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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.




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.




Jason Molina + Okkervil River @ Crossing Border festival, Den Haag (23-Nov-2007)

Jason Molina @ Crossing Border festival, Den Haag

I arrived too late to see anything much of Okkervil River, but lucked into catching a live radio session from Okkervil’s Will Sheff later on. Then scored front-row seats for Jason Molina‘s solo set of electric blues. Molina, typically polite and humble, disappoints his hard core of Dutch fans (who identify themselves by their unanimous snappy correction of the MC’s mispronunciation of “Songs: Ohio“) by drawing from his last handful of releases and not playing any Songs: Ohia material. I too would love to hear him play some of his earliest songs – but Molina is a searcher, not looking back: this is a man who purportedly will play songs at nights like this that he wrote that same morning.

See Molina play “Memphis Moon” @ Crossing Border here



Qui + Future Of The Left @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (26-Nov-2007)

Future Of The Left finally arrive in the fine city of Amsterdam and deliver another acerbic, eloquently nonsensical set of short sharp sonic slams. Although ostensibly the support act to Qui, they are demanded back by the baying crowd for an instrument-abusing & drum-kit-disassembling encore. And all my FotL-stalking bears fruit: this is the first time I’ve ever had a song devoted to me, the particularly appropriate “Small Bones Small Bodies”!

Better Bovine Than Equine

Better Bovine Than Equine? (gevelsteen, Leiden)

David Yow now prowls menacingly rather than the all-action style he was renowned for when playing with Jesus Lizard, but that adds a tension to his performance – the audience never sure if he will flail off the stage when Qui hit one of their riff-peaks. He only leaves stage once, probably less from intent than from the unbalancing effects of excessive alcohol consumption…

See Qui play “Today, Gestation” @ Paradiso here



Jesu + Fear Falls Burning @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (05-Dec-2007)

Jesu @ Paradiso, Amsterdam

Justin Broadrick is a supremely talented and influential musican – with a genre making-and-breaking history that takes in teenage inventor of grindcore (Napalm Death), a stint behind the kit with Head of David, the almighty mighty Godflesh, macro-dub infection (Ice, Techno Animal) and various breakbeat incarnations.
So yes, tonight I come to worship at the altar of JK Flesh, at his harmonics-bouncing-off-the-roof-of-hell guitar and his incredible way with machines. Jesu, the misty early morning light to Godflesh’s dark corners, is now a fully-fledged band, Broadrick augmented by longtime-collaborator Diarmuid Dalton on bass and drummer Ted Parsons, another with a special musical pedigree: Swans, Prong, Foetus, Godflesh amongst many (mostly dubbed-up) others. Parson pounds with precision and power, Broadrick’s programming filling in the spaces between and meshing perfectly with Parson’s biomechanical beats and Dalton’s low-end pulses. And then there is that guitar



State-X / New Forms festival @ Pard van Troje, Den Haag (14&15-Dec-2007)

State-X / New Forms festival @ Pard van Troje, Den Haag

from top: Killl, Michael Gira, Scout Niblett, Sunn O)))

An excellent two-night festival split across the multi-roomed Pard van Troje venue in The Hague. Catch the close of melodic Scottish indierockers The Twilight Sad‘s set, before then being put through the wringer by Norweigian math-metal supergroup Killl with their strobe assault, eye-twisting backdrop and extremely precise (and loud!) power-electronics-augmented Viking riffage. The night ends with an uninspiring (DJ?)set from Aphex Twin, too populist in its intent but insufficiently groovesome to get the crowd going.
Night #2 starts with another superb Michael Gira performance (always in humble good (dark) humour), shining a cleansing, burning white light on all our failures and inadequacies . Unfortunately then have to make the difficult choice between Jesu and Scout Niblett, Scout winning through having been treated to Jesu in Amsterdam 10 days previously. She again delivers in spades, quickly winning over the first-timers with her powerful combination of kickass and fragile. It’s the first Scout gig I’ve seen where she doesn’t take a turn to bash at the drums, which disappoints some of us but ends up making for a powerful performance with her grungy guitar riffage well underpinned by Kristian Goddard‘s hard-hitting drums.
The night ends with Sunn O)))‘s pagan drone worship, their innards-massaging rumbles nicely filling the large space of the main venue.



Aesop Rock @ Melkweg, Amsterdam (05-Feb-2008)

Aesop Rock @ Melkweg, Amsterdam

Aesop, ably assisted by New York compadre Rob Sonic and DJ Big Whiz’s Wheels Of Steel, brings peace & good times to the Melkweg. By the closer “Daylight” he has the whole crowd signing along to his tongue-twisting rhymes, and before that we’re treated to plenty of songs from his recent “None Shall Pass” album and some amazing cuts from Big Whiz (when Aesop instructs him to “take us into outer space” in the midst of “Bring Back Pluto” he even adds some theremin caressing  to his dextrous fingerplay). Songs like “Fast Cars”, “39 Thieves” and “Commencement At The Obedience Academy” are all fist-pumpingly great, the animated skulls and bunnies of Jeremy Fish providing a suitably left-field backdrop.



Whip @ De Nieuwe Anita, Amsterdam (12-Feb-2008)

De Nieuwe Anita is the very definition of “gezellig“, a converted ground floor & basement apartment in a large residential block on a wide Amsterdam street, where you can have a beer while you get your hair cut. Whip brings his shy acoustic blues free-of-charge to the small appreciative crowd packed into the basement performance space (I later learn that Jason Merritt’s claustrophobia kicked in and left him messed up for a couple of days after). His “Atheist Lovesongs To God” release had him sounding like an early Palace-era Will Oldham, but his newer songs show him ploughing his own furrow.


Here is Whip‘s cover version of Billy Idol‘s “White Wedding”, from the “Bridging The Distance” benefit compilation on Arena Rock.


Whip – White Wedding



Pretty much the only thing I feared I’d be giving up on leaving London was the Big Smoke’s rich & varied live music scene. Sure, I still cast the occasional envious glance at The Luminaire‘s programme of The Young Gods acoustic sets, Jason Molina Christmas parties and Stars Of The Lid supported by Boduf Songs (and reminisce how that great little venue was but a stone’s throw from my former lair), but my time in Holland so far has been packed full of excellent gigs. The beauty of this small country is that distances between cities are such that it is possible to go and see a show in a different city in the same travel time as it would take to get from one side of London to another – so I’ve already seen things in Amsterdam, Den Haag, Utrecht and Haarlem, and that list is only likely to grow (hopefully taking in Groningen’s Vera one of these days, which has a reputation as one of the best places to play anywhere in Europe). And the smaller hall upstairs at Paradiso, located in an old church but a space that can rock hard, has fast become one of my favourite venues.

So in another attempt at getting this site back up to speed, here is a (mainly visual) rundown of some of the great live experiences I’ve had in this country so far…


Six Organs Of Admittance @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (14-Aug-2007)

I’ve written here about my first proper live experience in my new home, this highly-charged ritual of amplifier worship definitely one of my favourite shows of last year.


Future Of The Left @ Tivoli De Helling, Utrecht (04-Oct-2007)

Future Of The Left @ Tivoli De Helling, Utrecht

The maiden out-of-town gig, to catch Future Of The Left on their first foray to continental Europe. Their energetically vicious stabs of sound and low-end punch quickly won over the crowd, many of whom were presumably encountering the band for the first time (FotL were supporting American punkrockers Against Me!)


Michael Gira @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (15-Oct-2007)

Michael Gira @ Paradiso, Amsterdam

That this show did not make my top gigs of ’07 list is criminal oversight. Michael Gira is a living legend, and every performance of his that I have witnessed has been a special experience, none more so than this one. He invests his performances with genuine passion, his hollerin’ & boot-stampin’ making it seem as though he’s channeling a sold-his-soul bluesman playing in 1920’s dusty nowheresville. The set opens with Swans-song “I Am The Sun” and follows with a perfect mix of material covering further late-period Swans releases and all of Angels Of Light‘s oeuvre. Gira wrly remarks that he wishes to “write spiritual songs, but I don’t have any”, but don’t worry Michael: as I’m sure the rest of this night’s audience would agree, despite the bleak and sometime hopeless nature of the subject matter, your performances reach right into one’s emotional core and are genuinely life-affirming.

Setlist: Michael Gira @ Paradiso (15 October 2007)
I Am The Sun
Promise Of Water
Nations
Failure
Lena’s Song
My Brother’s Man
She Lives!
Destroyer
My Sister Said
Sometimes I Dream I’m Hurting You
Rose Of Los Angeles
God Damn The Sun

Here is the encore “God Damn The Sun”, recorded live in Lisbon, Portugal in 2002 and taken from the (now out-of-print) “Living ’02” release.

Michael Gira – God Damn The Sun (live in Lisbon)



Liars @ Melkweg, Amsterdam (30-Oct-2007)

Liars @ Melkweg, Amsterdam

My first experience of this legendary venue, and what an experience it was.  Angus Andrew seemed to be enjoying Amsterdam to its mind-altering fullest and was in fine showman form, he and his cohorts putting on a sensory assault of rhythmic noise and lights that overwhelmed some in the audience but delighted most (at their best Liars manage to channel the Cure, Bauhaus, Neubauten, and the Birthday Party, giving it all a post-modern/art-school twist, their live shows somewhere between pagan ritual and post-millennial dance party). The newest songs were blasted out fully-formed, unlike my first exposure to them months previously – and the trancey tribalism of the amazing “We Fenced Our Houses…” and “Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack” had the audience riveted in near-religious awe.


Mono + Future Of The Left @ Patronaat, Haarlem (09-Nov-2007)

Future Of The Left @ Patronaat, Haarlem

Following another blistering bass-heavy set from FotL (albeit with the band themselves not seeming to enjoy themselves, unhappy with the Haarlemmers engagement & their own equipment troubles), I didn’t actually see headliners Mono, instead listening to their bombastic but sterile ‘compositions’ from the merch stand while politely grilling FotL’s Falco for Albini tidbits & the like…


Gravenhurst @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (20-Nov-2007)

Gravenhurst @ Paradiso, Amsterdam

Nick Talbot’s Nick Drake-isms sometimes sit incongruously with the (post)rockier tack he has taken on Gravenhurst‘s past two albums. The best songs this night (like “Down River”, “The Western Lands” and “Black Holes In The Sand”) are when he pulls back on the earnest and the band collectively let their hair down.



Part II to follow shortly with futher uninformative blatherings on Jason Molina, Qui, Jesu, the State-X / New Forms festival, Aesop Rock and Whip…



And so I finally get myself up-to-date… I’ve heard some great new music over the past couple of months – Mammal (Big Black ketamine blues!), two new Six Organs Of Admittance releases, Jesu‘s fully-formed “Pale Sketches“, finally tracking down the 2-disc Japanese issue of Sunn O))) & Boris‘s “Altar” collaboration, and finding myself liking Sigur Rós‘s “Hvarf-Heim” a lot more than I felt inclined to – but here are the albums that particularly tickled my fancy in November & December:



November – Magik Markers : “Boss” (Ecstatic Peace!)

The first inkling I got of Magik Markers‘ potential power was on seeing Elisa Ambrogio doing her axe-wielding schoolmistress thing as part of Six Organs Of Admittance, spewing sheets of noise over Ben Chasny’s intricate guitar lines. While I at first wondered whether she could actually play, I was soon bowled over by her instinctive and natural style, effortlessly building towering walls of sound. “Axis Mundi” kicks things off with just such a piece of tortured guitar, the feedback looping into Pete Nolan’s driving beat – a better opening to an album I haven’t heard in a while. Elisa then sets the writhing sexual tone of many of these songs with the downright dirty: “I left my stink like a mink’s dead gland / All over your mouth, all over your hand“, her words bringing “the blood and violence of religion and nature” to this “Night Of The Hunter“-referencing love song.

Magic Markers - Boss

I’ve heard “Boss” referred to as sounding like Sonic Youth, probably due to Lee Ranaldo’s presence (he produces and adds his inimitable guitar to a few tracks) and its release on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! label – and sure “Body Rot” has Sonic Youth all over it, sounding like “Catholic Block” with Elisa channeling Kim Gordon – but for the rest this is uniquely-created guitar music that challenges as much as it rocks. I’ve got the impression that there are those that feel Magic Markers have sold themselves out by making a ‘commercial’ album, that they’ve reined in what makes them special (they are an apparently formidable live experience, with numerous limited CD-R releases trying to capture this exhilarating & obliterating freeform noise assault), but to these ears (still not having heard – or seen – any of their other work) this is one of the year’s best rock releases, with sufficient bouts of barely-controlled guitar noise juxtaposed with the brittle piano of “Empty Bottles” and ethereal pluckings of “Bad Dream/Hartford’s Best Suite”.

“Last Of The Lemach Line” slithers along like the blue snake in the Garden Of Eden, sucking you into that place where sex, religion and violence meet, Elisa doing Patti-Smith-at-the-pulpit before she turns cracked torch singer on “Empty Bottles”, multi-instrumentalist Nolan’s piano glowing with a wabi-sabi beauty.
“Four/The Ballad Of Harry Angstrom” and album closer “Circle” lazily recycle “Lemach Line”‘s vocal melody but work as further showcases for Ambrogio’s primal rhymes and Calvinist/Crowley-esque intonations, with the gentle “Bad Dream/Hartford’s Beat Suite” providing a melancholic interlude with its musings on death and severed thumbs.

Magik Markers have apparently released some 30 recordings over CD-Rs, cassettes and the occasional ‘proper’ factory-pressed slab of vinyl or CD, relentlessly documenting their evolution. If “Boss” showcases their current maturation into a beast near the top of rock’s food chain, now it is time for me to excitedly delve into the Magik Markers pre-history and wallow in their primal soup



December – Alela Diane : “The Pirate’s Gospel” (Holoscene Music)

It was during a Michael Gira show at Paradiso when between songs he pointed to the pretty girl standing in front of me and asked: “Are you Alela Diane?”, and on receiving a shy nod confidently predicted to the audience that she would “be a star”. This certainly piqued my interest, coming from the man who ‘discovered’ Devendra Banhart and introduced me to the amazing Low by way of a glowing recommendation in one of his open letters. It was not a week later that I chanced upon Dutch TV show “Vrije Geluiden” to see Ms Diane performing three of her songs live in the studio, and capitivating they certainly were. It has taken me a while to track down her album “The Pirate’s Gospel” in which time it has popped up on many “Best of 2007” lists, most notably scoring the #1 spot on Rough Trade‘s end of year list. This album was actually first released in 2004 in a handmade edition of 650, Alela herself “sewing lace and paper bags for the case, drawing golden ships, lettering ink, and burning each CD”, before Holoscene Music approached her to release a resequenced version in the US in late 2006 and in Europe & Australia in 2007.

Alela Diane - The Pirate’s Gospel

Sharing her Nevada City hometown with friend Joanna Newsom, there is a certain similarity with “The Milk-Eyed Mender” in that this album feels like the work of rare talent (like Alasdair Roberts too), taking centuries of folk music and creating something that is fresh, natural and interesting while still being authentically rooted in the tradition. The meditative songs are about loneliness, wanderlust, (broken) family, religion, displacement and heartache, and have that timeless quality about them instrinsic to all folk musics. “The Rifle” could soundtrack an elegaic Western, “The Pirate’s Gospel” is a sea-chanty for the landlocked Nevada mountains, and “Foreign Tongue” a stark lament on being alone in a foreign place, written when she embarked on a “journey of solitude” in Europe. The rest of the album weaves in elements of gospel and blues along with the trance-like folk picking, all intertwined in her strong sometimes haunting voice. The bonus tracks on the European release, “Heavy Walls” and “Gipsy Eyes” are well worth inclusion, so seek it out from Names via Rough Trade or Fargo.


Here is album track “The Rifle” recorded for a Daytrotter Session at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas (March 2007).


Alela Diane – The Rifle (Daytrotter Session)



Thanks to the fine folks at Daytrotter. Check out Daytrotter Sessions from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Marissa Nadler, Castanets, Nina NastasiaOkkervil River and many more. See here for another Alela Diane live session on MOKB/SIRIUS radio.



Compared to the relatively barren (for me) musical months of August and September, October was the veritable muthalode: releases by Om (Floyd-esque pursuit of the transcendental Ur-drone), PJ Harvey (bleak piano-led English Gothic), Qui (the Return of Yow!), and Wooden Shjips (retrotastic distorto-organ-rock) all caught the ear, but it was the newest recordings of two favourite performers that got locked in some winner-takes-all deathmatch before I realised “hey, we’re all winners” and wimped out on the decision by making them both ‘albumi of the month’.


Future of The Left : “Curses” (Too Pure)

It has been exciting following this band from their first London show in September 2006 (this being the first official Future Of The Left show – the previous few were ‘secretly’ performed under aliases: Mooks of Passim, Guerilla Press, Dead Redneck…) through to catching them in 3 different Dutch cities in the past three months as they embarked on the first Future Of The Left tour of Europe. Back in late 2006 they arrived pretty much fully-formed, having obviously spent a lot of time nurturing & perfecting their songs before unleashing them on the public – most of the songs on “Curses” were part of the live set pretty much from the beginning, with only the keyboard stompers first appearing in March. So these songs are like old friends, and far from tiring of their company now that I can spin them whenever I want I am like the proverbial cat (Colin? Chicken?) that got the cream.

Future Of The Left - Curses

Opening with the storming “The Lord Hates A Coward”, the album starts in turbo-charged high gear and only lets the foot off the pedal for the closing Noel Coward-esque “The Contrarian”. This out-of-character last song aside, the album pummels the listener with sledgehammer bass, piston-pounding drums and guitar that could cut through steel. Like Shellac (the band they’re most often compared to), Future Of The Left have a wonderful ability to create dynamic tension in their songs through the removal and re-addition of one of the three instruments, Kelson Mathias’s phat bass and Jack Egglestone’s precision beats often providing the granite foundation to the song before Andy Falkous comes in to spew molten guitar or keyboard riffs and his (mostly uninterpretable) lyrical bile over the proceedings. And despite the words being seemingly mostly meaningless they are strung together in such a literary way that makes ’em unforgetable: you have tall tales of a Devil Thumb, Jack’s pretty pussy, Atlantis rendered badly in oil paints, tiny exo-skeletons and uninteresting ostriches, and get to ponder whether it’s better to be bovine than equine (which I first heard as “better porkfat than eggwhite” and which still made some kinda sense), hedgehog than porcupine, half-cut than borderline…

“Fuck The Countryside Alliance” owes the most to Shellac with its undulating bassline and spare beat, and is also Falco’s most easily decipherable lyric – an anti-Conservative diatribe, a call to arms against the wealthy country gentry, the screams of “take a man to his nightmares in a Landrover” eerily chilling (but funny too: like Killdozer or Shellac, and of course mclusky, FotL’s black sense of humour successfully shines through the music, without ever being a joke that one could tire of).
“Suddenly It’s A Folk Song” will soon be appearing on a double A-side release of punky new wave gloriousness with “Manchasm”, both songs deserving of tearing up the ‘independent’ airwaves (if such a thing still exists) – “Folk Song” in particular is a perfect pop song in the sense that Pixies and Nirvana wrote pop songs, music that can have populous appeal without comprimising the song’s (or the band’s) integrity.
adeadenemyalwayssmellsgood” is one of my favourite songs of the year, moving with a minimalist punkfunk strut that Gang of Four would be proud of and mixing a mammoth riff & Rawhide with arguably the first ever usage of the word “paradiddle” in a song lyric.

I couldn’t help myself wondering though how great these songs would sound recorded over at Electrical Audio, but Falco gave me a fairly compelling reason as to why that is likely to remain a ‘what if?’. And I rudely suggested that the gaps between songs could’ve been a bit longer (so as to allow the listener a momentary breather & to reflect on the gem that had just passed) only to learn that the gaps are the result of hours of intense intra-band debate. I should learn not to question the Mighty Falcotron. Grow into your body happily!!!


Hear live versions of the album’s first three songs at the bottom of this post.



Scout Niblett : “This Fool Can Die Now” (Too Pure

Scout Niblett rocks so damn hard, but can rock so sweetly soft too. It is this wide dynamic – the highs & lows of someone who wears her emotions on her sleeve – helped by the sparseness of the instrumentation (usually just electric guitar, sometimes accompanied by drums), that makes Scout‘s live performances so affecting. New songs like “Nevada”, “Let Thine Heart Be Warmed”, “Do You Want To Be Buried With My People?” and “Kiss” have really captured my imagination over the past twelve months or so, and so (like with Future Of The Left) I couldn’t wait to have the recorded versions in my sweaty stumps, to pore & paw over to my heart’s desire. With Steve Albini charged with capturing it all on tape, and the Bonnie ‘Prince’ hillBilly-ing on four of the songs, it was going to be brilliant.

Scout Niblett - This Fool Can Die Now

So it is disappointing that “This Fool Can Die Now” isn’t quite as huge as I’d hoped it would be. The drums don’t punch hard enough, the guitar doesn’t sear like I know it can, and on some songs Scout’s vocals sound a bit off – like both she and Albini were having a bad day at the office. Don’t get me wrong, I really like this album it just doesn’t knock me over like she does live. Scout is able to hold halls of people transfixed with just her elemental guitar and her soaring voice, but here the added instrumental flourishes (strings, fer chrissakes) and insufficent dynamic range between what should be rapturous volume and ghostly quiet, detract from that raw sound that can suck people right in. Note this as a first: I’ve badmouthed a Steve Albini piece of work! But Scout’s distinctive songs (and the person they spring from) are intact, and Oldham’s presence is a welcome one, still making this one of my favourite albums of the year.

The two opening duets with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy work well, Oldham comfortably inhabiting the male lover-persona, and “Let Thine Heart Be Warmed” is one of Scout’s standout songs (although here given a strange, incongruous industrial edge as the sound of scraped pipes swings unnecessarily throughout).
The headbanging roadtrip of “Nevada” is my favourite track, like a lovers’ “Fear & Loathing…” and probably the song on this album that comes closest to doing justice to the Scout Niblett live experience.
On “Dinosaur Egg” Scout adds some new verses to the already classic David Shrigley lyrics, personalizing the song further: “Solitude, sweet solitude / When will you disappear? / ‘Cause you’re an acceptable guest sometimes / But you’ll not be a long-term friend of mine“, and the perfectly Scout-ian: “My solar body, oh my solar body / When will I join you out of this flesh? / ‘Cause I am sick & tired of being sick & tired / And I’d much rather be a golden ball of light… but still have sex…

Despite my aforementioned disappointment with “This Fool Can Die Now” I have it on regular rotation in NarcoAgent Towers and am unshakeable in my faith in Scout Niblett as one of modern music’s treasures. This album and 2005’s “Kidnapped By Neptune” both come close to being truly great, but fall short of capturing the awesome Scout-in-the-flesh experience – see her live if she comes to a town near you.  


Here is the opening track of the album: “Do You Want To Be Buried With My People?“, recorded live-in-the-studio in November for The Guardian‘s Music Weekly podcast.


Scout Niblett – Do You Want To Be Buried With My People? (live in session)



Scout Niblett and Future of The Left releases can be obtained directly from Too Pure (http://toopure.bigcartel.com/). Too Pure have also recently launched a Singles Club (http://www.toopure.com/singlesclub/) which should hopefully feature a 7″ of unreleased songs from both Scout and FotL.



Still in London in September as a visitor and one last chance to catch a gig at The Spitz before this great venue is no more thanks to the lure of the developers’ dollar. Despite  over 10,000 signatures on a petition plus support from the press and the mayoral office, The Spitz’s landlords will close the venue down after eleven years of it being a leading light on London’s independent music scene.

I had one of my best live experiences there in my early days in the city – seeing :zoviet*france: and Evan Parker* play together, with a young Dawn McCarthy yodelling as support (more on this at a later date) – and also good times with Hood, Third Eye Foundation, Appendix Out, Piano Magic, Downpour, Cat Power, Squarepusher, Paul Schütze Trio, Experimental Audio Research

Notice has been given to quit the premises by end-September, so The Spitz Festival Of Folk is the last ever music festival to be staged at this Old Spitalfields Market venue. The Festival programme takes in Charlie Parr, Circulus, The See See, Lone Pigeon and others, but tonight is the opening with legendary (to me!) Scottish troubadour Alasdair Roberts supported by Jackie Oates.

Spitz Festival Of Folk flyer

The place is empty and we find ourselves at the very same candelit table, right up against the stage, as for :zoviet*france:-Evan Parker those ten years ago (almost to the day). After an enjoyable set of classic English folk from young fiddle-singer Jackie Oates, Ali Roberts takes to the stage and starts off with fantastical “Down Where The Willow Wands Weep” from his amazing 2003 album “Farewell Sorrow“. In his solo guise (as opposed to the more psych-folk Appendix Out), Roberts blows the dust off & re-animates ancient British (murder) ballads, pays homage to the fabled folksinging & storytelling of the likes of Paddy Tunney, Shirley Collins, Nic Jones and Duncan Williamson, but also writes original material (as on “Farewell Sorrow”) so perfectly entwined with the arcane, the mystical, the historical that years hence will no doubt be considered as much an integral part of the British folk fabric as that of his heroes.

Ali Roberts @ The Spitz (06-09-2007)

The first half of the set is mostly made up of material from 2007’s “The Amber Gatherers“, a more upbeat collection of songs than any of his previous releases, although the sombre “The Cruel War” then leads into darker territory. Ali’s version of Duncan Williamson’s sea chanty “The Golden Vanity” is given added poignancy in hindsight – Williamson died on 8th November 2007, just two months after this show. He follows with a new song – an interpretation of the traditional “The Burning Of Auchindoun” with apocalyptic overtones. The feeling of death & destruction is carried through to the moving “Lord Ronald”, a bleak tale of a nobleman’s poisoning at the hands of his sweetheart, who herself will come to a gruesome end: “I’ll leave her the rope / And the high gallows-tree / And let her hang there / For the poisoning of me…”
For “Admiral Cole” he is joined on vocals by the flame-haired Alex Neilson – “the russet-est sprite in London tonight” – who I recall doing a damn fine job behind the drumkit as part of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy‘s touring band earlier in the year (and who also has his own project in Directing Hand as well as various collaborations with former Telstar Pony David Keenan).

Ali Roberts & Alex Neilson @ The Spitz (06-09-2007)

The set comes to  a close with the crowd-singalong of “The Whole House Is Singing”, the tentative humming of the audience growing stronger as Ali coaxes us out between the verses, likening us to a mouse poking its nose out of its hole, slowly becoming bolder. It is a fitting close as he manages to weave such magic over us all that it seems only right that we end up singing along with him at the end.

He returns for a single song encore – the maudlin melancholy of  “The Wife Of Usher’s Well” (AKA Three Little Babes) – having managed this night to take us through most of the emotional spectrum. Hopefully support slots on tours by the likes of Joanna Newsom and the Decemberists has awakened a wider ‘alt.folk’ audience to Alasdair Roberts’ considerable talents, as his timeless songs and re-inventions of UK folk’s heritage deserve as much exposure as possible.


Setlist: Alasdair Roberts @ The Spitz Festival Of Folk, The Spitz (06 September 2007)
Down Where The Willow Wands Weep
Riddle Me This
Waxwing
I Had A Kiss Of The King′s Hand
Farewell Sorrow
(instrumental)
Where Twines The Path
The Cruel War
The Golden Vanity (from the singing of Duncan Williamson)
The Burning Of Auchindoun
Lord Ronald
Admiral Cole
The Whole House Is Singing
The Wife Of Usher’s Well



Here is “Long A-Growing” from the “Protect Our Secret Handshake” compilation (Comes With A Smile vol.9) which accompanied Comes With A Smile magazine #13 (2003).


Alasdair Roberts – Long A-Growing



Some more photos of Ali Roberts in performance can be found here and here.



* and no, it most definitely wasn’t jazz :)



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