Saturday, 5 June 2010

Team Brick - 'Breeds' (Self released album, 2006)

Matt still has his detractors but is well on his way to "local legend" status. 'Breeds' was one of his many early DIY releases. Intervening years have seen him arrange music for orchestra, forming noise-pop three piece Yoshy! and exploring Krautrock with Geoff Barrow and Billy Fuller in BEAK>.

Matt Williams, eh? He's anything but normal. With a rapidly expanding ouevre that takes in pretty much every genre you can think of, he seems to self-release a new collection of tracks every couple of weeks despite being barely out of his teens. In fact, 'Breeds' was only one of four new Team Brick CDs released on the night I bought it. A true British musical eccentric in the proud tradition of Robert Wyatt, Vivyan Stanshall and Richard D James, you're never at all sure what he's going to do next. 'Breeds' is a collection of twenty tracks. They're almost all exactly a minute long and are all named after different breeds of dog.

The word 'eclectic' doesn't really cover it. He just ignores genre boundaries altogether. On this CD alone, Williams tries his hand at shouty lo-fi rock, analogue noise, a cappella jewish folk, and, yes, throat singing which, incidentally, he does far more succesfully than any Bristolian has any natural right to do. At other times he invents a whole new genre for the sixty seconds required to make his point. For example, 'Border Collie' sounds like the the Knight Rider theme tune being ravaged by The Mothers of Invention and is absolutely fucking brilliant.

'Breeds' is so full of sudden changes of style and mood that it takes a bit of learning to live with. At one point during my first listen, I was reflectively enjoying a nice klezmer melody when suddenly I found myself running to the bathroom to check that my boiler wasn't exploding. However, those with short attention spans like mine will revel in the fact that Williams boils every loop of melody and nugget of distortion down to its essence rather than improvising it to death like so many other experimental artists we've had to endure. This is entirely consistent with his recent live performances, which have developed from thirty minutes of punishing noise to fascinating half hour trips around the world with a music-obsessed kid from Bristol as your tour guide.

Team Brick is an artist that polarises audiences. There are as many people who dismiss him as a self-indulgent oddball as there are those who relish his individuality and imagination. Personally, I have little doubt that one day he will, possibly by accident, make a record that will introduce him to a much wider audience. 'Breeds' isn't that album but, like everything in the Team Brick canon, it's well worth a fiver of anyone's money. Matt Williams, eh? He's bloody great, you know, but he's anything but normal.

3Hostwomexicansandatinofspanners - 'Pegasus Bridge' (Noisestar Records, 2006)

3Hos split up a few years ago after releasing a second album that was nearly as good as their first. This review of 'Pegasus Bridge' originated in the "relaunch" issue that proved to be Choke's last gasp.

Burdened with one of the least elegant names in rock history, you'd be forgiven for assuming (as I'm sure many have) that 3Hostwomexicansandatinofspanners are a comedy punk band - a knob gag with distortion. A quick inspection of the song titles on their debut album does little to challenge this view. 'Topless Dudley Streetfighting' and 'Coked Up Supermodels Licking Shit Off A Blind Vicar's Cock', for example, display imaginations in the fine tradition of teenage boys forming bands because it's funny. Which of course it is.

What's great about 3Hos, apart from their ferocious riffing, brummies-with-tourettes vocals and priceless insights into the hell that is modern urban life, is their sheer testosterone-fuelled honesty. For too long, white boy rock in this country has been the preserve of pseudo-sensitive careerists and retro posing morons. It's obvious that this lot formed a band, not to have hit singles or charm women, but to hang out with their mates, play their guitars absurdly loud and let off enough steam to power Stevenson's Rocket from Stockton to fucking Jupiter. Like Mclusky before them, they've got big old tunes and plenty to say for themselves but never let these considerations get too far in the way of swearing a lot and making a shitload of anti-muso noise.

But listen again and there's a bit more to them than that. 'This Man Ruined My Life' is the angriest song about sexual jealousy since Shellac's 'Prayer To God', but there's none of that song's twisted moral clarity, just thinly disguised self-loathing and wounded male pride. It isn't quite as scary as Albini's masterpiece, of course, but it's much, much funnier. Elsewhere, 'She Was A Capitalist' introduces us to the kind of debauched scum not seen in British rock music since the heyday of the Happy Mondays circa 'Fat Lady Wrestlers' while 'Public Order Offences Keep Solicitors In Work' and the phenomenal 'Rock Song' sound like the riot that Kaiser Chiefs predicted but were far too wet to start themselves.

The good news is that the rest of the album is every bit as angry as those songs. The dominant emotion throughout is frustration, both political and sexual. Weighing in at just under the half hour mark, 'Pegasus Bridge' is a bit of a modern punk classic, taking in tirades against religion, corporations, relationships and just about every maddening aspect of life you can think of. At times it seems as if 3Hos actually hate everyone and everything and, in these morally confused, culturally antiseptic times that's extremely refreshing.

Buy this album if you find modern life confusing and alienating. Buy this album if you are horrified by man-bags and moisturisers and equate plucked eyebrows with castration. Buy it if you want to hear a band who make the The Arctic Monkeys sound like they'd lose an arm wrestling match to Marc Almond's nan. Buy it if capitalism makes you want to tear your own throat out but the alternatives all look like one way tickets to the Gulag. Buy it if you like your music loud, dumb and unafraid to piss people off. Buy this album.

This review originally appeared in Choke, issue 14

Friday, 4 June 2010

Madnomad - 'Tamper Evident' (Sugarshack Records, 2003)

Madnomad was the quintessential live music experience in Bristol circa 2001-3. For my money 'Tamper Evident' is one of the finest albums to come out of Bristol in that decade. This review does the record no justice whatsoever (it's a record that contains multitudes) but I've posted it here lest we forget.

Who or what is Madnomad? A freedom-fighting pyromaniac in a Panama hat? A dirty-suited emotional conman who offers you his heart, then shows you his penis? A feeling that everything is wrong; that bullies and rapists, powdered pimps and smug, self-satisfied CEOs have annexed our world, shot the dissenters, castrated the lovers and repopulated the planet with self-replicating hermaphrodite cyborgs whose only interest in life is fucking themselves stupid and not asking any questions. It’s all these things and more.

Madnomad is a band: a strutting, honking, strangely-attired, many-limbed entity and one of most unique live acts you’ll ever see. Madnomad is a self-styled “Entertainment Product”: a dark pantomime falling somewhere between a satire on the cult of personality and a small-scale reconstruction of the Nuremberg Rallies. Madnomad is also a phenomenon: witness the word-of-mouth reaction to the first Community Festival performance from people who’d usually be downing vodka and Red Bull in some godawful chrome and glass slapperdrome.

Let’s make one thing clear. The Madnomad represented by 'Tamper Evident' is a different beast altogether. The sound is slicker and more ordered, the tone more introspective. Sure, it’s largely the same set of songs you’ve heard at the shows, but away all from the hysteria and noise, you get closer to the emotional core. It is at once more organised and mechanised than the live experience, yet at the same time the human elements are more starkly exposed. Sampled confessionals ('Period', '35 Summers') and misanthropic character sketches ('Direct Evidence Against Uniqueness') sit alongside noisy live classics like 'Let’s Kill The Pig', which sounds like Body Count remixed by The Chemical Brothers, and 'Gun of Sod', the only song in history to sample both the political fury of Bill Hicks and the white noise of My Bloody Valentine.

'Thanx' appears in remixed form, slightly longer than before and more mangled and frantic than ever. Listening to it is a bit like having root canal surgery during a migraine. Then there are two songs featuring Chikinki’s singer, Rupert - 'Is it This?', with its fabulously wonky bassline and Preacher/Rock God vocals, and the title track 'Tamper Evident', a melancholy piece which works much better in this context than it ever has live, probably because you can hear what the boy’s saying for once.

In terms of sheer songwriting class, the two drop-dead standout moments of the album are 'Ad Nauseam' and 'The Drunkard’s Song'. The first, known better to Madnomad devotees as 'Assholes', is a sleazy evocation of Sartre’s maxim that hell is other people. It’s a social catastrophe with horns; a rant of disgust at the crawling cesspit of cruelty we blush to call the world. The second, a beautiful, heartbreaking account of the abusive love affair between (wo)man and bottle, is one of the few truly great songs about addiction; up there with Dylan’s 'Moonshiner' and Lou Reed’s 'Heroin' in its penetration of the subject. The song’s agonising conclusion is a howling guitar and sax cacophony every bit as devastating as the blood-curdling scream which ends the song live. It’s enough to put you off your pint.

'Tamper Evident' isn’t the cheeriest thing you’ll hear this year but it’s a great record. From the tragically human to the savagely inhumane, it delivers an emotional palette beginning in blue and ending in black, tempered by some wonderfully eccentric music and a killer sense of humour. In Madnomad’s world, it seems, everybody’s free to feel bad.

Originally published in Choke, Issue 10

Choke meets...The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2002)

Due to an accident of the right-place, right-time variety, I find myself on the phone to New York City talking to two thirds of indie darlings the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. OK, I know what you’re thinking. Flavour of the month. The Blah Blah Blahs...

Well no, actually. Like Imac-wielding alkies who’ve just realised they can piss Frosty Jack the rock hack masses have experienced a happy accident. They got it right for once.
Sure, the Yeahs are jammy bastards but they also released my favourite EP of last year.

So I ask them "most decent bands are criminally ignored. Why all the fuss about you?"

“You tell us” answers Brian irritably, clearly mistaking me for the establishment.

“Seriously”, I ask, “You’ve got one EP out, The Face give you their front cover and Careless Talk give you four (four!) live reviews in one issue!”. This cracks them up. Brian goes on to say that even compared with their rapid rise to prominence in major U.S cities, the reaction here in Britain has been nothing short of “a phenomenon”.

Brian’s the drummer and does most of the talking. Singer Karen is softly-spoken, polite, even a little shy, which will come as a surprise to anyone who, like me, heard the records and assumed she was a gobshite. They met in Ohio, where Brian had played in several bands and Karen had done “a few solo things”, before relocating to New York and hooking up with guitarist Nick Zinner, who has the enviable ability to sound like two guitarists and a bass player at the same time.

“I heard your first gig was a support slot for The White Stripes”. This sounds a bit cosy to me. My band’s first gig was supporting a raffle in a pub full of pissed surfers.

“How the hell did that happen?”, I ask. Karen explains that a well-connected drinking buddy of theirs sorted it out. They’ve since appointed him their tour manager. Well you would, wouldn’t you?

For the uninitiated, The Yeahs specialise in sassy New Wave pop songs populated by bored lovers, bedsit dreamers and art school wankers. Some of their songs are irresistably danceable. Their new single “Machine” is the best song about sharing a vibrator you’ll hear all year. It sounds a bit like PJ Harvey gone disco-metal.

“Is making people dance important to you?” There’s no hesitation here. “Yeah, definitely”, they answer together, excitedly. “That’s a definite goal”. Karen adds that it can be difficult to get audiences to move sometimes; the curse of the too-cool indie crowd, no doubt. However, NYC art-rock isn’t necessarily famed for its ass-shaking potential. Who are your heroes? “Oh, The Velvet Underground, New York Dolls” So far, so predictable. “Mars, ESG...” That’s more like it! Beneath the noise, the posturing, the play-acting, there’s a hint of something funky at work.

I read somewhere that the band been working with drum machines on the new album. Have The Yeahs gone hip-hop then, like Blondie? Apparently not. The drum machine was used more for “fucked up keyboard sounds” than for beats, but the forthcoming album remains a mash up of styles: raucous brat-punk, wide-eyed romanticism, dirty disco; “the complete range of emotions” Brian assures me. The band see “Machine” as a bridge between the EP and the album, though to see which way that’s taken them we’ll have to wait till the album comes out in April.

Karen O purrs and screams with equal confidence, her distinctive voice as confident with the soul-crushing put down (“As a fuck, son, you suck!”) as it is with a breathless anthem like “Our Time”. She’s equally well known for her outlandish dress sense, her cockiness, her attitude. This must piss off as many people as it delights, surely. “You’re seen as a confrontational performer. Do you ever get any bad abuse from the audience?” I ask. “Not really”, she says, “Most of the abuse is good...just people having a good time”. Brian insists that Karen is “not so much a confrontational performer as an undeniable presence”. Going by the attention her performances have amassed so far, we’d be foolish to disagree.

The next two months see Yeah Yeah Yeahs return to the UK for their first headline tour, and they play Bristol on 1st March, their first date in the city since supporting Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion last year. For those that missed that last outing (me included) this show provides an unmissable opportunity to see if the band can really live up to indications provided by an excellent EP, an intriguing single and a bucketful of hype. The spoiled bastards better not let us down.

RLF - 'One Upon A Time EP' (Rex Records, 2002)

Choke's review of a great little EP by RLF, now known as Bass Clef. Back then Ralf was a familiar face on Bristol’s underground scene, before moving to London and releasing the critically acclaimed album ‘A Smile Is A Curve That Straightens Most Things’.

In between working the crowd at leftfield club nights and providing soundtracks for Japanese monster flicks, RLF has found time to commit his misanthropic vision to vinyl. "Once Upon A Time" is funky enough for the dancefloor, but darkly inventive enough to have musos dribbling over their record bags. At a time when abstract electronica seems determined to retreat ever further into joyless Glitch-Techno orthodoxy, a record like this stands out like tits at a funeral.

RLF is otherwise known as Ralf: the big-haired, beefy, bearded geezer often seen behind the counter at Imperial Music. Whether the long hours spent hanging out at Bristol's foremost emporium of the eclectic have rubbed off on his music or not is a matter of idle speculation. Either way, with everything from towering techno to the darkest of dub thrown into the mix, RLF's anything but a purist. If Sabres of Paradise, Roy Ayers and Joey Beltram got together… Well, it would probably be a musical disaster of the most embarrassing kind, but you get the general idea.

"Who's Afraid" (best played extremely loud) is a hair-raising onslaught of flesh-eating acid, as if a long-spurned rave anthem had returned hell-bent on murder. "The Bassline That Destroyed The World" is a concoction of eerie samples and dancehall beats nailed down by a B-line from hell. Even the mostly chummy "Bass Too Rude", all summery chords and cheesy percussion, is slightly creepy: the Big Beat equivalent of a Stepford Wife. With mainstream club culture heading straight for the School Disco and the experimental fringe as inaccessible as ever, RLF takes the middle ground and makes it his own.

Mooz - 'The Wheel That Squeaks The Loudest Is The One That Gets The Grease' (Sink & Stove Records, 2002)

Without wanting to sound like a Telegraph letter writer, I feel I must declare an interest. Mooz were my favourite band in Bristol by some distance (Choke was a fanzine, right?). A year or two after writing this review of their debut, I helped release their (posthumous) second, 'My Property' - if anyone wants a copy send me an SAE.

I'm posting this now because, while Mooz never had the success they deserved outside Bristol, it would be criminal if they were forgotten. Jess and Rasha have both continuted to write excellent music since the band's split while Amy is a member of Bristol's best party / festival band The Glitzy Baghags. I've added Everett True's obituary of the band as a postscript (see Comments). It seems he was the only person outside Bristol who understood.

The long-awaited debut album from one of Bristol’s most admired groups was always going to be subject to intense scrutiny (by long-term observers like me, at least). Having watched Mooz countless times since their earliest shows, I still didn’t quite know what to expect.

After three or more years of mainly local gigs, they probably have enough material for two or three albums by now, but due to the length of time it’s taken to get this album released, it’s more of a ‘best of so far’ rather than a set of new songs.

So we get the scratchy tension of “Grit”, all fastmoving urban imagery and hard-rain breakbeats. This new version captures the mood of the song better than the more dance-orientated, rhythm-heavy version from the old demo, giving the squeaks and groans of Paula’s mighty cello pride of place at the claustrophobic core of the track.

It seems the recording has been designed to focus on the atmospheric and melodic elements of their sound, rather than just piling on the drums in 90’s Bristol fashion. The opening “Pepperpot” and dirt-blues classic “Stretching” are far more successful for this approach, though it leaves the usually driving “M32” sounding a bit disembodied; the snare drum and grunge-bass mixed too low to allow the song to (jazz)rock to its full potential.

“Stretching” is the simplest of the highlights here; an old song that has improved with age. Jess’s lyrics- “sucking, fucking…someone I don’t know!” - are as seedy and disorientated as ever. “Seesaw” is brilliantly spooky, its abstract melody (apparently created on a musical saw) refusing to settle comfortably into a conventional groove until absolutely necessary.

Other familiar songs collected here include the minimal, funky “Bounce” and a final version of “Watch This Space”, probably the band’s best known song, and still the most devastating use of Mooz’s unique vocal harmonies, arranged perfectly to evoke unease and exhilaration in equal measures. Those same vocal harmonies are used to far subtler, but equally enjoyable, effect on the closing epic “S.I”.

A fitting end to the album, “S.I” is a fine demonstration of how far the group have come as songwriters, arrangers and musicians since their early days. This story-song kicks off so languorously and dreamlike, you’d think Mooz were trying to out-mellow Morcheeba.
Of course, there’s far more to “SI” than that: a strong narrative in the wandering blues tradition (“I left my home town…”) plus some devilish rhythmic twists and turns, a plaintive cello line and shifting vocal harmonies all building elegantly towards a final, inevitable climax. In short, quite a song; and perfectly placed to hint at the even better album this band undoubtedly have in them.

Being Mooz, this couldn’t possibly have gone wrong. Mooz are unique - unafraid to confront the recent legacy of their home city (drum and bass and the jazz/breakbeat crossover), yet with roots in a more spontaneous tradition going back to the funk-roots-punk of The Pop Group and The Slits. The groove is in their hearts and the blues is putty in their hands.

“The Wheel” is a top-notch collection of some of the band’s finest moments, a constantly changing mood of an album, by turns tense, relaxed, romantic and confrontational.
It’s probably not the best record they’ll ever make, especially if the new songs in the live set are anything to go by. Nonetheless, “The Wheel” is an album I will go back to time after time, nostalgically thinking back to those strange days when Mooz were only famous in Bristol. A fine debut from a very special band.

This review originally appeared in Choke, Issue 7

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Melt Banana @ Thekla, Bristol. 10th October 2001

I've seen this band four or five times since this was written but this was my first Melt Banana show and, as with any mind-altering experience, the first time was the best. They remain - without a doubt - one of the greatest bands on the planet.

Incomparable Japanese techno-punks MELT BANANA return to Bristol on their second European tour and radically rewire the brain of our correspondent.

Wearing a surgeon's mask and wielding a Gibson SG, Ichiro Agata somehow creates a sound that recalls the techno-war of Operation Desert Storm as seen on CNN, but with R-Type Laser Cannons instead of Scud Missiles. He throws himself recklessly about the stage, turning his guitar over and over, collecting and harnessing feedback and then blasting it in surgical strikes at a largely unsuspecting audience. This is not normal.

Bass player Rika clearly isn't normal either. Throughout her bands' unforgettable set of blistering art-punk, she riffs away at a pace usually reserved for only the most hardcore of Hardcore bands but despite the violence of the music and contrary to all Punk tradition, she looks utterly placid, hypnotised even. It crosses my mind that she may actually be one of those emotionally detached psychopaths who can commit acts of staggering brutality without breaking into a sweat: heart-rate unchanging, almost unaware that she is morally responsible for such savagery. Maybe she's just fucking cool. Yes, that's it!

That's it exactly. Melt Banana are one of the coolest bands I've ever seen. Their drummer, Sudoh, approaches Gabba Techno in terms of speed and brutality and loops of disorientating noise add weight to the future Hardcore shock of the music. If there is one thing that lets the gig down it's The Thekla's ever-disappointing PA system which means we can hardly hear Yako (formerly Yasuko), the tiny, intense singer with that shrieking weapon of a voice. Though this is unfortunate, the lack of actual sound coming from her is made up for by her mesmerising stage presence which alternates between utter composure in the instrumental bits and epileptic shaking every time she opens her mouth. Yako rants maniacally and incomprehensibly at the audience, possibly in Japanese, possibly in English and possibly in a language all of her own. At one point she announces their "cover version for the evening", then sings a traditional Italian song for a bit before the band bury it mercilessly under layers of stop/start noise and primal yelling.

An impressive audience has shown up for this gig, presumably swelled by the band's recent radio session for John Peel. A large proportion of the crowd are visibly open-mouthed and a frantic mosh pit grows throughout the set. There are also a few people with digits held strategically close to ears, just in case they are required to prevent serious injury. There are also a few dissenters grumbling around the bar area, but what else can you expect at a gig like this? No pissed off purists and confused chin strokers at all would have been an insult to a band this purely, primally exciting.

By the first encore I resolve to go out immediately and buy all their records. By the second encore I decide I wanted them to shack up with me in Bedminster and never leave my side. I await Melt Banana's return to Bristol with a longing comparable to that of an army bride praying for the safe return of her brave Tommy. Next time can someone please sort them out a sound system that does them justice?

Originally published in Choke, Issue 3