“Going upwards at 45 degrees
Going upwards at 45 degrees
Going upwards at 45 degrees
Won’t somebody sign my release
Won’t somebody sign my release”
Bored, restricted, by both circumstance and situation, laden with existential angst, work/life balance spiralling out of control, entertaining the imminent arrival of the Black Dog, I’d not only begun to doubt transubstantiation and the relevance of the Eucharist tradition, I was genuinely beginning to doubt my own existence! A cleansing was required, an action designed to purge negativity, to rebalance my aching chakras. Time to hit the North!
I shaved my head to within an inch with the clippers, packed my trusty Peugeot with essentials, grabbed my copies of Julian Cope‘s ‘Modern Antiquarian’ and Stewart Lee‘s ‘Content Provider’, and loaded up with music: Aluk Todolo, Can, Cluster, Julian Cope, Dog Life, Eternal Tapestry, Faust, Fire!, Fire! Orchestra, Harmonia, Anna Högberg Attack, Hedvig Mollestad Trio, Neu, Selvhenter and Sloth Racket.
The M6 was relatively quiet for a Saturday, and despite not leaving the Midlands until 4pm, I was duly ensconced in a mildly threatening Travelodge in Glasgow by 10pm. The journey had been largely uneventful, driven by the sounds of the Archdrude’s ‘Trip Advisor’, a collection of sixteen songs largely culled from Cope’s past seven albums: ‘Rome Wasn’t Burned In A Day'; ‘Citizen Cain’d'; ‘Dark Orgasm'; ‘You Gotta Problem With Me'; ‘Black Sheep'; ‘Psychedelic Revolution'; and ‘Revolutionary Suicide’.
I’ve been a huge fan of Julian Cope since his days with Teardrop Explodes, and have never recovered from seeing him in Coventry, astride a mic stand that doubled up as some kind of fucked up climbing frame. His brace of autobiographies, ‘Head On’ and ‘Repossessed’, are amongst the finest of their oeuvre, providing, as they inevitably do, a solid platform on which his writing has consistently evolved over the ensuing decades. Cope’s music-related titles, ‘Krautrocksampler'; ‘Japrocksampler'; ‘Compendium’, and the endless pages of critical thinking available at his Head Heritage website, capture the very essence of outsider art in entertaining, vital prose. His neolithic gazetteers, ‘The Modern Antiquarian’ and the ‘Megalithic European’, have become collector’s items, commanding vastly inflated prices since the demise of their original published stock. Cope is the gentleman’s motherfucker, and I have become enormously fond of the material captured within the confines of ‘Trip Advisor’. What better soundtrack for the commencement of this Orcadian Odyssey?
My Glasgow Travelodge rumbled to the sounds of slammed doors and drunken arguments. Random youth collectives gathered below my window, smoking furiously and swearing down. Showered, changed, and ready to eat, I peeked gingerly from behind the tartan curtains, and decided to take advantage of the order-in Indian restaurant facility, who promptly responded with a Glasgow chicken madras and pilau rice delivered directly to my room within 20-minutes of point-of-order, which was massively impressive. The madras was way hotter than I am used to, however, and despite the accompanying can of ice cold Tango, I fought in vain to clear my plastic plate with my insubstantial plastic fork and spoon. The remnants safely double-bagged and disposed of, I crammed my ears with toilet paper to combat the sound of drunken swearing, and hit the pillow.
I recommenced my journey bright and early the next morning, but the weather had other ideas. As I pulled North out of Glasgow at 10am, my target was Scrabster Ferry Terminal: 4pm. The winds were making a good fist of gale force, and as I stopped to refuel, just south of Perth, the old timer in the next bay to me at the petrol station was struggling to close his car door. I watched him flail helplessly, as the door blew open, again and again, and staggered over to assist. He thanked me profusely through the finally closed car door window, in Scottish, as if he were the star of a silent movie, or a hilarious clip on YouTube, and although I couldn’t hear a word, I got the gist of his gratitude. With my head down against the wind, I staggered onward, and into the station to pay. Despite my pathetic coffee snobbery, I found myself talked into a machine-processed latte, a muffin, and a complementary brownie by the resident hot beverage vendor. I felt it would have been rude not to take advantage of the cash machine situated conveniently next to the generous selection of atlases and maps.
Back on the road, full of E-numbers and faux-caffeine, I fought the crosswinds and made good time, accompanied by a soundtrack comprised of both Selvhenter albums on modal repeat. Over the course of two long players and six years, Selvhenter have honed a sound that is “uncompromising, boundless and energetic, one that blends the aesthetics of experimental rock, the sophistication of improvised free jazz, and the aggressiveness of punk, noise and metal, all performed with passion and humour”. The significance of Selvhenter’s birth in 2010 and the commencement of my journey of sobriety in February 2010 cannot be understated. I have a love for everything by Selvhenter that I know, and although I see a darkness, there’s a hope that somehow Selvhenter can save me from this darkness.
North of Perth, the dual carriageway slims down into a single carriageway, with intermittent overtaking lanes. With light gradually seeping into my blackened veins, I fought my usual preoccupation with making good time, and stuck to the speed limit, taking in the scenery and breathing, as lowlands turned to highlands. The purple heather honed my thoughts, reflecting rumination on my recovery identity, the pitfalls of peer-professional occupation, firing synapses, considering the contradictions of my innate refusal to kowtow to the confines of restrictive boundaries. Climbing North, the wind stripped me of the weight of assumed stress, and by the time I picked up signs for Scrabster Ferry Terminal, there was an excitement to my gear changing that was almost palpable. In accordance with the script, I eventually pulled into boarding lane #1 at Scrabster, in pole position, with two hours to kill until sailing.
Following a wander around Scrabster port, the thought of riding the Northern seas on an empty stomach, or one filled with Northern Ferries-branded canteen food, drove me into a pub on the quayside. I huddled in the lounge, mildly intimidated by the braying laughter that emanated from the bar. I noted the football was on the telly, and my enquiring glance screen-wards was met by a pair of hands signalling ‘0-0′, and a friendly Scottish face. I elected to take my heart into my hands, and ventured into the bar. I needn’t have worried, the customers were convivial, and the staff charming. I ordered some scran, and a chilled Coke, and took my place at the bar, munching heartily, to witness my beloved AVFC’s eventual capitulation to a late Sheffield Wednesday goal, largely against the run of play. Although I was briefly annoyed to see Alan Hutton still in a claret and blue shirt, despite his continually challenged ability in the guise of professional footballer, I was not unsatisfied with the team performance. Full of hearty Scottish produce, I decided I was going to make the most of Championship football this season, and begin the healing process of forgetting all about top flight football for the foreseeable future.
Aboard Northern Ferries’ 7pm sailing, bound for Stromness, the mood was decidedly peaky, to say the least. Glasses smashed as they slid from the bar; chairs catapulted themselves across the ship; youngsters queued at the sick-bag dispenser; whilst hardened ferry travellers took up as many seats as they could muster to sleep like babies for the hour and a half of the crossing. The children’s play area was soon closed, screaming kids wailed as they were flung across gangways, ignoring repeated tannoy requests to remain seated. I settled in a window seat, in front of a TV blaring out the women’s cycling road race from the Rio Olympics. As I studied the footage, focussing on the lines and angles of the road, the ascents and the descents, every glance out of the ship’s window instigated disorientation, as the waves outside were upwards of twenty feet high, and the ship was pitching and rolling like Saxon‘s 747 encountering severe turbulence at 40,000 feet. My food bubbled inside my stomach, the sounds of others retching began to play on my countenance. I pulled out my copy of Stewart Lee’s ‘Content Provider’ and chuckled to myself on his observations of the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton: “Over the last five years, often when David Mitchell has been on holiday, the comedian Stewart Lee has been attempting to understand modern Britain, and his own place in it, in a series of irregular newspaper columns. Will Scotland become the Promised Land of the Left? Is it possible to live a life without crisps? Who was Grant Shapps? What does your Spotify playlist data say about you? Are Jeremy Corbyn and Stewart Lee really the new Christs? And so on”.
We reached the relative calm of Stromness harbour at 8.30pm, with the sun setting in the west, an eery sheen draped itself across the Northern skies. I returned to the Peugeot, as excited as a 4-year-old awaiting his first sick bag. I had lived a little boy’s life time waiting to set my feet on Orcadian soil, and that moment was but minutes away. As I rolled off the ferry out of Stromness Ferry Port, I picked up a sign for Kirkwall, and turned right for the twenty minute journey due North East across the Island, where my room at the Albert Hotel awaited me. A mile or so up the road, I pulled into a lay-by, planted my feet on Orkney, looked back at the setting sun illuminating the Hills Of Hoy, Stromness Sound, and beyond, Scapa Flow. After decades of listening to the Shipping Forecast, believing it to be delivered in some largely made-up ancient language, I was finally understanding that these places actually existed, and that I was looking at them. I had arrived in the land of TV archaeologist, Neil Oliver, if only I hadn’t cut off all my hair.
The journey into Kirkwall was one of revelation, the kind of wonder one normally associates with events such as Christmas Day, pre-puberty. I actually experienced palpitations as I saw the sign that marked the curtilage line of Stenness. I could see the Stones Of Stenness, The Ness and the Ring Of Brodgar to my left, seemingly glowing in the half-light. I passed a sign to Skara Brae, my heart skipped another beat, then Maeshowe appeared on the horizon to my left, and a genuine moment of total arrival occurred. I was finally within the sacred ritual landscape of Orkney, the birthplace of Neolithic design.
My room at the Albert Hotel matched the austerity of the Neo-Liberal agenda of the current Conservative Government. Although recently refurbished, there had been no concessions to the concepts of lavish furnishing, although I had heard ugly rumours that some of the rooms had been refurbished to an altogether higher standard, but that these rooms were reserved for visiting dignitaries from the Scottish Conservative Party. I dumped my stuff in a hurry, and ventured out to wander the streets of Kirkwall in the howling winds. Dressed in three layers, topped with a Berghaus jacket, my newly shorn barnett was soaked within minutes. As the rain eventually receded, and the heavens cleared, I was struck by the extraordinary colour of the Orcadian night sky. The sound of revelry issued from street corners and bars, drunks stumbled about in the still virulent wind like spinning tops, as I photographed anything and everything in the hope of capturing the light and the atmosphere.
The next morning, I was up and atom by 9.30am, installed in my home for the next two nights, a well-appointed one-bedroom studio apartment at the Ayr Hotel complex, and on the road back out of Kirkwall, heading for ritual landscapes and sacred stones. I stopped to photograph Maeshowe from behind the monument, then called in at the visitor centre to book my place on the 6pm tour. I was amongst the Stones Of Stenness by 10am; a small stone circle dating from the third millennium BC, the oldest on Orkney, and alongside the stones at Calanais on the Isle Of Lewis, the oldest stone circles in the UK. The ever-present wind meant that the clouds were moving at pace, and despite the dampness in the air, pockets of sunshine protruded to illuminate the stones, setting them resplendently against the electric blue Orcadian skies. I snapped away, ever the dutiful tourist, hugging the stones like a demented stone hugger, and, when I was sure no-one else was watching, touching the stones with my tongue, and counting up to seven. It’s a behaviour I’ve developed over my decades of stone worship, I’m well aware it’s probably considered a tad strange by many, but there you go: “The Stones of Stenness today consist of four upright stones up to 6m in height in a circle that originally held 12 stones. The focus of the interior was a large hearth. The stones were encircled by a large ditch and bank, the form of which has been lost over time by ploughing”.
A short walk from the Stones Of Stenness, situated on the shore of Harray Loch, is the Neolithic Village of Barnhouse, understood to predate both the Stenness stones, and the Ring Of Brodgar. This early settlement consists of at least six small houses similar in style to the early circular houses at Skara Brae. These were set around a larger and more elaborate building. Unlike the Skara Brae houses, which were set into the sand, the Barnhouse structures appear to have been free-standing. As at Skara Brae, the houses generally contained a central square hearth and stone box beds and dressers. I spent an isolated thirty minutes here alone, just sitting and thinking about time and its passage.
A short causeway leads to the Ness Of Brodgar, situated between the henge monuments of the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, at the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site, close to the Neolithic settlement at Barnhouse. Identified initially back in 2002, when a geophysical survey as part of the Orkney World Heritage Site Geophysics Programme revealed a huge complex of anomalies ‘indicative of a settlement’ covering an area of 2.5 hectares, the Ness Of Brodgar is considered to be the temple complex at the core of Neolithic Orkney’s primary ritual landscape. I joined a tour of the site hosted by one of the archaeologists involved in excavating the Ness over the past fourteen years to discover that a mere 10% of the complex has been unearthed to date. The complex itself is believed to be the size of eight football pitches, with the oldest structures dating back 7,000 years!
Five minutes down the road from the Ness is the aforementioned Ring Of Brodgar, an enormous ceremonial site dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. The Ring of Brodgar comprises a massive stone circle, originally consisting of 60-stones (36-survive today), at least 13-prehistoric burial mounds, and a large rock-cut ditch surrounding the circle. The Scottish geologist Hugh Miller, visiting in 1846, wrote that the stones “look like an assemblage of ancient druids, mysteriously stern and invincibly silent and shaggy”. As I walked from the monument’s car park along the modern approach avenue, as if on cue, the mid-afternoon sun burnt the sky azure blue, silhouetting the 36-surviving stones against the horizon. Despite being bedecked with an ugly viewing platform, with a few other random items of scaffolding present currently, the circle lost none of it’s mystery, and I felt the raw energy of this ancient place surge through my senses like an electrical current. I have often felt energy at various sites over the years, but the energy here at Brodgar was on a par with touching the heel stone at Carnac back in 2006, an event that changed my entire perspective on the power of Neolithic ritual landscapes.
The journey from Brodgar to Skara Brae is but a few miles, but I took my time, soaking up the views, photographing interesting buildings. The wind continued to howl across the low lying landscape, but the sounds of the Hedvig Mollestad Trio insulated my ears. With four studio albums accomplished in less than five years, HMT combine the classic-electric-guitar-shape-throwing of Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi, spliced through with a jazz sensibility and a knowing nod signifying post-rock awareness. In this regard, HMT, share much in common with label-mates Fire!/Fire! Orchestra in their stretching of genre boundaries. With a new studio LP, ‘Black Stabat Mater’, and a career spanning double live record, ‘Evil In Oslo’, released simultaneously back in June (a feat soon to be repeated in equally spectacular fashion by Rune Grammofon compadres, Bushman’s Revenge), HMT are slowly but surely beginning to dominate my personal playlist, with their unique brand of instrumental head music. Pink Floyd‘s ‘Relics’ was the first ‘serious’ record I ever bought. I purchased it from a long-extinct record shop on Smith Street in Warwick, for shillings and pence, and played it till the grooves fell off.
As a gateway, it inevitably led to much harder drugs, and before long I’d developed serious habits for the likes of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. As was de rigueur back in early seventies, any self-respecting juvenile bedroom was not complete without the obligatory double live album (Deep Purple – ‘Made In Japan'; Rainbow – ‘On Stage’).
I spent what, at the time, felt like eons, lying on my bed, imagining I was Jimmy Page, listening to ‘The Song Remans The Same’, over and over again. Writing this today, a lifetime away from those humble musical beginnings, closer to my own early seventies than I am to my long lost youth, I’m listening to ‘Evil In Oslo’, safe in the knowledge that the song does indeed remain the same.
Meanwhile, back at the plot, I arrived at Skara Brae late afternoon, to find the monument closed due to the high winds. I elected to return the following day, took sustenance in the visitor centre cafe, spent an hour or so down on the beach, absorbing the late afternoon sun through the wind, before heading back to Stenness for a slight return, and then on to Maeshowe visitor centre for my 6pm tour. Maeshowe is one of Europe’s finest chambered tombs, built over 5,000 years ago. The tomb’s entrance passage is aligned with the setting of the midwinter sun, so that the light illuminates the tomb’s interior, in a similar fashion to the equally ancient Newgrange, Eire. I joined a party of around twenty fellow tourists for an informative and memorable hour in the passage grave that will stay with me for the rest of my days. I waited until everyone had left, and continued to chat with the guide to maximise my time in the cairn. In the end he had to point at his watch and cite the arrival of the next tour party and his need to return to the visitor centre to shake me off!
My second full day on Orkney was an altogether brighter affair, the wind had dropped, and the morning sun hung high in the sky like an August sun is supposed to do by natural design. I grabbed a second slight return to Stenness, re-shooting yesterday’s photos in the altogether more satisfying light, before heading directly to Skara Brae. First uncovered by a storm in 1850, Skara Brae is the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe. Long before Stonehenge or even the Egyptian pyramids were built, Skara Brae was a thriving village. Its ancient farmers, hunters and fishermen fitted out their prehistoric houses with stone dressers and box-beds. Standing here 5,000 years after the fact, its mind-blowing to consider how domestication has intrinsically altered so little over a period of five millennia.
Back in the Peugeot, Harmonia pouring from the speakers, I took a slow drive around the Northwest coast of mainland Orkney in search of the Broch Of Gurness. Harmonia have been a staple part of my musical diet since acquiring their complete works, issued on Groenland Records in 2015: “Few bands match the pastoral beauty and majesty of Harmonia, the short-lived German band that existed from 1973 to 1976. Harmonia was a ‘Krautrock’ supergroup, bringing together Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster, and Michael Rother of NEU!. Though Harmonia were largely anonymous during their lifetime in their native Germany, their music soon captured the attention of Brian Eno, David Bowie, and other highprofile admirers overseas”.
The impressive Iron Age complex of The Broch Of Gurness is one of the most outstanding examples of a later prehistoric settlement to survive in Scotland. It’s dramatic costal location is as iconic as the complex is impressive. With the sun dominating the horizon during my mid-afternoon visit, I was able to clamber over every inch of this amazingly well-preserved monument. As I had observed at Skara Brae, the internal layout of the dwellings at Gurness fitted a template that had already evolved over thousands of years, from Barnhouse, to Skara Brae, and here at Gurness. It is a basic layout that would not look out of place in a Crofter’s cottage, or a Blackhouse on the Isle Of Lewis.
My second and final day on Orkney complete, I returned to the Ayr Hotel for supper and an evening with French occult rock troupe, Aluk Todolo. I’d been with them at the onset with ‘Descension’ (Riot Season) back in 2007, but had not seriously checked back on their progression until reading impressive reviews for their fourth long player, ‘Voix’ (Ajna Offensive), released this February. ‘Voix’ has been critically acclaimed as the trio’s best work yet, and repeat exposure to the six themed pieces that compile its whole, it’s not hard to see why. Aluk Todolo may have their roots in the Black Metal revival of the mid-noughties (the band share members with French BM horde, Diamatregon), but ‘Voix’ crowns an evolutionary diversification that suggest that if ECM Records did ever sign a house occult rock band, that Aluk Todolo would be that band.
I awoke the next morning to blistering sun, and after checking out of the Ayr Hotel, I returned once more to Stenness for yet more photography, and even more stone kissing. As I killed time at Stromness Ferry Terminal awaiting the departure of the 11am crossing to Scrabster, a concerned friend asked me over the phone if I had ‘talked to anyone’ during my recent Orcadian Odyssey. The enquiry immediately struck a chord: B minor, diminished. What? A conversation? I white-lied that I had conversed with the tour guides at both Maeshowe and Skara Brae, and interacted with hotel staff and hot beverage sales persons en route, but the revealing truth was that my, at times, infamous social anxiety, often restricts me from the art of random conversation with strangers.
It was with a sense of contemplation, if not trepidation, therefore, that I later began my journey to Ullapool, south along the A9: was I destined to spend my entire ‘find myself’ vacation finding it awkward and ultimately pointless engaging in conversation with random insignificant others? I considered the cut of my jib as I drove south, listening to Anna Högberg Attack on repeat: “Swedish sax player Anna Högberg’s all-female sextet Attack’s debut album is one of the most celebrated free jazz releases of 2016. Attack premiered at the 2013 Stockholm Jazz Festival, and have since gained nothing but praise for their performances, including a heartfelt endorsement from Högberg’s role-model, sax-titan, Mats Gustafsson, who promises that Högberg’s Attack will ‘melt your brain as we know it’. Attack features Högberg (who also plays in Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra, guested on The Thing‘s recent ‘Shake!’ long player, and also plays in the Dog Life trio) on alto sax, Malin Wättring and Elin Larsson on tenor and soprano saxes, Lisa Ullén (who plays in the Nuiversum trio with bass player Nina de Heney and vocalist Mariam Wallentin and leads her own quartet), double bass player Elsa Bergman and drummer Ann Lund”. This record has been a major revelation to me this year, and the poignant nature of my thoughts on this leg of my journey were duly infused by the melancholic approach of Attack, instigating ongoing reflection, and, ultimately, tempting fate.
Some kind of divine intervention eventually occurred, at Marjorie Malpin’s Tea & Toast Emporium, in Lairg, a town I had earlier visited under more trying circumstances, during the Atlanta Olympics of 1996, accompanied by my often challenging ex-wife, and our then boarder collie, Charlie. No sooner had I taken my seat to devour one of Marjorie’s generous home made cream teas, when a sharply dressed woman in her (I assumed) sixties asked if she could join me. The lady in question revealed herself to be none other than Cathy Laine, regionally renowned interpretative jeweller, and award winning milliner, recipient of Cromarty & Ross Amateur Milliner Of The Year Award, 2015. Cathy had turned her back on her former career within the NHS, back in the early 90s, to forge her own jewellery business, specialising in items based on artefacts recovered from Neolithic sites by archaeologists. Cathy’s business had become so lucrative that it had allowed her to diversify into a range of hats capturing the alleged current Scottish fascination with Indigenous Native American headdresses, to which I was hitherto completely ignorant. Cathy was on her way to Inverness for a book signing to promote her recently self-published autobiography, ‘Memory Laine’. I wished her luck, thanked Marjorie for the excellent scones, and continued my journey. It’s good to talk, and I think I’ve already benefitted enormously from the experience.
After a frankly arduous and seemingly eternal seventy miles south out of Lairg, I eventually arrived at the port of Ullapool, to board the 5pm ferry for Stornaway. Those of you who know me in the flesh will be aware of my relatively large nose. I wasn’t nicknamed ‘Rod The Mod’ during a 1978 PGL adventure holiday in the Ardèche for nothing! My nose had been somewhat bigger than normal since my Wight return from the Isle down south, the week prior to commencing this Orcadian Odyssey. A nasal/sun over-exposure interface resulted in what I imagine a large human nose may look like if microwaved for around 3-minutes. In the ensuing 10-days, despite careful tending with all manner of homeopathic remedies, the weeping and the throbbing had only worsened, despite my highly-honed skills of denial.
During the crossing from Ullapool to Stornaway, the throbbing moved from my nose to my head, and was venturing further south, into the shoulder of renown that twelve months ago hosted the infection that almost bought me the farm. I was struggling to fit my vari-focals onto the bridge of said nose. Not a man to worry lightly since entering my fifties, I pushed the button marked ‘health and safety method statement and generic risk assessment’, and made my way directly to Stornaway A&E, as people were beginning to stop in front of me and wait for my nose to turn green before moving on their way. Dr Martin Clarke took one look at my nose, pronounced it infected, prescribed a seven day course of Flucloxacillin, and left Nurse Natalie Howe to administer. Nurse Natalie Howe asked me where I was staying, and I replied: “The Cabarfeidh Hotel, is it any good?” She smiled ruefully, “the food’s really good, so I’ve heard”. I left to find the Cabarfeidh with a feeling of slight unease/impending doom following 15-brief but extremely efficient minutes, at no cost to my already beleaguered pocket. That’s the NHS that is, let Tories sell it at your peril! It’s a wonderful institution. It’s our institution.
On arrival at the Cabarfeidh Hotel, I was initially impressed with the reception, and the deportment of the staff. It felt like a classy establishment, and the aforementioned ‘really good food’ wafted from the restaurant in a provocative manner. Unfortunately, the restaurant was now closed for the night, but the receptionist informed me that light snacks could be delivered to my room, so I ordered a cheese and ham sandwich, soup of the day, a side salad, and a can of Coke. The meal was duly delivered to my room, minus the side salad and the Coke. With a nose of fire, and persistent rain lashing against my bedroom window, the forecast for tomorrow was predicting torrential rain for the Isle Of Lewis for the next 24hrs. I took a despairing look around my room, estimating that it had last been refurbished some time circa 1956. The bathroom suite alone could have commanded a fair price had the Antiques Roadshow ever visited Stornaway. I made a mental note that I couldn’t be bothered to complain about anything with a nose resembling that of a hardened cider drinker on a bender, and decided to hit the hay, which, ironically, it turned out the mattress itself was probably stuffed with.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of the very same snoring that had ushered me to sleep the night before, against my will, it must be said, which was still issuing forth from the room next door. Like a faulty cement mixer ticking over during an extended builder’s tea-break, the noise begged investigation, and quite possibly some kind of professional medical intervention. Remembering my mental note from the night before, I decided to hit the road, to plot a path between raindrops the size of golfballs in search of the motherlode of scared stones. Twelve miles out of Stornaway on the A859, must of been a wonder when it was brand new, talking about the splendour of the Calanais Standing Stones, I know that you’d agree if you had seen them too. It’s not a matter of life or death, but what is, what is? It doesn’t matter if I take another breath, who cares? Who cares?
The Calanais Standing Stones are a cross-shaped setting of megaliths, erected around 5,000 years ago. They predate the Stonehenge monument, and were an important place for ritual activity for at least 2,000 years. Since time immemorial, people have questioned why the standing stones at Calanais were erected. Until recently, the expert’s best guess was that it was a kind of astronomical observatory. Patrick Ashmore, who excavated at Calanais in the early 1980s writes: “The most attractive explanation is that every 18.6-years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills. It seems to dance along them, like a great god visiting the earth. Knowledge and prediction of this heavenly event gave earthly authority to those who watched the skies”. Recent Australian research has now established statistical proof that the Standing Stones of both Stenness and Calanais were specifically constructed 5,000 years ago to line up with the movements of the Sun and the Moon:
Calanais has been at the top of my to-do list since Julian Cope released ‘Jehovakill’, back in 1992. It’s place on the cover of that talismanic record began a 25-year obsession finally realised on this trip. After being guided by Cope across a quarter of a century, to be finally delivered by Cope seemed both fitting and appropriate. As I passed the circles of Calanais 2 & 3 on my arrival in the village, I looked upwards at 45 degrees to witness the outline of the stones on the horizon to my left. I hit ‘play’ on the CD player, and the opening chords to ‘Hell Is Wicked’ exploded from the speakers. I was rolling with the Archdrude, approaching the hill of Calanais, as religious an experience as an aethiest motherfucker can have.
I spent most of the day at Calanais, visiting and revisiting the stones, photographing them, hugging them, kissing them. Perched atop the central cairn feature, I read of folkloric tales of positivity and fertility. I made pledges, forgave transgressors, turned negatives into positives, and mined for inspiration to reconfigure my personal alignments. As I self-cleansed my aching chakras, I downloaded recent setbacks onto the hard-drive of this Neolithic motherfucker of a mainframe. I scanned the horizon for recumbent mother goddess features, tracing the encircling high ground of this natural amphitheatre with my mind’s eye. The fire that had been lit at Carnac raged deep within what passes for my soul, and I was reminded of the person I’d experienced that revelation with, a decade or so before. The older I get, the more I understand that life is just a series of repeating Kübler-Ross models, we are all stuck in an ever-increasing triple-spiral of loss, the purpose of our journey to embrace the reality of ever-diminishing returns, to love who we are, not what we own.
Although I still had lumpy mattresses to ignore, inhuman snoring to filter, disappointing hotels to check out of, choppy ferries to catch, and hundreds of miles to drive before wending my way home, my quest had reached its objective conclusion: I had signed my own release.
Fashion: turn to the right! Fashion: turn to the right! Beep beep! We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town. Beep beep!
“History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce” – Karl Marx
The currency of hate is on the rise. According to The Independent: “The number of hate crimes recorded for the last two weeks in June has spiked by 42 per cent on this time last year. A total of 3,076 incidents were recorded across the country between 16 and 30 June – a dramatic increase on the 915 reports recorded over the same period in 2015.The biggest number of recorded incidents came on 25 June – the day after the result of the EU referendum – when there were 289 hate crime related incidents.
As a lifelong socialist; a progressive Marxist; an advocate for social justice; and a humanist, recent events in the country of my birth have left me sad, angry, and fundamentally ashamed to be ‘British’. However, I’m not going to bleat on about the injustice of the referendum; the uber-power of the elite; the malign influence of hegemonic media control; or the seemingly unenlightened perspectives of my fellow country people. The result stands: only a progressive alliance can stem the march of the right, argues George Monbiot: “Unless something drastic and decisive happens, the next election threatens to become a contest between the Tories and Ukip: in other words, between rightwing technocrats owned by the banks and rightwing demagogues owned by Arron Banks. What is this drastic something? A progressive alliance”.
The Left Hand Path is thus the path I have made by walking it: from the awakening of my political/social consciousness, back at the height of the punk wars in late 70s Britain, to this very day. If that pathway has an accompanying soundtrack, circa July 2016, that soundtrack is the desolate despondency and harrowing beauty of Ustalost, Ancion, and the roster of artists huddled around the House Of First Light milieu.
Ustalost, the new side-project from Brooklyn, New York’s Will Skarstad (Yellow Eyes), has issued its opening statement of intent: ‘The Spoor of Vipers’, an album that flaunts the signature songwriting skills of Skarstad, yet delivers a distinctly different flavour of desperation to anything that has come before it. ‘SOV’ is a vaguely unnerving prospect: one rapt with the suggestion of both the justified, and the ancient. Baroque keyboards and arpeggiated guitars sliver and weave through the gloom, shimmering and shining from an essentially bright mix. The bass guitar has a lightness of touch that is vivacious in places. The threat of impending violence that underpins the core of Yellow Eyes work is here replaced with a veil of sombre despair. Rhythmically, the album crawls along at mid-tempo, piling tension upon tension to oppress the listener with weighty images of hopeless dread. Appearing through the miasma like rods of lightening from the heavens, moments of melody issue forth from the quagmire. It’s these elements that ultimately shape the record: Ustalost indeed share much with Yellow Eyes, but they create something ultimately unique from said palate. ‘SOV’ is currently available on cassette or d/l from the link below; Sibir Records; and expected on vinyl from Gilead Media before the year dies.
Progressing thematically, we embrace ‘Exegeses’ (Gilead Media), the debut full-length from Brooklyn black metal band, Anicon. Nolan Voss and Owen Rundquist began sparring together for what would become this band back in 2010. The duo originally planned to name their first EP ‘Anicon’, with the project itself remaining untitled. The experiment exponentially expanded into a full band, however, with the recruitment of drummer Lev Weinstein (Krallice) and bassist Alexander DeMaria (Yellow Eyes). ‘Exegeses’ has developed ergonomically over the last two years, building on the triumph of May 2015’s ‘Aphasia’ EP. ‘Exegeqes’ represents somewhat of a rebirth for Anicon. Although extant champions of the USBM sub-genre, their approach delves deeper into the alchemical, conjuring elaborate composition from the cauldron of the ancient Northern European templates that define black metal fundamentally. ‘Exegeses’ was recorded, mixed, and mastered by Colin Marston (Krallice) at Menegroth in November 2015. A triumph from beginning to end.
House of First Light, finally, are at war with the existant, its defenders, and its false critics (an attitude we here at tMx both respect and share). Through the music of Hand Of Glory, Imperial Trumpet, Sanguine Eagle, Vilkacis, Vorde, Mongrel, and a handful of comrades in dark arms, this NYC micro label has close association with the likes of Yellow Eyes, Vanum and Krallice. trakMARX is reliably assured that a compilation record is imminent, and that a bandcamp page will rocket from the tomb to improve HOFL’s hitherto compromised communication skills to allow aficionados of the left hand path unfettered access to the blackened magic of this New York horde.
Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau . . .
Mats Gustafsson and the expanded Fire! trio return once again as Fire! Orchestra, with their third full length: ‘Ritual’ (Rune Grammofon). Contracted slightly on this outing to a 21-piece ensemble, conducted by Gustafsson, and inspired by texts written by Erik Lindgren, ‘Ritual’ is a double white-wax edifice, performed in five suites of semi-improvisational spontaneity. Gustafsson had hinted at the wanderlust of ‘Ritual’ when we’d spoken briefly at Cafe Oto in March, and I can duly confirm that my subsequent anticipation has been worth the agonising wait. Recorded and produced in a mere two days of studio time, this fact alone is testament to both the alchemical skills of the players assembled here, as well as the demands placed upon their own individual schedules by external projects. Thematically, ‘Ritual’ focusses on mystery: the rituals of music, the rituals of life. The majestic twin vocals of Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg; the oscillating electronics of Andreas Berthling; the propulsive drumming of Andreas Werliin and Mads Forsby; the massed saxophones of Anna Högberg, Mette Rasmussen, Lotte Anker, Jonas Kullhammar and Gustafson himself; the squaling guitars of Julien Deprez and Finn Lobo, all conspire as one gargantuan slab of free jazz-led, Sun Ra-tinged, psychedelic collapse, that thrills from beginning to end. Shuddering from climax to climax, ‘Ritual’ rises and falls in bi-polar fashion. Good cop/bad cop, light and shade. There is so much going on here that even a few weeks into exposure, there is promise aplenty buried within.
Icepick, a trio comprised of Nate Wooley (trumpet), Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten (double bass) & Chris Corsano (drums), follow-up their lo-fi live cassette-only debut, ‘Hexane’ (Astral Spirits), with this fidelity-conscious twelve: ‘Amaranth’ (Astral Spirits). Recorded in a single day in Austin, Texas, by Ian Rundell (Ghetto Ghouls), ‘Amaranth’ builds upon the foundations laid by said debut cassette, to free-sculpt three impressive compositions from the stone of free jazz improvisation. The ghost of Texan-expat Ornette Coleman haunts these grooves, but this is still far from traditionalist faire. Ominous passages klank and klang; melodies are ripped from the sonic darkness to lighten the palette; the bottom end rumbles and rolls, as Corsano darts in and out of the gaps on the park, filling the ambience with menace. ‘Amaranth’ announces Icepick as a force to be reckoned with, and Astral Spirits as a label of bravery and invention. In these conformist times, we surely need all the variation we can get.
Welsh double bassist and composer, Huw V Williams, has dropped one of the finest albums of the year thus far with ‘Hon’ (Self-Released). Complimented by trumpeter Laura Jurd, pianist Elliot Galvin, tenor saxophonist Alam Nathoo and drummer Pete Ibbetson, ‘Hon’ spreads pastes of Coleman and Ayler across nine slices from an electic musical timeline. Raised on a diet of indie landfill in his formative years growing up in Wales, his mind blown by the possibility of free jazz on his eventual escape to the big city, Williams’ compositions reflect this juxtaposition to forge a unique perspective that captivates from the first listen. ‘Hon’ is an incredibly warm record that embraces the twin-worlds of Williams’ influences so proportionally that the results prove to be as alluring as they are generationally representative.
Sloth Racket, a quintet featuring Cath Roberts (baritone saxophone), Sam Andreae (tenor saxophone), Anton Hunter (guitar), Seth Bennett (bass) and Johnny Hunter (drums), are not particularly slothful, it must be said. They do, however, make once glorious heck of a racket. The three pieces that comprise their debut CDR, ‘Triptych’ (Self-Released), explore freedom and structure, utilising compositions by Roberts that are as psychedelic as they are free jazz; as garage as they are concert hall. These improvisational upstarts are being hailed as the heirs to the throne of skronk, and it’s easy to see why. This is a hair-raising debut, extemporising algebraic approaches to molten form in an accessible yet angular fashion.
Cluster‘s legacy remains potent, decades beyond their halcyon era. The German core-duo of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius have their 1971-1981 output collected magnificently here with ‘Boxset’ (Bureau B). Representing the first decade of Cluster, this collection of eight original albums adds one bonus record documenting the live performances of the duo: ‘Cluster 71′ (Philips, 1971); ‘Cluster II’ (Brain, 1972); ‘Zuckerzeit’ (Brain, 1972); ‘Sowiesoso’ (Sky, 1976); ‘Cluster And Eno’ (Sky, 1977); ‘Eno, Moebius, Roedelius – After The Heat’ (Sky, 1978); ‘Grosses Wasser’ (Sky, 1979); Curiosum (Sky, 1981) and ‘Konzerte 1972/1977 (Previously Unreleased). The record’s sleeves have been designed after the colors of the legendary first album (Cluster 71). The original typo has been used, blue is the dominant colour, and the single LP sleeves use the variety of light yellow to dark red/brown which can be seen on the Cluster 71 cover art. The set includes a 12″ by 12″ booklet with essays on each release, along with the original album’s artwork. The albums have all been remastered by Willem Makkee, using a variety of original master tapes (from 1/4 to beta). Alongside previous collections from both Harmonia and Neu! in recent years, this beautiful boxset places Cluster firmly at the heart of an era in German music that still resonates to this day. The influence of Krautrock reverberates at the core of post-modern avante garde electronica, circa now, and the investment represented by this set is testament to its longevity.
Mythic Sunship, a quartet hailing from Copenhagen, eschew the Sun Ra meets Coltrane implications of their moniker for some heads-down, no-nonsense Wümme boogie. Coming on like a Münich-based Eternal Tapestry, Mythic Sunship drill their groove to the floor with cavernous basement foundations, and ride their trip all the way to the further reaches on the universe. Featuring Frederick Denning, of F.E. Denning/Descension Orchestra infamy, alongside a trio of fellow courtesans of the Posh Isolation/Mayhem scene, Mythic Sunship couldn’t be more unrepresentative of said milieu. ‘Ouroboros’, their debut album, excuses itself while it kisses the sky, recalling Amon Düül II’s defiant dedication to sonic expansion.
Neukölln, Berlin, based Cosmic Black Metal trio Sun Worship project enduring desolate images of frozen Scandinavian forests onto white walls of fresh snow through the medium of their sophomore vinyl full length, ‘Pale Dawn’ (Golden Antenna Records). Following in the footsteps in the tundra of their 2014 triumph, ‘Elder Giants’ (Dead Section), ‘Pale Dawn’ is duly executed without recourse to pretence or theatrical overtones. The riffs are razor sharp, anthemic, retaining the minor key somnambulant grace and splendour of the best of the genre. Pressed on 180g wax, in a heavy duty tip-on style jacket with foil stamping and full size insert, ‘Pale Dawn’ looks and feel as good as it sounds.
Finally this month, Greensleeves Records reissue six titles from Scientist‘s early 80s dub series. Ingeniously packaged as double vinyl sets, matching the remastered dubs with their previously estranged vocal progenitors, producers Linval Thompson and Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes deliver crucial selections of classic Roots Radics propelled rhythms recorded at Channel One and mixed by Scientist at King Tubby’s, restored to full majesty over six double wax sets: Junjo Presents ‘Heavyweight Dub Champion’, ‘Big Showdown’, ‘The Evil Curse Of The Vampires’ and ‘Wins The World Cup’, whilst Linval Presents ‘Meets The Space Invaders’ and ‘Encounters Pac Man’. Featuring a host of iconic vocal performances by the likes of Barrington Levy, Ranking Joe, Jah Thomas, Clint Eastwood, Michael Prophet, Johnny Osborne, Wailing Souls, Sammy Dread, The Viceroys, Toyan, Eek-A-Mouse and The Meditations, amongst a shining host of others, these reissues are proving to be a revelation here in the trakMARX bunker. Imagine this approach catching on for other dub classics, such as the African Dub Almighty series, the Cry Tuff Dub Encounter series, or King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown. Food for thought, mobsters!
If a saxophone falls and there’s no woman there to abuse a pedal steel guitar, is it still jazz? That’s a question I found myself pondering last week in Salford, as I witnessed free-jazz legend Peter Brötzmann misuse reeds alongside unorthodox pedal steel sorceress, Heather Leigh. Promoting the duo’s remarkable debut release, ‘Ears Are Filled With Wonder’ (Not Two Records), this unlikely pair enraptured a packed Islington Mill with their stunning concoctions of improvisational beauty, expanded from 2015’s ‘On The Road’ material. As Leigh veered from clean to distorted plucking, Brötzmann blew tenor, bass, and B-flat clarinet. Leigh’s pedal steel made like Rhodri Davies‘ harp circa ‘An Air Swept Clean Of All Distance’ at the front of the set, morphing towards ‘Wound Response’ by the close. Mesmerising throughout, this was a performance of majesty from masters/mistresses of their respective arts. Brötzmann is enjoying yet another renaissance: idolised in the mid-90s by the likes of Thurston Moore, seemingly seduced by Hamid Drake’s ear-shattering backbeat; later by the 3rd generation NY/Chicago avant garde (Vandermark, O’Rourke, etc); and later still by his old euro-mates, veterans from the glory days of free musics, the man has made more comebacks than Billy Childish! It was both a pleasure and a privilege to meet a true evolutionary hero of the counterculture, keeping it real into his 70s! Old is the new young, whippersnappers.
Having been glued to my television set for weeks throughout the early months of this year, enthralled by Icelandic noire gem, ‘Trapped’, I was beguiled enough by the program’s soundtrack to engage with it’s creators: Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur Guðnadóttir. Jóhannsson, an Icelandic composer, works in minimalist, neo-classical, drone and electronic disciplines, and has scored a host of impressive movie soundtracks, most notably for ‘Theory Of Everything’ and ‘Sicario’. Guðnadóttir, on the other hand, is a fellow Icelandic cello player and singer who emerged from the forefront of the experimental pop underground, originally as a member of Icelandic envelope-stretchers, múm. Her solo work draws a broad spectrum of sounds from her cello, ranging from intimate simplicity to huge Icelandic soundscapes, augmented by her unique vocals, and subtle shades of electronica. I’ve been immersed in Guðnadóttir’s fourth solo long player, ‘Saman’ (Touch, 2014), as a consequence of all this, and I find myself trapped in a vortex of resonance.
Both artists will be appearing at the Conway Hall, London, on 16/04/16, for a performance of Jóhannsson’s ’12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann’ by a quartet comprising: Thomas Gould (violin) Sara Wolstenhome (violin) Ruth Gibson (viola) and Peter Gregson (cello); and ‘Prepared Listening’, a solo contemplation composed and performed by Guðnadóttir.
Meanwhile, in another conceptual universe, alchemically created by welding Guðnadóttir’s ‘Saman’ to Áine O’Dwyer‘s ‘Music For Church Cleaners: Vol. I and II’ (MIE), Vanessa Amara, the duo of Birk Gjerlufsen and Victor Kjellerup, follow-up their 2014 vinyl debut, ‘Both of Us/King Machine’ (Posh Isolation), with ‘You’re Welcome Here’ (Posh Isolation), a work that exponentially exploits the already massive potential of their previous efforts to forge a veritable galaxy of wanderlust. Gainfully employing church organ, a string quartet, tape hiss, and a bank of justified but ancient synthesizers, ‘You’re Welcome Here’ is a suite of seven compositions that break new ground for contemporary chamber music. If much of Posh Isolation’s output has been dubbed ‘bubblegum industrial’, then this is ’emotional drone': immediate; arresting; intimidating; engaging; emotive; overwhelming; intense and affecting. This would already appear to be sold out direct from Posh Isolation, so do yourself a favour, and grab a copy from Boomkat, before it’s too late:
Finally, April is a month pregnant with expectation for this soldier, as I avidly await the arrival of the third long player from Fire! Orchestra: ‘Ritual’ (Rune Grammofon). When I met Mats Gustafsson briefly following the recent Fire! performance at Cafe Oto, he was positively gushing with excitement at its impending release. Earlier on stage that night, his self-depreciating sense of humour had lumped both the trio and the orchestra’s work into one homogenous basket, but that’s blatantly a massive over-simplification. According to Gustafson: “this one is the bomb!”. According to Rune Grammofon: “Fire! Orchestra have outdone themselves, and produced a beast of beauty and power: extremely well executed; beautifully recorded; and produced from only two days in the studio! Free improvisations, spontaneous horns, keyboard frenzy, abstract electronics, guitar mayhem and not to forgetting those glorious twin voices of Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg. It´s about mysteries and rituals; in music and in life”.
Fire! And Water!
Fire! and water. Opposites. Attract. Sunshine. Friday. Stormy. Saturday. Two seasons in two days. The planet warming. Someone’s lying. Rain lashes. Across the central reservation. Small orange Toyata. Speeds south. Relentless. Eating the M40. Like tarmac spaghetti. Digesting miles. Cranking Miles. ‘Bitches Brew’. Spills from the speakers. Clipping the edges of distortion. The hangover kid slumbers. Somewhere in our molecules. The anticipation. Of something. Of something special. Something radical. Something radically special. Crawling. Past Euston. Past Marylebone. Onwards King’s Cross. Station to station. Heading due East. To the land of beards. To the land of cereals. Acres of tweed. And plaid. Fields of golden nuggets. Somewhere near Capital Radio. We cross the Tottenham Court Road. Rapid burst of what sounds like automatic gunfire? The hangover kid. At once alert! Shock! Awe! Two hearts. Skip beats. As one. Browning M2? An engine? A pneumatic drill? A Kango? Nothing on the radio. Silence is the code. Static strafes the airwaves. We. Will. Never. Know. Tension mounts. The traffic. The fucking traffic. Even at 8pm at night. Does this need to be somewhere sooner rather than later never end? Through Highbury and Islington. Further East. Past the Macdonald’s where the drunken lady pretended to be sober. Deep into Dalston. Up the junction. Last few hundred metres. On foot. Satnav locked onto Cafe Oto. Twenty yards. Ten yards. In the yard. In the door: 8.30pm. Digging through the crates. I could drop a pony. Easy. Coke in bottle. The hangover kid smokes. Out on the veranda. Two hundred sharp dressed shadows flit across the backlit brick walls. Mingling. Expectantly. 9pm: stage time. Polite house introduction. Ladies and gentleman: Fire! And then they are here. Mats Gustafsson (saxophone and electronics), Johan Berthling (electric bass guitar), and Andreas Werliin (drums). Attack! Attack! Werliin drops a beat. Berthling assaults his bass. Switching from pick to thumb. Dexterity personified. Gustafasson skronks. He howls. He barks. He huffs. He puffs. He blows the house down. From time to time. Squiggles. Bleeps. Sonic punctuation. Squall. Recognition. Jams lifted from ‘You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago'; much from ‘(Without Noticing)'; a soupçon of ‘She Sleeps, She Sleeps'; a cover vershun. A homage. A tribute. A first. Apparently. ‘Would I Whip’ antagonises the audience. To sway. Perchance to groove. Caps doff. Hats at an ever-jauntier angle. Sweat drips. Heads nod. Chins be-stroked. Eyes closed in wonder. Imaginations fired. As the notes run. Wild. Fire! And skill. Placing much of what has come before on this soldier’s journey firmly in the shade. Hold on. Hold on! No more rock’n’roll. What a con. Silly little leopard skins on. Les Paul singy-song-song. Nah. Up and beyond. Over the wall. Gonna break out of this city. Another world. Another planet. The time has come. There will be no more looking over the shoulder from here on in. The future lies ahead down the highway. The past is another county. Fire! is here. Fire! is now.
- trakMARX: ROCK AND ROLL, GARAGE PUNK, PSYCHE, HEAVY METAL, PROTO PUNK, KRAUTROCK, JAP ROCK, PUNK ROCK, POST PUNK, INDUSTRIAL, BLACK METAL, DOOM/DRONE, POST ROCK, NOISE, AVANT ET L'ART DE L'ETRANGER