Saturday, August 30, 2008

SKULLFLOWER: 1988-1993, An Appreciation Thereof
The band known as Skullflower, helmed by guitar destroyer, Matthew Bower, are still going. I haven't heard anything they've done since 1996, yet others speak highly of their last half-dozen albums. I won't speak of them, of course, but I will tell you about the 5 CDs of theirs I still own which span the years 1988-'93 as, back in the early/mid '90s, they were albums I'd swear I'd take to the grave. Well, I'm still alive and I still own them, so I guess I wasn't that far off course.
Skullflower originally breathed life in the UK back in the late '80s, a "collective" of sorts made up of various people linked w/ the Broken Flag label, one of the premier imprints dealing in that whole post-Throbbing Gristle world of Limey noise. Sounds kinda dated now, but back in the day, believe me, collecting cassettes full of "power electronics" w/ references to Charles Manson and various mass murderers was a whole load of fun. I wasn't doing it back in the '80s, but ca. '91-'95 I collected more of such cassettes than I'd usually readily admit. Skullflower's twist in that regard was that they were essentially a "rock" outfit w/ guitars, bass and drums, ditching the outrageous histrionics of some of their brethren.
I first read about 'em in Forced Exposure back in 1990 or so, and since they were being compared to F/i, my curiosity was piqued. Still, back in the pre-internet days, their albums, mostly released on Broken Flag or Stefan Jaworzyn's Shock label (he, too, was in the band for a while), proved impossible for a guy stuck in Melbourne to locate. That all changed when I was in Hong Kong for a month back in January '93 (my parents were living there for a year), and managed to stumble upon their Ruins and Xaman CDs in a record store (I can't tell you what an eye-opener it was to browse what appeared to be fairly mainstream chain record stores at the time and find huge sections for the likes of Merzbow, Whitehouse, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound: that's where my headspace was at the time). They fucked my mind but good.
Both collect earlier, vinyl-only material from the band, share Savage Pencil artwork and both probably remain their highest artistic zenith. Ruins, in particular, which is a comp' of their self-titled 12" EP and Form Destroyer LP, is a major stab at post-industrial rock 'n' roll swamped in layers of psych-guitar racket and it's head and shoulders above any other band from the period (barring perhaps F/i, but I'm biased) attempting such a feat. Like a hybrid of Spacemen 3, Hawkwind and Merzbow, their ability at the time to take a basic riff and strangle it over a 5-10-minute period, increasing the intensity and noise w/ each cycle, is beyond reach. Right from the first track, "Eat The Stars", which dives straight into a wigged-out space riff and envelopes it in keyboard whoops and bleeps throughout, you know you're in the hands of professionals. The song titles make 'em sound like cliches straight from the AmRep school of '90s angst - "Black Ass Bone", "Birthdeath", "Thirsty Animal", "Woodland Death March", "Solar Anus" - but every one of those songs just mentioned heads straight for the sun and reaches it. Colossally brilliant astral drone I could never recommend too highly. This mofo has been out of print for a dog's age (I'm pretty sure Andy at tUMULt spoke of reissuing it a few years back), a fate which has also befallen its brother release from the time, Xaman. Unfortunately my copy suffers from "disc rot" - a condition which decays the CD, making it turn yellow and the music within turn to static and noise - something which befell many World Serpent titles from the period (WS was the manufacturing/distribution house [now bankrupt] which distributed [and reportedly burnt] the whole C93/NWW/Coil family of labels back in the day), so I have to turn to my increasingly terrible memory in an attempt to discuss it. I'll say this: similar sound and approach to Ruins, though perhaps not quite as god-like. Doesn't mean for a second you shouldn't search it out.
Up next was '92's IIIrd Gatekeeper CD, originally released on Justin Broadrick's Headdirt label, it saw the band take a different approach. With slicker production and a sound less cosmic and more dirty grind, at the time I was initially disappointed before three-dozen listens revealed its layers of beauty to me. This one sees the band going for a more bludgeoning sound, pre-empting the likes of Earth and Sunn O))) w/ a hipster slo-mo metallic psych squall (it was recorded in '90/'91), which I guess is why this one has recently been reissued by Crucial Blast for a whole new generation to enjoy. I played this just the other day after a decade's break, and the sound has weathered well enough for me to figure I'll be hangin' onto it for life.
The last two Skullflower discs which floated my boat back in the day were '93s Obsidian Shaking Codex, released on Ron Lessard's RRR label outta Massachusetts, and Last Shot At Heaven ('93? '94?) on the long-defunct (and now resurrected??) Noiseville label outta NYC. The former saw the band taking a decidedly non-rock approach, w/ 5 of the 6 tracks concentrating on layers of atmospheric guitar drones and doom-ridden soundscapes (again, Sunn O))) had to've been listening to this stuff at the time), as well as a redone version of "Diamond Bullet", a song which... if my memory isn't totally faltering, I believe was originally released as a 7" on the Sympathy label. Still, it's a good 'un, and the violin drone throughout lends this a fairly awesome Velvets-y drive lacking in their noisier material. The dreamier, more bong-hit side of Skullflower, a side it's good to bathe in for a while.
Last Shot At Heaven saw the band returning to the more rough 'n' ready, over-the-top vibe of Ruins and Xaman, and remains right near the top of the Skullflower heap for me. Recorded totally in the red with guitars and cheap organs rattling throughout, this one has the same desperado, junked-out vibe which made their earlier albums such a revelation - equal parts Amon Duul 1 and Whitehouse - and the sonic overload of a track such as "Rotten Sun II" will convince any noise-loving putz friends of yours or mine - and we're speaking of a wide berth here: My Bloody Valentine, Black Sabbath, Burzum, Flipper, Dead C. or Harry Pussy - that at least at one stage Skullflower were the shit and the bowl all at once. They were fucking relentless in their pursuit of the ultimate mind-bending riff.
What happened? Their subsequent couple of releases thereafter, on labels such as Sympathy, Freek and VHF, left me totally cold and I lost the scent. The band disappeared from view for what appears to be a decade or so, started releasing material again in the mid noughties, and yet I still haven't caught up... or even started! Who knows, maybe in the next ten years I'll get around to their last few albums and once again flip a wig. For now, I've still got these, and they're not going anywhere. They remain mind-fryers of the highest order.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Yawning Man European tour dates!!
September 4th at the Azkena Rock Festival in Spain
September 5th Katharinenstr. 11-13, Dresden 01099 Germany
September 6th Spielbudenplatz 5, Hamburg 20539 Germany

If you happen to be in the area, there's no other place you should be...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

And here's another event I expect to see you at. It's been organised by a few buddies of mine and promises to be a fun day out for all. Bands! (Good bands!!) BBQs! DJs! Booze! Record stalls! Actually, regarding the latter, I'll be holding one there selling all kindsa goodies on labels such as 4 Men With Beards, Sundazed, Water, Trojan, Munster, Lilith, etc., so come on down to say hello, buy some records and/or call me an asshole. Venue: Corner Hotel. Date: September 6th. Cost: $30 (+ b/fee). 2PM start.
You'll notice I've been rather quarter-arsed w/ the entries of late. Can't explain that. Busy w/ life. Not listening to that much music. No time nor inclination. Gotta get my mojo back...

TEN EAST Australian Tour December '08
That ain't the "real" tour poster; rather, it's just a handbill my brother knocked up at a moment's notice so it could be handed out last Friday at a gig to alert people of the UPCOMING TOUR BY TEN EAST IN DECEMBER. The "real" poster will happen soon. Can you read those dates above? OK, thought not. They play at the Northcote Social Club on Thursday the 11th of December (w/ Beaches and Hotel Wrecking City Traders); at the Meredith Music Festival on the Friday evening (along w/ a host of other bands... you'll be hearing a lot about that in the future); and on Saturday the 13th at the Annandale in Sydney w/ Nunchukka Superfly. It'll be the Arce/Lalli/Giles/Stinson and they promise to knock socks off. I expect to see you there.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Damn... what a slack bastard. A week and a half goes by w/out me even thinking about this dang blog. Feeling kinda uninspired in the writing stakes, plus I'm swamped w/ other duties right now, one of which I'll be announcing later this week (it's good news, by the way). For the time being, I defer you to that album above, Yo La Tengo's 1987 sophomore outing, New Wave Hot Dogs. I got it in the Au-go-go bargain bin for $10 back in 1991. Don't ask me why I remember that kinda shit; we'll leave that to the therapist's couch. The point is: what a great, almost flawless, album it is. Along w/ Sonic Youth's early work and The Feelies' three albums from the ' 80s, and perhaps even Opal's Happy Nightmare Baby and Dream Syndicate's debut, it stands as the great Velvets-inspired excursion by an American rock outfit in the 1980s. And when I say "Velvets-inspired", I don't necessarily mean "in the spirit of the Velvets" or a limp-noodled nod to the band a la U2 or REM, but a band who flat-out sounds a lot like the Velvet Underground. The vocals, the mannerisms, the guitar drones, the metronomic tempos. YLT did their homework, and it paid off well. It also features my favourite ever YLT track, "Shy Dog", a hardy garage "rocker" w/ the most perceptive and literate lyrics ever concerning what was the bane of my existence at the time: shyness. It took me years to be able to speak up, and I haven't shut up since, but at the time I - like most music obsessives/fanzine dorks - possessed a crippling lack of social skills (hard to believe!), and that song, it spoke to me, man. YLT's sound at the time was crisp and twangy, as opposed to the near-shoegazer lushness they've delved in the last 15 or more years, almost making them sound like a completely different band to the one you hear today. I haven't really dug YLT's last few albums all that much - something hasn't clicked - though I'll stand by the bulk of their back catalogue like the rabid fan I guess I must be: President, Painful!, Electr-O-Pura, I Can Hear The Heart...., etc. That's a good run. Who woulda thought that this now hugely popular "alt-rock" outfit was once almost solely drool fodder for such hard-to-please folks as Forced Exposure mag and even that Stigliano fellow who no longer sends me Xmas cards.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Boy, I've been a little slack of late. It's called being back at work. My pal Richard from Aarght! came over last Saturday night for dinner and an evening of hardcore music dorkdom. He'd commented to me a couple of months back that, even though I'd made the seemingly outlandish statement a while ago that the American underground/independent music scene went through a boom period ca. 1991-'94, he felt that right now we were experiencing a similar golden age, and yet I appeared to be barely even aware of it. He wished to rectify that situation and spin a few discs he possessed of contemporary outfits from the US of A who cut the grade and then some.

So, we kicked back and enjoyed the aural pleasures of the Wooden Shjips (my fave of the evening), Thomas Function, Eat Skulls, some bands on the S-S label and a few others whose names escape me. It was highly educational. I'd probably throw another one on the pile, a 4-track 12" EP I received in the mail from Nashville trio, Heathern Haints, a nice coloured-vinyl outing w/ a hand-screenprinted sleeve, in an edition of 300 copies. Thank the lord for the corporate behemoth known as Myspace. The band contacted me via the site, proceeded to blow a load of hot air up my backside and before you knew it I was pestering for a freebie (the shamelessness of it all!). Good thing I did. They belt out a super-nice basement-vibe combo of their acknowledged influences - Spacemen 3, Amon Duul, Ghost, Pink Floyd, Charalambides, etc. - and spice it up w/ some semi-soaring vocals and doom-rock theatrics, when the occasion warrants it.

There must be something in the water in Tennessee. I checked out some of their "top friends" and stumbled across a bunch of fellow weirdos by bands with names such as Hollow Ox and Mass At Dawn, and was similarly impressed. No one's reinventing the wheel here, but they're recycling a well-worn path in a very pleasing manner, and I'm always up for some lo-fi, atmospheric psych-rock from the backwoods of anywhere, and Heathern Haints fit the bill. The Kids are still doin' it for themselves...