The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of art struggle. The spectacle of accumulation demands that repetition, the fetishism of commodities, reification and alienation be its most glaring superficial manifestation. Ideas improve. The meaning of words participates in the improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It erases a false idea, and replaces it with a left idea.
As this early shot of The Slits from 1927 attests, punk rock was anything but original. As these pages have implied previously, there is very little new under the sun. Digging in the crates of Greil Marcus‘ ‘Lipstick Traces’, a theme can be traced: through essays, manifestos, film scripts, photographs, poetry, protest songs, collages, and classic texts, from Marx to Henri Lefebvre, revealing a tradition of shared utopias, solitary refusals and impossible demands.
Heretics such as The Brethren of the Free Spirit in medieval Europe; The Ranters in seventeenth-century England; The Dadaists in Zurich in 1916 and Berlin in 1918, wearing death masks, chanting glossolalia; one Michel Mourre, who in 1950 took over Easter Mass at Notre-Dame to proclaim the death of God; the Lettrist International and the Situationist International, small groups of Paris-based artists and writers surrounding Isidore Isou and Guy Debord respectively, who produced blank-screen films, prophetic graffiti, and perhaps the most provocative social criticism of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s; inspiring in turn the rioting Parisian students and workers of May ’68, scrawling cryptic slogans on city walls and bringing France to a halt. These ugly times that envelope us now, like a poisonous miasma of accumulated wealth, demand a response that rises above: “will this do?”
As Mark E Smith once said: “All you daughters and sons/Who are sick of fancy music/We dig repetition/Repetition in the drums/And we’re never going to lose it/This is the three R’s/The three R’s/Repetition, repetition, repetition”.
Listening to almost every Fall record post-‘Live At The Witch Trials’, one has to surmise: history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Bodies of work are therefore sparse. Real magick tends to occur sporadically, before interring itself in cultural detritus to dutifully await archaeological rediscovery.
One such recently exhumed find is Count Ossie & The Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari‘s ‘Grounation’ (Dub Store Records), an unimpeachable classic, considered to be the pinnacle of Rastafarian inspired music. Master drummer Count Ossie’s band, including the incomparable tenor saxophonist Cedric ‘I’m’ Brooks, recreate a Rasta grounation, or gathering, playing and chanting a sublime supplication, including bible readings, in praise of Emperor Haile Selassie I. Available as a triple vinyl set or a double CD edition, ‘Grounation’ is the first in a radical triumvirate I have spent the festive period digesting; the second being Errol Brown‘s ‘Orthodox Dub’ (Dub Store Records), a miraculously rare and seriously obscure collection of killer dubs, one of the very few hardcore seventies dub albums mixed by Errol Brown. This selection was originally recorded by BB Seaton at Duke Reid’s legendary Treasure Isle studio, and mixed in-house by the Duke’s nephew, Errol Brown. A radical departure for all concerned, this bold dub album was never officially released, although a few clandestine copies reputedly did the New York rounds at the time. Original copies now change hands for exorbitant sums on the collectors circuit; the third and final find is Yabby You & The Prophets‘ ‘Beware Dub” (Pressure Sounds). Almost 40-years after its original release, ‘Beware Dub’ has lost none of its power and conviction, and this reissue should hopefully confirm its status as one of the key dub albums of the 1970s.
Dragging the legacy of Count Ossie, Errol Brown and Yabby You kick-drumming and screaming into the twenty first century, Jamaica’s Equiknoxx deliver ‘Bird Sound Power’ (DDS), a veritable cornucopia of avant-dancehall mutations released on vinyl for the first time ever. Ramming twelve crooked riddims onto two twelve inch discs, core members Gavsborg and Time Cow are abetted by Bobby Blackbird and Kofi Knoxx, with vocals by Kemikal, Shanique Marie and J.O.E. (R.I.P). Propelling reggae forwards in both space and time, Equiknoxx nod towards King Jammy’s foundational digi-dub in a paradox that is both utterly forward reaching yet classically grounded in the grounations of Rastafarian tradition.
Meanwhile, DDS Records patrons Demdike Stare return with their first full-length since 2012’s ‘Elemental’. Released on my birthday (Dec 2), ‘Wonderland’ (Modern Love) provides nine excursions in the reapplication of existing structures with wit and verve, and is proving to be the gift that keeps giving. Constructed from the fallen masonry of the edifice of intelligent dance music, ‘Wonderland’ is a post-everything dub masterpiece that steals the finest elements of what has come before to assemble a state of the art manifesto for where dub technology needs to go next. Plundering the archives of alt.electronica, industrial house, ambient techno, jungle, grime and psychoacoustica, ‘Wonderland’ reinvents the wheel to forge a future unitary urbanism for revolutionary relaxation. Released on double lime green vinyl, and as a triple CD that includes two bonus discs compiling the entire ‘Test Pressings’ 12″ series, ‘Wonderland’ sits comfortably alongside Zomby‘s ‘Ultra’ (Hyperdub), rattling away on repeat into those wee small hours traditionally occupied by those condemned to stay awake during holiday periods.
Finally this month, everyone loves a bit of intrigue, and there is little more intriguing in the art world presently than the true identity (or otherwise?) of alleged Serbian sound painter, Abul Mogard. Reputedly an erstwhile Serbian factory worker-turned-synthesist, who on retirement from his job at a nameless ‘factory’ which he’d ‘held for decades’, craved the ‘mechanical noise and complex harmonics of the industrial workplace’, found that the best way to fulfil that need was through electronic music.
trakMARX wasted no time in contacting tMx‘s man on the street in Novi Sad, Predrag Ljuštikin Stražmešter, who not only described the official scenario as ‘too prosaic’, but also dismissed the name Abul Mogard as ‘totally fake’. Whatever transpires in this regard, Mogard (or whatever his name is) has his early work complied by Ecstatic Recordings in the form of a rather sumptuous artefact fittingly entitled ‘Works’, a double vinyl affair on smoked grey wax. ‘Works’ comes soused in an emotional richness that’s hard to forget once experienced. Broad daubs of distorted bass and naturally glorious harmonic progressions paint panoramas of wide open, grey-scaled skies, whilst equally conveying the intimate feel of an operative with their nose to the machine (grindstone?), working the unconscious tool of history to bring about a revolution that is neither toil nor spin: a heterodox economic theory of value that argues, that both in the case of the machine and the tool, their average daily cost is the value they transmit to the product.
Bottle of Cobra Zero, I’m not a mess
Desperately clutching onto a leaflet on primitive chord progressions
Supplied to me by the London SS
It’s anyone’s guess how I got here
Anyone’s guess how I’ll go
I stopped smoking years ago – pull your Levis 511s up
Fuck off, I’m going home”
It was forty years ago today (or thereabouts: Artistic License Dept.) that Uncle Malcolm taught the band to play, and to mark the occasion with some style, a lingerie salesman from the East End of Old London Town has burnt all his dad’s old stuff in a huff to express his disgust at the memorabilia-fair-come-reformation-parade that Ye Olde Punk Rock has become, on this most auspicious of anniversaries.
All over the land, first wave oldies and bandwagon jumpers alike have thrown their arthritic arms up in the air and raised their asthmatic voices to protest at the allegedly criminal waste of literally millions of pounds worth of vinyl, posters, handbills, t-shirts, mouse mats and coffee mugs. The sound of thousands of COPD affected lungs clapping in unison is more powerful than the strength in a union, these days. Could he not have simply sold it all, and given the money to charity? What about the children? Please don’t forget about the children.
The insults have duly rained in, on Facebook post threads and Twitter feeds, setting social media platforms alight with all the wit and repartee commonly associated with a demographic who continue to see cultural worth in the works of Jimmy Pursey, Billy Idol or Richard Jobson. In wades Bill Drummond (didn’t he burn a wad of cash once, too?), with his customary panache, to nail the debate to the wall, as he has done previously at other anniversarial junctures:
“1: Punk, as defined by The Sex Pistols and The Clash, was a punk focused and framed by two men, Malcolm McLaren and Bernie Rhodes. The punk they focused, framed and presented to the world was from an East End, rag trade, Tin Pan Alley worldview. It was about short-term gain, pile it high, sell it cheap. It was about shock and novelty. There was little difference between it and the vaudeville or music hall a hundred years earlier. Or maybe Larry Parnes with a dash of Guy Debord. And none of what I am saying takes anything away from their creativity, or from the greatness of Johnny Rotten or Joe Strummer and the records they made. And I know it is easy for me to pontificate at several decades distance.
2: But even then back in 1976 and early ‘77 we were experiencing something else in Liverpool. There was another punk. A far more important punk. And this is the one that will never die. This was the one that was born in the imagination of teenagers in box bedrooms on council estates and two-up two-downs, across these islands. Teenagers who would have never stood a chance in previous generations. Teenagers in cities and towns from Belfast to Coventry, from Glasgow to Bristol, from Sheffield to Manchester and of course in Liverpool.
This punk had nothing to do with pink mohair jumpers or tartan bondage trousers. Had nothing to do with Mohican hair cuts or studded jackets. Had nothing to do sneering lips or wild stares. Had nothing to do with power chords played fast and loud. And certainly had nothing to do with the King’s Road. Thus nothing to do with an easily mimicked genre of music or style of fashion. This punk had everything to do with not waiting for permission. Especially permission from London. This punk had everything to do with doing it now, even if you had no idea of how to do it. Or even what ‘it’ was or still may be.
This punk first manifested in Manchester with the release of Spiral Scratch by the Buzzcocks on the 29 February 1977. And it has never stopped. It is happening now. And we would probably not even recognise it if it ran us down in the road tonight. It has nothing to do with the music and fashion from a long gone era”.
Meanwhile, in the words of Ye Olde Punk’s nephews, The Sleaford Mods: “You pretend to be proud of ya own culture/Whilst simultaneously not giving two fucks about ya own culture/What culture?/Fuck culture/The blueprint for all control”. Talking of control, Mark P once said to Alan Parker at some cruddy book launch or other: “Sid would have fucking hated you”. Every time I hear John Lydon, the self-appointed Archdeacon of The Church of Ye Olde Punk (Creative Control Mythology Dept.), spill crocodile tears over Vicious, I can’t help thinking that Sid would have probably hated him, too, had he been available for comment. Listening to the self-styled Richard The Third of Ye Olde Punk bemoan X-Factor-culture as karaoke, after releasing decade’s worth of Public Image Ltd records, provides valuable insight into Lydon’s stunning lack of self-awareness, as well as his limited critical faculties. Having married into one of the richest families in Germany, nee the world, Lydon still has the barefaced cheek to expect his long suffering minions to fund his vanity projects, instead of selling off a condominium or two. The swindle continues. Did you know there are over 303-different pressings of ‘NMTB’ on vinyl? Fuck off!
Can you imagine sitting around in 1976 discussing the relative controversy surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII? Thankfully, 2016 has scraped by with a minimum of this sort of thing, possibly because Ye Olde Punk Rock has had so many anniversaries it’s very anniversary is beginning to demand an anniversary of its own: I only popped into this anniversary to see what condition my anniversary was in. We’ve had the odd ghost-written autobiography (yawn), yet more 4-CD box-sets, just when mainstream culture en masse is ready to dismiss the CD as a dead format. If Ye Olde Punk Rock is to have an epitaph, it will surely be a mountain of CD box-sets, at a car-boot sale, in the rain.
The ideologically optimistic amongst us would doubtless argue: punk changed the world for ever, for the better! Did it, really? We are currently living in fear, in an age of dislocation, where any social movement advocating functional opposition to market forces is crushed by the weight of divide-and-conquer hegemonic dictate, driven by commodity fetishism. Women are still fighting for equality; minorities still rage against discrimination and oppression; the violence has become uber-symbolic; the society of the spectacle is beamed live and direct, into our own homes, at our own expense, at our alleged convenience; the haves-and-the-have-nots are now the haves-and-the-have-yachts; and the majority of the Ye Olde Punk Generation have sold their souls for something far more tangible than rock’n’roll, taking up lucrative careers, leading pseudo-political parties, intent on breaking up the only institution they’ve ever been elected into. That kind of thing. Bankers. The only notes that count are the ones that come in wads. Pensioner punks at bus stops. Blue-rinse spikey tops. Ramones t-shirts in Top Shop. Sex Pistols albums in Sainsbury’s. Seaside festivals. What are they rebelling against? What have you got? Certainly not Rock Against Scapegoating Refugees; Or The Anti-Farage League; Or The Campaign for Neoliberal Disarmament. Selling fanzines on regulated binary options. Drawdowns optional. Trustee liability. Retirement calculators. Fuck off!
As Bill Drummond rightly attests, punk rock “is happening now. And we would probably not even recognise it if it ran us down in the road tonight”. To help you avoid death by road accident, here’s a handy guide to contemporary UK punk rock that isn’t an embarrassing footnote.
Conclusion: “We’re all up in the top room of the pub/Getting heavy with the past that didn’t exist” – ‘A Little Ditty’, Sleaford Mods.
The Lowest Form
In a bid to evidence politicians from all sides of the house as having both a sense of humour and a reverence for ancient British sitcom, ‘Dad’s Army’ (1968 to 1977), recent exchanges across the floor laboured to utilise well-known (albeit generationally specific) catch phrases from the show, such as ‘they don’t like it up them’, ‘do you think that’s wise, sir?’, and ‘don’t tell them your name, Corbyn’. This hackneyed interface climaxed with the wry observation, originally uttered by the fictional Walmington-on-Sea-based platoon’s incalcitrant real life ex-undertaker and former Chief Petty Officer on HMS Defiant, Private Frazer (John Laurie): ‘we’re all doomed’. Not only is this statement resonant in terms of its nihilistic portent, it also forms the basis of this month’s column: fight or flight?
It could be argued that life is a series of Kübler-Ross models. An ever decreasing cycle of loss. From the moment we are born, we begin the inexorable march towards an inevitable death. Where once our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors used our fight or flight response at the crack of a twig whilst foraging in a forest, or at the growl of a predator whist at a natural spring, these days we use it to decide whether to lamp the dude at the water cooler droning on about Season 2 of ‘Narcos’, or instead go fetch another large latte with a shot of caramel from Cafe Uno. After all, if your coffee order is longer than three words, then you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Developing this theme musically, this month I have been caught between two obsessively compulsive stools, that of traditional protest punk (fight), and nihilistic escapist doom (flight). The past few week’s have been a veritable genre war in what passes for my mind.
Exhibit #1: Ever since their debut EP dropped on Toxic State back in the debris of 2015, NYC’s mommy have had a firm grip on the ‘best band in Nuke Yoik’ crown. A trio, comprised of bass, drums and vocals, interspersed with harrowing samples and vague sonic interference, mommy tackle the prickly subject of mental health in the age of dislocation, with alarming resonance. The affects of five years of austerity on mental health services across the Western half of the globe have decimated an already stretched sector to breaking point. The harder Uber Capitalism comes, the harder we fall.
In terms of the situation here in the UK, The Guardian sums the situation up thus: “A cross-party inquiry by MPs into the funding of mental health services has received more than 95,000 personal submissions in an unprecedented display of anger over the state of the NHS. One woman who submitted testimony linking the lack of support to suicide rates said the failure of the system to respond to people in trouble was often “what pushes you over the edge”. She wrote: “I’m scared my husband could become one of these statistics.”
A separate YouGov poll commissioned and crowdfunded by the campaigning organisation 38 Degrees found that 74% of voters believe that funding for mental health should be greater or equal to funding for physical health. The amount actually spent on mental health by the NHS last year, despite government pledges to establish parity, was just 11.9% of overall NHS spending. Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the public accounts committee holding the inquiry, said the scale of the response underlined the strength of feeling that mental health was being underfunded. “We shall question NHS England and the Department of Health on how they can meet the government’s pledges,” she said. The poll findings come as a new report, to be published on Monday by the NSPCC, says NHS commissioners are failing to take abused children into account when planning mental health services. The charity says the government’s £1.4bn investment in children’s mental health services is not being deployed to aid children who need help after abuse. Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: “Often, it’s only when children reach rock bottom, regularly self-harming or feeling suicidal, that the services they need so desperately open up to them. This isn’t acceptable.”
Some 95,555 personal submissions on the care of children and adults have so far been made to the public accounts committee. One respondent, who lives in health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s constituency in Surrey, said that a lack of support had left her daughter isolated. She wrote: “My daughter has a longstanding mental illness that has caused her great tragedy and grief. She has not had sufficient help in the community over the last 10 years and feels isolated and insecure. She is a very vulnerable person and has gone missing several times, involving the police in intensive searches.” A woman called Eve, from Bexhill and Battle, wrote: “I work in the NHS with children and young people. I know first-hand that all the services are struggling with numbers, and children often have to wait for over a year for treatment after an initial appointment.” Dawn, from Sheffield, said: “I was able to see a counsellor on the NHS but only for a very limited time, not long enough to enable me to learn the skills I needed to help me cope day to day. “I was referred to a borderline personality disorder support group but this only ran during the day, which meant, as I work, that I could not attend.”
Earlier this year, a leaked report by a government taskforce painted a bleak picture of England’s mental health services, revealing that the number of people killing themselves was soaring, three-quarters of those with psychiatric conditions were not being helped, and sick children were being sent “almost anywhere in the country” for treatment. Suicide in England is now rising “following many years of decline”, with 4,477 suicides in an average year. There has also been a 10% increase in the number of people sectioned under the Mental Health Act over the past year, suggesting their needs are not being met early enough. In some parts of the country, more than 10% of children seeking help are having appointments with specialists cancelled as a result of staff shortages. David Babbs, executive director of 38 Degrees, said the response to the opening of the inquiry should be a wake-up call to ministers. “These figures reveal the deep divide between public opinion and the funding given to NHS mental health support by the government. “Almost 100,000 responses to a parliamentary consultation – nearly all raising concerns about the state of mental health services in the NHS – should sound the alarm to ministers. “38 Degrees members are sending a clear message to government: we need better mental health services, and mental health services need better funding.”
‘Songs About Children’ (Toxic State) delivers eight instalments from the interface between inequality and mental health. A rise in aural fidelity and compositional dexterity from last year’s aforementioned EP has not resulted in an easier ride. Not by a long chalk. If anything, the overall prognosis has somewhat worsened. The vocals have sunk deeper into the mix, becoming somehow more deranged in the process. The spoken word samples seem even more sinister than they did twelve months ago: “What about making him better?”, asks a concerned parent at the close of ‘N.Y. Presbyterian’. “I can’t do it”, is the professional reply.
This deterioration in mommy’s art seemingly parallels the erosion of mental health services, via titles that ooze uncomfortableness at every drum roll: ‘The Day I Turned 13′, ‘No More Fathers’, ‘Learning In The Bathroom’, ‘How To Act At Funerals’, which ominously closes with a lone female voice: “I’d never do this in a million years, I just wanted to be thin. I’d never hurt myself the way I’m going. I’d never hurt my family the way I’m doing”.
An atypical mommy song goes a little something like this: spoken word sample intro; bass guitar, fed through a distortion pedal and split through both channels, dropping a strident riff; chaotic, clattering drumming, chasing the bass like a dragon; disturbing, interred vocals, a swarm of flies, between your ears; random sonic interference; irregular feedback; spoken word sample outro.
There are no verses. There are no choruses. There is just stream of consciousness. It lasts about twenty minutes. Then you immediately play it again. Sometimes you think you can hear voices. Other times you think you are mistaken. Sometimes you feel you’re not alone. Other times you feel utterly alone. Mental illness is one of the loneliest feelings known to human kind. It’s safe to say that you have never experienced the full force of fear if you have never succumbed to paranoid delusions; paranoid schizophrenia; aural or visual hallucinations. mommy capture the desperation of that fear, and throw it back at your disregard with petulant nonchalance. Not since the work of Nick Blinko and his rudimentary penises has the anguish of mental torpor been conveyed so accurately.
Exhibit #2: Haram, a four-piece combo from NYC, led by Nader Habibi, a Lebanese-American from Yonkers. Nader’s parents fled the Lebanese civl war in the 1980s, and eventually settled in New York, where Nader was brought up a Muslim, whilst attended Catholic school. Haram is Arabic for ‘forbidden’. Nader’s lyrics are written exclusively in Arabic, and the band play a modern hybrid of old school hardcore styles that include shards of Italian punk of the early ’80s: Negazione, Chain Reaction, Ingesti and Wretched. This European influence and their Arabic delivery mechanism sets Haram apart from the rest of their NYC milieu. Their debut EP ‘What Do You See?’ (Toxic State) follows their influential demo of 2015, and was recorded and engineered by Emil Bognar-Nasdor (Dawn Of Humans, L.O.T.I.O.N.). The record’s striking artwork extends their outsiderdom from the Toxic State norm.
Growing up in South Yonkers in the early 90s, Nader’s hard-working parents had an apartment above a pizzeria, and Nader spent many hours being cared for by his extended family and the local community. He was raised a Shia Muslim, yet attended a Catholic school, and daily religious conflict meant that growing up Middle Eastern in a Christian faith school was often a lonely existence. His early years were filled with hip-hop, informed by peer influence, he was obsessed with DJ culture from his first beat, but he gradually turned to hardcore punk around the age of sixteen, and eventually formed Haram with longtime school friend, Martin O’Sullivan. Nader’s sense of persecution was heightened in August of this year when he was briefly investigated by the FBI and NYPD for suspected ties to ISIS. Not long after the investigation concluded, a spate of bombings in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan rocked NYC. Being Middle Eastern on the hardcore punk scene can also be a lonely existence.
“What Do You See?” was released in the aftermath of these bombings, and its a seething statement of intent. As Nader himself attests: “Haram is an unceasing fight against racial abuse and humiliation, the unimaginable massacres of our world, past and present. For the disadvantaged, the people of color, the transgendered, the homosexual, the abandoned, the orphaned, the impoverished, the wrongfully executed. The victims of war, the bullet-ridden, the barrel-bombed and chemically gassed. Those in mourning, those in despair. Everything about Haram is haram. This is my fight. And I am a proud Harami – stop me if you can”.
Exhibit #3: Agitprop punkers out of Stevenage, Bad Breeding represent the UK’s most convincing stab at a punk band worth dying for in eons. Formed in December 2013, the four-piece have capitalised on the early promise of a brace of 45s with one of the strongest UK punk rock long playing debuts in living memory. ‘Bad Breeding’ (self-released) is not only a record recorded as a record (8-tracks on side one, 8-tracks on side two: intro at the start of each side, and a build-and-crescendo approach to both sides, making it an authentic recorded for explicitly for vinyl affair), it’s also one of the best dressed pieces of vinyl of it’s oeuvre since the halcyon days of anarcho-punk syndicalism, and the glory of Crass Records.
‘Bad Breeding’, therefore, is sixteen stabs at the heart of neoliberal Britain. It shares much with the agenda of the Crass generation in its critique of both left and right. Lyrically smart, sloganeeringly savvy, vocalist Chris Dodd recalls the bark of The Redskins’ Chris Dean. Although Bad Breeding’s sound is intrinsically of the now, there are traces of hoary old rock’n’roll underneath the squall. I can hear bits of Flux Of Pink Indians, a couple of Spizz Energi bass lines (‘Where’s Captain Kirk?’), maybe a touch of The Mob in places too, but this is cavalierly its own creation, and it’s massively impressive on every level. Already feted by The Guardian, Radio One, and what’s left of the NME, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been late to the party on this one, but, as you well know, I’ve had my head up my free jazz hole for most of the last couple of years now, so it’s hardly a surprise.
You can d/l the LP from the link below, and order the vinyl direct from the band’s Big Cartel. As I said, the packaging is outstanding: inner sleeve; lyric sheet; posters; and a couple of academic essays that are written to degree standard, and are both fascinating reads in their own right. As an illustration of the mark of Bad Breeding as human beings, my copy of the record arrived damaged in the post. Not Bad Breeding’s fault, they’d packaged it as diligently as I would package anything I sell on Discogs, sometimes Royal Mail can be awfully slap dash, especially to record collectors. Anyway, a week or so later, Chris dropped me an email to see if I’d received the record. I mentioned the damage, and before you could say Tom Robinson, he’d not only agreed to mail me a replacement sleeve, he’d agreed to send me a replacement copy of the entire package, FOC. As with all three exhibits, Bad Breeding are the epitome of fight. They are punk rock, in every sense of the term, and they deserve your utmost respect, and your custom. They mean it, man!
Exhibit #1: Sometimes, a record sneaks into your life unannounced, without initial fanfare. It shrugs, sits in the corner, and sulks, but its very presence causes you to keep checking if it’s ok. At first, you’re not sure if you even like it, then, slowly, you keep looking up at intervals during abstract listens, nodding your approval sagely, before returning to whatever multitask you are momentarily distracted from. Eventually, you begin to realise that you’ve accidentally discovered some hitherto unimagined paradigm, and that synchronicity has somehow been realised. The band in question are Mizmor – ‘psalm’ in Hebrew – the record is ‘Yodh’ (Gilead Media), except they are not a band at all, in the traditional sense. Mizmor are a one-man-band, and that man is A.L.N.
Mizmor play the kind of sickeningly blackened doom that aptly matches the countenance of these troubled times: gargantuan music that sneaks up on you and smashes your brains out like Colonel Mustard, with the candelabra, in the drawing room. At times of flight, I revel in this darkness: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”.
Comprising five songs almost longer than mommy’s entire album, ‘Yohd’ befits the descriptor ‘long player’ in every sense. It’s a record that reveals itself teasingly with repeated attention. I’ve been letting it infuse my consciousness slowly, during nocturnal listens, cocooned in the warmth of a duvet, as the cold nights have begun to draw in over the last month or so. There’s something about epic blackened doom that takes me back to my pre-punk adolescence, when the dinosaurs of Sabbath & Zeppelin still roamed the earth. I tend to listen to black and doom metal ensconced in my bedroom, back where it all began (not the same bedroom, obviously).
Exhibit #2: The Pacific Northwest is a fertile realm for the discipline of black metal, and October saw Portland power trio Urzeit release their debut full length, ‘Anmoksha’ (self-released). Conceptually, ‘Anmoksha’ interprets the Hindu term of moksha – release from the cycle of rebirth impelled by the law of karma, the transcendent state attained as a result of being released from the cycle of rebirth – though the medium of blackened punk. Anmoksha, therefore, is the moksha-less void of being stuck in an infinite loop, neither dead nor alive, trapped for eternity. The central theme of the record is seemingly self-loathing.
Urzeit are powered by the drumming of Mizmor‘s A.L.N., but ‘Anmoksha’ is a million miles from the epic soundscapes of ‘Yodh’. Over a set of ten songs that fill the same hour as ‘Yodh”s five, a variety of tempos and styles provide a light and shade that contradicts the central theme of darkness outlined above. The twin vocal approach of guitarist R.F. and drummer A.L.N. adds another level of duality, as do the subtle shifts in guitar tone and attack that allow the album to rise and fall in intensity, as well as tempo. The record’s eerily beautiful cover art by Wormlust’s H. V. Lyngdal completes the package to render ‘Anmoksha’ and artefact worthy of worship.
Exhibit #3: Originally released on cassette by Caligari Records, Santa Cruz-based Gloam‘s debut long player ‘Hex Of Nine Heads’ has now been picked up on vinyl by Gilead Media, for a November release. Gloam’s alluring blend of atmospheric black metal and epic doom-laden progression was recorded by Greg Wilkinson at Earhammer studios, with additional tracking by Lord Vast at The Temple of Ouroboros. Mastering was executed by Dan Randall at Mammoth Sound Mastering. The transition from demo (2012), to EP (2014), to album, has been one of exponential growth for Gloam. With little Cascadian influences, and no punk running through their genes, Gloam hark back to the forebears of old school black metal, adding an atmospheric and progressive slant that is entirely their own.
The standard of musicianship on ‘Hex’ is often stunning. The drop-outs to lone guitars have a warmth of tone that draws you in holds you there. Sandwiched between flamenco intro/outros, ‘Torrents Of Blood’ leads a charge of three shorter songs trapped between the epic pillars of ‘Where Freezing Winds Forever Blow’ and the album’s title track. In many ways, ‘Hex Of Nine Heads is a record that takes me back, once again, to that bedroom of my nascent youth. As with all three exhibits, it’s an exercise in flight: an escape from the hypernomalisation that threatens to put us all to the sword, and sacrifice our very souls at the alter of greed, trapping us for eternity in the void between life and death: anmoksha.
They say it is easier to imagine the end of the world as it is to imagine the end of capitalism. They say that we know that we are fucked. They say the only questions are: how hard? And for how long? The elite know that we know that they are lying to us. They also know that we are too scared to do anything about it. It’s time to fight or flight: which side are you on?
“You’re gonna wake up one morning and know what side of the bed you’ve been lying on!”
If, like me, you’ve been hovering over the mouse pad consistently these past couple of months, considering every social media posting to the Nth degree, fearful of invoking the wrath of the PLP, and subsequent suspension from the Labour Party, then the reelection of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the party on 24/09/16 must surely have come as some kind of epiphany. It was almost time to start randomly running into brightly lit rooms shouting: “Put that bloody light out, don’t you know there’s a war on?” It comes to something when celebrity A-listers like Seaford Mods‘ Jason Williamson are suspended from the Labour Party! To the relief of likeminded critical thinkers the breadth of the country, it’s now culturally acceptable, once again, to post pictures of dilapidated ice cream vans, and judgementally label Tory Trolls and Blairite haters ‘silly little men’ (and, amusingly, they are almost always ‘men’). A uneasy calm has returned to the trenches of the Twittersphere, the smell of mustard gas and dry ice just a faint memory in the nostrils.
Now, not for a moment do I doubt the sincerity of Labour’s parliamentary executive in their struggle to ensure that democracy in their party is carried out to the letter, but it has been at times traumatic not to feel liberated enough to post the word ‘c**t’ every time one sees a photo of Owen Smith. Thankfully, that’s all behind us now, and we can concentrate on uniting as a national community behind our leader, as we take on the Tories, the PLP, Rupert Murdoch, right wing hegemony, the BBC, The Guardian, The Independent, The Mirror and the Laura Kuenssberg Army Faction. What could possibly go wrong? With this in mind, I have designed a graph that predicts the possibilities: The X-axis is labeled ‘Corbyn’s movement towards taking power’. The Y-axis is labelled ‘possible window for Corbyn’s assassination’. A very British coup.
Meanwhile, back at the plot, and strictly in the interests of continuity, you may recall that August’s column left this writer riddled with theoretical torpor on the Isle Of Lewis, re-enlightened, but facing a long drive south. Luckily, for me, more than anyone, I’m still here to bash out September’s instalment: gainfully employed, and therefore able to waste what little disposable income I do have on vinyl, in order to proffer some kind of guidance to those of you out there that still revel in outsider pseudo-culture.
Having returned from Orkney and Lewis repurposed and recalcitrant, to some degree, the month of September was mostly spent exploring new horizons, reflecting on misspent months misguidedly trying to save things that intrinsically didn’t want to be saved. I spent an inordinant amount of time changing profile/cover pictures on my social media platforms, always a dead giveaway that I’m wrestling with existential wardrobe monsters instead of sleeping. My ratio of posts about depression and mental health went through the roof. Those close to me in real life took me to one side and told me they’d been concerned. Cull after cull ripped through my record collection. Acres of vinyl appeared on my Discogs page, seemingly overnight. I’d begun to doubt my own vinyl existence. Was this the vinyl solution? I ruminated on the questionable motivations of anyone who would actually want to read this drivel anymore. Although my handlers insist that ‘traffic isn’t an issue’, and that people still flock to these pages, ostensibly to delve through the archives for rare pictures of Debbie Harry and Cravats 45 sleeves, I often wonder who the actual fuck could possibly share any of my naive eclecticism in these days of Orwellian prophecy.
As is often the case when we flounder, adrift on hostile seas of musical indifference, searching for that elusive portal to lead us back to the Navidson Records, and, ultimately, the expansive rooms of the House Of Leaves, we stumble across that connection blindly, as if led by some ethereal cord. This time, a late night trawl through the Antipodean home of Lawrence English led to the observations of one David Toop, doyen of the golden age of impromental experivisation, on his new record for English’s Room4o Records: ‘Entities Inertias Faint Beings’. Toop therein describes how, during his mid-fifties, he began to tire of music as an exercise in tuneage, and instead began to look beyond mere collections of notes, to the distant void of sound itself. Synchronicity calling. I spent a long night listening and re-listening to the sounds of ‘Entities Inertias Faint Beings’, beguiled and fascinated by the hypnagogic power of Toop’s art. ‘Dry keys echo in the dark and humid early hours’ captured my imagination as I floated on my very own ocean flux. In this solitude, I too contemplated death, decay, and the gush of life: a spark lit the pilot light, and the boiler fired-up to heat my cold heart from within.
As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared. From 1975 to 1979, Toop, along with a collective of fellow musicians/artists from the London free improv scene, including Steve Beresford, Annabel Nicholson, Evan Parker, David Cunningham, Lindsay Cooper, Eddie Prevost, John Russell, Derek Bailey, Hugh Davies, Peter Riley, et al., published a magazine that was to prove a watershed: Musics. Launched in Spring of 1975, Musics set the template for what would soon become an explosion of punk rock fanzines, covering the then nascent fields of sound art, field recording, free improvisation, live electronics, 20th century composition and audio culture. Published six times a year, and running to twenty-three issues in its 4-year tenure, Musics has now been collated and bound, and published as a single volume by Thurston Moore‘s Ecstatic Peace imprint.
Designed to challenge boundaries, Musics linked the worlds of free-jazz and academia to miscreants such as John Cage, Cornelius Cardew and Stockhausen, breaking even further ground with the inclusion of emerging indigenous and non-European musics. In the grand tradition of an anarchist collective, Musics was a haven for ne’er-do-wells, a hotbed of alternatives. As Toop himself attests: “With rose-tinted affection, I recall mass paste-up sessions with spray mount; a page of reviews of electronic music by women, written by Lily Greenham in 1978; in the same issue are five beautifully written and illustrated pages about listening in Greece; an aural sketchbook by Dave Veres was just one example of pieces about listening practice and field recording; there are also invaluable accounts of groups such as The People Band, Feminist Improvising Group, CCMC, Los Angeles Free Music Society, MEV, and the Dutch musicians associated with Instant Composers Pool”.
One of the artists involved in the creation of Musics was Peter Cusack, whose debut long player from 1977 has found a new lease of life through the impeccable imprint, Editions Blume. ‘After Being In Holland For Two Years’ typifies the rampant eclecticism of Musics’ mandate: wholesome, natural, abstract, a fascinating record, even some 40-years after the fact, it’s still impossible to genre-stereotype. A solo album of guitar noodling and field recordings, it presents as a collage of fuzzily focussed snapshots, hastily mounted into a vinyl scrapbook. Captured for posterity, yet somehow hanging in space and time in the very moment in which it was created. Reissued here for the first time since its first pressing, with extensive new liner notes by Toronto-based composer-performer Martin Arnold complimenting the original notes Cusack himself submitted for the record’s initial release, this limited pressing comes in a bold green jacket, with a fold-up tai-panel inner, on green wax, with an Obi strip.
Any thematic muse loosely associated to free jazz is not worth its salt without the inclusion of Peter Brötzmann, whose latest Full Blast jam with the Swiss rhythm section of Marino Pliakas (e-bass) and Michael Wertmüller (drums) has been glued to my turntable. ‘Risc’ (Trost Records) is the combo’s fifth long player, and finds the trio pushing the envelope further than its ever been pushed before. With sterling assistance from Michael Wertmüller (production), Gerd Riche (electronics) and Gareth Jones (mixing duties), ‘Risc’ stands out from the crowd in a year that has already seen a number of free jazz related future classics hit the decks (Fire!, Fire! Orchestra, Hedvig Mollestad Trio, Bushman’s Revenge). Riddled with contemporary electronic interfaces, the record’s seven cuts challenge continually, without recourse to either dullness or cliche. With an artist as consistently prolific as Brötzmann (a slew of releases already this year, alone), it’s often difficult to know when to jump in and when to pass. Although I’m personally by no means a completist, the man is one of the closest things to a hero its possible for a 53-year old to have in 2016, and ‘Risc’ is a mighty fine piece of work that will no doubt be troubling the scorers come end of term.
Elsewhere, I’ve been impressed with British saxophonist John Butcher‘s latest collaboration with the Portuguese RED trio: ‘Summer Skyshift’ (Clean Feed); embroiled in SomA and Noble’s expansive fifth Aethenor album, ‘Hazel’ (VHF Records); ensconced in modular don John Chantler‘s epic fifth album, ‘Which Way To Leave’ (Room40); totally connected to ‘Broken Telephone’, Mark Fell, Laura Cannell, Rhodri Davies and Peter J. Evans‘ collaborative quadruple 12″ set, originally purposed for Evans’ solo exhibition, ‘Across islands, divides’, at BALTIC B39; and totally mesmerised by Johann Johannsson’s number station-infused ‘Orphee’ (Deutsche Grammophon).
Finally, it is with eternal optimism that I sign off this month. Politically, I have renewed hope that the policies of conscience espoused by Jeremy Corbyn provide the rallying call this dislocated nation needs to rise against the continued oppression of the neoliberal elite. I felt privileged to be amongst the faithful in Birmingham on 17/09/16 to witness the power of the man in person. Amongst a crowd of over 2,000, I cannot recall such a groundswell of passionate support for a politician. It took me back to the MIner’s Strike rallies. It felt like a gig. Corbyn connected with everyone present. Universal connection in an age of dislocation. If you haven’t done so already, join the Labour Party.
Musically, I have learnt, yet again, that there is always something undiscovered and inspirational through the next door. The House Of Leaves has many rooms, there’s always something for everyone somewhere. In the meantime, I trust that the few of you left that still read this column take as much from reading it as I do from writing it. Musics. The food of love. Play on!
“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.
- 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