Year of The Monkey’s Claw

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January is always an odd month, hungover from the previous year, anxious about the next, half lit and knee deep in nostalgia and regret. New year is too close to Christmas, and nothing ever starts until February. We should adopt the Chinese one so we can really go at it. 2016 is the year of the monkey so with January drawing to a damp conclusion and the year starting up in earnest our monkey, Thee Monkey’s Claw, put away Motörhead and Bowie and generally wallowing in old classics like Dinosaur jr and Elvis and the Butthole Surfers and the like, sat down in his comfy chair at the fireside with a bottle of sherry and had a listen to some of that new music that they have now. Making increasingly illegible notes which he has slowly deciphered for your edification…cover600x600.jpeg copy

Fat White Family – Songs For Our Mothers

Let’s dive right on in then and see what that unpleasantness blocking the drain down there is shall we? Now, I haven’t come here merely to slag them off but out of open curiosity because The Flat Whites are a bit of a conundrum. Hickeysonic still has connections to Brixton but this lot came along after we fled the capitol and seem to divide opinion both there and amongst folk whose taste in music we might generally share or trust. So which is it to be, the last great rock ‘n’ roll band or a parcel of cunts? or both? We’ve so far been inclined to the second option to be honest with you.   Flat whitefwf-whitest Apparently they’re great live and maybe it offers a key to the mystery because what I heard of the first record was, well, crap. Here we are with a ‘difficult’ second album then. It’s not bad actually, an improvement on the first one for sure, but it’s not a difficult listen and that, essentially, is the problem. It’s easy listening. The Fat Whites have an instinctive feel for the codes of rock ‘n’ roll, they do the age old dance of provocation, they talk a good game and they talk a lot of shit. This is the stuff which creates that love them/hate them marmite factor around the band but their music doesn’t back it up, there’s no sense of danger, no thrilling jolt of the new here. In fact there doesn’t appear to be any musical idea under the age of 30, if this was a lost post punk re-issue it’d be pretty remarkable, but still not up to the standard of it’s more famous contemporaries.   First tune ‘Whitest Boy on the Beach’ is the best here, I genuinely like it but lamentably they put it in a sleeve that pastiches Throbbing Gristle’s ’20 Jazz Funk Greats’ itself a pastiche of old mass market easy listening albums. The head twisting deconstruction of the layers of inference in the image probably doesn’t repay the effort, best to just see it as a gag, it’s nevertheless an unavoidable conclusion that TG’s records can still be disquietening to listen to while FWF sound more like a bachelor pad friendly digest of old indie band tropes for the casual listener. You might also comment that Carter Tutti revisted their older work and made a new Carter Tutti Void record last year both of which sound more daring and forward thinking than this, if possibly narrower in appeal. In fact f=2.6′ has a similar propulsive groove to ‘Whitest Boy…’ None of this is all that much of a problem though because they certainly draw on a wider more interesting pool of influences than the landfill indie dullards they have set out to destroy. If I was 16 I’d probably love them but thankfully all that horror is long behind me. Like The Manic Street Preachers I find myself vaguely approving of them while not really wanting to have to listen to their music…

Tortoise – The Catastrophist

Tortoise of course are a much more grown up proposition, not just that they’ve been around for years but also in their approach. The least beset by rock ‘n’ roll of all the bands who got labelled post-rock. This is elegant music, sophisticated and cerebral, eschewing rock cliché for a restless blend of kosmiche and jazz influences. Oh, and a David Essex cover. ‘Rock On’ is a great old pop rock oddity and why not? Sadly it’s not up to the standard of Silverfish’s great take on the song or their own covers with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy on The Brave and The Bold. It shows they have a sense of humour I guess, it also signals the scattershot feel of the record as a whole. A bit of this, bit of that but all Tortoise. Georgia from Yo La Tengo turns up to sing a song and it’s fine and pretty but also less than the sum of its parts. There are bits that sound like incidental music for documentaries only less charmingly than they did once upon a time. In a completely different way to The Fat Whites this is an indie rock easy listening record. Cynics might say they always have been just that, but in the way of Eno’s dictum for ambient music it’s pleasant to have on in the background and still rewards your attention when you give it. It sounds like Tortoise then and why would it not? Here’s the thing, their masterpiece ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die’ is 20 years old this year and you should definitely buy or listen to that instead. The music holds you, carries you forward with it and surprises at every turn. It is warm and emotional, richly textured. That’s no longer entirely the case, somewhere around ‘Standards’ what seemed an endlessly exploratory sound started to curdle. The records became less organic and the music more like an intellectual puzzle. I’m picturing an actual tortoise whose shell is made of a rubik’s cube. Hope that’s helpful (it’s not). I was tempted to say some of this is like Tortoise on autopilot but the relatively short running times of the tunes speaks of endless editing down in rehearsal. ‘Gesceap’ the lead track they’re promoting it with is almost twice the length of anything else on the record and all the better for it, it opens and unfolds as various instruments join in until it reaches a frantic peak and then ebbs back away. The other real winner here ‘Shake Hands With Danger’ is anchored by an unusually direct and thumping beat. Maybe it just requires a few more close listens to give up its secrets, maybe it’s another Tortoise record with just a couple of great tracks on it like the last couple. The title may have come from a novel, or just the tendency of some to picture absurd worst case scenarios, scientifically though (with no real basis I’ve always imagined Tortoise to be science graduates) catastrophism is the theory that Earth has suffered sudden, short-lived, violent events, possibly global in scope in contrast to uniformitarianism or gradualism, in which incremental changes, such as erosion, created all the Earth’s geological features. With that in mind this record is definitely gradualist in terms of Tortoise’s own sound world and perhaps a catastrophic shift might not be unwelcome. Even without such drama they could always make an absolute killer ’20 Jazz Funk Greats’ exotica record and there wouldn’t even be the need for pastiche or deathly ironic posing just a slight refocusing of the elements of their sound, indulge those bossa nova/samba beats a bit, turn up the vibraphone…

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Ulver – ATGCLVSSCAP

I reckon I like Ulver but realise now that this is based only on their first album ‘Bergtatt’ (black metal with folk mixed into it) and their last one ‘Terrestrials’ (a collaboration with Sunn O)))) and my general impression they’ve taken a winding and adventurous route between the two. Looking at it, black metal to Sunn O))) in twenty years doesn’t seem such a stretch and I really should have investigated some of their other stuff as well. If I’m calling The Fat Whites and Tortoise easy listening then this is definitely prog. Despite which it isn’t awful, not at all it’s actually pretty great, ‘Cromagnosis’ is simultaneously the album highlight and the most prog thing on it. It actually recalls my limited knowledge of Yes and gets away with it. The constant tempo shifts made me think the next track had started and the demented bongo laden final section goes full blaxploitation, they may have resisted putting police sirens on it but I hear them anyway. How are they getting away with this? Well, the most vulgar and embarrassing prog signifiers are absent, there are no flutes or dragons, no tiresome virtousity for its own sake. Although the title is apparently the initials of the twelve signs of the zodiac and there’s something to do with the beard of an ancient king who sleeps under a mountain so, y’know… PROG. From here on in there’s a general pleasing drone thing going on, sometimes picking up with some percussion but getting more electronic and ambient as we go. It’s not the icy drone of wolves, woods and winter you might think either, there’s no menace in it, it’s comforting even. Then we reach the final few tracks where the spell is broken by the unfortunate arrival of vocals. I’m so taken with the whole thing so far that I try and cut it some slack but ‘Nowhere (sweet sixteen)’ in any other context would have me cackling in an appalled and derisive manner “nowhere. . . catastrophe” it somberely intones. ‘Ecclesiastes (A Vernal Catnap)’ features the same bible verse as The Byrds ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ to more anguishedly overblown ends. It’s all quite upsetting and unnecessary I must say. First three quarters are great though.

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Roly Porter – Third Law

Hallo spaceboy! And so we come to the sci-fi soundtracky one in the pile. Or the noise record disguised as a dubstep artist making a sci-fi soundtrack. It would make an amazing film but ‘Third Law’ leaves all that behind. Clanking, moody and epic in sound and scope it abandons all relation to dance music and goes boldly into a bigger more dystopian universe. There is a spectral choir moaning and huge waves of bass pressure and noise. Damn near spilt my sherry I tell you. This is no easy listening background music, no sir. I mentioned noise at the beginning because it has that physically arresting power but the breadth of sound here is in glorious widescreen technicolour making most noise records feel like beat up old analogue TV cranking out thin white static. Listen well and listen closely because there is so much going on, the sound design is incredibly rich with detail and texture. It demands and repays your full attention. So it’s not something you’ll listen to a lot, or sing along to. While it is essentially the same sonic trick played out over and over again it’s done with enough subtlety and skill as to keep surprising you, even on repeat listens. On a science tip Newton’s Third Law is the one about every action having an equal and opposite reaction, which possibly applies in the sense of opposing forces pushing you around, this is also Porter’s third solo album proper and maybe it’s just that simple, or serendipitous.

 

Lumisokea – Transmissions From Revarsavr

In a similar vein if you liked that Roly Porter record you ought to have a listen to this. More earth bound and rhythmic than Porter, Lumisokea take us back to the future for an equally rich and absorbing listen. It starts with a tolling bell and clattering percussion and moves through quieter and more frantic moments via a constantly shifting range of sounds. It’s one of the best things I’ve heard from the consistently brilliant Opal Tapes in a while. I was totally won over by about the third track ‘Whirling Dervishes’ which has a kind of clanky wooden percussion sound similar to Cut Hands and vague echoes of 23 Skidoo. I hadn’t bothered to read the background story though which is also pretty fascinating. You can read more on the bandcamp page but the basis for this album is recordings they made a couple of years ago of Vladimir Popov’s ‘Noise Instruments’. Popov created his machines almost a hundred years ago, back in the USSR of the 20’s, as a way to imagine the coming age of industry. Still sounding pretty good there Vladimir. The Revarsavr of the title is another soviet inventor/composer Arseny Avraamov to whom they pay tribute. Cool stuff, you don’t need to know it to enjoy the record but it does give you an extra respect for it. The final track ‘Nanisáanah’ combines all the best elements of the album building from an eerie drone to a rousing percussion work out in the process collapsing history as early 20th century mechanics, modern digital wizardry and ancient polyrhythms combine as natural as breathing. It’s like Nurse With Wound or Coil but less annoyingly self obsessed.

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It’s late now, with several sherries down and the roaring fire it causes a chap to wonder, have we reached the end here? The end of the excavation of the early history of machine music. Opal Tapes as a label is certainly part of this wider trend. I’m not just talking about the fact they release stuff on cassette, the crappiest, deadest medium ever, either. The return to old analogue equipment which many of their artists use now that digital can do everything pretty much. Aphex Twin working with computer controlled percussion, the adoration and emulation of John Carpenter and other synth pioneers and instrument builders like Pierre Bastien. Is it a good thing, a bad thing or just a thing? What does the future sound like now? I love this stuff for the most part but it sounds like the 70’s and 80’s not the future. A lot of it even sounds like a false memory. That’s ok though right? I’m so hot, I think I need a lie down now…

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