misunderstanding the discussion: thoughts on the wire

April 12, 2020 at 8:56 pm | Posted in musings, no audience underground | 9 Comments


On 10th April 2020, in the depths of the coronavirus pandemic, Derek Walmsley of The Wire magazine posted the following tweet:


Equating promos drying up with a lack of activity is a familiar complaint from music journos and would usually only evoke eye-rolling.  However, Derek’s references to ‘waiting’ and the ‘current moment’ mean he is obviously referring to the situation now, under the pandemic.  This tweet garnered exactly the response anyone paying attention might expect: the DIY underground people pointed out that there is actually a vast amount of activity going on at the moment, more than anyone can keep up with, and the biz people pointed out that businesses were closed and revenue uncertain and as such any delays were unfortunate but simply explained as a result of the pandemic.  It also got a bunch of likes and a load of ‘pick me!’ tweets from those with warez to punt (no shade on them, by the way, gotta take yr chances).

I pushed back in this exchange (you may note that the times are a little screwy due to whether I was replying to a tweet in reply to me or in reply to Daniel Gregory who was also early into this discussion):




Derek clarified/doubled down with a response I thought was, at best, tone deaf:


…and I somewhat lost my rag:


I was going to leave it there but when I noticed Derek’s jaunty one-line sign off this morning I couldn’t help but further express my exasperation.  Mea culpa:



Fiery stuff. So why do I care?

The first issue of The Wire I bought was #121, March 1994, Elvis Costello on the cover.  I was a third year undergraduate philosophy student looking to ‘upgrade’ from the weekly inkies, by then in terminal decline (and if it sounds like I was insufferable, that’s because I was).  Rarely has a product so neatly fit the requirements of its consumer.  Each issue would be closely read and I would carefully note the publication date of the next.  Eventually I subscribed and, all told, didn’t miss or throw away an issue for more than a decade.  I lugged the pile – IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER – with me through several house moves.

Then I got sick of it.  For years my sub was renewed on the strength of the music it covered.  There was nowhere else I could get the skinny on the stuff I was excited by. Also, coming from philosophy (BA, MA, two years of a part time PhD in philosophy of language before I jacked it in) I had a very high tolerance for the hackademic tone.  Increasingly, though, I had confidence in my own taste and knowledge and had friends who also shared both.  At this point I was able to step back and see the medium was actually clouding the message.  The white space and angular design that, ironically, makes it feel cramped and claustrophobic.  The dry house style that vacuumed joy and colour out of even the most thrilling subject matter.  The unchanging reliance on established formats.  And so on.

At a time when the blogosphere was rapidly expanding and starting to suggest strategies for dealing with the phenomenon of limitless availability The Wire was still recommending which album we should spend our pocket money on.  I called Oxfam and asked them to bring the van ’round.

Since that cathartic bowel movement (it’s true about the van) I’ve bought The Wire once or twice a year for long train journeys (remember them?) and remain largely underwhelmed.  You may ask why I still bother.  I think I approach it in the same spirit that Charlie Brown approaches a football being held by Lucy.  I live in hope that despite my experience telling me otherwise, things will change for the better.

Here’s an example of me hoping for the best.  Aside from getting arsey with each other in the twitter exchange above my limited personal interactions with Derek have been perfectly lovely.  I also have it on trusted authority that the magazine has noticeably improved under his stewardship so fair play.  We met face to face following his interview with Mariam Rezai at TUSK 2019 and, via email afterwards, he commissioned me to write a short piece on ‘hobbyism’ for the last end of year issue (#431).  I was sceptical at first but I thought that if anyone was going to do it then I was a pretty decent advocate.  I also thought it would be churlish of me to refuse given that I’ve always banged on about the paper needing more voices from the no-audience underground.


And so the curtain was drawn back.  I was given a deadline, a word limit, beats I was requested to hit and the term ‘hobbyism’ (or ‘hobbyist’) which Derek suggested and isn’t really part of my usual critical vocab.  I submitted a draft then a surreal, breakneck editing process began.  Small changes made or suggested which seemed to me to reduce the fluidity and vividness of the piece.  The word ‘bollocks’ was removed (yes, The Wire emasculated my writing).  Clarifications and additions were requested and then mostly not used.  At the last minute the alleged final draft had to be re-edited as they’d managed to somehow duplicate a passage in the text.  When published I was pleased at its reception but, as a writer, it isn’t an experience I wish to repeat.

In-between submission and publication I spoke to a comrade at a gig who’d had a similar experience. “It’s infuriating isn’t it?  If they didn’t want me then why did they ask me?” They said, summing it up precisely.  “Bollocks” thinks Charlie Brown, falling on his back as Lucy pulls the ball away again.

To raise concerns over The Wire, though, is a lonely business.  The gigantic majority of people obviously don’t give a monkey’s, which is the objectively correct response of course, but those with skin in the game are guarded.  At gigs, and in my DMs, people are willing to express exasperation but actual criticism is vanishingly rare, weirdly taboo, in public spaces like this.

I’ve puzzled over this before.  There is no reason not to be polite (well, usually) but are people really so desperate to keep in The Wire’s good books?  For the exposure?  A friend in the actual music business once laughingly told me that ‘no one plans campaigns based on coverage in The Wire’ and I know from eye-witnesses that a play to the hundred-odd people who listen to the radiofreemidwich show can lead to more downloads than a positive mention from Byron Coley.  I’m not judging though, if I had anything to lose I’d hesitate to burn bridges I suppose.

Is it because The Wire is ‘ours’?  Because it covers ‘our’ music?  I can’t find the exact quote but I remember the comedian Josie Long saying that it hurt to be criticised by The Guardian because that is like being told off by your parents (though, as an aside, if my folks were war-mongering, neo-liberal, Corbyn-hating, TERF publishers spending all day pissing on their legacy I wouldn’t care what they said, even if their cultural coverage was occasionally interesting).  I get this.  Who doesn’t want the validation of being mentioned in a magazine sold in railway station newsagents?  But the idea that The Wire is somehow… Daddy is, er…, no, I wish I’d never started that thought.

Anyway, seeing as I’m being frank let’s have it.  The Wire’s ‘journal of record’ demeanor is becoming increasingly absurd as barriers to access shrink and available content may as well be infinite.  Likewise the formats and approaches to criticism used are, to be charitable, extremely well suited to the monolithic distribution systems of the late 20th Century.  However, real questions need be asked as to the fitness of The Wire to account for this unprecedented moment in music.  Especially given the cloth eared tweets of its editor.

Speaking of whom – yes, we’d forgotten Derek hadn’t we?  My final tweet was, shall we say, ‘heartfelt and boldly expressed’ impertinently suggesting that he and his publication need to up their game.  How will he respond?  A blocking might be in order – I couldn’t complain, I suppose.  A positive acknowledgement of some kind would make him the bigger man.  As long as he doesn’t lean on that cliche of professional journalism: the weary dismissal of the pleb, as if the simpleton had just got the wrong end of the stick.  We’ve all seen it a million times but it never gets less disappointing as a tactic.  I mean that would be embarrassi…




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)


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.


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:


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.


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…


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.


Strange Attractor Press





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


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.


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


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, 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.


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…


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.


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.


shock discovery continued: zines vs. magazines, writing vs. journalism

April 20, 2012 at 7:43 am | Posted in musings, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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This morning I discover that after posting the piece below about The Wire magazine, criticism etc. I had my second-highest daily ‘hits’ total since this blog’s inception.  You lot like a bit of poking-a-sacred-cow-with-a-stick, obviously.  It has also provoked some thoughtful and illuminating correspondence.  Chief amongst these missives is what follows.  It was hand-delivered during the night, unsigned and in a scented envelope, with a note attached saying I could use the contents as I saw fit, but that the author’s identity had to remain a secret.  I was quite taken with the further distinctions proposed so have decided to make this the first ever guest post on radiofreemidwich.  ‘Comrade X’ writes:

Hmm, I’m trying to think what I make of your distinction between reviewing and criticism.  Is that a thing? I suppose it could be.  For my sins, I’m afraid I rather like a good diss piece sometimes.  But the building up and knocking down of flavour of the months seems to have become a staple of music journalism, and it is depressing after a time, so maybe less of that would be a good thing, give the space over to things you like rather than things you don’t.  I can see that being on the receiving end of bad criticism is not pleasant.  In the fast cycling world of modern pop culture it seems a reputation can be made and destroyed in about 18 months.  But I feel to live in a world of total positivism is very twenty-first century,  and a bit of me longs to see the boot put in from time to time.  It’s entertaining.  What happens when an artist you always loved turns stale?  Do you just walk away? I presume you are aware of the irony that you have just performed a criticism of the Wire.  Which I have to say I enjoyed immensely.

For my part I too make distinctions, between zines (which I think is what RFM is) and magazines.  I see zines as the superior medium of criticism, or review, despite their supposed ‘lesser’ standing in the world of writing.  Zines are written from a standpoint of amateurism, in the sense of the lover, one who loves their subject.  They allow the writer freedom, from the restrictions of time limits, space, and the editorial concerns of their superiors and commercial backers, to say what they think, to create interesting writing, explore new ideas, to invent.

Magazines are commercial enterprises.  The veneer of criticism and commentary barely disguises the main fact that they are vehicles for selling the products contained within, and their interests are governed by those of advertisers, PR companies and A&R agents.  For this reason Billboard may be the most honest magazine in existence, it cuts to the chase, it is music journalism laid naked.

Some might say that the restrictions make writing into a serious discipline, and are necessary to avoid sloppy, rambling writing.  In answer firstly I’d say it doesn’t, in the reams of toe-curlingly trite prose that are cranked out every month.   This leads to the second distinction I make, between writing and journalism.

Writing, as I see it, is a creative endeavour, whereby language is manipulated to produce new ideas, arrangements of words, and viewpoints.  We have a sense of the writer’s personality embedded in the words.  Writing may eventually lead to a commercial benefit for the writer, but this is not the ultimate motive for its production. Journalism is producing a prearranged number of words to order, usually as a reaction to something that already exists in the world, to a time deadline, for the goal of procuring money.  People make the mistake of thinking journalism and writing are the same thing.  They are not.  You will not find much writing in a magazine.  Journalism is not writing, as it seldom creates any new ideas or experiments with new approaches to writing.  Its aim is to convey clearly why you should or shouldn’t buy something.  No room for experimentation, the meaning will get lost.  There is also what I call the ‘Earnestly Whimsical’ school of journalism, which attempts to shoehorn the euphoric zeal and skattiness of a ziner into a corporate rags column inches.  Never works for me as it always seems like they’re trying too hard to be kooky, and their voices always somehow manage to be indistinct.  I also think zine writing is generally only poor when it seeks to ape a ‘professional’ journalistic style of writing.

So again I think zines offer writers freedom to actually produce writing and not journalism, so they win.  I think for me the distinction between criticism and reviewing are not so important as the distinction between zines and writing on the one hand and magazines and journalism on the other.   I admire Idwal Fisher’s approach to reviewing music he doesn’t care for, long tangential musings that skirt the music entirely.  But they are entertaining and you sort of get what he’s getting at.  If you get me. So yeah, what Miguel said basically (Editor’s note: see Miguel’s comment on original piece below).

But I suppose you’re also asking, is criticism useful to outsider artists?  I think probably not, because most criticism of a ‘vision’ only seeks to rein it back into conventional notions of excellence or good taste.  And good taste should be avoided wherever possible.

Oh, and the sad thing is, there is no such thing as ‘critic school’.  People get thrown in there and suddenly their word is law.  Maybe there should be.  Or maybe critic school is a journalism degree, but do many people do one thinking their dream job is to write for the Wire.  It makes me suspect some people would be happy to write about Stockhausen or copy for a travel brochure, whichever pays better.

Anyway, enough from me.  I really should get my own blog, but I never find the time between replying to other people’s.

My thanks to Comrade X and I hope they do somehow find the time for their own blog – I would certainly be an avid reader.

shock discovery: no audience underground immune to criticism!

April 19, 2012 at 7:40 am | Posted in blog info, musings, no audience underground | 14 Comments
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Two weeks ago, a chain of thought I will partly explain below led me to buying a copy of The Wire magazine.  This may surprise regular readers as me whaling on this publication is almost a running joke here at RFM.  Wasn’t always thus.  From the early 90s, and for over a decade, I never missed an issue.  From discovering its existence I earnestly supported the only champion of ‘our’ music on the newsstand.  The full realisation that I had been duped by this nonsense was a long time coming but a blessed relief when it did.  I binned my final subscription copy with the same relish with which I extinguished my final cigarette.

However, since my return to music in 2009 I have felt the occasional twinge in the direction of The Wire.  “What is it like now?” I would wonder occasionally.  The omens weren’t good: a lot of interesting people I know dismiss it out of hand, the dull and unfinished ‘Splazsh‘ by Actress got 2010 album of the year and I was shown a review which asserted that Neil Campbell was the best solo improv guitarist since Derek Bailey.  Now my admiration for Neil as a musician and a human being is second to none, but this hilarious comment shows a woeful ignorance of at least three key things: a) Neil’s music, b) Bailey’s music and c) music in general.  Oh dear.

Despite all that, I intended to start this piece by talking about The Wire so I thought I should at least read it again and bought the April issue.  A photo of some dude who looks like a young Dave Grohl was on the cover, as was a CD affixed with the plastic snot that all magazines use for the purpose nowadays.

Alas, it is actually worse than I remember.  The layout is dismal, almost wilfully alienating.  A tiny unreadable font is surrounded by white space like a medieval book of days.  In ye olde dayes when paper (vellum?) was expensive leaving wide empty margins served a twofold purpose: it gave the text a gravity and importance and it indicated the wealth of the owner.  Interesting to see The Wire using the same technique to signify a not-too-different snobbery.

The content is awful.  So much for ‘our’ music.  Aside from a track by Neil Campbell & Robert Horton on the CD, none of the dozens of people I know making terrific music on the fringes are mentioned.  The magazine is as in thrall to ‘big’ names and respected labels as the most infuriating hipster.  Advertised on the cover is ‘We are all David Toop now’ an eight page (including dull photographic illustrations) article by Simon Reynolds on David Toop which begins:

The names of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari barely feature in David Toop’s writing…

Christ on a bike, eh?  This stuff is beyond parody.  Scything out the cultural studies (im)posturing you are left with a basic overview of (the admittedly interesting) Toop’s writing and an argument from Reynolds that seems to point to the conclusion that actually no-one is like David Toop nowadays.  Eight bloody pages.  The review section is similarly dispiriting.  Reams of forgettable writing so airless, claustrophobic and undifferentiated it makes me want to shred the magazine and throw open a window.

It pains me to write this – it does – as I want my blog to be as positive as possible, but I’m struggling here.  Think of the hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds that go into The Wire’s production every month.  It would be interesting to compare the latter figure with the combined total of all the extra ticket/album/download sales that positive coverage in this magazine generates.  I know from personal experience that it is virtually nil (or less-than-nil once you count in the cost of sending review copies).  I would bet, with confidence, that the two or three sales occasioned by the joyful wordsmithery you find on this humble blog beats the total for many of the reviews The Wire publishes to no avail each month.

I could go on but I don’t want to lend it too much importance.  Like the city in Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, The Wire grabs and distorts whatever is unlucky enough to get too close. Fortunately its reach is poor and is easily avoided.  The reason I mention it is that The Wire is the biggest, dumbest-whilst-it-thinks-it-is-being-clever example of the problem of criticism which I shall now elaborate on.

First, I need to make a face-saving distinction between reviewing and criticism.  Writing reviews is what I do here, most of which follow a similar template: the spec of the release (format, length, some pictures etc.) followed by an account of what it brought to mind, sometimes illustrated with anecdote or flights of fancy that I hope you find charming and not too self-indulgent, followed by details of where to get hold of it.  My humble desire is to bring stuff I like to your attention in the hope that you’ll check it out.  I am, of course, aware that there is such a thing as a bad review, and that bad reviews can be entertaining to read, but I am uninterested in writing such things myself for reasons that will become evident.  For me the essence of reviewing is positive and unapologetically subjective.

What I don’t do is criticism*.  Yes I know this is not necessarily a value-laden term – it can refer simply to the act of discussing or forming a judgement on the qualities of an endeavour.  However, I think that in common parlance it carries unavoidable connotations of disapproval and, interestingly, objectivity.  Roll the two terms around your brain for a moment and you’ll see what I mean: the reviewer is offering an opinion, the critic is pronouncing from a position of expertise.  Whether you’d prefer your work to be reviewed or criticised, you have to admit that the latter term implies a rigour that the former doesn’t.  Criticism, as commonly understood, involves finding fault, ‘constructive’ criticism implies advice on how to correct those faults, or how to otherwise better your work.  At its most daunting this is analysis, criticism with a university educated vocabulary, at its most positive and friendly this is criticism’s hyperactive cousin feedback.

And here is where the problem starts.  In two words: why bother?  We are undoubtedly as vain and needy as any bunch of artists and will lap up praise and validation with an obscene eagerness.  However, that said, the huge majority of the music I listen to was obviously produced mainly to please the producer.  I may consider myself something of an expert on these things (I’ve certainly put the hours in – see my imagined rejoinder ‘quoted’ in the Spoils & Relics piece) but am I really justified in saying that a piece is unforgivably meandering?  Or that the high pitched sounds are grating and would be better lower in the mix?  Or that the promise shown on their genius early recordings has yet to be fulfilled?  This is not music to be marketed via focus group.  It is profoundly personal, verging on solipsistic sometimes, and this needs to be respected for two reasons.

Firstly, people’s feelings are at stake.  To criticize their offerings is like telling a new mum that her baby is ugly.  ‘Awww… diddums,’ the hard-hearted amongst you might be thinking but I’m serious.  This is a small scene and the unit of currency is goodwill.  To strut about the changing room thrusting your ‘opinions’ into the face of other team members is childish and inappropriate.  Secondly, this is someone’s vision we’re talking about here.  The stuff I’m presented with is finished, complete – not just in the sense that a physical object, or even a download to a lesser extent, is immutable, but also in that the creative process has led to this concluding point.

This is why The Wire is such a flat, dry, saddening read.  It is full of critics who cover their shaming lack of knowledge with daft pronouncements.  They are determined to use the chops they’ve learnt in critic school no matter how inappropriate, detrimental or uninformative, no matter how forced the contextualisation, no matter how bogus the conclusion.  Perhaps what is most depressing is the thought of how much fun, how joyful it could be instead.

So, to conclude: shamelessly subjective reviews, ideally positive = good, criticism and analysis = dull and quite possibly pointless.  So there.  Anyone want to offer some feedback?  Just a little comment?  C’mon, man, I need some FEEDBACK!!

Heh, heh.


*That said, I will pull people up on two things.  Firstly, pretentiousness.  I am aware it is a fault of mine so I am hypocritically hyper-critical when I see it in others.  Secondly, easily solvable technical issues with the recording – unbalanced channels and the like.  Sort it out kids, you’re mugging yourself.  And works in progress are a different story: take it to Soundcloud and do what thou wilt.

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