Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Sounds of the Underground: A Cultural, Political and Aesthetic Mapping of Underground and Fringe Music - Stephen Graham

University of Michigan Press
HB/ebook. 340pp.

So there is an underground then? I’m sorry I was all confused. This mainly due to a piece written by David Keenan in 2014 entitled ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ in which he defiantly stated that the underground is no more and if people don’t get up from behind their table full of gadgets and start jumping around there’s going to be nothing worth writing about. He even asked Thurston Moore if the underground was dead and he said ‘yup’ or something similar, before adding prophetically ‘but something will come along, it usually does’. So there is hope. Rest easy now.

In an early chapter of Stephen Graham’s studious and at times stimulating book he asks the question ‘what exactly is the underground?’ before coming to the conclusion that its a bit of vague term that's hard to pin down. There’s a diagram that shows it existing slap bang in the middle of a ‘fringe’ buttered sandwich with popular music and contemporary composition as the crusts.So that's where it is but If there isn’t an underground does that mean that everything else is overground? Its all a matter of how deep you dig I suppose. I work with people who’ve never heard of Neil Young and think Bruce Springsteen only ever recorded the one song you hear on Radio 2 everyday [Dancing in the Dark obvs]. For them Throbbing Gristle would be a difficult concept to get their heads around but in 2016 you can be never be further than a few clicks away from something that's just been created on the desktop studio on the other side of the world by someone whose just heard Whitehouse for the first time and has decided to form their own solo project and after several days of experimentation with some software they downloaded for free, has a release that's ready to go. But they’re not jumping around to it. So maybe that's not the underground at all? If you upload that work to Bandcamp or Soundcloud or your Facebook page and wait for someone to rate it is that the underground? Or do you have to play some gigs and jump around and get to know some people and network and hand out some homemade cassettes first? If you’re part of a small nexus of creative minds who meet up once a month in a small gallery in London to play improv are you the underground? Or does the underground cease to exist once music critics become tired of writing about it or waiting for something new to happen? You see, its a tricky one.

Graham’s book is divided into three parts: ‘What is the Underground?’, ‘The Political and Cultural Underground’ and ‘Listening to the Underground’ with each section further divided into sub-sections covering topics such as ‘The Politics of Underground Music and Noise’. ‘The Digital Economy and Labels’, ‘Artists and Music, Improv and Noise’, ‘Festivals and Venues’, ‘Noise as Concept, History, and Scene’ before ending with, rather oddly I thought, a chapter on ‘Extreme Metal’.

As you’d expect from someone who is Lecturer of Music at Goldsmiths University London the language Graham uses isn’t of the kind you’ll hear at your local noise gig which for someone brought up on Bukowski can make for heavy going. But then Graham is no Lester Bangs but then this is no Carburetor Dung. This is a serious study and as such uses the kind of language more likely to be found in the lecture hall than the upstairs room of The Fenton. Hence ‘anintermediated’; a term Graham introduces to describe the lack of boundaries inherent in the underground as opposed to the more inherent ‘disintermediation’ that prevails in the mainstream where major record labels and the media do their bit to shape and channel consumer taste. I can get my head around that one but ‘esemplastic nominal improv’ I had more trouble with. Of course there were others but on I merrily went.

Good sense is written though and not all of it needs a dictionary. I like what Graham has to say about the magical quality of lo-fi recordings, the contradiction that lies at the heart of those who take the funding cheque but rail against capitalism, the importance of the Los Angeles Free Music Society. I found myself disagreeing rarely but we were bound to fall out at some time. This happens when he falls into the same trap as the oft quoted Paul Hegarty, the man whose virtually unreadable ‘Noise/ Music: A History’ has Phillip Best down as Pete. Graham commits a similar noise crime by referencing The New Blockaders throughout with the lower case definitive article thus denuding them of their powerful TNB acronym and their true nomenclature. It may seem a small point but its a telling one. When writing about noise artists who are ‘forced to take day jobs’ to fund their work Toshiji Mikawa and Fumio Kosakai of Incapacitants are mentioned, both of whom are well known salary men, both of whom I have no doubt see what they do within the Incapacitants framework as vitally important to their creative wellbeing but nevertheless something that will never take the place of their day jobs. After seeing em live I doubt they could repeat what they do every night in a regular gigging band kind of way anyway. Not every noise artist suffers hours of toil to fund their label/project/gig cycle. 

There are interviews with improvisers, noise artists and organisers, people like Steve Beresford, Vicky Langan and the man behind Colour Out of Space Michael Sippings. Carlos Giffoni relates how he organised the first New York No Fun Fest with just a couple of credit cards, all while holding down a day job. Mattin features heavily and at its end you know that Graham has indeed gone to the gigs and got his ears blasted and got his hands dirty at the merch stall. He is a fan and is work is readable but this a mere scratching of the surface of the thing that is the underground. A study of all underground musics would no doubt end up being a lifetimes work.

Of the books I’ve read regarding the underground and noise music in particular Hegarty’s aforementioned tome and David Novak’s Japanoise, Graham’s ‘Sounds of the Underground’ makes the most sense. Until somebody comes up with something better this looks like being the definitive work as we stand at the fag end of 2016. Now for the really bad news; it don’t come cheap. Readers of a nervous disposition may want to look away now - £53 via Amazon for the hardback and £50 for the ebook [other outlets are available of course]. At those kind of prices this is a book destined only for the hands of the most deeply committed. If anybody wants to borrow of my copy drop me a line.

After making my way through to the very end of this book one sentence stood out and its this one; ‘A final point to note here is that overreading is certainly a real danger in writing about this music; let me just note that, in many cases, noise simply provides listeners with pleasing aesthetic experiences’. As a fan of the odd noise release I couldn’t agree more.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Neck vs Throat Volume 3

Neck VS Throat Volume 3

I’m afraid I wont be able to make it to this weekends Tusk fest in Gateshead. As much as I enjoy visiting the North East it was after much thought and consideration that I decided Brighton and Colour Out of Space was my weekend festival of choice for 2016. A tough decision I know: the friendly, intimate warmth of the Geordie welcome versus the knit your own hummus, five pound pints of beer south coast. But then rare outings from Romanian avant-garde heavyweights Dumitrescu & Avram and splatter noise junkists Olympic Shitman made the decision for me. A tough call but there you go.

I’ll be missing the first visit to these shores of the Mexican guitarist and RFM idol Miguel Perez who along with Yol [or YOL, I never know which] make up the occasional long distant duo Neck vs Throat. This is their third release and the first to see the line up expand and take in North East-er Dictaphonist par excellence Posset and Pascal Nichols who gets to sit in on drums for one track. I dare say that at some stage [or on some stage] this weekend there’ll be some kind of Neck vs Throat session.

Posset’s presence certainly fills out the sound with spool swirls and pause/plays getting it on with Perez’s dirty, lo-fi background Bailey-esque scribble but its hard to shift Yol from his stand out prominent position even if this release doesn’t carry as much metal scrape and metal on metal clanging as previous Yol outings. On ‘Expensive Taps’ he retches his way through ‘buying expensive taps stops police brutality’ delivering his exasperated lines like someone tired of explaining themselves to a roomful of murderous people. Its the juxtaposition of the sometimes banal lyrics coupled to the extreme delivery [needing virtually nothing in the way of profanity or crudity for emphasis] that still manages to startle. On ‘One of Your Five a Day’ his delivery is like that of a dying vampire with Perez’s guitar and Posset’s tape squirts complementing each other like a squeaky leather shoe and an awkward shopping trolley. Perez does his best improv scratch bit on ‘Slow Hand Clapping’ whilst on ‘Gather’ there’s a much fuller improv feel thanks to Pascal Nichol’s drumming while Yol’s lyrics give way to the sound of strangulation.

An argument could be made for Yol doing his bit within improv circles; a more fearsome Phil Minton, a wilder Trevor Wishart and I’ve not even mentioned his junk metal abuse which for the most part here has taken a back seat but could quite easily fit within a more traditional improv set up. Likewise Perez and Posset.

The most startling appearance is ‘Sunny Day’. A track that is unlikely to trouble the playlist selectors on Radio 2 but the nearest thing we’ll get to Yol actually singing. Hearing Yol almost sing ‘its such a sunny day we shouldn’t be arguing inside’ in such a demented style is both funny, unsettling and a dichotomous. And I don’t get to say that very often. In fact there may be cause to celebrate Yol’s lyrics, perhaps in a small samizdat publication where ‘its such a sunny day we shouldn’t be arguing inside’ can join ‘The lamp post is full of rats, that explains the squeaking’ and others of a similar vibrant ilk.   

Comes in a three panel fold out card sleeve with Yol’s distinctive cut out graphics. If you see one in Newcastle, buy it.

neck vs throat bandcamp



Monday, October 10, 2016

Anglo/German Occult Radish Ritual Cinematic Noise

Split LP.
100 copies.

Where to start with this one? Described as an ‘Anglo/German occult radish ritual cinematic noise record designed to fill a gap in the music market’ by the man behind Noisferatu [as seen in one of his amusing self promoting Youtube videos] this record comes with a little sachet containing thirteen radish seeds and virtually no other information bar the artists names and track titles. So ‘Anglo/German occult radish ritual cinematic noise’ it is.

Noisferatu is Carl from the south coast of England who likes radishes and has collaborated with Simon Morris on the projects Ceramic Nose and Basic Concept both of which involve Morris talking/singing stream of consciousness lyrics whilst Carl [sorry, I forgot your surname] makes some noises with beats in them. Carl [sorry I forgot your surname] also ‘vlogs’ on Youtube under the moniker ‘dullbedsitblogger’ and makes some highly watchable and very well made videos some of which show Noisferatu in the live situation playing as an expanded three piece with lady dancers, everybody dressed in black, wearing masks and throwing radishes in to the audience. This is also the first release to come this way that has its own promotional video as made by Carl [sorry I forgot your surname] adopting the persona of Humphrey Pobison who, with ridiculous false mustache attached, tells us all in glorious posh tones about this up and coming new release. Which, as you will have already gathered, has lots to do with radishes. At least on one side. Why the radishes? You’ll have to ask Carl.

The two tracks on the Noisferatu side are called ‘Radish Trinity’ and ‘Thee Radish Invocation’. On which you get the feeling that this really is an occult radish ritual cinematic noise record. Except its not that noisy, more ambient really with moaning, singing, chanting and the deep sonorous dong of a distant church bell. Things sort of swirl around a bit and a speeded up voice can be heard saying ‘All hail the radish’ in an attempt to create some kind of unsettling atmosphere. The lonesome call of Curlews adds to the eerie feel of things.

Question is, why all the radish? If this came with Dennis Wheatley name-checks, naked ladies laid inside floor chalked pentagrams, people in hooded cloaks, candles, goat skulls etc, etc, you could have a seriously good occult soundtrack, instead we have people singing abut radishes which may seem like the funniest thing since bouncing jelly but left me scratching my head somewhat. That’s Anglo/German occult radish ritual cinematic noise for you I suppose.

Maybe Fjørd can enlighten us? Their side long track ‘The Manifest’ is a mixture of droning Black Metal guitars, drum and bass samples, dark ambience and speeded up tapes, a bit like a more experimental Godflesh I suppose. And very good it is too, even though I rarely listen to such things and don’t have much to compare it to. No sign of any radishes though. No sign of any contact info either. I can’t even tell you what label its on. I do have some radish seeds though.


Noisferatu: noisferatuhailtheeradish [at] gmail.com

Fjørd: antidotrecords [at] googlemail.com

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Acrid Lactations & ‘Jointhee’

Acrid Lactations & ‘Jointhee’ - Chest
Tutore Burlato 10.  Cassette.

I’ve been reading this new book by Stephen Graham called ‘Sounds of the Underground’ and in it I came across the term ‘esemplastic laminal improv’ which meant absolutely nothing to me. Then I wondered if the term could be used to describe what Acrid Lactations & ‘Jointhee’ create because whatever it is they do it defies categorisation and I kind of like the sound of ‘esemplastic laminal improv’ even if I don’t know what it means.

For the uninitiated Joincey [or in this instance ‘Jointhee’] is the peripatetic originator of a multitude of solo projects and the member of more bands that if printed here, would make this paragraph seriously unmanageable. I saw him on Saturday at the Tor Fest, clean shaven for once which kind of threw me and asking where the chips had come from. His singing voice has a flat vaguely northern property to it which can at times ascend into a highly recognisable wavering warble. That's when he is singing because the way he does sing is really talking. On one of the tracks here he starts off by singing ‘Imagine Morrissey singing this’ and I do but not for long because I’d much rather have Joincey singing it.

Acrid Lactations are Stuart Arnot and Susan Fitzpatrick who when this was recorded lived in Glasgow but have seen sense and have now moved to York [I saw Stuart on Saturday too but only fleetingly and feel compelled to use this opportunity to apologise to him here for not tracking him down and asking him how he was] and who one day had Joincey turn up whereupon they made some tea and recorded some songs. Twelve of them. Each one having a different resonance each of them giving me that esemplastic laminal improv feel.

Whilst listening I wrote: the Stokie Shaman, gut ache improv, Sun Ra skronk, stories told by someone pretending to be a witch, silence, taut Hitchcock-ian soundtracks, spoken word question and answer sessions, running water, people talking in deliberately affected voices as puppies whine in the background, sax honk and Moroccan snake charmer capstan abuse. The songs are all written by Joincey and appear to be either stream of consciousness observations or random thoughts. Whether these lyrics were then improvised upon or are actual compositions is where esemplastic laminal improv comes in for in truth I haven’t got a clue. Vocal duties aren’t all Joincey’s domain either with Arnot’s Scottish brogue coming through on a foreboding track which sounds like he’s recounting a ghost story in a scary voice to a room full of terrified infants as a wheezing two chord keyboard refrain huffs in the background. Strings are scratched as Fitzpatrick [maybe or maybe even Joincey] goes all falsetto. One track lasts for about three seconds. 

It matters not what you call it though. These twelve songs are all highly singular and timeless creations that emerged from a room in Glasgow, where once upon a time someone knocked on a door and tea was made and music was made. All making for some rather extraordinary and solidly unclassifiable music.