This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Monday, November 21, 2011

The gritty lure of the dirt - Gravel Samwidge's 'Gas Girls Funeral'

Gravel.  It’s rough, it’s coarse – but it’s part of modern life and it makes the paths and roads that take us places. We might like our journey through life to be soft and downy and straightforward, but sometimes we need to take time out of life’s comforts and rub our faces in the things that lie in its guts. The bits where the edges are not smooth; the bits that get into your skin and stay there until they rub you raw.

Gravel Samwidge is a Brisbane based band that has been making music since 1989. Their original drummer died tragically while the band was on tour not long after their beginning and, since then, they have formed and reformed from time to time, producing now a kind of off-centre grunge, as on their latest album Gas Girls Funeral, where blood-stained guitars play razor sharp, atonal riffs and almost Lou Reed-esque vocals half sing and half declaim stories of sleaze and disenchantment, while raucous drums bash the music, and you, further and further into the dirt.

But it’s the off-centredness of the music that makes it so unique, that makes you so willing to let it rub its rough edges into you until you bleed. Like the way the guitar seems to waver in and out of tune on ‘Told You’; or the way you can feel the electronic wind howling through the garage in ‘Take it Seriously’; or the way guitars twist and distort themselves around wailing noise, rock solid squares getting spun inside out by the grimy, gritty stuff that crawls out from the underground.

There is always an incredible amount of stuff going on in this music so that you are never really sure if the stars you are seeing are from the psychedelic, spun-out whirlpools of sound or from the beats and riffs that pound you like a mallet.

You’ll come away from Gas Girls Funeral a little raw and sore – but you’ll go back for more because you will have learned that you can never have soft smooth roadways without the roughness and ruggedness of gravel.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

ADHD in music: John Zorn's 'The Bribe'

Brilliant music, like brilliant children, can have ADHD and can drive you spare and yet can still be awesome. It sends you running in all directions, chasing it, being chased by it, this way and that, and then, just when you think it has finally run out of puff and you’re going to have a chance to sit down and catch your breath, it runs off in a completely different direction again, and off you go, after it.

Welcome to the world of John Zorn’s The Bribe.

John Zorn has composed, performed and produced a truckload of music and it’s always, always interesting – drunkenly staggering between the boundaries of free jazz, classical avant-garde, experimental klezmer, and unmedicated madness.

The Bribe is in three parts and was created for three radio plays produced in 1986 by the New York avant-garde theatre company Marbou Mines. The music, for the most part, is in small bursts of restless, erratic energy – 26 of them, no less – over almost 80 minutes.

It utilises Zorn’s usually eclectic conglomeration of instrumental sources – in this case, Zorn’s alto sax, plus reeds, trombone, harp, guitar, piano, organ, turntables, bass and percussion.

Some tracks are less than a minute long. Most are no more than two or three. A handful are longer. But whether they’re short or longer, the music is always shifting its pace, never resting anywhere for more than a couple of seconds, one moment sauntering beside the sleaziest of New York’s street crime, the next marching alongside a carnival parade of visiting freaks.

Zorn subtitles The Bribe as ‘variations and extensions on Spillane’: Spillane itself an iconic sonic drama that John Zorn produced in 1987 in tribute to Mickey Spillane, the bad boy author of American hardboiled crime fiction.

It is that fast, fleeting world of sex and violence, of dark streets and smoky lights, where everything is in black and white, where forbidden fun and guns thrust their pelvises into one another, that world where banality is art and where nothing needs your attention for more than fifteen seconds – and thank god for that because in twenty you might well be dead – it is that world that is so brilliantly, so darkly, so uproariously celebrated here on The Bribe.

Whatever vices you have overcome, The Bribe will make you take them up again. By the end of it you will have a cigarette hanging out of your mouth, a glass of cheap booze in your hand, and you will be standing on a dark, dingy street corner waiting for your next fix – of sex, of drugs, of anything: it doesn’t matter really because, ten seconds later, you’ll be done and looking for, and lusting in, something else.

The Bribe is released, like all John Zorn’s music, on Tzadik.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The sound of silence - Nurse With Wound's 'Space Music'

Imagine, if you can, the enormity of space – not the stars, but the space between the stars: the darkness, the cold, the silence. And then imagine, if you can, something moving somewhere around you, rumbling at first and then crashing, exploding: flames and rocks hitting something dead and barren, somewhere in the middle of the nothingness. And then imagine, if you can, the cosmic debris catapulted, drifting endlessly and forever in the vast emptiness, and the silence returning amidst an infinite expanse of emptiness.

Imagine it, if you can. And, if you can’t, listen to Nurse With Wound’s Space Music – because that, like nothing else, will tell you what it’s like.

Often, when we think of space, we think of the billions upon billions of things that live and grow and die within it – stars, and planets, and moons. Galaxies, and asteroids, and comets. But, really, most of space is empty – incomprehensibly vast stretches of nothing, other than the distant glimmers of stars, or of stardust, that pulsate faintly now and then through the soft, strange hum of silence.

And that’s the space of Space Music. Nurse With Wound have almost always done incredibly interesting things with their music, right from when they released their surrealist debut album Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella in 1979. But Space Music, commissioned by the Melbourne Planetarium, came 30 years later, and is a very different piece of music altogether.

While Chance Meeting abounds with strange, disconnected sounds, with music untimely ripped from its mother’s womb, unsettled, on edge, Space Music spends most of its 55 minutes hanging in suspension, moving imperceptibly, infinitesimally, with only the subtlest shifts of colour and light floating across the cosmos.

The music is very, very cleverly structured. Its first few minutes, like most of the rest of it, are thin electronic drones – cosmic noise, if you like – but with the persistent hint of something breaking, cracking, beneath the surface. And then you get the explosion – asteroids assaulting a planet, perhaps – sounds that can and do destroy speakers if you’ve let the quiet of the opening minutes lull you, and your volume knob, into too much complacency.

It’s a shattering effect, and you never really recover from it. No matter how many times you listen to Space Music, no matter how well you know what’s coming and that, for the rest of the music, everything stays quiet with only the barest hints of disturbance every now and then – no matter how well you know all of this, the music leaves you nervous, waiting for the unexpected, utterly at the mercy of the vast and empty space around you.

And yet the music is somehow always on the move. Beneath it there is always an unsteady, unquiet, rumble. Above it there is always a thin drone that gives birth to another thin drone, and then to another, and then fades away.

Space Music needs your attention. You have to absorb yourself in it, listen to those subtle shifts of light and colour, allow yourself to be carried away by the subspace rumble, and let yourself be taken to wherever the ‘subliminal effects’, of which the album cover warns you, want to take you.

Otherwise, if you just listen to it casually, you might scarcely notice it, like when you glance up at the stars on a clear, cloudless night, and miss seeing all that deep and wonderful blackness in between.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A story in skin - Slocombe's Pussy's 'Tattoo'.

I got my first tattoo at 45. Tony Cronin, the one-time bodyguard and chauffeur of Chopper Read, got his at 13.  I now have six of them. He has more than it is humanly possible to count and, in fact, if you Google some pictures of him you’ll see that it’s pretty hard to say where one finishes and the next one starts.

But they tell a story, as tattoos always do – and it’s the story, the story of Tony Cronin’s tattoos, that has been captured and distilled into music and imagery in an amazing new CD/DVD release from Melbourne’s psychedelic rock band, Slocombe’s Pussy.

I first encountered Slocombe’s Pussy – Are You Being Served notwithstanding – just a couple of weeks ago when I heard their incredible improvisational collaboration with the Paul Kidney Experience. But Tattoo (or Tattoo: Slocombe’s Pussy Play the Tattoos of Tony Cronin, to give it its full title) is another thing entirely.

For almost an hour, it takes you on a journey into a darkened psychedelia – a kaleidoscope of blacks and greys, the restless beat of disenfranchised youth, the lure of disfigured art, the relentless drive of rebellion.

It’s all here in Tattoo, music that moves in and out of crowded quagmires of noise and wild riffs of psychedelic rock and plaintive laments of acid guitars: music that gathers energy, contemplates it and then releases it, and then gathers it all over again, all the while taking you on its journey through dingy tattoo studios, dingy streets, dingy lives, but always driven by an energy that unabashedly revels in them all.

You can experience Tattoo in either of two ways. You can watch the DVD, where the band’s performance is painted over with images of Tony Cronin and his tattoos, or you can just listen to the CD and let the music paint its own pictures for you. In either case, this music will take hold of you and drag you into its orgasmic sordid world, its explosive tribute to everything everyone respectable frowns upon.

But ultimately it’s the journey, and the story, that is the most compelling thing about Tattoo. It doesn’t rest anywhere: not in the yearning heartache of ‘The Land of Darkness’, not in the defiant resilience of ‘Je ne regrette rien’, not in the surly, sexy sax of ‘”O” Negative’ – always, this music makes you feel it has somewhere to go, somewhere to take you.

Tattoo is a unique melding together of music, art and a life – not just the life of one man who started to have his body tattooed when he was 13, but the life of any person who stands a little to the side of everyone else. There are times when you might feel more than just a bit unsettled by this music – but, really, it is only a mirror. And when you look into it, you see yourself, and you see that you are dancing to its beat.

Slocombe’s Pussy will be launching Tattoo at the Workers Club in Melbourne, Australia on 26 November.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The beat of different drums - Steve Reich's 'Drumming' and Daniel Menche's 'Concussions'

Drums, it seems, have been a part of music for as long as there has been music. There’s just something about the lure of the beat that has always resonated with us – summonsing us sometimes to the dance, sometimes to the hunt, but always connecting somehow to that bit within us that, no matter how young we are, is as old as the hills.

It’s perhaps a bit surprising, then, that there has been relatively little music devoted solely to the power of drums and drumming. But two musicians have done just that have, in doing it, unearthed the power of the language not only of drums speaking to us but, perhaps even more, of drums speaking to one another.

Steve Reich’s Drumming was written in 1970-1. Daniel Menche’s Concussions in 2006.  Both are amazing works that, with all their similarities, give us very different perspectives on the productive power of rhythm.

Steve Reich is one of minimalism’s most important composers and Drumming is one of his most important works. But don’t confuse minimalism for simplicity, because Drumming is anything but simple. Its four Parts are all structured around a single 12/8 rhythmic bar, which is repeated over and over and over by the music’s dozen or so percussionists, each varying the speed just a little, so that the rhythms are constantly moving in and out of sync with one another.

The instruments vary from one part to the next – small tuned drums in the first part; marimbas and percussive voices in the second; glockenspiels, whistling and a piccolo in the third; and all of them together in the fourth.

The effect is staggering, hypnotic.  From its very opening notes the music takes you to the edge of your seat, as you wait and anticipate the next shift in the players’ sync, and settle yourself into the new rhythm it creates, while waiting for it to change again and morph into something new: all the time the music’s core DNA staying steadfastly the same. It’s like looking at an image through a mass of mirrors – everything reflecting everything else.

The technique is called ‘phasing’ and Steve Reich used it in a lot of his music, but probably nowhere more compellingly than here, where you see a fascinating kaleidoscope of rhythm, where everything changes and everything stays the same.

While Daniel Menche’s work is the later of the two, it is also the more primal. Its incessant beats build and shift over and on each other with an unrelenting intensity, like the sounds of primordial rain pelting on the inert rock of a new Earth, before life had appeared – or perhaps of the vengeful nuclear rain that will fall when everything is destroyed and gone. The pulses cross each other and form new pulses, the echoes of beats bouncing off the echoes of others; electronic drums pounding, pounding in a thickly, densely harmonised chorus of rhythm. Sometimes the sounds are like the thump of hammers on drums, sometimes they thrash like the clang of metal on metal, but always, always, their energy is unyielding, uncompromising, driving the music onwards in an unstoppable frenzy.

The music is spread over 2 CDs, twenty tracks and almost two hours, but it plays as a seamless whole, as if each beat, and each chain of beats, grows out of the one before it and into the one that follows it. The album’s inside cover tells you to ‘flex your muscles’ – but, really, this music does it for you. You can feel your biceps tightening as you listen.

Both Drumming and Concussions are commanding testimony to the endless, fathomless power of rhythm – to the vibrant, towering life that rhythm creates when it is set free to breed from itself.  Those drums that have beaten since time immemorial are just the seed. Steve Reich and Daniel Menche have given just a glimpse of the tremendous, terrifying lushness of the fruit.