Saturday, December 07, 2013

I've mostly steered clear of musical biographies the past decade. I'd rather listen to a band/artist/blowhard's music - assuming their music is actually worth listening to - than read about their life story. There are, of course, exceptions, but there are always exceptions. There are two things which have come to light the past four or so months of my life: A) I've been doing a lot of reading; and B) I have come to accept the fact that I am a rocker - always have been, always will be. Regarding the former: I don't watch TV, rarely watch movies these days (I have neither the time nor inclination at this point in time), and have had to take to a lot of public transport for work. That means a steady devouring of pages which encompass brows both high and low (from Iain Banks to trashy zombie-apocalypse thrillers), and in between I managed to make my way through this Mudhoney biography, given to me by a friend who works for the publishing company (which means he got it for free, the cheapskate).

I was about to take on the book at hand, but then I realised in my ramble that I hadn't even covered point (B) yet: I am a rocker. Oh yes, I am. That is, I have rediscovered and embraced my love for testicles-to-the-ceiling RAW ROCK & ROLL of a myriad stripes, and it has been my steady diet the past third of 2013. And that's meant Cheater Slicks, Hoss, AC/DC, Bored!, Hawkwind, Black Sabbath, Splatterheads, Motorhead, Replacements, King Crimson, Wipers, Discharge, etc. Sure, in between there's been bouts of ECM jazz, Steely Dan, Los Lobos, 10CC, Ry Cooder and Factory Records 12" comps - absolute nancy-boy maximum in extremis sonics - but that's coz I like to mix it up. And then there's Mudhoney. I've been spinning them an awful lot, too. Going to see them live next month, in fact: first time in 24 years. I gave the band a bit of an evaluation in the early days of this blog, mostly in relation to their rather excellent Since We Became Translucent 'comeback' disc of 2002 (they did come back, and they did it well: that's probably my fave full-lengther of theirs), and in my assessment I noted that the band were one whom I mostly ignored throughout the 1990s, or at least post-1991 or so. 'Grunge' had been and gone before it even hit the malls, and I just wasn't that interested. I didn't storm off in a huff - I just didn't pay any attention.

And in some sort of irrelevant, roundabout way, that brings me to Keith Cameron's Mudhoney: The Sound And The Fury From Seattle. Englishman Cameron is a rare breed indeed: an English music writer I don't wish to kill. No, really, he's good. I recall his words from old issues of MOJO magazine. In fact, I was in touch w/ him many moons ago and he used to give F/i great write-ups at the time. That aside, he knows his topic well, understands 'rock' and makes the story of Mudhoney an enjoyable and informative page-turner. The story of Mudhoney is, after all, an interesting one which brings together many threads of post-1980 American underground rock.

The roots of the band lie within the heart, soul and loins of a young Mark McLaughlin, AKA Mark Arm. Originally a hesher and FM-rock suburbanite digging the sounds of Rush, Aerosmith and the turgid muck of REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, et al, he had his head switched onto the New Wave and eventually punk rock then HC via a fairly typical Devo-cum-Stooges-cum-Black Flag series of epiphanies. He then went onto form the notorious Mr. Epp & The Calculations, a nyuk-nyuk HC-but-not-HC joke band in a vaguely Flipper/No Trend mold, before getting a little more serious in the pre-grunge 'supergroup' (only posthumously so) Green River, a band considered to be one of the great precursors to somethingorother, and also an outfit I always found to be remarkably unremarkable in every single way. I recall buying their Dry As A Bone 12" EP when I was but 16, and I traded it in a few months later. They were a strange beast, a meeting point twixt punk and '70s hard rock/metal, and not a particularly successful one at that - both aesthetically and commercially. I don't mean to rag on Green River - I've heard much worse excuses for rock bands in this life - and at the very least Cameron's book gives them a great deal of context and explains the band's sound and how it came about. It was that post-hey-day-of-HC period when punkers in a post-My War universe started digging the sounds of Master Of Reality and Toys In The Attic (the kinds of records they ditched after hearing Never Mind The Bollocks) all over again, and fused these sounds w/ the punk-noise they'd been digesting from the likes of the Meat Puppets, Black Flag, Buttholes, Void, Tales Of Terror, etc.

The story of Green River is an interesting one - and it's given considerable and worthy space in the book in question - because a failed band produced two highly successful but different outfits: Pearl Jam and Mudhoney. Oh, there's also Mother Love Bone in there, but they failed, too. Sure, Green River released discs on Sub Pop and Homestead at the time, but they couldn't draw much of a crowd outside of their home state and had they not spawned two big bands from their implosion, you'd probably rank 'em as a footnote in '80s u/ground rock on an equal footing with... oh, I don't know... Blood Circus or SWA? The music of Pearl Jam has always meant zip to me - there's way too much cheese in there for me to digest - but the book at least had me liking them as human beings. Sure, Stone Gossard comes across like an uptight putz, although Green River/Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament has a surprisingly solid background in HC and underground rock, and Cameron and Mudhoney themselves make an interesting point and distinction: they toured once with a successful Nirvana and were treated like a bunch of lepers, though every time they hit the road w/ Pearl Jam (and I was surprised to read that it's been a number of times), they get treated like kings by their more successful cousins and their roadcrew. Mark Arm also points out Kurt Cobain's bitching at Pearl Jam when both were competing for the grand slam title of being the Reigning King(s) Of Grunge: Cobain rightly derided PJ's mersh factor, although as Mark Arm points out, Jeff Ament had a much more solid grounding in undergound rock than the relative neophyte Cobain. Whatever! It's old news now, the Grunge Wars have been fought, people died and we've all moved on.

Mudhoney's rise was sudden and meteoric. They'd barely been together 6 months when the Limey press shat their collective pants and hailed them as the saviours of rock. The tail-end of the '80s was an interesting time to a young u/ground music enthusiast: something was in the air, something was going to break. The UK press flipped a collective wig over the likes of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth and it seemed like they'd finally woken to the fact that there was more to life than Morrissey. Not that I gave a fuck (or even read) what the UK press said about anything, but their influence was wider and more immediate than a thousand issues of MRR/Flipside/Forced Exposure/Conflicts put together. Sad, but true. Mudhoney - that was Arm, w/ ex-Green River dude Steve Turner (he left GR early on, sensing a bogusness in the air), ex-Melvins party dude Matt Lukin and nice-guy skin-whacker Dan Peters - rode the wave like they didn't give a shit, and suddenly found themselves in the eye of the grunge storm, a cultural phenomenon which became the butt of hipsters' jokes (count me in there) as America (and the world)'s mall culture jumped on board. Candlebox, anyone? Thought not.

The '90s are a bit of a blur for me. I was young, drunk and stupid, and certain things just passed me by. Mudhoney's tenure on the Reprise/Warner label was one of them. By the time they started recording for the Warner Corporation, the thought of listening to a 'grunge' band like Mudhoney made me want to heave lunch, and I was off listening to other spheres of nonsense. Whatever! The facts are these: the band made three platters for Reprise, two of which are great (My Brother The Cow and Tomorrow Hit Today - the latter of which is totally out of print in all physical formats. I made perfunctory enquiries about a possible reissue and was told 'don't bother'), and one I've never heard - Piece Of Cake - which, according to fans and even the band itself, is a lazy, half-assed effort. Regardless, Cameron's book fills in the factual gaps and tells the story of the band's bumpy ride well, from Mark Arm's junk habit (call me naive, but I never knew!) to disputes between members (Steve Turner's desire to grab defeat from the jaws of victory certainly frustrated me, so I can only imagine what it must've been like to play in the band w/ the guy) to label hassles (Reprise A & R dude, David Katznelson, is the type of major-label A & R guy you will never see again) and the details in between.

The second phase of the band, starting w/ '02's Since We Became... is dealt w/ more briefly, but by then they'd almost hit the ranks of 'heritage acts' and the dramas of the band's life had become less frequent. Matt Lukin left and Australian emigre Guy Maddison took over on bass, members had families, Arm has kept himself a steady job at the Sub Pop warehouse for many years and Sub Pop's fortunes have gone up and up since the dawn of the 21st century, after a good half-decade or so in the doldrums-slash-near bankruptcy. Sub Pop's revival could largely be given credit to Andy Kotowicz, who worked at the label from the turn of the century as VP of sales and marketing until his tragic death in a car accident in 2011. The mention of his death in the book sent a shudder down my spine: I had no idea he had passed, and used to trade records/CDs w/ him over the years (the Sub Pop CDs I reviewed in the early days of this blog were all from him - he was also a big F/i enthusiast). I had wondered at intermittent moments over the past couple of years what had become of 'Andy K.', as I saw that he wasn't listed on the label's site as an employee anymore. That's the bad news, and I obviously wasn't the only one who thought he was a stand-up guy.

Mudhoney have now orbited earth for a quarter of a century or more, and yet haven't managed to totally embarrass themselves in the process. That's no mean feat. Mark Arm doesn't sling the guitar so much anymore, the band's last few records being more basic, straight-to-tape vocals/guitar/bass/drums affairs. I miss the twin-guitar line-up and hope that if they continue on that they do in fact return to the dual-guitar sound of yore, but that's not for me to decide. In hindisght, Mudhoney are certainly one of the finer/finest musical options from the US of A ca. the past 25 years. Like the Melvins - another extremely fine long-running ensemble from the Pacific North West, albeit one who keeps the world musically guesing far more than Mudhoney do - it seems like they've always been there, even when I ignore 'em for a solid decade, and a revisit every couple of years is worth one's time. If you're a big fan, you'll need to read Keith Cameron's book; if you're not, it might just make you one.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Oh... why not? The full movie is up: 1977's Roller Coaster. Let me give you a little bit of background: my brother and I were quietly, and then loudly, obsessed with this movie in the late '80s. My brother even named his band after it. It had been on late-night TV a couple of times, we taped it on VHS and kept the copy for rainy days. There were many such days. We knew it wasn't really that good - an enjoyable '70s thriller B-movie, at best - but something about its feel captured our imagination. It boasts a great cast who don an outrageous collection of '70s gear throughout (I think the fact that it was made in 1977 - THE YEAR OF PUNK - and based partly on the west coast of the USA, somehow piqued our interest as a cultural artifact), and the plot, about a pleasant young psycho who blows up roller coasters and bribes authorities in the process, moves quickly and rather stupidly, with the always hamfisted George Segal holding the dramatic *cough* weight of the pic, as well as its lame attempts at humour. None other than Henry Fonda is in there for a minute or two, speaking his lines w/ his hand out, waiting for this cheque, and you also get the great noir character actor Richard Widmark (you might not know the name, but you'll know the face) and a walk-on appearance from, err, a pre-fame Steve Guttenberg. The other great element of the film to recommend is the 'special guest appearance' from none other than Sparks(!). I've been on a bit of a Sparks bender of late - a report will hopefully come soon - and their live performance is something to behold. Roller Coaster is ultimately a pretty square film probably aimed at the family multiplex/drive-in market, so how Sparks, of all bands, wound up in it remains a mystery. I read that the Mael brothers had moved back to the US after years of success in the UK and Europe, and wanted to finally crack their homeland, so I guess they figured a brief role in a piece of schlock like Roller Coaster might do the trick. Who knows? You could do worse than kill under two hours of your life with this film. Thank or blame me later.
It appears that the Black Flag review below went, for the lack of a better word, 'viral', and had over 10 times the usual hits for a LexDev post. Good-o. And now you've probably heard the news: Ron Reyes has just quit the band (read here and elsewhere)... or maybe he was fired. One of the two. Reading his resignation letter almost made me feel bad for having written what I did about the guy: he's probably a nice dude, certainly a nicer cat than Greg Ginn, but that wouldn't take much. The soiling of a legacy continues... I guess I did witness history last week.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Yes, it's been a while. Nearly four months, I believe. I needed a hiatus, a break, an extended one, and so I treated myself to one. I'm back, but I don't know how regularly I'll be posting here. We'll just let events unfold as they may. I witnessed the travelling circus known as 'Black Flag' just two nights ago, and I've had several people imploring me to write a review of the show, and so I will...

There are many ways to preface such a review, most of them likely redundant. If you've been reading this blog over the past decade, you'll know my opinions regarding the band as they stood as an operational unit ca. 1976 - 1986. From their beginnings as Panic to their days as punk rock heroes and social pariahs to their later 'difficult' period - I like it all. No, I love it all. My second-fave platter of theirs is, after all, their last: In My Head. Greg Ginn's immense vision of a rampaging rock band redefining the genre through sheer discipline, hard work and an almost Nietzchean will-to-power ranks them as one of the finest musical ensembles there ever was. Throughout all their ups and downs, changes in gear shifts and musical direction, line-up difficulties, intra-band rivalries and expulsions, legal and police hassles, fan backlashes and more, there remains that band which moved mountains. What the band brought to cultural life in the late 20th century, via its own music, its progedy and its label, SST, so indelibly linked to Black Flag and all its spawn, still ranks for me as one of the high watermarks of life on earth ca. the last 41 years as I and/or we know it. And despite the travesties committed the past 6 - 12 months, I still think there is something there to behold. Ginn's recent activities don't spoil their legacy, because quite frankly, I consider them the actions of a mad man.

What has happened the past 6 - 12 months is well known: FLAG Vs. Black Flag, etc. It's all been very undignified for everyone involved, but Greg Ginn is a guy who's been slowly but surely removing himself from all sense of dignity the past 20+ years. Firstly, there was the SST label's decline from being the Sun/Chess of the 1980s to degenerating into a third-rate vanity imprint for Ginn's many irrelevant musical projects; the endless repackaging and recompiling of old material; the lawsuits; the fallouts w/ old band members, friends and employees; the lack of care given to SST's still-existing catalogue (remastering, anyone? repackaging?); and on and on...

All of that brings me to two nights ago. The band - that's Ginn, Ron Reyes (BF vocalist ca. 1979-'80), bassist Dave Klein and drummer Gregory Moore - headlined the Hits & Pits festival at the Palace Theatre, an ornate 1000+ venue in the heart of the city (or near enough), finishing the day after a litany of also-ran emo/pop-punk bands had graced the building w/ their presence (the line-up read like a Missing Link Records best sellers list ca. 1999). I got there relatively late, having absolutely no interest in any of the other bands playing (other than Ginn's other project, Good For You, who played very early on. They are essentially BF 2013 with pro skater Mike V on vocals instead: friends who saw them said they were better than 'Flag themselves, but that wouldn't be a struggle), although I did slog my way through interminable sets by Sweden's No Fun At All (cookie-cutter '90s pop-punk) and Boysetsfire (indescribably punishing emo-rock which alternated twixt operatic yodelling and death-metal grunts... you really had to be there, but think yourself lucky you weren't). I deserve a medal for that effort alone.

The venue was roughly 2/3rds full and, at a guess, it was mostly people who couldn't give a shit about Black Flag circa any time whatsoever, and thus when Boysetsfire had finished torturing all and sundry, the place cleared out pretty heavily. Some headliners. Black Flag's bad rep - they'd been stinking up the east coast of Australia to no acclaim throughout the week - had preceeded them in a major way. For the life of me, I struggled really hard to convince anyone to come along, and I am friendly with more than a few people who consider themselves fans of the band in at least some guise. I went with my brother and Bits Of Shit drummer 'Pete', bumped into our mutual friend Adam and his brother and that made it the five of us hanging out for the night. It was a strange experience attending a Black Flag show in 2013 and not knowing just about anyone else in the entire venue.

The band hit the stage late - after 12, way past my bedtime these days - and we made up our way to the front and waited for the disaster to unfold. It took 3 or 4 songs for said disaster to take place, but when it did, it didn't cease until curtain time. There are many problems with what Ginn is doing w/ his own legacy at this point in history regarding dragging the BF name through the mud, and I'll illuminate just a couple: firstly, the band he's chosen to represent his most famous creation is made up of a bunch of worthless schlubs who can't hold a beat and have absolutely zero stage presence. Case in point: Ron Reyes. A man mostly forgotten to history except for his appearance in the original Decline... film, he was always my least-favourite 'Flag vocalist, but then again, he's the only ex-member of the band who'll even talk to Ginn these days, so I guess beggars can't be choosers, and given Reyes' lack of public profile the past 3 decades, I can only assume that there was some mutual begging going on. Reyes cut a cool figure as a lean, poor, smart-arsed Puerto Rican teen emigre who lived in a basement closet in his film days (that's Decline... from 1979), and he certainly gave a spirited performance 34 years ago on celluloid, but for me he lacked the gravitas needed for a BF vocalist. BF's music is heavy, and Reyes isn't. He's slightly portly now and cuts an even less impressive figure. He screamed, he yelled, but it was all for nought. It was a sub-Rollins phone-in performance not worthy of the lamest BF covers band. But he's not the worst of Black Flag's problems, because that remains their rhythm section.

It boggles the mind that Greg Ginn - the man who made dedication, craft, hard slog and the idea of musicianship in punk rock a good thing - could settle for these two beatless bumpkins. Gregory Moore - the cosmic shoeless one behind the skins - has a strange knack for fucking up just about every song he plays. If he's not behind the beat, he's screwing up a fill. BF songs are all about tension/release, and that's what made them so different to many of their HC contemporaries. Ginn has always said that he considered his music in 'Flag as a sort of modern blues (BB King's his hero!), and he is correct. Not only aesthetically were BF a form of urban, white-man blues, but the music was unusual for punk rock in that it had swing, it had form. Other than the Ramones-damaged Nervous Breakdown EP, which was mainly whiter-than-white 4/4 punk blitz, BF's music was about building up the tension then releasing, the moments in between, the fills, the rolls. Ginn's new band masters none of the above. Moore can barely even perform a basic drum roll or hit hard enough to create said tension (think of the way 'Depression' ebbs and flows: there was none of that, the song flatlined), leaving the songs totally neutered in their impact. As for bassist Dave Klein, he ballsed up the start of 'Six Pack', has a terrible bass sound which lacks the Dukowski/Kira-level grit the songs require, and has all the stage presence of a substitute high school teacher.

Then there's Ginn himself. He seemed to be in a very jolly mood when he first hit the stage, goofing off, smiling, hamming it up w/ guitar poses and flipping the audience the bird w/ a big grin on his face, and his opening solo was a gas. When he wants to, he can still wrestle those six strings like a genius. In fact, the performances of roughly the first 3 or 4 songs had me thinking the show was going to be a whole lot better than originally expected. For a guy pushing 60, he looks good, too, almost like a retired basketball player who hasn't let himself go. The band nailed the Nervous Breakdown EP relatively well, Reyes emitting a decent bark and the rhythm section not flubbing it too badly. Ginn tore into a few ludicrous and badly-handled Theremin solos, but things were still kept together as a reasonably functioning unit. Theremin, I hear you say? Yes, you've probably heard the stories. I have no beef w/ Ginn playing the Theremin per se - I like the instrument itself and the fact that Ginn, as always, likes to fuck w/ given formulas by placing this instrument into the context of well-known songs - but let's get something straight: Greg, you don't even know how to play the damn thing. Simply waving your hand in front of the instrument to create a noise doesn't add musical value, it just makes a noise. This fact was made painfully clear when, later in the set, a guy on stage (Mike V.?) had a go mid-song and did create a sense of accompanying melody which complemented the song.

So where/when did it all go so wrong? Possibly when the band played some new material, although for myself that wasn't a big problem. Yes, I've heard the new album w/ the terrible cover and it's as non-eventful as we all expected it to be, but the new tracks didn't sound as rubbish in a live context: they were, at a generous stretch, almost on a par w/ In My Head's angular 'rock' material, and not painful, at least to these ears. And then things started to go horribly wrong. They started delving into some Damaged material, screwing up pretty much every single track along the way ('TV Party' and 'Six Pack' were atrocious; Reyes even 'modernised' the former's lyrics to include references to Twitter and Facebook: "No more Twitteeerrrr!!", he screamed. Yikes...), and Ginn appeared to lose his sense of joviality. In fact he seemed to lose interest altogether, messing up his playing or not playing at all, fiddling w/ his amps and generally doing everything but getting down to business. Whatever audience was left started to get cranky. Cans of booze and plastic bottles of water were thrown at the band from disgruntled fans, security was on the rounds and tensions rose. My compadres and I just stood there in befuddlement, watching the band embarrass themselves further w/ more appalling versions of back-catalogue classics ('Black Coffee' was almost beyond comprehension), scratching our heads and wondering why - OH WHY - was Ginn doing what he was doing...

Ginn clearly doesn't need the money. I hear he owns a nice pad in LA as well as the warehouse space in Texas, and has been asked several times by famous rock outfits to guest on their records for considerable amounts of money (people such as Korn, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, etc.), knocking them back because he simply isn't interested. He also employs (and I heard this from a reliable source) the legal aid of infamous entertainment-biz heavyweight Herb Cohen's son to look after his affairs, a litigious hard-arse who keeps him out of harm's way. So I don't view this travesty as a cash-in. Is it sheer bloody mindedness? Possibly. I could forgive such a motive if the results weren't so dire. The fact that Ginn seems content to humiliate himself nightly w/ a band which sounds like a bunch of amateurs messing about in a rehearsal studio, night after night w/ nothing nailed down tight, has me baffled. I was about to posit that such actions don't appear to be in his nature, but who am I to assume such things? The man is an absolute mystery. Did I mention that they finished off w/ a rendition of 'Louie Louie' which sounded like the 'Jazz Odyssey' scene from Spinal Tap? I guess I just did. There were probably under a hundred people left by that stage. The band had once again successfully scared everyone off, just as they had, state by state, throughout the land.

After tolerating the sets by No Fun At All and (particularly) Boysetsfire, Black Flag's first couple of cuts were like a massive breath of fresh air. The opening jam was a beautiful sludgefest w/ Ginn wrenching strings over the top - equal parts Sonny Sharrock and Flipper, if you will - and it brought a massive smile to my face: Now this is punk rock. Good old Ginn, always fucking w/ expectations, messing with any given formulas whilst all these factory-line bands just collect pay cheques and deliver the rote goods. I really thought I was in for a very good surprise indeed, but by show's end he proved himself to be a flake and a fraud. Do I feel cheated? Nope. It was worth every cent of the $84(!!) I spent to attend. It was a train wreck I will never forget. Some people were really pissed about the night's events, as if all notions of BF/Ginn's righteousness had been spat back in their face. Fortunately, perhaps, I'm not still that naive. You really should have been there: people will talk of this show, probably for all the wrong reasons, for years to come. After the last note was hit, Ginn once again hit jovial mode and went up the front of the stage, shaking hands, doing high-fives and autographing LP sleeves. I could only stand there watching this fallen hero of mine, thinking, What the hell are you so satisfied about? Did you hear that set you just played?

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Yeah, I know: I heard. Greg Ginn has once again proven himself to be one of the more assholic individuals on earth and has decided to sue his ex-bandmates playing under the name FLAG (you know, the Black Flag-related supergroup fans really want to see). For some reason, he's even roped Hank Rollins into the mix, and since this news is rather fresh, I'm still trying to get my head around whereabouts he fits into the scenario. So far as I know, he's got nothing to do with FLAG and has pretty much given up playing music at all the past couple of years. Whatever. You can read the proposed case here. All personal feelings aside - and I do feel that Ginn should simply stop embarrassing himself and drop the suit, pronto - he may well find himself winning the case. The courts aren't about personal feelings, and let me make the crazy assumption that the judge in question likely couldn't give a fuck about the music of Black Flag either way, and Ginn's case states some simple facts: like it or not, he does hold the rights to the Black Flag name, its music and logo, and thus from a cold, legal standpoint is within his right to protect it from others attempting to profit from its likeness. Those are simple facts. Take a look at what FLAG are doing: the songs, the logo. Got me? The worlds collide here in Melbourne town this coming November. My two long-running obsessions coalesce on one evening: November the 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, and it also marks Black Flag's debut in this fair city, playing at the shitawful Hits And Pits festival with a bunch of emo/pop-punk oxygen thieves better left forgotten (or never known). No matter what a jerk Ginn may be, and no matter how uninspired this version of the band might be, I will be there. I really don't have a choice in the matter.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Hello. I will resume normal transmission in a week or two. I'm on a break. Lots of other things going on. Resigned from my job of over 10 years last week, and start at my new place of employment tomorrow. Getting my shit together. Hope you are well.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

One couldn't possibly do justice to the long-running Finnish band, Circle, in a mere blog post. Their career, their discography, their stylistic changes are all too abundant and too manifold to be adequately summed up in anything less than a book. As for whether you'd care to read this hypothetical book is up to you, so for now - here's a fucking blog - and I'm going to briefly write about the band Circle...
Circle is, was and forever shall be one man - Jussi Lehtisalo - and any configuration of players around him. He also runs the Ektro label, which is where our 'friendship' began. Well, to be honest, I barely know the guy at all, but over the last few years we have traded product with each other - he gets Lexicon Devil, I get Ektro (did I have to explain that?); he sells my stuff via mailorder, I, err, sit on a bunch of cool Ektro stuff I can't seem to offload - and I have amassed quite a stockpile of Circle CDs. Most are on his Ektro label, some are titles licensed out to North American imprints such as No Quarter and Scratch. At this stage, the band has over 40 albums to their credit, stretching roughly 20 years. Their release schedule the past half-decade, both new and reissues, would send a diehard fan to the poorhouse. I first heard about 'em back in the early '90s when Ajax would list their early 7"s on the Bad Vugum label. BV doesn't exist anymore, though it was a pretty hot imprint for a few years back in the day, licensing out releases to Sympathy (a 7" comp'), Drag City (the Fall-ish Liimanarina) and Alternative Tentacles (Radiopuhelimet, who grinded out a thug-ish, Am Rep-style man-rock), and ganing a rep as thee label to watch out for in the Finnish hinterlands. To be honest, between the mid '90s and the mid '00s - when the band Circle released a slew of discs - they were completely off my radar. I think they were off many people's radar, although the band started gaining a rep once their discs started seeing domestic release in the US, as well as some heavy-handed spruiking from the likes of Andee from Aquarius Records in SF (when he talks, we listen).
Friends of mine started cottoning onto their wares, hailing them as the great metal/kraut band of its era - I guess someone has to be - and by coincidence, Jussi contacted me a few years ago about a trade. As it stands, I've got a stack of Circle CDs 15 titles thick, as well as other goodies on the label by Pharoah Overlord (doomy side project from the man), '80s NYC noiseniks, Rat At Rat R, old DC band, Mission For Christ (great '80s fuck-you anti-punk punk, not unlike No Trend, whom they were linked to), Faust and various unpronouncable experimental types from the Land of Fin. In short, it's a fascinating label well worth dipping your toes into.
That brings me to Circle. Any band with that many releases is bound to have some turkeys, and that they do. But that's OK, because any artist truly throwing their creative weight around is bound to dredge up some shit on occasion and present it to the public. Not that Jussi and Circle have anything to do w/ the likes of Neil Young or Bob Dylan aesthetically (or regarding cultural influence... but did I need to point that out?), but I've always said that the turkeys said artists have foistered onto the world in their long and productive careers are entirely forgivable, because in the context of their long, strange, brilliant and occasionally awful careers, it all makes sense. You might not listen to Saved or Are You Passionate?, like, more than once in this lifetime, but it shows they took a gamble and failed. And then you put on the good records. Circle are a little bit like that. Their straighter rock/metal records do zip for me, even when they churn it out w/ a Neu!/boogie beat, but besides such platters, there's a slew of recordings by Circle worth time & trouble.
Two of my faves also happen to be the most atypical, if there can be such a thing: first up is Forest from 2004, which was licensed the following year to No Quarter in the US. There's four tracks, they're long-ish (from 6 to 17 minutes), and they show the band at their most kraut-damaged. The term 'kraut-damage' doesn't hold the weight it once did, say, 20 years ago, because now everyone claims to be damaged by the krauts, but when such blatant ripping of the kraut heritage is pulled w/ such aplomb, it carries some weight to me. Got it? Think Can. Think Popol Vuh. Think Faust. Think the bongo fury of Amon Duul 1. In other words, think krauts. I've been playing it on repeat the past week - rediscovering the pile of Circle CDs sitting in the spare room - and it's got me hooked. It's pure homage, and it's done to a tee. It's perfection. For me, with almost half of their catalogue under the roof, I'd say that this is the place to start.

Up next is this one, possibly their most peculiar effort: 2006's 2CD set, Miljard. It shows a completely different side of the group: piano, bass, drums. Some of it sounds a lot like the Necks (not a bad thing, in this or any other, alternate reality), especially when there is a beat to speak of, and when there is no rhythm present, pure piano ambience barely stitched together as 'song', I'm thinking the music of Budd and Eno (esp. The Pearl), but none of this is news, because everyone who's ever laid claim to reviewing Miljard has said exactly the same thing. At nearly 2 hours long, it may seem a stretch, although I have, on quite a number of occasions, listened to both discs back to back. It is, regardless of context, a musical effort one can actually play, as opposed to filing away.
There are other Circle discs, off the top of my head, which float a boat in my respective neighbourhood: 2007's Panic, a mixture of electronic ambience and scuzzy punk which wavers between Drunk With Guns scum-noise and semi-crust; and 2005's Tulikoira, one which mixes metronomic beats w/ speed metal and riff-rock. It's a good 'un. And there are other good 'uns, too, though I'm merely giving the spiel on my fave two.
As luck would have it, the latest issue of The Wire mag (yes, as noted recently, I have, after a very long break, started perusing its pages on a regular basis) has an 'Invisible Jukebox' w/ Circle mastermind Jussi Lehtisalo, and in another ridiculous move in a thoroughly ridiculous non-career in music, he has 'leased' the name 'Circle' out to some metal musos, and will be taking the name back later in the year. In the meantime, his band - Circle, that is - will record under the name 'Falcon'. Or some shit. Circle have a taste for the absurd, but there's much more to them than merely laughs or a few yuks at their mixture of leatherclad HM riff-o-rama, kraut rhythms and wilfull experimentation. At the very least, they're one of the more interesting 'rock' combos existing today.

Monday, July 08, 2013

I don't understand why some fans of American punk rock/HC don't like the Dead Kennedys, and certainly not the band in their early years. They were an amazing psychedelic surf-punk freakshow with a beautifully sick sense of humour and a dynamite stage show. Jesus H. Christ on a popsicle stick, why the hell should anyone have to justify this kinda thing? You got shit in yer ears and eyeballs or somethin'? I just discovered these clips on Youtube - hell, I'm probably the last guy on earth to do so - and they're an excellent glimpse into the band during their formative years. These songs are taken from a show in Portland, Oregon - along w/ Black Flag, they were the first Californian band of the day to really take the show on the road - in November, 1979, and it's a great slice of Big City Punk bringing the medicine show to the boonies. Well, in fairness to the good people of Portland, they, too, had their own scene, and it was a good one, too. Still, on this particular night, they got a nice glimpse of San Fran freak culture at its best. Pretty sure Carducci was there, too.

There's a couple of interesting things to note here: the presence of "Dreadlocks In The Suburbs", a reggae-damaged mock-rocker which never made it to vinyl (so far as I know), as well as visual footage (that's usually the way it goes) of "Night Of The Living Rednecks", an improvised song/rant/story which made it onto the odds 'n' sods collection from 1987, Give Me Convenience, Or Give Me Death.

And there's something else to eyeball: Jello playing drums for opening band, The 4 Skins. When I first read that in the description, it struck me as a very odd factoid, myself thinking it was the UK Oi! band (and it would've been mighty odd for them to be playing in Portland in 1979), but was then politely informed by the Youtube uploader that the band in question was a local Portland punker outfit w/ links to the Wipers (and even San Fran's Condemned To Death!). The whole show is up, song by song, on the Youtubes: these are mere highlights.

What a mixed bag of goodies I have here today. Something old, something (gasp!) new. First up is Dr. Feelgood's full-length debut from 1975, Down By The Jetty (United Artists, though I have a [semi-legit??] mono CD on Grand Records). The band has been the beneficiaries of a bit of a renaissance the past couple of years, and they're one who certainly deserve it. The unfortunate illness of original guitarist 'Wilko' Johnson, and the outpouring of love & sympathy for the guy in the press (and hearts of fans) might have something to do w/ it, but my personal theory regarding their revival - one possibly based on total BS, or more likely one which is merely based on my own experience - is that many have come around to the band nearly 40 years later based on the fact that you can now see what an awesome band they were via Youtube clips. I mean, I've known about Dr. Feelgood for 28 years, and yet I bought my first disc of theirs 6 months ago when I treated myself to a purchase on my 41st birthday. So, between the ages of 13 and 41, they were simply a band existing somewhere in my musical peripheral vision. Reading about the pre-punk pub-rock scene in the UK as a young man, it sounded like a curious bridging gap between the decline of glam and the rise of punk, but for me it remained always that: a musical bridge which was crossed, one which played its perfunctory role well but one which was obviously eclipsed by its far more interesting point of destination (that's punk, in case my rambling metaphorical nonsense has lost you). None of what I just said means a hill of beans because the fact remains: their 1975 debut is an absolutely crucial document of '70s English music, and it's not just one for the chin-scratchers and academics, but which which musically holds a great deal of water nearly four decades down the line.

Vocalist/frontman Lee Brilleaux had the menacing presence of an East End villian from an episode of Minder (or The Sweeney or... take your pick) - he really was an excellent antidote to the musical pomposity of the era - and had a matching Edgar Broughton/Beefheartish snarl, and enough has been written about Wilko's choppy guitar chords and strutting stage persona before to make anything I say completely redundant. When I would read, many a year ago, of the band's presence on the mid '70s scene, writings which would often reference them as an update on the R & B/'Stones sound of the decade prior, in my head I had them pegged as a good-time boogie band, a passable soundtrack to a pint and a game of darts, but one whose sound and presence seemed quaintly outmoded and redundant in the post-punk universe. Now there's live clips ahoy and you can witness just what an striking unit the band was in its prime, and Down By The Jetty, recorded live in the studio, is about as good an album as you'd get in that dreadful year for rock music.

There's some covers in the mix, some obvious ('Bonie Maronie', 'Tequila', a version of John Lee Hooker's 'Boom Boom' which sounds a bit light), but you also get originals like 'She Does It Right', 'Keep It Out Of Sight' and 'Roxette' which still sound remarkably raw and... I might say 'contemporary', but they sound a whole lot better than most contemporary rock & roll I've heard the past few years. Dr. Feelgood were not the Great Leap Forward that the 'Pistols et al were, but having flogged Down By The Jetty the past 6 months, I have belatedly come to the distinct conclusion that they were certainly one of the best bands in England ca. 1975 and they deserve your attention. God knows it took 'em long enough to grab mine.

Well, this one has certainly taken me by surprise, and probably will for you, too. You may think I've lost my sense of balance, but then again, maybe you haven't heard the record in question. Young people love 'em, they get good reviews in all kinds of horrendous publications and they couldn't 'rock' if their lives depended on it (and I doubt they'd care to), but all of that counts for zip: Swedish duo The Knife have won me over with their latest recording, Shaking The Habitual, a 3LP [2 LPs and a bonus 12", I believe] set released on their own Rabid Records label. It's certainly one of the best contempo things to have graced my ears this year, so much so that I went out and bought a copy of the thing in the vinyl format (which also comes w/ two CDs of the same, some posters, a 6-panel foldout sleeve and possibly steak knives), so impressive it is as a physical as well as audio artifact.

Formed in 1999, this is their 4th full-length effort. They made a splash down here - at least enough so that people whom I wouldn't usually accept any kind of musical recommendations from were spruiking their wares to me - with 2006's The Silent Shout, and, being the total jerk that I am, I ignored them all. Whatever. I heard Shaking The Habitual at a friend's place - a friend whose musical headspace I actually don't blithely ignore - and my reaction was instant and atypical for a curmudgeon such as myself: this is The Knife and I like it. You can't argue with yourself when such an instantaneous reaction is reached. I had them pegged as a vacuous electro duo who were mining some vein of '80s synth-wave nonsense I didn't like the first time around, but there's a whole lot more going on.

Shaking The Habitual is a sum of many parts, some borrowed, some new. It sounds utterly contemporary, a 21st-century album, though I'm hearing bits and pieces of 23 Skidoo, SPK, latter TG and the slightly more 'rhythmic' elements of the 'industrial' era, as well as the cold-wave gloom of early Current 93 and Coil when they extended themselves and get really grim. But this is no downer: there's even a smidgen of Remain In Light-period Talking Heads and Hounds Of Love-era Kate Bush (two discs I like a lot), and for all intents and purposes, you could dance to this, if such an urge took you. But it's not 'dance music', because to me 'dance music' is strictly perfunctory: you listen to it because you are dancing or wish to dance. There's too much, and sometimes too little, going on here to make that grade. There's nothing cute about The Knife: it's brittle and steely and sounds absolutely right-on to these ears. Their themes are 'political', for what that's worth, although I must admit that in my currently jaded state, a radical political agenda from a musical outfit doesn't press the same buttons it once did. Nevermind. It's 96 minutes of a very good thing, and I don't feel duped in saying that Shaking The Habitual is music to these ears. You can hear the whole thing here.