Bad Seed

Did you watch any of that Glastonbury there on your tellybox? As is our wont around here we were reminiscing about the last time we went, just four short years ago, and the last thing we saw there was Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ absolutely amazing set on the Sunday evening. Much has changed since then and as they head back out on tour you’re either in the “I’m not paying that much to see them play a sports barn” camp or the  “I really wish I hadn’t paid that much and they weren’t playing a sports barn” camp. Visions of watching a tiny little Nick in the far distance having paid £6 for shoddy beer sinking hearts across the board. Inevitably a fair amount of shaky clips have popped up from the current US dates. Mostly pretty poor sound and so on. Still, check this out – incredible quality, up close footage from the third row in Pittsburgh last month. There’s a few short clips throughout the show and three full length songs, both the image and sound quality is brilliant, Cave at several points singing pretty much straight into the camera. It might be pushing it to read too much into the clip but it’s hard not to think of that story he himself tells about watching Nina Simone’s performance transform her, he seems light, set free by the music. The band are predictably great, perhaps a little looser – there are a couple of slightly comic confusions – and Barry Adamson seems to have left his seat at the organ for Ed Balls to unexpectedly step in, in all honesty though it could just as easily be footage from four years ago . . .

Compositions For The Young & Old : Supersonic Sunday

“Supersonic, are you ready to Rock?” Yes bab, yes we are. The atmosphere in Boxxed for today’s first set is pretty electric. Local youngsters HAQ123 are playing their first gig to a pretty full and expectant room. They’re so young two of the band are still at primary school. People have brought their own youngsters down to the show and Supersonic’s generally warm sense of communality has tweaked up a notch or two. They’ve an elderly bass player as well but it’s clearly a classic case of ‘in the band ‘cos they’ve got a van’. They’re brilliant. ‘Sabbath super charged on haribo’ is a fair enough description of their feisty punk doom. The faintest glimmers of any stage fright are soon banished by some foot on the monitors, pointing into the crowd, rock ‘n’ roll shape throwing. Their confidence can only grow and what we might see them bring to this stage in years to come is anyone’s guess but for now they’re huge fun and, as I’m told the youngsters say, they smashed it.

Later on The Space Lady, who is older than all of HAQ123 put together, will also charm us with all the warm feels over in The Crossing. Essentially a drug battered old cosmic hippy with an equally aged and charming casio keyboard wheezes through a selection of covers and a few originals. On paper it has ‘kitsch fun’ and ‘outsider art’ scribbled in all the margins but that’s to underplay the sweetness of her voice and miss her personal warmth on stage. By about midway through only the most embittered cynic would not have wanted to hug her or adopt her as their mom/grandma. ‘Born To Be Wild’ and “psychedelic cowboy song” ‘Ghostriders In The Sky’ are the highlights for me. At one point she even sets aside her keyboard picks up a guitar and leads us through a sing along about healing the earth. So throughly won over is the crowd that we do it. It’s like a magic trick, the song deals in the most naive and simplistic of hippy eco platitudes and yet she sings it with such openhearted sincerity, so free of the usual earnest, preachy tone that comes with that stuff that you have to go along with her. Everyone’s having such a great time that we let her do another song and she goes and spoils everything by doing ‘Imagine’. “Damn it Grandma, take yer medicine!”

Still buzzin’ from my haribo-HAQ-high I make it into the shed to see what grampa’s been building in there. Pierre Bastien creates his own amazing mechanical musical machines and teases some unique sounds out of them. The pairing with Tomaga is a genius one because the results are often not that far from their own explorations. It’s a gently captiviating set. For all that they’re machines he gets some remarkably organic sounds from them. The general feel is of a soundtrack to a lost Oliver Postgate series, maybe an aborted spin off show for The Clangers’ Iron Chicken. Lovely stuff.

The market place has a small stage tucked in the corner and flanked by shimmering cabaret curtains. It’s an oddly ineffectual performance space, a transient audience using the tea room, mooching the merch stalls or heading past to elsewhere but it hosts DJ sets and talks and such over the weekend if you grab a table near enough to pay attention. we’re gathered around debating whether it’s too soon to start drinking and listening to The Sunken Hum Tape Splice, which is Natalia of Woven Skull mixing four tape decks of found sounds and field recordings. It’s a multi-coloured ambient patchwork, there’s sounds of nature, a gloriously feisty american evangelist and a sweetly burbling child that turns out to be Natalia herself. It could do with being a bit louder but then, as the name insists, it works beautifully as an always changing, surprising, background of sunken hum. As I cave to the call of the bar I catch Mohammad finishing one monolithic slab of drone and leaning into another. En route to my frosty refreshment I pass a patron remarking “If they were playing anywhere but here they’d get fucking bottled”. He may have a point. I do love a bit of drone but, perhaps aware of the lack of onstage drama in their performance, they’ve taken to wearing cowls and wizard hats that seem to undercut rather than underline the weight of their sound. It’s like a poundshop Sunn O))). I’m also curious as to how the name has failed to cause them any grief yet. Essentially though Mohammad is not for arms folded, back of the room, ‘impress me then’ types or dilettantes popping to the bar, it requires commitment. Get in there and get lost in that giant sound or don’t. There’ll be no hooks to pull you in.

To be honest Snapped Ankles are wearing even more ridiculous stage outfits, although happily not quite as much as last time I saw them, when it was even hotter and I feared they would collapse from the heat at any moment. By rights their ‘Jack In The Green makes pulsing electro out of logs and moss’ stick-schtick should make me really want to throw bricks at them for being useless hipster twats but their music’s not bad. On today’s evidence it’s not captivatingly great either though, so let’s call it a score draw.

Casual Nun are a strikingly hirsute, double drummer powered, heavy psych-punk beast of a band. They’ve only been around two or three years but they’re really getting into their stride now. They claim inspiration from the hairier, freakier end of krautrock and similarly wild Japanese sonic warriors but the double drum churn still makes me think of The Butthole Surfers. Not the pantomime clowning and parody songs but the deranged heavy psych freak outs of stuff like ‘Jimi’. Since I saw them last summer they’ve put out a couple of records and obviously spent time honing and sharpening their sonic weapons because they are SO much better now, and they were pretty good then. About a third of the way into the set they shift up a couple of gears and from there on in it’s just immense. They’re a highlight in a festival of highlights and leave having secured themselves a raft of new fans.

Which sadly you can’t say for Princess Nokia. Beforehand excitement is tempered by a worry that hip hop artists have, well, a bit of a history of taking a half assed approach to live performance. With heart sinking, head shaking recognition we realise this turns out to be the case. She hasn’t brought a DJ, a local one is doing her best with no rehearsal playing Nokia’s recordings for her to rap over. Not working with backing tracks or loops, just straight up playing the records vocals and all. It gives weird sibilance on the S sounds and Nokia a chance to drop out on some lines although she’s bang on it, to be fair. The flipside of that is there’s no room to stretch, move or freestyle anything when you’re constantly hitting the same flow as the record. Karaoke has more room for expression. Princess has other ways to express herself though. ‘Tomboy’ is fierce and we’re collectively shrugging and rolling with it but a couple of tunes in she decides that what the programme calls an ” ambitious artist who creates a universal language that will talk to all kinds of people” is not so keen on the age range and ethnicity of the crowd she can see from the stage, that we don’t know what she’s talking about. A little hissy fit sours the mood and pointlessly gives away all her power as a performer. It’s possible she’s feeling as tired as we are, she picks a fight with the DJ, she doesn’t want to be here. Those among the crowd who stick with her try to warm the mood as things wear on but Nokia eventually leaves mid song and someone has to come on and let the DJ know she won’t be back.

Back in the big room with the grown ups Oxbow have found a way for noise rock to age gracefully. It’s no small achievement. For tonight’s show they have pulled together a local choir, with conductor, who range across the back of the stage as Eugene prowls its lip shedding his dapper outfit and rolling his shoulders. Ten years in the making ‘Thin Black Duke’ sees them add classical nods, strings, piano and allsorts to their dense, literary rock swagger. You can almost feel the dread hand of prog itching to get in but they’ve shut its fingers firmly in the door. There is no indulgent bloat, the songs are taut and keenly crafted, and the choir is beautifully integrated into the music making it all the more effective. It’s a masterful performance, not a note out of place but still living and breathing and dynamic. All this and fronted by the most authoritative, take no prisoners stage presence of the weekend. Seriously, you wouldn’t mess would you? Even some of the choir look astonished/nervous to see him in full flight. Incredible end to another incredible Supersonic weekend. Let’s not leave it so long this time.

Is it hot in here, or is it me? : Supersonic Saturday

As any fool know, the sun always shines on the Rotunda, but it doesn’t often beat down quite as hard as it does this weekend. Limp Pink Whinging Brits are a late addition to the weekend’s eclectic and extensive bill. Today’s line up is one of the most amazing I think I’ve ever seen but even without the heat it looks set to be an exhausting marathon of musical greatness. Buckle up buttercup, there’s a lot to get through. Kicking off with an expanded Ex Easter Island Head (their Large Electric Ensemble drawing to some extent on the same pool of Islington Mill musicians as Anonymous Bash). 16 treated guitars laid on table tops and played with mallets. Conducted by one of their number, the band are still and focussed. They dress uniformly in black. It’s very much at the point of a bunch of experimental rock musicians becoming an avant garde chamber orchestra. It would be easy to mock the precious fastidiousness of the performance were it anything but a practical necessity and the resulting music less beautiful. They play a glowing minimalism that nods to Nyman and Reich. Regarding a conversation yesterday, you could probably build something similar out of loops on a phone app and yet the subtle flam and shifts of having a large group perform it give it a breathing organic quality that would be missing. It’s a fine way to start the day

Haress play a slowly unfolding atmospheric set suited to the muggy warmth in the room. Shimmering, interlocking guitars unwind leisurely through the haze. Makes you wish you were sat on a porch staring out at the blazing sun beat down as the day slides by, rather than standing watching a group of seated, motionless musicians. The desert blues from the welsh borders, lovely stuff. More evocative of starkly british landscapes, Laura Cannell‘s music pitches me into a lone, melancholy walk through windswept cliffs and rainwashed hills to the shore of a deep still lake to watch the sunlight moving down the side of the valley. The birds that crowd her tracklists make only scarce appearances. Maybe that’s the point. It’s impressive if sometimes hard to love, I’m ok with watching a woman switch between playing the violin and two recorders but I can see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

Saturday evening and I finally venture into Wild and see what’s going on there. “We’re a black femininst punk band, that’s kind of our thing.” Big Joanie draw on a lineage from The Slits up through C86 and riot grrl and play a pleasing post punk rumble. It’s more lo-fi and communal than in-yer-face-identity-politics, thoughful more than furious. “Are you dancing?”, “No, I’m staying in and reading Bell Hooks”. I don’t mean that as a bad thing either. Although it might explain why their closing cover of TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ is a genius idea that falls just slightly flat in reality. Or it might be the heat in here.

Grey Hairs are melting before our eyes. Supersonic, as you are aware, is an amazingly eclectic, wide ranging festival with acts from all over the world playing all manner of adventurous sounds. Ironic then that one of the bands we are most excited about seeing this weekend are a garage band from just 50 miles up the road. So it goes. Things can be mysterious that way, like why is “I thought it was a line, but it’s a circle” such a fantastic lyric? What does it even mean? Grey Hairs might appear to be a fairly standard issue punk/garage band but the key thing to note is that they are really, really good at it. The songs are tightly wound and bursting with tension. By Supersonic standards they’re practically non stop pop smashes. I can quote you lyrics for a start. Despite the heat they play an complete blinder. Doubters are converted, believers are thrilled, sweat flows. Chris appears to be playing two guitar parts at once which is quietly impressive rather than vulgarly flashy. Even right at the close as they hammer down on that last riff there’s a little showbiz wrong footing as ‘The Chin pt 2’ features an unexpected bass/ vocals switch over. Absolutely killer.

Scarcely a moment to bask in the joy of that it’s off to see Richard Dawson. Turns out he’s one of those marmite appeal artists, hard to believe but there are people who don’t love him. Not many here though as he packs out the hall. Such doubters might be pleased that he’s got himself a shiny new red guitar, perhaps imagining he might ring a more gently tuneful sound from it. Mightily, he manages to get pretty much the same abrasive, randomly squeaking and buzzing sound as he did before. Launching his remarkable new record ‘Peasant’ he’s playing with a band, who all appear to be having a fine time. Except Jonnie. Jonnie broke Richard’s beloved old guitar and his fall from grace makes up most of the set’s comedy interludes. I reckon they get through about half of the new album tonight. If Dawson seems slightly ill at ease with leading a band he shouldn’t worry, it works wonderfully. ‘Soldier’ is particularly glorious and its anxious refrain plays in my head for days after. The band takes a break for a solo vocal reading of ‘The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter’ an old murder ballad he says he got from Mike Waterson. As usual it’s an emotionally powerful moment and simultaneously ties him to deep tradition and illuminates the quality of the originals it sits perfectly alongside. He drags a gaggle choir from the crowd to join in with the amazing ‘Ogre’ and then tops that with a widescreen stomp through ‘The Vile Stuff’. By turns moving, hilarious, hallucinatory and confounding it’s an absolute tour de force of a song, a great close to a brilliant set.

The overlapping, clashing sets are really coming thick and fast by this point in the evening, sending us scurrying back and forth from one stage to another. Their recent record is two giant slabs of swoony ambience and subtle atmospherics but Italian power trio Zu are raging full force onstage. Blaring, skronking, squawking amazingness exactly as you’d have hoped. Excellent. Meanwhile back in The Crossing Jenny Hval and her band are engaging in some rough and ready prop based theatrics and dressing up. There’s a step ladder on stage. No horse head goth up it eurovision style though. Jenny wanders the stage with bulbous textile offal draped across her shoulders and wonders aloud about venues and property prices in a stream of conciousness monologue. Amazingly she gets away with it. She has a calm and charming voice, speaks slowly without affectation, she probably could start reading the phone book and that’d be just fine. It’s unclear how scripted and how free form it is but she concedes as she wraps it up that “it could probably use some editing”. They go into ‘The Secret Touch’ and you have to agree little more focus on the great songs she has to draw on would be nice, but it’s a minor quibble.

Wild is packed to the back and probably hotter than it’s been all day for Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs. They’re on fire. Huge pile driving Sabbath riffs on a wave of roaring noise, their particular thing is quite narrow but it’s a good thing and they do it well, stretching it into twisted shapes over crushing repetition. Reckoning the chance to see them again will be ’round sooner I head off to catch a bit of Raime. They’re a good deal less spartan than on record, which is probably for the best. Still recognisably them but rougher, looser and more rocking. It’s still pretty unapproachable though, uneasy and dystopian.

Colin Stetson playing the saxophone is hell of a thing to witness. It must surely be the most physically demanding musical performance I’ve ever seen. He seems drained by the end of every number, shaking out his hands and talking to the crowd to regain his breath and strength. The spectacle of a man wrestling an instrument almost as big as him is one thing but close your eyes and the music he’s playing is much less adversarial. Largely leaving aside the sort of full frontal skronk Zu were pushing through earlier Stetson’s playing is often remarkably delicate and supple for such a beast of an instrument. Droning and clanking a bit, but really a thing of tough beauty. From the sublime to the ridiculous then. Black clad and wearing sunglasses after dark Electronica Wizard might very well be a joke that got out of hand – yep, Electric Wizard and Sabbath covers on electronic gear – but they are doubling down on it, pushing it to work instead of playing for laughs and the result is both fun and convincing. Great slabs of filthy distorted sounds plus a pounding live drummer, electro doom could in fact have legs. Robot ‘Iron Man’ legs. I’m completely exhausted and really very drunk by the end of their set but I think they finished on ‘Children Of The Grave’. It was amazing

By the time we get to Zonal I’m about dead on my feet (where’s those robot legs?) and it’s all I can do to stand up in the face of the ridiculous bass warfare coming at me. Zonal is Kevin Martin and Justin Broadrick’s new post Techno Animal Project. A fun game to play this weekend has been a kind of Zonal bingo – which of Kev and Justin’s many projects does the band you’re watching sound most like? It’s not as easy as you’d think. Also, what Zonal were going to be like, apart from tremendously loud, was an open ended question. To which the answer is – they’re going to be very much like Techno Animal might be if they started it now. Sluggish hip hop beats, massive amounts of bass and a bunch of industrial drones and clangs over the top. Mix together the recent Bug Vs Earth and JK Flesh records and you’re close. It doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises then, even while being of a reassuringly high quality. Justin seems to be having a great time, swigging on cans and lurching about, bending over to crank a knob round sending another wave of noise crashing over the waves of bass. I can’t help imaging him chuckling ‘snoochie boochies’ to himself as Kev expressionlessly mans the controls. I’d be enjoying it more myself were we not at the ragged end of a long, long day. The dragging downbeats are pushing me into the arms of Morpheus. Night kids.

 

Screaming Into The Void : Supersonic Friday

We leave the calm and cultured atmosphere of the Town Hall behind and wander down to Digbeth for the start of the festival proper. Sadly we are denied a satisfying blast of Art Of Burning Water’s face melting power violence because one of them has hurt his hip loading in their gear, invoking the ‘we might be getting too old for this’ theme again. AOBW have been around a while but they are still one of the younger bands on the bill. So, it’s over to The Crossing to catch Charles Hayward who is certainly getting up there at the top end of the age range and is enjoying an incredible creative period of benign grandfatherly influence on a lot of younger musicians not merely through the records he made decades back but through his physical presence and hands on collaborations with them. For this set he’s on his own though, his remarkable drumming augmented by machines and his own occasional vocals. Watching Hayward play the drums is a wonder and a joy, complete mastery in the service of restless invention. Cheering on virtuosity for its own sake is pretty tiresome but he never does anything just to be flash, alongside the constant forward motion he maintains a sense things could go off in any direction at any moment but not collapse into chaos. Everything is free but he’s in control. The vocals are less awe inspiring and occasionally the songs tip the ‘dread hand of prog’ but then, that’s where he started out. The acts on the Boxxed stage tonight are threaded along one of this year’s strands, a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Napalm Death’s surprisingly enduring and influential masterpiece ‘Scum’. I say surprising as one of those grey beardy types who saw them play The Mermaid down the road all those years ago. While Napalm were prime movers on that scene and kind of the most fun, certainly the most extreme of the bands; it seemed like a musical dead end, pushing a strand of an already inward looking scene to an absurdist conclusion. They recorded ‘Scum’ for a split LP that didn’t happen, left it under the bed and two of its main architects had moved on before a new line up even recorded the second side. When you consider the work they all went on to do later it’s easy to see why they might have felt it had run its course. All three of the trio on side one are here this weekend one way or another. Nicholas Bullen is producing a special performance called ‘Universal Detention Centre’ that feeds samples of early Napalm Death recordings into his boxes of switches and electronic gadgetry and spews huge waves of filthy noise out into the crowd. It is suitably full on and abrasive from the start and, even with apparent technical glitches, does not let up until he’s done. He’s screaming away into a mic for a good deal of it although heaven knows what about as even that’s being processed and added to the roaring maelstrom. It is, I have to say, absolutely magnificent. I’m grinning from ear to ear like an idiot for the entire thing. This is not just any old racket, not the callow teen punk ranting of Nik Napalm. This is the full grown, multi-faceted, shifting and relentless racket of 30 years of disappointment.

Back in the big room Xylouris White look to be turning slowly into each other and by extension some sort of art-folk chuckle brothers although their stage presence is much less grating. Jim White is another captivatingly capable drummer who stares and smiles into the crowd, all the while playing fluid, rolling drums like he doesn’t even have to think about it. Has anyone started calling this post-folk yet? Let’s hope not, that sort of thing requires a slap. There’s something elemental about the music they make, it’s ancient and modern, wide screen but very human.

I have long been wary/terrified of Melt Banana. Their records often seeming like a screeching, insistent punishment for some unclear transgression. The fact they are playing the kids’ gig tomorrow, while making a small degree of sense, has also caused me some disquiet. Last year they toured and released a split with Napalm Death  although sadly they missed out on the fun to be had from a full on collaboration. What would be your choice of duet for Yasuko and Barney? ‘Something Stupid’ maybe? ‘Islands In The Stream’? It could work, check out their pleasing, if slighty too gentle, take on ‘We Will Rock You’. All my long held concerns about them are blasted away by the hyperactively thrilling onslaught of the live experience. Through a roaring pa, shaking the air around you, they sound so much bigger, the patchwork of noises so much richer and more complex. To be brutally honest Yasuko also sounds less gratingly chipmunk like. She bounces around the stage gleefully waving an illuminated multi-coloured chaos pad that looks like those old ‘Simon Says’ games. Tapping it sets off all manner of alarms, explosions and waves of noise. Simon says…Kawaii Grindcore Go!

A pattern is developing of uncontrollable grinning in the face of teeth rattling noise in a gutted warehouse alternating with more cerebral beard stroking delights in the comfortable fully equipped environs of The Crossing. This year there’s a third venue (Wild) squeezed in between them but I don’t actually make it in there tonight at all. Not just an extra stage but a fuller programme means there’s a lot more overlapping and clashing than before, there is always something to be watching and no way to do it all, leading to the familiar festival trade offs. So as we return to The Crossing Charles Hayward is back on stage, this time leading rag tag improv crew Anonymous Bash. Featuring bits of Gnod and grown out of a residency in their Islington Mill lab they’re a kind of limitless experimental multi genre sprawl held together by Hayward’s amazing percussion and experienced guiding hand. This can go either way I guess, last time I saw them they were a fantastic, joyous, communal party and everyone on and off stage was having an absolute whale of a time. But the ‘dread hand of prog’ has not been banished. Wearily conceding that tonight they sound quite a lot like Gong, we bail out and head elsewhere. In other circumstances we may have given them longer to pull it together but there’s all the fun happening elsewhere.

Not to worry because over in Boxxed local drum & bass monkeys PCM are closing things out with the usual assault of clattering beats and weird noises. Exhilarating and punishing in equal measure it puts that big dumb grin straight back on my face. As their part of the ‘Scum’ celebrations they’re throwing in some bonus grindcore samples and have got Mick Harris (inventor of the term ‘blast beat’ if not quite the actual beat) to record some new drum parts for them to work with. The last five to ten minutes of their set pushes this ferocious drum battery to glorious heights and forms a perfect end to the first day. Saturday is looking both incredible and really, really long.

A few days later, former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband will interview the current Napalm Death line-up on BBC Radio 2 and confess himself a huge fan. The world, or at very least the UK, is melting.

The End Of Words. Swans live

SWANS                                                                         The Asylum, Birmingham, 24 May

Mikey G bounces out onto the stage looking fit and full of fire and the band tear into ‘Celebrity Lifestyle’ off recently reissued ‘The Great Annihilator’ and the crowd goes wild, straight into ‘Love Of Life’, ‘Why Are We Alive’, ‘New Mind’, ‘Raping A Slave’ – all killer no filler, the hits just keep on coming on this farewell ‘Swan Songs’ tour . . .

Yeah, it’s not like that at all, obviously. Swans are indeed a band apart, they may be coming to the end of the current road but they are still on a mission. They take the stage alarmingly early and spend the first half hour patiently building a huge wall of drone. At crushing volume, naturally. They then play another two or three hours of mostly new material in their now familiar manner. It’s a huge, sweeping, dramatic and completely enveloping onslaught of sound, almost to the point of exhaustion. This manifestation of Swans is ending, although there’s little clarity on what that might mean. Thor’s already gone missing replaced by a keyboard player with a strong 70’s vibe, visually at least, mostly he just bashes hell out of it producing a right old racket. In Thor’s abscence Norman has become the coolest Swan, looking now more like a stoic guy at the counter of a hardware store than someone producing huge waves of guitar noise, he’s the calm balance to Gira’s permanent agitation. It’s an absolutely remarkable band, Gira goading and conducting them but a lot of communication is happening between everyone on stage as quite clearly the new music is very fluid. At points the whole seems anchored by nothing more than a bass throb, a clattering, churning storm on the point of breaking. There’s a live album available of the material they’re working on and no plans to record it apart from that. Even by Gira’s standards this seems rigorous to the point of ascetic. By universal consensus the reactivation of Swans about 8 years or so ago has been the glorious exception to the rule that reformations are bound to diminished returns. The key to that has been a desire to focus and push forward ideas from the original band into new forms with scarcely a look back over the shoulder. So on the one hand it’s no more than you’d expect, while on the other it seems a shame not to briefly revisit the extraordinary successes of the last few records before moving decisively on to a new chapter. The new stuff they’re playing is impressive but it also highlights that Gira is right to call time and look for a new path. The last album is great but somehow just sightly less so than its predecessors, things just slightly going off the boil, still looking but not quite finding the inspiration of ‘The Seer’ and ‘To Be Kind’ in quite such quantities. Perhaps Gira can see where the current path leads, to an album that’s just two huge, circling, hour long, dirges. Whether he’ll go back to more song based stuff like Angels Of Light or abandon it altogether is a mystery, lyrically there seems to be nothing to the new material but lengthy intonations of vowels which play to the glorious depths of his voice. Maybe, as Burroughs once mused ‘The old writer couldn’t write anymore because he had reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words’. Or not. The night’s concession to crowd pleasing showbidniss is the title track from the last album The Glowing Man in which we once again meet Gira’s alter ego/shadow self/muse/id Joseph – ‘Joseph is moving his tongue in my neck’. It slowly builds to it, and subsequently dissolves into exploratory territory again but when the groove locks in to that clipped central section there’s an hallucinatory clarity, Gira seems transcendent, it’s absolutely incredible. Joseph, you have to think, knows what he’s doing and where we’re going.

 

Jane Weaver’s Modern Kosmology

Jane Weaver                                                       Hare & Hounds, Birmingham,  18th May 

Jane Weaver is launching her impressive new record with a sold out show at The Hare. It’s her first for a while and she apologises unnecessarily for any mistakes (there don’t appear to be any) and for using idiot sheets for lyrics (she hardly looks at them). It’s busy in here, there are a number of elephants in the room – possibly not enough to rival the ones hindu cosmology has holding up the earth, but I’ve not conducted a full trunk count. First off – launching her impressive new record with a sold out show at The Hare is probably something Jane Weaver, only lately starting to see some success for a lengthy career in music is probably fairly happy about. For us though, she’s playing the small room, and surely she’s not only good, but popular, enough to move to the bigger one? These things can be hard to judge but it’s really getting rubbed in tonight by the fact the bigger room is hosting a parcel of braying youth indulging in gypsy jazz covers of Rage Against The Machine and other unspeakable crimes against taste, music, and our better natures. What we can say is that Modern Kosmology is a record of sufficient greatness and broad appeal it really should propel her to the next level. The biggest of the elephants in the room is painted orange and has groovy yellow lettering that reads ‘Space Age Batchelor Pad Music’ because yeah, it does sound quite a lot like Stereolab. Particularly in the first half of the album/set tonight. This is not a bad thing, and not a derivative or cheap thing. It’s like the bits of the recipe that didn’t make it into Caverns of Anti-Matter – bright retro organ sounds and gorgeous female vocals mostly – and most assuredly pressed into the service of an individual voice. Which brings us to the most looming of the herd – ‘Why is she wearing that absurd bacofoil shrug thing?’ My best guess is – um, space rock or something. It’s not stylish, it’s not comfortable, practical or becoming. It only lasts about three or four songs before she disposes of it joking “the things I do for you people”. We’re good Jane, really. It’s a little concession to showbiz but it also pinpoints a contradiction or duality. It’s there in the contrast of her singing and speaking voices as well. Her love for Hawkwind and the various musical nods to Kosmiche aside Weaver’s songs are more ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ than  ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, emotional and pastoral in feel there’s a peculiarly English quality in there that’s hard to pin down too. It feels like a warm day walking in the woods more than a wild trip through inner/outer space is what I’m saying. And that’s all to the good. Her synth, as if to prove the point, is called Gaia. Still a lot of psych folk in there I guess but the songs are not as twee as a title like ‘Did You See Butterflies?’ might suggest. There’s a point where the wheels almost come off and the groove curdles to a dull chug but it’s reassuringly brief, a not quite perfected ending to a song. It’s instantly forgotten as she straps on a guitar for the lovely, Velvety ‘Loops In The Secret Society’ kicking things up a notch and running into kraut-disco banger ‘The Architect’ and the lovely, swooning ‘The Lightning Back’. She makes the curious choice of ending on ‘Ravenspoint’ a circling, folky dirge enlivened on the album by the voice of Can’s Malcolm Mooney intoning thoughtfully about how we are all journeying to dust. It seems possible a tape of his vocal failed to play because without it, it doesn’t really work, even with it it’s hardly a showstopping flourish. Those are saved for the encores – a fantastic double punch of ‘I Need A Connection’ and ‘Don’t Take My Soul’, what an amazing, swooningly off kilter thing of pure pop joy it is.

 

Föllakzoid live

Föllakzoid                                                    Castle And Falcon, Birmingham,  20th May 

In which a trio of Chilean cosmonauts stop by for unexpected refuelling in Balsall Heath, perhaps scouring the scrapyards for parts, who knows? It’s their, and my, first visit to newly refurbed and relaunched venue The Castle and Falcon which makes for a pretty good little venue – comfortable, intimate and with good sound although possibly the band could have used a little more volume tonight. I’ve encountered The Föllakzoids on a previous occasion, stepping in to play a festival slot on a lazy beer soaked afternoon of sunshine. They were great then and although tonight they perform in blue tinted near-dark gloom it’s weirdly pleasing to see that the bass-zoid is still wearing his sunglasses. Continuity is important. Guitar-zoid has recklessly disregarded such wisdom and bleached his hair. Combined with the steady darkness on stage it gives his head the uncanny appearance of High Five Ghost floating about in front of the drums. Psychedelic, don’t you know.  Their sound is a slow and steady building pulse, they play the last record pretty much, with all the admirable patience and restraint that requires. There’s not much dynamic drama or melodic decoration, nor a particularly propulsive rhythm driving it along, it’s more spacious and laid back than that, almost like dub techno. The overall effect is calming and meditative but you need to lean into it. Playing three or four lengthy, near identical, numbers in this manner without even the decadent distraction of a light show is an impressive commitment to cosmic minimalism. It’s also fairly boring and so it’s greatly to the band’s credit that they just about get away with it. Your attention and investment is required and repaid if you can go with it. They are capable of catching you unaware and pulling you in like a hidden current but they’re not quite getting there tonight and a little extra crowd bludgeoning volume might have helped them get over. Their most recent recording is a couple of tracks off the last record reworked with J. Spacemen. Of course it is. For a while, about half way through the set, they appear to be little more than a Spacemen 3 tribute act (but pleasingly shorn of the tatty cultural baggage – smack chic, oil wheels, Lou Reed fixations and all that exhausted English psychedelic heritage). Some of us saw first hand last summer just how upsetting an actual Spacemen 3 tribute band can be and it provides an unexpected key to appreciating Föllakzoid’s achievement in cutting through the psychedelic jungle to clear their own space rock launch pad, if you take my garbled meaning. For what it’s worth the new versions are fine although it’s unclear what Jason has contributed to them other than making the band very happy indeed. I’m shocked tonight that they do actually have vocals because having seen them and listened to their recordings I still didn’t remember there being any. That’s certainly the next thing they could lose in their quest for ever simpler, more streamlined restraint. Blessedly they do not jam but towards the close of the set guitar-zoid drops the hand jive and starts to get a little crazier than previous with his effects pedals, they’re finally achieving escape velocity and tragically it’s “fasten your seatbelts please we’re coming in to land”. Next time maybe.