20 albums that changed your life – Part 3

Between 1985 and 1989 I lived in Victoria Park/Longsight in Manchester, within half a mile of two major alternative gigging venues, the International and the International 2. Over those years I saw a number of my heroes, including Peter Hammill, Robert Fripp, Gong Maison, Here and Now, Ozric Tentacles and Loose Tubes, the amazing 20-strong young turk British jazz big band, three of were playing with Bill Bruford. In the very early days I was also lucky enough to see many local bands there for nowt thanks to an enlightened policy to allow up and coming bands to showcase there on a Monday night. A mile in the other direction was the University of Manchester Students’ Union which had 2 (later 3) venues and simultaneously at weekends put on a variety of gigs. I remember one particular season where a series of bands went out for £1.50 a go, including then indie-darlings The Primitives as well as the more grebo-oriented Pop will Eat Itself and Gaye Bykers on Acid, which did little for me but were as close to my own more psychedelic tastes as it appeared to get. My tastes were still narrow enough to be at many gigs mainly as a result of mates’ interests rather than my own (and that extended to many a good night at the Boardwalk, an embryonic indie venue just off Deansgate). The Band on the Wall, where I frequently went to sparsely attended jazz gigs on a Thursday night, usually bringing down the average age by 30 years, was much more my musical cup of tea.

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Anyway, once more in the company of housemate Joe, I remember attending a ‘Christmas Ball’ at the University, no doubt in the company of a largely comatose beer-swilling audience, and being unexpectedly poleaxed by a Scottish band neither of us had previously heard of. Intermittently illuminated by a fierce strobe light show, this crew-cutted, polo-necked quartet, all monochromatically dressed (although I can’t remember whether it was in black or white) chugged out a buzz-sawed, reverb-heavy sound entirely irecoil.pngn keeping with the bewildering light show behind them; the aural assault softened by the beautiful harmonies of the two lead men Derek Mackenzie and Colin Angus. This was The Shamen, playing material from ‘Drop’, and was finally the psychedelic music I’d been waiting to hear live. Joe was similarly blown away – around this time he had started or was thinking of starting his fanzine ‘Recoil with fellow housemate Gav.

The Shamen were filed away as people he wanted to interview, and whether by design or otherwise, the next time the Shamen came to town, they ended up staying en masse in our grungy 7-bed house (there was no living room), finding space on the floor around the drum kit at the end of Joe’s bed. By this time Derek had left the band, leaving brother Keith on drums, Pete Stephenson on keyboards and  Angus, with  Will Sinnott having joined on bass. The Shamen were also by this time starting to experiment with house rhythms through existing instrumentation, and through their regular visits to Manchester over the next few years, we got to experience their controversial video backdrops, their music which was slowly morphing into electronica, their altering consciousnesses, and changing line-ups as all original members bar Angus dropped off. I’d moved out by the time the band had started to get popular acclaim with ‘Move Any Mountain’ and later ‘Ebenezer Goode’ and looking back at the stuff which followed ‘Drop’, it sounds very much caught between two stools, but being in the thick of it at the time was so exciting. ‘Drop’, meanwhile, is a much more consistent album, classic psychedelic pop with two fine voices and some superb songs, amongst them ‘Strange Days Dream’, and the anti-Falklands war anthem ‘Happy Days’ – I return to it often.

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Between 1990 and 1993 I worked full time at a free Manchester entertainments newspaper, Up Town, which was lucky enough to be in circulation right through the ‘Madchester’ phenomenon and was underpinned by dubious ethics in terms of in-house professionalism whilst providing an outlet for a whole army of volunteer writers and photographers. My job here wasn’t actually as a journalist, and in any case the music covered was more likely to be the Stone Roses (whose first ever interview appeared in the newspaper) and Happy Mondays but thanks to one particularly progressive editor, I managed to squeeze in interviews with Dagmar Krause, Peter Hammill, Courtney Pine … and the Wizards of Twiddly. The latter were a ubiquitous presence in Manchester and Liverpool at the time, their daft name and gaudy graffiti-like posters arousing mine and others cuwizards tshirt.jpgriosity, accentuated by the appearance of a demo cassette ‘Kitchen Sounds’ at the Up Town office. And that was all it took to be totally sold on the band – ‘Independent Legs’, followed (I still have the T-shirt – in fact I wore it whilst cycling the length of the country a few years back) and I saw them all over the show for the next 10 years – PJ Bells in Manchester was a regular haunt (although I have no recollection of the gig interrupted by the Fire Service described here), The Witchwood in Ashton, St Helen’s Citadel, Glastonbury, Sefton Park, then later a triumphant tour and series of gigs with Kevin Ayers where they did an hour of their own unfathomable material before backing Kevin for an hour of his. As for their music, well it was once described as “jazzy TV themes gone haywire, loon tunes about vegetables, yobboik punk numbers, outrageous guitar heroics and the most blissful sixties-drenched pop.” and I couldn’t have put it better myself… My favourite ever live band.

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Having shown a bit of interest in the Wizards and raved about them also in Facelift, I became unwittingly (and welcomingly) a repository for similarly off-the-wall music – I somehow got on the mailing list for the wonderful psychedelic label Delerium (which introduced me to the music of Porcupine Tree, Dead Flowers and Electric Orange), but also received cassettes from the likes of the Great Imperial Yoyo (‘Blink’ is a Camembert Electriquesque masterpiece), psychedelic dance pioneers Time Shard … and Kava Kava. I can’t remember the name of Kava Kava’s first cassette and no amount of Google searching will locate it. I did have a later CD version of it which was inside a car which got stolen a couple of years back (and I’m particularly gutted about that). All I can tell you is that it was unpronounceable and was subtitled ‘The Cosmic Wobble’ which is why there is a picture of their even more startling ‘You Can Live Here’ album here. In fact their last full album ‘Maui’ is probably their masterpiece. The band were a fearsome blend of initially messy guitar, hyperactive drumming, Pat Fulgoni’s unsurpassable blues voice (he later became a go to guy for drum and bass vocal samples), and killer funk rhythms which gradually got tighter as the band evolved. Quite why ‘Maui’ wasn’t an intergalactic success I’ll never know. I frequently scan gig listings (as I do with the Wizards) just in case they decide to reform – if they do I’ll be there..

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For 5 years in the early Nineties I lived in another house share in Chorlton, Manchester with some of the same crew who’d lived in the bombsite we’d hosted the Shamen at towards the end of the 80s. Facelift was going from strength to strength, as was Recoil, and disparate sounds continued to permeate between the various rooms in the house. One such which grabbed me was that of The Guitar and Other Machines, introducing me to the work of the Durutti Column. The Duruttis (ostensibly a duo of guitarist Vini Reilly and drummer Bruce Mitchell) were the unlikely darlings of Factory head honcho Tony Wilson, unlikely in that they were so completely out of kilter with all other Factory acts, or indeed the entire Manchester music scene. Whilst Reilly’s gaunt appearance and well-publicised drawling, tuneless vocals might have have had some common ground with it, the music emanating from his guitar (and keyboards) was (and remained) something of such breathtaking beauty that every subsequent album became a ‘must buy’ whilst the prior catalogue was tracked down in haste. Reilly’s gift is as the purveyor of soaring, semi-classical works of religious intensity – ‘The Guitar’ is listed here because it’s the first album I came across, and like all other albums is a mixture of inspiration and flaws, but it is rather good, with the duo of tracks: ‘Bordeaux Sequence’ and ‘English Landscape Tradition’ amongst the most well-spent 10 minutes you’ll ever experience. I’ve been lucky to witness the Durutti Column in a selection of memorable Manchester locations: the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester Cathedral, and even in the splendid Whitworth Hall with the rays of sunset pouring gloriously into the venue, exorcising memories of some disastrous final year university exams in the same room a few years previously!

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From a different time, genre and source comes Fred Frith’s ‘Gravity. At Facelift in the early 90s I was being sent not only lots of old newspaper cliippings which ended up as the Facelift ‘archive’, and tapes and CDs to review, but also, courtesy of like-minded and altruistic readers, various bits of music to intended to further my own musical education. If you follow the path through my own musical tastes, I had graduated from heavy metal to progressive rock, to experimental music, to jazz crossover – always wanting to go a stage further. I’d sort of reached a dead end with freely improvised jazz, whilst taking the step from Soft Machine to Henry Cow didn’t completely grab me. But somewhere in the middle was the tape sent to me of ‘Gravity’. Fred Frith’s unique guitar style, matched to some semblance of accessibility was embellished by a nod to European folk traditions, whether faux or otherwise. ‘Gravity’ is a standout masterpiece of extended instrumentation with a perverse twist on folk sounds, backed by a whole host of Rock in Opposition musicians including the Muffins and Samla Mammas Manna. The album opened my ears enough to check out a whole genre of RIO work, not least Frith’s involvement with the superb Art Bears trio (with fellow Cow-ers Dagmar and Chris Cutler), and the utterly bonkers Skeleton Crew with Tom Cora playing wonderful grating cello alongside a host of homemade instruments. This education continued with the likes of Nimal, Curlew, Samla, and more recently Iva  Bittova, which I’m sure was entirely the intention of the enlightened soul who sent me the cassette, whose identity I have unfortunately forgotten!

 

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20 albums that changed your life – Part 2

 

In 1985 I moved to Manchester from my sleepy backwater in Derbyshire and became so engrossed by the buzz of the city, the music, the culture that I forgot to leave for the next 13 years. Manchester in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties was all about a thriving gigging scene, and I certainly partook of this aspect hungrily, but just as (if not more) important was my own musical ‘education’, provided in a very large part by an extraordinary record library.

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The Manchester University Precinct was open to the general public and at the time, lent out primarily vinyl (with a few cassettes). You could see it as at that time the physical embodiment of today’s scratch and sniff streaming culture – I’d leave there every few days with a bundle of records under my arm, take back to my university digs, transfer to cassette and peruse at my leisure. When I spoke at the Canterbury Sound day last October, I put together a collage of those albums which were purely the ‘Canterbury’ element of what I borrowed – an extraordinary collection in its own right. But I also explored existing interests such as King Crimson, Hammill/VdGG, Jethro Tull, explored some lesser known prog diversions and had my first delvings into contemporary British jazz. If I went down a few cul de sacs, so be it, at least I knew a bit more. I can’t stress how much of a privilege it was to have all of this music at ones fingertips – it shaped not only the next 3 or 4 years but opened up avenues for so many more…

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I can’t remember when I got hold of Third, but I am guessing it was within a couple of months of arriving in Manchester. It had been borrowed on the back of the Daevid Allen/Soft Machine connection – I was already a converted Gongfreak thanks to ‘You’, ‘Angel’s Egg’ and both ’77 live compilations. But ‘Third’ was something entirely different – austere cover, muted production, flattened sounds – this was ‘serious’ music. My best friend from school had gone off to work in Stockton on Tees for a year – I visited him during a week off, and without transport or much brass and in a freezing cold house, have an abiding memory of being huddled in front of a cassette player playing ‘Third’ on repeat. I didn’t initially ‘understand’ ‘Facelift’ as its dissonance was neither the primeval screams of Van der Graaf nor the considered deconstruction of Fripp, and ‘Moon In June’ was entirely outside my comprehension at first in terms of what vocalists were meant to ‘do’, but I was soon converted. Reams have been written about ‘Third’ elsewhere, not least by myself, but I can still pick it up any time I like, immerse myself in it and still be totally enthralled – my number one album still.

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I’d arrived in Manchester with Peter Hammill’s ‘Enter K’ on cassette, and after having already tracked down most of the VdGG albums previously, I could have been excused in believing that the Hammill solo ego was an inferior parallel project. The first few albums I heard, all mid-Seventies VdGG-fallow period (‘Silent Corner’, ‘Chameleon’, ‘In Camera’) quickly started to suggest more depths, but ‘Over’ from slightly later on bowled me over. This is a ‘concept album’ in as much as all its songs (‘Autumn Song’ excepted) are on the same theme – the utterly consuming break-up of a relationship and I totally tuned into its vibe years before I could truly emphasise with its content (when I did, I found the album unlistenable). It also benefits from a higher than normal quotient of guitar-backed songs, for me, Hammill at his finest: ‘Alice’, ‘(On Tuesdays She Used To Do) Yoga’ and the totally nihilistic ‘Betrayed’. Every song on ‘Over’ is a minor masterpiece, from the punky opener ‘Crying Wolf’ through to the sliver of hope offered by ‘Lost and Found’, set as the morning after to the VdGG track ‘La Rossa’, where the author had contemplated the consummation of a platonic friendship. For years ‘Over’ was my favourite album, it’s still very high up there, and a delight to hear ‘Yoga’ performed live just a month or so ago.

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The appearance of ‘Larks Tongues In Aspic’ may not be a surprise to anyone with a smattering of knowledge about music in the progressive/experimental sphere. I’d heard Crimson first at school, when a classmate with elder siblings old enough to have witnessed the 70s prog explosion first hand had recommended. Having bought ‘Three of a Perfect Pair’, at that point a new release from local record emporium ‘Hudson’s’, I’d been a bit perplexed – was this prog? It seemed more ‘new wave’ to me, and even wilfully weird – for the moment I only really ‘got’ ‘Industry’, a precursor to later interest in the likes of Bourbonese Qualk and 23 Skidoo, who were part of the ‘industrial’ wave of the Eighties. But at least it got me going: most of the rest followed quickly from a new resource (see below), favourites being ‘Discipline’ and the wonderfully experimental ‘Starless and Bible Black’ but the best was ‘Larks Tongues’, brimming with tightly orchestrated dissonance, killer riffs and beautiful melodies. A toss up between ‘Easy Money’, with its unparalleled guitar solo and ‘Part 2’ for the highpoint. Another credit too for Bill Bruford, who would continue to figure a lot in future playlists.

3 albums

Perhaps the germination of ideas for the fanzine Facelift came not just with ‘Third’ which opens with a track of that name, but the next three albums which form the next choice. All are roughly contemporary releases following the break up of the classic Trilogy era Gong line-up – one could also include Gong’s ‘Gazeuse!’, Steve Hillage’s ‘Green’ and Tim Blake’s ‘Crystal Machine’. I’d shared a room for a year at University with Joe (more of whom later) and we’d driven each other mad with our polar musical tastes. We’d then gone off to pick fruit together in Herefordshire in the summer of ’86 and on a tinny cassette player played around the nightly campfire I think I probably further drove him (and others) even more bonkers. ‘Now Is The Happiest Time of Your Life’ is simply the hipp(i)est album there could be: three classic 3/4 time signature ballads from the Allen acoustic guitar: ‘Why Do We Treat Ourselves Like We Do’, ‘Only Make Love If You Want To’ and ‘Deia Goddess’ – the latter identifying Allen’s Majorcan residence, whilst elsewhere there is much evidence of the Allen buffoonery masking more serious messages (the biting ‘Poet for Sale’) and an early drone based track (‘I Am’) with glissando and space whisper. Masterful stuff before things got darker with ‘N’Existe Pas’, ‘Playbax’ and before they completely unravelled at the start of the Eighties. ‘Time Is The Key’ is the second album going under the name of Pierre Moerlen’s Gong, and it reflects more of a solo project, with the superb side long suite on Side 1  an orgy of tuned percussion with Moerlen working his way through the extended kit semi-orchestral style. Spliced in the middle of it all is the wonderful pseudo-muzak piece ‘Supermarket’ with its mindboggling dexterity, whilst ‘Ard Na Greine’ and ‘Fairie Steps’ are just beautiful melodies. Side Two is more funked up and shows the other side of Moerlen’s compositional style, even fitting in a completely incongruous (but memorable) Allan Holdsworth solo on ‘Arabesque’. This was my introduction to a whole genre of music involving Moerlen, various other ‘Strasbourgeois’ and offshoots from the likes of Bon Lozaga, Gongzilla et al which has endured until this day (two of my reviews this year could broadly fit into this category).

Bloom’ on the other hand is just an album of pure joy. Best described as unfettered funked up jazz fusion, Didier Malherbe wouldn’t have known that he wouldn’t release another solo album for a further 10 years but he makes this one count. Didier’s Indian and South American influences are well documented, and later the doudouk would dominate his performing repertoire, but for the moment this is just deliciously groovy Gallic electro jazz with Didier soloing gloriously on tenor sax. An album I’d return to over and over if I needed a mood boost. Probably deserving an entry in their own right, Didier’s Hadouk Trio in the Noughties became pretty much my favourite band, with a series of stunning albums corrupting the jazz genre through exotic instrumentation, Didier primarily with the Armenian wind instrument doudouk, the genius Loy Ehrlich through kora, hajouj and multiple stringed and keyed instruments, and my introduction to the hang via Steve Shehan. One of my proudest moments is helping to bring Didier and Loy over to perform to a sell out crowd in Hebden Bridge in 2011.

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And so to Ozric Tentacles. Derivative and samey? Or for me one of the most inventive, prolific and hearteningly underground projects of the last 30 or more years. Another housemate in Manchester arrived one evening with a vinyl copy of ‘Pungent Effulgent’, which had just been released back in 2009, and I also remember the good chaps at Decoy Records, Manchester’s pioneering jazz and roots record shop before the bomb, raving about the fact that they’d found a band whose main man Ed Wynne was Steve Hillage and Tim Blake rolled into one. After the clean-cut production of ‘Pungent’ I remember being profoundly disappointed the first time I saw them live at the Treworgey Tree Fayre in Cornwall in 1989 (and that festival is a whole other story), but later could put this down to the nature of the beast (both the stage they were playing on, the temporary Wango Riley’s, actually the back of a truck, and Ozrics’ notoriously free live sets at the time). My interest continued to escalate however, firstly the classic ‘Erpland’ double album and countless subsequent gigs in the next couple of years, and secondly the Ozric cassettes, of which ‘Tantric Obstacles’ forms a part. Back in Decoy records, I’d been made aware of a 6-tape collection of pre-Pungent recordings, with brightly covered, photocopied covers and inlays, each filling 90 minutes or so of wildly diverse sounds and influences. Licking my wounds after a relationship break up in a bedsit in South Manchester, the £24 for the set was a small fortune (I was paying only £25 a week in rent and struggled to muster even that) but I took the plunge, and using a cassette machine of just as poor sonic quality as the recordings themselves, took about 6 months to emerge out of the other side. It also corresponded to a time when I really got stuck into producing Facelift, with issues 2 and 3 appearing during that time, and the Ozrics provided the musical nutrition. An interview for the mainstream newspaper I was working for followed (a bizarre experience with the band getting slowly stoned during the interview whilst watching ‘Blind Date’ in their dressing room), I’ve bought everything they’ve done since, and was even witness to a sort of reunion last year at Kozfest – periodically I’ll dig out an album then slowly work my way through their entire catalogue.  Of the 6 cassettes, ‘Sliding Gliding Worlds’ is probably the most diverse and best produced but I struggled to get beyond the punchy ‘Tantric Obstacles’ particularly one guitar passage in ‘Sniffing Dog’, for many a month.

20 albums that changed your life – part 1

Skilfully combining the ’10 albums which changed your life’ meme with the one  which identifies ‘Your top 20 albums’ and ignoring the bit about ‘no need to comment’, here’s a somewhat self-indulgent blog doing what it says on the tin. Albums listed in chronological order of hearing them. Expect a few surprises if you make it that far…

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Whilst I grew up in a very musical household with 3 piano players (I was the odd one out) it didn’t mean I was exposed to a particularly wide range of musical influences – until the age of 10 my musical diet was classical music spiced up occasionally by my father’s wonderful jazz records. In the Seventies chart music didn’t permeate into your life in the same way that it would do in subsequent years: there was little music played in supermarkets, and we didn’t watch commercial TV so didn’t pick up stuff through adverts. My musical education changed when I got my first ‘wireless’ – a plastic blue number which spent many nights under the pillow listening to Radio Luxembourg and overseas cricket commentary. I was lucky enough to reach the age of 10 in November 1976, and quickly my musical palate leant towards chart punk, a few prog infiltrations (such as Yes, ELP and Genesis) and some of the better disco soul-spin offs such as Donna Summer and Diana Ross. Then on to new wave and the mod stuff, The Police and eventually heavy metal, which to this hormonal pre-pubescent rather struck the spot. I remember my sister presenting the ‘Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’ single by AC/DC on Christmas day to my appalled parents and defiling the family record player with its screamed vocals and turgid guitar chords. ‘Hells Bells’ was the ‘B’ side, both taken from ‘Back in Black’, which my best mate got in his Christmas stocking and became the our sole playlist for a while…

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As heavy metal became my new religion, I naturally gravitated towards the only radio program I could find which played it – Tommy Vance’s ‘Friday Rock Show’ on Radio 1. Each year a Christmas special (a sort of HM alternative to John Peel’s Festival 50) listed fans’ Top 10 tracks, and in amongst the heavier stuff like AC/DC and Black Sabbath (more of which later) was a whole host of lengthy prog classics from the likes of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Rush.. and Yes. I loved ‘Awaken’ so much that it set me on the road to track down everything by the band over the next few years, and a highlight was certainly ‘Close to the Edge’, which also happened to be a record owned by my sister. I marvelled at the obtuse guitar lines in its title track intro and silly vocal interventions, the funky stuff on ‘Siberian Khatru’ and the general pseudo-classical composition. For a few years I was more into Yes than I have been any other band before or since – I experienced the highs of finding out in 1983 that they were to reform, and the crushing reality that was ‘90125’. I even used to have dreams at night of hearing entirely new albums, only to wake up to find that the whole thing had been illusory. Times and tastes move on but I do return to this album still (and of course continued to write about Bill Bruford in several different contexts).

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Around the time when heavy metal had me in its filthy grasp, the same friend who had a copy of ‘Back In Black’ also introduced me to Black Sabbath’s ‘Mob Rules’. Fine stuff in its own right, but the local library, which just happened to be at the other end of our road back in Matlock had further albums I could dive into. Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut remains a classic – it’s so different from anything else they did subsequently, not least because they were still shaking off their blues and jazz roots and hadn’t yet found that winning ‘formula’ of ‘Paranoid’. And, in common with so many records from the turn of decade, this blend of ideas is breathtaking and so fresh. Rambling bass solos, unique guitar soloing, feedback and the sheer unconvention of it all – plus the chill (as in scary) factor of the opening track. And then there’s ‘The Wizard’ – a joyous harmonica-fuelled romp… Never tire of listening to any of this album – the unreleased material from this album are also a joy, from the bonus track ‘Wicked World’ to the extra guitar bits in an extended version of ‘Warning’. Hard to believe this was all apparently laid down on the way to catch a ferry to France.

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I’m proud to say that Van Der Graaf Generator’s second album was only the third LP I ever bought (the first two being AC/DC’s bluesy ‘Powerage’ and (ahem) an album by Rose Tattoo. I’d been waiting to explore VdGG for a while after hearing on a regular basis a most untypical VdGG track ‘Theme One’ as a signature tune on the Rock Show’s ‘Friday Night Connection’ segment. The same show often broadcast old BBC sessions, often somewhat incongruously in amongst the general metalfest vibe. One such session was from Van der Graaf and included a rather startling ‘After The Flood’ which introduced me to Peter Hammill’s intense, self-indulgent style, half-crooned, half-growled and backed by intricately scored but very much NOT pseudo-classical music. I can’t remember much else about that session, but on the album ‘The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other’ itself I quickly migrated beyond ‘Flood’ and the VdGG anthem ‘Refugees’ to for me, infinitely more iconic tunes: ‘Darkness 11/11’, which still, I reckon has the world’s greatest single note solo (on Hugh Banton’s keyboards) and ‘White Hammer’, a gothic exploration of the Spanish Inquisition, no less, with its thrilling ‘galumphing’ coda concluded by David Jackson’s screaming saxes. Life has never been quite the same since…

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At 18, and on the point of leaving home for university, I ended up spending a couple of weeks at my grandparents in Nottinghamshire whilst my parents were away in France. I was just killing time really, but with my musical tastes warping away to the more experimental end of the prog spectrum, I was already buying vinyl in spades, and Nottingham had quite an amazing record shop (I think it may actually have been called ‘Amazing Records’) to the extent that I think I even had some sort of loyalty card there. Feeling relatively flush after a summer working on fruit farms, I took my hard earned brass down the shop and emerged with 2 pieces of vinyl: Gong’s ‘Magick Brother, Mystick Sister’ and ‘Camembert Electrique’ and a tape of Peter Hammill’s ‘Enter K’. I’d heard snippets of ‘Camembert’ at school (as detailed in my sleevenotes to one of the ‘Canterburied Sounds ‘ compilations) but the reality was even weirder than I remembered – almost 50 years on from its release it remains one of the most innovative albums there has ever been – it must have been mindblowing at the time: spacewhisper, glissando guitar and the most incredible spiky rhythms accentuated by Pip Pyle’s razorsharp drumming. In the early 90s I felt so privileged to hear the majority of this album performed by a crack Gong line-up including original performers Pip Pyle, Didier Malherbe and Daevid Allen. For many years ‘You’ took over as my fave Gong album as the perfect psychedelic funked out space jam album (!) but ‘Camembert’ is the one I always return to. Check out the alternative GAS release ‘Camembert Eclectique’, in particular ‘Big City Energy’ and ‘Hyp Hypnotise You’ for possibly even more bonkers evidence of an earlier line-up of this band…

 

 

Diratz – album review

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Back in the days of Facelift magazine in the Nineties, things got to the happy stage where review CDs (which were a new medium then) started arriving through the door at the rate of around one a week. It was a golden period for releases. During one memorable period “Missing Pieces”, “Singing The Bruise”, “Somewhere in France”, “Hadouk” “Parallel”, plus the first CD reissues of “Hoppertunity Box” and “Caravan” appeared in close succession. All of those albums are classics, other releases from time to time less so, and often the task for the reviewer is to find an angle, a hook, a ‘way in’ to a collection of music that doesn’t immediately grab you.

Then occasionally a record comes along unexpectedly which completely blows your socks off within the first few bars, and the only struggle is to try and analyse quite why it moves you so much. So it is with ‘Diratz’, a remarkable collaboration between Dave Newhouse, he of American RIO band The Muffins, guitarist Bret Hart and an extraordinary French singer called Carla Diratz. This project, recorded on alternate sides of the Atlantic, proved to be such a meeting of minds that it has been quickly followed by North American gigs with an expanded line-up, and you can see why – it just ‘works’.

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Carla Diratz’s remarkable voice, a deep, sonorous expression of raw emotion, would be statement enough in isolation. Indeed a cursory search of her previous work brings up evidence of a quite startling project called The Electric Suite (with Corentin Coupe), where her voice is backed only by bass guitar.  But this new project, recognising her impact to the extent that the project and album title bear her surname alone, benefits from musicianship to back it up which is in its own way is just as breathtaking. In truth the music on this album falls very much into one of two categories. The first is the rambling and free compositions which allow the voice to twist down somewhat experimental avenues, backed by impressionistic soundscapes – these are the collaborations attributed to her and guitarist Hart, best of which is the album closers ‘The Old Suzanne’, accompanied by clarinet and  ‘Song For Jaki’, a heartfelt tribute to Jaki Liebzeit of Can. Secondly there are the Newhouse/Diratz songs, which are much more tightly composed and melodic, whilst still maintaining that element of danger and progression. I much prefer the latter – in fact each of three of four such pieces could be described as stunning.

I’m sure I’m not alone in being immediately sold on track 6, ‘Random Nights’, the song which helped publicise the album here, where a romping off-kilter piano rhythm underpins both aching vocals and a repetitive and strident guitar call-out. The way Diratz double tracks her vocal lines early in the track in an almost primeval manner is quite Hammillesque. I was drawn next to the second track ‘A Bout De Souffle’ where Hart’s angular guitar underpins probably the most eloquent vocals on the album.  Punchy drumming from Newhouse junior (son George) and the use of multi-reed chords from father Dave are also highpoints.  Dave Newhouse’s keyboard work with the Muffins always had at its core trademark Softs Third-era keyboard cycles, and the best moments of this album provide these as the backdrop to vocals in a way which seems so completely made to match. In that respect the track ‘Bataclan’, based around the aftermath of the 2015 French nightclub bombing, geographically and emotionally close to home for the Paris-based Diratz, is the one that continues to eat into me on repeated listening. Starting off underpinned by a piano theme resonant of the start of the ‘Rivmic Melodies’ suite, Newhouse’s role switches to one of those memorable cyclical themes before spreading out to provide a lovely sustained organ sound. This track is exemplary in so many ways – principally from the beautiful plaintive solo lines from guest guitarist Mark Stanley, through to Newhouse’s accompanying keys and the heart-wrenching lyrics of Diratz. The anguish at the futility of the bloodshed is set in stark contrast against the simplicity of the accompaniment, with the guitar treatments by Hart providing a disquieting counterpoint.  This is just one example of the evocative lyrical imagery of Diratz – the inlay accompanying the CD itself could almost be a collection of poems in its own right.

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To categorise this music is difficult and probably rather missing the point. I’ve heard mention of the aforementioned Rock in Opposition movement in some quarters, and it’s fair to say that hearing poignant English lyrics delivered in a striking foreign accent, backed by fluent, innovative and somewhat obtuse accompaniment put me in mind of the Art Bears (and no criticism there). But in truth I was reminded just as much in terms of impact of the likes of Portishead and Moloko in somewhat different musical genres in that it takes a classic jazz/blues voice and places it in such a subversive musical context that the overall effect is mesmerising. At its frequent peaks, this project is a real find – let’s hope this transatlantic collaboration finds the legs and the support to produce more of its searching music…

http://www.mannamirage.com/diratz

 

Gong Expresso – Decadence – album review

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The Soften the Glare album, reviewed here back in February, was practically the first thing I’d heard from ex-Gongzilla members since the mid 1990s and proved to be  a power packed trio accentuating in extremis the heavy funk vibes of that band through guitarist Bon Lozaga. And so it was something of a nice surprise to simultaneously discover the current musical whereabouts of Bon’s longtime musical partner, Hansford Rowe, in a release from a band calling themselves Gong Expresso.

Gong Expresso turn out to be a four-piece reuniting Rowe with percussionist Benoit Moerlen and drummer Francois Causse. And if the pixie-heads who constitute your average Gong fan might feel that the use of the ‘Gong’ moniker stretches the historical link a little too far, there’s no doubt that the band’s right to use the name Gong Expresso at least is inalienable. After all the Expresso II album, back in 1977 was recorded by a core line-up of these three musicians alongside Benoit’s brother Pierre, plus Mireille Bauer. It’s also true that Pierre Moerlen, in 1977, booked all gigs for his version of Gong under the name Gong-Expresso. In fact, even back as far as 1976 the musicians who had inherited the Gong name following the departure of Allen, Smyth, Hillage, Blake et al were fielding questions about the legitimacy of using it. Didier’s own take on it back then, as revealed an interview with Aymeric Leroy in 2005 taken from his book ‘L’Ecole de Canterbury’ justifies it thus: “I thought that, should Gong no longer be about Planet Gong, we’d need to find another concept. The word ‘gong’ had another meaning – a percussion instrument. So I thought we’d make music that would be gong-esque, but on a purely musical level.” And so a whole parallel strand of music under the Gong umbrella emerged and has continued to evolve. Until Pierre Moerlen died in 2005, albums under his name continued to appear involving multiple percussionists and funky keyboard work, and even since, perhaps confusingly, a wholly separate outfit from Gong Expresso. called PMGong, continue to perform in France, rather splendidly as it turns out (here they are, performing the track ‘Expresso‘). Presumably they include members of that last Pierre Moerlen line-up.

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On hearing that the fourth member of Gong Expresso was something of a young turk (of such vintage that he could be the son or even grandson of any of the players!), I expected Gong Expresso to continue in the same heavy vein as Gongzilla. Nothing could be further from the truth: ‘Decadence’ is an album of such delicious subtlety that a greater contrast with Soften the Glare could be harder to find.  Instead we find stately tempos, gentle inflections from all instruments and a real devotion to creating a mood rather than an ostentatious display of technique.  Julien Sandiford turns out to be a jazz guitarist of exquisite touch.

The album sets the tone with the superb title track which may be the release’s highlight. The band have crafted a melody worthy of Didier Malherbe’s best lines with Hadouk. A delightful initial guitar theme is embellished with a lick here and there and strummed backdrop, before a rolling bass line, progressive chords and electric lines propel the piece forwards. There’s even a brief dual line between Sandiford and Benoit which recalls the cyclical themes of brother Pierre.

This track sets the bar high. ‘Toumani’, which you’ll find as a sampler on the Gong Expresso website, maintains the dreamy, laid-back approach, with vibraphone soloing  from Benoit Moerlen which is more Gary Burton than Gong – hints of the Burton/Swallow album ‘Hotel Hello’ here in its passive, reflective mood. This ambience is repeated in slightly cheesier style in ‘Frevo’, which swings along bossa nova style, backed by Francois Causse’s hand percussion. The trademark PMG style, repetition of a tuned percussion theme with other instruments falling into line and then deviating, is probably only really apparent on ‘Eastern Platinum’, a marginally more driving piece.

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With Benoit Moerlen’s role in this band to provide much of the accompanying ambience – there are few solos – much of the lead work falls to Canadian guitarist Sandiford, who chooses his notes with the utmost care and precision. His calling card appears to be his restatement of melodies to add a few apposite extra notes to fill the acres of space that exist in each piece. But Rowe also takes the lead in places, notably with aquatic effects on the excellent ‘The Importance of Common Things’.

This is an album of surprising eloquence, hidden depths and overall one of delicious reflection.  It would appear the Rowe/Sandiford collaboration emerged from a trio they perform in together called HR3, which could well be my next port of call.

 

The Relatives & Phil Miller – Virtually

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Somewhat belatedly, this review relates to an album from 2013 by a band called the Relatives. This release is of particular note because it is the last recorded output of Phil Miller who joined the band in 2010, did a series of gigs with them, and was invited to collaborate on a series of recordings which saw the light of day in 2013 as Virtually (presumably so monikered because Miller’s contributions were recorded up in London).

In fact there are other Canterbury connections here and one particularly notable surprise. You might already be familiar with the latter if you’ve heard ‘On My Mind’ through its Youtube airing, which has been linked through various Facebook groups. It features Richard Sinclair on vocals – but more on this later. Probably more notable overall is the involvement of Jack Monck, bassist with Delivery, and collaborator over the years with the likes of Geoff Leigh and Fred Frith and briefly, with Syd Barrett’s last live outfit, the ill-fated Stars. Monck shares songwriting credits with saxophonist, flautist and piano player Marc Hadley, who many of you will remember as the man penning the authoritative review of Aymeric Leroy’s ‘L’ecole de Canterbury’ on this blog a couple of months back, and also Willemjan Droog, the keyboard player who provides the original link with Phil Miller from the late Eighties. Damian Rodd completes the line-up on drums, although there are numerous other guest appearances throughout the project.

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Marc Hadley

For me this is very much an album of two halves. Whilst uniformly excellent in terms of its playing standards and production throughout, much of the first part of the record stays on relatively safe ground, with a series of original jazzy or rhythm and blues tunes, the best of which is undoubtedly  the catchy  opener ‘Going Down’, where Monck takes the lead vocal as he does on 4 of the 8 tunes. Also notable is the sole track by Droog, the self-explanatory ‘Stately Waltz’ and ‘When’, which, with its multiple horn lines, at times evokes how an In Cahoots band may have sounded like with vocals!

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Jack Monck

But there’s a perceptible shift in mood and tempo as the band launch into track 5,  ‘Spaghetti’, a superb instrumental written by Marc Hadley. Here he shifts to flute and is central to a piece which meanders through its intricate melodies before stretching out memorably into harder passages underpinning the solos. There are elements of Short Wave here (it also reminded me of National Health’s DS Al Coda recording). Whilst Phil Miller is credited on guitar throughout the album, much of his work up until this point has been to add textures or chords to the general ambience. Here he steps up a gear to contribute several solos, starting initially in tranquillity before reverting in hotly anticipated style to his trademark tortured eloquence twice over.

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Willemjan Droog

Even better is ‘New Dawn’, a funked up Monck track where the author’s voice is dampened down to deliver a fine vocal line. This grooves like no other piece on ‘Virtually’, with some memorable punctuation from Hadley’s sax and Mike Brown’s trombone and highly effective snapped-off drumming from Rodd. There are some nice guitar and keyboard licks here too. The evocative lyrical imagery (‘New Dawn’ has a somewhat Orwellian feel) adds to the drive and slight disquiet of the music. This one is worth the album’s cover price alone.

In contrasting style is the final piece of the release, the aforementioned ‘On My Mind’, essentially a vehicle written for Richard Sinclair by Marc Hadley, but containing much more besides. This ballad could almost be seen as a follow-up to Pip Pyle’s wonderful ‘Seven Sisters’, another custom-built song which also suited Sinclair’s very  deliberately-delivered crooning. Unusually, Sinclair’s voice is backed here in part by vocal counter melodies in its later sections, and the voice of Angeline Morrison  is a real bonus. Add to that the lovely piano accompaniment AND the most eloquent tenor sax by Hadley and this constitutes a treat which rounds off the album in slightly unexpected style.

So, plenty to savour here. This album is probably catholic enough in approach to not suit everyone’s tastes all of the time but has more than enough fine moments and appearances by key personnel to make it an essential part of your Canterbury collection.

 

Virtually’ is available direct from Jack Monck at jack.monck@hotmail.com at a cost of £10. You can also buy from www.relativesrecords.com or Burning Shed.

 

Peter Hammill – Stoller Hall, Manchester – 25 April 2018

Peter Hammill is very definitely not a ‘Canterbury Scene’ artist, so you might wonder what a review about him is doing here. Well, please indulge me: he was one of my musical great loves around the time I started a Canterbury scene fanzine – and the Hammill/VdGG fanzine ‘Pilgrims’ was a major influence on me doing so. If you scratch hard enough you might find some links via Guy Evans’ involvement in Mother Gong, Jakko’s appearance on a Long Hello album, Hammill producing a Random Hold album (featuring Bill MacCormick). But that’s not really the point – for me, a Hammill appearance cannot pass by without some sort of comment…

It’s been a long time since I saw a Peter Hammill solo gig. A couple of triumphant Van der Graaf Generator concerts a decade or so ago, around the time that band still had their classic 4 piece line-up, was as close as it got, contrasting with a time in the Nineties when Peter Hammill tours seemed to come around every couple of years. The ageing process, serious illness and I suspect a related slowing in the creative juices, means that Peter Hammill performances are relatively few and far between these days. I almost didn’t go to the gig at the Stoller Hall, a new custom-built concert venue at the Chetham school of music, near Victoria Station in the heart of Manchester, mainly for fear of being disappointed. Hammill gigs are notoriously error-strewn, a bit of a rollercoaster and it’s always slightly amused me that many of his concerts take place at places of musical excellence (such as the Royal Northern College of Music or the Royal Festival Hall). This artist, for all of his many virtues, might struggle to get a gig with too many bands on the basis of his instrumental prowess alone, such is his often approximate mastery of piano and guitar.

Hammill’s physical appearance was something of a shock – a testament to passing years, mainly – dressed in flowing shirt and trousers, both Egyptian cotton white, he cut a ghostly, pallid figure on stage, contrasting with the jet black of grand piano and guitar, with his almost skeletal frame barely impacting on the expanse of the stage and the vastness of the auditorium above. But the voice remained remarkably strong, perhaps not quite with the range of yore, but not lacking in volume or its fabled intensity.

He rattled through a setlist of 17 songs, almost without pausing for breath – there’s less of the slightly kooky banter these days between tracks, even whilst stopping to tune his guitar, and the audience respectively kept its counsel – solo gigs in the past were always punctuated by smartass interjections from the crowd, the fanbase being, like the artist himself, a fairly eclectic, intense lot.

I’d been emailed on the day by an old schoolfriend who attended the Glasgow gig a few days previously – he mentioned 6 highlight tunes (and one which was not). Incredibly, not a single one of these was performed in Manchester, testament to a vast repertoire to draw on, and an ability to recreate them. And there is some ‘re-creation’ going on here – whilst the lyrics remain secure, aided by assorted sheets of paper alongside piano and guitar, Hammill takes liberties with his piano accompaniments, often trying out a fill here or there, deciding whether it works, and then reining things back in if they start to stray off course. On the guitar, it almost appears at times as if he’s revisited old tunes, can’t quite work out the chords he used, and then uses an approximation. At times this is jarring, elsewhere it adds to a sense of innovation. For all that, he felt more fluent on the piano than I remember, and a saving grace was the wonderful sound quality throughout.

Starting with the VdGG classic ‘My Room’, ideal for solo performance, any doubts that Hammill still ‘has it’ were quickly dispelled. The trademark raising of the shoulders as he reaches for the high notes, the alternately sweet and growled delivery, the falling away of the voice at the end of each line – these are all things to cherish. The choice of songs for me was quite inspired – a brilliant ‘Primo On the Parapet’ (a highlight from later albums); two tracks from ‘Over’, for me the apogee of his solo output, with “(On Tuesdays She Used To Do) Yoga” an evocative highlight; two fantastic renditions from the adventurous early 70s albums “Slender Threads” and “Mousetrap”; plus stuff from ‘my’ era as a listener, “Too Many of My Yesterdays” and “A Way Out”, always a mixed blessing with its stark main musical theme sometimes undermined by lyrical cliché. Whilst listening to one of the 2 K Group era tracks, ‘Happy Hour’, again subverted by those slightly out of kilter chords, I was reminded of quite how off the wall even his solo material is – complex, ever-changing themes showing the genius of the man. This was one of many tunes which lyrically referred to performances, either theatrical, circus or musical – the common theme of the night for me.

There were also three tracks (I think) from the latest album ‘From the Trees’, which sounded strong, pared down in terms of vocal range to suit the limits of Hammill’s voice and well worth further exploration. At times whilst straining at the upper end of the musical scale I wanted him to succumb to delivering notes through his wonderful, tender falsetto voice or alternatively really let rip with a scream, but he saved the latter for the final notes of Train Time to bring the concert to a chilling end, standing ovation and all.