backing towards the reverse, part two: a review

March 20, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Posted in musings | Leave a comment
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David Keenan – England’s Hidden Reverse (revised and expanded edition, 464 pages, Strange Attractor Press)

ehr

[Editor’s note: in order to make full sense of the below, the reader is advised to consult part one here before proceeding.]

…so the hefty tome arrives and an unexpected cross-country train journey affords me the time to give it a close reading.

The new forward, as advertised, is a written version of the lecture ‘Crime Calls For Night’ which I discussed in part one.  Fixing it to the page does it no favours, unfortunately, and there is little point discussing it further for two reasons.  Firstly, what was good in it before remains so, as does what was questionable.  Secondly, its argument is largely unsupported by the text that follows (the book’s hook is ‘England’s lunatic tradition’ (page 284), the lecture’s is ‘night time imagery’ (page VII) – they ain’t the same).  It’s post-hoc, tacked on.

That said, it might surprise you that I was hoping for more of this in the book itself.  I have been largely negative in my account so far, true, but stuff like this on Whitehouse:

Let’s attempt to look this thing in the face, as much as we can, without any filter of ideology or explanation or ‘understanding’. (page XIII)

is pretty invigorating.  I was hoping for something polemical but deeply personal, impressionistic but rigorous, something that might have me hurling the book across the room in fury or welling up with tears of recognition.  Something inspiring that would leave me fizzing with ideas of my own.  Tall order, maybe, but given Keenan’s chops and unbeatable subject matter – the unnatural histories of Coil, Nurse With Wound and Current 93 – it was entirely possible.

But nope.  Instead what we get is A Very Long List Of All The Things That Happened.  For fuck’s sake, I thought with rising dismay, this is just another bloody music book: 400 pages of painstakingly researched explanation and ‘understanding’.

Do any of these beats sound familiar?  Guy grows up a misfit, moves away, finds a crowd/purpose, fierce early work, arguments about money/credits/romantic entanglements, drink and drugs, artistic development and lengthy accounts of the ‘mature’ work (with scholarly asides on influences and collaborators), happy accidents in the studio, fortuitous meetings and so on.  All these gongs are bonged in the usual order determined by the ritual, like a bored gamelan orchestra calling the court in for lunch.  You’ll be amazed to learn that this time was unique and that things will never be the same again too, of course.

On one level, I understand that this is a daft criticism to make.  It’s like moaning that you’ve seen it all before whenever an artist daubs pigment onto a canvas using a brush to depict a figure – Gah!  It’s just a painting – but Keenan’s trad fan/critic ‘definitive’ approach robs the subject of its enviable magic.

For example, Keenan largely keeps himself out of it and, as such, a lot of total bollocks passes without any editorial comment aside from the mildest, bathetic rebuke.  When, at one point, Coil decide to only start recording on equinoxes and solstices Keenan dares to describe this nonsense as ‘arbitrary’ – ooh!  Meow, eh?  Absenting yourself might be journalistic best practice (I dunno, is it?) but this wasn’t advertised as an oral history.  Frequent, spirited challenges would have been illuminating, entertaining – inspiring even (see Bangs vs. Reed).  I was expecting to disagree at points, but I was genuinely shocked at it being a grind.

Finishing the book I found I’d made a couple of pages of notes towards this review, a short list of artists and releases to check out and one or two triggered memories (apologies to anyone else who was at the 1991 Current 93/Death in June/Sol Invictus show in New Cross that gets mentioned – I was the kid front left who coughed all the way through it.  I even climbed up onto the stage at one point so I could sit down).  Not much, is it?  Keenan isn’t a bad writer, the topic is important and clearly a huge amount of work has been done.  I was up for it, despite reservations – I am regularly inspired by music writing, that’s the reason I do it myself.  So what went wrong here?

Part of the answer is summed up in this quote about David Tibet by the horror writer Thomas Ligotti (pages 383-384):

To talk about Tibet’s work in aesthetic terms is relevant only to a limited extent.  Like other artists whose work is in an expressionist vein … you can take or leave him, but he absolutely stands above criticism because he is completely true to his visions, beliefs, obsessions, whatever you want to call the substance of his songs … It’s simply that Tibet is working in another realm entirely.  He’s alone in what he does, and that makes any evaluation of him in the conventional terms of music or literature beside the point.

I think this is bang on, indeed I’ve said similar things myself about the limits of criticism when it comes to those driven to create within what I call the no-audience underground, and that ‘pffft’ sound you can hear is the shrivelling of Keenan’s project, irreparably punctured by Ligotti’s point.  It’s so damaging I’m surprised he put it in, to be honest.  Tibet and friends may not be judged on their musicianship or material success (though both are mentioned) but the very form of the book itself could not be more conventional.  If your subject matter is working in another realm a ‘then they did this’ music bio approach is never going to capture what is special about them.

The other, larger, part of the answer occurred to me as I was laughing at a throwaway joke from Steven Stapleton, deadpanned as he explains his fixation on Perez Prado (page 344):

I don’t dance – my hat would fall off.

Despite Keenan’s silly whining in The Wire magazine, in between the original publication of the book and its reissue it is not the underground that has died – it thrives – but the critic.  The human centipede three-way of ‘artist – critic/gatekeeper – fan’ has been irrevocably unstitched by the internet and social media.  No one needs to eat that shit anymore.  New relationships, new, flexible ways of looking are available.  Yet the critic doesn’t want to dance because their hat would fall off.  That hat means a lot – wearing it allows them to publish books, write columns for magazines and appear on panels at prestigious industry events no matter how stilted or inappropriate these strategies appear to those really engaging with what is happening.

I have a colleague here at RFM who can barely keep a hat on his head – plenty have been trampled under his almost perpetual footwork.  Commenting on a draft of part one he said:

For my money Keenan’s voice (along with others… there’s loads of them) has grown tired. The whole meta-rock critic thing is dead, dead, dead.

then, pausing only to pinch my cheek and grab a bunch of tapes from the review pile, he shimmied back onto the dance floor.  Ha, I thought – fug lifting, head starting to nod again – couldn’t agree more.

—ooOoo—

Strange Attractor Press

backing towards the reverse, part one: not a review

February 29, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Posted in musings | 2 Comments
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David Keenan – England’s Hidden Reverse (revised and expanded edition, 464 pages, Strange Attractor Press)

ehr

I almost didn’t bother with (any of) this. A coffee table reissue of a book about the good old days, the original edition of which is a sought after collectors’ item. It’s hardly of burning relevance is it? Might as well have released it on Record Store Day.

That said, two things had me ‘continue to checkout’. Firstly, I was caught by the insta-meta-nostalgia on social media surrounding its re-release. The vibe seemed to be: ‘hey remember the good old days when you couldn’t get Keenan’s book about the good old days for love nor money? Well now you can!’ I remember The Small Note, short-lived indie CD shop in Leeds, tried to order a copy for me, to be paid for with the proceeds of fencing flatworm CD-rs they kindly stocked, but their line of credit was stepped on by the supplier because they were going out of business and I missed out. Good times, eh? Now I could finally have it! It’s the same urge that has the middle aged buying childhood toys on eBay, or giant King Crimson box sets. Secondly, I have become morbidly fascinated with a few examples of Keenan’s work that have come my way over the last couple of years. I shall mention three.

To begin: ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, a short piece that appeared in The Wire magazine issue 371, dated January 2015. In this piece Keenan declared the underground dead and it was much discussed at the time of publication. The scamp that forwarded me a copy expected me to blow a fuse and issue a withering line-by-line rebuttal. I was tempted – it would certainly have been deserved – but the more I thought about it, the more disheartening the prospect became. Why engage with the flatulent grumblings of a confused old uncle who, apparently quite literally, had no idea what he was talking about? Or maybe Keenan was self-aware enough to feel guilty that his vision of the underground had been gentrified, codified, canonized and calcified partly due to people like him writing books about it – and silly articles in publications like The Wire. Either way: fuck it.

offend

Next up: ‘Perspective: The Right to Offend‘, published on the Crack magazine website, dated 3rd November 2015. Crack give the context as follows:

London-based label Berceuse Heroique was recently subject to criticism following a tweet from the label’s founder that led to a wide rebuke of the label’s use of extreme imagery.

…and Keenan uses that reaction to kick off an article castigating trends in social media and musing on the nature and purpose of ‘offence’ in popular music. Whilst this is considerably less daft than the above there are several eyebrow raising ‘citation needed’ moments and some seriously muddy argument. Take this, clipped from a section comparing ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ by Sex Pistols to ‘Buchenwald’ by Whitehouse:

An album like Buchenwald by Whitehouse has no chords, no lyrics, no rhythms, no graphics. There is nothing to hold onto, nothing to align yourself with. It’s not ambiguous; it is very deliberately and precisely put together, but it does force you back on your own response without signposting exactly how you are supposed to react. Crucially, though, it does not attempt to aestheticise horror or mass murder or the holocaust. It’s not fun. The music is irreducibly tied up with the subject matter. It sounds as horrifying, as distressing, as barbaric as the scenario it attempts to evoke. No poetry after Buchenwald? Well, there’s no poetry here. In this, Whitehouse dare to take a stand.

First, some pedantry: it is unclear whether Keenan is referring to the track ‘Buchenwald’ or the whole four track album of the same name. This may be important as the other tracks reference incest, the Boston Strangler and the work of the Marquis de Sade so whether or not Whitehouse are aestheticizing horror isn’t as clear cut if the whole record is taken into account. To keep it simple, I’ll assume he’s talking about just the track.

(Aside: the track title referencing the Boston Strangler is ‘Dedicated to Albert de Salvo – Sadist and Mass Slayer’. Songs, books, park benches etc. are usually dedicated out of love, respect or gratitude. ‘Mass Slayer’ is an unnecessarily salacious use of tabloid vocabulary. Is this a parody of sentimentalism or are Whitehouse, as could easily be argued just using the tone and usual meaning of these words, celebrating a monster? Following Keenan’s argument, why isn’t the track simply called ‘Albert de Salvo’?)

Keenan is also ambiguous about the meaning of ‘ambiguous’. At first he claims the track is not ambiguous, offering a very peculiar definition of the notion (a Donald Judd box is ‘deliberately and precisely put together’, does that make it unambiguous?) but at the end of the same sentence he says it does not signpost exactly how you are supposed to react – which is pretty much the dictionary meaning of the word. Likewise, the idea that the music is irreducibly tied up with the subject matter doesn’t hold water. Anyone with a passing interest in the genre could imagine this track retitled and appearing on another Whitehouse album or slotting into any number of industrial/noise releases. Titling it ‘Buchenwald’ isn’t enough – the kind of essentialism Keenan needs to make the point doesn’t exist.

I thought for a fair while about the final part of that paragraph. What does ‘It sounds as horrifying … as the scenario it attempts to evoke’ mean? Is Keenan saying that this track is literally as harrowing as the actual Buchenwald concentration camp and the horror that occurred there? Presumably not because that claim (that a 12 minute noise track was as upsetting as the machinery of genocide) would be preposterous to the point of obscenity. So what are we comparing? Is the track documentary – like, say, a book of photographs? Again presumably not because, despite the mood it successfully and unbearably evokes, there is nothing essential linking this particular track to this particular atrocity. What are Whitehouse taking a stand on? That genocide is bad and that evil exists in the world? Mate, we didn’t need to be told. Or is it something like the spiel on the cover of Whitehouse’s 2001 album Cruise:

cruise

That art created with anything less than unflinching engagement with reality is pathetic decadence? Who knows? As rhetoric Keenan’s account is exciting stuff, as an argument it’s gibberish. The article finishes with this call to arms:

But there is a right to offend just as there is a right to be offended. Rights exist to protect what ordinarily could never survive, what is most offensive, what is most off-message, most non-mainstream. There is also, crucially, a right to be irresponsible, a right to say no, to refuse pieties about the sanctity of life and the beauty of love and the achievements of democracy and the reputation of Boris Johnson, to scribble all over them with crayons, if you feel like it. Take that away and we lose some of the greatest art of the 20th Century, from Life Stinks by Pere Ubu through Suicide and Blaise Cendrars. What are we left with? Billy Bragg, Sting and The Lightning Seeds.

Whilst largely in agreement with this sentiment, the temptation is to remind the author that we are no longer in the 20th Century. An article about the right to offend in an age of identity politics, ideological puritanism and public shaming via social media might have been fascinating but Keenan only mentions this stuff to dismiss it (entertainingly, I admit) and crack on with the history lesson. The ‘what are we left with?’ examples are hilarious. I mean, there are literally hundreds of acts pushing things forward in brilliant, innovative ways without being bulb-ends like Gizmo (yes, really) of Berceuse Heroique. It’s been a long while since blokes in three quarter length leather coats were the vanguard and, quite rightly, plenty of them are amongst those being challenged now.

Heh, heh – The fucking Lightning Seeds.  One for the kids there.

crime

Finally: ‘Crime Calls For Night‘, an audio/visual talk presented at Off The Page, Bristol Arnolfini, September 2014. This lecture, given at The Wire magazine’s ‘literary festival for sound and music’ and subtitled ‘A phenomenology of transgression in industrial music’ (for those playing hackademia bingo: ‘house!’), is another order of magnitude less daft than the articles above.

Over 50ish minutes Keenan has some space to flesh out ideas and some of what I called gibberish above starts to make more sense (The Lightning Seeds are replaced by Joanna Newsom too, which made me laugh).  The section about the adolescent nature of Paleolithic art is great and had me nosing around the internet hoping to find a cheap edition of the book he mentions (R. Dale Guthrie – The Nature of Paleolithic Art, no such luck – might have to try inter-library loans). The bits on industrial music as ritual gave me pause too – reminding me of reading things like Rapid Eye and the Industrial Culture Handbook, having my nipples pierced by Mr. Sebastian shortly after my 18th birthday and warily climbing the stairs above the photocopiers to Wildcat, the Brighton based piercing supplies shop, only to find Genesis P. Orridge there holding forth:

A day without a Prince Albert is a day lost!

Sage advice.

Anyway, two Whitehouse tracks get an airing this time. Firstly, ‘Ripper Territory’ which is an easier sell than ‘Buchenwald’ as it contains audio from news reports of Peter Sutcliffe’s arrest so the piece is tied to the subject matter in a straightforward way. Keenan’s analysis of this is compelling – the news reports are at once banal and sensational, at odds with the band’s stomach-churning accompaniment which needs do nothing but hold up a cold mirror to reality. That Keenan finishes this section by leaving the question ‘where is Ripper territory?’ hanging unanswered (the implied answer being ‘in us’) is very smart indeed. I was less convinced, again, by the account of ‘Buchenwald’ but it certainly seemed more persuasive than the cribbed version in the ‘Right to Offend’ article. What I really need, I thought, as I rewound it for the third time, is a definitive written account of this argument…

Wait, what? I’m sorry what did you say?

Long out of print and with the first edition demanding serious money from collectors, this much-anticipated expanded edition comes completely redesigned, with many new and previously unseen photographs and ephemera. It also comes with two new chapters, a final summing up of how the Reverse has changed gear since the book was first published and a new Chapter Zero entitled Crime Calls For Night where Keenan presents a daring argument that traces the transgressive urge that animates industrial culture all the way from Palaeolithic cave art through rock n roll and punk rock and up to contemporary noise music.

Ah, OK, let me get my credit card…

—ooOoo—

In part two: ‘Crime Calls For Night’ revisited, including more on the ‘no poetry…’ idea if I can get my head around the source of the notion (Adorno: ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’), some ‘Lester Bangs died for his own sins, not mine’ stuff about the erosion of the artist/critic divide and the redundancy of critics in general and maybe even an account of the contents of the book.

Don’t hold your breath though – it only arrived on Saturday and is a right doorstep.

—ooOoo—

Strange Attractor Press

 

 

 

 

what i mean by the term ‘no-audience underground’, 2015 remix

June 14, 2015 at 11:20 am | Posted in musings, no audience underground | 8 Comments
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Bomberg,_David_-_Sappers_at_Work_-_Canadian_Tunnelling_Company

I haven’t written anything substantial about the term ‘no-audience underground’ for a while.  When asked about it I’m still referring people to the response I wrote to Simon Reynolds which was posted in October 2012 (and sometimes this post too from July 2013).  Plenty has changed since then, not least my own mind with regard to certain details, so here I’m going to rub the notion to a shine on the crotch of my cricket whites.  Let’s see if it still bounces in a usefully wonky manner.

[Note: this article is about 4000 words long so get comfy before proceeding.]

An appeal to authority

Firstly, I’m going to lay out a brief CV.  I wouldn’t normally bother – appeals to authority are both fallacious and a wanker’s move – but hopefully this piece will be read by people new to the blog and I’d like to summarise where I’m coming from.  OK, three paragraphs of cold, hard fact:

Hello.  My name is Rob Hayler and I am the editor of radiofreemidwich.  I am 43 years old and live in Leeds, UK with my wife and two year old son.  I work a moderately responsible, poorly paid clerical job in the public sector.  My politics are a confused mixture of hard left, anarchist and libertarian sentiments that can be summed up as ‘hypocritical ageing punk’.  For what it is worth, I have a masters degree in philosophy and a dilettante’s interest in economics and various aspects of culture away from music.  Despite being ‘high-functioning’ most of the time, I suffer with ever-present depression/anxiety which is occasionally debilitating (I’m off work with it now, for example.  This article was put together in lucid moments over a three week period).

Always a music fan, I became aware of noise, sound-art, experimental and free music (etc.) in the late 1980s and became seriously involved in the late 1990s.  I spent three or four years around the turn of the century helping run Termite Club, the legendary Leeds based gig promoter.  Around the same time I co-ran the influential CD-r micro-label fencing flatworm recordings and its tape-label offshoot oTo (a time documented by Bang the Bore here and here).  I have been recording and performing electronic music, mostly under the name midwich, on and off for fifteen years, have collaborated with the likes of Paul Harrison, Neil Campbell, Lee Stokoe, Daniel Thomas and Miguel Perez, have been part of the band Truant with Phil Todd and Michael Clough, and so on.  I have had a hand in well over 100 releases on, I dunno, 20 to 30 different labels.

After what was meant to be a brief break from music due to health reasons (that stretched on for nearly five years) I returned in 2009 with this blog.  RFM now garners between 2500 and 4000 visits a month and I have a team of five comrades contributing as well as writing myself.  The number of posts approaches 500, the number of releases reviewed is comfortably in four figures and the total number of words so far published is somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000.  Sometimes people say:

You should write a book!

…and I reply:

I already have, a fucking long one too.

There are other things I could mention – the eye for detail compilation, The Barrel Nut microzine, etc. – but you get the picture.  All these numbers, all this vigorous trumpet blowing, is presented as anecdotal evidence for the claim that I have some idea what I am talking about.

underground 1

What it means

In the year 2000 I coined the term ‘no-audience underground’ as a shorthand, catch-all description for the music scene I found myself in, specifically the type of gigs I was attending and the network of micro-labels, invigorated by the availability of cheap CD-rs, that fencing flatworm recordings was part of.

The music I was hearing ranged from the most delicate bowing of singing bowls to hour-long, incense-choked psychedelic happenings to three-minute PA-busting squalls of hideous feedback.  Nothing seemed to link these disparate sounds and performance styles other than they could be loosely banded together as ‘noise’ and that very few people seemed to be interested.  Thus, at first, the term was merely descriptive in a tongue-in-cheek manner.  I hoped the implied self-deprecation would counter its smart-arsed irreverence.  It was of a piece with other slogans that I entertained myself with at the time: fencing flatworm’s tagline was ‘loss leaders of the neo-radiophonics’, for example.  Sigh.  I look back with a weird mixture of pride and embarrassment, both as profound as each other.

Anyway, over the years, especially when revisiting the notion for this blog, the term has taken on, I hope, further depth and explanatory usefulness. Here there’s no reason not to quote myself from the Simon Reynolds piece:

…first I need to say more about another important meaning of ‘no audience’.  [Simon Reynolds] is worried that that a ‘transmitter requires a receiver’ and that there are too few of the latter around.  I’d reassure him that his concern is misplaced – it doesn’t work like that down here.  There is no ‘audience’ as such, in the sense of ‘passive receivers’, because almost everyone with an interest in the scene is involved somehow in the scene.  The roles one might have – musician, promoter, label ‘boss’, distributor, writer, ‘critic’, paying punter and so on – are fluid, non-hierarchical and can be exchanged or adopted as needed.  I must stress that this is not a snobbish clique of insiders obsessively tending to every aspect of their hobby (not a dirty word, by the way, who makes a living from experimental music nowadays?) but a friendly and welcoming group who have realised that if they want it to happen then they have to make it happen themselves…

…or, in a nutshell:

Thus, there is no ‘audience’ for the scene because the scene is the audience.

Catchy, eh?  I’ll spell out a couple of aspects of this in greater depth before going on to tackle some of the criticisms made and problems arising.

underground 2

Self-sufficiency, goodwill and relation to the mainstream

It goes without saying that there is next to no money available to prop up these endeavours.  Some may have principled objections to funding and sponsorship, all will agree that securing funding or sponsorship is no guarantee the final product will be any good (whilst shuddering at the memory of one Arts Council supported fiasco or another).  Most would probably dig a little help but can’t be bothered playing the game and find ways of getting it done regardless.  Thus saying the no-audience underground is self-sufficient is not to say that it is financially balanced.  If only.

There is a currency in circulation amongst us, however: goodwill.  From a piece called “our way of shaking hands”: trades and largesse in the no-audience underground I wrote in 2011:

…A certain amount of goodwill capital can be amassed but it can’t be hoarded in Scrooge McDuck-style coffers.  It needs to be fed and nurtured otherwise it will shrivel and wither.  Maintaining goodwill is more like tending a garden…

So why is goodwill so important?  Because money isn’t.  And here we need to consider the idea of trading off the standard indicators of success against others which may be more philosophically interesting.  Fame and wealth, as commonly understood, are not available to those pursuing fringe interests.  There is no screaming mob of fans to be milked dry of their pocket money with Astral Social Club 2012 calendars, there are no oligarchs wishing to be our patrons and, annoying as it may be when the rent is due, I suspect we sort of like it that way.  It means our ‘art’ and our ‘scene’, for the want of better words, can groove their own way uncompromised by non-artistic concerns…

Hence the prevalence of barter and other types of reciprocity that help keep the blood of the scene oxygenated.  This is a mechanism that nurtures self-sufficiency in the absence of money.

The term ‘self-sufficient’ can also be used to describe the drive with which many of these artists produce the work they do.  Some – most of the best – are compelled to create.  The absence of standard recognition might grate occasionally but is largely irrelevant.  These people do it because they have to or they love to or both.  That someone other than themselves might appreciate their art is great, of course – none of us are without vanity, but not necessary.  I know several people who, if shipwrecked on a desert island would be distracted from the business of survival by finding a shell that made an interesting noise when blown into…

Which brings me to the final point of this section.  If you asked our marooned friend what they thought was the relationship between their art and the mainstream I doubt they would even look up from the strange instrument they were fashioning from driftwood and seaweed.  There is a quaint, folk belief that a true underground should have some connection to the mainstream, ideally antagonistic – that underground culture should wish to change the mainstream, or at least to be a nuisance to it.  However, even allowing that such a nebulous, subjective thing as ‘mainstream’ could be usefully defined, I disagree.  There’s nowt noble about being a flea in the ear of an elephant.  Why waste time with the inevitable compromises that engaging with it, even negatively, necessitate?  I’d suggest that it is far more radical to ignore it and that is what many practitioners in the no-audience underground do – either as a matter of policy or, largely, by just shrugging it off as irrelevant.  What the fuck does the ‘mainstream’ matter?  We’ve got things to be getting on with.

underground 3

In summary, plus last toots on the self-congratulatory trumpet

So, the term ‘no-audience underground’ denotes a sub-section of the noise and experimental music scene which is largely self-sufficient due to its members being prepared to take on the roles necessary to get things done in a fluid manner, being receptive to the exchange of goodwill in the absence of money, being driven to create for reasons other than the standard measures of success and being largely indifferent to the mainstream, however you wish to define it.  Oh, and the number of people interested is enough to sustain it, more or less, but very small.

Exciting, eh?  I’m delighted to say that this notion has caught the imagination of some who have found it useful and/or, dare I say it, inspiring.  It has wormed its way into at least one PhD thesis and one MA dissertation that I know about and has been adopted for the title (and as one of the informing principles) of an ongoing research project that I have been interviewed for.  The idea has featured in sympathetic magazine articles and blog posts several times and, as has been previously noted, was mentioned in passing by the writer Simon Reynolds in his keynote speech on DIY culture at the Incubate festival in Tilburg.  My pride at the term being used by the Washington DC Sonic Circuits festival burst into unseemly joy when a parcel from musician and Twitter comrade Phong Tran arrived containing this item of clothing:

n-au t-shirt

What greater approbation could I desire, eh?  My contribution to cultural discourse immortalised on a T-shirt.  Nowt more affirming than that.

Criticisms and problems arising

That said, it hasn’t all gone my way.  When I first presented a fully fleshed out version of this idea I was, somewhat naively, unprepared for challenges.  I thought what I was doing was merely describing something I was involved with and found interesting and was expecting, if anything, wry smiles of recognition.  Pats on the back – that kind of thing.

Apparently what I was advancing, though, was actually a theory and one that some considered not to make sense, or to contain controversial normative aspects (translation: I was being a punker-than-thou prick) or, well, you know what that internet is like…

I have to admit I took it badly, personally – especially when my mental health wasn’t great – and my reactions have varied wildly from the highfalutin’ to way aggro.  It was, as it were, a picture painted from life and I didn’t relish people standing behind me going ‘nah, mate, your perspective is off‘.  I’ve calmed down now though, so in what follows I’ll attempt to be fair and measured as I think there has been plenty for me to learn.

i. Genre labels are unnecessary

I’ve had this a couple of times.  ‘I hate labels like this’ runs the criticism, ‘you just like something or you don’t’.  I admit I have some sympathy with the view that there are only two types of music: music that rocks and music that sucks.  Defining genres is a game played by critics (myself included) to provide the comforting delusion that they are guiding musical development and thus relevant and useful.  If the point had been ‘I hate labels like ‘extraction music” I’d have had to take that on the chin (yes, that is one of mine).  However, the term ‘no-audience underground’ does not refer to a genre of music – quite explicitly.  It refers instead to the assumptions and working methods of a group of practitioners thus this criticism doesn’t apply.  It would be like saying: ‘I hate labels like ‘stamp collecting’ or ‘racquet sports’ or ‘diagnostic radiography’, you either like it or you don’t’ – a mild type of what philosophy calls a ‘category mistake’.

ii. My characterisation of the scene is defeatist, negative and insular

Because I focus on self-sufficiency, indifference to the mainstream and so on I have been accused of being negative and defeatist.  ‘Surely,’ the argument goes, ‘there could be a wider audience for this work and turning your back to it is wilfully perverse.’  Whilst I wish anyone showing evangelical zeal the best of luck, I’m afraid I can’t agree for two reasons.

Firstly, many years’ experience as a promoter, artist, writer and whatnot have shown that it isn’t true.  There are peaks and troughs, of course, and special events such as festivals do attract more punters now that at any time I can remember, but a wet Wednesday night at the Fenton, say, has attracted a remarkably consistent number of paying punters for at least 20 years.  From an article I wrote called the rewards of no rewards: musings on no-audience economics:

OK, leaving London to one side as it has its own rules, experience has shown me that most UK conurbations of city-ish size can rustle up 20 people interested enough in the type of experimental music RFM covers to turn up to gigs.  10 or less if you are unfortunate, 30 plus if your scene is thriving.  Should you wish to perform in this ‘arena’ then these people are your audience: the subset of this crowd who can turn up on that evening.

Marketing and promotion do little to alter these numbers.  This is because music of this type will always be a fringe interest but that fringe is well-informed and inquisitive.  As long as the gig is plugged in whatever the usual places are then the cognoscenti will find out about it and do their best to roll up.

Secondly, I see being realistic about this situation not as defeatist or negative but as liberating.  From the same piece:

…because no one is interested in what we do.  There seem to be two possible reactions to this undeniably true conclusion: a) shake your fist at the gods and complain about the unfairness of your genius going unrecognised and unrewarded or b) take strength from its gloriously liberating implications.  I say go with the latter.

…if you are driven to create by an urge independent of possible rewards then you can do whatever you want purely for the love of it and only subject to the constraints that we have to accommodate in every other aspect of our lives (money, family, employment etc.).  This simple, eye-opening fact is truly heartening and this blog is testament to the many terrifically talented artists who are grasping this opportunity and wringing as much joy as they can out of it, sometimes in difficult circumstances.

The charge of insularity comes from those who worry that what I am describing looks like a clique or club, forbidding to the newbie.  I can understand that concern and attending a gig with a single figure audience comprised of people who all seem to know each other can be uncomfortable.  However, again, experience shows that the crowd, whilst undeniably odd, are a friendly and welcoming bunch.  People have their own way of doing things but offers of help are met with gratitude.  In fact, I have a little theory about why there are so few arseholes knocking around.  From ‘our way of shaking hands…’:

My guess is that there isn’t that much in the scene that an arsehole would be attracted to, or get off on.  There is no fame to abuse, no hierarchy to enforce, no money to waste, no club full of beautiful young things to enthral with shallow glamour.  Not much room for an arsehole to really flex its sphincter.  Now, it would be wrong to say the scene is without vanity but prestige and respect are earned from a down-to-earth crowd of hard-working and dedicated artists and punters and any attempt to assign it prematurely, or hype it up to unwarranted levels, will be met with a scoff … In short: our standards of success are unfathomable to the average fuck-knuckle and instead attract the fine, upstanding citizens who see the value in sharing their book-smarts and fancy-pants ideas with other fine, upstanding citizens.

*Sniff* I’m welling up…

iii. Who wants to go to a show where the audience are all musicians?

Ermm… yeah, this is a weird one.  Last December RFM started getting hits from the Italian language version of Vice’s music off-shoot Noisey.  Investigation revealed a link in an interview with David Keenan about his piece on the death of the underground published in the Christmas edition of The Wire magazine.  Noisey ask Keenan about the ‘no-audience underground’ and he replies something like:

…But that definition – No Audience Underground – note basically it means that the public going to the concerts is composed of people who are themselves involved in musical projects. And this is shit, let me say. If you want to go to a rock concert, I not necessarily have to be a musician, too, in the same way if I go to a movie, do not necessarily have to be a screenwriter. This is just another of the current issues of the underground: go to the concerts, and the public are all musicians … Fuck! When I go to a concert I want to turn off the neurons, listen and let me take the music, I’m not there to “study” because I am a worker of the sector.

(I say ‘something like’ because my Italian is fairly hopeless so I am relying on translation by web browser…)

First things first: props to Noisey for knowing about the notion and thinking to ask – very thorough – and to David Keenan who is a writer I have always found very inspiring even when I disagree with what he says.  However: this is bonkers.  Look back at my definition and you’ll see I am careful not to say ‘all’ but to qualify it with ‘almost’.  I also include ‘paying punter’ as one of the roles.  It is perfectly possible to be involved and/or show your support just by paying in and digging the show.  It is also, of course, possible to turn off your mind even if you are a musician.  Part of what I enjoy about drone, for example, is its capacity to dissolve ego and that I ‘know how it’s done’ doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it on the most visceral level.  I can lose myself even when performing.  Isn’t that the point?  Also, wanting to study doesn’t mean the experience can’t be freeing and joyful.  I remember Termite Club putting on Sunny Murray and half the drummers in Leeds literally sitting at his feet at the front – many were treating it as a lesson from an old master, all were ecstatic.  I’m afraid Keenan’s characterisation of my position is just wrong, as are the conclusions he draws – he doesn’t even knock over his own straw man.  I’m hoping that there was some sense in the original that has been lost in the translation.

iv. My definition is tautologous and thus has no content

…in other words: all I’m saying is that the people who make up the scene are the people who make up the scene and that isn’t very helpful is it?  The ol’ philosophy graduate in me was momentarily troubled by this one as it has the look-and-feel of a ‘proper’ objection from a dissertation supervisor.  However, I think there is enough information contained in the extended definition – implications about attitudes, working practices and the like – such that I can be confident I am saying something.  Whether it is of use to you is a different question of course.  A more philosophically interesting criticism is…

v. My definition could be applied to other endeavours and only relates specifically to this noise scene because I specify that it does

This is my favourite objection, in fact I consider it less an objection than an invitation for further anthropological study.  The idea is that the definition of ‘no-audience underground’ contains nothing that intrinsically links it to the noise scene I am using it to describe apart from my say so.  It could just as well be used to describe groups engaged in other endeavours with a similar spirit.

My response to this is to wave my hand dismissively, say ‘yes, yes, whatevs’ and demand to be shown these other no-audience undergrounds.  What an exciting idea.  Sure, I can see broadly comparable groups in, say, mail art, fanzine culture and other musical sub genres I come into contact with but what of, say, trainspotting?  Is there a group of self-supporting trainspotters, driven by a dedication to their hobby, indifferent to the false dichotomy of mainstream versus alternative trainspotting, just grooving their own way?  Wouldn’t it be intriguing if there was?  Well, it would be to me anyway.  I’m happy to concede this one and just ask that in return you send me a link to your research.

underground 4

The well-connected outsider

OK, so what now?  I suppose the biggest developments unaccounted for above are Bandcamp and social media.

There has been some grumbling that there is no true underground any more because everyone is busy with the social media circle jerk – being friendly, connecting with each other around the world, sharing things unmediated by the former gatekeepers and so on, but I think this is a red herring.  I consider myself to be fairly well connected with an email address, this blog and a Twitter account followed by around 300 people.  Given that Twitter has half-a-billion users this fraction is statistically indistinguishable from zero.  Seriously, with my social media presence if I really did want to antagonise the mainstream I’d annoy more people by coughing at a Laura Marling gig.  And yet here I am: punk as all fuck.  So, yes, it is possible to use social media without tarnishing your underground credentials.

Bandcamp is more interesting.  In the ‘documents of a golden age…‘ post I poke the notion of punk as ‘year zero’ with a stick then go on to say:

In contrast, the freedoms offered by the internet are greater by orders of magnitude.  Via services like Bandcamp any sound at all can be made available to anyone on the planet with an internet connection, at no unit cost to either the artist or the listener, within minutes of it being completed.  Punk couldn’t compete with that: it’s as transparently democratic, anarchic even, as it is possible to be in a ‘music-related’ context.  Sure, engage with traditional elements if you like (running a label, for example, is a fun thing to do and still one of the best ways of organising a cluster of artists who share similar objectives) but you don’t have to.  The extent to which you commit yourself is entirely your own concern.

Emphasis added.  The consequences of that freedom are still being worked through now, two years after I wrote that, in a scene that has never been healthier (couple of examples here – not without precedent, I admit, but you get what I’m getting at).

Exciting times, eh?

In conclusion

Y’know, I was going to end with a stirring, poetical, rhetorical flourish but the more I think about it the more humbled I feel to be part of the scene I have been describing and the more simple I’d like to keep it.

So: should the term I have been defining and defending be of use to you then feel free to make use of it.  More important is to acknowledge the amazing work that I am attempting to crowbar into this pigeon-hole and the amazing people creating it.  What a fucking great crowd this no-audience is.

—ooOoo—

the 2014 zellaby awards

January 4, 2015 at 8:23 pm | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | 2 Comments
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zellaby award envelope

The deliberations are over, the ballots are burning.  White smoke billows from the chimney here at Midwich Mansions.  Ignore the salty wave of ‘best of 2014’ lists you saw prematurely ejaculated over an appalled December – here is the real thing. ‘Never finalised prior to January 1st’ – that’s the Zellaby pledge.

And what a conclave it has been!  Scott turned up early and presented his nominations as a hyperlinked series of Discogs listings – he spoke using a vocoder throughout and would only answer our questions if we assigned them catalogue numbers.  Joe’s effervescent enthusiasm remained undimmed despite a trip to Accident and Emergency following a foolhardy attempt to gargle Christmas tree baubles.  New kid Luke seemed happy to fetch and carry despite our hazing pranks – oh, how we laughed sending him to Wilko’s for a tub of left handed CD-rs!  All I had to do was sit in my wing-backed leather chair, fingers steepled, and pass Solomon-style judgement.  My beautiful Turkish manservant took copious notes during procedures, of course, and whilst those are being transcribed I’m afraid I must begin with some sombre news: the underground is dead.

An article making this claim by David Keenan was published in the December issue of The Wire magazine and caused adverse weather in the crockery.  Having finally read it I can confirm that it is, by and large, laughable.  The friend who sent me a copy included this note:

Here it is.  I will look forward to reading your response as it would be great to see his flimsy, self-obsessed nonsense getting torn apart.

Hmm, yeah, tempting as it is to to embark on a comprehensive rebuttal what does it really matter?  I hate to disappoint but engaging with the wilful fucknuttery to be found in publications like The Wire is like arguing about the properties of phlogiston – it might be of vague historical or semantic interest to those with too much time on their hands but is ultimately pointless.  My favourite response has been Tom Bench‘s (@TJDizzle) satirical summary of Keenan’s disdain, tweeted in reply to some genuine outrage from Duncan Harrison (@Young_Arms):

yr not tru underground because u have friends and sometimes talk to them about music

Lolz.

Some of the fallout has been quite interesting though.  Just before Christmas, RFM started getting hits from an Italian language music site that was, on investigation, carrying an interview with Keenan in which he is asked specifically about the idea of the ‘no-audience underground’ as popularised by this blog.  In his short response he manages to invent a barely recognizable straw man version of the notion, take a swing at it, miss, then step back as if he’d actually landed a punch.  Admittedly, Google Translate may have knocked some nuance out of his answer but, as I was able to read it, it was good for a hearty chuckle and fuck all else.

Phil Smith, currently researching the history of Termite Club for a book chapter, wrote a thoughtful piece largely agreeing with Keenan that contained the following tragicomic scene:

One of the saddest moments of the year for me (on a lovely day) was Neil Campbell & John Tree talking about whether there was ever in our lifetime likely to be a music revolution like (say) punk again (one which Keenan seems to want), & shaking their heads in total ‘of course not’ resignation, the required kidz soaked in computer games & all manner of other entertainment drips & (I suppose) music, whatever it signifies to people, only ever welling up in such a way as part of a business move anyway.

I laughed out loud reading this.  Not only have these rueful old geezers forgotten at least one revolution we’ve already had since punk (rave culture – musically game changing, actual laws passed to disrupt it) but the internet enabled golden age is orders of magnitude more significant than punk.  Here’s a piece from yonks ago which begins to explain why and, for good measure, here’s another from double-yonks ago about why The Wire is hopeless too.

Neil Campbell, emboldened by Keenan’s piece and nostalgic memories of poorly received gigs unearthed in response to Phil’s Termite research, ramped up his usual silliness.  On Twitter he lamented the lack of confrontation nowadays and took the piss with his #realnoaudienceunderground hashtag.  I was interested to find out if there was any substance behind his bravado so devised an experiment.  After waiting for Twitter to move on, I called Neil out on some random nonsense in a deliberately antagonistic manner.  As expected, fight came there none.  Indeed, after explaining what I was up to both publicly and via direct message (the latter, I admit, did contain the phrases ‘full of shit’ and ‘you ol’ fraud!’) I found myself unfollowed.  Ah well, so much for confrontation.

(Aside: Neil has form for practice/preach discrepancy.  After hearing him proclaim several times that he’d rather read a bad review than a good one I took him at his word and minced three Astral Social Club releases including the album Electric Yep.  I did this with heavy heart and even ran it past Neil before posting.  He replied with a jaunty ‘hey you know me, go ahead’ but after I did he deleted the RFM link from the list of friends on his Astral Social Club blog and has not submitted anything at all since.  I was amused to find myself excommunicated for heresy.  Ah well, so much for bad reviews.)

I get the impression that Neil might be a bit uneasy with his current status as universally loved sacred cow.  Or maybe he digs it and is frustrated not to be a Wire mag cover star?  Who knows?  I love the guy, have done for about fifteen years, and hate to jeopardise a friendship with a shameless ad hominem attack over something so inconsequential but… dude has clearly forgotten how to take a kick to the udders.

So, in summary: those that say they want confrontation don’t, or rather only want it on their own terms or at a safe distance, those that lament the lack of revolution need only to open their eyes to what is happening around them and those that proclaim the underground dead are talking pish.

Before moving on a word about terms of engagement.  Whilst I’ve enjoyed a few physical fights in the past (yeah, I may be short and out of shape but I’m fucking mental), I find this kind of swaggering jaw-jaw to be boring, childish and unproductive.  Comment if you like but unless what is posted is novel, substantial and engaging I am unlikely to respond.  I won’t be tweeting about it under any circumstances.  I have washed my hands and will need an irresistible reason to get ’em dirty again.

—ooOoo—

BOY!  WHERE ARE THOSE NOTES?  Oh, thank you.  Have a shortbread biscuit.  Right then, shall we crack on with the fun bit?

—ooOoo—

Radio Free Midwich presents The Zellaby Awards 2014

Thank you for bearing with us.  Firstly, an apology: due to, y’know, austerity n’ that, this year’s ceremony will be taking place on the swings in the playground at the muddy end of the estate.  Nominations will be scratched into the paint of the railings and refreshments will be whatever cider Luke can prise from the grip of local vagrants.

Secondly, the rules: to be eligible in one of the following five categories this music needs to have been heard by one of us for the first time in 2014.  It does not need to have been released in 2014.  As the purpose of these awards is to spread the good news about as many quality releases as possible, should an artist win in one category they will not be placed in any of the others.  I do not vote for any of my own releases, nor any releases that I had a hand in, er…, releasing (with one notable exception this year).  My three comrades are free to ignore these rules and write about what they like.  The price paid for this freedom is that I, as editor, have final say.  Thus the awards are the product of the idiosyncratic taste of yours truly with input from my co-writers along the way.

A couple of omissions explained.  Long term readers may be shocked to find no mention of previous winners Ashtray Navigations or the piss superstition.  Phil and Mel have been preoccupied this year with moving house, full time unenjoyment and various celebrations of the AshNav 20th anniversary and have not been as prolific as nutcase fans such as myself would like.  There has been one cassette of new material, Aero Infinite, which, to my shame, I only became aware of recently and do not yet own.  Believe me, the pain is fierce.  Bookies have already stopped taking bets on their planned four-disc retrospective winning everything next time out.

Julian and Paul have shared a split live tape with Broken Arm and had a CD-r, The Dialled Number, The Bone-Breaker, The Heavenly Sword, out on Sheepscar Light Industrial but, in my humble opinion, their defining release of 2014 was getting nothing to appear on the developed film, a mighty album which is sadly ineligible for this year’s awards because it was released by me on fencing flatworm recordings as their ‘prize’ for winning album of the year last time.  See, complicated isn’t it?

There are also many releases on the guilt-inducing review pile that I suspect could have been contenders had I found time to digest them properly: apologies to Ian Watson, Prolonged Version, Troy Schafer, Seth Cooke etc. and thanks for your continued patience.  For the first time, two entries in this year’s poptastic final chart are previously unreviewed on RFM.  Mysterious, eh?

OK, enuff with the preamble.  The first category is…

5. The “I’d never heard of you 10 minutes ago but now desperately need your whole back catalogue” New-to-RFM Award

Joe votes for Yoni Silver:

I heard Yoni Silver play a solo bass clarinet set on November 1st this year. Over the course of 20 minutes I blinked repeatedly and snapped my fingers; my mouth hung open like a codfish and eventually my eyes filled with hot tears. I’d emerged from a jazz-hole that ranged from barely-there, reductionist ‘hummmm’, to wet-chop dribble/spittle outta the brassy pipes, to full-bore Ayler-esque gospel skronk. It was so good I didn’t just clap and holla…I vowed to start a record label to immediately box this shit up. Yoni’s discs are thin on the ground but live shows with proper jazz cats and beards like PWHMOBS are gathering pace. Watch out!

Luke goes for Botanist:

Ever fantasized about a forest dwelling black metal troll singing songs about plant life on drums and hammered dulcimer only?  Me too.  Well, fantasize no longer: he exists. Just when your jaded ears smugly tell you they’ve heard it all along comes the Botanist.

taming power - twenty-one pieces - cover

…but anyone paying attention will have already guessed that the winner this year is Taming Power.

I might have indulged in some ill advised Campbell-baiting above but I am profoundly grateful to Neil for taking the time to introduce me to the world of Askild Haugland.  This quiet Norwegian has amassed a sizeable back catalogue of tape and vinyl releases on his own Early Morning Records, most of which were recorded, edited and annotated around the turn of the century and have remained largely unheralded since.  His work – created using tape recorders, cassette players, shortwave radios, electric guitars and the like – is perfection viewed from shifting angles, filtered through prisms.  His patience and dedication to uncovering every nuance of his processes are truly inspiring.  It has been an enormous pleasure to promote his music to a (slightly) wider audience – exactly what this blog is all about.  The chap himself seems lovely too.  Read more: Neil’s accidental guest post, reviews, more reviews, Early Morning Records catalogue.

…and when you return we can move on to…

4. The “Stokoe Cup”, given for maintaining quality control over a huge body of work making it impossible to pick individual releases in an end of year round up

Joe makes a compelling case for the Peak Signal 2 Noise broadcasts:

If Cathy Soreny and her Sheffield-based gladiators had released ten 25 minute compilation tapes in a year featuring the creamy froth of the N-AU we’d stand to attention and sing a rousing song. To create ‘visual cassettes’ for your telly and computer screen and navigate the machinations of the community TV industry and come up with such a thoroughly curated, imaginatively shot and god-damn funny series is just the bee’s knees. PS2N has opened another glossy window into the N-AU.

Luke keeps it pithy:

The Stokoe Cup should clearly go to Lee Stokoe.  ‘The underground is dead ‘ announces David Keenan in The Wire this month ‘shut up you prat’ is the reply from Radio Free Midwich.

Scott agrees:

Predictable enough, I HAVE to say Lee Stokoe. Browsing my discogs list for 2014 acquisitions it’s virtually all Matching Head tapes – either the new ones or tapes from the 90s that I didn’t already have. Its consistent to the point of sheer ridiculousness.

daniel thomas - that which

However, the editor has other ideas.  This year’s winner is Daniel Thomas.

Dan’s output in 2014 has been prodigious.  He even wins in two categories that don’t exist: ‘1016’ the opener on Enemy Territory is my track of the year (go on, play it whilst reading the rest of this article) and the ‘flower press’ edition of That Which Sometimes Falls Between Us / As Light Fades put together by Dave Thomas (no relation) for its release on Kirkstall Dark Matter wins packaging of the year too.  The latter album is perhaps the definitive expression of ‘extraction music‘ – the sub-genre I defined as a way of herding the work of Dan, Dave, Kev Sanders and other fellow travellers into a manageable fold of headspace – and one of at least three projects involving Dan that could have been album of the year.  For the record, the other two are Hagman’s Number Mask on LF Records and the remarkable Dub Variations by The Thomas Family in another beautiful package hand crafted by Crow Versus Crow:

It is the bead of sweat on the brow of the tightrope walker. It is a time-lapse film of dew condensing onto a cobweb.

Dan shows no signs of slowing, nor of relinquishing his choke-tight quality control.  I cannot wait to hear what he has for us in 2015.

…and now a favourite moment for the editor:

3. The Special Contribution to Radio Free Midwich Award

Scott goes for a far-flung ambassador:

It has to be Miguel Pérez.  For making RFM a global concern, and being full of passion, he’s the man.

Joe, as ever, finds this a tough one to pin down.  He suggests…

…we should say a thank you to all the readers and contributors … to everyone who has waited patiently for a review/carried on reading without sending us hate mail…

…which is a sentiment I share, of course, but this year I think one particular set of contributors has to be recognized in this category.  God knows how 27 different acts are going to share the gong though because the winners are…

Michael Clough - eye for detail cover

The artists who submitted tracks to eye for detail – the midwich remixes album:

Andy Jarvis (Vile Plumage, NIHL), ap martlet, Aqua Dentata, Breather, Brian Lavelle, Chrissie Caulfield (of RFM faves Helicopter Quartet), Clive Henry, Dale Cornish, Daniel Thomas, devotionalhallucinatic, DR:WR (Karl of The Zero Map), dsic, foldhead (Paul Walsh – who accidentally started it all), Hardworking Families (Tom Bench), In Fog (Scott McKeating of this parish), John Tuffen (of Orlando Ferguson), Michael Clough (who also provided cover art), Michael Gillham, Neil Campbell (Astral Social Club), Panelak, Paul Watson (BBBlood), posset (Joe Murray also of RFM), Simon Aulman (pyongyang plastics), the piss superstition, Van Appears, Yol, and ZN.

This year I finally joined Twitter which, as a wise-cracking, smart-arse, mentally unstable narcissist with self-esteem issues, turned out to be a perfect platform for me (though for those exact same reasons I think I’ll have to exercise a bit more caution with it in future).  One of the first things that happened was a throwaway comment about a midwich remix project ballooning into an actual album that had to be retroactively called into existence.  The final release six weeks later contained 27 re-workings of tracks from my back catalogue and lasted a total of 3 hours 40 minutes.  The process was humbling, exhilarating, joyful and unprecedented in my personal experience.

The album remains available here (along with more detail as to its construction).  If you don’t already have it, I recommend you treat yourself with that Christmas money from Gran.  I’m charging a fiver for the download and all dough raised is being given to The Red Cross.  The total donated so far, after PayPal and Bandcamp fees, is something like £180.  When I reached a ton I had a giant-cheque-handing-over-ceremony, again following whims blurted out on Twitter.

Many, many thanks to all involved – you are elite members of the pantheon of the righteous.

—ooOoo—

BOY!!  DIM THE LIGHTS.  What?  Oh yes, we’re outside aren’t we.  Fetch me a shortbread biscuit then.  What do you mean there are none left?  Well, just give me the one you are holding.  Gah!  The impertinence!  Anyway, finally we come to the two main categories…

—ooOoo—

2. The Label of the Year Award

Joe goes for No Basement is Deep Enough:

You could easily mistake No Basement is Deep Enough’s tape goof for a zany Zappa-esque prank. But peel away the layers; brush the fringe to one side, open that single plush tit and you are rewarded with some amazing music. Almost like a wonky Finders Keepers NBIDE have unveiled some new ghouls and re-released some remarkable old gizzards (Alvaro – The Chilean with the Singing Nose, Ludo Mich and Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson) in frankly outrageous packaging. Old or new, experimental classicists or gutter-dwelling hobo these gonks are pure trippin’ for ears.

Yeah, I’ve been involved as a one of these gonks this year but I think that means I can give you an extra bit of insight into how curator Ignace De Bruyn and designer Milja Radovanović are such wonderful human beings. I told them about getting some mentions in The Wire (Ed – you’ll love this) and they didn’t give a shit. “Ha, we always get mentioned in The Wire without any clue how, what, where, when” said Ignace, “and let’s keep it like that” he chortled into his waffle.

Luke narrows it down to two:

Beartown Records.  A consistent champion of no audience sounds and nice and cheap, they sent me a parcel addressed to Luke ‘ the sick’ Vollar which contained a postcard with ‘sorry just sorry’ written on it.  For this reason they are my label of the year.

Also a mention for Altar of Waste.  I find it comforting to know that somewhere in North America there is a guy called Cory Strand transforming his favourite films / TV programmes / music into insanely limited and lovingly presented sets. Twenty disc drone interpretation of Harry Potter limited to five copies!? He also releases loads of drone/HNW discs that are lovely items to look at and listen to including my album of the year [SPOILER REMOVED – Ed]

Scott apologises:

Sorry, Matching Head again.

Luminous worthies, for sure, but I reckon my choice has been phosphorescent:

kevin sanders - ascension through apathy

The winner is hairdryer excommunication.

The solo venture of Kevin Sanders has released, I believe, 26 items in the calendar year 2014.  Unbelievably, during the same time, he has also had his creations released by other labels, has played live, has moved house and job along a lengthy diagonal line from North to South and has let fly with a gazillion opaque tweets.  This guy’s heart must beat like a fucking sparrow’s.

But never mind the girth, feel the quality.  Kev’s hairdryer excommunication sits alongside Lee Stokoe’s Matching Head as an absolute exemplar of the no-audience underground micro-label as expression of personal vision.  Each release is a new page in the atlas mapping the world he is presenting to us; each trembling drone, each nihilistic/ecstatic scything fuzz is a contour line.  Like all great labels, hXe is greater than the sum of its parts and only gets more compelling as those parts collect and combine.  I appreciate that this might appear daunting for the newbie so here’s five to be starting with – you’ll thank me for it.

Now you see why I have to strictly enforce my ‘win allowable in only one category’ rule.  I could have created a top 40 (!) that just contained releases by, or involving, Askild, Dan and Kev.  Astonishing.  So, leaving those guys sat chatting under the climbing frame, we finally come to the blue riband, best in show, gold medal event:

1. The Album of the Year Award

Woo!  Lists!  Click on the album title and you will be taken to the original RFM review (if such a thing exists) or another applicable page (if not) where you will find details of the release (label, whatnot) and, most importantly, how to go about hearing/purchasing these marvels.

First to the lectern is Mighty Joe Murray:

It’s taken a real effort to whittle this down but here’s my top 5 in order:

faint people

1. The New Band of the Faint People – The Man Who Looked at the Moon

Keep yr Wounded Nurse. These micro-pieces are stitched together with a domestic hand juggling fly agaric.

2. Rotten Tables, Golden Meat – My Nose is Broken

This cheeky release opened a new stomach pouch and gassed itself in…yeasty and fruity. Biggest smiles of the year.

3. Pascal – Nihilist Chakai House

It goes, “tk tk tk tk tk …. po/po/po – ping.” Blistering like hot metal pipes; fragile like seaweed.

4. Spoils & Relics – Embed and then Forget

Stream-of-consciousness becomes conscious itself…a living, breathing music as fresh as green parsley.

5. CKDH – Yr Putrid Eyeballs/Fungal Air Creeping Adders

The most violently restrained listen of the year by a long shot. Needle sharp. Music to break radios.

Scott briefly interjects:

skullflower - draconis

Skullflower – Draconis

As sylph-like a heavyweight as you’re ever likely to hear.

Now over to the office junior Luke:

Album of the year…

midwich - the swift cover

Midwich – The Swift

Utterly sublime floating tones, get your cranky toddler off to sleep in minutes, limited to 15 copies only?!  Madness. [Editor’s note: ha! What is more shameful? Luke sucking up to his editor or me for publishing it?  Yes, I know its me – shut up.]

The rest:

Spoils & Relics – Embed and then Forget
culver & posset – black gash
Skullflower – Draconis
Aqua Dentata – The Cygnet Procambarus
Robert Ridley Shackleton / Werewolf Jerusalem / She Walks Crooked – April Fools
Ashtray Navigations  – Aero Infinite
Yol – Headless Chicken Shits out Skull Shaped Egg
Dylan Nyoukis – Yellow Belly
Ezio Piermattei – Turismodentale

..and last of all, to your faithful editor.  I have chosen twenty items (well, twenty three including cheats).  The first half are presented in no particular order, the second set in the traditional ‘top ten run down’ ending with the actual, objectively verified best album of the year.  In my opinion.

10. NIHL / Female Borstal / Dear Beloved Henry / Albert Materia

female borstal nihl splitdear beloved henry

The perils of the split tape, eh?  I dug the Female Borstal side of the former, sadly didn’t get on with Albert Materia on the latter.  However the sides by NIHL and Dear Beloved Henry were bloody marvellous and, if they’d appeared on the same object would have rocketed up these rankings.  So I’m imagining an ideal world in which they did.  NIHL got a haiku:

Seduced by darkness

beyond guttering arc-light –

like moths, like dead souls.

Praise for Dear Beloved Henry – equally heartfelt, less formatting:

…deceptively simple in execution: a flowing electronic drone groove with a vaguely East Asian feel – like 1970s Krautrock that has been listening to a bunch of gamelan LPs – works through the variations.  However, every so often a magnetic pull distorts it off course and adds an intriguing, complicating layer of discordance.  It’s like it was mastered to VHS and someone is now messing with the tracking.  Is this an artefact of duping it to an old recycled tape or is this woosiness wholly intended?  The result is magical either way.

9. Helicopter Quartet – Leading Edges

helicopter quartet - leading edges

 …the album expresses a profound vision with an austere but soulful beauty.  Imagine a slate-blue version of Ashtray Navigations psychedelics or a restrained take on the intensity of, say, Swans without the self-loathing bombast. The band may jokingly self-describe as ‘semi-melodic mournfulness’ but this is a deeply serious music with, I think, plenty to say about the difficult, forlorn, wonderful, awe-inspiring condition we find ourselves in.

…Helicopter Quartet are, to my tired ears, a near-perfect example of how musicianship can be harnessed in a noise context.  Chrissie and Mike balance their considerable skills with an understanding of how to use noise to pluck the soul of the listener and have it vibrate with a slightly discordant, emotionally complicated, seriously intended, profoundly satisfying resonance.

8. Sophie Cooper – Our Aquarius

sophie cooper - our aquarius

 

When I wrote in the RFM Christmas message to the nation…

To be transported by a work of art – to be lifted from yourself, your surroundings and placed elsewhere for the duration – is a profound experience and, as someone who has trouble with self-sabotaging mental illness, one that I greatly appreciate. Catch me right and the bus to work is swapped for a magic carpet skimming the treetops. Find me in a susceptible mood and waiting at a pedestrian crossing becomes standing at the bedside of an elderly relative, brimful with a mixture of love and trepidation. Listening to music pans the muddy water sloshing inside my head, nuggets of gold and squirming, glistening creatures are uncovered. It – thus: you – is a constant source of revelation, of insight and of inspiration.

…it was no coincidence that I had been listening to this album a lot.  My apologies to Sof for not getting around to reviewing it but, hey, Uncle Mark did over at Idwal Fishers.  The cad suggests that it is ‘by no means a flawless release’ but if he dare repeat that in my vicinity I shall strike his cheek with my glove.

7. Stuart Chalmers – imaginary musicks vol. 1

stuart chalmers - imaginary musiks vol 1

The world his music describes is fully formed and the listener’s experience of it is immersive and ego-dissolving but carefully placed ticks – a filter echo, a moment of dictaphonic skwee – bring you back to the surface by foregrounding its artificiality. It’s like a South Sea Islands version of Philip K. Dick’s Time out of Joint. Imagine walking on the golden beach, admiring the dancing palms, looking out over the glassy ocean to the setting sun only for it all to suddenly disappear and be replaced with a featureless white room and a scrap of paper at your feet with the words ‘tropical paradise’ typed on it. As with all the very best stuff: the more I listen to it, the more I want to listen to it.

6. The Skull Mask – Nocturno Mar / Sunburn

skull mask - nocturno marskull mask - sunburn

Another terrific year for the prolific Miguel Pérez, RFM’s Mexican cousin.  From the bloody-minded free noise of his improv duo ZN to the incense-and-bitumen ritual drone of The Will of Nin Girima (released on new label-to-watch Invisible City Records), I doubt a week has passed without me spending some time in his company.

My favourite of his projects is The Skull Mask and these two recordings were released either side of Miguel’s return to acoustic guitar.  The former is made of enveloping, tidal drones containing half-submerged reversed vocals.  It can prove oppressively menacing or hypnotically soothing depending on your mood as you encounter it.  Just like the night sea it is named for.  The latter is ravaged, desert psychedelia improvised with raw acoustic guitar.  There is no shade under which Miguel, or the listener, can hide – this is completely exposed music and is riveting.

5. Yol – Headless Chicken Shits out Skull Shaped Egg

yol - headless chicken

From the preamble to a review by Joe:

For the uninitiated Yol has carefully and modestly created his own footnote in the frantic world of kinetic poetry.  Imagine tiny fragile words battered with broken bottles.  Innocent syllables and posh sibilance swashes getting clotted and clumped together.  Those classy phonics all chopped up and smashed; ground out like spent fags and stuttered wetly in a barely controlled rage…

Musical accompaniment is of the most primitive and brutal kind.  Forget the chest-beating Harsh Noise dullards, this is frighteningly naked and exposed.  Short blasts of destruction come from broken machinery, sheared plastic shards, bits of old hoover and burnt cutlery.  A more dicky commentator would say recordings are made in carefully selected site specific locations.  The truth?  Yol’s breaking into empty factory units and shouting his rusty head off.

4. Spoils & Relics – Sins of OmissionEmbed and then Forget

spoils and relics - sins of omissionembedandthenforget

The closest the RFM staff come to ‘critical consensus’.  I can’t decide which of these releases I prefer so you are getting ’em both.  From my review of the former:

Their music denies narrative … The palette used is a largely abstract selection of found, domestic and field recordings as well as sound produced by the various electronic implements that make up their ‘kit’.  The source of any given element is usually (and presumably deliberately) unclear.  They are examining the innards of everything, poking around where noise happens and taking notes.  It is more akin to the meta-musical experiments of AMM and their progeny.

Don’t be scared off – this music is not dry and scratchy, it is layered with humour (ranging from the wry raised eyebrow to banana skin slapstick), tension and a whip-smart self-awareness that speaks of the telepathic relationship between the band members when performing.  A piece by Spoils & Relics is about sound in the same way a piece by Jackson Pollock is about paint.

From Joe’s review of the latter:

There is a constant flow of ideas all itchy with life; reminding me of a similar feeling – running your finger over a gravestone, nails gouging the names.  I’m caught up in a multi-sensory melting of meaning into a constant ‘now’ … Listeners who favour that hi-fidelity will be delighted.  Beards who dwell in the no-fi world of clanking tape jizz are going to be entranced.  Skronk fans will be be-calmed.  Zen droners will wake up refreshed and sharp.

3. Ap Martlet – Analog Computer

ap martlet - analog computer

The title is perfect – it calls to mind a room-sized, valve-run difference engine humming with contented menace.  These three tracks seem less compositions than iterations of an algorithm set in motion by a wonky punchcard being slotted into the machine upside-down.  ‘Comdyna’ and ‘Thurlby’ are both rhythmic in an abstract sense – the latter being a low impact step aerobics class for retired ABC Warriors, the former an exercise in patience and discipline as a series of low-slung tones are held until they start to feedback, then released, then repeated.  The final track, ‘Heathkit’, is a coruscating, brain-scouring, fuzz-drone.  It is the kind of sound that in a workshop you would wear ear protectors to dampen but here it is presented for our contemplation and admiration.

2. culver – plague hand

culver - plague hand tapes

[Editor’s note: a sudden attack of prudishness has stopped me from reproducing the covers of this release.  Scans can be found accompanying the original review.]

I need to account for Matching Head catalogue number 200: plague hand by culver, a twin tape set containing four side-long tracks totalling, you guessed it, 200 minutes.  Each of these four untitled pieces (the sides are labelled a,b,c, and d and that’s all you get) is a sombre Culvanian documentary: a long, wordless panoramic camera sweep taking in the scenery with an unblinking 360 degree turn.  Each is different from the last, all are wholly involving and will have the attentive listener crowing ‘aww… man, I was digging that!’ and reaching to flip or rewind as soon as the track ends.  I say ‘attentive listener’ but really there is no other kind because you have no choice in the matter.  This isn’t background music – allow yourself to get caught and your ego will be dissolved like a fly in a pitcher plant.  It is a masterwork and a fitting celebration of the numerically notable point it represents.

[Editor’s second note: Lee later told me that this is in fact all one track with various movements.  Just so as you know.]

…and the winner of the Zellaby Award for Album of the Year 2014 is:

1. Aqua Dentata – The Cygnet Procambarus

aqua dentata - cygnet procambarus

My review took the form of a science fiction (very) short story.  Eddie’s music does that kind of thing to your head.  Here it is:

In some future hospital you are recovering from a horrible accident. Within a giant glass vitrine, you are suspended in a thick, healing gel – an amniotic fluid rich in bioengineered enzymes and nanotech bots all busy patching you up. From the waist down you are enmeshed in metal, a scaffold of stainless steel pins keeping your shape whilst the work continues. The first twenty minutes of Eddie’s half hour describes your semi-conscious state of prelapsarian bliss, played out over dark undertones of bitter irony: every moment spent healing is, of course, a moment closer to confronting the terrible event that put you there.

During the final ten minutes the tank empties, bizarrely, from the bottom up. Pins are pushed from healing wounds and tinkle and clatter as they collect below you. Attending staff shuffle nervously but maintain a respectful distance and near silence. As the gel clears your head, your eyes slowly peel open, the corners of your mouth twitch. You look out through the glass at the fishbowled figures in the room. You weakly test the restraints you suddenly feel holding you in place, and with a sickening flash it all comes back and you rememb———

No-one in what this blog lovingly refers to as the ‘no-audience underground’ is producing work as consistently brilliant as Eddie Nuttall. The back catalogue of his project Aqua Dentata – growing with the alien beauty and frustrating slowness of a coral reef – contains not a wasted moment. His work – quiet, long-form dronetronics with metallic punctuation – is executed with the patience and discipline of a zen monk watching a spider construct a cobweb.  Best dressed man to feature on this blog too.

—ooOoo—

So, that is that.  Eddie’s prize, should he wish to take me up on it, is for Aqua Dentata to have the one and only release on the otherwise dormant fencing flatworm recordings some time in 2015.  I’ll keep you posted on negotiations.

Oh, and should any of you be interested in how this blog does – y’know, number of hits and all that – I’ve made the annual report provided by WordPress public and you can see it here.

Heartfelt best wishes for the New Year, comrades.  All is love.

Rob Hayler, January 2015.

 

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