Woah, it smells a bit funny in here. Kinda dank, musty… there’s definitely something turning bad…

There’s clearly nothing going on here, so I thought I’d pollute the interwaves in some other fashion: http://twitter.com/NarcoAgent

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An aural overview of some of my favourite records of 2009 is now available on the Mixtapes page. Go forth safe in the knowledge that it is an Animal Collective/Fever Ray/the xx-free zone…

And in thinking back on another year that fizzed by, yet was again punctuated by many wonderful live music experiences, I couldn’t resist coming up with a list of those that seemed extra special. When I’m standing in a crowd, washed over by waves of sound, I often think that this is as close to religion as I’m ever gonna get. The shared experience with one’s fellow concert-goers (who in that moment don’t seem to to be the greedy, selfish, stupid creatures that many of us are), seeing, hearing, feeling what is arguably humankind’s greatest artistic expression (I’m talking about Music, not David Yow’s bodily fluids), well it makes me feel good to be alive. These are ten instances where that feeling came on particularly strong – if you were there, you know what I mean…

The Jesus Lizard, Dälek, Grails, Magnolia Electric Co, Sonic Youth

l-r: (top) David W Sims of The Jesus Lizard, Dälek (middle) Grails
Magnolia Electric Co (bottom) Sonic Youth

Dälek @ Sonic City festival, De Kreun, Kortrijk, Belgium (04 April 2009)
Over an early-April weekend, Dälek curated their own ATP-like mini festival in the Belgian city of Kortrijk, bringing together friends & heroes like 2nd Gen, Earth, Zu and Charles Hayward – but it was the curators themselves (assisted by buddies Oddateee and Destructo Swarmbots) that stole the show with their industrial-strength beats & dense rhymes smothered in an avalanche of noise.

Grails @ ATP: The Fans Strike Back festival, Butlins Minehead, UK (10 May 2009)
Highlight (one of many) of an ATP that delivered so much. Extra percussionist Dave Abramson allowed Emil Amos to switch between guitar and drums, and Sunn O))) soundman Randall Dunn manned the analogue synths, creating the sample-filled dronescapes that linked the songs into a single thrilling journey through exotic otherlands.

The Jesus Lizard @ ATP: The Fans Strike Back festival, Butlins Minehead, UK (10 May 2009)
The night before, the Lizard’s first show in some ten years, was something special for its sense of occasion and because the band delivered on all expectations. But this show seemed that bit better, like they rocked a little harder, a little tighter, a little shinier. But maybe only because I was able to properly focus on rawk-ing along, instead of standing transfixed like a mouth-breathing happy bunny caught fluff-fluffing in the headlights thinking “oh my god! It’s the Jesus Lizard!!!” …

Magnolia Electric Co. @ Primavera Sound festival, Barcelona, Spain (29 May 2009)
Good times in the sweltering Spanish sunshine. The ever-affable Jason Molina and his Magnolia cohorts ‘classic country rock’-ed their way through much of “Josephine“, and although you’ll never hear Molina revisit Songs: Ohia material, at least they delved into the recent past for nuggets like “Leave The City”, “Hard To Love A Man” & “The Dark Don’t Hide It” – and were demanded back by the baying crowd for an encore of “Hammer Down”.

Sonic Youth @ Primavera Sound festival, Barcelona, Spain (30 May 2009)
Wow! With Pavement bassist Mark Ibold in the line-up, Kim Gordon (one hot [gran]mama in ripped stockings) could switch between adding extra guitar attack-ack-ack or double bass thump to the Yoof’s swirling noiserock. The whole show thundered by as though a blissed-out daydream, the crowd seemingly surfing on an euphoric wave of energy. Songs from “The Eternal”  made up the majority of the set, but it was oldies like “‘Cross The Breeze”, “Tom Violence” and closer “Expressway To Yr Skull” that had my grin at its widest.

Neurosis @ Patronaat, Haarlem, the Netherlands (08 July 2009)
Launching with “At The End Of The Road”, Neurosis quickly constructed a towering wall of sound, but the intricate interplay of the instruments was never lost in the din. The set is “Given To The Rising”-HEAVY (prompting a positive re-evaluation of an album that sorta passed me by), the atmosphere dark and oppressive – not least because the band have it written into their agreement with the venue that all airco is turned off during their set, making for a sweaty & claustrophobic experience.

Oneida @ Paradiso, Amsterdam, the Netherlands (14 August 2009)
The Little “O” seemed to be having a particularly good time (pleased too that the Big “O” was playing the main hall downstairs at the same time), the positive energy emanating from the stage proving infectious. Oneida sure know how to work a rifftastic groove, and man can that Kid Millions play the drums.

Micah P Hinson @ Toutpartout 15 Years Birthday Night, Botanique, Brussels, Belgium (28 November 2009)
Micah P‘s self-confessional and intimate songs were perfectly suited to the amazing Rotunda room in the Botanique (situated in the botanical gardens of Brussels), surely one of the best live music venues around. He played plenty off covers album “All Dressed Up And Smelling Of Strangers“, paying tribute to his musical heroes & influences, including “coked-up airplane pilot” John Denver with a goosebump-inducing rendition of “This Old Guitar”.

Six Organs Of Admittance @ 10 Years of ATP festival, Butlins Minehead, UK (11 December 2009)
The joke round these parts goes: although I’m an appreciator of the axe-wielding babe-ness of Elisa Ambrogio, I’d much rather shack up with her beau Ben Chasny. Well there was no Elisa this time, but aided by Alex Nielsen’s expressive drumming and the baritone guitar of Andrew Mitchell, Chasny delivered the highlight of the festival – well, at least until Shellac came, saw & conquered two days later.

Shellac @ 10 Years of ATP festival, Butlins Minehead, UK (13 December 2009)
About as perfect as a rock show can be. They’ve got the tunes, they play together as though they’ve discovered the ability to mind-meld, shit there’s even choreography (Albini’s impression of a slowed-down-then-sped-up-tape is spot on). And inbetween the ‘minimalist hard rock’ songs that make you wanna bang your head, they are just fuckin’ funny – Shellac stage-banter is second only to that of Warren Ellis in laugh-out-loud comedy gold.

Todd Trainer: “Do I look like I can fuck??!!”
Albini: “He’s being modest – he’s a genetically-engineered machine designed to only fuck and play drums. He’s the result of a gene-splicing experiment conducted on Gene Krupa and one of those earth-moving machines…”

Neurosis, Micah P Hinson, Oneida, Shellac, Six Organs Of Admittance

l-r: (top) Neurosis (middle) Micah P Hinson, Oneida
(bottom) Shellac, Six Organs Of Admittance

Of course, this list omits many other memorable experiences. Sheeee-it, I saw The Jesus Lizard in three different countries, the always-awesome Shellac the same. There was Sunn O)))’s Atilla Csihar creating an incredible piece of performance art with his cloak of mirrors, lasered-claws and mesmerising mix of hellish growls, throat singing & Gregorian-style chanting. Sleep (temporarily) reunited! Nick Cave playing stripped-down versions of Bad Seeds songs (backed only by Warren Ellis & Martyn P Casey), interspersed with readings from his latest novel. Two fantastic ATPs with a Primavera in balmy Barcelona sandwiched inbetween. Anti-Pop Consortium transposed from Nieuw Haarlem to the Old. And many more great nights out in the various ‘poppodia’ in an around Amsterdam. Huge gratitude to all those that made these happen.



This little patch of the interweb galaxy fell into disuse & disrepair for most of 2009. Not through a lack of will or best intentions, but due to a poisonous combination of block, perfectionist ambition (AKA fastidiousness), and an increasing paucity of ‘free’ time (time which I feel should be better spent listening / experiencing music, rather than writing about it afterwards). Nonetheless, I would like to keep this gnarled & weed-filled garden somewhat tended – one of the main motivations for planting it in the first place was so that I’d have some written record of my music-related experiences, something to (re)call on in years to come (when I’ve completely obliterated my memory).

So here’s to a bit more activity in 2010!

‘Tis of course the season for list-making, Best Of’s and the like. At this time it’s worth rehashing this old chestnut. Read with bated breath to see if it’s Animal Collective or Fever Ray that’ll make you a crazy fool for never having been interested in hearing them (yep, guilty as charged…).

Also worth checking out is the Village Voice’s review of the hyped alt. music genres of the past 10 years (thanks Plasmatron).
I readily admit to falling under the spell of (and still listening to) some of these, but thank fuck Crabcore hasn’t got its pincers into me. Take a look at these Emo berks.

Here’s Warren Ellis of Dirty Three explaining the dream he has for all Emo bands (from the D3 performance at ATP’s 10th birthday celebrations, 12 Dec 2009):


And staying true to this being an unashamed place of Albini worship, here is my favourite music-related photo of 2009: Steve discovering that he really likes fish, picture courtesy of his new bride.

Steve's With The Fishes

And the great man is not just the God of Guitar Skinng, Recorder-in-Chief and Nutter Butter cookie connoisseur – he’s a bloody philanthropist as well!



My first ever white Christmas also turned out to be the saddest, with the news of Vic Chesnutt’s death by suicide on 25 December. He was 45 years old. A car accident at age 18, which left him partially-paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, is often credited for sparking his true creative flowering, as during his convalescence he devoured literature & poetry and had to relearn how to play the guitar with fingers that didn’t work so good no more. I’d assumed that his physical disability was also responsible for his complex relationship with death and mortality, seemingly flailing out at it one moment, calmly inviting it in the next. But a look at this biography shows that the first of five (suicide-attempt-caused) comas happened in his 16th year – the man clearly struggled with pain most of his life, his quadriplegia providing the emotional torment with a tangible sting.

Emasculate me with your biology.
Bend me, break me, I’m worthless.

(from “Arthur Murray”, on “The Salesman & Bernadette”, 1998)

Although his name was one I’d seen bigged-up for some time – he was clearly a songwriter’s songwriter – my first acquaintance with his music was 2007’s “North Star Deserter”, his stark songs given added ferocity by a backing band of Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and members of A Silver Mt. Zion. This is a collection of blackly humourous musings on the nature of death & decay, backed with the apocalyptic guitar hurricane and mournful strings of early GYBE!, and made me an instant convert to one of our time’s most unique voices. I was privileged to see him play in Amsterdam in early 2008 – so fragile and small in his wheelchair, the lay of his guitar looking uncomfortable, the strumming of his two working fingers seemingly painful – yet so defiant, spiky and larger than life. He, and the songs through which he laid his life & struggles bare, easily filled every nook of the Paradiso hall that night, ably supported by what he called “the greatest backing band in the world”. It felt as though everyone present in that old church was in tune to the fact that we were witnessing something special. When I look back on a life of amazing live music experiences, that night will always stand out.

Vic Chesnutt live at Paradiso, Amsterdam (13-Feb-2008)

Chesnutt certainly didn’t let his disability hold him back in sharing his songs with the wider world – he has released some 15+ albums, culminating in 2009’s  “At The Cut” and “Skitter On Take-Off” (both released just a few months before his death). “At The Cut” again has Picciotto & the ASMZ’ers fleshing out Vic’s spare compositions. It is another set of literate dark-heart-on-sleeve contemplations, the stand-out track being “I’ve Flirted With You All My Life”, which Vic himself described as “a love song. It’s a suicide’s breakup song with death.” Although Vic’s multiple suicide attempts heightened the possibility that he could take himself away from us at any time, I had thought that the hope displayed in that song – “Oh Death, really, I’m not ready!” – meant that Vic had truly turned a corner, no longer wishing to die. It was a naïve thought – the struggle with manic depression is characterised by its peaks and troughs, following no linear path…

Why do I insist on drinking myself to the grave?
Why do I dream of a cozy coffin?
I had all these plans of great things to accomplish,
but I end up totally pathetic more than often.
(from “Old Hotel”, on “The Salesman & Bernadette”, 1998)

It’s at times such as these that you wish that people like Vic could see themselves as the rest of the world sees them, not just how they see themselves. Listening to his self-confessionals it would seem he considered himself a coward, weak, invisible – something worthless, small & broken – yet all the tributes flowing in provide a completely contrary view, best encapsulated by this one quote: Vic was “a tiny giant of a man”. In the words of his great friend Kristin Hersh (Throwing Muses, 50ft Wave): “what he left here is the sound of a life that pushed against its constraints, as all lives should. It’s the sound of someone on fire. It makes this planet better.”

You can listen to a 6 song sampler of Vic’s work with Picciotto/ASMZ here.


The Six Strings That Drew Blood (Rowland Around In That Stuff)


To add to the anti-festive mood round NarcoAgent Towers, I learned on New Year’s Eve that Rowland S Howard had passed away the day before. He’d fought a long battle against liver cancer, finally succumbing at age 50. For me Howard is one of the all-time greats of post-punk guitar – it’s his searing riffs that gave the swaggering, menacing The Birthday Party much of its swagger and menace. And what’s not to like about a man that listed his influences as “Hanging out with girls, smoking, fraternizing with girls, talking to girls on the telephone while smoking, smoking with girls.”

Howard joining proto-Birthday Party band The Boys Next Door in 1978 is credited with sparking that band’s transformation into something truly unique, and after the Party was over he pursued a varied solo career, collaborating with Lydia Lunch, Nikki Sudden, and also doing a stint in an early incarnation of Crime & The City Solution (after which he formed These Immortal Souls with other ex-Crims). His first solo album in 10 years – “Pop Crimes” – was released in late 2009. RIP.

Here’s the Boys Next Door/Birthday Party song “The Friend Catcher” performed live in Bremen, Germany sometime in 1982 (taken from “Live 1981-82“), as good a showcase as any for Rowland’s talent.

The Birthday Party – The Friend Catcher (live in Bremen 1982)

See also Toilet Guppies


Go to your favourite record shop and pick up some of Vic & Rowland’s rekkids – because as long as you’re listening, they’re still somehow alive.



I’m by no means an experienced festival-goer. Despite having soiled with saliva the Reading & Glastonbury ad pages of my late 80s Melody Makers & NMEs, by the time I was in close enough proximity to attend one of those ‘holy grail’ festivals the line-ups didn’t hold enough interest to warrant spending three days in an increasing state of mud bespatterment. For me it has to be first & foremost about the music, maannn – I view as alien those who attend these events just for the ‘vibe’, wandering around dazed & confused, missing all the performances in lieu of some altered state of camaraderie. So when the deserving-of-huge-reward-in-the-afterlife Barry Hogan and Helen Cottage launched the inaugural All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in 2000, it was a dream come true – one of my favourite bands (Mogwai) choosing all of their favourite bands (amongst whom Shellac, Papa M, Wire, Sonic Youth, The For Carnation, Bardo Pond) to play in a seaside holiday camp where the punters had a proper roof over their heads, a plumbed-in toilet and self-catering facilities. That April weekend was one of the best of my life thus far, and subsequent ATP experiences (Shellac 2002, The Director’s Cut 2004, Slint 2005, Dirty Three 2007) similarly served up never-to-be-forgotten idyll on the English coast.

That the fine folks of ATP have over the years achieved the seemingly impossible by tempting out of retirement Slint, Television, My Bloody Valentine and now the Jesus Lizard, only adds to their legend, and to my mind you can’t have much better endorsement than that of the notoriously promoter-skeptical & festival-avoiding Steve Albini, who said “There are three things in the world that I endorse: Abbey Road Studios, Nutter Butter Sandwich Cookies and All Tomorrow’s Parties” (a somewhat healthier endorsement than that which appeared in the liner notes of Big Black’s “Songs About Fucking“: “Steve uses and endorses heroin”). Albini’s band Shellac are such regular ATP’ers that they’re now officially the “ATP house band”.


ATP flashback 01

from top, l-r: Mogwai (2005), Shellac (2004), Matmos (2005), Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (2002), carousel horses (2007), Joanna Newsom (2007), Envy (2004)


On the return journeys after those wonderful weekends there have always been daydream conversations about “if you were curating ATP…”.

In 2007 the organizers gave form to those daydreams, introducing the concept of “ATP vs the Fans“, where the ATP folk chose half the line-up and ticket holders collectively got to select the rest (via a voting system). That concept has been resurrected for one of the May weekends in 2009, this time with the stipulation that votes can only be cast for bands that have not previously played an ATP festival in the UK. After purchasing tickets, attendees each get to submit a wishlist of 10 acts – these votes are tallied into a master list and every two weeks the top 2 names on that list are approached to play the festival (should the top 2 prove unavailable then the next 2 are approached). Of course it is unreasonable to expect people to splash the cash without some initial enticement, and the organisers more than held up their end by announcing a (to me) mindblowing first few names for their portion of the bill: the reformation of the Jesus Lizard!!! the reformation of Sleep!!! Anti-Pop Consortium!!! Grails!!!

On the basis of those four alone this became a must-attend event for me, and tickets have duly been procured and votes cast. Excluding bands that have previously played these awesome festivals was a tough assignment, as so many of my favourites have already appeared, but in the end the difficulty was reducing the list down to just ten.


ATP flashback 02

from top, l-r: Ganger (2000), Slint (2005), Camber Sands (2002), Múm (2005), Zeni Geva (2002), Dirty Three (2007), Camber Sands (2005), Boredoms (2004), Low (2002)


So now the wait in hope that I’m not too far out of step with the other attendees, and that at least some of my choices end up playing.  So far no good, with only two of those choices – Future Of The Left and Jesu – scoring high enough to be proffered an invite (which FotL have duly accepted, still waiting on Mr JK Flesh). Of the current list of 100,  only a handful of my choices are languishing in the lower reaches of the chart, so it seems I’ll have to rely on a ‘wildcard pick’ to see any more of my wishlist tread the Butlins boards in early May, but there is still plenty of time to go so I remain hopeful. None-the-less, with recent confirmations from Electric Wizard, Alan Sparhawk’s Retribution Gospel Choir and Qui, offers out to Neurosis, Killing Joke, Wolves In The Throneroom, Harvey Milk and Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, and faith in the further choices of the ATP curators, the line-up for “ATP: The Fans Strike Back” promises to be an awesome one and I’m already gleefully rubbing body parts in anticipation of my May trip to the wilds of Minehead!


On the Mixtapes page you’ll find a companion-compilation to the 2007 ATP which was curated by Dirty Three.

 

My votes went to :
Alasdair Roberts
Boduf Songs
Epic45
Future Of The Left
Jesu
Killdozer
Nadja
Scout Niblett
These New Puritans
The Young Gods

The votes of my unmarried female companion :
Aesop Rock
Alasdair Roberts
Boduf Songs
Epic45
Jesu
Killdozer
Nadja
Scout Niblett
Tunng
Whip / Timesbold

Last Saturday night (7 Feb) saw the kick-off of my 2009 gig ‘season’ with Giant Sand‘s performance in the Paradiso‘s upstairs room. I’m not familiar with Howe Gelb‘s work, knowing more about him from association (the kudos of some of my favourite female performers in Scout Niblett, Kristin Hersh and PJ Harvey, and the Giant Sand offshoots of Calexico and Friends Of Dean Martinez) than from his records – but his intuitive, virtuosic playing (on both guitar and piano) and personable good humour quickly won me over. Gelb’s ‘desert rock’ compositions are now fleshed-out by a trio of Danes (having married a Dane, Gelb splits his time between the Arizona desert and the more temperate climes of Aarhus), but the sound is still pure Americana, evoking not only the scrubby skree of the Sonoran Desert, but also Prohibition-era speakeasies, the red vinyl of diner booths, blood moons and lost highways. He wrenches some amazing sounds from his guitar, sometimes even to the obvious bemusement of his bandmates, and at times spews some squalling, corrosive riffs that Steve Albini would be proud to call his own.

In a tribute to Cramps frontman Lux Interior, who sadly died in the week, Gelb launches into a Duane Eddy-like surf-guitar riff, before reminiscing how Giant Sand opened for the Cramps in France on his first-ever European tour back in 1986. Gelb had smuggled two joints in the band of his Stetson, which were expropriated by Cramps drummer Nick Knox (although then graciously shared with their former owner), and the internationally-freighted weed, playing on European soil for the first time, in front of 3,000 people (up to that point having been used to audiences of around twenty people), and hanging with the Cramps (the Cramps!!) all made for an understandably unforgettable experience. Gelb, with his Richard Gere good looks, is in particularly good nick for his 52 years (he attributes this to the restorative powers of beer), something which is not lost on his female fans: after he educates us about the Galician saying “Os pementos de Padrón, uns pican e outros non” (the peppers of Padrón, some are hot and others not), someone upfront retorts “you’re hot!”, leaving him at a loss for words for the only time that evening. The gig closes with the band joined onstage by fellow desert-dweller Lonna Kelly, who’d played in support. The pregnant Kelly is the subject of some classic Gelb humour – joking about her waters breaking on stage: “it’ll be just like SeaWorld: only the front two rows will get wet”. Kelly has an amazing voice, although unfortunately it suffers from not being distinctive enough – at times a dead ringer for Cat Power/Chan Marshall, at others it’s the Icelandic elven-tones of Björk or Múm‘s Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir.

 dividing line

As this was my first live music experience of 2009 (not counting a visit earlier in the week to Amsterdam’s impressive Concertgebouw for a Wagner/Shostakovich ‘double-bill’), it caused me to reflect on the world-according-to-NarcoAgent best shows of 2008:

The year got off to a great start with an amazing performance by Vic Chesnutt, backed by various members of A Silver Mount Zion and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. Vic’s blackly humorous musings on mortality set the bar high, a height only reached again in late May with the powerhouse Primavera performance of Shellac (although Earth and other Primavera‘sters Six Organs Of Admittance, Om, Fuck Buttons, Kinski and Scout Niblett all came close). Seeing the classic “Locust Abortion Technician”/”Hairway To Steven”-era line-up of Buttholes Surfers was a special treat, despite the presence of “The Paul Green School Of Rock All Stars” threatening to drag the whole enterprise down into a farce unbecoming even of the Buttholes.  There had initially been uncertainty over whether Paul Leary would make the cross-Atlantic journey, but make it he did, and make my night he did, he being one of the best goddamned guitarists I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in action.

Mogwai in the atmospheric forest-enclosed amphitheatre of the Rivierenhof was a magical experience, but lacked a bit of the firepower I’ve come to expect from the Scottish Guitar Army. This was rectified two months later in the Melkweg where the volume was turned high and the jams were kicked out. Songs from “The Hawk Is Howling” made more of an impact this time round, particularly the mesmerising “Scotland’s Shame” and the triple-guitar-assault of  “Batcat” which closed the set in thunderous style. And they played “Christmas Steps”… ’nuff said. Setlist here.

Mogwai @ Melkweg, Amsterdam 30-10-2008

The last couple of months of the year didn’t disappoint – intimate shows by Nadja and Alexander Tucker highlighting the diverse possibilities of the electrified guitar, and Genius/GZA & Killah Priest duelling the iron mics for a run-through of “Liquid Swords”.

But it was the last-but-one gig of the year that also proved to be one of its best: the forged-in-the-pits-of-hell combination of Italian axe-wielders Ufomammut and Lento packed maximum riffs-per-square-inch in to the Deventer Burgerweeshuis. The youngsters of Lento (on their first outing beyond their homeland’s borders) mix dense riffing with stretches of melodic hardcore and ambience, sometimes sounding like an instrumental Isis.

Lento @ Burgerweeshuis, Deventer 05-12-2008

Despite the calm-in-the-eye-of-the-hurricane ambient interludes, Lento had already damaged eardrums before the Ufomammut triumvirate took to the stage with their special brand of HEAVY, heady, heretical rock. That two-thirds of Ufomammut also comprise the Malleus art collective made for a captivating visual backdrop, all fire ‘n brimstone and psychedelic swirls, and the band played an awesome set of alternately hypnotic and crushing doom-metal.

Ufomammut @ Burgerweeshuis, Deventer 05-12-2008

Guitarist Poia gave a masterclass in controlled yet expansive riffing, showing that it’s not how many guitars you have in your arsenal but how you use ’em, and bandmates Vita (drums) and Urlo (bass, moog, vocals) ably supported him in creating the vast, hallucinatory doomsludge, at times swimming in Hell’s molten pits, at times in interstellar overdrive. The members of Lento joined their mentors onstage for the final two songs, playing “The Overload” and “Down” from their collaborative “Supernaturals Record One”. Two drummers, bass, moog and too many guitars to count achieved the impossible in being even heavier than what had gone before!



You can listen to the whole of Ufomammut’s 2008 album “Idolum” on Last.fm here. The Ufomammut & Lento collaboration “Supernaturals Record One” can also be listened to here.
Ufomammut & Lento releases can be obtained directly from their label Supernatural Cat.




mixtape (detail) - sakura snow


Although this time last year I relented to the whole end-of-year list thing, through a combination of laziness and principle I’ve decided to retire from that and instead focus on more practical list-making (e.g. “Top 5 Ways To Thread The Shoelaces Of My Work Shoes” or “Top 10 Items I Discovered In My Stool This Morning”). This is not to say I don’t very much enjoy trawling the various End Of Year Best Ofs that populate the interwebosphere every January – they are a great source of new listening inspiration, and can be a useful nudge in finally going ahead and procuring that ‘buzz’ album that you’ve been meaning to check out but haven’t yet got around to (but no, that Bon Iver chappie is not for me). Particularly those lists that attempt to add a little bit of context as to why a particular recording is worthy of attention, as opposed to those un-annotated lists which I myself was guilty of. This is one I like, or this… (and for group-compiled, consensus-based lists you could do worse that check this one out).

But this does not mean I’m above trying to foist my questionable tastes on others…

Each year I make myself a “Best Of…” compilation, trying to encapsulate the best of that year’s listening (and live) experiences over the course of a couple of mastered CDs. And so in a rare act of magnanimous generosity, I’m making that compilation available here for your listening pleasure.

NarcoAgent – Best of 2008 volume I
NarcoAgent – Best of 2008 volume II

If you’d like an aurally-tangible run-through of the releases that caught my ear in 2008, right-click, ‘Save As’ and put ’em on the portable music player of your choice . Hopefully you make some enjoyable discoveries (or at the very least supress those sociopathic thoughts for an hour or two – it works for me!).


mixtape (detail) - sakura snow 


This first NarcoAgent ‘podcast’ also marks the launch of the Mixtapes page where I’ll occasionally upload other collections for your listening pleasure.
Tracklistings & associated info to be found there too.


mixtape (detail) - sakura snow



As far as interesting performance spaces go, German motorship Stubnitz outta Rostock must surely score near the top. A working 260-footer that traverses the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the inland waterways of Germany, it offers up a floating anarcho-industrial environment where the crew live & work, putting on live music shows. And they sure run a tight ship: friendly, well-organised, great sound and some great acts performing on a full & varied programme. There have been shows by the likes of Dälek, Mouthus, Spectre and Sensational during the Stubnitz’s temporary Amsterdam stopover, but it was back in late September when I was drawn across the water to the lysergic sounds of LSD March, the Japanese guitar-&-percussion duo proud to call the the surrounds of the mighty Himeji home.

To reach the Stubnitz’s mooring on the NDSM Werf we catch one of the free ferries that run regularly from Centraal Station, transporting people and their bikes across the broad IJ that divides Amsterdam from its northern suburbs. The approach to the ship is across the wide plain where around at the same time a year previously a brutal battle took place between two robot armies. Arriving on the big open deck, the location of the ship’s mooring allows great views back over the water to central Amsterdam and its other northern wharves. You then descend down into the bar area, suitably retro-futuristic in its bare-metal Mad Maxiness.

A large central opening down to the lower deck allows enjoyment of the sonic proceedings even when topping up on necessary lubricants. The stairs further down into the ship’s metal innards takes one past the back of the stage and round into the pipe-encovered belly, from where you can enjoy the performance from many different vantage points (two camerapeople up close shoot interesting views of the onstage events, broadcast to the TVs suspended in the corners of this metal maw).

First up is Ignatz, a Belgian guitarist extracting noisy blues out of his battered six-string, sitting cross-legged in front of an array of pedals. He evokes the dusty Depression-era blues when men would sell their souls at a deserted crossroads just to be able to play with style – but standing in all that steel, Bram Devens captured in close-up on the screens, the distorted electricity of it all makes for a weirdly futuristic experience. It’s feedback-drenched folk that traverses the Appalachian hills in some far-off future, akin to Flying Saucer Attack sweeping over the English moors.

LSD March‘s opener is the highlight of the evening for me – desolate peals of spaghetti-western guitar, a rumbling storm of percussion, and Shinsuke Michishita’s mournful wail slowly drawing in to an eruption of metallic shards of  noise. Michishita’s performance is consumed and restrained at the same time, even the slow delicate strums have a barely-suppressed force about them, before he loses himself in the anguished noise that closes the song. Michishita, his long black hair often completely covering his face, is accompanied by drummer Ikuro Takahashi (an alumnus of such luminaries as Fushitsusha, High Rise, Maher Shalal Hash Baz and Nagisa Ni Te) who brings subtle accents to the songs with his expressive percussion, as well as providing the more explosive punctuations that anchor Michishita’s bashed chords.

 

The next song layers sparse riffs over an organic tribal beat, the two performers meshing to create a propulsive and compelling dirge that could soundtrack a crossing into the Yōkai-filled spirit world. The third and final song sees Takahashi leave his kit to display his prowess with a saxophone mouthpiece, a high-pitched squeal doing battle with Michishita’s waves of feedback scree, all captured in close-up on the surrounding screens.

Here is the first song from LSD March‘s set, captured in the Museu do Chiado in Lisbon, a week before I saw them in Amsterdam.

LSD March – Untitled (part I) (live in Portugal)

LSD March – Untitled (part II) (live in Portugal)

Mogwai have a nice line in great venues. They give their acolytes the opportunity to see them in the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall, the back-to-roots basement-dive-vibe of the ICA, the faded seaside funpalace of Camber Sands, and most recently for me the open air stateliness (in SurroundSound!) of Somerset House. So it was to Antwerp for a long weekend that culminated in Mogwai playing the open-air amphitheatre (Openluchttheater) of the Rivierenhof, a large forested park to the east of the city.

Mogwai bring a particularly wet and windy August to a close by laying on arguably the best ‘summer’ weekend of the year – Antwerp weekend (priority version).
Unfortunately, after a couple of days spent sampling the Bourgondian multitude of Belgian beers in glorious sunshine, rain is forecast for the evening of Mogwai’s performance. However on arrival in the park that threat looks far off, and although the clouds gather with purpose, support act Motek play to a glorious sunset – the sky an apocalyptic orange over the tall trees that surround this superb venue. There’s booze, food and even blow-up cushions to aid our comfort, it’s just a shame that there is a Mogwai-inconducive sound-level restriction on the Openluchttheater’s PA.

As the band launch into opener “The Precipice” the first drops of rain are felt, prompting the better-prepared amongst us to scrabble for their micropacked ponchos. But Murphy’s Law is repealed after just a few minutes, and although a few more droplets fall during another new song – “Scotland’s Shame” – it is only during the tram ride back to town that the ground properly gets a soaking.

New songs are interspersed with highlights from Mogwai’s thirteen-year existence, and I’m particularly happy to hear ancient artifact “Ithica 27Φ9” played again, guitarist John Cummings and bassist Dominic Aitchison swapping instruments and the band concisely displaying their vice-like grasp of dynamics. They’re all obviously enjoying themselves a lot more than the night previous, a festival in Utrecht where they played in front of 500 Babyshambles fans – Stuart Braithwaite describes it as a “dispiriting experience” (anti-Babyshambles boo follows :)

During the guitar-and-lights assault of “Like Herod”, whose second half usually feels like the sudden arrival of a fierce storm, the wind picks up considerably, swirling through the dark looming trees that encircle us. New single “Batcat” follows, crunching guitars propelled along by the gusting wind, and is easily my favourite of the new songs that I hear for the first time tonight. Every Mogwai album needs its heavyweight anchor, and like “We’re No Here”, “Ratts Of The Capital”, “You Don’t Know Jesus”, and the heaven-and-hell “My Father, My King” before it, this for me is Mogwai at their best, when they wield their guitars as weapons and threaten to bring it all down around us.

As soon as we hit the eye-of-the-storm with “Helicon 2” and a cracked & fragile “Cody”, the wind dies away just as quickly as it had appeared…

The aforementioned mountain-mover “We’re No Here” is the last song of the night and ends in their customary feedback frenzy, the massed amps taking over from the restrained PA and giving us some proper Mogwai volume. John, always last to leave the stage (as the man charged with putting Part Chimp down on tape he must have armour-plated ears), is hailed with inflatable cushions – he ‘fights’ back, and then it’s over, and we’re in a dark forest at night. Into the trees…

The setlist can be found at the excellent brightlight! fansite here. And of course YouTube has some shaky handheld footage of a few of the songs…


Here is Mogwai in session for the Rob Da Bank show on BBC Radio 1 (18 August 2008), recorded live in the BBC’s Maida Vale studio:


Mogwai – Batcat (Rob Da Bank session)

Mogwai – I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead  (Rob Da Bank session)

Mogwai – The Precipice (Rob Da Bank session)

Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan (Rob Da Bank session)




The first half of the year has again sped by in a flash, and despite occasional protestations to the contrary I can’t resist the list-making urge, so here are the fifteen releases that most caught the ear in the first six months of 2008.



Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy : “Lie Down In The Light” (Drag City/Domino)

The Brian Jonestown Massacre : “My Bloody Underground” (A Records)

The Bug : “London Zoo” (Ninja Tune)

Earth : “The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull” (Southern Lord/Daymare)

Fuck Buttons : “Street Horrrsing” (ATP/R)

Lo Dubs presents “Analog Clash” (Lo Dubs/Anthem)

Lustmord : “Other” (Hydra Head/Daymare)

Nadja : “Skin Turns To Glass” (The End)

Our Brother The Native : “Make Amends For We Are Merely Vessels” (Fat Cat)

Portishead : “Third” (Go! Discs)

Sixteen Horsepower : “Live March 2001” (Glitterhouse)

These New Puritans : “Beat Pyramid” (Domino)

Thom Yorke : “The Eraser Rmxs” (XL)

Torche : “Meanderthal” (Hydra Head)

Ufomammut : “Idolum” (Supernatural Cat)

 

 
Moving to the Netherlands has by no means restricted access to ear-and-mind-blowingly good live music (and then there were the three days of aural pleasure in Barcelona). I’ve tried to write about most of it, but these slipped through the cracks…

 
Vic Chesnutt w/ A Silver Mt. Zion @ Paradiso, Amsterdam (13-Feb-2008)

Chesnutt is a songwriters’ songwriter, lauded by his peers around the world, but 2007’s “North Star Deserter” was the first time I’d been exposed to his darkly humourous confessionals on death & wanting to bring it closer. His ‘backing band’ on that album – most of A Silver Mt. Zion and Fugazi‘s Guy Picciotto – are here tonight, throwing up squalls of howling Godspeed guitar and giving added pathos to Vic’s songs with mournful strings. After a rendition of “Debriefing” that threatens to blow the stained-glass out of the windows of this old church, they encore with a haunting “Ruby Tuesday”, Vic then remaining alone on stage to close, appropriately enough, with “Over”.

Here is a recording of “Ruby Tuesday” performed at The Button Factory, Dublin, Ireland on 01 Dec 2007. The whole show, courtesy of David Bell, is available at Internet Archive.

Vic Chesnutt & A Silver Mt. Zion – Ruby Tuesday (live)

 

Earth @ Effenaar, Eindhoven (07-Mar-2008)

Hearing the pure tone of Dylan Carlson’s Telecaster ring out at a volume where the drone can be felt as well as heard is thrilling (thanks must go in part to the Effenaar’s good sound setup). The opener “Hung From The Moon” is aptly-named – the notes hang in the air, the band’s slow-motion playing evoking a pagan ritual performed under a ghostly moon. Where once Earth was a solo mission, now Carlson is orbited by a stellar set of fellow cosmonauts – Adrienne Davies’s drumming verges on stasis but is precise & powerful, Don McGreevy adds planet-weight low end, and although Steve Moore’s Wurlitzer keys and trombone blasts could nudge the whole enterprise towards the dreaded blackhole that is j&*z, he fortunately steers a more psychedelic course. “Ouroboros Is Broken“, introduced by Carlson as the first song he ever wrote, is a monolithic juggernaut, Carlson sometimes holding his guitar aloft as though it were an offering to the gods. Support act Sir Richard Bishop joins the band onstage to add his Eastern-inflected guitar to “The Bees Ate Honey From The Lion’s Skull”, before they end this performance (and this tour) with the encore of “Coda Maestoso in F-flat Minor”, like “Ouroboros…” another early song reworked in the new Earth aesthetic.

Here is “Ouroboros Is Broken“, live at the Point Ephémère, Paris (17 Feb 2006), taken from the “Live Europe 2006” disc.

Earth – Ouroboros Is Broken (live)



The Cure @ Ahoy, Rotterdam (18-Mar-2008)

The current incarnation of the Cure looks a lot like one of the first, a stripped down rock band that delivers a guitar-heavy take on over 30 years of Robert Smith’s superlative songwriting. With no keyboard player, some of the keyboard parts are instead replicated by guitarist Porl Thomson, giving those songs an interesting twist. After a “Disintegration“-laden set, they treat us to three extended encores, the second drawn exclusively from “Three Imaginary Boys” and the first singles. To my delight (in a gloomy gothy kinda way of course) they finish (after playing for over three hours!) with my two favourite Cure songs – “Faith” and “A Forest”.


These New Puritans @ Paradiso, Amsterdam (06-May-2008)

On my first exposure to TNP (supporting Liars in London last year) I wrote them off as nothing more than youthfully energetic Fall copyists, but then “Beat Pyramid” (with its arcana-referencing distillation of the best of early 80s post-punk) became one of my favourite albums of the year. They deliver on the magicks of the album live, their frenetic set unfortunately cut short by the Paradiso’s sloppy scheduling. Check out some video clips from the show here.

 

Butthole Surfers @ Melkweg, Amsterdam (15-Jul-2008)

OK so I went off them when they took the honourable Touch and Go to court, but there was no chance of me passing up the opportunity to see the original Buttholes line-up play again for the first time since the 80s. Being joined by ‘the kids from the School of Rock ‘ lent an air of parody to it all, but they played their best songs, Gibby the megaphone-toting headmaster directing proceedings from behind the amazing Gibbytronix, and fuck it if Paul Leary ain’t one of the best goddamn guitarists I’ve had the pleasure of hearing (and now witnessing).

A live recording of their show at the Forum in London a couple of weeks later is available for purchase here.



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