Tagged: songs

Saint Paul In The Yantra

Welcome return to these pages of Susan Matthews, the fey musician from South Wales from whom we haven’t heard since A Kiss For The Umbrella Man, her highly personal take on the music of Erik Satie, noted in 2012. Her record From Veliko (SIREN WIRE RECORDINGS SW108) is a shortish work, just three tracks in 14 minutes, but it’s a very heartfelt statement. Piano, keyboards, voice and field recordings are used to create a spell-binding mix of songs, tunes, mood pieces, and poetic observations, and the theme is highly emotionally charged. Part of it is derived from an actual trip to Veliko Tarnovo, and the artist’s take on wandering around this beautiful medieval city. She was particularly struck by the hanging houses, which are poised on the edge of a gorge above the Yantra river and in imminent danger of falling into the water, if they haven’t already done so. Crumbling foundations, ancient buildings, clinging onto a precipice – it doesn’t require much imagination to apply these elements to the human condition, and realise how close we all are to tipping over into melancholy, despair, or even madness. Matthews also alludes to “a metaphor for a psychological journey from the darkness of depression back towards the light”, a highly personal revelation, and one which takes some fortitude to admit to and deal with. If Susan Matthews is working out her personal problems through music, she has succeeded admirably with this understated yet highly cathartic music; I defy anyone to hear her fragile voicings and subdued but intense piano work on this record without being deeply moved. From 17th October 2016; was also released by Pilot Eleven.

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.

White Death (self-titled): out of icy Arctic cold comes sudden terror striking fast to the core

White Death, self-titled, Finland, Werewolf Records, CD digipak Evil-040 (2017)

Named after Simo Häyhä the famous Finnish sniper said to have killed over 500 enemy combatants during the 1939 – 1940 Winter War against the Soviet Union, this band from Lappeenranta aims to do the same to you as its namesake did over 70 years ago: out of the icy cold and silent Arctic comes forth sudden terror, striking swiftly and killing you stone dead, then disappearing back into the blank whiteness as mysteriously as it arose. Well maybe killing you stone dead is overkill; the band members might be more interested in stunning you temporarily with precision-cut rock-blasting icy black metal that harks back to the classic second wave of Norwegian BM.

Opening track “Born of Unholy Fire” shoots straight between the eyes and ears with its payload of dense blackened rifferama and nuclear-powered blast-beat percussion. The crabby vocals, spilling out lyrics of defiant Satanic worship, nearly trip over the words as fast as they come out and are best treated as another sonic textural element in the rapid-fire music. There are death metal influences in some of the song’s rhythms and a strong melody in parts. Most songs are actually very distinctive in their riffs and melodies – some even have catchy pop hooks – even though they’re super-fast and if you sneeze at the wrong time, they’re gone forever. For all their speediness, the songs flow well and possess quite a lot of drama and mood. Early songs like “Kaste” and “Immortal Hunter of the Moon” pack in enough distinct riff and melody hooks that they could be ideal singles if the band ever considers angling for a more commercial audience.

While faster, more aggressive tracks like “Goat Emperor” have their appeal, slower songs like “Warpath” are a better showcase of the band’s talents and ability to incorporate melody and work in rhythm structures and mood to produce complex music in very self-contained songs. The faster songs come earlier in the album, giving way to slower songs with a greater range of mood and expression and which sometimes reach quite epic and majestic proportions. The closing track is the most complex and varied of all, including as it does an acoustic guitar introduction, a mix of melodic hard rock and BM, and matching voices that give the song a hardcore punk edge.

The album has something to satisfy nearly everyone, from die-hard old-school BM fans to those who like pop melodies or dense, almost symphonic metal that reaches for the stars, without sounding forces or calculating. White Death pay their respects to classic second-wave BM in a highly individual and often quirky way that’s minimalist and straightforward in style.

Big Gold Dream

Vivien Goldman
Resolutionary
GERMANY STAUBGOLD 141 CD / LP (2016)

My recollections of singer/journo/broadcaster Vivien Goldman only really amount to two things: her role as a guest vocalist with the Flying Lizards and as a co-presenter on T.V.’s “Big World Café” 1, where her green leather suit was seen as a triumph of left-field tailoring by yours truly. So, if like me, you’ve missed out on a fair bit of her back product, the Staubgold retrospective, joining the dots between releases on labels various, will be a precious godsend. Initially Viv began seriously vocalising as an oohs’n’aahs backing singer on a number of Adrian Sherwood productions, but her real debut in the post-punk spotlight began with a pair of tracks with the aforementioned Flying Lizards. An amorphous entity in which members of Aswad and The Slits mingled with the cream of the capital’s avant garde. “Her Story” and “The Window” are extracted from the Lizards’ debut full-lengther. The second cut, a lyrically ambiguous piece of deconstructed post punkery has a sweetness and light vocal waft that certainly masks a darker couplet or two. “…sometimes I think he’s a vampire, he’s making holes to drain blood…” A supernatural threat from Mr. Alucard or an instalment from an abusive/controlling relationship? Perplexing ain’t in it.

“Launderette”/”Private Armies”/”P.A. Dub” was initially put out as a Rough Trade and/or 99 Records twelve-incher and was overseen by the Lydon/Levine/Goldman triumvirate. Track one’s storyboard must surely rank as one in a miniscule number of songs that sets a romantic tryst in a coinwash (the other that springs to mind being “Little Does She Know” by The Kursaal Flyers). The darker, anthemic “Private Armies” and its dub obverse links male impotence with gun fetishism (sounds about right…) amid rubbery bass action and Viv’s withering sarcasm, delivered again in high register, where butter wouldn’t melt.

Chantage (formed with fellow chantoosie Eve Blouin) came together, albeit briefly, in the early eighties when Viv upped sticks to Paris. Their one-off on the Celluloid imprint sees a thirteen-deep throng (including Steve Beresford and The Pop Group’s Bruce Smith) blurring styles like it’s going out of fashion. All manner of contempo genres morphing seamlessly into this gallic melting pot. “Do it Twice” (a Wailers cover) and “It’s Only Money” with its exuberant steel pans, backporch violin and supple African guitar lines were so goshdarn commercial/eighties radio friendly, easily leaving their contemporaries like Weekend and Carmel eating stale quiche. I’m amazed that an album containing more hook-laden cosmopolitan chic failed to get off the blocks.

Viv’s creative wellspring certainly hasn’t run dry as the “Punk Professor of the N.Y.U.” has recorded house twelve inchers and co-written tracks with Coldcut and Massive Attack etc etc…but I doubt whether Staubgold would dip their toes into those particular waters thirty odd years down the pike. So, for me, it’s the 1979 to ’82 portion of Ms. G’s past that I’ll set a place.

  1. Major bonus points go to this programme for its reactivation of the hardboiled/noir “Johnny Staccato” series with the ultra-cool John Casssavetes in the title role.

Fyodor’s Wild Years

A real one-of-a-kind record is Russian Canon (FROZEN LIGHT FZL 037), a record credited to Fake Cats Project, a trio featuring Kirill Makushin, Igor Levshin, and Alexei Borisov, which they only started in 2015 yet they’re already produced four records, of which this is one. Can’t find out much about the project or the band, although Alexei Borisov is well known and respected on these pages, and is probably my favourite avant-garde Russian musician (along with Kurt Liedwart and Ilia Belorukov).

Russian Canon is a bizarre suite of songs and instrumentals which may amount to an opera, a song cycle, a parodic comment on modern urban society, or simply a series of surreal poems set to music. All is sung (and lyrics printed) in Russian, so I’m at a bit of a loss, but at least the titles are printed in English. You might be able to piece together a scenario from titles like ‘Falcon Theme’, ‘Clouds Of My Memory’, and ‘A Kitten Looks At Soldier’s Eyes’, but it’d be a pretty wild and hairy screenplay that you’d be submitting to your editor. The music is kind of all over the place too. I can discern tunes and ditties that might be Russian folk songs (a wild guess though; the accordion backing is my one and only clue here) and likewise songs that more resemble the sort of proletariat anthems that appear in my worst nightmares when I’m inventing newsreel footage from the days of Kruschev and Sputnik and screening these imaginary movies in my brain. Particularly the opening blast, ‘Everything Is Fine’, a fractured every-which-way composition whose waywardness makes it perfectly clear that whatever else is going on, everything is not fine. But that’s just my warped imagination.

The trio also play electronic synth drone tunes; a very distorted form of easy-listening jazz with the help of guest trumpeter Konstantin Sukhan, acting as the reverse Herb Alpert in this context; broken, minimal post-punk songs; and even on one track a song built on a famous Erik Satie tune, so that’s their classical music credentials also checking in for duty. Fake Cats Project perform in all these styles effortlessly, and are not attempting a mannered pastiche…and they play with utter conviction, maintaining a serious and slightly gloomy mood throughout the whole off-beat performance. Street singers and “baggers” – hopefully that’s the local slang for bag-men – are also sampled and their voices join in the rollicking fun in places.

It’s a remarkable tour de force, packed with much drama and musical invention. Now that I think of it, the nearest Western equivalent to this might be Tom Waits, but even he would probably hand over his last bottle of brown-bagged bourbon if he could produce something as cinematic, noirish, and unhinged as Russian Canon. Wish I could decode more of this, so I may just have to send a message to the band through their Bandcamp page. Very high recommendation for this lavish, layered, musical oddity. From 7th September 2016.

Secret Reproductive Plant

Enjoyable set of entertaining distortion, noise, electronics and rhythmic pulsations from The Miz’ries, on their EP Complete Control Of Your Vehicle (BELTS & WHISTLES B&W005). They’re pretty much a trio operating in New York, featuring Quinn Collins, Jeff Snyder, and Leila Adu, though on this outing they’re joined by Crosslegged who I think is Keba Robinson from Split Level Records and is known as a mover and shaker in Brooklyn music circles. Miz’ries create a nice surface sound, using loops and malfunctioning turntables pushed through pedals and distortion effects, and their own brand of cracked electronic blurpage some of which was invented and built by Jeff Snyder – he even calls it Snyderphonics, perhaps in homage to The Simeon of Silver Apples.

On top of their barely-working layered stew of avant-pop rhythms, Leila Adu adds her poised and mannered soprano vocals – now singing, now humming background tunes, or in one instance muttering snippets of nonsense in the studio, which have been further cut up and redistributed as needed around the track. She’s also pretty mean with her drum pad playing, deliberately missing the beat and contributing lopsided time signatures. On paper, this may sound like a recasting of the Portishead set-up, but in a less polite and more angstified arty mode; The Miz’ries are certainly darker and troubled, sometimes with a vaguely political edge (Adu’s songs are supposed to contain elements of politics and ballads, though I can discern neither), and will never settle for anything that resembles a familiar sound, note, or vibe in their quest for surprising aural goodiness. They also see themselves as a pop band, working within three or four minute boundaries, instead of extending these workouts into something three times the needed length (which PAS Musique, fellow Brooklynites, would not hesitate to do).

As to their intensive working method, which involves improvisation in the studio, much distortion and effects, editing and composing from tapes, it’s clearly paid off in this instance, even if some of the experiments misfire slightly. The press notes compare this method to Miles Davis (presumably they mean Teo Macero rather than Miles, but fair enough) and Can, but if we’re namechecking krautrock bands I think Faust’s method is more apposite…From 22 September 2016.

Planet Echo

Rara
W//\TR
POLAND ZOHARUM ZOHAR 125-2 CD (2016)

Formerly known as Przed Państwem Rara, Poland’s now-truncated Rara are a trio who purvey (apologies in advance) a kind of ambient folktronica (sorry again) that weaves acoustic guitar, percussion and low-key electronic textures into moody dreamscapes – both oneiric and nightmarish – which are well-suited to the gothic whims of the Zoharum label. While their new album, W//\TR, is generally warmer and more emotive than the black metal ambience hinted at by the cover, the 10-minute opener ‘Echo Planety’ leaves us little the wiser. This, the longest of the otherwise intermezzo instrumentals, is a runway taxi of echo pedal-drenched shoegaze guitar with all the glory of the first yawning in millennia of dawn light across a distant moon. It’s a fine scene-setter for the epic theatrics that subsequently emerge from subterranean strata of crisp, ornate finger-picking, bubbling synths and deep, droney undercurrents that add drama to ambivalent chord progressions.

While much of this is to seemingly simple pastoral effect, Rara also know how to throw a ‘country’ shape or two, whether it’s affecting the slow southern drawl and wild west mise en scene of Angels of Light’s no country for old men (‘Gen Planety’) or the more rustic charms of a fair-voiced maiden (one Kuba Ziolek) singing to the night (‘Przynieś To Z Nocy’). All nice enough, though there are unsettling anomalies like the risible electro-goth segue halfway through ‘Pasaźerowie Wiatru’ or the moist male whispers that follow a plangent guitar into the ear canal in ‘Szepty W Głowie Elly Brand’. Mood killers both.

There is ear-balm aplenty however: ambient interludes that provide recovery time, and the more soothing female voice that dovetails with itchy guitar lines, recalling some of Stine Grytøyr’s plaintive contributions to Ulver’s Marriage of Heaven & Hell. In fact, W//\TR shares a good deal of that album’s mannered and musically omnivorous gothicism: primal undercurrents of tethered frustration beneath ornamented structures (and the odd power-chord pyramid), suggestive of a reservoir of archetypal power that gives form to all physical appearances. Some might find W//\TR‘s stylistic shifting a tough swallow, but Rara’s musical blending is an accomplished one, lending W//\TR a sense of fractured identity well-suited to their recent change of name.

The Sleeping Cage

From New York City, here are The Strange Walls with their album Won’t Last (ALREALON MUSIQUE ALRN072); the trio of J.V.O. Worthley, Dandrogenous and singer Regina Yates are talented multi-instrumentalists and vocalists with a history of interesting collaborations. On this 11 track LP, I liked ‘The Girl On Mandragora’ which is an abrasive pounder with echoes of The Velvet Underground (and even a little Nirvana), which seemed fitting given their album cover which made me think of an attempt to restage the Exploding Plastic Inevitable at home using only bedsheets and bare lightbulbs. This song turns out to be uncharacteristic of the album though, which is mostly slow reflective songs filled with introspection, darkness, and a wistful tone. ‘Wartime Melody’, one of the best of these, is very reminiscent of Opal. This general despondency may account for why they’ve been labelled, perhaps unfairly, with terms like “goth” and “shoegaze” and even “dark wave”. I’ve no doubt the trio are sincere, but I feel they are striving a bit too hard to achieve that washed-out, strung-out effect in their sound and their singing voices. It feels mannered. I like the “foreign elements” and odd noises evidently added on to the recordings, but they also distract; too much unwarranted texture, surface. This aspect may be coming from PAS leader Robert L. Pepper (he produced it). From 31st August 2016.

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”.

Totally Masked Out

Finding much to enjoy on the LP Antifree (OSR TAPES OSR#48) by CE Schneider Topical, the singing duo of Christina Schneider and Zach Phillips, an album recorded in 2015 in Brooklyn. You may recall we just recently noted their contributions to a blue flexidisc from Belgium, and their appearance on the record by Maher Shalal Hash Baz, plus the highly active Zach Phillips has come our way before on records by Blanche Blanche Blanche and Big French. He plays a lot of the instruments on this LP, but so does Schneider, who has a songwriting credit on all but one of these 17 songs, and she’s the lead vocalist throughout. Antifree is a highly entertaining record of what I call “avant-pop”, a term I’ve used to describe diverse bands such as Family Fodder, Jack O’ The Clock, The Residents, Amos & Sara, and many other offbeat melodicists. If we could characterise most of the songs on Antifree, I’d point out the bizarre and highly inventive melodies, which (unlike most conventional pop) don’t rely too heavily on repetition, or a simple verse-chorus structure. There’s something more ingenious going on with the songwriting. Secondly, I’d draw attention to the unusual musical arrangements, using adjectives like “eccentric” to describe the sound and the instrumentation. There’s a lot of guitars, and tight drumming, but also some old-school non-digital keyboards, such as the Clavinet and the Wurlitzer piano, the latter an instrument favoured by Hamilton Yarns, that charming UK band of underground popsters. Zach’s technical skill here (he engineered it) has been to achieve this natural home-grown sound using an open-reel tape recorder. Nothing tweaked, and it shows; Christina’s assured vocal performances shine in the mix, and the music hasn’t been bled dry by digital reworking, meaning each song soars for its few brief minutes on earth.

I’ve tried on today’s listen to engage with the lyrical content of these non-rock songs, with their titles such as ‘Female in Images’ and ‘Exit All Seasons’, and find them completely cliché-free; not a hackneyed phrase in sight. But I’ll also admit defeat; the lyrics are slightly impenetrable. Somehow Christina keeps the subject at arm’s length for the duration of the song, with her unexpected turns of phrases that really keep the listener on their toes. She also sings them totally straight, by which I mean without affectation or vocal tics. I feel that I ought to be able to decode these songs in time, but it’ll take a few listens. I’ve previously compared this duo’s records to Brian Wilson Beach Boys productions, and think this is still valid, but these songs don’t have the innocence of Pet Sounds (mind you, in 2016, who does?!), and it feels like a lo-fi Wilson production pushed through a modern, suburban, and ironic filter.

As an album that keeps on perpetually surprising the listener, Antifree comes highly recommended, as a unique example of contemporary American songcraft. I see Mark Kramer did the mastering, and this record often puts me in mind of another personal favourite “avant-pop” duo, Bongwater, which Kramer led with Ann Magnuson. Luke Csehak of The Lentils plays lead guitar on one track, and Billy McShane adds saxophone to another. The charming surreal cover art was painted by Matthew Thurber. From May 2016.