I wrote a little thing about John Peel for We Happy Few. That website pokes into some curiously dilapidated corners of the culture.
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.
Deep in my hard drive was a podcast featuring an interview with the pianist Krystian Zimerman, in which he makes some thoughtful remarks on the nature of music and modern techniques of recording. It springs from his apparently counter-intuitive claim:
I’m realizing more and more that music is not an audio experience […] It’s something more than audio, and the digital [recording] technique actually showed me this. […] It so clearly transmits the sounds that you can’t hear the music anymore.
Asked to explain the paradox, he continues,
From the very beginning of the digital technique I had a problem in the studio because I had too many informations concerning the sound; and music is not sound. We are using the sound for creating music, but music is actually more organizing people’s emotions in time. And it’s more the time-flow, it’s more the story you’re telling using the sound. Going by more and more perfect sound you’re not necessarily achieving a better story or are able better to tell the story because there will be a lot of factors which will start to disturb the listener – the perfection of sound, which is kind of over-exposing itself. And, on top of this, I would say there is a very interesting function of the distortion in all this. We always have some kind of distortion – in the concert hall there is a tremendous distortion. There is never a total silence in the concert hall, so there is a kind of basic hum, basic level of distortion which is something we can lean at, we can play with. And if you look at old recordings – for example, I had a beautiful recording of Chopin’s Preludes by [Alfred] Cortot. The man is really playing with these distortions, he’s really diving under it: sometimes doesn’t play half of the notes, and that I only realized after someone gave me a cleaned version of this recording. It’s awful, absolutely awful, and this man gave it with a great satisfaction, saying “look how he’s cheating in the left hand: he doesn’t play most of the notes.” I said, “well, this is terrible because for this media he recorded it for, it didn’t matter, so this man had an intelligence of playing that what was important, and hitting exactly that region in which he could transmit his art to the listener. Not bothering about all the other things with were unimportant. And now cleaning this recording is like you would go to the Louvre and undress the Mona Lisa and realise she doesn’t have very clean pants this day. This is unfair because the picture is about her smile and not about her underwear. And that’s exactly what digital technique did to us.
Krystian Zimerman, interviewed by Tom Service, Music Matters, Radio 3, 10 May 2008, 6’57”-9’47”
Two points interest me: (♮) that music is not to do with sounds or ears, but rather emotions and time; (♭) that digital recording works against music. The former claim is one I hope to explore implicitly over the next few months on this blog; the latter claim is a familiar one. I expect that I’ll keep coming back to these two oppositions of music as either audio vibrations or temporal emotions, and recording as working with distortion or seeking perfection. I’m interested in testing the objectivity of the numerous claims against the musicality of digital recording. Digital recording is encased in silence: the smallest distortion may be isolated and removed. The minute level of artifice allowed by the digital technique – where notes and beats can easily be moved, repeated, deleted, replaced – means that the end-result is not a record of an event that occurred in the studio, but a computer simulation of it. This is of little import to many: artifice is part of art, and I certainly can’t distinguish confidently between analogue and digital recordings. But the implication is that digital recording relies less on the intelligence of the player, and instead conforms to a measurable standard of apparent mathematical perfection.
Petomane, Poor Homme
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.
The Attic tragedian Euripides died in 406 BC, and soon after, at the Theatre of Dionysus, Sophocles entered the theatre with his chorus, all dressed as mourners. At the sight of this, the audience spontaneously burst into tears. Public, communal expressions of emotion in the aftermath of the death of a culture hero are nothing new.
The Beale – Live at Guided Missile Club, Buffalo Bar, 10 February 2007. Full set.
Beaut 34, The Stone, Seeds, Young Stuart, The Double Carpet, The Chinese Pilot, The Top Ten, Constantinople
This was uploaded, to my great delight, around the time of my birthday (a coincidence), by Paul of Guided Missile Records, the Guided Missile Club, The Beale, and latterly the TV-theme re-enactors Dream Themes. If you’re pressed for time, skip to The Double Carpet at 11’40”.
Petomane: The Rock Machine Turns You On
“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.