Thursday, April 25, 2013
Hawkwind's monumental rep as one of the finest bands there ever be, at least for me, mainly rests on the achievements which lay within their first four LPs - Hawkwind, In Search Of Space, Do Re Mi Fasol Latido and the desert-isle meisterwerk, Space Ritual - yet there are other gems in their vast catalogue worth indulging in. 1977's Quark, Strangeness and Charm is one of them. Released during the height of the punk boom in the UK, it was the band attempting to come to grips w/ a new scene which they had inspired earlier in the decade. Sans Lemmy, for myself the band lost a lot of grit and looseness which his playing contributed to the group; his booming four-string beast really anchored their sound. Their peak albums - Do Re Mi and Space Ritual - presented a band w/ one of the loosest, most organic, swingin' and undeniably heavy takes on rock music ever achieved. Only Black Sabbath ca. Master Of Reality comes close, and they never got "cosmic" (well, not in that sense). Sci-fi author and all-round space cadet, Robert Calvert, was the unofficial leader of the band at this stage, and they'd also roped in ex-High Tide violinist/keyboardist Simon House into the mix, along w/ 'wind veterans Nik Turner and Dave Brock, as well as ex-Pink Fairy Paul Rudolph on bass, and for me, and for many others, Quark... is the band's finest post-Lemmy moment. Of course the unabashed heaviness and lo-fi qualities of their earlier works had been lost; this is clean, the guitars are mixed down and the keys more prominent, but Hawkwind ca. '77 were not a band to dismiss. Skinsman Alan Powell ably whacks out an ace, metronomic beat, especially on the opener, "Spirit Of The Age", which for me represents the sonic nexus of Neu! and Eno-period Roxy Music. In fact, a lot of Quark... sounds like it's borrowed from '70s Roxy or even the Sparks, with Hawkwind dropping the boogie for a slightly more refined, UK art-school sound. The title track has a giddy, Maels brothers quality to it - a thousand miles removed from the relentless biker-boog grind of "Brainstorm" - but nothing I'll sneeze at. I saw Hawkwind play here a couple of years ago at Billboard in the city. The venue was booked out later in the evening for its weekly teen-disco shenanigans, so the band and its support played at a ridiculously early hour to accomodate this: support to be on stage by 7 PM sharp; Hawkwind to hit the stage at 8 PM and everyone to exit the venue by 10 PM. Given my increasing seniority in the age dept. (it's a one-way street), I was happy to be home by 10:30 in the evening on a hot summer's night, although it sure felt strange seeing Hawkwind in what felt like an afternoon matinee performance in the year 2012 (I'm assuming it was last year... it's all a blur to me now). Some friends of mine thought the 'wind blew - especially their late, late-night performance at the Meredith Festival (which I didn't see) - although I thought the group, or whatever remnant of a band now passing as "Hawkwind" on bills are, were a whole lot of fun. The sound was atrocious, the bass either completely absent or totally dominating the mix, but they had that loose-as-a-goose boogie-drone still sitting in their collective craw and enough grit under their nails to make them an enticing proposition. For me, they sounded a lot like a spacey crust-punk band w/ elements of Amebix or Rudimentary Peni in the mix, but, you know, maybe that's just me reading something into it. Back to the album in question... the edition I'm reviewing is in fact a double-CD reissue on the band's own Atomhenge label from 2009. Atomhenge has been documenting the absolutely living buggery out of the band and its voluminous output (barring the essential four albums I listed at the start of this piece: EMI ain't giving them up any time soon); some of it's great and some of it's not. Not only is Quark... an excellent album in its own right - eight tracks of straight-up art/glam/punk/space-rock FUN - but this version, fully remastered, sounds fantastic, has a ton of really great bonus material (earlier, rougher studio takes and good live recordings) and a hefty booklet detailing the band and its plan ca. 1977. You need it.
PS - there's also a great, previously unheard bonus track on CD1 you can listen to here. I highly recommend it; sounds like late '80s F/i.
I was late for the Godspeed You! Black Emperor gravy train the first time they were around. They'd been and gone before I even bothered giving them a spin. Of course, I knew who they were - working in music retail, I had to - but I'm a recalcitrant mofo, and their goofy name and alleged post-rock tendencies put me off having not even spun a second of their wares. Fact is, when I started working at Missing Link in '99, and found myself selling their records, I had to do a bit of research as to who the fuck they were, so out of the loop w/ contemporary sounds at the time that I was. Anyway, maybe none of this is particularly interesting. I bought a couple of their records some time 'round 2004 or so and found myself quite impressed: these bombastic French-Canadian epic orchestral punkers (or whatever) were A-OK. Far from being the saviours of rock-not-roll that the British press hailed them as (they made a big splash there at the turn of the decade), although their three main LPs from the time - F# A# (infinity), Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven and Yanqui U.X.O. - were something I could sink my teeth into after the fact. They did, for better of for worse, capture the tension of the times. I had the entire genre known as "post-rock" pegged as a tiresome noodlefest which had totally run out of steam after the release of Tortoise's second album, although, in fairness, Godspeed's music was an amalgam of many different elements (Swans/Sonic Youth art-rock noise, Savage Republic-style musical panorama, the melodic bombast of the Dirty Three, et al) which put them streets ahead of the coffee-shop tedium of many post-rockers ca. the latter half of the '90s. Yanqui U.X.O., however, saw them running out of puff. It's an OK set of tunes, although the band had fallen into a well-worn formula by then - and after only two LPs and an EP! - and by then the quite start/build-up/bombastic-middle/slow-retreat-to-quiet-and-dramatic-ending schtick wasn't bringing anything new to the table. And Godspeed aren't like Motorhead or the Ramones: bands who could rip out 4 or 5 albums of the exact same formula successfully within a relatively brief amount of time and really pull it off. Which isn't to say that Yanqui isn't a good record - it is - but I didn't see where they could go from there, and likely either did they. Band members have been busy the last decade running the Constellation label and pursuing a myriad side projects. Thee Silver Mt. Zion (and their other, more ponderous aliases) have put out a number of fine discs, although one of my favourite artists on the label has remained Hanged Up, a Montreal viola/drums duo who've released three excellent albums of clang. You could nominally compare them to a stripped down Dirty Three, although their approach is more amelodic and, dare I say, "industrial" in its sound (perhaps in the tin-banging 'Neubauten sense of the word). Whatever, I like 'em a lot. Listen here if you please. But back to Godspeed. Last year they announced they were reforming and recording and releasing new material, and that brings me to Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, another platter w/ a pretentious, cryptic title, but it is indeed a whole lot better than I expected, especially given the slightly mixed reviews it received upon release (I only just heard/bought the thing last week). I've been playing this a lot of late, and an honest appraisal would have me concluding that I actually think it's the best thing they've done. The centrepiece track, the 20-minute opener, "Mladic", is the one which has grabbed me and their most atypical song thus far. For the lack of a better term, it gets heavy; not laden-in-an-army-of-strings heavy, but doom 'n' gloom guitar-riff heavy, and I dig it. It sounds more like a Sunn-damaged Southern Lord groove to me, and the build-up and comedown are timed perfectly. What the heck, you can hear it here. The rest of the album strays towards a more familiar formula (two shorter tracks and another 20-minute epic), although the darker shades of sound and sense of drama puts it above Godspeed-by-numbers. GYBE aren't everyone's bag - I have actual friends who consider them a gigantic, monstrosously pretentious yawnfest - and whilst I see their point, I'm not going to let it ruin my good time. Allelujah!... is a fine disc, GBYE are a fine band, and their recent performance at the ATP festival in Melbourne, which I witnessed, was yet more proof of that.