Live noise: Nøught & Dead Days Beyond Help

Nøught and Dead Days Beyond Help with Alan Wilkinson, at Café Oto, London, 13 March 2016

I have mixed feelings about Café Oto. The venue cultivates a squat-party vibe with an artisan-loaf aesthetic. It is simultaneously hip and square. It hosts late night noise rock on a Sunday night so that people with 9-5 jobs, childcare, or homes outside Hackney will struggle to negotiate the restricted public transport services, while charging £3.60 for two-thirds of a pint of their cheapest beer (i.e. £5.40 per pint). The constituency which is able both to attend regular events and afford the drinks must be infinitesimally small, unless the cliché of the Hackney-incomer living off a limitless trust fund is more true than I have hoped. But where else could we go to hear music like this, while browsing a small book stall hosting, for example, the recent book on Bob Cobbing? What’s more, as signifiers of cool go, the crowd tonight includes former members of Sonic Youth and This Heat. But this righteous cachet may soon be jeopardized by the same new money that has contributed to Hackney’s modishness over the past decade or so. The new development of flats that is being built within earshot is an ominous portent of the likely struggles that Oto’s proprietors may soon face given the total lack of noise protection.

Dead Days Beyond Help (Alex Ward on electric guitar and voice, and Jem Doulton on drums) are augmented tonight by saxophonist Alan Wilkinson (playing baritone, then alto), and they forego singing to play a raucous set of improvised noise. This was just what I needed: thoroughly refreshing. The rockist temptation to compare the sound to The Stooges’ ‘L. A. Blues’ should be restrained by the clarification that, if so, it is ‘L. A. Blues’ as played by uptight Englanders. (I don’t know if all the players are English, but they play with the repressed tension of the English.) The physical efforts of these three musicians is a pleasure to watch, but equally satisfying is to shut your eyes and ignore the smell of craft beer. I did this, and forgot that the music was being played by technological Europeans. The ideological debates around freedom and idiom in improvised music evaporated. Instead I heard music from the dawn of time: the archaic spirit of humanity was given full voice in the uproarious blending of the three instruments. Yet still that archaic voice was mediated by a specific English anxiety – a tension without release – which kept the music controlled and separated from any claims of transcendence. We are grounded by the interplay between three humans. In a wonderful moment of unified playing, Ward’s guitar and Wilkinson’s saxophone each emitted answering growls while Doulton trapped a drumstick between the cymbals of his hi-hat, tugging at it as if pulling his arm from the percussive bronze jaws of a metamorphosed dog. The drummer won this battle. Of course he did: the musicians played in total command of their noise.

I had to go outside to protect my ears from the horrible simulation of tinnitus offered by the second group. I’m old enough and square enough to know when my ears have suffered enough, and I hate listening through earplugs. I returned for Nought, or, for fans of 1980s computer displays, Nøught (led by guitarist James Sedwards, with Luke Barlow on keys, Santiago Horro on bass, and new drummer Bo Mapper). Nought have a reputation for punishingly heavy sets of thrillingly intricate noise, but the new set this evening was less brutal, more playfully sinister. The first of two tunes lasted about half an hour (true punk rockers are not remotely frightened by this). Unfolding through interconnected movements, the music continually opened up new spaces for the mind to move around in. The syncopated drop-outs in the first minutes were reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s psychedelic soundtracks (as handily collected on Ipecac’s Crime and Dissonance). In short, Nought sound less English, more continental. Both fiery and relaxed, and with a sense of sprezzatura. Their new piece intelligently avoided the potential trap of a predictable escalation towards a crescendo by deploying a lot of dynamic space throughout. The effect was of being carried through a prismatic and protean structure that exists beyond time and space. The vision persists until clock time re-imposes the gentrified realities of the London Overground bus replacement service.

Petomane: Poor Homme

Petomane, Poor Homme
CD, 2015


1960s beat group The Beatles recorded a song called “This Boy”. If I remember right, it was the b-side to one of their early 45s, “I’d Like to Shake Your Hand” – a brittle response to East-West tensions in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Anyway, at one point during “This Boy”, one of the singing Beatles cries a keening refrain, his voice filled with the charged adolescent emotion that drives almost all love songs in pop music. His voice rises to a desperate pitch, but the song demands that the tone is instantly brought back to the close harmony of the final verse. On the recording there is an audible cut at this point – not a sound, but the absence of sound: a tell-tale splice in the control room. The singer could not unleash the emotion, and then directly switch to the precise harmony of the verse. Is it a flaw? Of course not, but it lays the process bare. On Petomane’s Poor Homme, the recording process is similarly audible – nakedly revealing the limitations of the equipment.

Poor Homme’s title is recuperated (unknowingly?) from a 1990s advert for legendary wife-beater’s tipple, Stella Artois. As Interbrew’s (as was) most polarising drink, their adverts have ever-tried hopelessly to salvage the perception of the lager. Petomane, as ever, are drawn to such misdirection. This is the first album since the full integration of ancillary member M. K. Smith on guitar and backing vocals, and this augmentation introduced a new collaborative writing process. The resultant stylistic cohesion and rockist moments on the album were initially confounding, but the logic of the piece fell into place during the long coda of the opening song, “Big Guns”. The song galumphs like Dusty Springfield reinterpreted by Barry Adamson, circa 1995. Here the group links concerns old and new: quipping Aux armes et cætera, which harks back to perennial reference point Serge Gainsbourg, and combining it with the tooled-up, working-out of the lamentable man evoked by the album title. All this is done with their customary swell of musical and vocal tenderness. The political resonance is implicit throughout, but the timeless core of songwriting erupts as wildly as a sheela na gig in a council meeting. They have not lost the conceptual purity of a synth duo: they are augmented, the scope broadened – the spirit of Wendy Carlos Alomar.

The listener is confronted with a great profusion of fat arses and colourful jokes in the most compassionate songs. The puns are delivered entirely straight: jokes are not clumsily dropped in or played up, but are an integral part of the black humour used to discover our bearings in life’s profane comedy. The coexistence of comedy and tragedy is clearest in “Never Enough”, where we hear of the various metaphorical deaths of a comedian. “Live Long and Proper” is the most successful adoption of the rock form: Smith’s electric guitar strides in like The Clash in 1978 given slick FM Radio production, over a wistful tale of lost lust. As usual, Chris Kasch’s production favours a lot of space in the arrangements, and here the overdriven guitars provide a powerful counterpoint to the spare piano, synth, and drums of the verses. The words, written and sung by John P. Higgins, are not afraid of spirituality, divinity and archetypes. “The Savage Gob” ponders the sanctity of silence and the solemnity of flagstone. The final song, “Eskimo Nelson”, concludes with a beautiful evocation, rich in potent imagery, of the mysteries of inspiration. Poor Homme is a fascinating postcard from people out of place and out of time, made possible as the stars align, letting a little light down Petomane’s dilating passageway into this world of dim, austere foreclosure of passion and imagination.

Petomane: The Rock Machine Turns You On

Petomane: The Rock Machine Turns You On
CD, 2014

“The Rock Machine Turns You On” – Ah! Wonderful. I tore off the Seranwrap and ran to my tourne-disque. It’s been years since I last heard Moby Grape – I couldn’t wait to hear those chiming guitar lines again.

But no, this is a different “The Rock Machine Turns You On”: it merely shares a name with the late-sixties CBS Records compilation. And it won’t play on your tourne-disque either. So what century is this?

This is the new album by Petomane. Thank Christ. No, thank Chris. Thank John too. And Martin: he played guitar. The title is a red herring, but also a double-bluff. There’s nothing like Moby Grape on here – Petomane seldom rocks out – and it’s no more machine-tooled than most music of our age. But the irony really grips the nuts of the second half of the title. It is confusing: is Petomane trying to turn me on? You recall the origin of the group’s name, from Le Pétomane, the fin-de-siècle French “fartiste”. Does he raise a laugh as a prelude to passion? In the same way, the group Petomane also frequently wrong-foots the listener. “You’re too young to understand that reference”, sings the voice of “If I Could Take a Moment”, but this voice of experience is never world-weary, whether coming on or dropping out; you’ll find us dancing around the chaise longue to the brittle breakbeat of “The Sadness of Sex”.

When does a kiss become a bite? Petomane’s second album skitters around this nebulous poser with ten songs of heavy emotional ache. The group’s first album, Top Trumps, established the confusion of time lines that suffuses their sound, and they continue to exploit the nostalgic power of a synth wash. This is landscape scouted out by Boards of Canada: the evocation of a non-specific time of youth, of endless possibilities. In Petomane’s hands this becomes a deep topography in music: the group maps this territory, but always with the suspicion that the singer might be reading the map upside down, and soon enough it becomes clear that we are navigating Belfast with the street plan of Basingstoke.

The album opens with “Turn On Genius” which is mixed as if to replicate the sound of the disco on the Poseidon Adventure: the dancefloor is on the ceiling, underwater, and just as you think that your dance partner will show you a Lionel Ritchie-style good time, he pirouettes and you realise that it’s actually Gene Hackman dressed as a pissed-off priest. Petomane’s sly moves are executed with confidence: “Soledad Miranda” finds the vocal mirrored by a taut guitar line, both in the upper register. This is no high-wire act but a group in full flight, the tone is relaxed, assured, and compassionate.

The album’s climax is sustained over two songs: “Photocopy Rockin’” and “Gainsbarre”. If the first of these doesn’t rock out, it still fucks shit up, with Higgins singing like Bela Lugosi’s Dad. The erotic francophilia of the final song is surely the apotheosis of the Petomane sound, where the three-way preoccupations of books, sex, and drink meet – wine-stained with foxy light-foxing.

Devotees of their work will be thrilled to find that Petomane can produce music that matches the highpoints of their previous two releases. (These highpoints are, in my opinion, “The Dark Night of David Soul” from first album, Top Trumps, which I’ve written about previously, and “The Scrivener”, from stop-gap compilation Recycling Proficiency. The latter song combines Herman Melville and Joy Division to give a heady surge to polite refusal.) Such pinnacles are matched on the present album without any sense of artistic stagnation. With repeated listening, the irony of the title crumbles in places to reveal complex substrata, and Petomane’s The Rock Machine Turns You On turns out to be music of sufficient emotional force to accelerate coastal erosion.

The Home Secretary: EP on

The Home Secretary: The White Hour | Soft Gamma Repeater | The Heliopause | The Maunder Minimum

EP, 2008, streamed at

The Home Secretary in Séance at Perforated Concrete Disc
Still from the film The Home Secretary in Séance at Perforated Concrete Disc

This is the third set of The Home Secretary’s tunes to come my way. In 2006, he announced his presence online with a selection culled from his first two CDs. Although these early tracks have since been deleted from his website, it is worth presenting a brief reminder of the disorientating sound-world they introduced.

Synth arc-lights induced the fear of patrolling private security firms in the abattoir ghost-drone of ‘Lyman Ultra’. He produced the trompe l’oreille of some very sharp ensemble playing in ‘The Meridian’ and conjured a still and lovely pastoral interlude in ‘The Conduction Band’. In ‘The F Region’, he combined the Natural Elements, using drumnbass hi-hat and malfunctioning toy car rhythm, hymning a mer-ghost and a Megacity rooftop garden. Elsewhere, ‘Spoliation, Part One’ was a track of purgatory jazz seemingly compiled from field recordings of a mutant band incorporating electric bean bag percussion, a choir of broken-mouthed IBM machines, a mutilated, out-of-work marching band with robot strings assembled tentatively around a poisoned well in Foreign Keyboard City, processed like turkey slices pressed into the shape of a bear.

In this delirium-state we come to The Home Secretary’s most recent music. The restlessness of ‘The White Hour’ characterises the EP: harmonising trumpet and clarinet sounds alternate with a walking bass which eventually takes over, and will not stop walking. The struggle in ‘The White Hour’ symbolises the vacillation across the disc between the fuck-you yacht-jazz of ‘The Maunder Minimum’ and the subterranean apocalypse-nostalgia of the two central tracks. Closing the EP, ‘The Maunder Minimum’ presents the engine room: the below stairs look at the carnage described by the centrepieces. It deploys that typical Home Secretary topos, the becalming interlude, to evoke devastating ruin. Here the interlude conjures an ominous engine hum with the Sirens practising their guitar on a distant island; this cuts in and out amid some crackling interference, their tantalising transmission lost as the track fades. We sail on, not even tied to our mast.

This follows ‘The Heliopause’ and its brutal call-and-response: a processed guitar call, and heavy banging nautical spirits thumping their response through The Fog. The resounding guitar line heralds your doom. In the interlude of this piece, the ship appears to be talking: here is the indifferent captain, calmly offering us the overview, read from the Iranian twitterfeed on his iPad, but we can still hear the chaos and carnage in the distance. Any maritime theme to the EP is surely unintentional. The highlight is ‘Soft Gamma Repeater’, which cracks open the mind of the CCTV. 1960s North East meets 1980s North West seen through a filter of corrupted MPEGs. Audibly, the camera drops through the earth: concrete and gravel cascade through a post-apocalyptic space-dub version the tune’s opening section. ‘A piano plays in an empty room’, someone once sang under one-colour-tinted record sleeves. But this time the piano is played by Delia Derbyshire, magnetic tape trapped under the felted hammers. And here is The Home Secretary, with his supernatural disregard for private moments, recording this spectral melody – no notes redacted – for your ears and mine to share.

Petomane: Top Trumps

Petomane: Top Trumps
Infinite Largesse CDR, ltd to 50 numbered copies.


The pop group Petomane is named after fin de siècle French fart performer Le Pétomane, and, fittingly, the group records on the perpetual edge of eruption, threatening to evacuate a plenitude of puns and digital synths. The album cover depicts a carney’s time tunnel on a desolate urban playing field which promises ‘travel in the year 2000’. It is a quotidian image of retro-futurism, projected directly from our collective memories, and indeed there is a sense that the album has been violently expelled from the middle-distant twentieth century. A 1980s flavour to synths may currently be fashionable, but the Petomane sound is long-established. Taking the album as a whole, the sensation is not one of its having been squeezed through the many sphincters of the past to fall stale in our lap; rather the album sucks the listener up into its dark inner carnival. The setting is something like this: a disco crowd all dolled up for a gig by the Thompson Twins circa 1984 drinking gins and tonics in the plush interior of a velveteen-seated cinema which projects the mid-70s documentary on the Kursaal Flyers trying to buy a pint of milk on tour, and the late-70s Patrick McGoohan medical detective vehicle Rafferty.

The group sent me a document to accompany the music and steer me away from ‘damaging opinions’ on each song. Having cross referenced my notes with theirs, I can confirm that damage will be done: you’ve sent it out into the world now John, nothing can protect your beauties from my brain violence.

‘The Plumber’ lays down the dateline: Climate of Hunter, Blancmange, Peter York, the Cold War — the 1980s are inescapable; yet when the dance beat is halted by furry-hatted Cossacks they bring harmony, and the ageless spirit of music rises throughout. ‘Theme from Yellow Glove’ invokes Pan in kino: his marigolds squelching in the fairy liquid, rinsing off noise and distortion and projecting the melody, not in retina-searing digital HD, but the warm tones of Super 8. Breton’s Nadja has a glove like that: I saw it under glass in Tate Modern in 2001 and even in its prophylactic case it was more tactile than the tips of Holger Czukay’s snooker ref mitts. Unlike most pop music, Petomane’s eroticism is well out of the toilet: it has leaked out of the window and into the world – a noble influence on our nation’s children.

Too close to their creation to see its Alpine splendour, the esteem in which Petomane’s admirers hold ‘The Dark Night of David Soul’ mystifies the group. ‘You were awful in that German TV thing’ it sings as the music is layered like the overlapping episodes of a lucid dream: the dreamer unwittingly struggling to impose coherence — oh! the moribundity of rationalism. But our insane master Sleep always wins! And it wins with this album: not in its soporific qualities, but in its enclosing the listener in the warm fragrant air of the woozy aftermath of a little too much good food, good wine, the conversation taking a bewildering direction at 4 am.