I wanted to include an index at the back of the book, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough room. However, you can download the index here.
I was never much good at chemistry at school. My teacher, Mr Grove, was a nice guy and, to the best of my recollection, was also an accomplished concert pianist. He may even have been a descendant of George Grove of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians fame, I have no idea. But he had his work cut out in my case, and I crashed out of O-level chemistry with an ignominious E, the lowest possible grade.
While two of my favourite groups, Shearwater and Van der Graaf Generator, have frequently drawn on themes related to biology and physics respectively,1 the role of chemistry in music has perhaps been undervalued. Up until now AMM’s The Nameless Uncarved Block, with its three long tracks “Sedimentary”, “Igneous” and “Metamorphic”, has stood as the last word in what can only be described as rock music.
All that could be about to change, however, with the release of Cucina Povera & ELS’ The Oystercatcher on Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego label. The title sounds like it could have come from the pen of Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg (an accomplished ornithologist as well as a great songwriter). A close reading of the album, however, reveals that the duo of Maria Rossi (vox) and Edward Simpson (modular synth) are more concerned with the inanimate than with the animate. Opening track “Mantle” (the layer of rock between the earth’s crust and its core) sets the scene for the rest of the album, with Rossi’s multitracked vocals layered ominously over Simpson’s tenebrous synth tones.
The Finnish-born, Glasgow-based Rossi has released three solo albums as Cucina Povera prior to the present release. As a vocalist, she recalls Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance in her use of an outwardly unrecognizable language. As far as I can tell, she doesn’t sing actual words but she doesn’t use her voice as a pure sound source either. The implication is that she’s wired into some private, occult discourse, the language of spells and incantations (one track is titled “Loitsu”, the Finnish word for incantation). But where Gerrard soars blissfully towards some imagined paradise, Rossi’s closely-miked singing is resolutely earthbound, mired in gravity and density.
Simpson, meanwhile, has form as one half of Circuit Breaker, an avant rock duo that has recorded for the Harbinger Sound label and thereby forged links with kindred spirits such as Sleaford Mods and Consumer Electronics. On this album he creates a series of unquiet, disturbed soundscapes, with phased tones that modulate from cavernous bass rumbles to glinting mid-range frequencies. “1427°C” (the temperature at which glass melts, apparently) is a shivery chorale for electronics and voice, while “Marmori” (also a Finnish word, this time for marble) effortlessly evokes the cold, smooth surface of the eponymous rock with its undulating synth patterns.
The undoubted highlight, though, is the 15-minute closing track “Eon”, on which the restrained beauty of Rossi’s voice is gradually bent and twisted out of shape by Simpson’s malevolent presence. Forgoing the finely balanced symmetry between voice and electronics that characterizes the rest of the album, here Simpson engineers an assaultive laboratory of sound that confronts and finally obliterates everything in its path.2 Beset by malign dissonance and scalding eruptions of noise, the song turns inward on itself, looking for an escape route but finding none.
1. Not to mention the epic Nick Cave song “Higgs Boson Blues”, with its repeated riff on my hometown and the location of CERN, where the eponymous particle was discovered: “I’m driving my car down to Geneva…” Is this the only mention of Geneva in song?
2. It’s no surprise to learn that The Oystercatcher was mastered for release by noise guru Russell Haswell.
It’s been thirteen long years since the last Einstürzende Neubauten album Alles Wieder Offen, but the boys from Berlin have been far from inactive in the meantime. There was Lament, not a proper album but the soundtrack to a site-specific performance piece, and the ironically titled, beautifully sequenced Greatest Hits set, around which the group have been on a more or less never-ending tour since 2015 or so. I saw them three times on this tour, in Munich (2015), Krems (2017) and Geneva (2018). As mightily impressive as those shows were, it was clearly time to switch things up a bit, there having been no new studio material since 2007.
Alles in Allem is the outcome, the result of a vigorous crowdfunding campaign with rewards for donors of “exclusive content” such as 7” singles, webcasts, videos of Blixa Bargeld cooking and goodness knows what else. In the first place, it’s time to nail the canard put about by Bargeld in numerous interviews that Neubauten, specifically Bargeld’s wife Erin Zhu, invented the crowdfunding model. The first Neubauten crowdfunding campaign was in 2002, but neo-prog also-rans Marillion had already done the same thing two years earlier. I hold no brief for Marillion, but credit where it’s due.
I don’t have a problem with crowdfunding per se, although all this talk of “making a record without record company backing” does make me wonder exactly what is new here. Musicians have been producing and releasing albums themselves – self-publishing, essentially – ever since the 1960s (various folk and psych private pressings), 1970s (Throbbing Gristle, Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch) and 1980s (Current 93, Nurse with Wound, Whitehouse, etc). These people managed to get their music out into the world without recourse to crowdfunding, so it’s certainly possible to make an album without record company support and without relying on this particular model.
The problem with Einstürzende Neubauten’s take on the crowdfunding model is that it partially cedes creative control of the project to the donors (my preferred term for what Neubauten refer to as ‘supporters’) – the very last people, in my view, who should be allowed anywhere near the creative process. As part of the recording for Alles in Allem Bargeld called up randomly selected donors and asked them to suggest words or phrases which he would then incorporate into the lyrics. I must admit, I find it quite staggering that a writer of the standing of Bargeld, a man whose dazzlingly clever texts are steeped in the German Romantic literary tradition, should now deem it appropriate to go about the business of songwriting in this way. (And yes, I’m well aware of the aleatoric ‘Dave’ system used by the group and of their alignment with the Dada artistic movement, neither of which have any bearing on this new practice.) What we end up with is the spectacle of Bargeld declaring “Here comes Ten Grand Goldie” with evident glee, while the rest of us are left scratching our collective heads and wondering what Bargeld, or more precisely some bloke from Stockholm, is on about.
The good news is that “Ten Grand Goldie” is a barnstorming opener that fairly crackles with energy, a loopy and likeable song with splashes of funky brass and organ. The rest of the album, by contrast, is mostly slow and reflective, reaching deep into central European folk traditions and powered by the insistent throb of NU Unruh and Rudolf Moser’s percussive architecture. Jochen Arbeit’s sleek, understated guitar work and the lowering bass of Alexander Hacke construct the spaces within which Bargeld sings, his rich and sumptuous voice tenderly evoking the German word Sehnsucht that underpins all of Neubauten’s work, fusing nostalgia, longing, regret and destruction. The one discordant note is struck by “Zivilisatorisches Missgeschick”, a delirious lurch of a song that, recalling the group’s legendary early days, features the unmistakable sound of the power drill.
Those who pay close attention to Alles in Allem will come to realize that it’s actually a psychogeographical exploration of the city of Berlin, and specifically of the West Berlin in which Neubauten were birthed in 1980. Wandering from the district of Wedding in the north to Friedenau in the south, via the Liechtensteinbrücke, the Landwehrkanal and the Grazer Damm, Bargeld traces a path through streets shot through with shadows, ghosts and fading memories. Flickering field recordings and sounds carved from Neubauten’s historic arsenal of metal instruments, many of them sourced from Berlin junkyards, mark the route of Bargeld’s dérive. He ends up at the disused Tempelhof airfield, lost and alone, the unlikely but perfect strains of cello and harp his only companion.
Like most people, I imagine, my introduction to Lucinda Williams came via her breakthrough 1998 album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. As a long-time Cowboy Junkies fan the alt.country associations were always going to be enough to draw me in, although Williams was clearly a rawer, tougher proposition than the Junkies ever were. Nevertheless Car Wheels was to become one of my favourite albums of the 1990s, overflowing as it was with winning melodies, heartfelt lyrics, thrilling flights of guitar and the sultry drawl of Williams’ voice.
Doubling back, I swiftly picked up her self-titled 1988 album and 1992’s Sweet Old World, finding in both of them evidence of a rich, deeply rewarding talent. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that I had never visited the American South of which Williams sang, I was entranced by her vivid, Carveresque descriptions of those places, the people who passed through them, their losses and gains and the turns they took. What really sealed the deal, though, was the way that these chronicles were given such gorgeously varied musical expression. An intoxicating blend of fragile ballads, raucous rockers and gritty blues episodes, Williams’ music seemed to embody the hurt, broken and undaunted attitudes that dwelt within her songs.
Williams was a perfectionist back then, which accounts in part for the six-year gap between Sweet Old World and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. As is by now fairly well known, the first version of Car Wheels, recorded with her long-time producer Gurf Morlix, was trashed in favour of a completely re-recorded version with Springsteen keyboardist Roy Bittan at the controls. I have a copy of the Morlix version, and the difference is striking; it’s clearly of a piece with Sweet Old World, laced with the same hesitancy that pervades that record and makes it the least essential of Williams’ early albums. The Bittan version is a different beast entirely, and proves Williams’ instincts true: it has a radio-friendly punch and immediacy largely absent from the original. It was a trend continued on Williams’ next two albums, 2001’s Essence and 2003’s World Without Tears, both of which contain some of her greatest songs.
I’ve only seen Lucinda Williams live once, at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2003. I can’t remember much about that show, to be honest. I would have seen her again in 2005, since I had tickets to see her at Shepherd’s Bush, but her entire European tour that year was postponed until the following year. By the time the rescheduled tour rolled around to London in November 2006, I had moved to Vienna and thus missed the rescheduled date. Of course, that was the night Bruce Springsteen joined her onstage for the encore, and the fact that I wasn’t there has rankled with me ever since. (Still, at least Williams rescheduled the tour. I still haven’t forgiven The Hold Steady for not rescheduling their entire 2008 European tour, thereby robbing me of my one and only opportunity to see them.)
If Williams’ early records represented a thoroughly modern take on Gram Parsons’ vision of Cosmic American Music, it’s been frustrating to me, as a long-time fan, to see her direction heading stubbornly earthward on every album since 2007’s patchy West (which did, however, contain in “What If” perhaps her most sublime song ever). The run from 2008’s dire Little Honey to 2016’s The Ghosts of Highway 20 has seen Williams progressively shed her country influences in favour of a blunt, rabble-rousing style that relies heavily on awkwardly confessional lyrics (“Oh, my little honey bee/I’m so glad you stung me/Now I’ve got your honey/All over my tummy” – yeah, thanks Lu) and uninspired rock workouts.
The other problem, unfortunately, is the ageing of Williams’ singing voice. On her early albums that sultry drawl was tempered with a sweetness and lightness of tone, but that has gradually disappeared and now it’s all drawl, compounded by an unpleasant slurring of the words that strips the songs of whatever communicative impulse they may once have possessed. This Sweet Old World, an entirely unnecessary 2017 re-recording of Sweet Old World, is unlistenable for this reason.
Which brings me to the reason why I’m writing this article, Lucinda Williams’ new album Good Souls Better Angels. I really wanted to like this album, but it’s an ugly slog for the most part, devoid of the shade and nuance that made Lucinda Williams and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road so essential. The apocalyptic anti-Trump tirade “Man Without A Soul” is an early highlight, with scorching guitar courtesy of Stuart Mathis, but Williams soon lapses into routine and cliché. “Big Black Train” is a dull ballad built around stock lyrical tropes, “Wakin’ Up” a rote evisceration of an abusive relationship and “Big Rotator” (there’s an awful lot of bigness here) a pedestrian rocker crippled by squally guitar and lumbering drums. By the time the limp “Good Souls” comes along to round off the album, I’m exhausted. Lucinda Williams has comprehensively lost her way, but I’ll always have Car Wheels on a Gravel Road to remind me of what an outstanding talent she once was.
Most people, if they know Cowboy Junkies at all, came to them via what I am duty-bound to call their “sophomore” album, 1988’s The Trinity Session. Famously recorded live in a Toronto church off a single microphone, the album has become the group’s most popular and enduring recording for its hushed ambience, its inspired mix of covers and originals and, in particular, its definitive take on The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”. True to form, though, I was slow to wake up to the group, and only got on the bus with the follow-up, 1990’s The Caution Horses. But it was that record, which I regard as not only better than The Trinity Session but as Cowboy Junkies’ best album ever, that made me a fan of the group for life. It’s remarkable that they’re still here 30 years later, still with the same line-up and still making albums of impeccable quality, of which Ghosts is just the latest. The album had a very specific gestation, of which more in a moment. First, though, and since this is primarily a blog about live concerts, a little reminiscence.
Although Cowboy Junkies are still an active live group, it’s been many years since I last saw them. Culturally speaking, I suspect that alt.country is not a particularly good fit in Austria and Switzerland, the two countries where I’ve lived for the past fifteen years. The group are still very popular in the UK, though, and indeed I saw them several times in London and Brighton in the 1990s and early 2000s. I remember two such occasions very well, in sharply contrasting venues. In 1992 they played the Royal Albert Hall on the Black-Eyed Man tour, and very effectively took control of that beautiful yet cavernous venue.
Four years later, on the back of the superb Lay It Down album, I saw the group at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden, north-west London. The other week I wrote about 1990s London being my golden age of concert-going, and indeed the Mean Fiddler and its adjoining Acoustic Room was a place I returned to time and time again. The fact that Cowboy Junkies were playing such a small venue was certainly not a sign of their appeal becoming more selective, since the show was sold out many times over. Instead I seem to remember it was part of a week of special concerts by artists who normally played much larger venues, and indeed my recently unearthed 1996 gig diary confirms that I saw The Divine Comedy (another group who could normally be relied upon to fill much larger venues than the Mean Fiddler) the day after the Junkies concert. Queueing up outside the Mean Fiddler before the concert in order to get a good spot (a habit I retain to this day), it was a very pleasant surprise to see all four members of the group walk out of the venue, no doubt on their way to some pre-concert meal or other. My copy of Lay It Down was duly signed.
Fast forward 24 years and Cowboy Junkies are back with a new album, Ghosts, currently available only on streaming services. The story goes that, shortly after the release of 2018’s excellent All That Reckoning album, the mother of the Timmins siblings (who together make up three-quarters of Cowboy Junkies) sadly passed away. In the aftermath of her passing, the group started working on a batch of new songs that, in their words, “deal with the ultimate reckoning, the reckoning that comes with the death of a loved one and the reassessing that one goes through as one tries to process such a loss.” The original intention was to release these songs as part of a double vinyl set along with a remastered and reissued All That Reckoning. With Covid-19 putting paid to that plan, the group decided to release the new songs anyway.
Musically, Ghosts breaks little new ground for Cowboy Junkies. The group’s sound is still built around Margo Timmins’ gorgeous voice, which slides like honey over Michael Timmins’ emotionally wrought guitar and Peter Timmins’ unerring percussion. “Slides like honey”, by the way, is in reference to Neil Young’s famous “honey slides”, a snooze-inducing combination of marijuana and honey that was apparently consumed heavily during the On The Beach sessions. Not that I’ve ever tried one, but I’d like to think that the effect of this concoction is not unlike the narcotized bliss of Cowboy Junkies at their most mellow. Check out, by the way, their magnificent cover of one of my favourite Neil Young songs, “Helpless”, on the bonus disc of 2004’s One Soul Now.
Lyrically, too, there are no major surprises in store. Michael Timmins has long been one of the most profoundly literate and affecting lyricists in rock, his texts resonant with absence, loss and regret. And here in these songs Timmins speaks bravely and eloquently about one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can undergo, the death of a parent. As Margo sings with paralysing self-doubt on “Desire Lines”: “Was it love that drew us in? Was it love that she’d impart? All I know is that these ghosts, piece by piece, are pulling me apart.” Elsewhere, the sepulchral, piano-led “Breathing” could almost serve as an epitaph for those lost to Covid-19: “I watched your chest and stomach heaving, I know this is not right.” Of course, the group also know how to cut loose when they want to. “(You Don’t Get To) Do It Again” is a fiery rocker with an insanely catchy refrain and searing guitar from Timmins, while “This Dog Barks” is marked by furious riffing and hectic fiddle work.
The problem is that at just over 30 minutes long, the album feels frustratingly slight. What’s more, of its eight tracks, two are basically superfluous. One song, “The Possessed”, was already released on the CD, but not the vinyl version, of All That Reckoning – which is presumably why it’s now been added to what was originally planned as a vinyl-only release. Lyrically chilling, its presence on Ghosts nevertheless feels unearned due to its piffling ukulele accompaniment – an objection that applies even more forcefully to the album’s closer, “Ornette Coleman”, which has the dubious distinction of being possibly the most inconsequential song Cowboy Junkies have ever put their name to. The rest is fine stuff, although it will certainly make more sense in its originally intended form as an appendix to All That Reckoning than it does as an album in its own right.
Having experienced one of my best concert-going experiences of last year with The Necks at AMR, it was a no-brainer to pick up their latest and (by my reckoning) 16th album, Three. The album contains three tracks, and The Necks have three members. What’s more, the three tracks all clock in at around the 21-22 minute mark and hence would fit perfectly on a side of vinyl (although the album is, for the moment at least, only available on CD). All of this may or may not be coincidental.
As is by now well known, The Necks’ live performances are an accretive, totally improvised mix of piano, bass and drums, developing over the course of two 45-50 minute sets from quiet soloing to full trio sections. In the studio the group take a variety of different approaches, including other instruments being overdubbed. I’m certainly not familiar with their whole body of work, but Three seems as good a place to start as any.
Opening track “Bloom” in particular roams far from the blueprint of the group’s live style, based as it is on a blistering percussive attack, virtually unidentifiable in origin but presumably the handiwork of drummer Tony Buck. This mysterious, truculent force threatens to overwhelm the whole piece, but is finally kept in check by the diamond-hard pianistics of Chris Abrahams and by Lloyd Swanton’s seething bass runs. Occasional, exceedingly subtle sounds coming from what sounds like an analogue synthesizer only serve to deepen the mood of furrowed intensity that sustains the piece. There’s something truly miraculous about “Bloom”, a hinting at transcendence that stems (no pun intended) from its relentless forward motion and its extended durational perspective. Which is just another way of saying: it rocks.
Things get taken down several notches on “Lovelock”, a tribute to the late Damien Lovelock of the Australian group Celibate Rifles. This piece has an eerie, almost Nurse With Wound-like ambience, haunted by flickering chimes and ominous percussive interventions. Stricken by grief and loss, “Lovelock” barely manages to sustain a pulse, yet grips the listener with spare, incisive drum rolls from Buck and ghostly piano from Abrahams. From the murk and gloom there emerges a quiet, lovingly etched memorial to a departed friend.
If “Bloom” highlights The Necks’ avant rock tendencies, while “Lovelock” nods towards their industrial and dark ambient influences, then “Further” illustrates why the group still have one foot in the jazz tradition. Yet it’s a take on jazz like no other, with Abrahams’ shimmering piano positioned at shifting angles to Swanton’s sinuous bass riffing and Buck’s magisterially driven percussion. Recalling “Bloom”’s dense mosaic of sound, here Buck transmits a tense rhythmic foundation that flows seductively through the piece’s 21 minutes. Guitar and Hammond organ weave hazily in and out, as if reanimated by the group’s insistence on duration. Indeed, it’s this urge towards reanimation that goes to the heart not only of “Further” but of Three as a whole. Constantly transforming yet enduring as three into one, The Necks continue to amaze and delight.
Out of all the concerts I never got around to reviewing during this blog’s long period of inactivity, last year’s visit to Geneva by the British composer Gavin Bryars was definitely one of the highlights. So it makes sense to start at the top when trying to make up for lost time during this current period of enforced isolation.
I can’t remember where I first heard Bryars’ two minimalist masterpieces The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, both of which were performed in Geneva. I do remember attending a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1994 or so, at which Bryars and his ensemble performed an extended version of The Sinking of the Titanic. This was, I believe, the same version of the piece that was later released on CD on Point Music – a label associated with Philip Glass, fact fans.
Somewhat to my chagrin, Bryars had not brought his ensemble with him to Geneva. Nor did he play or conduct during the evening, his input consisting as far as I could tell of sound projection, mixing or some such from the back of the hall. The performers came instead from the Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain and the Haute École de Musique in Geneva. But there was absolutely nothing lacking in their flawless interpretations of both pieces.
The Sinking of the Titanic is perhaps the saddest piece of music I’ve ever heard. As is by now well known, it takes as its starting point the recollection of several survivors of the disaster that the ship’s band did not abandon their station, but continued to play as the ship sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean. Bryars imagined the sound continuing to reverberate as it disappeared under the waves, resulting in a slow, melancholy unfolding that interwove exquisite threads of melody with haunting fragments of spoken testimony from survivors of the tragedy. As the unnerving strains of violins, violas, cello and double bass descended further into the depths, the piece achieved a desolate beauty that was utterly overwhelming.
After the interval, it was the turn of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. This, of course, is the piece that achieved a certain public profile in 1993 when Bryars recorded an extended version with Tom Waits singing the words of the homeless man. As one who has always remained steadfastly immune to the gravelly charms of Waits’ voice, that version is for me entirely superfluous when compared to the original 25-minute version, featuring Michael Nyman on organ and Derek Bailey on guitar, that was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975 with The Sinking of the Titanic on the other side. In Geneva, the NEC’s performance amply met the requirement of Bryars’ score that “the performance should be undramatic, understated and subdued, without pomp or show”. Perfectly catching the piece’s undertone of quiet optimism, the music swelled and receded with stark precision around the central recorded loop.
In the bar after the concert, I asked Bryars to sign my original copy of that 1975 release. We chatted about free improvisation, Cornelius Cardew and AMM, and about his never-ending quest for a supply of Aztec Scoremaster 101 pencils. (The interesting story behind this quest can be read on Bryars’ website.) In the weeks before the Geneva concert, I had scoured eBay and other websites in the hope of securing a box of these precious items. It would have been lovely to surprise Bryars by presenting him with such a box, but it was not to be. Still, I’ll keep looking. And if you ever come across a box of Aztec Scoremaster 101 pencils, preferably in yellow, well, you know where to send them.
As an addendum to my post the other day in which I reminisced about London concertgoing in the 1990s, I recently dug up my gig diary for 1996. I have no idea if I actually went to all of these, but the list gives some idea of how enjoyable those times were. As expected, Peter Hammill and Tindersticks scored highly. It’s good to see a brace of appearances by The Cowboy Junkies, whom I would dearly love to see again someday. And I must have really liked The Divine Comedy, since I saw them four times that year. In fact I remember the October event well, since it was their big orchestral concert at Shepherds Bush Empire. Across town at the Festival Hall on the same evening, Towering Inferno were doing their awe-inspiring multimedia show Kaddish – a clash of dates that led to much agonized hand-wringing on my part. Since I’d already seen Kaddish the year before (at Shepherds Bush Empire, ironically enough), I elected not to see it again and plumped for The Divine Comedy instead – a decision I now regret. Strangest gig on the list: Aphex Twin at Clink Prison. And finally, a big hello and thanks to Tim Keegan, whom I saw more than anyone else that year.
8 – Tim Keegan
19 – Tindersticks
22 – Tim Keegan
28 – Foetus
20 – Martin Stephenson, Tim Keegan
23 – :zoviet*france:
28 – Michael Gira
4 – Boo Hewerdine, Tim Keegan
8 – Main
14 – Stereolab, Tortoise
16 – The Divine Comedy
29 – Heather Nova
13 – Natalie Merchant
16 – Bruce Springsteen
3 – The Divine Comedy
12 – Scanner, Robert Hampton
17 – Peter Hammill
24 – Cowboy Junkies
30 – Experimental Audio Research, Stereolab
5 – Tim Keegan
6 – 10,000 Maniacs
10 – Lloyd Cole
28 – His Name is Alive
27 – Elvis Costello
7 – Cowboy Junkies
8 – The Divine Comedy
30 – James Dillon et al.
5 – Tortoise, Flying Saucer Attack
10 – Lisa Germano, Mojave 3
20 – The Divine Comedy
31 – Aphex Twin
3 – Peter Hammill
9 – Tindersticks
14 – AMM
Here’s a flashback to sunnier, happier times. It’s not often that you’ll catch me at an outdoor music festival, but I’m happy to make an exception for Towersey, a smallish folk-based affair sitting pretty near the Oxfordshire market town of Thame. Family connections in the area have brought me to Towersey on a number of occasions, most notably in 2007 when I saw the great English folk singer John Tams of Home Service in a duo setting with his long-time collaborator Barry Coope. I didn’t cross paths with Tams again until 2011, when Home Service played a series of triumphant reunion concerts that reasserted their position as the lost heroes of British electric folk music. Tams left the group a few years ago, following which they lost their way somewhat, but lately he seems to have rejoined. I hope to see them again one day, but I’m not holding my breath. Anyway, I digress.
Towersey Festival has weathered a few storms in recent years, including a change of location in 2015 and another one on the horizon this year. Nevertheless it remains a very pleasant place to spend an August Bank Holiday weekend, with a great family-friendly vibe, good bars and stalls, and (most importantly) its feet firmly planted in the living tradition of English folk music. On a warm, sunny evening last August, then, I was very happy to make the acquaintance of The Unthanks for the first time. A standing-room-only audience saw this gifted group of singers and musicians cast a decidedly uncanny spell, their bewitching voices echoing around the large tent to spellbinding effect.
Right from the off, The Unthanks declared an affinity with the music of the present by covering a Richard Dawson song, “We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed”. This stunning a capella number set the tone perfectly for the evening, its terrorstruck imagery (“I awake to the screech of a fox in the street/Carrying your soul in its teeth through the snow”) inscribed in every breath of the forlorn harmonies uttered by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank and co-singer Niopha Keegan.
As the concert progressed, the full range of the group’s influences and parallels became clear as The Unthanks traced a path through a rich and vibrant seam of mythical English culture. There were songs based on poems by Emily Brontë (“The soft unclouded blue of air”, “Shall earth no more inspire thee”), a song by Molly Drake, the mother of Nick (“What can a song do to you?”) and the group’s take on Elvis Costello’s classic “Shipbuilding”. YouTube tells me that The Unthanks’ repertoire also includes a ravishing cover of King Crimson’s “Starless”, which I would happily have traded for what was in truth a rather inert version of “Shipbuilding”. No-one sings “Shipbuilding” like Costello, not The Unthanks (despite their north-eastern roots) and certainly not Robert Wyatt, the universal acclaim for whose version I find frankly baffling.
Most dramatically, the group reached for a song from Lines: Part One, their 2018 tribute to the Hull-born fisheries worker and campaigner Lillian Bilocca with lyrics by the acclaimed British actor Maxine Peake. “A Whistling Woman” saw Keegan’s exquisite violin and Adrian McNally’s stinging piano lines thread their way through the singers’ sinister invocation of Peake’s text: “A man may do a thousand things, but a whistling woman may bring the Devil out of his den.” It was the kind of moment that brought a pitiless chill to an otherwise cloudless summer’s evening.
Here was a trio of concerts that amply reinforced Cave 12’s claim to be one of the most important centres for underground music in Europe, if not the world. Utilizing to the max the considerable heft of the club’s PA, these three affiliated musicians presented a compelling case for the continued health of electronic noise music, particularly in its modular synth incarnation (there was not a laptop in sight).
By way of context it should be noted that both Russell Haswell and Bruce Gilbert have released several albums on Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego label and its predecessor, plain old Mego. Meanwhile the associations between Haswell and Gilbert reach even further back, to 1995 and the Disobey club at Upstairs at the Garage in Islington, which they co-founded along with Blast First label head Paul Smith. A brief autobiographical digression follows:
I lived in London for most of the 1990s, and looking back at that decade now I realize that it was some kind of golden age for me as far as live music was concerned. At that time London had not yet succumbed to the virus of gentrification; the Astoria, where I saw Spiritualized, The Divine Comedy and American Music Club, was still in its prime location at the top of Charing Cross Road. Further along on Tottenham Court Road, I saw an early Godspeed You! Black Emperor gig in a tiny basement club called the Embassy Rooms. On the experimental side the London Musicians Collective was in full swing, putting on shows by the likes of :zoviet*france: and AMM in places like the Spitz, the Conway Hall and the Bridewell Theatre. Then there were the post-industrial types, with rare, precious concerts by the likes of Whitehouse (The Garage), Death in June (New Cross Venue, Charlton House) and Current 93 (New Cross Venue again, Walthamstow Royal Standard).
As for Disobey itself, I was by no means a regular at its evenings, but I do remember seeing FM Einheit of Einstürzende Neubauten pushing lumps of rock around a table, the writer Stewart Home in full deranged ranter mode and Bruce Gilbert of Wire DJing from a glass booth in his guise as The Beekeeper. (Actually, all three of these might have been on the same evening.) Then there was the time Finnish electronic trio Panasonic played a gig in a car park somewhere in east London, driving an armoured vehicle that had been fitted with a PA system round and round in circles. There were no advance tickets for Disobey; you had to call a number, listen to a recorded message which gave details of the next event, and leave a message on their answerphone to put your name on the list. In fact I seem to remember that I failed to do this for the FM Einheit evening, which owing to the Neubauten connection (even though Einheit had left Neubauten by that time) was sold out. I only got in because I had a passing acquaintance with Stewart Home, who kindly brought me in as his guest and allowed me to bypass the considerable queue on the pavement outside.
When Rehberg and Haswell appeared as a duo for the first time at Cave 12 back in September, they tempered their natural tendency towards confrontation with a strong dose of playfulness. The 45-minute set (now available as a paid download from the Editions Mego Bandcamp site) was a bracing, intermittently abrasive mix of ear-bleeding frequencies, scabrous drones and feverish, clanking rhythms. Volcanic outbursts of white-hot energy erupted from the dense circuitry of pulses and tones formed by the two musicians’ respective modular synth setups. If it was sometimes hard to make out where Rehberg’s contributions ended and Haswell’s began, that was less due to any perceived similarity of approach and more to the single-minded glee with which the piece careered to its inexorable conclusion.
Rehberg’s solo appearance in January (under the name Pita, which strictly speaking is only used for his solo projects) was an altogether darker affair. The set would not have sounded out of place on Kevin Martin’s epochal Isolationism compilation, consisting as it did of frosty, industrial drones punctuated by occasional interventions – starlit frequencies, stricken attempts at movement, blasts of agitated static. This set was also made available on the Editions Mego Bandcamp site, although it was very much a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it thing, since the paid download was only available for 24 hours.
Finally, Haswell and Gilbert each presented solo pieces at a concert last month – my last evening out, as it happened, before the coronavirus nightmare descended on western Europe. I wasn’t especially taken with Gilbert’s short opening set, which relied heavily on low-end drones that lingered stubbornly and never really went anywhere. Coupled with this, Gilbert was sitting down. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the performative aspect of electronic music (never entirely satisfying at the best of times) distinctly lacking when the musician chooses to sit down, rather than stand up as both Rehberg and Haswell did. In this case, Gilbert’s somewhat diffident onstage demeanour gave him the distracted air of an Open University electronics student doing a practical exam.
No such quibbles over Russell Haswell’s set, which gave the evening a much-needed jolt with a barrage of short, devastating body blows that never gave the audience time to recover. The set proceeded according to the principles of sound as a weapon employed by Joe Banks’ Disinformation project – no great surprise in itself, given that Banks also played the Disobey club and that Haswell worked on Disinformation’s 1996 R&D album. Swarming with jackhammer rhythms, ominous frequencies and strafing salvoes of noise, the set was a riotous collision of industrial austerity and punk attitude. Meanwhile, the music found a witty correlative in Haswell’s exuberant between-song introductions, which gave preposterous titles to some of the pieces (sample titles: “I’ve Seen Impaled Nazarene Fourteen Times”, “Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System”, “Always Check Their Instagram”). While his genial brand of showmanship had the audience in gales of laughter, Haswell’s real gift lies in his unforgiving and uncompromising manipulation of sound to brutal effect.