the scything atonality, the brooding stretches of space, the shadows and the tensile pulse of Thatcher-era upheaval – basically anything that made them great before Here. What you’re left with is a dead zone between funkless funk and berkish indie-rock, both rendered blithely anodyne and abrasively insipid, so very little of which sticks in the memory. 30 years past their prime they’ve returned with the same old rope, but purged of its incendiary social context, the shock of the new, and the burning intent of a group of young leftist heroes. And what do you get if you take the fish from the water? A dead trout and a very bad smell. On Content, the aesthetic has never sounded more weak and weary than in the hands of the very men who invented it.

For a record made from 99% perspiration and another 99% careful contrivance, its almost destitute of artistic prudence. The songs are flat and gross, further exacerbated by Gill’s frowsy, dim production, comparable to a senile man driving a car – heavy on the pedal, heavy of the brakes and no real destination in mind. Any remaining hope of a defining agent finding purchase in this soup is extinguished by rampant over-egging on the part of each individual member, who in the end cancel each other out with inelegant force.

The problem is there’s no dichotomy to the music any longer. They’re all moving in the same direction and getting nowhere fast. Back in the day it was often bassist Dave Allen’s job to carry both the melody and the rhythm, allowing the guitar freedom to scratch at the song in angry isolation, denaturing that beautifully stiff funk before plunging beneath the surface with your shredded nerves. On Content, Gill seems to be spread very thinly, splitting his time between sustaining the energy, adding filigree, melodizing and compensating for a lesser bassist to Allen in Thomas McNeice, while simultaneously wheezing after the inanely gallivanting drums. Most of the time he only succeeds in clogging the mix, piling on random chicken scratching and lunging hoots, fret-spanking away at King’s ridiculously poor singing. The best track ‘You’ll Never Pay For The Farm’ has Gill working against, or laterally to the thrust, imposing nuance, traction and syncopation on the stomping rhythm. However, no matter how much lip-biting and elbow grease afoot, manically so on ‘Who Am I” or the groooo-vay ‘I Party All The Time’, the songs are never anything other than lumbering.

So what’s the message beneath the din? After all, Entertainment and Solid Gold are lyrically among the most intensely analysed albums of their era. Well, who better than Gang of Four to challenge the great sensory saturation of the new millennium; pontificating here on the hysterical urge to conform driving social media, the stultifying effects of information pollution, and the erosion of the self therein; a coercion of the senses, if you will. Despite some cliched tosh like “the shoppers are asleep” and “the cameras never lie” its an early artistic interpretation of the Facebook syndrome, even if King’s genius for deeply-layered metaphor is diminished, rendering his congested discourse slightly artless. Still, a literal commentary is nearly as commendable.

Their very, very worst moments arrive when the rhythm section or Gill’s guitar mimics King’s clipped vocals (or vice versa), as on ‘Do As I Say’ and ”I’ll never Forget Your Lonely Face”. The effect is fist-gnawingly monochromatic, speaking volumes about both the combo’s emaciated touch for groove and their failing ingenuity. Take for example the ham-fisted transition two thirds through ‘Do A I Say’, or the coda to “a Fruit-fly In The Beehive” where the only way they could think of ending is just to let the air down on the tyres. It’s supposed to establish circularity, or symbolize the innate meaningless of life, or something else artsy. Really what it does is leave you twiddling your thumbs, wondering if it’s really true what they say, that you can fit a full grown stoat in a milk bottle. An open letter to all of those dinosaurs about to reform: sit down and stay down. If Gang of Four can’t manage it, what chance do you have?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

Plutonium Blondes: Apocalypse Playlist
May 7, 2011, 10:01 pm
Filed under: Features, The Quietus, Uncategorized

We’re trying to work here, and talk to girls, but all we keep thinking about is World War Three.

To get you up to speed – it’s Friday, it’s Spotify-list time, and not accounting for wind direction, almost everyone east of Marrakesh will be dead by Thursday lunchtime. The good news is – that includes Magaluf.

I’m exaggerating, of course. But every now and then, you get a feeling it’s only a matter of time. “Heaven knows what keeps mankind alive” as David Byrne sang on ‘Home’. There’s India and a smugly nuclear Pakistan at logger-heads after the Mumbai massacre; there’s American reconstruction financiers circling an unstable Iran, while Ahmadinejad enriches uranium like stirring mother’s hot jam. Then there’s Obama’s new NPT provision,which runs roughshod over accepted rules for pre-emptive nuclear war. And to cap it off, Africa is fucked and global world terrorism has increased seven-fold since the invasion of Afghanistan, and then there’s this. North Korea’s first attack on civilians in the South since 1953 certainly pushes Quietus’ doomsday clock a couple of minutes closer to midnight. We’re trying to work here, and talk to girls, but all we keep thinking about is World War Three.

If you haven’t been following the ‘Inter-Korean Crisis’, here’s how the numbers stack up so far. After definitely not torpedoing South Korean warship Cheonan in June, on Tuesday, North Korea – the world’s only officially nuclear dictatorship – raised a couple of dozen buildings on neighbouring South Korean island Yeonpyeong, killing four and injuring scores, with many fleeing the island by, uh, ferry. In response, the goodies, ha, sorry, I mean the South Koreans blew off some rounds too, dropping eighty or so shells onto significant military targets beyond the maritime border. Boys will be boys, eh? North Korean casualties remain unknown, mostly because it’s arguably the most perfectly realised Totalitarian state in history, a ‘hermit kingdom’, which means no one really knows exactly what is going on in the nation’s capital, Pyongyang.

It was all hands on deck in the ensuing hours, with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-Young squaring up with the sinister “Enormous retaliation should be made to the extent that [North Korea] cannot make provocations again”. And in a slightly more childish statement, North Korean overlord Kim Jong-Li (little guy; think Elton John in video for ‘Sacrifice’) threatened retaliation “If the South violate its sea border, even by 0.001 of a millimeter”. Ha. It’s also worth noting Fox News’ immediate response. On their segment show ‘Fox and Friends’ (sounds like a children’s talk show) a guest ‘expert’ advised the Stiffler-like anchorman (more of a wrestling commentator) that America should ‘take out’ the entire North Korean naval fleet. God bless the BBC, is all I can say.

Both countries have been eyeing each suspiciously since Tuesday, with the rest of the world calling for restraint after Seoul scrambled fighter jets, declaring a state of heightened alert. Britain chided politely, Germany and France tendered their interests and Japan deployed Samsung-owned snipers on their western coast in fear of Korean refugees approaching from the Sea of Japan. America have pledged support for South Korea (the eighth largest exporter in the world – it makes good business sense) whilst China, the primary benefactors to North Korea (handy for buffering a land war) responded with the diplomatic equivalent of “Sorry, what? Nah, missed it mate. Nice lapels, by the way. EVERYBODY RUN. SCARPER LIKE FUCK!”

Of course the North Korean threat has always loomed on the horizon of the South’s unrelenting economic growth. They even wrote a film about it, symbolised by the gun-metal coloured amphibian in Southie Blockbuster The Host. Recently however, North Korea has made a few changes in personnel, and the new management are a cause for concern. Coinciding exactly with the recent unrest, is the ascendency of Kim Jong -Il’s successor and youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, introduced to the world at last month’s ICBMs & Pringles mixer in Pyongyang. Because analysts can only speculate to the political stability of North Korea, the attacks could either be Junior’s way of getting the country’s hard-line military on board, or more worryingly the military have rejected the succession are are challenging his authority. Either way, there’s a bad moon rising, or a bad Un, if you like.

So, cannibalism has broken out in Iceland, marshal law is declared in Dublin, and Sarah Palin has another shot at the presidency in 2012. Here in Northern Ireland conveyance solicitors are washing cars on my street to make rent, our yellow ‘library express’ bus has been converted into a suicide ambulance, and I’m out of coffee. American casualties in Iraq surpass the numbered dead on 9/11 (3,500 as of this October past, though nothing compared to the 1.3 million Iraqis) and Simon Cowell is immortal. What better time, then, to put your feet up and enjoy The Quietus’ very own exit strategy, our apocalypse-themed / Inter-Korean inspired extravaganza of bad puns and bad headed pop. John Calvert

“You can’t fight in here gentlemen. This is the war room!”

L7 ‘Wargasm’
Billy Joel ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’
Can ‘Mushroom’
Future Of The Left ‘Real Men Hunt In Packs’
Delta 5 ‘Mind Your Own Business’
Bauhaus ‘Double Dare’
Salem ‘Asia’
Magazine ‘Shot By Both Sides’
Outkast ‘B.O.B.’
Burial ‘Southern Comfort’
Yoko Ono & Jason Pierce ‘Walking On Thin Ice’
Pere Ubu ’30-Seconds Over Tokyo’
The Jim Carroll Band ‘People Who Died’ Pixies ‘Wave Of Mutilation’ (UK Surf)
OMD ‘Enola Gay’
Portishead ‘Threads’
Vera Lynn ‘We’ll Meet Again’
Minutemen ‘Paranoid Chant’

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