Thursday, March 28, 2013

New : Rotting Christ - 'ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ'

It's nearly Easter so what better time to check out the latest slab of mythical metal from the band least likely to bag themselves a residency on 'Songs of Praise'? Greek occult metallers Rotting Christ have been banging them out for twenty years now, having initially built themselves up as their country's contribution to the international Black Metal movement before branching out into the broader spectrum of extreme metal over more recent years - their trajectory is roughly similar to that of Poland's Behemoth whose post millennial output has seen them conquer the planet and singe the hair off Satan's nutsack with their punishing cocktail of all the best bits of Death and Black Metal overlaid with grandstanding occult mysticism and muscular showmanship. The Christ's latest release doesn't quite pack the scorched earth savagery of prime era Behemoth but it's no less satisfying as a consequence, staggering its assault over ten distinctive slabs of gargantuan riffs and dark atmospherics in the vein of late period Celtic Frost (go check out their back from the dead record 'Monotheist' right now and come back here when you've finished). Mainman Sakis has constructed this LP as somewhat of a labour of love, researching international folklore and legend to come up with ten tracks in ten different languages tackling religious mantras, demonic incantations and labyrinthine conjurings of ancient spirits to forge a record that transcends tokenism and instead sounds like an archeology PhD set to music (in this case some righteous planet-shifting extreme metal). A fairly ambitious project you have to admit but one that he's succeeded it bringing to fruition with some stunning results and the album's whistle stop tour through ancient civilisations is soundtracked by a diverse arsenal of metal delights taking in monastic chanting, Middle Eastern wailing and a string of atmospheric special effects - bells toll, clay pipes wail and drum rolls and guitar riffs reverberate like the infernal shockwaves of a ritualistic ceremony deep within the bowels of some cavernous temple. If you can imagine Indiana Jones stumbling across an impromptu celebration of the Fire God with a metal band providing the music then this is what it would probably sound like.

Atmospherics are what maketh metal these days and the Christ know when to turn up the cinema dial on their material, ushering in several morcels with sinister ululations and deep, vibrant intonations before layering on their intricate riffs and rhythms to build some headbanging magic upon their dusty foundations like priests constructing a shrine - opener 'In Yumen/Xibalba' lets the door creak open to invite the timid listener in over ominous bursts of raging bombast and yarbled speaking in tongues and its only once we've followed the corridor into the heart of the entity that they pick out a riff and spiral the track around it like a staircase into the void. Things remain spooky as the suite continues although they're not afraid to throw in a bit of melody, the serpentine riffs of 'P'unchaw Kachun' uncoiling like smoke rising from candles in the vein of Watain whilst the nimble-fingered chug of 'Rusalka'  channels classic Gothenberg Death Metal as guttural growls and whispered taunts jostle for centre stage. The title track lets their guitarists noodle away into the cosmos whilst remaining locked into a punishing rhythmic orbit and sounds like the sort of thing Morbid Angel should be putting out right now if they'd only quit playing video games long enough to write a proper song, matching freeform mysticism with enough forward momentum to keep you hooked right through to the eery climax. The band throw their weight behind a female-fronted take on Romanian folk tune 'Cine iubeste si lasa' tastefully enough to stay just the right side of self parody and the staggering riff driven one two of 'Iwa Voodoo' and 'Gilgames' plough the slow and menacing furrow to thunderous effect instead of caving in to blastbeat temptation and turning everything up to 100 just for the sake of it. Best of all is late gem 'Ahura Mazda' which announces itself like a biblical plague looming on the horizon before blasting open like the Ark of the Covenant for a tremulous barrage of ritualistic pounding and rapacious guitar riffs, gradually ebbing towards its climax like a hurricane gathering pace before slurping up an entire city. It's difficult to describe this shit without sounding like I'm trying to write my own adventure movie but that should act as fairly compelling evidence that Rotting Christ have conjured up something pretty epic with this album - their band name might by synonymous with quick fix shock tactics but these dudes have spent enough time in the library and the rehearsal room lately to merit a revisit by anyone even mildly interested in the complex and intriguing world of modern extreme metal. 'Kata....' is testament to the band's desire to achieve something monumentous and even those alienated by metal's harsher elements shouldn't see that as an obstacle to enjoying this veritable thesis of extreme metal glory.

Check out : 'Ahura Mazda - Anra Mainiuu', complete with the lyrics in case you're interested.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Retroactive : 1988

1988 : The Year In Music

1988 should've fucking STUNK. The pop charts were ruled by producers and record companies playing it safe with sanitised teeny pop and risk-free stadium AOR whilst the occasional industry flash of wisdom consisted of wheeling out some geriatric fartknockers like the Beach Boys or Chicago for another half-hearted stab at success or relaunching some oldies number via a jeans commercial. Toe-curling British soul pop (Wet Wet Wet, Deacon Blue) shared chart space with floral dress acoustic dross (Fairground Attraction, Tanita Tikaram) and icky new age crap (Gypsy Kings, Enya) whilst the UK charts fell victim to an endless slew of cacky chart pop from persil-washed drones like Bros, Sinitta and an emergent Kylie and Jason and the US had to stomach the even less appealing stream of mall pop muppets like Tiffany, Debbie Gibson and the nascent wriggling of the global sales device that was New Kids on the Block. But the charts being full of crud is nothing new and on the positive side there was plenty of quality material jostling for position with the jokers - Acid House continued to dominate with homegrown acts like Coldcut, S-Express and Bomb the Bass notching massive UK hits and radio gems from Go Go's alumni Jane Wiedlin and Belinda Carlisle brought breezy chick pop to the top of the charts but it was hip hop's all-conquering stampede across popular culture that made the biggest impact. Rap's fashion, imagery and musical innovation had lurked in the background for years but massive pop hits from Salt 'n' Pepa, The Fat Boys and Cookie Crew saw the genre dominate the singles charts like never before whilst a tidal wave of landmark album releases saw hip hop finally recognised by the press as a serious force in LP format. Rock critics salivated over the devastating twinstrike of 'Straight Outta Compton' and 'It Takes A Nation Of Millions' but there were plenty more to choose from with Ice-T's 'Power', EPMD's 'Strictly Business', Ultramagentic MCs' 'Critical Beatdown' and Jungle Brothers' 'Straight Outta The Jungle' all taking the music into new areas of production and lyrical delivery. The genre was yet to become synonymous with its least likeable characteristics and for a brief moment we were all free to bathe in the sonic delights of a new celebration of street culture. Elsewhere indie guitar rock continued to prosper with the stellar debuts My Bloody Valentine and House of Love alongside a revitalised Mary Chain giving Creation records its biggest year yet and career-consolidating smashes from Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr plus stellar debuts from the Pixies and Mudhoney kept the US underground in the music press. Metal meanwhile was becoming increasingly polarised, the commercial peak of the power ballad alienating many bands into producing increasingly sombre and furious music - scrofulous debuts from UK underground icons Godflesh, Carcass and Bolt Thrower warped metal into terrifying new forms whilst established thrash titans like Slayer, Metallica and Megadeth switched to slow and sinister to take their music to darker sub-levels of despair. The dross was drowned out across the board by new, vital tangents into popular music as acts crossed over from the underground to pepper the charts with exciting, colourful additions - things were pretty great and they would only get better as the decade raced towards its exilerating climax with local scenes in Seattle, Detroit, Manchester and Florida all poised to spread their influence across the planet over the next 12 months. Sling on yer rope gold and hi-tops and pump up my stellar 1988 playlist on Spotify for a trip back to one of music's true golden years.

Albums of the Year

1. Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back

I'm not going to fly in the face of popular opinion on this one - pretty much every best album list from 1988 has PE's heavy-hitting second album at its summit and it's pretty difficult to argue with its selection as the year's most essential release. I found my way to 'It takes....' via the Manics' similarly ambitious debut 'Generation Terrorists' as an inquisitive 16-year old searching for the kind of uncompromising artistic statements that seem like all that matters at that age and it didn't disappoint, pedalling a lethal cocktail of bullet-headed political vitriol and heavyweight beats and breaks that demanded your attention from beginning to end and made nearly everything else sound lazy and conciliatory by comparison. PE's potshots were carefully chosen and devastatingly effective, raging against injustice and hypocrisy from governmental level through the music business right down to their own community, taking no prisoners on the way and laying down a stringent code of ethics that matched the heavyweight dent left by their music. What's most impressive about 'It takes...' is how well it's weathered the passing of time (unlike the Manics' debut which now sounds painfully thin) - the band reportedly came back into the studio looking to channel the pugilistic energy of their live shows into a new set of album tracks and the production stacks up a deafening barrage of airhorns, sirens and boiling kettles to bolster the vocal assault of Chuck D's bass heavy drill instructor bark and Flavor Flav's impish counterweight yelp. The beats don't just underly the vocal energy, they batter the listener into submission and force the MCs to raise their game to win the volume wars, creating an end product that stops you in your tracks even at the lowest stereo setting. What's even more impressive is that they achieved such a knockout blow without resorting to endless depictions of graphic violence, vocal feuds with their industry rivals or even widespread use of profanity - you can count the fucks used on one hand and Chuck D provides convincing evidence that being articulate and intelligent has way more impact than simply blurting obscenities and confirming every negative stereotype that rappers were saddled with at the time. The record's widespread appeal wasn't simply restricted to critical circles either with the band successfully keeping their hip hop credentials intact whilst simultaneously branching out into other areas of underground music - the mid-section riff from Slayer's 'Angel of Death' rolls through 'She Watch Channel Zero' whilst their thrash peers Anthrax benefit from a mention on 'Bring The Noise' and the band's British touring experiences that saw them cross over into the clubland breakthrough of electronic music are commemorated on opener 'Countdown to Armageddon' with DJ Dave Pearce's endearingly enthusiastic introduction (DJs were dropping hip hop alongside house music at the time without creating a stir - as Pearce himself comments, 'back then a tune was a tune'). Even the tongue in cheek use of Queen's Flash Gordon Theme in 'Terminator X to the Edge of Panic' acts as a leveller rather than a two-fingers to the mainstream, flinging the doors open to fans of all genres as part of the band's drive to create a record packed with confrontational politics yet immediately accessible to fans of all emerging musical genres. That they succeeded is without question, that they achieved their aims with a universally-acknowledged classic is even less open to debate.

Heaping impersonal praise on an established classic seems like preaching to the choir so let me pick the bones out of this record in my own fashion. 'Bring The Noise' is a knockout statement of intent to kick things off, throwing out scattershot cultural reference points ranging from Louis Farrakhan to Yoko Ono over screeching car alarm samples, clattering drums and rapid fire scratches with Chuck and Flav combining to lethal effect - NWA would drop jaws with the opening salvo of 'Straight Outta Compton' to similar impact but PE's delivery eschews kitchen sink realism and violent bravado for a rollcall of their inspirations and intentions as part of one universal rallying cry that stands up stronger to scrutiny. 'Don't Believe The Hype' turns both barrels towards the music industry, whether it be critics who focussed more on picking holes in the band's politics than listening to what they were trying to achieve or radio shows that shied away from their vitriolic delivery in favour of anodyne party anthems - the track remains a reference point for hip hop's Us vs Them mindset and has been re-appropriated across the musical spectrum by anyone facing a backlash to their quickfire success. Flavor Flav and Terminator X get their own solo spots next, Flav providing a spot of crafty comic relief notably absent from the output of future pretenders to the band's throne like Rage Against the Machine and the band's turntablist playing to the gallery whilst Chuck and Flav pile on the lyrical praise. Potshots rail against the establishment on 'Louder Than A Bomb' and 'Caught, Can I Get A Witness?', the former highlighting just how worried the authorities were becoming about the band's political influence and the latter providing an equally savage attack against the bloated bigwigs of the music industry who attempted to trip the band up over their use of samples (Chuck's immortal couplet 'You singers are spineless/As you sell your senseless songs to the mindless' is one of the most potent punches to the jaw I've ever heard and states in no uncertain terms how high he set the bar for his band). 'She Watch Channel Zero' builds a venomous rant against couch potato romantic fantasy over the aforementioned Slayer sample (these guys didn't just pick out a Foreigner riff, they went straight for the hard stuff), 'Night of the Living Bassheads' rails against drug dealers sewing sickness in their own neighbourhoods and the cold, chilling narrative of 'Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos' chronicles a prison escape attempt over six minutes of tightly-wound tension. Early single 'Rebel Without a Pause' set a standard the album tracks didn't fail to live up to, 'Prophets of Rage' boots the door off its hinges with a blaring celebration of righteous anger and conclusive set-closer 'Party for your Right to Fight' leaves us with a reminder that hip hop can be so much more than mere entertainment. Sample-based vignettes break up the action to provide a cohesive mix that avoids exhausting the listener with relentless vitriol and keeps the energy levels ready for the next blast of energy and there's barely a flaw to pick out from sixteen tracks of devastating potency. The record's legacy speaks for itself - references points cropped up over decades of subsequent hip hop records, cover versions exist across a diverse range encompassing Tricky's trip hop reworking of 'Black Steel' and Anthrax's thrashed-up duet with Chuck on 'Bring The Noise' in 1991 and vocal samples of the band would pop up on virtually every breakbeat rave track I laid my hands on in the early 1990s. Modern music has perhaps suffered for its widespread diversity in that it's almost impossible to imagine an artist producing something this vital and universally appealing today - 'It takes...' dropped just as hip hop was colonising the mainstream and formed the undisputed spearpoint of an emergent genre poised to radically change music and fashion the world over. To equal it seems nigh on impossible so all that's left to do is to appreciate it for the flawless assault on the senses that it remains to this day - like George Orwell, Led Zeppelin and a maiden voyage into sex and drugs, 'It takes...' forms part of the pantheon of ultimates without which no thrill-seeking adolescence is truly complete.

Check out : the promo for 'Night of the Living Bassheads'....welcome to Planet Earth 1988.

2. They Might Be Giants - Lincoln
Over in the States the 80s music scene was split quite clearly between mainstream, MTV-catered stadium music and what people liked to call 'college rock', basically stuff nobody gave a fuck about outside the university radio stations. The resultant underground scene gave birth to numerous bands that tend to dominate 'best of the 80s' lists churned out by Yank music rags like Pitchfork and Spin, generally at the expense of various vastly more interesting genres (thrash, Madchester, C86, death/grind, new romantic etc). I tend to find the nostaglic enthusiasm for stuff like Minutemen, Replacements, Husker Du et al a little bit tedious, though there are certainly some interesting bands there to explore if you're unfamiliar with the period. Check out 80s indie übernerd Michael Azzerad's all-encompassing study on the era 'Our band could be your life' if you're looking for a starting point, it's a pretty excellent read.

All or possibly none of this leads me to They Might be Giants, a longtime favourite in the Sykes household (yeah, my whole family likes these guys. Except maybe my mum, although I think she's learnt to live with them). Inescapably nerdy yet somehow incompatible with the US college scene in the mid 80s when they first emerged, these guys were rooted firmly in oddball pop music rather than DIY indie, carrying on from where folks like Talking Heads, B52s, Jonathan Richman and co had been before. 'Lincoln' was their second album which saw them gain breakthrough success in the US which was consolidated when global hit 'Flood' dropped two years later on the back of dweeb anthem 'Birdhouse In Your Soul'. Like all their early records, it's made up of 18/19 idiosyncratic pop songs built on the duo's surreal and slightly absurd sense of humour. Song titles like 'Pencil Rain' and 'Mr Me' sound like they were concocted by stoned students watching Sesame Street re-runs, although nothing could be further from the truth - these guys were as straightlaced as they came. Indeed, their personal and political values are behind everything they recorded if you look past the cartoon sillyness - humour as a defence mechanism is key to tracks like 'They'll Need A Crane' (about watching the house you built for your lover being smashed to pieces) and 'I've Got A Match' ('your embrace and my collapse'). Sadness may be in the background but it never prevails, bolstered by the gooftball nonsense of stuff like 'Stand On Your Own Head' and 'Shoehorn With Teeth' (I thought that was HILARIOUS back in the day). My point is that TMBG represent what I love about American college rock - birthed from a cocktail of Dr Seuss, Spike Jones and the Twilight Zone, they can do kooky in a way nobody else can. If there's an anti-mainstream message on here, it's that most people would hear stuff like 'Cowtown' ('I'm going down to Cowtown, Cow's a friend to me, lives beneath the Ocean and that's where I will be') and just say WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS despite the fact that the music is tailor made for the pop charts. They broke big as the 90s dawned alongside REM but unlike Michael Stipe and his 'Wear a Condom' T-shirts the Giants didn't use their stardom to bludgeon the MTV public with slogans, they just kept on making their own brand of oddball pop. Two decades later they're still at it too - if you're looking for a way into their universe, start here.

Check out : 'Ana Ng', which should have been number one all over the world but somehow wasn't.

3. N.W.A - Straight Outta Compton
Blur vs Oasis, The Clash vs Sex Pistols, Stone Roses vs Happy Mondays....every musical movement to graduate from underground culture into the mainstream charts has featured twin flashpoints, one which appeals to the intellectual arthouse crowd and another that proudly retains the rough streetwise edge that made it popular in the first place. NWA were the harsher, brattier counterfoil to Public Enemy's more cerebral take on the genre - not that they were any less intelligent (neither were Noel Gallagher, John Lydon or Shaun Ryder for that matter) but it was probably harder to justify your appreciation of their work to your more politically correct friends. Whilst Chuck D was preaching self-empowerment and revolution to universal acclaim, some people were never going to be won over by Ice Cube's own worldview that 'life ain't nothing but bitches and money'.

Thing is, NWA were undeniably the more entertaining band and 'Straight Outta Compton' has just as good a claim to 1988's hip hop crown as 'It Takes A Nation Of Millions...', it not a better one. I've gone for PE for personal reasons - I got into them when I was an idealistic 16-year old and at that point there's no way the ho-slappin', gun-totin' posturing of NWA would have won me over. However, refusing to listen to anything other than righteous left-wing rhethoric means you miss out on some great stuff and 'Straight Outta Compton' pretty much embodies what many listeners dislike about gangsta rap in general - in fact, you could argue that they set the template that's been used for all the nasty shit released since then. The subject matter may well upset the more sensitive listener but there's no denying the potency of the vocal frontline of Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy E all backed up by the superhuman production skills of Dr Dre. The boys brought lurid imagery to the genre but also a relentlessly aggressively delivery - previous hip-hop classics from the likes of Run DMC and the Beasties were partytastic, positive releases but NWA's rugged debut rubs the listener's nose in violence, sexism and urban poverty from the outset, all spewed forth with unprecedented bile and brutality. As the intro to 'I Ain't The 1' points out, 'We try to make music to piss you off....and fuck you if you don't like it!'. Ice Cube's uncompromising opening salvo on the title track is positively breathtaking, although looking back it was MC Ren who packed the biggest punch (Whatever happened to him? He was, as you say, dope). Dr Dre and Eazy E are perhaps more famous these days for their post-NWA potshots at each other (once again possibly initiating the nefarious trend of hip-hop 'beefs' which has been responsible for the untimely demise of some of the genre's best perfomers) which is a shame as they're a pretty ruthless proposal when playing for the same side. There's plenty of humour on here too - their chosen targets of suckers, Mexicans and women in general may not be to your taste but it's hard not to smile at least once listening to this (Eazy E's slate on Latino dealers on 'Dopeman' always makes me titter). Chris Rock, whose knowledge of the genre easily trumps my own, rates 'Straight...' as the best hip hop record of all time so feel free to take his word over mine - in any case this album ranks alongside 'Nevermind the Bollocks', 'Reign in Blood' and 'Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing' as potentially life-changing slabs of boot-to-the-nutsack brutality that everyone should experience at least once in their musical lifetime.

Check out : 'Gangsta Gangsta', if not the blueprint for an entire genre then at least its first classic.

4. The House of Love - s/t
British indie in the 1980s had become slightly dreary by the end of the decade, the shot in the arm provided by the Smiths having faded by the time their split came around after the release of the ferociously cynical 'Strangeways Here We Come' in 1987. With Goth turning into a commercial caricature of itself and the embarrassing likes of The Wonder Stuff and Pop Will Eat Itself representing indie's most recognisable personalities, the field was wide open for a band with genuine ambition to come along and make a dent. It was in this context that The House of Love's stunning début landed back in 1988, shot full of brooding intensity and subtle malevolence and boasting a flawless run of indie guitar classics. Fronted by well-spoken indie guru Guy Chadwick and teenage guitar introvert Terry Bickers, the band were poised to replace Morrissey and Marr as indie's most potent strikeforce when their album emerged and became the breakthrough act of the year on John Peel's radio show (whose listeners voted non-album single 'Destroy the Heart' as their favourite track of the year) with lead single 'Christine' topping the indie charts in May 1988. The album repeated the feat shortly afterwards and was Creation records' first financial success, allowing label boss Alan McGee to sell them off to a major for a vast profit when the follow-up was due a couple of years later. Later efforts would see their creative energies dissipate amidst drugs, booze and ego battles between Chadwick and Bickers with the latter jumping ship to form the equally brilliant Levitation in the early 90s - the duo were always diametrically opposed to one another but their début harnesses just that energy to dazzling effect, Bickers wild guitar effects matching Chadwick's brooding stage presence and debonair wit. He reminds me a bit of Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, articulate and composed on the surface but masking a streak of brooding menace and savage self-analysis once you start listening more closely. His deep, weighty tone on tracks like 'Sulphur' and 'Salome' sounds like it's only a step away from boiling over into something quite nasty whilst even the mellow moments like 'Love in a Car' and 'Man to Child' contain an undertone of bitterness and cruelty to intensify the hit. Bickers' guitar work is similarly powerful, eschewing the face-melting feedback of their Creation label mates Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine for a more subtle battering of the senses to leave you suffocated by his droning riffs rather than simply shocked into silence by sheer volume. Indeed as Creation's next success story after the Mary Chain's breakthrough in the mid 80s House of Love delivered the same hit as their predecessors in a different way with the focus on a more indirect and softly-spoken assault on the senses as opposed to the Mary Chain's leather clad drone pop and screeching guitar feedback. And apparently their meek appearance was just a front anyway - Alan McGee swears blind that the band were every bit as wild as party animals like Primal Scream back in their day, possibly even worse. The lifestyle got to them in the end though and an acrimonious split between the two frontmen left Chadwick repeating his steps for their second eponymous record which surfaced in 1990 to muted acclaim and moderate commercial success, although its lead single was a re-recorded version of their 1987 début single 'Shine On' which was left off their début LP suggesting the initial buzz of their early material would be difficult to replicate. In any case it's not like the indie world was holding its breath for another House of Love record by then with the Stone Roses' own début having landed in 1989 to kickstart the Madchester phenomenon which would dominate for the next year or two. Bicker's spin-off project Levitation enjoyed some success during the shoegaze era that followed and you'd have expected the drone-pop of 'The House of Love' to have been embraced as a blueprint for the guitar rush of newer groups like Ride and Chapterhouse but it wasn't to be, the band simply fading from view before tossing out two misguided follow-ups in the early 90s and splitting to little fanfare. Like many of their peers they've since reformed to tour and release some fairly decent new material but their début still shines brighter than anything they've managed to produce since then. 'The House of Love' is typically overlooked in favour of revisionist appraisal of My Bloody Valentine's début that landed the same year or the glut of guitar bands surfacing Stateside (Dinosaur Jr, Pixies, Ultra Vivid Scene) but it merits its place in the canon of British indie as the missing link between the début records from the Smiths a few years earlier and Suede a few years later. They'd enjoy none of the longstanding success of either band but the House of Love tapped into the same vein of fey British theatrics and shimmering volume to devastating effect on their first record and, for a brief moment, burned brighter than any of their peers.

Check out : opening dronefest 'Christine', a stunning introduction to their world.

5. Mudhoney - Superfuzz Bigmuff
'Grunge' as a concept started out with the right idea, a sonic exploration of the scuzzy low-end of guitar rock matched with an aesthetic approach straight out of the toilet venues of America. Revisionist media appraisal has the bands plotting their creative arc in direct opposition to the polished poodle rock that dominated the airwaves at the time and whilst the  scrofulous approach of bands like Mudhoney probably flourished in isolation from mainstream tastes it ultimately stems more from a love of the lurching splurge of old school Sabbath and Stooges, bands pedalling a sound so satisfyingly grimy that like-minded musicians were tempted to roll around in it like kids in a mud pit. It's easy to big up Seattle as the alternative rock equivalent to New Orleans for the jazz scene but in truth it was just a case of right place right time for the city that unwittingly found itself at the roots of a massive musical culture shift - Seattle ironically benefited from its cultural isolation, crap local venues and dubious fashion sense which all became flaws celebrated as positives by journalists and fans looking for something earthy and primal in the American hinterland as indie guitar rock bloomed over the late 1980s. All of this was a convenient accident for a butt-ugly logging town in a frozen outpost of the States - if you want to draw any particular parallels then Birmingham, England is probably the most appropriate, a similarly unappealing shit tip that birthed forth a strain of rock music as rough-edged and unsophisticated as the city's industrial sprawl which acted as the launchpad for many of Britain's grizzliest metal acts of the same era (Napalm Death, Godflesh, Carcass etc). Whether or not Mudhoney best exemplify Seattle in musical terms is neither here nor there - their mudslide splurge of guitar rock acted as the template for much of what came afterwards and there's a case to be made for 'Superfuzz Bigmuff' being the first 'Grunge' record but viewing it as any kind of milestone misses the point. This wasn't an artistic statement, nor was it a cleverly constructed stab at crossover success - 'Superfuzz' simply caught one of their all-too-brief moments of hitting the target and provides a satisfying dose of guttural scuzz rock before clattering out the same way it came in leaving a trail of muddy footprints in its wake.

The original version of 'Superfuzz' ran as a six-track EP although future pressings coupled it with the band's instantly recognisable debut single 'Touch Me I'm Sick' along with a few other odds and ends from their early 7" releases. For most bands this would therefore be nothing more than an introduction but in Mudhoney's case it illustrated that their lurching shitstorm was better experienced in short bursts than as a fully-formed rock product - all their full lengths were charming enough but ultimately a disappointment and they only really gave a good account of themselves on split singles and standalone releases, perhaps an indication that they didn't really have a Plan B once they'd burnt out their initial rush. It didn't matter though - 'Superfuzz' benefits from its brevity and is the sonic equivalent to chugging your entire booze budget before the show even starts before flailing catatonically around the moshpit and losing your house keys, certainly not an astute move in the long term but one that provides maximum sensory enjoyment crammed into a satisfying burst of fun. The band's rough-edged guitar splurge reminds me of the familiar festival sight of a six-foot goon caked in crud after starting his drinking at breakfast time and collapsing in the mud prior to staggering through crowds and knocking everyone's drinks over - live performances only augment this vision with the band's directionless lurching and atonal howling matching the splunderous guitar noise on record. Vocalist Mark Arm packs a drawling yowl that tops off the mix perfectly - he veers between the desperate wail of a vagrant demanding small change to the unhinged screech of a drunk lumberjack whose girlfriend has locked him out of the house. There's more than a hint of Kurt Cobain in there too - the Nirvana frontman followed much the same path as Mudhoney and whilst the two bands were never in competition there are many parallels to be drawn between them, their trajectories only moving further apart as their careers progressed with Nirvana's reluctant lurch towards global notoriety succeeding at every turn whilst Mudhoney proceeded to trip over their own shoelaces every time they were given an opportunity to hit the big time. Cobain was probably the more talented musician, boasting a range that encompassed full on mudblast along with his heart-wrenchingly brittle 'Unplugged' moments but I personally find Mudhoney's one-track-mind approach the more enjoyable - these guys were happy to fart and belch their way through the same hairy scuzz rock over each release with more than a touch of dude humour and their genius lies in the fact that they weren't aiming any higher than entry-level kicks and thrills. Both sides of their 'Touch Me...' debut give a thrilling introduction to their canon, the lead track revelling in its own dishevelled uselessness whilst B-side 'Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More' depicts a Prom Queen passed out in her own puke, the ideal visual accompaniment to the lurching dirge spewing forth from the speakers. The meat of the EP swerves between the drawn-out yowl of opener 'Need' and the slow decomposition of the six-minute 'Mudride' to the rollercoaster ride through raw sewage of finale 'In 'n' Out of Grace' (whose opening sample Primal Scream employed to more uplifting effect on 'Loaded', the Honey instead using it to usher in a down-tuned rampage through the dustbins). The vast reams of press tributes to the plaid-clad revolution that emerged from Seattle post 'Superfuzz' is best left ignored and the scrofulous glory of this record should be enjoyed in isolation from rock folklore, preferably after guzzling a six-pack and letting the dishes pile up. Comparing the appeal of a rock album to a really satisfying dump would normally come across as needlessly crude but in the case of 'Superfuzz Bigmuff' there's really no higher praise I can offer - trust me, you'll feel all the better for it.

Check out : 'In 'n' Out of Grace', although spare a though for this watershed moment too.

6. Mano Negra - Patchanka
The term 'World Music' is all too often perjorative to my mind, a label worn like a badge of pride by both artists and fans who expect some kind of applause for fishing in musical ponds outside that of their native country and language. That's not to say that bands playing folk music from their own corner of the world aren't worth listening to - on the contrary they're often a refreshingly vital burst of energy laced with the exotic charms of an unfamiliar culture but they remain shackled to their domestic markets in most cases and unlikely to crossover to broad international appeal beyond the specialist festival circuit. The bands that have succeeded in mixing traditional influences with modern appeal have generally done so by virtue of their breeding ground rather than their own origins (whether genuine or adopted for purpose) and have pitched their own specific cocktail of old and new to audiences they knew would be fairly receptive to it - bands like The Clash, The Specials and The Pogues picked up pointers from their own ancestry as well as external influences from all over the place but took the fundamental step of packaging them in a concert-friendly format that they could take to punk crowds confident that they'd react well to it despite having little interest in the roots of the music. Mano Negra were Paris' equivalent to the Clash, gestating in France's capital amidst the myriad cultural influences on show in the city's cosmopolitan make-up - their sound was rooted in adoptive French punk rock but incorporated elements of North African Rai, American R'n'R and the traditional music of the band members' Spanish lineage (the debate has raged for years between Frogs and Spaniards over whose country can claim the band as their own). Their blend of influences successfully slurped up the most energetic elements of each genre and blasted them out with the frantic energy of classic punk to immediate appeal, crucially allowing them to bag both commercial and critical acclaim in a country that generally prioritises musical eclecticism and intellectualism over more standard qualities like people being able to dance to it. It was this blend of populism and adventure that broadened their appeal to the rest of the world but perhaps ironically prevented them from ever breaking the UK market - we like our French artists to sound 'typically French' with all the stereotypical box-ticking that implies which made a band like Mano Negra difficult to categorise and saw them pass largely under the radar whilst their scene peers like Les Negresses Vertes scored moderate success in Britain with their more discernibly Gallic take on affairs. It was our loss and everyone else's gain though and Mano's thirst for new ground to cover saw them embark on globe-trotting adventures all over the place including a ground-breaking South American tour that saw them set up their rig on a boat and play a series of port cities across the continent as they soaked up Latin influences later in their career.

'Patchanka' was their debut LP and throws the copybook open to different influences in much the same way that the Clash did a couple of albums in, straying from linear album format and instead compiling a menu of different sounds and styles with each track pranging off in a different direction - popular opinion in France ranks follow-up 'Puta's Fever' as their 'London Calling' but their debut is a more emphatic mission statement and serves up a diverse platter of aural treats across its 14 tracks. The balls out rockabilly popular amongst Paris punks at the time gets an airing on revivalist R'n'R like 'Rock Island Line' and 'Darling Darling' but they don't rely on it for crowd appeal and bang out trumpet-heavy flamenco punk on 'Indios de Barcelona' and French nightclub classic 'Mala Vida' to vary the mix, keeping the energy high but not being afraid to experiment. Eccentric retro rock creeps in on 'Baby Be Mine' with doses of wurlitzer keyboards, 'Noche de Accion' matches Alvin and the Chipmunks vocals with goonish Latin cartoon pop and 'Lonesome Bop' throws ska into the mix to great effect and the diverse mix provides no shortage of hooks to get you dancin'. Verbose French radio rock gets an airing on 'Bragg Jack' and 'Ronde de Nuit' and they're not afraid to slow things down for acoustic set-closer 'Salga la Luna' which drifts into the warmer waters they'd explore over subsequent releases. There's none of the self-consciously eclectic smugness here that often blights world music, the cocktail served up on 'Patchanka' is geared towards maximum crowd reaction and broad appeal dancefloor delirium, a gameplan that proved devastatingly effective for the band as they rose to rapid fame in France on the back of the crossover chart success of 'Mala Vida' and some legendary live performances. The wide range of styles they encompassed granted them ready access to rock audiences all over the planet (check out their Japanese live document 'In the Hell of Patchinko' for a taste of them at their frenetic peak) and they quickly became the reference point for numerous French bands keen to emulate their success and shake off the less appealing aspects of their own country's rock heritage - all this was of course taking place whilst the Anglophone world completely ignored them in favour of the more accessible Grunge, Acid House and Madchester phenomena. Mano's plans for world domination ultimately fell foul of their own lofty ambition and their Latin American tour ultimately proved to be their undoing both as a band and a creative force, killing off Mano Negra and giving birth to frontman Manu Chao's solo career that would retain some degree of the band's live ferocity but factor in a safer blend of Latin and Reggae influences resulting in mix better suited to bedroom pot smokers than boozed up punk audiences. The band's legacy lives on nevertheless through frequent revivals of their own music along with the seemingly endless parade of crap imitations cired in their wake and they remain one of the few French rock bands worth listening to as well as an enduring gateway into the wilder, more exotic areas of global rock 'n' roll culture. If you're not familiar with 'Patchanka' and its equally vibrant successors (and there's every chance you won't be if your first language is English) then this might just be the record to lead you into a parallel universe of global craziness from which you'll be reluctant to emerge - not so much a well kept secret as a band some of us managed to ignore against the odds, Mano Negra's contribution to world rock culture is one that's way too vital to be overlooked.

Check out : 'Mala Vida' if you don't know it, although I'm rather partial to 'Lonesome Bop'.

7. Helloween - Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part II
Metal had gone global by 1988 with myriad twists on the formula cropping up all over the place as bands either chased commercial paydirt inspired by the immensely lucrative blueprint of MTV-endorsed poodle metal or mired new depths of sonic depravity via the expanding underground tape-trading circuit of extreme metal. Record deals had become easier to snare for bands playing unashamedly metallic material and even groups pedalling dark, aggressive blasts of molten lava stood a decent chance of crossing over to the mainstream with acts like Metallica and Anthrax notching hit singles without diluting their formula whilst more business-minded players like Iron Maiden were jostling with Johnny Hates Jazz and Erasure for top slot on the album charts. Germany's Helloween stood somewhere between the two, built upon foundations hewn from melodic thrash and the European extreme metal of Mercyful Fate and Celtic Frost but marked out by a goonish sense of humour and taste for bright, anthemic metal that saw them gravitate further towards the pop charts as their career developed, their early days as a devastatingly tight speed metal outfit in the mid 80s having seen them broaden their horizons and change their formation to emerge as an altogether more theatrical proposal by the late 80s. The two-part 'Keeper Of The Seven Keys' set released in '87 and '88 respectively showcased their loftier ambitions across a jewel-studded assortment of neo-classical thrash wigouts, radio-friendly metal anthems and two separate thirteen-minute show closers - the twinset is by no means flawless but by and large they succeed in providing the listener with the full metal theme park experience, a colourful carousel of speed treats, high-energy pop metal and feature-length action and drama built for maximum enjoyment and scant acknowledgement of their own borderline ridiculousness. The band spread their material fairly evenly over both albums but for my money the second part has a slight edge over the former and sees the band hit their stride for a jubilant frolic through the more appealing elements of late 80s metal.

Such cinematic scope wasn't unusual at the time - Maiden's prog-influenced concept record 'Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son' granted them unprecedented success in both the album and singles charts the same year and Queensryche's cult success 'Operation Mindcrime' tapped into the same appetite for story albums that matched action flick narrative with the thrills of a modern rock LP (I could bang on about King Diamond again here but I can't be bothered). 'Keeper...' stopped short of a full on concept album and instead threw the door open to a wide variety of metal-edged thrills - throwaway opener 'Invitation' merely sets the stage for the utterly preposterous 'Eagle Fly Free' which embodies the band's appeal perfectly, romping along at breakneck pace and peaking with an unspeakably catchy chorus augmented by vocalist Michael Kiske's piercing shriek and some typically meaningless lyrics ('In the sky Almighty Eagle/Doesn't care 'bout what's illegal....'). As if things couldn't get any more over the top the band breakdown into a flurry of individual solos without losing their train of thought and the track culminates in trumpets blaring crescendo that will leave you utterly drained, either doubled over with uncontrollable laughter or grinning from ear to ear with metallic satisfaction. It's so fucking good you feel like giving them a medal when they finally cross the finish line. Things get even better from there on in as they bang out hyperspeed sugar rushes like 'March Of Time' and light-hearted headbangers like 'Rise And Fall', once again flaunting their questionable grasp of English as irresistible selling points (seriously, this shit makes Scooter sound like Shakespeare in comparison). Radio anthems 'I Want Out' and the cartoonish masterpiece 'Dr Stein' successfully crossed over to become minor hit singles and a support slot with their spiritual cousins in Iron Maiden gave them stage time to convert legions of potential fans all over the continent - Steve Harris and co may have surpassed them in sales tales with 'Seventh Son' but the 'ween arguably won the race on vinyl, the thirteen-minute title track of 'Keeper' navigating through numerous movements of gargantuan Tolkienesque drama that left Maiden's efforts looking puny in comparison. The album remains their highest chart placing in both Germany and the UK and seemed poised to launch them into stratosphere as the 90s dawned but a combination of rapidly evolving tastes and the three year gap between 'Keeper' and the directionless goonery of follow-up 'Pink Bubbles Go Ape' in 1991 left them with nowhere to go but back to their continental roots. A mid 90s transformation followed although not before the stylistic nadir of 1993's 'Chameleon' which still ranks as they worst record I have ever purchased (seriously - it's fucking abominable) but a re-tinkered line-up emerged with a revitalised take on the power metal genre that saw them flourish in Europe whilst Maiden descended into Blaze Bayley-fronted irrelevance over the same period. The 'ween have gone on to thrill and disappoint in equal measures since then and even attempted a misguided third instalment to the 'Keeper' saga in the mid-noughties which if nothing else merely highlighted the enduring appeal of the original episodes. Ludicrously OTT, dazzlingly theatric and as quintessentially German as mullets and Lederhosen, 'Keeper' is eager to please and crammed full of swashbuckling drama and melodic metal showmanship - much like the celluloid thrills of late 80s Arnie flicks it's difficult to take it all entirely seriously but you'd have to be a hard-hearted enemy of entertainment not to find something in here to make you grin like an idiot.

Check out : 'Eagle Fly Free', conclusive proof that anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

8. Ultramagnetic MCs - Critical Beatdown
1988 represents for many the pinnacle of what constitutes hip hop's 'Golden Age', an era where innovation and creativity took pride of place over commercial appeal and gratuitous lyricism. This is somewhat of a rose-tinted view although not entirely without foundation - the year did produce a staggering number of breakthrough releases providing many longstanding fans of the genre with watershed moments where they heard drum loops, samples and catchphrases that would later form part of popular culture used for the first time. Innovation alone isn't enough to guarantee you permanent appeal though - some of the records released back then have aged as badly as the clothes their creators wore and period appeal can't mask the primitive production that wore thin quicker than a cheap pair of trainers. 'Critical Beatdown' is one album from the era that hasn't suffered from the passing of time, namely because is was such an off-the-wall proposal back in '88 that few listeners knew what to make of it and suffered sluggish sales as a consequence only to emerge as a critically-lauded classic years later. The boys boasted a lyrical dexterity that dwarfed many of their peers and the album was bolstered by a ruthlessly in-your-face production job that would spread its influence way beyond the hip hop bracket but ultimately the Ultras were a bit too weird to be taken seriously by many, falling between the creative stools of old school hip hop that focussed either on politics (Public Enemy), partying (Run DMC, Beastie Boys) or gratuitous depictions of urban warfare (Ice-T, NWA) and instead forming a minority of one as the oddballs at the back of the class huffing lab gas and melting each others' pencils. Creative lynchpins Kool Keith and Ced-Gee acted as unwitting precursors to every weirdo 90s rap collective with an overactive imagination (Pharcyde, Dream Warriors, PM Dawn) with their lyrical tangents into science fiction, cartoons and surreal imagery to craft a parallel universe to the grim reality chronicled by many of their scene peers - their approach could be considered escapist if you're being harsh but these guys seemed to exist in a world governed by their own goofy sense of humour and creative daydreams rather than actively seeking to flee what lurked outside in the street. Keith's lyrical flow is second to none - I could listen to this guy for days - and he expounds layer upon layer of bizarre narrative with the pinched tone of a mischievous cartoon character, neither spitting vitriol nor drawling peace platitudes and pitching his delivery like the ringmaster to some surreal circus of impish delights. Ced-Gee plays second fiddle to him in the MCing stakes but plants his own flag in the album's groundbreaking use of samples, roping in the standard mix of James Brown, classic funk and soul along with the odd metal riff for good measure but chopping them up into a furiously dynamic stream of tightly-wound soundbites and snapping breakbeats to create an irresistibly danceable end product that would lace its influence over the emergent techno scene in Europe where the record became an underground hit and saw its liberal use of uncleared samples paid tribute to by numerous European DJs who lifted segments for the glut of breakbeat techno tracks that dominated clubland as the 90s dawned. The pair of them together fronting the Ultramagnetic was like your favourite comedy duo from back in the day locked in one endless sketch show, free to indulge in the surreal and the ludicrous as a showcase for their cheeky creativity and theatrical flair.

'Critical Beatdown' is aptly titled in that it packs a relentless verbal battering that'll have you on the ropes from the first track onwards but there's none of the puffy-chested machismo pedalled by Messrs Cube and T, rather an endless cycle of assertions of their lyrical superiority to all those around them conveyed via a series of high-speed twists and turns that leave you head spinning. Keith in particular manages to syncopate his lines like a percussionist, mirroring the jittering breakbeats of his backing track and practically inviting producers to sample him like another instrument for similarly high-paced club tracks. One of his biggest admirers was a young Liam Howlett who cribbed several of his lines for the vocal hooks in The Prodigy's rave era material - that 'take your brain to another dimension' sample on 'Out of Space' crops up on the title track as does the garbled hook from Jilted Generation's 'Full Throttle' but Keith's most notorious appearance was on the sample that provided 'Smack My Bitch Up' with its infamous focal point (Keith also guested on album track 'Diesel Power' from the Fat of the Land LP around the same time). It's not hard to see why the two work well together - both favour high energy delivery and crowd pleasing dynamics along with a dose of cheeky humour and aren't afraid to match almost imaginative tangents of an almost childlike innocence with a stream of visceral cheap thrills. Keith's own lurid imagination would lead into deeper forays into science fiction on the Black Elvis releases in the late 90s as well as the earlier Dr Octagon and Dr Dooom projects which focussed almost exclusively on graphic sexual depictions - we might all be thinking about it all day but it takes a certain type of talent to write it all down and make a tune out of it. The aforementioned 'Give The Drummer Some' rehashes James Brown's 'Funky Drummer' for the nth time but goes head to head with it in the rhythm stakes to raise the level and 'Travelling at the Speed of Thought' chucks in Motorhead's 'Louie Louie' for a riff 'n' rap dancefloor gem every bit as immediate as 'Walk This Way' but they're not sample reliant for their potency and Keith comes into his own as the centre of rhythmic attention on the title track and the staggering 'Kool Keith Housing Things'. When Ced and Keith combine on cuts like 'Ego Trippin' and 'Ease Back' they're as deadly as any other vocal duo but the two of them work equally well lost in their own creative dimensions and 'Critical Beatdown' sounds like it was taped as the soundtrack to some brightly-coloured cartoon film chronicling the Ultras' intergalactic quest to save the universe from the forces of wackness. The production here hasn't aged a day since it emerged in 1988 and the hyperactive energy crammed into the record still comes flying out of the speakers as soon as you press play - NWA and PE will continue to claim most of the year's critical plaudits and perhaps rightly so but 'Critical Beatdown' completes the podium for the strongest releases from a genre that was in the process of taking over the world back when it dropped as a gateway into the universe of some of hip hop's most fascinating minds. 

Check out : The cheap and cheerful promo for 'Travelling at the Speed of Thought'. Beware the Skeezoids!

9. Carcass - Reek of Putrefaction
Metal's inclination towards taking things as far as humanly possible has often led to accusations of token extremism and gratuitous one-upmanship which in certain cases is a fair cop but to tar all bands dabbling in transgressive art with the same moronic brush is to unfairly dismiss those who pioneer new and inventive ways to manipulate sound and image. Experimentation in extreme metal had spread across the world by the late 80s via the infamous underground tape trading circuit and listeners drawn towards the more abrasive end of the sonic spectrum were offered a diverse palette of approaches to heavy music issued from cocooned local scenes all over the planet with vastly different recording processes and background influences (not to mention the intervention of local censorship laws governing what they could and couldn't publicly release). Some bands took the format of extreme metal as a means to be as ludicrously graphic as they could in the name of art but shock value only got you so far and even bands dabbling predominantly in OTT imagery needed a pretty diverse sonic arsenal and a shitload of decent ideas to retain anything beyond fleeting appeal - forging a career out of music virtually tailor made to avoid media promotion and mainstream appeal wasn't easy and only the bands truly devoted to the overall artistic concept of extreme metal stuck around beyond their formative releases. Merseyside's Carcass shat out five albums over a career that encompassed death metal's commercial rise as well as its shift into the general framework of modern metal but each release saw them seize upon a glut of original (and often fiercely provocative) ideas that saw them lead rather than follow and their mid 90s split as death metal dissipated into soundalike mush saw the individual members revert to the confrontational stance they'd adopted as teenagers when the band formed over a shared interest in anarcho punk, animal rights and sonic subversion. Having formed via the same regional scene that spewed out Napalm Death and Bolt Thrower in the mid to late 80s (see my piece of Napalm's 'Scum' in 1987's rundown for more on that), Carcass embodied the DIY subversion of everyday Thatcherite Britain - every provincial city had a pocket of sour-faced teenage boys (and the occasional girl) bonded over cynical humour, anti-elitist politics and an illicit delight in sounds and imagery that would make your average Tory housewife faint in disgust. It was this last tangent that Carcass would pursue (at least on their earlier releases), eschewing the scorched earth war fixation of Bolt Thrower and the abrasive political tirades of Napalm and instead concentrating their efforts (both visual and musical) on creating the most unpleasant output they could muster - 'Reek of Putrefaction' acts a mission statement to this end, dispensing with the traditional structure of a rock LP to instead divert their creative energy towards an end product that tested artistic boundaries (not to mention nausea threshold) and provided scant commercial footholds for anyone seeking an easy way in. 

Fronted by a collage of gut-churning autopsy photos that ensured it stayed well away from the shelves of most record stores, the musical content of 'Reek of Putrefaction' gives even fewer concessions to the faint hearted - the band were devoted to left-leaning animal rights causes such as hunt sabotage and their use of nauseatingly graphic lyrics depicting cannibalism, decay and botched surgery was presented as a ruse to dissuade listeners from the carnivorous dietary regime that the vegan band members found objectionable. Whether or not it worked is perhaps beside the point (although I certainly wouldn't want to nosh down on steak tartare whilst looking at the cover art or reading the lyric booklet) but it lent a legitimacy to the band's confrontational approach that fellow gore fans like Cannibal Corpse couldn't muster and they used the standpoint to considerable effect, revelling in grotesquely descriptive medical imagery to craft lyrics that were both inventively poetic and unspeakably repulsive (example; 'Liquidized oesophagus mixes with bloodied excretion/as you pathetically gasp for breath/The stench of faeces scorches your nose/as you violently vomit to death' from 'Vomited Anal Tract'). What would have seemed mildly amusing as a token approach for a 7" single became a disturbingly dedicated artistic venture upon which they expounded across 22 tracks, matching Napalm's explosive tempos and short track lengths but indulging in wider scope of vocal and musical effects to further experiment in distortion and disturbance. Vocalist Jeff Walker veers from low-end belch to rasping screech whilst occasionally delving into warped oinks and grunts that sound barely human, former Napalm axeman Bill Steer serves up abrasive speed riffs along with lurching chug sections from the lowest end of electric blues resonance and drummer Ken Owen powers the whole thing forward with such relentless fury that your ears can barely keep up. The resultant splurge of sound packs in enough variety at the sheer end of the spectrum to keep things interesting and album's breakneck pace belies the band's talent for penning motor-fuelled electric rock 'n' roll and the vocal stylings are diverse enough to make it sound like a revolving door of farmyard animals were drafted in as backing singers. Carcass would pare their freeform gore 'n' roll down into more accessible chunks over their next two releases as death metal rose to international prominence but were quick to change tack as the genre strayed to close to the mainstream, shifting their focus to melodic DM for 1993's landmark 'Heartwork' LP to stunning effect before changing again to a ballsier R'n'R format for their ominously titled 'Swansong' record which landed after the band had already split. Since then Bill Steer has continued to bathe in retro rock with his Firebird project whilst Walker and Owen mired similar territory to 'Swansong' with their Blackstar project until the latter suffered a brain haemorrhage that sadly ruled him out of any future involvement in extreme metal. Their original time in the spotlight straddled extreme metal's most vibrant years perfectly though and their knowingly cerebral approach to the genre provided a vital exception to the norm to produce in arguments with people ready to dismiss metal as music for uncultured boneheads. In pursuing the grotesquely imaginative art projects of creative teenagers through to their natural conclusion in the midst of a global movement in rock music, Carcass proved that extreme metal could accommodate more than quickfix sensory thrills and gory showmanship and 'Reek of Putrefaction' stands as their tour de force in transgressive delight. It stands to reason that John Peel was one of their most vocal supporters in their early years and voted 'Reek' as his favourite album of 1988 - in line with his mantra 'I just want to hear something that I haven't heard before', the record provides a subversive blast of inhuman noise and bowel-quaking imagery that ticked that box only too well. Like Brett Easton Ellis' similarly shocking 'American Psycho' novel that would surface a year or two later, 'Reek of Putrefaction' showed that graphic horror and explicit gore could be pulled off with a certain amount of artistic grace and that transgressive needn't equal gratuitous or brainless for those willing to apply their full talents into the crafting of dark masterpieces.

Check out : 'Microwaved Uterogestation', complete with the lyric sheet - Enjoy!

10. Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Session
Volume junkies like myself are often under-exposed to sounds and environments that privilege the sanctity of silence - I'm one of those people that puts music on as soon as he gets into the house and if for some reason my computer isn't working or my speakers cut out I'm left feeling fragile and abandoned. I was raised on shoegaze, breakbeat and thrash metal so any gaps and lulls tend to be nothing more than a pause for breath but there's something to be said for coming from the other end of the spectrum entirely, something that Toronto's Cowboy Junkies did with their stunning second record in the depth of the 1988 winter. 'The Trinity Session' was taped on the back of studious touring of the Southern US States as the band immersed themselves in raw, old school folk and country music before heading back to Canada with the intention of recording around one single microphone in a suitably echoic space. They eventually chose the Church of the Holy Trinity in their hometown and duly set up around the mic with their singer's voice piped through the PA system and laid down the entire record in a day, even nailing some tracks in a single take. It's no overstatement to say that the results are breathtaking stuff, stripping the music back to its most primal components of longing, mourning and loving with a sound so uncluttered and pure that you almost feel that the building in which in was recorded should be listed as an extra instrument. Churches are generally not places I enjoy spending time in but you have to admit that they offer some priceless alternatives for acoustics and spatial warmth and 'Trinity' sounds almost funereal in its purity, the sort of record you'd feel bad even talking over when it's on the stereo. The band mine the depths of American country music for gems that match the outlook of their name, pastoral ballads from US folklore that embody the romantic thrill-seeking and futile melancholy of the hopeless addict and tapping into that rare vein of heart-rending sadness that can only be touched by the truly gifted (Johnny Cash, Eva Cassidy and the King himself).

'The Trinity Session' is one that you have to tailor to the right setting - I was riding the metro across town today in an unexpected blanket of March snow and the uninterrupted swathe of bleak white covering the city prompted me to flick it up on my phone and disappear into a moment of quiet contemplation. I guess that's probably why people visit churches in the first place. Vocalist Margot Timmins has a voice that rarely raises above a whisper but rears a subtle power to match any lungbusting soul diva, drawing out solemn melodies in the same register as the low hum of the electric instruments backing her up - the band hold back mercifully with every note they play safe in the knowledge that the church's interior will add extra body to their sound and you almost feel that the vibrations they create are seeping into the woodwork, leaving behind a low resonance that's only audible in the dead of night. There's a deep, solemn tone to proceedings that suits the setting, one that accepts that you gotta sin to be saved - the band aren't here to celebrate romance, their register is tailored for those moments when love leaves you too weak to fight back, resigned to your broken-hearted fate and searching for consolation. 'To Love Is To Bury' sets the tone nicely, desolate and lonesome yet cocooned in a warmth that anaesthetises the longing and suitably fatalistic opener 'Mining For Gold' sees Timmins left in total solitude for a funereal paen to that which you desire proving your undoing. The deep, moody blue melancholy of classic Elvis himself looms over proceedings like a spectre, his reworking of Hank Williams' 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry' channelled with all its Southern honey and fragile sadness still intact whilst their 'Blue Moon Revisited (Song For Elvis)' hits its intended target via a splicing of a traditional standard with their own brand of mournful soul. Their rehash of the Velvet Underground's 'Sweet Jane' offers a similarly accessible foothold but stays closest to the Velvet's downbeat live version as opposed to the beefier studio take and it sits perfectly alongside their own compositions, '200 More Miles' evoking the neverending night drive through the Southern States that brought about the record's genesis and the stunning 'Misguided Angel' relating a tail of flawed beauty with the soul-bearing emotional intensity of classic Nina Simone. The band allow silence to direct proceedings for the most part and perform like nature photographers keen not to disturb the wildlife they're observing in its pure, primal form - the soon-to-be-launched series of 'Unplugged' records would strip stadium rock down to its barest components only to highlight the vapid nature of much of the material but the Junkies come at things from the other end of the telescope, crafting magic that couldn't be removed from the stark, contemplative confines of its creation without destroying it completely. Mazzy Star would electrify a similar format to greater success a couple of years later but the Junkies' true peers are those timeless singers whose material is often overshadowed by their own tragic passing - Elvis' Hawaii set saw the 20th Century's ultimate icon perilously close to the downward spiral which would engulf him a few short years later, Johnny Cash's end of days covers records from the early 00s saw him infuse modern classics with the clarity of thought of a man whose end is nigh and Eva Cassidy's posthumous success with the 'Songbird' LP brought global recognition to a voice that was perhaps too beautiful to live. We're therefore pretty fortunate that the Junkies are still around to tour this record - they laid down a 20th anniversary version a few years back with a few modern cameos - and it's equally fortuitous that 'The Trinity Session' hasn't been seized upon by advertisers or rapacious cover artists looking to make a quick buck from its staggering beauty, leaving it as a largely undiscovered gem that curious listeners can come across at their leisure as if they were simply passing by the church on the day it was being recorded. A masterclass in melancholy, 'The Trinity Session' is a trip I cannot recommend highly enough and as a soft cushion counterweight to the bile and misanthropy elsewhere in this selection it's pretty much indispensable.

Tune of the Year

Rhythim is Rhythim - 'Strings of Life'

Club music had been all about the warm, bass heavy bounce of Chicago House until 1988 but the Windy City was to be joined by its snappier robotic cousin in the shape of Detroit Techno as the year wore on. Techno favoured synthetic keyboard stabs and rolling piano lines to the shimmering bass cocoon of classic House and catered to audiences hungry for more immediate hooks and melodies to throw shapes to on dancefloors across the land. Detroit native Derrick May saw his hometown alumni Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson cross over with the cyborg thwonk of Model 500 and the chart-friendly gospel pop of Inner City but he was the one to lay down what is arguably Detroit's definitive track - 'Strings of Life' initially emerged in '87 but was instrumental in Techno filtering into the mainstream and stuck around for repeated outings over the next year or two as tastes turned toward the choppier waters of piano-led house. The track retains some of House's glacial shimmering but leads with a layered piano loop that gives way to aerobic drum patterns and stop-start dynamics that acted like a wake up call amidst the loved-up clubland glide of classic House. Like most innovative dance tracks it evolves as the minutes pass, chucking in new twists and turns as that piano loop circles permanently overhead and dives back into earshot to pull the energy levels up to delirious new heights. The pulsating dynamics and incessant piano riff would inform piano house, breakbeat and eventually hardcore as dance music morphed into different blends of rhythm and melody and May himself could lay a reasonable claim to his own Dylan goes electric moment in club music if he weren't such a nice guy. You'll undoubtedly have heard 'Strings of Life' at some point even if you're unaware of its legacy so let's take a moment to dance our collective balls off to a true clubland classic.

Monday, March 18, 2013

New : The Men - 'New Moon'

Noel Gallagher nailed it, as he so often does, with a calculated rant about the Brit Awards the other week in which he decried the collective mindset of the risk averse, career-minded twerps that populate today's UK music scene, shorn of any of the unbridled enthusiasm and rock 'n' roll abandon that his generation brought to the event in the mid 90s and instead locked in a perma-tweeting publicity campaign flanked by PR agents and small time music biz snotlings. Times have indeed changed since the torrent of upward momentum that new young rock bands straddled back then and indeed a decade later when British indie became a similar breeding ground for invention and crossover appeal - the polite middle class librarians filling out the ranks of today's UK indie are terrified to flick the Vs at the establishment in case they lose out on a lucrative ad deal or a slot on the next Vodafone-sponsored festival bill. Thankfully there are still some folks out there slamming ass and breaking shit like we used to back in the day - those of you who checked out my 'Best of 2012' will remember that I filled my nappy over adoptive Brooklynites The Men and named their 'Open Your Heart' LP as my favourite of the year and a paltry twelve months later they're back with another life-affirming slab of vibrant indie rock. At first glance 'New Moon' is a touch mellower than their previous efforts, elaborating on the piano and country twang that crept into 'Open....' as a tangent but now takes centre stage on many tracks and they sound like they've stepped outside their NYC punk bubble to soak up a bit of good ol' Americana on the road. Last year's 'Candy' is a good entry point to their new shit, inhabiting a serene place that only becomes accessible when the rough edged noise finally fades from the speakers and the beer buzz dissolves into a warm, welcoming glow - 'The Seeds' is straw-chewingly melodic like old school The Band and the aptly-named the 'High and Lonesome' creaks gently along like a barn door in a summer breeze. There's a spot of old world storytelling present here which is almost folky at times, nowhere more so than on standout cut 'Half Angel Half Light' which channels the revivalist charm of Thin Lizzy's 'Whisky In The Jar' and sounds tailor made for that road trip you've got planned for summer. There's plenty to spark up a joint and swing in the hammock to but don't get too settled because halfway through they revert to splunderous volume assault, the blistering twinstrike of 'The Brass' and 'Electric' bursting out of nowhere to blow the rust of yer nuts and prompt front of stage mayhem when they roll through town. The experimentation present on 'Open....' is saved for eight minute finale 'Supermoon' which sees them wig out completely and you sense that they're committed to progression without wanting to abandon the full frontal assault that brought them together in the first place. I caught the live show last week and they  were a glorious shambles, blowing out two of their amps in the first song and peppering their set with long pauses as their equipment proceeded to fall apart (presumably from going off so hard) but catching wave upon wave of delirious energy and heartfelt passion. I had no idea that they had three different singers too, even though on reflection they all sound totally different - these dudes look like the soccer team rejects of NY indie left to form their own splinter group and I like the idea that they chose their name because they have nothing in common outside their gender. The world is an infinitely better place with bands like this who can lay down a corking LP every year and then happily tour the arse off it in small venues across the world - 'New Moon' is hopefully just the latest instalment in a long line of essential releases from these guys and once again no home should be without it.

Check out : 'Half Angel Half Light', another monster hit flying just wide of the radar.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

New : Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - 'Push The Sky Away'

I've been knocking together Spotify playlists for all the annual retro-active features that I've been posting on here and my trawls through 1981's hidden gems introduced me to the Birthday Party's 'Release the Bats', a clattering ode to vampire sex that provided Nick Cave's previous incarnation with a Goth club floor filler and something of a breakthrough hit. It's a pretty hilarious spot of theatrical bombast and probably occupies the same awkward place in the singer's back catalogue as 'Club Tropicana' does for George Michael these days - I was tempted to shout out a request for it when he rolled through town last month but I think he might have got down from the stage and decked me with the mic stand if I had. That Nick Cave is still standing is reward enough after thirty years of sleazy living and killer records - lesser mortals would be waist-deep in wanton nostalgia by this point in their careers but he's never been one to rest on his laurels and 'Push The Sky Away' is as pulpy and captivating as anything he's released in the past. I had the rare pleasure of hearing this album for the first time live on stage with a full band (including a string section and a children's choir!) when busted the whole thing out from beginning to end live at Paris' Le Trianon, a velvet-lined theatre tailor made for cushioning Cave's lush tones and the deep, intoxicating brew served up by the Bad Seeds - he's always good live but seeing someone play dramatic lead with such unwavering panache and smoothly withheld menace was genuinely breathtaking, one to put every other gig you see into sharp perspective. It's also a refreshing poke in the eye to bands much younger than his who are relying entirely on older material to draw the crowds and every track on 'Push....' is potent enough to justify a public airing with the band's full momentum behind it. If you don't get the chance to hear this shit live then make sure you dim the lights and pour a cocktail before letting opener 'We No Who U R' entice you into this seductive cabaret, Cave's dark velvet croon ushering you down the rabbithole as subtle chimes of twinkling synths cushion your tumble through layer upon layer of dreamlike fabric. 'Wide Lovely Eyes' unfolds slowly as a softly-woven tale of enchantment fills the air before 'Water's Edge' introduces a prowling bassline like a predator into the room and that burgundy aura of tingling menace that Cave masters so well starts to permeate the atmosphere. The reason this dude's been able to keep enough spice in his music to send frissons up the most frigid of spines for decades is that he can turn a tender ballad into a looming threat with but an arch of the eyebrow - you should run but there's something just too devilishly fascinating in his delivery to be abandoned and there's no option but to drink deeper and deeper. 'Jubilee Street' is perhaps the most conventional slice of the pie, a slow-burning six and a half minute tour through the underworld that could belong on any of his albums - he does however add an extra dimension to it with the sparser flashback 'Finishing Jubilee Street' later in the record, peering in from the other side of the mirror as he delves into self-inspired fantasy that acts as a perfect counterweight to the former's textbook dramatic climax. 'Mermaids' reminds us that he's still got plenty of fire in his loins, serving up some Grinderman-style graphic imagery in a desolate murmur over hypnotic siren swells before 'We Real Cool' takes us even further inward, mastering delicate swathes of silence as exquisitely as the low, insistent pulse of the bass that envelops the track like you're only inches away from the guy's heart. 'Higgs Boson Blues' permits him an eight minute flight of fancy, tossing in a string of present day cultural references that lead the narrative preciously close to total bollocks at times but allow the band to gradually step it up a notch and follow Cave through another of his apocalyptic crescendos before the ethereal title track neatly draws a line under the evening's proceedings and you emerge back out into serene reality. Nobody can hold an audience spellbound like this, nobody can cradle you so gracefully and shake you so violently - even when Cave's phoning it in he sounds jaw-droppingly vital and he holds your gaze for every single second of 'Push The Sky Away' like a tenebrous sorcerer. You don't need me to tell you how good this is or rattle on about how it compares to 'From Her To Eternity', just bag yourself a copy and drink deeply in a rare old vintage from a source of dark wonder that is as potent as it's ever been.

Check out : 'We No Who U R'.....the door's open, won't you come on in?