hot ashes: the work of lucy johnsonJuly 11, 2013 at 7:50 am | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
Tags: blackest rainbow, drone, esk, lucy johnson, mike vest, new music, no audience underground, noise, obey, rife, smut, space victim, tapes, turgid animal, visual art, witchblood
Smut – ‘Scraps’ (tape, Turgid Animal)
Smut – Piano One (tape, Turgid Animal)
Smut – Live at Morden Tower, Newcastle, 09.03.13 (self released download, Soundcloud)
Space Victim – Angel Face (3” CD-r, Turgid Animal)
Space Victim – Decreased Awareness Of Inner Processes (CD-r, Blackest Rainbow)
Space Victim – Kiss From The Serpent (self-released download, Bandcamp)
Esk – Ashdene (tape, Turgid Animal)
Rife – “Demo” (tape, Turgid Animal)
One of the refreshing things about what I playfully refer to as the ‘no-audience underground’ is that it is not full of self-aggrandising blabbermouths. There are a few – me, for example – and an acceptable level of self-absorption is common, but many artists quietly get on with producing excellent work mainly, it seems, for their own gratification and the pleasure of their circle.
The noise scene in the North East of England has often been celebrated here for this kind of self-sufficiency. I write a 1500 word review full of words like ‘entranced’ and they just look up from their effects pedals for a second, murmur an embarrassed ‘thanks, man’ and get back to work. Nowt insular about this, of course: they are a friendly, passionate, talented lot generally happy to talk, pleased to see you and flattered by any interest. It’s just that, with a humility I find barely understandable, they don’t go looking for it. Nor does approbation seem that important to the process.
This situation allows for the gradual discovery of that most mysterious of creatures: the unsung hero. Names are pencilled in – an aside from the omniscient Scott McKeating, a credit on a Matching Head insert, say – then repeated until they become underlined in bold and further investigation becomes inevitable. Such has been the case with Lucy Johnson.
I had, of course, already praised Space Victim, her duo with Mike Vest, to the hilt (they featured in RFM’s best of 2012 list) and more recently did the same for the Witchblood tape, her duo with Lee Stokoe, on Matching Head. A comment from Miguel Perez led to me picking up her tapes as Smut and hearing those led to me finally paying some proper attention. Over the last few weeks I have been putting two and two together via Discogs, the Turgid Animal site and various other rune-casting activities and have been gathering up examples of her work. She records solo as Smut and Esk, is half of the aforementioned duos, is the vocalist for black metal band Rife, and is also in the bands Obey and Dark Bargain (as reviewed by Scott below). Her artwork adorns covers and T-shirts and has recently been made available to buy as prints. Most of this stuff is available from the label and distributor Turgid Animal which (according to that same review by Scott) she co-runs. Blimey, eh?
Now, I am aware she is on Facebook but I have self-excluded myself from that party for reasons of life being short and, anyway, where’s the fun in that? Far more entertaining to piece all this together imagining a shadowy matriarch/polymath pulling strings and making things happen isn’t it? Then write a lengthy blog post about it. Then, AND ONLY THEN, say ‘hello’. Thus:
Hello Lucy. I trust you are well.
As for the music: Lucy has the Midas touch. We’ll start with Rife as I don’t really know its genre – black metal – so am not qualified to judge. Despite my ignorance, though, I dug it: sounds well angry and has the recorded-on-a-dictaphone-that-had-been-left-in-the-boot-of-a-car-parked-outside-the-rehearsal-room muffled rawness that I am told is customary for bands of this type.
Ashdene by Esk, another Turgid Animal tape, this time a solo project, begins in a similar vein but soon mutates into something far more apocalyptic. These four tracks recorded by Lucy bridging 2011 and 2012, feature sulphuric vocals – treated to the edge of power electronics, riffs as sticky and abrasive as beach tar and an overall heaviness equal to sleep paralysis. By the time we get to ‘III’ the words ‘fucking’ and ‘awesome’ seem entirely appropriate and adequate. After this storm, the final track is shockingly quiet. A slow picked guitar accompanies the sound of a troll enduring unhappy dreams as he sleeps under his bridge. The sound of savvy locals using a chain ferry can be heard nearby. They watch with interest, the guitarist slowing to a stop, as an unwary traveller chooses to cross the river on foot…
What next? Ahh… Space Victim. The more I listen to this duo of Lucy and (longhaired doyenne of the psych/noise underground) Mike Vest the more I want to listen. Such is their obliterating power that the rest of the review pile can only tut as Space Victim strut to the front of the queue, skip over the velvet rope, work their Jedi mind trick on the bouncer, settle down in the VIP area and spark up a huge joint whilst sitting under a ‘no smoking’ sign.
The music is dominated by an acid-fried guitar sound and the vibe is heady, humid and darkly psychedelic. It manages to be both expansive and claustrophobic at the same time. Like staring at the sea, becalmed in all directions to the horizon, then turning to face the reality that you are stuck on a tiny desert island and the only potential food source is the fly blown corpse of a fellow shipwrecked sailor. The epic Decreased Awareness Of Inner Processes feels like campfire music for an evening with the tribe of human/animal hybrids rejected by Dr. Moreau, the horror of their abject condition tempered by their heartbreaking nobility. They stir the ashes with a stick and the embers glow the same red/gold colour as the setting sun.
Don’t let me put you off with grim similes, though. There is ecstatic release to be found within the vine-choked entropy. The end of Angel Face, for example, lifts as Lucy and Mike make the existential decision to accept their roles as protagonists in an early J.G. Ballard novel and paddle their kayak above the flooded streets of the newly tropical Newcastle. Kiss From The Serpent is all exquisite submission – like the willpower-sapping first taste of the terminally delicious, transformative fungi in the exceptional weird tale ‘The Voice in the Night’ by William Hope Hodgson (if you don’t know this beautifully creepy short story do yourself a favour and slap a librivox reading on your mp3 playing device – you’ll thank me for it). Dangerously, addictively glorious.
Finally then, we come to another of Lucy’s solo projects: Smut. I’m not sure in what sense she is using the word – soot, ‘obscene material’ etc. – but I discover it can also mean a fungus causing disease which fits nicely with the reference above. It’s like I plan this stuff. Anyway, Live at Morden Tower, Newcastle 09.03.13, a record of the first Smut gig, is a collection of well chosen noise elements looped, layered and topped and tailed with a brief sigh of solemn church music. The method is simple enough – a collection of pebbles dropped one after the other into a pond – but the effect is profound. It is like being dragged backwards, in slow motion, through the terrible events that the sombre music bookending the piece is memorialising.
Side one of ‘Scraps’, the first Smut tape, is filled with an increasingly angry spiral of distorted and overlapping alarms. The hull has clearly been catastrophically breached and life support is failing. The racket is visceral enough to be properly panic-inducing. That it ends with a burst of song, so smeared as to be unintelligible, is not the least bit reassuring. The second side begins with a would-be crescendo, tethered to the spot. Stabs and rattles pierce the fuzz as it tries to shake itself free. The final section acts as a bridge between this noise and the tape that follows below. A delicate but determined piano line echoes with doomed insistence until it is subsumed under unintelligible radio communication and an all-consuming mechanical grind.
Piano One, the most recent of Lucy’s releases that I have heard, is a remarkable album and a fitting place to come to a halt. The resources she calls on are minimal: piano played with slow deliberation, tape hiss, pedal throb and that is about it. A couple of tracks are more active, including one in which she appears to be strumming the wires within the instrument, but most are stark and simple (occasionally brutally so: one track is little more than a two note refrain). At first, given the context of the releases above, this seems incongruous – like Erik Satie picking up a guitar, stamping on the DS-1 and screaming ‘for those about to rock!!!’ but repeat listens reveal a melancholy air and a seriousness of intent that is of a piece with the rest of her work. The heaviness here is emotional: there is nothing to hide behind. It is like partially recalling a troubling memory and being uncertain as to whether it was a dream or whether it actually happened. I was transfixed by this, as I was with the similar vibe of Witchblood, her collaboration with Lee Stokoe, and recommend it very highly indeed.