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Sunday, 29 June 2008

Written in granite: Le monstre!

I've got a theory about crime fiction. If we assume, for the sake of argument only, that the genre as such can trace its roots back to Edgar Allen Poe's three stories about C. Auguste Dupin, then in some ways each of those three stories was taken as the model for the development of the genre in the first three countries to adopt it with real vim. The genre's first superstar, who still towers over it a century or so on, was created by a Scottish doctor by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle and went by the name of Sherlock Holmes. You may have heard of him. He is based on the deduction and logic used in the final Dupin story, The Purloined Letter – the idea that the best place to hide something is in full view is so Holmesian it's almost a shock to find out that it isn't. You can almost imagine it alongside "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time", "once you have eliminated the impossible", etc. And British crime writing developed from there. America, on the other hand, went down the more realistic road signposted by The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, a story based upon an actual murder mystery which had shocked New York, except that Poe transposed it to Paris.

And then there's French crime fiction. If the Americans saw Marie R and thought "hey, we recognise that story from real life! This is real, I know those mean streets, now if we could only find a man who is not himself mean..." and hey presto, Philip Marlow (OK, not hey presto, it took the best part of a century but you get my drift) and if the British admired the cool, dispassionate reasoning, ability to see past red herrings and the sheer cleverness at work in Letter then the French took one look at The Murders In The Rue Morgue and went: "woooooahhhhhhhhh! An enormous ape? Non, mais c'est dingue...Wow! What, really? An enormous APE is the murderer? No, no, no, we don't want psychological insight, we don't want to know about the traumas that led to the murders, we want more murders committed as grotesquely as possible! Oh but can someone check the locks on the cages at our zoos, please?" And who's to say they were wrong. Not me, for one.

So, while in English Sherlock Holmes ruled the consulting rooms for much of the early twentieth century, in France things were very different. And absolutely wonderful. Early 20th century French crime is among my favourite genres. In some ways it's not really crime, it's... I don't know, really, it mixes so many different things together. It most certainly picks up on the 19th century "penny dreadful" or "sensation stories" or whatever you care to call them, but it also picks up on Dumas' trick of turning history into thrilling, swashbuckling plots, incorporating plenty of Gothic elements, the interest in spiritualism of the day... Hell, it's got so many elements it can be almost bewildering, however it's always about telling an exciting story at a pace which never lets up and keeps you turning the page.

There are a number of great exponents. Outside France Gaston Leroux is known almost exclusively for The Phantom Of The Opera. Except that nobody actually knows his book, only the film, musical, etc. However Leroux also created the first, and very probably the best locked-room mystery, usually translated as The Mystery Of The Yellow Room. It is the first novel featuring his young reporter hero Rouletabille and it is a wonderful novel. Better still there are a number of translations including a fairly recent one. I must confess I've only ever read it in French so I can't comment on the quality of the translations but there's got to be at least one good one out there, I'm sure. Then there's a second Rouletabille also available in English called The Perfume Of The Lady In Black, which I read many years ago and enjoyed enormously. Then there were a number more, taking Rouletabille to Russia, amongst other places.

We should also mention the Fantômas series. It's interesting that a lot of these French books are interested in the villain as much as, if not more than the heroes. The eponymous character is an almost supernatural monster (he is referred to frequently as a monster), the first book, Fantômas, starts with him about to go to the guillotine for murder and having someone else executed in his place and then ramps the thrills up from there. The heroes are the wily old policeman Juve and another young reporter Jérôme Fandor. I don't think that it's any coincidence that Boris Akunin chose to give his hero the name Erast Fandorin in the really rather wonderful series of books set in late 19th century Russia currently being published in translation. Unusually the Fantômas books were written by two men, Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre.

However my own personal favourite is the Arsène Lupin series by Maurice Leblanc. As with so many great things, it started off as something else, pastiche, really, and came alive in its creator's hands. Conan Doyle's brother-in-law E.W. Hornung's Raffles series had been a huge hit, setting up the crime anti-hero who is still a hero. Leblanc decided to have a go at creating a French equivalent and Lupin was born. There's no attempt to hide the pastiche, so much so that at the end of the first volume of short stories, Arsène Lupin, gentleman cambrioleur, a character whose name had to be cleverly inverted so that nobody would recognise it on legal grounds makes his appearance, arriving just too late to lock horns with Lupin. In the second book in the series the two men do meet and do battle. It's cunningly entitled Arsène Lupin contre Herlock Sholmès. The early stories are great fun, but with the next book Leblanc found he had something quite different coming into being. From this point on Lupin focuses far less on crime, or at least on committing it himself, except incidentally, and starts meddling with French and European history. By 814, one of the finest novels in the sequence, he's managing to get Alsace and Lorraine (then in German hands) restored to France by the Kaiser even while he's locked up in the Santé prison in Paris. Oh and if I remember rightly he's also running the Paris police force (echoing the real story of Vidocq, the criminal turned police chief upon which Balzac had based Vautrin in several of his Comédie Humaine novels). There aren't any mean streets here and I don't think many people would see this as a reflection of real life. What it is, though, is the most tremendous fun. And it also manages to achieve something more, it takes on a kind of grandeur, the sheer scale of it. And a real poetry, a sense of past and present combining... The first book of Lupin stories is currently available in the Penguin Classics series. I do hope they'll continue and publish more of the series, especially the super sequence of The Hollow Needle, 814, The Crystal Stopper and The Confessions of Arsène Lupin. Again, I've not read the translations, and I suppose there probably is something peculiarly French about this whole genre... But then again perhaps not, because I can detect echoes of it in modern authors from various countries. I've already mentioned Boris Akunin's excellent Erast Fandorin series which began with The Winter Queen and the first half a dozen or so of which are now available in English (and here I have only read the translations as I don't speak Russian, unfortunately) and are highly recommended. But, closer to home, there are also things such as our very own Christopher Fowler's wonderful Bryant and May series, the sixth (and apparently final, although I do hope not) volume of which, The Victoria Vanishes, is due out tomorrow and of which I shall be doing my best to get a copy immediately as I've absolutely loved the previous five. Interestingly Fowler comes from a horror background, and there's something more than a little Gothic about the plots of these stories. However they remind me more than anything of the improbabilities and sheer imagination of Fantômas, Lupin and Rouletabille. More please!

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Written in granite: The Future’s Not What It Used To Be

You know where you are with Mickey Newbury. If his lyric happens to mention that it's raining (a not uncommon occurrence) then, just in case you might think this were some kind of metaphor or symbol, helpfully there's usually a sound effect of rain to reassure you that no, he really does mean that the heavens have opened. The story goes that this was to cover up tape hiss on his first album and then it became a signature. However he takes it further: if one of Mickey's characters is about to leave on a train to Saint Louis or some other location in the United States then clarification is generally provided via the tooting of a whistle, unmistakably that of a locomotive. However things are not always as they seem: I'm not sure that anyone would be fooled into thinking that the sounds employed to create the "interludes" on Frisco Mabel Joy, the album we're looking at here, are made by an actual orchestra, I always assumed they were created using some cousin of the Mellotron or another such odd early seventies ancestor of the modern sampler, but actually it turns out they were crafted painstakingly out of pedal steel and other guitars with distortion pedals and the like. It's another signature sound.

The other thing about Frisco Mabel Joy is that it is the only one of Newbury's first few Elektra albums NOT to feature the song whence it takes its title, San Francisco Mabel Joy. Like Domenico Modugno, who we looked at a few weeks ago, Mickey enthusiastically covered his own early songs – and with songs like those you can hardly blame either of them. And then he had the truly wonderful idea of creating one of his most famous songs without having to go to the trouble of actually writing it. FMJ opens with An American Trilogy. You'll know the Elvis Presley version – as far as I'm aware even Colonel Parker didn't have the gall to insist on Elvis getting a writing credit on this one, presumably he simply sat back and admired Mickey's never at stringing together three traditional American songs known to everyone but usefully out of copyright, calling them An American Trilogy, registering them as a new composition and then sitting back and watching the cheques roll in... And I, for one, don't begrudge him a penny. Because, apart from anything else, Mickey does manage to create something new out of it and Elvis is very definitely covering Mickey's composition rather than recording the three traditional songs.

The album then continues with Mickey revisiting an earlier song, How Many Times (Must The Piper Be Paid For His Song). This is the definitive reading and it sets the tone for the rest of the album which sounds deceptively sparse until you actually listen to how tightly packed the instrumentation is to create this illusion. That's followed by the first Interlude in the middle of the original side one of the vinyl LP, reprising melodic ideas from elsewhere, before sliding into The Future's Not What It Used To Be, an archetypal Newbury song, a narrative although, as so often with Mickey's stories, I sometimes feel as though he's cut out several key verses so I've no idea what's going on. The acme of this phenomenon is the song San Francisco Mabel Joy, about which I'd love to be able to put a few questions about the precise sequence of events. Next up is Mobile Blue, closing the original side one. Side two opens with one of the high points, Frisco Depot, a song of such delicate beauty it simply starts and stops. Like the whole album it's beautifully recorded, doesn't need drums, and the sound effects are wonderful. Side two does manage to better even side one, great though that is, You're Not My Sweet Baby is one of Mickey's wonderful songs about a relationship that has perhaps seen better days (he has a few of these...) and is then followed by side two's Interlude. These interludes work very well in giving the album a unified identity which is key to its effect. Then come a pair of truly great songs, Remember The Good, one of Mickey's finest ballads and even better, Swiss Cottage Place, I believe this draws on Mickey's memories of being stationed with the US Air Force in the UK, then the album finishes on a wonderfully off-kilter note with the old-timey How I Love Them Old Songs (grammar, Mickey!)

However the key thing is the cumulative effect of the album as a whole. It's probably fitting that An American Trilogy is at the beginning as it probably has tended to overshadow the rest of it, in actual fact I find that the meat of the album takes place between the end of Trilogy and the beginning of How I Love... and it's superb. Stories are told, webs are woven and musically it's a beautifully coherent record; the constant, holding it all together, is Mickey's own unique picking style and his gorgeously emotive voice, but then working around it there is musicianship of the very highest and subtlest standard. There are all sorts of sounds worked into the tapestry and yet they all fit together beautifully. I believe the album was recorded cheaply, hence they couldn't afford string or brass players, or even to hire in a Mellotron, but they do seem to have had time, so they improvised and created those strange pre-synthetic, approximations using the pedal steel guitar's ability both to control attack and decay and to create portamento...

It's also probably Mickey's strongest collection of songs, although he did write more great songs both before and after this album than you could shake a stick at. I've also always loved the original vinyl sleeve, which had a cut out in the middle so that, when you put the inner sleeve in the right way around, Mickey's photo showed through, like a frame. I'm not sure whether the album is still available on CD. Personally I have it as one of the disks in The Mickey Newbury Collection, a deluxe boxed set of his Elektra albums (10 albums on 8 CDs, if I remember rightly), all with replica vinyl sleeves – although they don't quite manage to replicate their full glory, you don't get that inner sleeve effect I just mentioned, for instance, together with a very informative booklet including all the lyrics and articles about the great man. Personally I think those first few albums are utterly superb and the latter ones pretty much all feature at least the odd gem. We might look at some of them at a later date. For instance side one of I Came To Hear The Music is stunning, featuring as it does both the wonderful title track (recently recorded by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy on his Ask Forgiveness EP) and If You See Her, one of Mickey's very, very finest songs which a group of my acquaintance called The Palace Of Light used to cover back in the late eighties. Mickey Newbury was one of the great songwriters of the twentieth century, above all he was a writer from the heart, you'd have to look a very long way to find a more honest body of work. Or one that's more emotionally affecting and full of humanity. The Mickey Newbury Collection is available from the CD store section of the official Mickey Newbury website and is an incredible bargain at just US$100 – especially to people outside of the US. For instance that's under £50 to discerning UK customers. It was rather more than that when I bought my copy, some years ago, but worth every last penny. Mickey Newbury died in 2002 and is sorely missed.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Written in granite: Napoleon Symphony


 


 

I was probably about 15 or 16 when I started reading "literature" rather than just books. I had read a few pieces of literature before then without knowing it, plus a few things which are borderline, depending how snobbish one [sic] chooses to be about these things, e.g. are the Sherlock Holmes stories literature or mere "genre fiction"? I mean, when they were written detective fiction didn't really exist as a genre, did it? Nobody calls Bleak House a genre novel even though that has a detective and mysteries galore. My reading was always fairly haphazard, still is. However there are a couple of novels that I certainly read when I was 15-16 and which were high on concept in a way which now seems to be affecting my own work in terms of the way I approach lyrics. One of these, of course, is Joyce's Ulysses, the greatest of all "day in the life" works of art and one of the longest shadows cast over literature in the 20th century. I've got an idea for a future piece on "day in the life" works which is brewing for a subsequent piece so we'll perhaps look at that in more depth then. The other high-concept book which has for some reason stuck in my mind, and fed directly into the writing of a song for the Granite Shore album, is Anthony Burgess' The Napoleon Symphony which I read around the same time. I can't remember whether I'd read any of Burgess' other novels at that point. I think I had probably read A Clockwork Orange which is in many ways his attempt at a Joycean novel (although it can be argued that most of Burgess' work fits into that category), or if not I certainly read it soon afterwards, and I'm also pretty confident that I'd read Earthly Powers which would at the time have been a pretty recent novel. Personally I think it's also his greatest work, at least of the half a dozen or so I've read. Indeed I've read it at least three times and enjoyed it immensely on each occasion. Tellingly it is, in many ways, the least Joycean. It's a rollicking good story, although full of Burgess' customary fireworks. The Napoleon Symphony is not his finest book, not by a long chalk, and it's certainly not in the same league as something like Ulysses, indeed I remember finding it a little dull whereas although the first time I read Joyce's masterpiece I found it bewildering, infuriating and often baffling, it was never, ever dull. However I loved the concept of NS. It's a fictionalised account of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte in four parts the respective structures of which are based upon those of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3. The nice touch here is that this symphony, now best-known as Eroica, was originally dedicated to Bonaparte, although the composer was so furious and disillusioned when his hero proclaimed himself Emperor that he changed the dedication to "Sinfonia eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire d'un grand'uomo" ("Heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man", suggesting that the great German composer's hero was dead to him).

A couple of years ago I had the vaguest glimmering of an idea for a lyric. Originally I thought it was going to be about a woman who had "come down in the world" and was alone because her husband was in prison. At some point, for reasons I can no longer recall (might've been something to do with a "Napoleon of crime"...) I decided that her name was either Josephine or that she was known as "the Empress". At some point I also made the discovery that Saint Helen is the patron saint of, amongst other things, difficult marriages, divorces and... empresses! From such acorns to songs grow. Obviously Napoleon died on the island of St Helena so connections were emerging. Even a very early attempt at a lyric set the story in the town of St Helens in northern England, although in the final version this is merely alluded to as a "northern rugby town". However, as often happens, the lyric didn't initially work out. I made various attempts to write that story but it wasn't the right one. So I set it aside and worked on other things. Even so, the underlying concept was starting to map itself out in my unconscious: it'd be a story which would be loosely structured around key moments in the life of the late French Emperor. A few other little correspondences asserted themselves and were noted down for later use. For instance if St Helena = St Helens I needed something similar for Elba, and the British town with the closest name I could think of was the Welsh one of Ebbw Vale.

Other ideas that I amassed included that of a reference to ABBA's breakthrough, Eurovision-winning hit Waterloo, which in some ways does something very similar, using the titular battle as a metaphor. ABBA's early lyrics tend to be very hit or miss, either they're wonderful or dreadful, Waterloo is one of the wonderful ones, with several fantastic lines. A particular favourite of mine has always been "the history book on the shelf/It's almost repeating itself" but I was unable to work that into things. But by this point I had some definite structural ideas and I'd also done some research and had drawn up a list of facts about Napoleon on which I could draw.

Then towards the end of 2007 I hit upon a different idea for the apparent main story. This one focussed not on "the Empress" but on a different character. Initially my idea was that he was a formerly famous rock star who'd fallen on hard times but felt he was on the verge of a big comeback. So I tried to write that but again it didn't quite work out, I couldn't quite get everything to tie up. Then I thought that maybe he was an actor rather than a rock star... This made some bits that'd previously been messy work really well but on the other hand it spoilt a few others that had previously been good. So in the end I decided that I'd leave it up to the listener to work out who he was. My own feeling is that he's perhaps someone from the seventies, a time when there was lots of crosstalk between rock music and the theatre, with people like Bowie, Alice Cooper, etc. "playing characters" (and, of course, plenty of singing actors)... You make your own minds up about that. Like Burgess' novel, the song is in four parts, although mine is out of sequence. The way I see it is this: Verse 1: St Helena (St Helens); Verse 2: The glory years, the Revolution, First Consul ("first [mixing] console", I love a bad pun...!); Middle section: Elba (Ebbw Vale) and Verse 3: Waterloo. However the structure is fairly loose, in the end it's a bit more like the way Joyce hangs Ulysses broadly on the framework of The Odyssey than a mere updating of the story as a "modern adaptation" or something. So there's a reference to the "100 days" (though they become "just one hundred nights" in the song) in the middle of verse 1 and there are other things out of sequence. However another way of looking at the sequencing of events is that it's a kind of internal monologue (back to Ulysses here, then...) and the character is recollecting events... Again, the idea here was to leave at least a certain amount open to interpretation.

I then started working in some of the ideas I'd noted down. For instance it became clear to me that the "Elba = Ebbw Vale" correspondence worked beautifully because, aside from the sonority of the names, and with the greatest respect to the people of that locality, it also represents "the provinces". The line is "exiled to Ebbw Vale, before the juggler..." and it's both a reference to Napoleon's brief period of imprisonment upon the island of Elba and an indication that our modern protagonist finds himself having fallen a long way from headlining in the West End (or playing stadium gigs), he no longer even merits a place on the bill above a juggling act! OK, and yes, that did lead me naturally on to the next line about "reduced to dealings with a lower class of smuggler", suggesting a commensurate scaling back of the quality, if not the quantity, of the gentleman in question's recreational pharmaceutical activities...

I don't want to spoil people's fun by dissecting it all – hopefully there are people out there who'll get at least some pleasure out of finding all the clues, allusions and references... and even if not I had enormous fun putting them all in there. I don't think I'm giving too much away in saying that the last line is crucial – I often have the final line of a song months before I have much else. This one is a hefty allusion to the aforementioned ABBA song, although I do hope I won't be getting calls from Swedish lawyers. It took a lot of work to get this to gel, I knew that I wanted the last line to be that "in quite a similar way" but it needed to make sense. I hope it does, to at least some extent, as it's the key to the whole thing, the fact that, although I didn't get to say it, that history book on that Swedish (Ikea, no doubt) shelf really is almost repeating itself.

I've scattered one or two visual clues across this page, they're all relevant although some are central whereas others are kippers of a somewhat crimson hue. Nevertheless, they do all make at least an appearance of some kind in the song. I hope that a few of you will have at least some fun with this.


 

Download an early version of Greasepaint and grapeshot by The Granite Shore in MP3 format here. The lyrics are available on the Greasepaint and grapeshot page of the Granite Shore website.


 

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Written in granite: Hard Attack

I suppose most of the records we've looked at lately have been... well, perhaps more lyrical (in both senses) and, by the very nature of the project, there's been a certain English or at least British bias. So I think it's about time we redressed the balance a little bit and looked at something very, very different.

When people write histories of punk, post-punk, post-post-punk and all those other things with more post than Mount Pleasant sorting office in Islington where... but that's another story... When they write these histories the party line generally is that although the first British punk record was The Damned's New Rose and then things like the Pistols' Anarchy In The UK, the Buzzcocks' Spiral Scratch EP et al, there had been a few American records out which had already broken with the past to at least some extent. Although not necessarily in chronological order as I can't be arsed to look it up: the first Ramones album, obviously. Television's Little Johnny Jewel single, Patti Smith's first two albums, Pere Ubu's early singles, maybe the first Talking Heads single (although, like Television, the Heads were essentially pre-punk post-punk, if you catch my drift), then odd things like Richard Hell... and in Australia The Saints' phenomenal (I'm) Stranded... There are others, not that many, and most of them were essentially groups who liked The Stooges and the MC5 or had picked up on the New York Dolls. They were generally backward rather than forward-looking; they'd become sick of the excesses of the early to mid seventies and so they'd looked back to basic rock 'n' roll.

However one record almost always seems to get overlooked, even though it's actually the most extreme of the lot. Now don't get me wrong, I adore those early Ubu singles and they are utterly extraordinary. But MX-80 Sound's 1975 EP Big Hits in many way trumps them all. It's more extreme and, in a lot of ways, far more of a punk record. For a start there's the fact that this is a 7" EP containing seven songs and lasting for well under 14 minutes. Three of the seven songs are under well 2 minutes. The sound is dense, the vocals are sardonic in a way that would later become de rigueur... Like Ubu there's an obvious Beefheart influence and you can hear some early Mothers of Invention here too. The guitars and overall production are reminiscent of the Velvets' White Light/White Heat more than anything else.

After self-releasing Big Hits (yes, a 1975 independent EP), MX-80 found themselves courted by two major labels and coincidentally by two A&R men with the same surname, Thompson. One was Howard Thompson, at Island in the UK... This was back in the days when there were some A&R men who actually loved music and signed groups that excited them. How on earth either Thompson ever managed to convince anyone that MX-80 Sound might be the Next Big Thing back in 1976 is beyond me, but they both clearly did. We know all this because the story is recounted in Man On The Move, the opening track on the band's astonishing debut album, Hard Attack, released on Island in 1977. I must first have heard it a year or so later and even then it sounded far more extreme than almost anything I'd heard. However Hard Attack had an obviously problem in falling into an abyss between two stools: it was way too weird, uncommercial and downright unpleasant to appeal to conventional music fans but unfortunately punks were put off by the fact that these blokes could clearly play their instruments far too well. The sheer technical ability on display is breathtaking, not to mention sometimes rather insulting: the guitar lines played during verses are frequently of mind-bending complexity and then when the solo comes up you get something so dumb as to be practically a slap in the face. Not that there are a lot of solos. Oh, and did I mention that by the time of the album MX-80 had two drummers? And not Glitter Band-style, where both thump out the same pounding beat, no, this was jazz-style, where they play off one another. The other obvious influences in MX-80 are free jazz: there's certainly plenty of Ornette Coleman in there.

The album opens, as I say, with Man On The Move: "there's a Thompson in England and there's one in L.A./Both want more tapes but now who's gonna pay?" So yes, it pretty much explains how the music business works. The guitars are abrasive, the sound is murky, the beats off-kilter and God is it heavy. That's followed by Kid Stuff, all about an American pastime enjoying some vogue at the time, the kidnapping of heiresses. It stutters then twists and turns, the two drummers weaving in and out of one another's patterns and bits of organ stabbing away in the background. Side one is faultless, a personal favourite being Crushed Ice which is, ahem, about some of the more outré leisure possibilities afforded by household appliances. Side two is mainly slightly longer pieces, I'm particularly fond of Facts – Facts in which our protagonist finds himself stranded in a library with only the letter "L" for company, thus providing us with a great deal of fascinating information such as the fact that "lacrosse is the only truly American sport". Now I didn't know that – I'd've put the number of truly American sports somewhat lower. The whole album is... well, that word again, but there's no avoiding it: dense. I suppose in some ways this is slightly closer to the "post-punk jazz" stylings of later outfits such as the Lounge Lizards or James Chance, but it's so much heavier. The only things I've really heard since that are even faintly reminiscent are nineties metal – but this is way further out there than the Queens Of The Stone Age (as well as being 20 years earlier). Maybe MX-80 are heroes to those groups? If they're not then they certainly ought to be. That's the thing: hardly anyone seems to have even heard of MX-80. At the time there were a few of us who absolutely adored these records, but whereas with almost everything else we adored at the time, I've since met people from elsewhere in the country who go all misty-eyed over early Ubu (and Ubu's influence should never be underestimated: this was precisely where real punks looked once they got bored of people pretending that after playing the guitar every day for 6 months, with 50+ gigs behind them, they still only knew 3 chords), or who got into The Fall at the same time as I did – or earlier if they're from the North-West – then adored the Blue Orchids... They don't ever seem to know Hard Attack.

I don't know an awful lot about MX-80 Sound other than the records. I've got a 1990s CD which features all of Big Hits and Hard Attack plus an outtake from the latter. Then I've still got my vinyl, including a copy of their second album, Out Of The Tunnel which, logically enough, was released on the Residents' Ralph Records. It's also pretty damned good, although it's a little bit trebly and has lost some of that density. There was a third album, called Out Of Control, I think, and a live album recorded, appropriately enough, in a library.

I've just done a bit of googling and it would seem that I'm right. I've found a site here and apparently they're a going concern, variously described as "Art/Metal", "Avant rock" and various combinations of these terms. They're selling CD-Rs of the albums and I strongly recommend them. I must pick up the ones I don't have or only have on vinyl and I'll be fascinated to hear what they sound like now.

My research suggests that I'm right and that they've at least to some extent been adopted by the metallic fraternity. It's a funny thing; there used to be real friction between punks and heavy metal freaks... Not as much as between certain other groups, admittedly, but metal always seemed so closed to outside influences, so completely self-centred. Then gradually, over time, it's as though the roles became reversed. So-called punk turned into a self-parody (see above) and all the key people had moved on to pastures new – which was supposed to be the point, at least as I understood it. On the other hand metal seems to have broadened its horizons considerably over the years. Apart from obviously taking lots of punk on board (and musically the two are very close relatives), through grunge – essentially a hybrid – and on to the point where nowadays there are far more interesting things going on in the various genres including the word "metal" than in those including the word "punk". Of late I've been listening to so-called "post-metal" outfits such as Pelican and Isis – Pelican are an instrumental band, for goodness' sake, they're heavy but arty, Isis for me are at their best when they're doing this kind of thing, I'm less keen on the "Good evening everyone... Satan's the name and I've quite literally got a frog in my throat. Along with several larger reptiles and a stoat. Grrrrrrrr...." vocals that some of these groups occasionally indulge in. Then I've become very fond of some so-called "drone" rock, which is also rooted in metal... Now, though, many of these groups have clearly been as influenced by Joy Division as they have by Deep Purple. No, what am I saying? JD look to be a much bigger influence than DP. It does look and sound as though a lot of these groups have picked up on the MX-80 "roadblock of sound". I've just dug out a QOTSA album and guess what? It's not as dense, it's a lot more commercial, glossier production, the vocals aren't as sardonic, the lyrics nowhere near as off-beam, but it's got some MX-80 somewhere in its DNA. As has a lot of the harder end of modern rock.


 

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