Monday, 2 September 2013

Dedicated follows of fashion - A warning

I realise I've been cruelly neglecting my blog, so here's a quick post to kick it back into life...

Dance music can be a fickle mistress. One minute your favourite scene is so cutting-edge it has to be kept out of reach of children, the next it’s been discarded like last year’s electroclash. This can lead to an overwhelming desire to stay one step ahead of the crowd, seeking out the most obscure Chilean techno or Polish post-dubstep and then ditching it before it makes the inevitable appearance on a mobile phone advert. But it also means it’s tempting to disown the music that’s closest to your heart when it’s no longer deemed to be the Next Big Thing.

While it’s understandable that your favourite DJs may not stick to the same sound for their whole careers - no one blames  Zinc for dropping drum’n’bass in favour of house, or Fergie for heading for  the stadium lights of EDM - as fans it’s important stay in touch with our roots. Just as overpaid psychiatrists and dubious self-help books tell you to connect with your inner child, so clubbers should never lose touch with their younger raving-self. The best DJs know this instinctively, showcasing an almost superhuman ability to drop a forgotten classic in such a way that the whole dancefloor rediscovers their love of it in a collective musical epiphany.

After all, it’s our earliest dance purchases that can take us back to our formative years. That mid-nineties trip hop mix may sound dated compared to James Blake’s latest offering, but it evokes a summer of blunted bliss the likes of which you’ll never see again. And it’s only a matter of time before a new generation of clubbers discover that the cheeky basslines and heavyweight beats of the early noughties breaks scene  is the ultimate warm-up for a night of unadulterated hedonism.

We all have our guilty pleasures languishing at the bottom of the CD rack or conveniently mislabelled on our hard drive, but you can be sure that given enough time the turntables of fashion will spin them back into relevancy. Only a few years ago, sticking on your copy of ‘Ministry of Sound presents Garage Classics’ at a house party was likely to get the room smirking rather than skanking. But ever since the 2-step revival, clubbers have been falling over themselves to persuade you they’ve still got that signed copy of Wookie’s debut LP. Or consider southern-fried US hip hop, considered by many this side of the Atlantic to be a bit of joke before HudMo, Lunice & co repackaged it as the trendy trap soundtrack to a night out in Dalston.

So if you’re debating whether to bin that stack of big beat compilations or pawn your handbag house anthology, think again. It might just turn out to be the Next Big Thing.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Orbital: 'Wonky' review

Orbital were one of my favourite dance acts as a teenager, so I had the dubious honour of reviewing their new album for FACT. You can read the full piece below...

Eight years since their self-imposed retirement, and surfing the wave of a series of self-congratulatory live shows, Orbital are back with a new studio album. Following a slow descent into mediocrity, their well-publicised demise due to creative exhaustion in 2004 was mourned by few. But while it seemed the Hartnoll brothers were consigned to the bargain bin of dance music past, their appeal has endured, highlighted by Jamie XX’s decision to open his essential mix last year with the mournful ‘Belfast’.
Early signs of Wonky, their first full-length since 2004’s The Blue Album, were hardly encouraging. ‘Never’, released as a free download in October, epitomised the unnerving ability of post-In Sides Orbital to lose a good melody in a sea of trance cheesiness. Worryingly it makes an appearance here, but not before opener ‘One Big Moment’ reminds you why the duo still generate such affection amongst certain circles. The gentle chimes and overlapping philosophical vocal samples of the intro could have been lifted wholesale from 1994’s Snivilisation, but it soon lurches into a full-frontal assault of abrasive synth lines and off-kilter melodies, a juxtaposition of the cerebral and visceral that acts as a timely summation of the group’s 20-year career. ‘Straight Sun’ continues the theme, swerving between dramatic piano keys and mid-range wobble with just enough energy to convince sceptics that their comeback is a genuine attempt to push themselves forward creatively.

Ironically it’s this desire to catch up with wider trends in electronic music that results in the album’s limpest moments. In a recent FACT interview, the brothers revealed they laid out the LP as a wall plan before they started recording. The weakness of this approach to music making is apparent in the album’s structure, and it feels like they felt forced to crowbar in musical styles that sit uncomfortably with their own sound. So we have “the electro-house one” (‘Where Is It Going’), and “the dubstep ones” (‘Distraction’ and ‘Beezlebub’), all as cringe-inducing as you’d expect.

Perhaps it’s harsh to criticise a certified dance institution like Orbital for trying to sound relevant, and in fairness both tracks should slot into their live sets without too much fuss (in fact ‘Beezlebub’ sounds suspiciously like live-favourite ‘Satan’ remixed by a fan of Skrillex). Maybe the brothers should get points for still making the effort; ‘Stringy Acid’ is a harrowing glimpse of what could happen if they completely settled into festival-nostalgia mode. A track as banal as the title suggests, its looped synth strings and generic acid bassline are as welcome as an Altern8 reunion.

It’s left to the guest vocalists to rescue this uneven LP. Orbital don’t have a great track record of working with singers (their collaboration with David Gray on ‘Illuminate’ still gives me sleepless nights), but they’ve somehow managed to pick two of most exciting female vocalists in any genre and exploit their unique qualities in genuinely intriguing ways. Zola Jesus lends her nu-goth wails to the propulsive krautrock of ‘New France’, while the hyperactive chatter of Brummy MC Lady Leshurr perfectly compliments the 80s electro rhythms and fizzing pyrotechnics of the title song. In both cases the ladies inject an energy that is missing from the sanitised rave of filler tracks like ‘Stringy Acid’ or album closer ‘Where Is It Going’.

Wonky‘s title accurately describes the uneven feel of the last few offerings from this dance dynasty. While it’s unlikely to garner them a new generation of fans, as an exercise in generating fresh fodder for their festival sets it’s effective enough. The occasional glimpses of innovation just about justify its many flaws, and provide a rare argument for why – sometimes – it’s okay to refuse to age gracefully.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

White Car: Everyday Grace

A review I wrote for FACT magazine.

It seems like we are rapidly approaching the alarming point where more music will have been made attempting to replicate the sounds of the eighties than was ever produced during that decade. Hippos In Tanks are no stranger to this trend, but rather than pump out a stream of faux-shoegaze they have thankfully opted to push the vibrant midi-funk of Ford & Lopatin, Laurel Halo’s early techno-referencing Hour Logic, and the industrial-inspired body music of White Car.

The Chicago outfit turned heads with the No Better EP in 2010, and are finally back with a full LP and a press release that reads like the back of a William Gibson novel. Originally a collaboration between songwriter Elon Katz and producer Orian Martin, this time Katz is driving solo, although Martin makes a cameo as that staple of eighties dance acts – the electronic percussionist. All the key musical signifiers are still in place – the uncompromising electronic experimentation of Cabaret Voltaire, the distorted vocals of EBM and the bleakness of cold wave – but the album’s runtime gives Katz more space to bend these tropes around his own personality.

Everyday Grace opens with a burble of sequencer arpeggios dissolving into distorted human cries, continuing the cyberpunk theme of the blurred boundaries between man and machine. At times this can be a self-consciously dark and claustrophobic record, the soundtrack to a warped Cronenberg nightmare where you rip off your skin to find circuit boards underneath. As 808 beats hammer you into submission on ‘Slime The Dog’ and ‘The Factor’, or a solitary synth line cuts through the industrial smog on ‘In The Second Month Of The Year’, it’s becomes clear why Katz refers to his studio as ‘The Techno Dungeon’.

This fetishism for analogue equipment (synths, sequencers and drum machines are the order of the day) gives the album a hard, tangible quality that is hard to replicate, but also means there’s a degree of monotony in Katz’s adherence to a select palette of sounds. Sometimes it feels like his own personality is drowning in a sea of cables and keyboards, a theme he plays up on ‘Terminal Body’ when he wails “Everywhere I go there is the right technology / everything I am in just won’t let me be me”. Yet it never quite succumbs to its technology-induced paranoia, thanks to tongue-in-cheek vocals that can progress from pitched-down monotone into deranged pleading in the space of a verse, while retaining a healthy dose of post-punk irreverence for the source material.

It’s the moments where Katz allows his humanity to shine through that are the most effective. ‘Feed Me’ is a delicious slice of synth-pop that manages to be both sordid and seductive, while the effortless bounce and breathless vocals of album closer ‘Now We Continue’ echo the clinical boogie of early Prince. By injecting his industrial despair with a healthy dose of funk, Everyday Grace strikes a balance between a number of disparate eighties genres to create something new that demands your full attention.

Lindstrom: Six Cups of Rebel

A review for FACT magazine.

Hans-Peter Lindstrøm will forever be shackled to the “cosmic disco” tag. Alongside long-time collaborator Prins Thomas and fellow Scandinavians Todd Terje and Bjørn Torske, he has spent the best part of a decade churning out other-worldly music that uses the 4/4 rhythms of disco as a launch pad to aim for the stars. With Terje’s well received It’s the Arps EP still ringing in our ears after its release last month, it seems we’re already due for another dose of Nordic hedonism.

There is definitely something celestial about album opener ‘No Release’, with its MIDI organ loop relaying into infinity while synth pads slowly ascend into a beatless crescendo. To stick with the astronomic analogy, this is the sound of Lindstrøm charging up the engines and preparing for take-off. Only with ‘De Javu’ does he break through the stratosphere, powered by a restless 303 bassline and bursts of synth horn, and by the time we get to ‘Magik’ it’s clear the producer is planning to take us further out than ever before. A stellar swirl of organ licks, rolling drums and hypnotic chanting, it’s refreshingly dismissive of the standard template of builds and drops, instead opting for a myriad of musical flavours that wash in and out seemingly at random.

While on his last solo release, 2008’s Where You Go I Go Too, Lindstrøm seemed content to stretch out a single concept to breaking point, it now seems he has more ideas than he can squeeze into each track. This is the first time the producer has used his own vocals and they appear in numerous guises throughout the album, from the deranged Green Velvet-esque chants of ‘Quiet Place To Live’ to a passable George Clinton impression on ‘De Javu’. It’s light years away from the subdued Balearic disco he’s been releasing with Prins Thomas or the low slung ’80s grooves he laid down for vocalist Christabelle in 2010. Left alone at the controls, it sounds like he’s decided to press every button at once and see what happens.

In a recent FACT interview the producer said the album was styled as a DJ mix, and it’s possible to hear 6 Cups as an inheritor to the free-form mixes of “cosmic” pioneer Daniele Baldelli. So we get prog-disco rubbing shoulders with the wildest excesses of p-funk, while afro rhythms flirt with the down-pitched 808s of electro. Even the songs merge into each other in unusual ways, with the acid bassline from ‘Call Me Anytime’s bleeding into the title track, only to be interrupted by funk drum fills.

This is an album with more costume changes than a drag queen, and the shameless flamboyance to match. That’s not to say there aren’t moments where Lindstrøm’s new-found exuberance is hard to swallow. The stadium rock guitar that introduces ‘Quiet PlacTo Live’ wouldn’t sound out of place on the Flash Gordon soundtrack, while the opening minutes of ‘Call Me Anytime’ are a discordant mess, but both tracks eventually settle down into satisfying rhythmic workouts. Lindstrøm has clearly embraced his ‘cosmic disco’ tag as a statement of intent, and while the final result may be uneven in places, if you leave your inhibitions at the airlock you’re guaranteed an enjoyable ride.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Interview with Courtney Taylor-Taylor

We Love This Book magazine asked me to interview the lead singer of The Dandy Warhols about a graphic novel he's written. The results are below...

You're more likely to see Courtney Taylor-Taylor headlining a music festival than signing books at your local Waterstones. As lead singer and guitarist of The Dandy Warhols, he has released an impressive eight albums across a 17-year career, and was responsible for the track ‘Bohemian Like You’ that stormed the UK charts in 2001.

But while many rock musicians go on to release an autobiography detailing their hedonistic exploits, Taylor-Taylor has made the unusual move of penning a graphic novel. A collaboration with illustrator Jim Rugg, One Model Nation follows the adventures of a fictional krautrock band from Berlin whose music soundtracks the rebellion of a generation of German teenagers. The band’s own story is intertwined with the fate of the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang who terrorised Germany in the late 1970s.

Taylor-Taylor picked the period setting because “I waited 20 years for someone else to do it and no one did”. The novel does an impressive job of evoking a nation simmering under the repressive rule of a paranoid police state, the result of detailed first-hand research. “I was in Germany a lot over a 12-year period,” he says, “so getting together with middle-aged Germans and just letting them talk really added depth to my whole experience.”

He cites influences as diverse as the new German cinema of [director and screenwriter] Rainer Fassbinder and the science-fiction comics of Mike Allred when envisioning the novel, which he combined with his own experience of fronting a band. “I ended up structuring the whole thing like a map of the Dandy Warhols plot arc, but as a German period metaphor,” he says.

Delve deeper into One Model Nation and you can find allusions to the legacy of Nazism and even an examination of the way popular culture can be exploited by politicians and the media. This infiltration of politics into music is a subject he feels strongly about. “I hate it when it does,” he says. “Politics are based on us against them. Music is about how you feel. Is it possible to feel anything but frustrated or angry about politics?”

While writing music has become second-nature to Taylor-Taylor, he describes his early attempts to write dialogue as “a two-tier tightrope walk over a pit of sharks with alligators snapping at my heels”.

“I had never tried writing like that before,” he says. “Reducing the amount of descriptive dialogue but then having actual images instead was great. I just tried to stay out of the way of the story.” He compares the process of crafting the story, which is “really long and you can’t see the whole thing at once”, to composing music, where “you hit play and see how it flows”.

Jim Rugg’s energetic illustrations are central to the book’s success, and he manages the impressive feat of conveying the frenzy of a gig or the chaos of a riot via still images. Taylo-Taylor says he was in “constant communication” with Rugg throughout the book’s creation, although he was wary of imposing his own views onto the finished design. “You have to let the artists you work with blow your mind or its just no fun,” he says.

The initial idea for the book was conceived in 2000, but it wasn’t delivered to Rugg to draw for another nine years, a delay that he accounts for as “three years to write it and six more to make it not suck”.

“I’d like to have my favourite writers redo this exact story but put it in a different epoch,” he says. “Roman or American revolution or the renaissance or whatever. Have a band in 'Star Wars' that runs around a lot and subtly influences politics and the rebellion against the empire.” A fascinating idea, but don’t expect to see him signing copies in Waterstones any time soon.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Interview: Gareth Evans on 'Patience (After Sebald)'

I had the pleasure of interviewing art curator and film producer Gareth Evans for The Hackney Citizen. You can read the full article below...

“Right now I’m standing opposite Spitalfields Market. I’m looking at a site that is extremely old, and yet all those deeper layerings are obscured. You have to seek them out.”

Gareth Evans is not simply describing his surroundings to me. Instead the art curator is referring to his long-standing interest in the relationship between people and place.

It is a relationship he has explored in numerous projects through the organisation Artevents, culminating in the forthcoming film Patience (After Sebald).

Directed by Grant Gee and co-produced by Evans, the film is inspired by W.G.Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book that shares his fascination with the link between man and his surroundings.

Both the book and the film trace Sebald’s journey by foot along the Suffolk coast. It is “a walk through all sorts of different themes that are prompted by the locations and encounters he has,” says Evans.

“What’s amazing about Sebald’s work is that you can move from a B&B in Lowestoft to the Belgian Congo, to the Voyager space probe in the space of couple of pages. Then you find yourself back in the B&B in Lowestoft.”

It is this sense of escapism via a stream of consciousness that makes the book uniquely un-filmable in one sense, and Evans admits that it was “very challenging conceptually to translate it into a moving image form.”

Despite these obstacles, Patience does an impressive job of capturing the spirit of the book by splicing footage of Gee re-tracing Sebald’s coastal footsteps alongside interviews with an array of artists and authors discussing its themes and continuing influence. The end result is “a hybrid work that sits between aspects of documentary and art film and an embodiment of the book” narrated by film buffs’ favourite, Jonathan Pryce.

For Sebald, identity was an uncomfortable issue and I wonder how far the film goes in shedding light on the writer as an individual. While Evans is keen to point out that the film is not intended as a straightforward biopic, “you can’t help but bring in aspects of the biography, specifically the move from Germany to England.”

He refers to the German author’s “self-imposed exile” from his motherland, an attempt to “find distance from a country where he found himself profoundly compromised in relation to its history. Not only to what it did during the second world war, but how it dealt with it afterwards.”

Like the book, Patience tackles such disparate themes as the holocaust, the legacy of slavery and the space race, all connected by the places that Sebald visits. It is this awareness of the significance of his surroundings that attracted Evans to the idea of making a film about the author.

What excites him about the concept of “place” is that “it’s not somewhere that stays on the page or on the screen, it really does spill out into the world. Everybody has their own story of place. Everyone has their own journey through the world.”

Evans’ own story of place is set in Hackney, a borough where has spent almost his whole life. “Hackney has always been an anchorage point for my relationship with the city, the country and beyond,” he says. “There’s no question there’s a huge energy in Hackney.”

From his base at the Whitechapel Gallery, Evans is perfectly positioned to continue to explore this energy through further films, and help us all find our own place in the world.

Patience (After Sebald) is released by Artevents on Friday 27 January

Friday, 16 December 2011

Book review: 'Disaster Was My God' by Bruce Duffy

Another book review from my time at We Love This Book magazine. You can view the original here.

In Disaster Was My God, Bruce Duffy charts the meteoric rise and fall of 19th century poetic prodigy Arthur Rimbaud.
Born into the French peasantry, as a teenager Rimbaud was hailed as a literary genius on the basis of a handful of his poems. Yet by the age of 20 he had publicly renounced his works and absconded to Ethiopia to become an arms dealer, eventually returning to France diseased and disgraced.
To plot this bizarre career trajectory, Duffy eschews a chronological narrative in favour of jumping between key moments in the poet’s life: from the arid deserts of Ethiopia, to the decrepit villages of the French countryside and the seedy backstreets of Paris, where he seduces the older poet Paul Verlaine. He paints Rimbaud as a rebel in an era of conformity, seeking freedom at the farthest corners of the empire. Through his colourful descriptions and liberal doses of poetry, Duffy manages to capture the cultural and imperial spirit of the age.
The author takes relish in depicting a man whose life is a contradiction, a hedonistic genius whose impulsiveness is matched only by his lack of self-awareness. While the archetypes of the child-star turned to seed and his pushy, overbearing mother may be overly familiar to modern readers, there is fun to be had seeing them in a historical context.
Disaster Was My God is historical fiction at its best, a novel which uses vivid characterisation to bring the skeletons of the past back to life.