Tagged: avant-rock

Northern Sludge

Lost Head (BIOLOGICAL RECORDS BR-07) is the latest project we’ve received from the very wonderful Dave Cintron, American guitar all-rounder who has come our way on great recordings by other Cleveland bands Terminal Lovers and Scarcity Of Tanks, proving once again that great things breed in large swarms on the shores of Lake Erie. This time, Cintron is joined by fellow Terminal Lover drummer Scott Pickering and bassist Rick Kodramaz, and you could hear their 2014 debut performance on a CDR called Zen Pissed released by Tom Orange. Orange, who blurts the alto sax on this album, had the guts to call himself Orange Claw Hammer on one cassette, but given the superficially “Beefheartian” vibe of this squiggly record, it’s a forgiveable lapse.

Aye, the Lost Head have quickly developed their own very convincing take on a punky rock-jazz thing, and they do it with no straight lines or “tasteful” licks, just plenty of squirming energy and action-painting effects. It’s as though they were trying to recreate a version of Ornette’s Prime Time without hearing a single note of music and just going on a description they read in a jazz journal. A jazz journal whose pages had somehow become interleaved with Maximum Rock’N’ Roll, that is. On two of the strongest cuts here, ‘Escapee’s Lament’ and ‘Northern Sledge’, the quartet create an ingenious, amorphous gaseous purple ball of jazz-inflected noise, where the rhythm section are phenomenal – never once settling into a familiar groove and keeping the pulsebeat living and breathing by playing “around” the beat (as the great free jazz percussionists of the 1960s aimed to do). ‘Squeezing Graphene’ is a little more conventional with the souped-up funky rhythms as if aiming for a more wired, coked-up imitation of On The Corner by way of James Chance and The Contortions, but the energy falters not for one second.

‘Cargo Cult’ is cut from another cloth, a mysterious foray into scrapey noise, atmospheric mystery and forlorn guitar lines droning in dissonant manner. If it weren’t for Cintron’s tendency to occupy every space he can in the music (this seems to happen on every record he plays on, and he seeks out like-minded musicians who do the same), this track would be a genuine chiller. Drummer Pickering did the cover painting also. A great release from November 2016.

You Set The Scene

From OSR Tapes, we have a CD by Marlon Cherry (OSR73) which reissues two of his records – the 12-inch EP Life After Theatre from 1986 and Pete from 1990. This may be something of a rescue job by label boss Zach Phillips, who knows Marlon Cherry personally and is aware of Cherry’s presence in various New York City music scenes – playing at university dance classes, busking in the subway, and as a supporting member of various local bands. Originally from North Carolina, Cherry used to play bass in ANTiSEEN, Jeff Clayton’s punk band which formed in 1983, but he’s also played in Mecca Bodega, Afro-Jersey, Church Of Betty and The Roches. I never heard the music of any of these bands, although many of them are represented on Chris Rael’s label Fang Records in NYC, and their music may include elements of funk, soul, and experimental rock.

The same musical broad-mindedness shows up on all the songs on this CD comp, on which Marlon wrote everything, sings, and plays all the instruments…he’s turned in a hugely enjoyable set of melodic songs, with elements of funky rock, psychedelia and easy listening (he even pays tribute in song to Arthur Lee, an obvious precedent), and with his confident singing Marlon at a stroke reclaims the whole rock’n’soul thing from Hall And Oates, in the service of his highly original songs. Very impressed by Marlon’s facility with playing and singing music, and the unfussy production technique is also a winning plus on both records. Incidentally the 1986 12-incher was produced by Jeff Murdock, who played with Cherry in The Streets Living Theater on their sole record in 1983. The front cover painting to this one, depicting a mysterious urban tragedy, is by Alexander Clark. Delighted to hear this (to me) unknown gem, from 28th October 2016.

Psychedelic Train

Many years ago we received and noted two unusual records from Cream Of Turner Productions, a label based in Philadelphia. Both Heart Land and Sunlore existed in vinyl editions, but in 2011 they sent us CDR versions which had been hand-crafted to a high degree, using art materials, in order to resemble exact miniatures of their vinyl counterparts. The musicians David Marino, Ron Lent, Bill Errig and Ahmed Salvador (joined by Ford Sylvester on one of the LPs) created two dream-like records of intense, dank, psychedelic music, fit for restless sleepwalkers. In my mind I filed these records alongside those by Heart Of Palm, the Chicago unknowns who somehow fail to create much of a stir anywhere, yet create fine krautrock-inspired music on their own terms.

Well, after some six years, Cream Of Turner have finally managed to release their third LP, Union Pacific Vol. 1. (CT./458) credited to Heart Land. David Marino and Ahmed Salvador are still active and play on this one, along with Matthew Pruden, the guitarist Peter Tramo, the bass player Wilbo Wright, and the excellent vocalist Patrice Carper. The entire record is based around the recording of a model train set, which is close-miked or amplified in some way, in order to generate abstract electronic sounds. On top of this shifting mechanical drone, Patrice Carper contributes her free-form moaning vocals, and the work is supplemented by layers of guitar, bass and percussion. No keyboards or synths in sight, which might seem slightly surprising given the very droney and kosmische feel of this record. It seems to tread roughly the same inter-galactic ground as Tangerine Dream or Cluster, achieving the sensations of infinite distance and space-travel largely through use of echo, amplification, and effects. I like the idea that this sense of vastness is conveyed through such modest means, i.e. the sound of a miniature train set; it seems to say something about the possibilities of art, and how we could all be bounded in a nutshell and count ourselves the king of infinite space.

While this music may be languid and spaced-out, delivered in a slightly hippy-drippy fashion (not even the soggiest Steve Hillage records were this laid-back), it’s evidently being played in real time by real human beings playing real instruments, responding to changes in timbre and direction, and not following a programmed path nor needing to be propped up by digital processing or synthesis. What emerges on the record may feel unfinished – Heart Land haven’t yet figured out how to end their lengthy explorations in a satisfactory manner – but in this instance, it creates a convincing environment which surrounds and nurtures the listener. In this, Heart Land and the label fulfil their goal of creating their “own personal hybrid of improvised psychedelic and avant-garde music”. I’m slightly disappointed by the cover. It’s not a great design, and more to the point it weakens the mystique of the music to see these rather ordinary photos of the musicians at work, no matter how evocative the lighting and colour scheme may be. Still, a minor quibble when you have such an unusual and pleasing item in your hands. From 7th September 2016.

Saturn Radio Waves

Güiro Meets Russia
Dystopia
SPAIN VERLAG SYSTEM VS011 CD (2016)

Nice, heady German Kosmische/Progressive-flavoured synth-gush on offer here. Plaudits and acclaim for that from me, straightaway. Of course the big names like Faust, Can and Neu! are massively influential and their varied mythologies are attractive to those of a certain age, myself included. If I make overt and unnecessary references to Ash Ra Tempel, Cosmic Jokers, Popol Vuh, Cluster, Amon Duul and similar others during the course of this review I apologise – I read Future Days, David Stubbs’ overview of the 1970s German progressive scene, recently. So I’ll try to control myself. This Spanish duo’s own press release states their interests as “…IDM, Cold Wave, Synth Pop and Kosmische Music…” I don’t get the Cold Wave reference as much as the Kosmische, but it’s good to hear younger practitioners of this type of music; like Jupiter Lion or – perhaps more tenuously – one of my favourite young bands at the moment; Ulrika Spacek. These days, even some of the remaining old psyche favourites are made up of young musicians these days, take Nik Turner’s Inner City Unit, Faust (both versions), or perhaps Gong, who seem to be currently made up of people who weren’t even born in the seventies, let alone the sixties. No matter. There’s a suitably urgent start to this cosmic banana. “Rootless” is just that – a kind of exhilarating, rudderless plunge into wild, arpeggiated, motorik territory. The title track is built around a relentless home-entertainment keyboard drum preset, while woozy synth pads waver in pitch by one or two percent. Chiming melody gives way to celestial, decellerating sirens. The third track, “Die Reise” displays Güiro Meets Russia’s most obvious krautrock influences, but that’s no problem for me; I’m in just the right kind of mood for it. “The Possibility Of An Island” is more laid-back with its 4/4 mid-tempo rhythm and great swells of synthesiser. Things proceed in this way for an appropriate duration until finally, to finish things off, GMR move into more relaxed Gong or Hillage territory with “Deus ex Machina”. Something new for Steve Davis’ DJ-ing record box for sure. But who are GMR? I don’t know – I’ve spent longer than was probably wise trawling the interweb in order to try to find out – but all to no avail. It doesn’t matter. Rest assured there is nothing dystopian about this record despite its title – perhaps the title is ironic, or perhaps a more abstract political comment. Either way it’s good, and deserves your attention.

Bandcamp page

From the Lap of Cougar

May I declare myself a long-standing fan of MX-80 Sound, one of the more unusual American bands to have ever been tagged with a New Wave or No Wave label, a love affair which began when I snarfed up a UK Island pressing of their Hard Attack LP in Coventry. It was a time when Woolworths still existed, they still sold vinyl records, and they marked down items they couldn’t sell, so I secured this tasty zonkeroo for about 50p. Since I was also in love with The Residents at the time, it wasn’t too long before I found out about MX-80 Sound’s superb LP releases for Ralph Records, namely Out Of The Tunnel and Crowd Control, all of them gems. I’m still looking for an original of Big Hits, their debut EP, but it’s rare and costly. Byron Coley, who has done the press for the band’s new LP So Funny (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR250) is also a loyal supporter I assume, since he interviewed the band for Forced Exposure magazine in 1991 and put them on the cover too. During that interview, he demonstrated arcane knowledge of their discography that even the band didn’t know about. Coley also penned an authoritative essay on this Indiana band for the Superior Viaduct CD reissue of Hard Attack, a release which is worth owning for that sleeve note alone, although the remastering of it is also excellent. Well, MX-80 Sound never gave up in all that time, despite lack of commercial success; my 50p cut-out story is only one manifestation of their inexplicable inability to sell large numbers of records.

1977’s Hard Attack pretty much comes roaring out at you like an out-of-control heavy truck, except you then realise the truck is following a crazy roller-coaster route of its own making and the drivers and passengers have a laconic, offbeat sense of humour, and mean no harm. On So Funny, there may not be the same effusive and scratchy energy, but the core trio of Bruce Anderson, Dale Sopheia and Rich Stim still have their own unique electrical voice. On these grooves, I would characterise it as a weird blend of guitar chords creating mixed frequencies that probably shouldn’t really work, but they do. I have that same sensation of being drenched, almost drowned, by these guitars as I enjoyed in 1981. I also savour the way that all the guitar parts are slightly mismatched, as if we were hearing the aural equivalent of an off-register screenprint made by Andy Warhol and his team; MX-80 Sound have never seemed to particularly care for being a “tight” band, and it’s one of their greatest strengths. Stim’s singing voice is another irreplaceable element, and I still savour the bemused tone he evinces as he rattles off his slightly surreal lyrics and slanted observations. Why did we ever settle for Michael Stipe when we had Rich Stim?

This LP, recorded in California around 2013-2015 (the band moved to the Bay Area in the 1970s, which is probably how they hooked up with The Residents and could be aligned with the SF New Wave “scene”) was originally issued as a file-based album on 2015 on their own label, and now surfaces on vinyl. The band are fleshed out by a new drummer, Nico Sophiea, and the guitarist Jim Hrabetin (who also played on two Family Vineyard releases in the late 1990s). Original drummer Marc Weinstein sings on one track. Along with the songs, the band continue their preoccupation with surf guitar-like instrumentals, and soundtrack music – hence cover versions of ‘A Man And A Woman’, John Barry’s ‘Goldfinger’, and oddest of all the ‘X-Files’ theme. None of these are taken completely seriously, and the sleek menace of the James Bond tune is replaced by a faintly absurdist humour. The X-Files music ends up far stranger than the original theme, and seems to emerge from a place that accepts alien abduction and UFOs as everyday occurrences. I’m delighted with this record, and only the goofy cover painting by Rhode Montijo puzzles me. Even so it’s possible to read that image as a metaphor for the way that veteran bands like MX-80 Sound are treated by the uncaring youth of today. From 6th September 2016.

Blood’s A Rover

Time for me to brush up on Mark Cunningham’s career, following the receipt of the new LP by his Blood Quartet. Cunningham was a member of the “incendiary” No Wave group Mars, a band whose flame the label Feeding Tube Records are determined to keep burning through the steady release of live recordings that keep surfacing from the brief career of this important band. Along with two other members of Mars, he joined forces with Ikue Mori to make the one-of-a-kind John Gavanti record, a distorted rock opera epic composed mostly by Sumner Crane and released by Hyrax Records in 1980. After 1981, Cunningham took more of an art-rock / jazz fusion direction when he joined Don King, a quartet with Lucy Hamilton from Mars and the bass player from Pere Ubu. Cunningham had picked up his trumpet by this point, and before long he was playing alongside Pascal Comelade in the Bel Canto Orchestra, then in the 1990s as part of a Spanish trio called Bèstia Ferida. I think Blood Quartet is a more recent venture; at any rate, the only other release by them we know of is a cassette from 2015 on a Spanish label.

Deep Red (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR 283) is their first vinyl release, and the very accomplished and assured band are effectively banging out an abrasive jazz-rock mix enriched with occasional sputterings of analogue synth – both the guitarist Lluis Rueda and bassist Kike Bela play Korgs, but most of the discordant waywardness of this record comes from the mangled guitar work and juddering time signatures that tie drummer Candid Coll into an Iberian knot. No conventional arrangements or structures to these slightly formless tunes, nor pleasing major-seventh chords played on a Fender Rhodes; the only concession to “jazz” as we might recognise it is Cunningham’s trumpet sound, which when fed through the echoplex is squarely in the Bitches Brew mould. But even so the players deny themselves the element of “muscular funk” that’s often associated with Electric Miles, and Blood Red mostly exudes a cold, steely, passionless take on the world. Even when the band apparently think they’re playing conventional rock, it comes out damaged and dispirited, performed by men broken on the wheels of authority after a failed revolution.

Even so, don’t be fooled by the subdued tone; there’s a subtle power lurking under the surface of this album, and it’s impressive how the combo pack so much density into comparatively short tunes. Most pieces here weigh in at the four-minute mark, yet they feel longer somehow, more grandiose in their epic ambitions. A band like Earth often required five times as much time and space to get to the same zones of melancholic sombreness. All recorded live in the studio with no edits or overdubs, so unlike Miles no need of a Teo Macero figure to build up music in a composite fashion. Frederic Navarro created the alarming red cover, and needless to remark the LP is pressed in red vinyl. From 6th September 2016.

The Horrid Mysteries Revisited

Cologne Curiosities: The Unknown Krautrock Underground 1972-1976 (MENTAL EXPERIENCE MENT005) is another outing for the recordings made by English producer Toby Robinson when he was working in Cologne in the 1970s. Using the Dieter Dierks studio during downtime, he produced a series of records for his own Pyramid label, issuing the LPs with cover paintings produced I think by local art students. Robinson played on a number of these projects, and the largely unknown musicians were swapped around between bands much like a Kosmische Wrecking Crew. Some of the Pyramid label records were reissued around 1996-97 by Gary Ramon on his Psi-Fi imprint, and indeed we noted them in issue #2 of TSP magazine. Around the same time, Trevor Manwaring was compiling tracks for the Virgin compilations Unknown Deutschland – The Krautrock Archive. It was at a time when there was a lot of interest in rediscovering krautrock in the UK. Some experts in the field had their doubts that the records were even genuine, but I think this myth has now been dispelled. I’d go so far as to ask myself how “unknown” these bands really are now, given that this is the third reissue programme for this music (and Mental Experience promise more to come).

The Astral Army – in their themes, not unlike Gong making wild claims about the power of radio waves and space travel. In sound, they made a heavy-handed rock pounding with excessive lead guitar noodling, and a singer who seems to be imitating Iggy for no good reason. Score 1 so far for a typically stodgy 70s Germanic sausage-fest…

Spirulina features the keyboard player Manfred Hof who also played on the Golem record from this label. ‘The Message’ is a superb piece of Pink Floyd exploratory drifting with a lush string-synth drone. Wisely, the band stay in the same place pretty much for ten mins, with some slightly more energetic freaking out as they reach a stargate dimensional warp at the end. What message is vouchsafed on this instrumental noodle? None at all, and I’m grateful for that.

Chronos were a three-piece of guitar-bass-drum nobodies which Toby Robinson used as a platform for his far-out synth burblings on ‘Schaudernacht’. Robinson soars like an analogue flying squirrel over the ancient rooftops of Cologne, but the guitarist isn’t doing the music many favours with his insistent strums and riffs, which eat up most of the available ether. Even so, there’s an urgency to this one that could easily have passed muster with the most astringent and austere New Wave band of 1979.

On ‘Feuerwerk’, Neil Andersen gives free expression to his soul through a solo guitar and synth turn, overdubbing himself as needed. Can’t resist saying that as a “firework” it’s a very damp squib. Not enough structure or inherent melody to this soggy morass for my ears. But the overall sound is strangely pleasing. With his meandering burbles, Andersen might have found a home in MIMEO that sprawling improv orchestra of the early 2000s, whose music resembles this in a superficial way.

Baal features members of Spirulina and Chronos, showing how the Pyramid label could build “house bands” through interchangeable versatile players. Their song ‘No God / Astaroth’ stands out on this comp for its coarse, snarly textures – it’s a blues-based growl presumably containing some lament of protest about society’s restrictions. They may have had Edgar Broughton Band in mind as a model, yet it also emerges inadvertantly as one of Viv Stanshall’s blues-inflected parodies. The weedy keyboard soloing is quite at odds with the aggressive push of this boozy grunt-a-fest.

Ten To Zen is the band for you if you snarfed up this comp in hopes of feeding your Tangerine Dream fixation. This band comprised three synth players, Dieter Ruf, Henni Gatjens, and Jan Klaska. Their ‘Innerst’ thus stands alone in this company for being all-electronic, but the fellows also have a strong rapport as a team, and their three machines – hopefully those enormous Moogs that were housed in mahogany cabinets – lock together in a satisfying cosmic throb. Ten To Zen also were capable of nuances and delicacy in their tonal shadings, an achievement which it’s hard to attach to most of the other thumpers on this label.

Fuerrote sees Neil Andersen back in action, this time teaming up with Toby Robinson and the guitarist Hans Lorenzen. Their ‘Ganz Wie Due Willst’ is one of the stronger sets on the record, has more by way of dynamic change and illogical shifts in mood, and generally casts the same sort of grisly hue as The Nazgul, which was one of the darker-themed Robinson projects from this period. The trio work themselves into a genuinely unsettling and uncertain place through their stately, free-form explorations, enhanced by just the right amount of studio effects.

These seven cuts can be yours to savour yet again, on double vinyl LP or CD. Remastered by Toby Robinson and with liner notes by Alan Freeman. From 6th October 2016.

Bear With

Otso
Dendermonde
FRANCE ELLI RECORDS EL-03 CD (2016)

Otso Lähdeoja is a Finnish composer, guitarist and “omnidirectional researcher of all things sonic”, who also describes himself as a “man of many faces and many places”. One of those faces is ursine, judging by the cover of this CD. There he is, capering about in a bear mask on some unsafe-looking walkways over a frozen lake, like Disney’s Baloo transported north of the Arctic Circle. Time to forget about your worries and your strife, then, with four tracks of “music for phantoms and ancestors”.

This is a small but perfectly formed offering which confounded my expectations quite pleasantly. There’s a fair amount of glitchy hissing, field recording and distorted vocal samples, which at first made me think it was going to be standard electronica/ambient/experimental fare. But it quickly became clear that this is actually a psychedelic rock record with modern avant-garde trappings.

Opening track “QC Underground” sets the pace, as the vocal loop quickly gives way to some chewy guitar figures and harmonica drones. I also like the title, which suggests some sort of clandestine organisation of barristers. Next up, “Banshee”, where murky bass and drums open up into sunshine bursts of full-throttle Hendrix-style guitar. “0verwinning” reminds me of the more pastoral interludes of ‘70s German kosmische bands, before it all ends in the harmonica fantasia of “Mue End”.

Apparently, the album was conceived as an act of “technologic shamanism”, the bear acting as a totem that connects current and past lives. It’s also described as a search for an “electronic blues” sound, which I kind of get, as it has that feel about it, without being blues, as such. That seems like quite a lot to try and achieve in four short tracks, but you can’t fault the ambition.

Concise, focused and rather lovely. If you’re a bear with a sore head, this might just sort you out.

Long-Winded Small Talk

The Dwarfs Of East Agouza
Bes
UK / USA NAWA RECORDINGS NAWA005CD CD (2015)

A recent chapter in ex-Sun City Girl Alan Bishop’s saga of map-hopping exploits catches him in Cairo-based cahoots with like-minded lunatics Sam Shalabi and Maurice Louca for a turbulent turn in team-building. At the risk of selling it as Bishop’s thing, The Dwarfs of East Agouza sound like they might have been distant cousins of the Sun City Girls, had they grown up in post Arab-Spring Cairo instead of Phoenix. But it’s very much an egalitarian effort; blending distinctively non-western percussion, rambling microtonality and the awkward/irascible brand of echo-peddling psych-rock the Girls would lapse into now and again. And as per efforts such as Valentines From Matahari, there’s an assurance that the music’s charms will not be immediately evident.

What’s quickly clear however is that all sense of restraint has been canned: jams ring out in all directions for up to thirty minutes and ain’t about to stop for your peace of mind, nor mine. Or else they ramble on in muttered tones like Bishop’s Uncle Jim in caustic toad mode. In few other conditions could ‘Baka of the Future’ fake it as a sampler track, where itching beneath a bouncy bassline and narcotic organ riff we hear the signature scrapings of Alvarius B’s Jackson Pollock guitar. Skip through the 10-minute excursion and witness the trio almost suffocating in its own smog; the boys getting their groove on where most of us experience mental problems. Yet despite this airborne aggravation, their initial aimlessness achieves lucidity in all cases, and after repeat playbacks their sounds soak deeper into the nervous system.

For all the music’s purported lack of polish, there’s also a sense that the Dwarfs are trying hard not to sound like they’re trying hard. They want not for impish mischief nor discipline, and were it not for poly-musician Louca’s rhythmic chops and unseated tonal stylings, Shalabi and Bishop’s jagged and disgruntled string manipulations would be on much shakier ground. His horse-powered hand-drumming brings calm cohesion to the same chaos his shape-shifting keyboard modulations help to create; encompassing the whole nine yards between Arthur Russell-style organ stabs on ‘Hungry Bears Don’t Dance’ and opiate-drowned dream imagery in ‘Resinance’, both of which aim to resituate us in less defined modes of being. I will take this opportunity to remind you to buy his excellent solo album, Salute The Parrot.

The 30-minute ‘Museum of Stranglers (I-III)’ is everything you’d expect from a cosmic, side-long closer: A climatic creatio ex nihilo in dead air of echo pedal guitars; flutters of Alan Bishop’s recent post-skronk saxophony; the wooziest, most Lovecraftian electronics to manifest thus far; psych-rock tropes unleashed in full force; long stretches of little evident interest; time folding between threadbare lows and celestial highs where oblique and charged power lines soar, bestial purrs and gurgles taper to zero and an inverted, no-wave reprise (of sorts) of the opening theme marking our return to the point of origin. Even for a group with such avowedly irrational proclivities this lurching epic is a perversely gratifying patience-tester; the longer one listens, the stronger the sense of dissociation. A worthy debut to be sure!

Love Over Gold: This Is Not This Heat Live

This Heat at the Barbican Sat 4 March 2017

Second outing for this unusual musical venture which calls itself This Is Not This Heat; two original members from the trio This Heat, plus a number of additional musicians drawn from the worlds of art-rock, free improvisation, and just plain good music. Not the first outing; it came, out of nowhere almost, to Café Oto for a two-night residency in February 2016, which I completely missed. Reports were good – emotions ran high; loyal fans in tears, listeners travelling long distances from beyond the seas to catch the event.

I was overwhelmed by the Barbican night, the power and the beauty of the music. The songs and tunes from the band’s concise output (2 LPs, one 12-inch) which I know so well were running through my head, playing in parallel to these new versions performed on the stage. I’m going to try to account for why it was such a success.

Collaborative, for one thing. Musicians including James Sedwards, improvising bass player John Edwards, violinist and keyboard player Merlin Nova, drummer Frank Byng…not to mention star names Thurston Moore and Chris Cutler. These players are not only able to produce highly convincing versions of the “original” arrangements, but also brought new ideas, new “textures”, to each piece. Purists may have wanted an exact replica of the albums This Heat or Deceit performed on stage, in the manner of acts at the South Bank (which I have seen and enjoyed) that gave us Forever Changes and Pet Sounds, classic albums re-created live on stage, by well-drilled experts. Instead, we got much more, something much deeper.

When I think of added depth…I heard it in the tunes, and most importantly, in the songs. Oh the songs! This Heat wrote great songs! 1 I almost forgot how, on record, there’s such a striking mix of voices, high and low tones, weird harmonies clashing, the grain of many voices, unexpected intervals that leave you breathless. That rich quality was built on, by the trio of dedicated vocalists Jenny Moore, Luisa Gerstein and Laura Groves, joining Hayward and the other singers; a polyphony of voices. The harmonies now became unbearably beautiful. Conversations, previously obscured in the original recordings, suddenly came forth. Meanings were enriched, and deepened. Obscure lyrics – beautiful poetry – were suddenly now audible, and readable like books. Most prominent successes to illustrate this: ‘Music Like Escaping Gas’ (“There She Blows…”), ‘The Fall of Saigon’, and ‘Independence’. And how could I forget ‘Sleep’, on stage a bittersweet delight of unbearable poignancy, an achingly brief moment which you wish you could have put in a bottle like vintage wine. Heck, all the songs benefited from this process of blending avant-garde doo-wop and Gesualdo madrigal singing, by way of angst-ridden post-punk groanings. I’ll say it again – This Heat always wrote great songs, and didn’t just make a “noise” or free-form experiments in the studio. Let’s move the spotlight away from Scott Walker’s latest over-contrived pieces for one moment, and give Charles Hayward his due as a composer.

Pause. Perhaps my readers would like a more prosaic account of the evening at The Barbican. Well, This Is Not This Heat came on after the interval, preceded by two solo sets by the original members. The one by Charles Hayward was a mix of icy-cold romantic and melancholy songs with him performing on the grand piano and crooning. But he also moved strangely about the stage rattling percussion. Even more strangely wheeling a speaker around in a pram. The speaker made a droning sound. Hayward wailed like a baby, but this seemed to have been part of a much wider domestic narrative about a sad commuter returning to his “happy” home in the evening. A bleak view of life to be sure, but an honest one. Hayward was not one for effusive communication with his fans, and entered and left the stage with a very becoming deal of modesty. Charles Bullen, who now cuts a remarkable figure with his Victorian whiskers, was even less demonstrative. Barely looking at us, he sat behind his table on which may have been mounted a prepared guitar of some sort, and set to work with deliberation. What emerged was incredibly minimal tones in a slew of repeated phrases that nearly drove this listener mad – a kind of restricted cross between electronic Gamelan and Terry Riley. Yet something struck home. Overheard in the lobby afterwards: “Yeah, but you can still hear This Heat in that stuff, somehow.” Good observation, stranger. In between these acts: screening of a film by the 1970s structuralist film-maker John Smith called The Black Tower. unlike Peter Gidal and the more hard-core members of the London Film-Makers Co-op, Smith decided to meet the audience halfway, and went back to telling stories in the 1980s, hence this unsettling suburban fable about the pernicious and unseen effects of an unknown outer force (most likely a metaphor for monopoly capitalism).

Then This Is Not This Heat after the interval. A crowd-pleasing ending with green laser lights. Who would have thought that it would be possible to play ‘24 Track Loop’, originally a concoction of the studio mixing desk, on stage? Hayward may say it’s now possible to do that because technology has improved now, but I think there are other factors, other reasons that have brought matters to this point.

To try and explain what I mean, let’s revisit that collaborative theme. At one level, I think it means something that it takes 14 musicians to build one This Heat, indicating the power of the original trio must have been…quite considerable. But I am probably imagining those 1980s gigs (I never saw the band at the time) to have been more than they were. But perhaps it also takes 14 musicians to create this reconstruction, this reimagination of the songs and the tunes, to make them even greater than before. The nuances and details are all there on the original records – incidentally inviting one to go back and re-examine those grooves, where not a single second was wasted in communicating through sound, gesture, word, music, editing, layering…

The team effort also says something to me about how, through music, we can build on stage a working model of how human relations could change, how society could work better. Even if it’s just for two hours on stage, we can learn from it. John Stevens, the UK improviser, believed strongly in this possibility, and manifested it in all of his directed team efforts, harnessing the energy of great musicians to show a way of living, working and doing that was a model of how a co-operative society could work. I’ve always thought This Heat believed in that too; at the Barbican, they proved it.

Some media write-ups and appraisals have pointed out the gap between the original This Heat and this event; for instance, the concert handout tells us it’s been 40 years since the band’s first gig in 1976. Well, maybe this isn’t really a gap; I would argue that it has in fact been a necessary waiting process, a maturation. The band This Heat had to exist in the 1970s and 1980s, in order to influence musicians Thurston Moore and many others (becoming a “cult” band, I suppose, much as I hate that term), and the impact of their work sunk into the culture in a gradual way. Think of it as a slow release of benign energy, a healing and changing power. The time is now right for that cycle to complete; by bringing their own history, with This Heat DNA mixed into it, the 14 musicians were able to realise the “perfect” version of This Heat we saw in March 2017. If I am right in these fervoured ravings, maybe the event says something about the way culture ought to happen; it’s not instant, it’s slow, and mysterious, but when it works – it’s a glorious and unstoppable force for good.

Comparisons therefore with, say, Young Marble Giants, and their reunion gigs, are probably not in the same league. I love YMG and their 1980 album. But somehow their music got hermetically sealed into a 1980-1981 time capsule, and its influence has not really rooted itself in culture, other than being a reference for “hip” bands to name-check, often by people who have little real understanding of their music. I am fairly sure their “reunion” gig at Meltdown in 2015 (I did not attend) would have been pretty much the exact same songs played the exact same way, with no evidence of a deepening process. Sure, a rock fan addicted to the cult of personality and some idea of “authenticity” might well say that seeing the “original members” trumps everything. But This Is Not This Heat gives us a different angle on that. This is Not This Heat, it’s This Heat Plus.

  1. Hayward has spoken movingly of the songs greeting him like old friends, saying “where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you”.