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Free Improv meets Old Ballads of Albion (and more)

It’s always nice when someone says that they have been inspired by one’s own work - a very rare occurrence for me, so imagine my surprise the other day when I got an e-mail from Nashville, Tennessee, telling me that “apparently, you encouraged this mad group with your writings”. “This mad group” turns out to be an outfit called themselves the’ London Experimental Ensemble’ (or LEE), and the mailer was Jane, who is the partner of Ed Pettersen, with whom she co-owns Nashville’s Split Rock Records, and who also happens to be the ‘leader’ of the LEE. Seemingly, Ed wanted me to have a listen to the band’s forthcoming recordings, set for a January release, and which he felt might be of interest to me. They certainly were and are, being a new iteration of Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ (over two hours and two compact discs) and ‘Child Ballads’, a melange of the antique ballads themselves and a freely improvised musical backing. Those who have read my books will see that Ed had assessed my tasted and interests exceedingly well..

Francis James Child of Harvard, a sort of American Cecil Sharp, collated ten volumes of the old ‘wyrd’ balladry of England and Scotland, which he encapsulated in 305 lyric poem sources. This oral tradition has continued to fascinate, from Harry Smith’s 1952 ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’ (a major influence of Bob Dylan and the sixties folk ‘movement’) through to modern collections such as Nick Cave’s ‘Murder Ballads’ and the work of the likes of Alasdair Roberts. In particular, the ‘free folk’ work of Roberts himself, Current 93 (across the decades), Comus (from the early seventies, in their case) and Richard Dawson today, as well as pioneering records by Fairport Convention in the late-sixties. Rob Young, who has delineated the history of ‘free- folk’ (or ‘psi-folk, as I named it in ‘Beyond Jazz’) was asked to write the notes to accompany the ‘Child Ballads’ recordings, an inspired choice in the light of his 2011 literary classic ‘Electric Eden’, and which I unhesitatingly recommend to anybody wishing to inform themselves around the subject of modern compound genres. Those sufficiently interested in the meeting of electronica/improvisation/traditional folk need look no further than 2015′s compilation, ‘Shirley Inspired’ (’Shirley’ Collins, in this case), three CDs/ two vinyl records of ancient words and modern interpretations - Lee Renaldo’s ‘Plains of Waterloo’ gives a foretaste of the London Experimental Ensemble’s explorations on ‘Child Ballads’.

‘Child Ballads’ displays the lyrics in a jewel-case of AMM-inspired ‘laminar’ improv by the LEE, and I am, at present, undecided as to whether this results in a new entity-in-itself, or is merely the colliding of two forms without any genuine connection or interchange. Time will tell, I guess. Whatever, this is a venture long in the coming, and reminds me in some ways of ECM Records’ delving into previously-unrelated formats (Garbarek/Hilliard being the most obvious example). This could have been an ECM New Series release in some ways, and is in itself is an indication as to how far Free Improvisation has become a validated genre (that it may have needed such a validation is a statement in itself, not at least about my own preconceptions). The fact remains that this is a significant recording, the very first that I, at least, know of, that explicitly engenders a meeting of improv and free folk with the intention of perhaps a fertile future breed/brood.

The LEE’s ‘Treatise’ is another mostly undecided-on work (by myself, that is), as I have only had two opportunities to listen to it. Initial impressions (it was recorded at Lambeth’s Iklecktic Club, in January last year). Initial impressions are hugely positive - it starts like a distant echo of ‘The Crypt’’s quieter moments and retains the listener’s interests throughout (rather more, sacriligiously, than even AMM did in their ‘Combines + Laminates’ iteration), so the promise of further enjoyment is a recommendation in itself. Much free improv does not encourage further immersion in particular products (a position that Derek Bailey specifically enshrined in his own ‘philosophy?), a light in which this ‘Treatise’ is even more recommended.

The Return of Current 93 - “a commodius vicus of recirculation”?

Please forgive the somewhat pretentious Finnegan’s Wake reference, but it seemed to describe well the flow of the 93 Current,  which originally was part of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema- philosophy and that gave David Tibet’s long-lasting band its name.  Current 93 are an esoteric and (mostly) magickal entity, and Joyce’s phrase features the verbal ambiguities and historical cross-references that also distinguish Tibet’s best work.

I came to C93 relatively late on (2001), initially through getting hold of the mixed-bag  ‘Looney Runes’ at a jumble sale for fifty pence, a satisfactorily random and extempore  way of accessing the portals of their world, which I very quickly and fully explored, mainly through their now-classic series of 90s works - ‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ from 1992 (which introduced Michael Cashmore’s peerless guitar); ‘Of Ruine Or Some Blazing Starre’ from 1994 (which is the pinnacle of their entire oeuvre, in my humble opinion, one of English progressive/experimental music’s finest products); the ‘Lucifer Over London’ EP (which includes my fave track of ‘em all, Tibet’s greatest portrait of Biblical apocalypse, the overwhelming and Four Horsemen-inspired “The Seven Seals Are Revealed At the End of Time as Seven Bows -  The Bloodbow, The Pissbow, The Painbow, The Faminebow, The Deathbow, The Angerbow, The Hohohobow”); ‘All the Pretty Little Horses’ (1996); ‘Soft Black Stars’ (1998); ‘Sleep Has Its House’ (2000) and ‘Black Ships Ate the Sky’ (2005) After this latter work in, I generally lost track of them through a variety of reasons, one being a period of serious ill-health that curiously mirrored Tibet’s own near-death experience (in his case peritonitis, in mine liver failure). C93 seemed to explore, after ‘Black Ships   ‘,  the limits of rock-influenced guitar music, something they had touched on in the past, and was to the detriment of their own particular magick, it seemed to me. I did wonder whether Tibet’s contact with the Grim Reaper had taken its toll on his creativity. Oh ye of little faith, it might be said, in my direction. And rightly so.

C93s music is an immersive experience (one of the few in modern ‘rock’ music), and, for me, is by far the most rewarding of the three ‘England’s Hidden Reverse’ bands so ably documented by David Keenan in his recently-updated  book on Current 93, Coil and Nurse With Wound. It has always been my contention that NWW’s Steven Stapleton’s best work is to be found in the Current’s nineties work. Their earlier industrial work from the 80s is a curate’s egg - I love ‘Nature Unveiled’, which sounds like a Black Mass (in a good way, if that is possible, or even desirable?), but much of the other material is incoherent (and definitely not in a good way by this point). The ‘psychedelic folk’ period that started with ‘Swastikas for Noddy’ [or should that be Gnoddy?] is undoubtedly fascinatingly creepy, and it effectively channels Comus (a Tibet fave), but ‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ (1992) saw Tibet soar, but it cannot be adequately summarised in a format such as this blog. Safe to say that, by 2005, Tibet had built up a personal mythology and enough accompanying series of memes, tropes, expressions, cues, links and meta-textual material to create a universe or separate reality, that, like a video game, could be engaged with by those attracted and intrigued enough to suspend disbelief in its more absurd or unlikely aspects.

The new album, called ‘The Light Is Leaving Us All’ had been reviewed online in enough of a positive way (see Anthony Fantano’s The Needle Drop, for example) to encourage me to get hold of it in CD form. It is presented in the usual informed and informing C93 way - lyrics accompanying the attractive slipcase, all the recording information is provided, as well as band photos and suitably enigmatic images of front and back - does the young girl on the front cover, and/or the choristers on the back,  have, to paraphrase Magazine, “the light pouring out of her/them”, or is it pouring into her/them from an outside source? Such questions become patent when listening to this record, throughout which the title phrase is repeated enough times to provide a thematic continuity of great power. It can, of course, become somewhat enervating, as can most of their material, but, by the end, you certainly know that you have been through a particular experience.

I was especially pleased to see that C93 have been joined by the great Alasdair Roberts as a new member, an innovation that made the record’s purchase essential as far as I was concerned. The Scottish master of the antique, the wyrd and the wonderful was a perfect choice to reactivate the Current to full effect - ‘The Light Is Leaving Us All’ will take a while to get acclimatised to, but I already sense that it is a ‘return to form’. Words, music and design come together as with all their best productions, and I gratefully welcome Tibet and Co. back to the cutting edge. Not so sure about the new Tibet image, with chin-scratch beard and all, which makes him look like a senior academic at a liberal arts institution - but maybe that is what he is now; one of our avant garde elders who will be forever keeping us on our toes? With a discographical, written word  and fine art history which could well provide enough material for a liberal arts degree?

The Mighty Fallen? Part Two

Current 93 deserve, and have had, a book written about them (David Keenan’s ‘England’s Hidden Reverse’, updated by the author last year). David Tibet’s work is not for everyone, to make an obvious point, and his histrionic delivery, religiosity and self-mythologising, could give one of his reference points, Aleister Crowley, a run for his money. But, at his best, and mainly when accompanied and assisted by Stephen Stapleton and Michael Cashmore in the 1990s, his work is among the most profound and luminous in English music of whatever genre. From ‘Looney Tunes’ (1990), through ‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ (1992), ‘Of Ruine or Some Blazing Starre’ (1994), ‘All the Pretty Little Horses’ (1996), ‘Soft Black Stars’ (1998) and ‘Sleep His His House’ (2000), Tibet and his confreres hardly put a hoof wrong - this is one of the great recording ‘runs’ of them all.

I rather lost patience after the final great ‘Black Ships Ate the Sky’ (2006), although there were also a couple of good live albums and EPs from the early 2000′s to be getting on with. I didn’t get on with ‘Aleph at Hallucinatory Mountain’ and its heavy metal guitar stylings, which completely eschewed the subtlety that even the most overwrought Tibet material usually manifests (the stuff of ‘SixSixSix’, for example, a creative peak of impressively-eschatological bombast). Such is the hypertrophied nature of the Current discography that it is easy to slip behind, even though the output has lessened compared to the 80s and 90s - I need to check out ‘I Am the Last of the Field that Fell: a  Channel’, which shoehorned John Zorn, Nick Cave and Tony McPhee into the mix (a true feat of eclecticism!) and also this year’s’ ‘The Light Is Leaving Us All’, which has received positive reviews on line. In the meantime, I have, courtesy of Hornsey Library, 2010′s ‘Baalstorm, Sing Omega’ (another snappy title that come un-trippingly off the tongue?). There is much more piano (Baby Dee) and cello (John Contreras) than in the heyday, and with the wonderful Alex Neilson from Trembling Bells on drums and percussion (who tends to add fairy dust to anything he contributes to): and with more obtuse, or should that be abstruse, lyrics from the ever-apocalyptic Tibet. But, after an initial airing, the record represents, for me, yet another moving account of personal revelation from Tibet, as well as yet more wonderful accompanying artwork and packaging from Coptic Cat Records. Which brings me to the final item.

The Fall used to revel in fantastic packaging for their records, and I used to anticipate their (usually yearly, at least) new releases with much excitement - they too had their run of incredible albums, from ‘Dragnet’ (1980) through to ‘I An Curious Orange’ from 1988 (the latter has been re-released and re-reviewed in this month’s Wire magazine). They were truly a wondrous band at this period, and I remain in awe at the amount of high-end material that they produced over a full decade. But although David Tibet has kept the freak flag flying in terms of design and content, the late Mark E. Smith had truly lost it by the time of The Fall’s last album, the ambiguously (?) titled ‘New Facts Emerge’. Some reviews may have glossed over the faults of this record, perhaps in deference to the passing of Smith earlier this year, but, for me, it merely confirms the precipitous decline of his band, which had in reality been occurring ever since ‘Middle Class Revolt’, as far back as 1995. I parted company with The Fall in 2013 with ‘Re-Mit’, an OK-ish collection of Smith’s increasingly-coarsened lyrics and delivery, but ‘New Facts…’ is merely a depressing confirmation that Smith had become to believe his own narratives of authorial omnipotence and omniscience, to the detriment of anything worth more than a cursory listening (despite us all kidding ourselves to the contrary.)

A friend of mine has very recently become rather obsessed (as one does) with The Fall, after an initial exposure to this most addictive of groups. He has taken a scatter gun approach to listening to their work and has come at it from a multi-temporal approach. I treat ‘New Facts Emerge’ as I would treat a pissed-up elderly relative who I’m fond of due to previous kindnesses offered - discreetly ignore the indiscretions of recent years, and remember the charismatic figure of previous times who could  hold both his drink and his pen, whilst frequently causing us to hold our collective breath.

The Mighty Fallen? Part One

I’ve been checking out my local library, trying to support it as best I can, having many fond memories of borrowing LPs from the Birmingham Central Record Library in my youth. The Hornsey branch bibliotek still has a very reasonable selection of compact discs, despite these slowly decreasing in number, and I got out a grab bag of selected recordings, as will be seen, which are forming the main part of my listening at the moment, and that I think are worth spending a few moments reflecting on.

To start with, there are works by significant bands of both the late sixties and the late seventies, and both of which are sadly in danger of being forgotten today. In the former decade, we have Family, the Leicester band who were one of the very first that I ever caught live. A twofer of their first two albums - ‘Music in a Doll’s House’ and ‘Family Entertainment’.  Period pieces, maybe, and the principal reason for their relative obscurity nowadays (they obtained a certain cachet years back through being the main subject of Jenny Fabian’s shag-and-tell contemporary account of the touring life, ‘Groupie’) being that, ambitious and intricate though their numbers were, they couldn’t quite crack memorable tunes that stay in the mind. Even their most successful single, 1971′s ‘In My Own Time’, has, at least from this particular vantage point in time, little ‘commercial potential’. The fact that it got to Number Four in the charts is surely a testament to the adventurousness of those distant times?

From 1977 comes ‘Alien Soundtracks’ by San Francisco’s Chrome, a missing link in the chain of Industrial Music if there ever was one. Their 1979 masterpiece ‘Half Machine Lip Moves’ is a genre definer, and ‘Alien Soundtracks’ is very much its precursor, but it is only now that I have finally managed to get to hear it. Any fan of the punk-charged DIY Electronica of Tuxedo Moon (another SF product) or of Thomas Leer/Robert Rental/early Human League needs to hear this band, although, to be frank, their sheer aggression and nastiness would put them more at home in the soon-come  era of Thatcher and Reagan, and Nine Inch Nails and Death Grips are perhaps more accurate reference points.

I want to spend more time on discussing the other two bands from my library excursion. Rather neatly, one of them was at its peak in the eighties and the other in the nineties (my haul thus represented four decades), but both are united by them having among the most voluminous and complex discographies of the whole rock canon, so it was instructive to hear two recordings that I was unfamiliar with from these most individual of groups - Current 93 and The Fall.

The 1990s Show! Part Two

These two blogs were prompted by my purchasing, after a Waterstones browse, ‘’1997: the Future That Never Happened’’, the first book by Richard Power Sayeed, which came out last year. It follows on neatly from another Nineties-leaning work by an author whose work I greatly like, David Stubbs’s ‘’1996 & The End of History’’, a rather self-conscious title to be sure, but a wonderfully concise booklet that can be filed next to his equally concentrated ‘’Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen’’ (why indeed? My immersion over the past year in the work of Barry Guy has sharpened my interest in such questions and explorations) and this year’s ‘’Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music’’, another book that posits the importance of certain key 12-month periods.

Stubbs uses a Cultural Studies approach, so ‘1996…’ posits the year as being ‘’…a subsconscious recreation of the year 1966′’, setting up a nice intertextual relationship between the two. Not only was there the football (or ‘fitba’ even, Irving Welsh being such a prominent name to drop at the time) of Euro ‘96, to provide a convenient parallel to the year of the two sixes (itself an distant echo of the sevens-clash of eleven years later), but there was also a Labour Prime Minister-in-waiting, who was pictured on the cover sharing (but with him in the driving seat!) a Lambretta scooter with 1996′s version of John Lennon (he so wished!!), Noel Gallagher, whose band Oasis had their fifteen minutes of being (close, but no cigar) to being as big as the Fab Four (whose very last live paying gig was at Candlestick Park in the summer of 1966).

It could be argued that, as Jon Savage suggests in his book about the year, that 1966 was perhaps more perfect in pop terms than the more lauded 1967, and that, mutatis mutandis, 1996 was, in turn, a greater pop year than its successor. Both David Stubbs and Richard Power Sayeed (the title of whose book does rather give it away!) seem to set up the years of 1996 and 1997 as “a time of vibrancy and optimism, when the country was united by the hope of a better and brighter future’’ (quoted from the book cover). The cover of the book further rubs in the disappointment embedded in the time (from our modern-day perspective), featuring as it does yet another Blair/Gallagher portrait,, a picture of the two big-shots shaking hands at the infamous and very brief love-in between Downing Street and Brit Pop at the former address, just after the sweet Labour victory of May 1997. The future relationship of two such colossal egos was always doomed from the outset - Blair proved to be Tory-light in his economic and NHS policies (never mind about Iraq) and Gallagher steered the bloated ‘Be Here Now’ into a massive-selling dry harbour, surely one of the most-anticipated and most-rapidly-disposed-of recording project of all time? Charles Shaar Murray’s fawning praise of the album in the NME stands as one of the great Emperor’s New Clothes moments of rock journalism, and seemed somehow to sum up the febrile atmosphere of the time: ‘Cool Brittania’ was a truly asinine attempt to convince the public of the Emperor’s impressive wardrobe, but by 1998, the true state of its contents were revealed - Pulp’s ‘This Is Hardcore’ somehow signified this creative depletion more than any other recording of the time.

I haven’t read the Sayeed book yet, but these are my initial thoughts on the almanac approach to popular music criticism. From a personal point of view, this period was probably the last one in which I felt that I had a handle on the contemporary rock scene. I do wonder which post-2000 years will eventually present themselves as worthy of canonisation. Or perhaps we have moved beyond this sort of commodification now, in a post-album/download era? It seems, for example, that Kindle hasn’t replaced traditional book format, as was predicted a few years back, so who knows? There were definitely some good ‘uns from ‘97 that do help its representation as a vital year, so here are a few of my own choosing- Prrimal Scream’s ‘Vanishing Point’ (the first of a great late-90s trilogy), Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’(but ultimately an over-rated album, very much of its own time?), The Charlatan’s ‘Tellin’ Stories’, Spiritualised’s ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space’, Blur’s eponymous come-back record (the one with the speeding hospital trolley), Supergrass’s ‘In It For the Money’ and The Verve’s mighty ‘Urban Hymns’.

Not a bad bunch when you look at them.

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