Friday, 2 September 2016

Track: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - 'Jesus Alone'

His first new material since 2013's 'Push the Sky Away', Nick Cave's lead single from forthcoming album 'Skeleton Tree' strikes a tone that is both solemn and bewitching. For its 6-minutes it throbs and undulates with an intricately woven mesh of distorted synths, string layering and the twilight howl of a theremin.

The refrain 'with my voice, I am calling you' is intoned with increasing strains of longing, accompanied by spare piano chords that cut through the surrounding drone in a way that is simple yet thoroughly effective. It sounds like the throes of an insomniac night spent sat in feverish grief.

As is to be expected, the lyrics teem with interpretative imagery, but resound with motifs of lost faith, by way of drug addicts in Tijuana hotel rooms and African doctors harvesting tear ducts.

Cave has now firmly adopted his position as one of alt-rock's most eminent and consistently inspired figures, and here's hoping that the new album matches the foreboding heights of this first release.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Track: Esben and the Witch - 'Sylvan'

I first saw the gothic post-rock trio Esben and the Witch in a draughty Manchester hall sometime around 2010. They were supporting The Big Pink, but easily upstaged them with their simplistic yet frantic paeans of despair and dark enchantment.

(Incidentally, does anyone remember The Big Pink? They were a Jesus Jones-esque electro-rock outfit who had a minor hit with 'Dominos' and then disappeared into obscurity. Although their debut album 'A Brief History of Love' was one I remember listening to quite frequently when it was released ... perhaps one to revisit, or visit for the first time should you feel so inclined.)

I was equally taken with ESTW's debut album 'Violet Cries', deeming it to be a foreboding and haunting well of mature compositions that conjured up images of Norwegian pine forests, Brothers Grimm tales and German silent expressionist cinema like 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari'.

However, my interest in their following two albums never quite reached the same level; I deemed them incapable of moving beyond the sepia-toned field of woe they had ploughed very well on 'Violet Cries', and I gradually forgot about them.

So I was pleased, earlier this week, to hear their new track 'Sylvan' and find myself suitably impressed.

At 13 minutes-long, it ebbs and flows with the same plaintive vocals from Rachel Davies and atmospherics that swirl like a morass of ghostly fog. When it erupts though it is cataclysmic and epic, with the same kind of operatic dread that made 'Lucia at the Precipice' so enthralling. A good omen for further new material later in the year.

Have a listen to 'Sylvan' here...

Monday, 29 August 2016

The Comet is Coming - 'Channel the Spirits'

Nominated as the token 'wildcard' entry for this year's Mercury Prize, The Comet is Coming's debut album deserves, if not to win (Bowie's 'Blackstar' deserves to on its own merits rather than poignancy), then to achieve an awful lot of attention.

'Channel the Spirits' is an engrossing and captivating expression of energy and imagination on the part of the three London-based musicians who formed a loose improvisational trio and recorded the album in a matter of a few days.

The promiscuity with genres throughout the album is what drives the music on in an eclectic sense, allowing the tracks to melt into one another but at the same time move between psychedelic jazz, Afrobeat, electronica, tribal and funk.

The band have cited inspiration as being the cosmic jams of Sun Ra, but at times it sounds like a collision between the gritty bass grooves of Fuck Buttons and the blissed-out synths of old-school The Orb.

All the tracks though are scored through with acid saxophone attacks and flourishes that provide the album with its spaced-out, reverb-heavy vibrancy. 'New Age' embraces electronica to the extent that it doesn't sound far from Aphex Twin's debut 'Selected Ambient Works I', while 'Journey through the Asteroid Belt' harks back to bands like Harmonia.

In all, this is a piece of work that adds depth and colour with repeat listens, and which demonstrates a versatility and creative energy that can only mean following on the tail of this comet will be thoroughly rewarding.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Housewives / Massicot - Cafe OTO

Housewives / Massicot at Café OTO, London

It's an evening taut with late-August heat, and as people begin to gather on the street outside Café OTO a release of rain falls from the bruised sky. There is a palpable feeling of tense anticipation among the collective, the sense that everyone knows they are about to experience something equally bruising.

Housewives are a South London 4-piece who have amassed something of a cult following due to their formidable live performances. They released their debut album 'Work' in October 2015, recorded on a farm in the remote French countryside, and have so far maintained an online profile that is refreshingly low (there are, for instance, barely any photographs of the band).

This air of mystique is only enhanced when the band arrive, dressed in disarmingly bohemian clothes - natty cardigan, suit blazers, black beret. It all adds up to an impression that this is a band carefully cultivating their own image, aware that people will find out about them but strictly on their own terms.

They start by whipping up a whirlwind of droning loops - from a didgeridoo of all things - before launching into as dense and abrasive a half-hour set as I have seen in a long time.

There's an industrial chaos that harks back to Einsturzende Neubauten, while having the propulsive rhythms and ferocious intensity, not to mention the barked vocal stylings, that can only remind you of early-Swans.

Indeed, with sweat dripping from noses, it's hard not to be reminded of the legendary Swans gigs in which the band would order the venue's air-conditioning to be switched off, so subjecting the audience to a sweltering onslaught.

The detuned guitars and percussive precision is at its best on 'Tele', which swiftly descends into the sound of a diseased church bell's death throes.

Thinking politically, there's something about 'Autarky', in which the mantra "Work harder! Hard worker!" is yelled to the approximate sounds of a collapsing factory, that makes this just about the most perfect sonic response to six years of Tory austerity and 'anti-scrounger' rhetoric.

By the end of the set, it is impossible not to conclude that this is a band that must be experienced in a live setting, simply because there's likely very few new bands in the country who sound quite so scathingly appropriate for these tense and chaotic times as Housewives.

Check out their Bandcamp page here -

Massicot are a Geneva-based 4-piece who tread much the same musical terrain as Housewives, but eschew the same droning chaos in favour of tightly syncopated rhythms and jagged guitar work that fit together like falling pieces of Tetris.

The songs are built up around the spinal drum work, which shifts from motorik to funk to cowbell-inflected calypso, and back again. Around this is an exoskeleton of sparse guitar and bass - in this case a curious red mini-bass - weaving repetitive discordant riffs that, in same way as Housewives, you can't help but be swept up in.

Add into the mix a John Cale-esque electric violin sweeping and scratching its way across the taut structures and you have a band that display an impressive array of experimentation and potential. Check them out.

Check out their Bandcamp page here -

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Syrian air strikes

There was an interesting point made on Twitter a few days after the failed coup in Turkey; that since the accused instigator Fethullah Gülen is exiled in the genteel suburbs of Pennsylvania, would it be acceptable for Turkey to send drones to execute him before he can provoke further unrest in his homeland?

Gulen is the former ally of Prime Minister Erdogan and supporter of the ruling AKP party, which is now spreading its despotic arms across the whole state apparatus, smothering all and any embers of dissent, illusory or real.

The absurdity of the above proposition is a simplistic indicator of the American exceptionalism that continues to pirouette so deftly across the world stage. It is 'acceptable' for America to send drones to execute perceived enemies on foreign soil, but would be unthinkable for anyone else to do the same.

As Michelle Obama pontificates at the Democratic National Convention about America still being "the greatest nation in the world", like someone with an inferiority complex talking to themselves in the mirror, I'd like to draw attention to a shocking news story from last week that was met with predictable silence.

US-led air strikes targeting ISIL in the northern Syria city of Manbij killed at least 56 civilians including 11 children, bringing the collateral damage total since the end of May to 167.

With a fresh terrorist attack hitting Europe at what seems to be an almost weekly rate, it is this sort of atrocity-in-error that can only serve to enflame local anger, despair and, for a minority, radicalisation.

These and other atrocities like them simply don't resonate in our consciousness because of the perceived complexity and hopelessness of the situation. The horror of the US firebombing the Afghan MSF hospital in 2015, in which 22 people burned to death, is now a distant memory with apparently few lessons learned.

When it is said that Jeremy Corbyn offers little effective opposition to the Tory government, it is perhaps worth bearing in mind that the Labour MPs who have sought to undermine him and forced a leadership contest, were predominantly the same MPs who voted with the Tories for the UK's commencement of Syrian airstrikes.

Last week's atrocity plays into the hands of ISIL, who use local populations as human shields, and is precisely the reason so many stood in opposition to the idea that you tackle a problem as complex as the one in Syria only by dropping bombs.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!

So it's official, Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for the 2016 Presidential election. I'll be writing plenty more about Trump in the weeks to come, but essentially my view is that it's time for people to stop dismissing him as an unelectable joke. Clearly, the ground rules on what is and isn't 'electable' are more malleable than ever at present, and he has to be taken seriously, regardless of the fact that he looks like an overgrown teabag with a yellow duster wig.

I would find it easier to rationalise Trump's popularity were he a ranting oaf like the US 'shock jock' Alex Jones, or a charismatic and occasionally witty racist like Nigel Farage; but the fact is that Trump is staggeringly inarticulate, so much so that he almost makes George W. Bush seem as eloquent a rhetorician as Obama.

Trump may have hijacked the Republican party, much to their evident dismay, but he is a monster entirely of their own making. When you poison the well of political discourse with such committed toxicity, with the Tea Party faction et al, and grind Congress to a halt on numerous occasions, don't be surprised when an odious carp like Trump breaches the surface of the noxious water and grows fatter from the poisonous minnows in his way.

Watching his convention speech, there was an interesting parallel to be made with current world politics elsewhere.

A centrepiece of Trump's threadbare policy tapestry was his pledge that "the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end." How might he go about achieving such a feat?

Perhaps he has been modelling his policy strategy on that of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines who was elected in May on a swollen wave of anti-crime rhetoric. In his short time in office so far, Duterte has advocated the murder of drug dealers and addicts, and has galvanised his police force to kill some 30 suspected 'drug lords'.

Such incendiary attitudes to law enforcement may begin to spread closer to home. New Prime Minister Theresa May - she of the 'Immigrants Go Home' van - is nothing if not a tad authoritarian. As Home Secretary she has pushed hard for the Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill - the 'snooper's charter' - which essentially empowers everyone to keep a suspicious eye on everyone else in an effort at rooting out early signs of extremism.

She has also passed the Psychoactive Substances Act; a ridiculously regressive piece of legislation which bans as an 'illegal drug' substances on a definition so broad as to potentially include incense sticks and wax candles.

This is not only wrong-headed, anti-scientific law but also grossly unfair of our Dear Leaders. After all, in a world that can present Donald Trump as a possible 'leader of the free world', we'll need all the psychoactive substances we can gobble down just to stay sane.

More on The Donald soon...

Friday, 22 July 2016

Corbyn leadership

Almost one year ago, on a humid Wednesday evening, I made the trip after work to Ealing, where I had a ticket to a sold-out event with the Labour leader candidate, Jeremy Corbyn.

I had been following his steady ascendancy onto the grassroots pedestal for some weeks, and like many was buoyed by this man who, for all his lack of obvious style and charisma, or perhaps because of it, appeared to be the representative of a new kind of politics that might be possible.

Across Europe, left wing movements were reaching office in Greece and gaining traction in Spain, while reports were starting to emerge of a guy called Bernie Sanders who was making promising ripples in the stagnant reservoir of American politics.

I had seen Corbyn speak a year or so before, at a Stop the War conference in Central London. Although I'd been there predominantly to get a chance to see the late great Tony Benn speak, I remember being impressed and faintly surprised that the Labour party still possessed, on its ragged fringes, an MP of Corbyn's conviction and moral principles.

In Ealing Town Hall the atmosphere was of that kinetic level of excitement normally only experienced at a gig before the main act takes to the stage. Corbyn was almost an hour late, as he had spontaneously addressed the crowd still outside without tickets, then going to an overflow room, before finally arriving in the main hall full of around 1,500 people to a standing ovation.

I remember what a diverse and eclectic crowd it was in attendance, the demographic sweep appeared to have been uniquely comprehensive. I recall recognising the journalist Seamus Milne lurking off to one side of the hall; at that time not yet appointed as Corbyn's communications guru, but there to survey the lay of the land nonetheless.

My overriding feeling of the event was one of genuine enthusiasm, cautious optimism and tangible hope; feelings that my perhaps overly cynical self had not expected to find being aroused by a political rally for a Labour leader.

One year on, and the UK has voted to leave the EU, Theresa May as the new PM has appointed the most right wing cabinet in years, Sanders has endorsed Hillary Clinton as Democratic nominee, and Jeremy Corbyn is having to restand for the leadership again. Yes, it is turbulent times for Labour, who have done their utmost to discredit and destabilise Corbyn since his election, and have descended into petulant mutiny since the referendum.

At time of writing, Labour had just received 183,000 new members in 48 hours, a staggering and surely unprecedented achievement. The opportunity for Labour to harness the passion, energy and enthusiasm that I felt pulsing through Ealing Town Hall has never been more pressing or possible. Time will tell whether it flourishes or wilts on the poisonous vine of the Labour party machine.