Monday, September 26, 2011

Time goes sailing on, like a skipping rock...

Caged Animals - Teenagers in Heat

“I want to believe that you and me will always be teenagers in heat...”

I don’t think I have been so affected by a song for a long time. Teenagers in Heat fills me with a deep yearning and sadness for an unreachable past. First time I heard it I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. Last FM stats reveal that I’ve listened to it 38 times in the past week, but that has a lot to do with its brevity - clocking in at just shy of two minutes it always leaves me wanting more. “Yearning” is a word that regularly crops up in descriptions of a lot of the music coming out of the US underground at the moment (Summer Camp, Washed Out, Teen Daze, etc), and there is more desire and longing on display in this one song than in an entire John Hughes movie. It borrows a little bit from Dion and the Belmonts A Teenager in Love (which I’m guessing is its inspiration), but the synthetic beats, chiming melody and Caged Animals’ mainman Vincent Cacchione’s emotive falsetto make it an altogether more modern interpretation of aching teenage lust. Paul Lester of the Guardian called it “doo-wop dubstep” and, as terrible as that union might sound, it’s a neat analogy.

But why am I so obsessed? I guess there is a part of me that can't quite believe that I'm not still 15-years-old, daydreaming about marrying Molly Ringwald while doing my paper round. But it’s not like I even want to be a teenager again, and certainly not one “in heat”. That gets seriously complicated. Nope, this is just another example of how music can reach deep into our unconscious with its slender fingers, teasing out feelings that we assume we’ve long since buried. The devious bastard...

I have no idea what the rest of the album sounds like as I haven’t got past this one song yet, and The New Yorker's proclamation of Caged Animals as “a hip-hop-influenced Velvet Underground” hasn’t encouraged me to investigate further, but I’m sure I will. But whatever, I know that it can never live up to the flawlessness of this nugget of heart-tugging pop gold.

Joe White Noise

CAGED ANIMALS - Teenagers In Heat from Caged Animals on Vimeo.

Eat Their Own by Caged Animals is out now on Lucky Numbers

Buy Eat Their Own by Caged Animals from Norman Records
Caged Animals Bandcamp
Caged Animals website

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fast Forward to the Past

Puro Instinct - Vapor Girls

I am sitting on a coach. I am 14-years-old and have never lived anywhere except a small market town. There are three cassettes on my lap. They are: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, Countdown to Extinction by Megadeth and Precious, a 20-track compilation of popular indie disco songs. The cassettes, satisfying their geometrically determined potential for metaphor, each represent a door.

Sgt Peppers is a portal to a permanently sun-drenched solarium. Growing up in a non-Beatles playing household, I have just acquired the keys to the door through a sheer act of will, a downhill physical effort that somehow initiates a transformation of everyday life. In a week’s time, I will be threatened with a knife at a disco and later dance with a girl, sporting underwear outside of jeans, to Wet Wet Wet. It will be amazing, as though simply owning the tape is a passport into new realms of giddy experience. It will soundtrack its own luminous existence like a perfect, wheezing Dansette, on a Muppet bedspread, on a boat, on a river. But that’s another story for another time. Fast-forward.

Countdown to Extinction is a grubby door, slavered with many layers of paint. It opens onto the north-facing, six by ten box room, rarely aired and with a smell somewhere between burnt matches and old pornography. It gets a couple of plays. It will be the last heavy metal album I ever buy. But that’s another story for another time. Fast-forward.

Precious is a more complicated door. Made from good wood, parts of it are in decent shape, whereas elsewhere it looks like it’s been forced a few times, and split from the effort. There are a couple of boltless locks still attached. It opens with difficulty onto a garden filled with many plants and flowers, but also red ants and some partially concealed cat faeces. Play.

Anyone who grew up on Now! albums knows that all music, as long as it is popular, is equally valid, so owning these three tapes at once is perfectly acceptable, as if it needs verifying. But, equally, anyone who grew up watching The Chart Show knows that some territorial demarcation is required, at least once every three weeks. I had always felt at home watching the rock chart — the videos were expensive and inappropriately fogged in dry ice. Men with beautiful hair took an infantile delight in pyrotechnics and arm waving. The songs were simple and memorable, and women appeared, mostly as a kind of decoration, wearing different types of highly ornate bras. Built on fantasy and bluster, it spoke to my limited experience of the world.

The indie chart by comparison was unfathomable. Half the groups didn’t seem to make videos, their blunt grayscale photos at odds with the on-screen graphics. Most of the songs were muffled and fuzzy and played at clattering pace. Women were not only in the groups with bedraggled men, playing instruments, but wearing t-shirts over their bras. It was confusing and weird. These people didn’t look like they cared about being popular at all. But the obscurity proved to be compelling—homing beacons from an adult world far more oblique and interesting than the comical posturing of the rock chart. (As an aside, I’ve checked various clips on Youtube, and Michael Bolton is apparently always in the rock top ten, regardless of the year—a synth-toting spectre in blue tinted warehouses like Banquo’s strange uncle. Fast-forward.)

Evidently, it was time to go shopping, but I needed a shop window. So I bought Precious, and it dominated a summer. The anthems were an easy sell, as expansive as anything Iron Maiden could think up; it just took a while to refocus to a lyrical content of “feelings” instead of “murder”. And if at first Planet of Sound and The Drowners didn’t make sense, didn’t sound as universal and urgent as Sit Down and There’s No Over Way, then after a few plays it fell together. They weren’t a huge stretch from metal anyway: Pixies seemed like a surreal take on its dynamics, and Suede were a bit like the Quireboys.

A few tracks wouldn’t stick, though, those by Lush, the Pale Saints, My Bloody Valentine, the Sugarcubes. These weren’t noisy or anthemic — they were strange and light, distant, inscrutable. Nothing like chart pop music, and nothing like my basic conception of “indie”, they hung around in a breathy trance for a few minutes before fading away. No amount of close attention could break through that watery, reflective surface. I chased them around a bit, like trying to grab hold of one of those dandelion clocks that somehow drift into the room, then gave up.

Which is a long way of saying that I’m back at the door again, staring at Puro Instinct, and trying to shift the tangible sensations of an unseasoned, uncomprehending youth getting in the way. This isn’t to say that Puro Instinct directly replicate an early-1990s, lysergic indie pop sound — their press release for this album points in the direction of 1980s Fleetwood Mac and Sade, and makes much of their connection to Ariel Pink, who guests on Headbangers in Ecstacy. I don’t want to be dismissive of this, or of the quality on offer here. But it’s not what I hear — I hear the same dreamy aesthetic as those songs from Precious as I heard them 20 years ago, perched between pop songs and subconscious slithers. The result is that I can’t stay focused on the present when my mind goes dancing through the past. It’s even harder when the chorus of No Mames apparently has the phrase “kinky love”, which is the actual name of the Pale Saints track on Precious. I’m not sure it definitely does, but it’s what I hear, as though they’re mocking me across a chasm of time.

Because, just for the record, I like the past to stay in the past, so on the brief occasions that I can get a clear listen, there are some gems on this record. Somewhere between soothing and disquieting, Everybody’s Sick is a Lynchian earworm, while the perfectly titled Vapor Girls breaks the flashback spell, for a moment, with uncertain harmonies, and through the cracks I hear a woozily funky and afternoon wine-drunk California that I imagine exists. But it can’t sustain itself, and the past comes lumbering back in with its heavy burden and my younger sniggering self for unwanted company.

Sea Pinks - Oh London

It’s fitting, then, while I’m trying to dig the grit of the past out of my ears that Belfast’s Sea Pinks emerge from their garage, and make noise at me like one of those other non-video sporting bands on the indie chart. The odd ones, the ones that sounded like they hadn’t thought their songs through at all, like they just wrote them and put them onto a cassette the same day. Their sound is, on last year’s Youth is Wasted, rushing and blurred, not angry but urgent, with no notes in their guitars, and the words dispersing into the tin-pot din. Evidently, they’ve forgotten to move the microphone into the room they’re playing in. The songs flash by, caught up in their own momentum, all in the mid-range, reveling in their lack of relevance. No video.

The only change the new album Dead Seas seems to make is to move the mic a few feet closer, so that words are occasionally discernable. On that note, please enjoy Oh London, where the lyrical content is as amusingly bitter as you would have hoped for.

So what can we learn from this? That the past, like a leaky pipe, is always dripping in the kitchen? Yeah, alright. Rewind.

Graham White Noise

Headbangers in Ecstasy by Puro Instinct is out now on Mexican Summer
Dead Seas by Sea Pinks is out now on CF/Recs

Buy Headbangers in Ecstasy by Puro Instinct from Norman Records
Buy Dead Seas by Sea Pinks from CF/Recs
Puro Instinct blog
Sea Pinks at Bandcamp where debut album Youth is Wasted is available as a free download

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Imperfect Space of the Waking Dream

Barn Owl - Devotion II

Some days I don’t really wake up at all. Not completely. Basic motor functions are intact, but in general it’s a fudge. Reality refuses to manifest completely – a confusion of barely understood stimuli with the singular intent of distracting and bewildering me. Inanimate objects are weirdly mobile, scuttling in and out of my path, and light itself is a vast, monochrome edifice, creating terrible waves at the corners of vision.

You’re the same as me, so you know what I’m talking about. You’re probably having a day like that today, stabbing dumbly at technology and failing to spell primary school-level words. Your shoes are in the fridge, and you’ve no recollection of placing them there. You’re an idiot in need of rest, but there’s a whole day to battle through.

It’s the ambivalence that’s the worst thing – the will to operate without the means to achieve. Somewhere, though, in that struggle, great things can happen. Ideas fuse with disparate thoughts in a way you otherwise can’t encourage, and the dimness of perception can create momentary, terrifying fantasy out of everyday objects. The befuddled trudge can, for short periods, coalesce into something interesting, even useful, if you enjoy being trapped in a netherworld between the real and imagined.

Lost In The Glare testifies that Barn Owl know this, and suggests they are perpetually trapped in that netherworld, probably by choice, working on their sound unnoticed in some low-watt cellar. Spacious and graceful, you might file this under ambient drone, but I think that does a disservice to the slow-burning intensity of this record, and the range of influences absorbed into the whole. There’s no infinite drifting here, always a build to something fierce yet indistinct. Something is always about to happen, often a plaintive picking of an old-English folk melody merges, incongruous against the dust-blown Eastern backdrops dragged from indistinguishable instruments. Even as they emerge and build, the hooks recede again, a shifting mirage in twilight. In and out weave the thumbprints of early Velvet Underground, the stripped-down Mogwai of Come On Die Young, the rain wet moors of Further-era Flying Saucer Attack and the slo-mo fuzz of latter-day drone metal.

The tension and release is best experienced by taking the album as whole. Devotion I and The Darkest Night Since 1683 combine to create a space as cavernous and forbidding as Light Echoes and Devotion II are searing and direct. It comes together in the imperfect space of the waking dream. Slow dancing tunes come on like ghosts, disperse and drift in the campfire space.

Barn Owl create dialogue between imagination and reality, making taut forest pathways from vapour trails in the eye of your mangled, sleep-deprived mind. Dislocated and engrossing, Lost In The Glare is a rich tale about nothing in particular – a train moving slowly through the desert night, getting nowhere slowly, shining hot white light and making malevolent fun with the shadows. It’s the ideal soundtrack for a journey around your somnambulant world.

Graham White Noise

Lost in the Glare is out now on Thrill Jockey

Buy Lost in the Glare by Barn Owl from Norman Records
Barn Owl discography
Barn Owl MySpace

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Steve’s Opening Gambit

The Beta Band - Happiness and Colour

The Beta Band - The Hut

I’ve always been a big fan of wilfully creative buggers who don’t bother to play the game, and they don’t come more bloody-minded than the Beta Band, who tried (eventually succeeding) to sabotage their career from the outset. Of course, it has since come to light that a large part of this self-destructive behaviour was down to the Beta Band linchpin Steve Mason’s on-going struggles with mental illness, which at one point became so severe that he was on the brink of suicide. But at the time, to anyone outside looking in, what you could see was a supremely talented collective, riding on the crest of a giant wave of adulation from the press and public, doing their level best to fuck everything up.

Their self-titled debut album is a much talked about case in point. Mason was slagging it off before anyone had even heard it, declaring it to be a “crock of shit” in a 1999 interview with the NME. They also said it was “fucking awful” and the worst album of the year. It wasn’t – in fact, I’d argue the case that it is the best album they ever made*. But can you imagine any other lauded band on the planet opening their debut album with a track like The Beta Band Rap, a bizarre collage of Fifties doo-wop, low-slung countrified hip-hop and karaoke Elvis? It’s a manic statement of intent that borders on genius if you take the time to listen to the lyrics describing the band’s genesis and comedy meetings with record company execs. Admittedly Mason’s no Chuck D, but it’s funny, inventive and right out there – everything that the music press was praising the band to the high heavens for, while in reality wanting them to deliver another ten versions of Dry the Rain. Nobody was prepared for the sprawling, unwieldy genre-mash record that emerged, leading the enraged EMI chairman to splutter: “What the fuck is going on with the Beta Band?”

What indeed? But things could have been even worse had the band got their way. The initial intention was for their debut to be a double album, with a second disc consisting of two pieces of music, Happiness and Colour and The Hut; epic slabs of indulgent ambient noodling and field recordings (ie somebody left a tape recorder running while the band were sitting in a field smoking copious amounts of dope) that made the 15-minute Monolith from The Three EPs (featuring samples of a washing machine being destroyed) seem accessible. At one stage the band wanted the album to be promoted by sending out these two tracks to journalists. In the end, sane(r) heads ruled and the second disc never saw the light of day, until it was leaked onto the internet a few years ago.

So let’s consider the evidence shall we? Of the two, Happiness and Colour has the most merit, consisting of, in patches, something approaching conventional “music” – loose campfire jams, punctuated by wayward melodica and harmonica solos; bits of wood being banged together; snatches of garbled conversation; and samples of bubbling water and sounds of the sea. There’s almost a proper song at the 20-minute mark, albeit with speeded-up chipmunk voices à la King Biscuit Time’s magnificent Eye o’ the Dug. My favourite moment happens around 13m 30s when a distorted guitar coda rings out. Close in spirit to the KLF’s Chill Out, if you stuck it on a bit of coloured vinyl in a screen-printed sleeve it would probably get snapped up by collectors in an instant. But The Hut is a step too far. It sounds like those messages you get left on your mobile when somebody accidentally calls you when they’re out and about – in this case, I imagine Steve Mason’s phone swishing around in his rucksack while he and the rest of the Betas are out rambling by a Scottish loch on a windy day. Getting through the full 20 minutes is a struggle even for me, and I’m a diehard.

However epic the folly, I completely admire the band for wanting to do things differently, even if it was eventually to the detriment of their career. Can you imagine the Vaccines doing the same? And of course it is much easier to laugh at all of this now that Mason is back on track, making some of the finest music of his career. We will probably never see the like again, and while the former EMI chairman breathes a big sigh of relief in his very big house in the country, I still cry myself to sleep over the demise of the gloriously obstinate bastards.

*Yes, NME scribe of the time (your name has not survived for posterity on the archived web link of your review), I am the "miracle" that "genuinely loves every last second of it.”

Joe White Noise

For old times’ sake – Hobbsy's Beta Band website
Purchase the magic from Amazon
Somebody still updates this fansite
Steve Mason website

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A basic, post-industrial witchcraft aimed at social control...

The Chasms - The Occult Soul Review

Meanwhile on the Isle of Man the situation has worsened. The extent to which society there has collapsed is still a matter of speculation. Mainland communications ceased several weeks ago, and we have neither heard nor seen anything from its inhabitants since. What we do know is that before communication was lost, widespread and sustained public disorder meant that infrastructure and industry had largely collapsed, and the struggle to regain order was ongoing.

The following communication, if we can call it that, we received quite by accident. A metal box, stamped in black ink as the product of the island, and smelling of foul engine oil, washed up on a quiet stretch on Lancashire beach and was discovered on the shore by a dog walker. Inside were several spools of audio tape, dry and undamaged by their journey. If the box was sent into the sea by accident or on purpose we cannot yet be sure, but what we do know is that it represents what is so far the only communication from an island which we can neither reach nor contact. What really went on there, we only have this excerpt.

The six tapes are accompanied by some damaged and oblique literature which appears to identify them by different, though obscure names. The sonic contents present a frankly unfathomable amalgamation of industrial noise and rhythms accompanied by a single human male voice. The nature of the tapes has required the expertise of several analysts from a range of disciplines, the better we might understand what we can learn from them.

Throughout the six segments is a consistent and remarkably ferocious drone of such amplitude that it dominates the entire document, suggesting the spontaneous nature of what is captured. There is some agreement on the origin of the noises: malfunctioning electrical grids, circuitry roughly dismantled, large overwrought engines and the recalcitrant shriek of metal on metal. Added to this is the single, sinister voice present throughout though often obscured by the noise, requiring a careful and dedicated ear. A leading acoustic engineer, Mr Gedge, has reported as recognizing the voice, but is yet unable to positively identify it, and close analysis continues. Speech content is a combination of exhortations, whispers, incantations and something approaching singing. Content addresses a range of concerns in a type of storytelling utilizing a dialectic form of English, a somewhat old-fashioned idea of “oral culture” and which may shed light on the ongoing situation on the island.

Of the tapes themselves, No. 5 (A Copse of Trees) seems to be a recital of an unknown screenplay, suggesting the islanders still have access to cultural documents and some understanding of their uses. No. 4 (Ghosts to Starboard) perhaps uses notions of the paranormal to meter out punitive judgment on the vain and greedy. Most disconcertingly, No. 1 (The Occult Soul Review) details an encounter with the devil.

Analysts have so far brought forward a number of intriguing theories on the nature and delivery of this material, and what it tells us about life on the island. One is that they are some form of reportage, though we can confidently dismiss this — despite the tangible reality of the scenarios detailed, the fantastical elements stretch credulity. It seems more likely they reflect either one, or a combination of, the following: the deranged response of the individual, weakened by physical and psychic peril, struggling to come to terms with a transformed landscape; or, an attempt to understand and control a disunited mass of people, in the absence of the state, through a conjuring trick of malevolent supernatural forces and the reintroduction of folk devils. A basic, post-industrial witchcraft aimed at social control.

Lending coherence to this idea is the way the noise, though initially forbidding, over sustained exposure seems to coalesce into a primitive form of music, perhaps with the aim of inducing a trance-like state. No. 2 (Thomas Merton 240 Volts) for example creates a meditative space from a discordant drone and pivots on the repetition of the phrase: “Inflame thyself with prayer — invoke, often.” Analysts have, following lengthy exposure, reported to such contrasting emotional states as terror, excitation and great joy. No. 3 (The Midnight Boat), meanwhile, appears to fashion a simple popular music structure from its internal disquiet, as though the shared cultural memory of mass entertainment were being recreated from second-hand accounts and its black charred remains.

Clearly, more time and research is required before the exact nature of this evidence comes to light. It may require some leaps of faith and imagination to understand this document as a form of social control or the details of insanity lashed together from the literal wreckage of a formerly peaceful, if rather obscure community, rather than some form of elaborate practical joke, a theory also put forward. If, as we suspect, the former is true, then it may be necessary for the United Kingdom to intervene as soon as possible. It is my personal view, however, drawn from the overbearing sense of dread which fogs these recordings, that it may very well already be too late for the Isle of Man.

Graham White Noise

The Chasms Bandcamp