Thursday, September 30, 2010

Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures

Joy Division are, hands down, one of the greatest fucking bands of all time. Their debut, Unknown Pleasures, set new benchmarks in alternative music, and is without a doubt one of the finest and most influential records, ever. The fantastic album art describes it to a tee really, nothing before or after, only an erratic yet channelled burst of creative genius in the middle. 

So, It's 1979, and punk is pretty much dead - all the energy, bravado and balls it had is seemingly on life support. Enter Joy Division - four Mancunian lads who manage to paint a musical landscape that mirrors their own existential dread. This musical landscape, although a product of its time, sounds like nothing that came before it. 

You have driving, muscular basslines and a formally dressed vocalist singing in baritone (but never indulging in vocal theatrics) taking the centerstage; always in the company of  motorik percussion and an atonal, minimalistic guitar that sometimes growls, and at others provides texture; seemingly mimicking whatever demon it is that was consuming Ian's soul at the time. Martin Hennett's austere, dub-influenced  aesthetic recognises the importance of space in a work as bleak as this, and it all sets the stage for telling the tales of alienation, disorientation and despair during Thatcher era UK, in an entirely original way - a driving, metronomic opener in 'Disorder', the haunting, hellish lament of 'Day of the Lords', the maddening riff and subsequent explosion of 'Shadowplay', the chilling, hypnotic bass propelled illustration of epilepsy in 'She's Lost Control' as well as the cathartic build and release of 'New Dawn Fades' which foresees Curtis'  losing struggle to maintain his lifestyle - "a loaded gun won't set you free, or so you say." There is also the vacuous anti-anthem in the closer "I Remember Nothing", by this point all corporeal relevance seems to have been uprooted and shot calluously into deep space, leaving behind only echoes of sorts - "Me in my own world, you there beside; the gaps are enormous, we stare from each side"

Raw, relentless and visceral, Unknown Pleasures is much more than an insight to a restless soul bearing the brunt of decay; it's also a definitive segment of alternative music history as we know it. You just can't go wrong here.

A loaded gun won't set you free, or so you say

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pram - Gash

Pram are an experimental band based in Birmingham. Originally from Yorkshire, Rosie Cuckston and Matt Eaton went to school together. Along with drummer Andy Weir, the three then moved to Birmingham in the late 80's. A chance meeting between Rosie Cuckston and Sam Owen at a local supermarkets Singles Night started off the unique band. They began gigging under the name Hole in 1988. The only sounds included her eerie vocals and a home-made theremin. Matt Eaton later joined the band playing multiple instruments. Keyboard player/sampler Max Simpson also joined, with Sam playing bass and Andy Weir on the drums. The band's first album "Gash" was self-released and sold by mail order and at gigs, and is now completely out of print (sells for about $500 on Ebay). 

This as a debut marked Pram as one of the most innovative bands in the UK in the 90's. Filled to the brim with mind bending experiments in deconstruction, Gash has a near psychedelic nature in its delivery but never flirts with pomposity or wank. It's a very intriguing world of sound that Pram have conjured in Gash, one could say the chaos within is meticulously detailed, and once a while it's possible to witness the myriad of musical cornerstones that Pram use to decorate their tunes; ranging all from free jazz, ambience, usage of toys and toy-like instruments (that well compliment the child-nightmare themes that the songs portray) and the part-controlled/part frenzied krautrock drumming that gives the songs a really cool, rough edge, like a yacht getting rocked by the mighty ocean in the dead of the night (we would in fact be lost at sea if it wasn't for Rosie Cuckton's sweet, soothing voice that adds a semblance of 'normalcy' to the whole affair). 

All in all, a bizarre barrage of sounds on this one, every song is unique, from the industrial mutant pop of 'I'm a War' which climaxes into a serious funk workout, the calm solitude of 'Pram', the grotesque 'Flesh' which possesses a frantic punk spirit and some violent, noisy guitar lines that show that these guys were good at just about everything. I'm not sure how analogies work in reviews, but at this point in time I think it's fair to say that Pram were the heirs to the kind of thing This Heat and Can were doing decades before them - pushing the boundaries of sound in ways not thought entirely possible without sacrificing any of it in quality. Sorry if I'm gushing, I fucking love this record.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Slowdive - Just For A Day

At this point in time, you all should know that Slowdive are probably my favourite band of all time. No one crafted soundscapes like they did, no other band I know (other than probably Joy Division) has such a flawless discography, outtakes and extras included. I don't have much to say that won't be said in my review, except for the fact that I fucking adore these guys and wish they have a far larger audience than they currently do. So without further adieu, here's their debut.

Before I make any sort of attempt to review this record, I request that you bear with me, while I tell you a bit about myself. That may also serve to explain a lot of the hyperbole that would follow on for the rest of this monologue.

I am a hopeless romantic. I'm not even going to lie. Daydreaming, yearning, walking around with a stupid smile on my face, these things seem to go hand in hand with my nonchalant, happy-go-lucky personality. And when these things finally come together with the actual event of falling in love, then, just wow. It's intoxicating. Everything else around you doesn't only seem lacklustre, but it actually is a lot less important than you once felt it to be. And yeah, anyone reading this can attest to that.

Life's a funny thing though - it paves the way for the other side of the coin. The heartbreak. The end of a good thing, that despondent feeling, the works. And for the hopeless romantic, this usually means that he's going to turn into one pensive motherfucker, and for a while, life becomes one huge daydream. I'm here, but not really. I see everything around me, but for whatever reason, I cannot relate to it. Or maybe I just don't want to. 

Either way, like everything else, it all comes full circle. It's a cycle, and what some would call vicious, I call life-affirming. It defines a certain part of my character, and despite everything else that goes on in my head, it's great glancing at the bigger picture - the ability to love without condition and to be able to completely surrender yourself to your instinct and dream; in a sense it is the very essence of youth. And I'm unabashedly proud of it.

So it is with a rather romantic fervor that I attempt to review Slowdive's "Just for a Day", a tiny little album that dropped in 1991; the great 1991 when the already pregnant alternative music scene exploded, and this gem was lost somewhere in the washes of everything else that was overwhelming the music press at the time. It was a key part of the much misunderstood shoegazer movement; the idea that you didn't need to scream or be abrasive to voice your rebellion, but rather drench and drown it amongst the countless waves of sonic bliss and the hushed voices that lurked beneath. The Valentines stood above their peers during this era with the monolithic 'Loveless'; and why the fuck not - after all, Loveless was a beast, an example of the beautiful and the ugly coexisting in harmony in a way none had imagined before. I hadn't been old enough to appreciate the scene at the time, but man, it was certainly my kind of rebellion. 

And then, there was Slowdive. From day one, you could tell that these guys were inspired, and to an extent it's fair to call them soundchasers. There's evidence littered throughout their career that shows them to be playing around with the proposed conventions of shoegaze and dreampop; most of their early EPs and singles show them experimenting with ambient soundscapes (perhaps inspired by Victorialand era Cocteau Twins) and psychedelic dream-pop. Their debut 'Just for a Day' illustrates this - it's a record that was made with a certain memory in mind, as it sets out to pursue this memory, this sense of longing and capture its essence with their own impressionistic aesthetic.

And it is with this release that they managed to bring out their youthful romanticism and merge it with their own dosage of bliss. The whole record conveys a feeling of lysergic haze while never being devoid of melody, even though the melody is usually hidden under layers of sonic waves that create a pulsating ripple through most of the songs over here. There’s the glacial single ‘Catch the Breeze’ that brings out a sense of nostalgia with its gentle, subdued vocals and a memorable hook that is soon avalanched by Halstead’s guitar, there’s the blackened, mournful ‘Ballad of Sister Sue’ that tells a tale of loss and desensitisation solely through the atmosphere it invokes. The lyrics are nearly completely inaudible, they only exist to further augment the white-noised, borderline morphine like quality that the music induces in you. The lush, ambient instrumental ‘Erik’s Song’ forms the perfect bridge between the first and second halves of the record, paving the way for ‘Brighter’ and ‘The Sadman’, the closest you get to straightforward pop on this record; the latter having a sublime choral daze that brings to mind a feeling of being washed over by emotion, courtesy Rachel Goswell’s heavenly voice. But where Just For a Day is concerned, there’s absolutely nothing better on the album than the bookends; the funeral march-like opener in ‘Spanish Air’ sets the tone for the record in magnificent fashion, a haunting lament accentuated by Goswell and Halstead’s sombre vocal harmonising, topped off by what is probably the sweetest acoustic arpeggio you have ever heard in a Slowdive song. And the closer, oh lord. Primal is a song that utilises the signature sound on this album and stretches it to a breaking point; at its climax it may be the most euphoric thing you have ever heard. 

What is even more admirable about Just for a Day is the wonderful 2005 reissue, that compiles ‘Blue Day’, a collection of material from their early EPs to really illustrate the creativity behind this short-lived band even at their early, maturing stages. The aptly named ‘Albatross’ is an example of soaring ambience being used to create a mood behind some furious drumming, ‘She Calls’, ‘Slowdive’ and ‘Morningrise’ all showcasing the band’s heavier side and signalling the archetypal shoegazer sound that they had already perfected and were going to move on from – quiet, steady drums, an omniscient soothing guitar drone and washed out melodies buried within an aural vortex. They also delve into psychedelic and ambient respectively with ‘Avalyn’ and ‘Losing Today’, the two perhaps being amongst the best of the lot here – the former being propelled by a deep underlying bassline and Goswell’s voice to hypnotic effect, and the latter using a slow tempo and gently strummed guitars to create an aura of introspection, something the band would go on to master a couple of years later on Pygmalion. Also included is the single ‘Shine’, a breezy, rich pop song that serves as a soundtrack for a quiet day on the beach, as well as a dark, haunting interpretation of Syd Barrett’s ‘Golden Hair’. 

Slowdive would soon grow up and move on. They would reach for the clouds in their quest for creating and mastering the dream-pop sound on Souvlaki, and they would hurtle toward outer space in sparse, delicate and almost alien-like fashion on Pygmalion; both records serving as milestones of pioneering, consistent achievement for a band that boasted of steady sonic evolution and maturity on every release. But it was on Just for a Day that they had their feet firmly rooted on the ground, and that they unabashedly wore their hearts on their sleeves and dared to dream. And where people find flaws with this album is where I find peace within it; it reminds me of what it is like to fall in love and be imperfect, in the best way possible.

Screams that seem unreal