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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



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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.



After a day of parks, Catalan cuisine and modern art, it’s time to bring the noise with a night-long stretch at the ATP stage, interspersed only with a quick look at Devo ‘s entertaining middle-aged-men-in-short-pants schtick and a scuttle past Cat Power’s lacklustre blues. The intention had been to also catch some shows in the Auditori venue, but its limited seating capacity meant hour-long queues just to get a ticket for the right to then join another snaking queue for the performance itself. With too many bands to see and too expansive of a city to explore to waste time standing in line, I had to give up on seeing Bill Callahan and Portishead’s second performance of the festival. The concert hall acoustics would’ve no doubt allowed Beth Gibbons’s voice to take on more of a ghostly hue, and on finishing with “We Carry On” the band invited the audience up onto the Auditori stage, so it was surely a special show and a shame to have missed it.

ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008

 

The evening kicks off with Six Organs Of Admittance singing the sun down, now at the end of their European tour and playing with a togetherness and understanding that was missing when I saw them at the start. This makes for an incendiary performance, Ben Chasny’s alternately intricate finger-picking and paint-peeling riffs in complete sync with drummer Alex Neilson’s expressive percussion, all washed over with Elisa Ambrogio’s waves of distortion and feedback. They start with live favourite “A Thousand Birds”, whose second half throws up swirls of splintered noise as Chasny & Ambrogio batter their guitars into submission. Chasny has recently said how he is drawn back to the noisier stuff that he made as a twenty-year-old, moving away from the all-acoustic explorations of earlier Six Organs material – and the evidence is certainly to be heard in his live performances, with Ambrogio’s instinctively free & unfettered playing the perfect springboard for Chasny to unleash his own six-stringed savagery.

Six Organs Of Admittance, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008

Songs from most recent album “Shelter From The Ash” are interspersed with oldie “Black Needle Rhymes” before Chasny & partner Ambrogio harmonise through Fleetwood Mac’s “That’s Alright”, another staple of their recent performances. Chasny then provides some eye-of-the-hurricane calm, running through two of his most affecting songs, just his yearning falsetto and stellar playing keeping the large crowd captivated. This is the start of a four-song-suite of “School Of The Flower” material (happily my favourite Six Organs release) that closes the performance. The title track of that album is introduced as “School Of The Mick Flower” in tribute to the Vibracathedral Orchestra‘s guitarist, Chasny urging us all to enrol, and it’s a treat to hear it played as it hasn’t featured in live sets for some time. All three band members conjure up a maelstrom of freerock that comes full circle, dissolving into Chasny’s repeating refrain before we’re comfortingly brought “Home”.

 

Setlist: Six Organs Of Admittance @ Primavera Sound 2008, Barcelona (30 May 2008)
A Thousand Birds
Strangled Road
Black Needle Rhymes
Shelter From The Ash
That’s Alright (Fleetwood Mac cover)
All You’ve Left
Words For Two
School Of The Flower
Home

 

Having heard lots of buzz around Autolux I’d almost taken it for granted that they would prove to be my ‘discovery of the festival’. And I would have really enjoyed their performance had I completely missed out on Sonic Youth 1985-1995. As it is I can’t get past the fact that every riff sounds like it has been plundered from the Noo Yoik noiseniks back catalogue, not really adding (to these ears) anything new to the formula. That they actually manage to sound like Sonic Youth is achievement in itself I suppose, and if Autolux succeed in turning a new generation onto the joys of “Evol” or “Sister” then they’re serving a beneficial & humanitarian purpose, but it does not compute that this is considered somehow new & exciting. Of course most art builds on a foundation of what has gone before, but the revivalist nature of a lot of alternative music released this decade seems to these aged ears to be a case of cheap knock-off rather than an assimilation of influences in the pursuit of creating something new. That said, Autolux do entertain and they’re certainly no fly-by-night phonies – they’ve been playing together since the start of this decade, and although not exactly prolific (they’ve one album to their name thus far) have built a sizeable fanbase (as evidenced by the large & enthusiastic crowd here). Carla Azar is a powerhouse drummer, and really propels the band along – remarkable given that a shattered elbow following a stage fall in 2002 resulted in the prognosis that she would probably never play drums again. Eight titanium screws later and she continues to pound the skins with ferocious dexterity.

 

Polvo are a band revered by many, original proponents of dissonant math rock, all bent notes and complex time signatures. They existed for much of the 90s before disbanding – now reformed for a series of ATP-related festivals. They score high on the math test (ouch!): high-school classmates with some of Superchunk, releases on Touch and Go, recorded by Bob Weston, yada yada… – but don’t really do it for me. I like a good big dumb riff to get a hold of, and this is a bit too knowingly complex and fiddly, venturing into that no-man’s-land where the borders between punk and prog are unclear. For sure they still know how to wield their axes with intent and there is Eastern-tinged melody to be found in their unorthodox tunings and fluid fretwork, but I guess I’m too much of a big dumb lunk to want to study this further.

Polvo, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008

 

Bristol-now-London duo Fuck Buttons are something I’ve been keen to see, and they don’t disappoint. The spirit of Suicide and a worthy history of noise bands inform the Fuck Buttons sound, and they have fun with turning it into the noize you can move to, be moved by. It has an elemental simplicity (and it seems eco-friendly too) which works well here under the stars by the sea. Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power stand hunched over their equipment, moving to the crystalline melodies submerged in the swarm of electronic noise, Power sometimes bashing out a tribal beat on a floor tom. While Hung seems pretty chilled behind his bank of old Casio keyboards, Power is the more animated, sticking the toy microphone into his mouth, screaming the distorted vocals while using both hands to shape the sound.

Fuck Buttons, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008

Most of the set seems drawn from their “Street Horrrsing” album, although I think they may have played something new to finish. “Sweet Love For Planet Earth” is the highlight with its rainfall tinkle and pulsing drones building into a melodically abrasive shout out for help on behalf of this hunk of rock, Power howling into the microphone clenched in his jaws. For the rest, the tune-friendly, sometimes playful and at times downright-euphoric circuit-bent wall of buzzing synth sound makes for one upbeat noise party.

 

When news broke earlier in the year that drummer Chris Hakius had left Om I feared for the life of the mighty mantric metallers. Hakius and bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros had been friends & collaborators of some twenty years, playing in Sabbathian stoner-rock legends Sleep together before reconvening in 2004 for Om, and I couldn’t see how the band would survive the end of such a longstanding & close-knit connection. But Grandmaster Cisneros (he teaches chess when he is not captain of the shrine effulgent Om windship) quickly announced the continuation of the Om journey, and tonight he performs with new drummer Emil Amos (of Grails and Holy Sons).

The first thing that strikes me is just how good a bass-player Cisneros is – his fingers glide effortlessly over his Rickenbacker’s neck, the dextrous display somewhat incongruous with the bludgeoning vibrations that emenate from the speaker stacks. Early on, as I stand close to the stage, it feels as those vibrations will resonate inside my head to such an extent that it’ll explode, but I soon tune into the pre-dawn mantras, focusing only on the new rites of a Vedic sun to attend the blue horizon… The low-end barrage, cyclical rhythms, songs that seem to slow time, riffs fashioned from dark matter and chanted mysticisms (Julian Cope once called Cisneros’s lyrics “the kind of accessible pseudo-religious genius that started genuine religions”) all make for a meditative experience, albeit at arsequake volume – even if (to the uninitiated) the songs all sound the same. That Om plough the same groove is not something Cisneros denies: he talks of the music as being a singular continuous expression, with Om as merely the vessel that occasionally tunes into this one theme to make it tangible in our world (the 2004 debut album is aptly titled “Variations On A Theme”).

Om, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008

Second song is “To The Shrinebuilder”, arguably Om’s most propulsive song to date, Amos adding even more weight to it with his hard-hitting percussion (you can download a live version of this song, recorded in Canada in 2006, from Holy Mountain here). Amos definitely brings a new dimension to the Om sound, his dynamic drumming is expressive and powerful, so it will be interesting to see how this translates to future Om recordings. They close with the epic “At Giza”, many fans’ favourite of Om’s thematic variations, the crowd going wild for the breakdown in the middle where Cisneros’s bass note hangs in the air before the song slowly builds again into a glacially heavy groove, the coming of the sun and that blue horizon a couple of hours away yet…

 

Setlist: Om @ Primavera Sound 2008, Barcelona (30 May 2008)
Bhima’s Theme
To The Shrinebuilder
Kapila’s Theme
At Giza
(well this is what I think it was… it was late & muchos Estrella later, so any corrections welcome…)

 

 

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