Tuesday, 24 November 2009



I blame capitalism. As a tiny urchin I’d insist upon watching The Money Programme, to the chagrin of my staunchly socialist dad. Then, as now, I had nary a stock or share to my name – but I did have a yen for the theme tune. Half-inched from the 1964 movie The Carpetbaggers, this Elmer Bernstein-hewn dynamic cartoon hustle was powered by scrapyard brass, its groove a tantalising half-step too long. It made no sense… but I was mesmerised. That extra moment jutted out and snagged me like a splinter. Why did it sound all wrong?

Other pre-adolescent favourites had a similar jarring quality: the Mars suite from Holst; Mission: Impossible; Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’. What initially seemed awkward was slowly reshaping me. Now, decades later, I find myself distrusting symmetry; I think, dance, breathe in odd numbers, askew from the endlessly recycled permeations of 4/4. Take me clubbing and I feel like I’m trying to put on a glove that has one finger too few. Not only is my DNA clustered in fives and sevens, but I yearn for these parts to be diced, stretched, folded into origami cranes and arranged in seemingly random sequences. I crave impossible complexity, music that resists comprehension, so as to relive the thrill of infant bafflement. Not knowing when the next beat will fall can be overwhelming – it locks you into the moment, focuses awareness on the now and forces immersion. It’s easier to lose yourself in a maze than on a straight road.

That said, I don’t really hate the subject at hand. To do so would be to hate Can, James Brown, the Ramones, AC/DC and countless others whose existence is proof of the power of the quadrilateral stomp – it would be to hate music itself. But don’t you weary of 4/4’s increasingly creaky ubiquity? Don’t you unleash a desiccating sigh when the latest highly hyped pop product/beat sculptor/Brooklyn faux-primitivist arrives recycling the same predictable plod, its blank inevitability echoing the linear drudgery of labour? Music is surely an escape from servitude, not a continuation.

The number four has dominated pop so completely for so long that it now appears natural, its appeal spoken of in evolutionary biological terms that reference heartbeats or our gait across the plains in pursuit of a baluchitherium. Yet many non-Western traditional forms are not based on fours – the compound meters of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the ragas of India, the polyrhythms of Africa and South-East Asia. Inherent simplicity is cited as a reason for 4/4’s stranglehold, but this is an argument perpetually eating its own arse. Four-beat cycles do indeed seem the most ‘normal’ – because their simplicity is familiarity in disguise, mere cultural conditioning. Had the waltz won the popular battle, I would be railing against 3/4. In the parallel universe where math-jazz guru Don Ellis is Emperor, this piece is entitled ‘Why I Hate 27/16’. The beat itself is almost irrelevant – it’s the wearisome tyranny that chafes.

‘Odd’ meters are nothing new. Stravinsky perfected irregular rhythms in 1913 (just as Kool & the Gang perfected 4/4 in 1972), and his mastery arguably remained unchallenged until Messiaen or Ruins or Meshuggah. But his descendants – prog, tech-metal, breakcore, math, etc. – remain niche aberrations within a stultifying paradigm. It’s not about demanding onanistic virtuoso complexity in pop, but more rhythmic diversity, greater imaginative freedom, plenty of opportunities to shake our tailfeathers in a lopsided fashion to an 11-beat Britney. Music can inspire action, define reality, shape time itself – so what a waste to reaffirm the norm, over and over again. More liberating by far to cast aside our conditioning, transcend the trudge and dance to disorienting beats.

(originally published in Plan B magazine)

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


(aka some scribblings about Acid Mothers Temple)


Another day, another AMT album, another clichéd review beginning with a reference to their superhuman productivity (that was it, in case you missed it). The band’s legions of followers will be tickled not just pink, but all the colours of the rainbow and some others that don’t exist to hear that this is their finest release for some time, perhaps since Electric Heavyland. It’s AMT at their long-form best over three wild-eyed and exceptionally bushy tailed tracks. They’re in full-on psych-meltdown mode on ‘Pussy Head Man from Outer Space’, a 200-mph riff-fest based around Tsuyama Atsushi’s liquid bass and Kawabata Makoto’s psychotic soloing. The title track begins innocuously enough with a sedate pace and tasteful soloing, but then everything collapses in a heap and 15 minutes’ intense krautrock action begins. Even better, ‘Electric Psilocybin Flashback’ ups the ante with a mind-boggling bouzouki riff and relentless percussive drive, sounding like traditional Japanese folk played by a thrash band. And that’s almost exactly what is – as well as one of the best tunes in AMT’s now-colossal back catalogue.


Japan’s favourite workaholic intergalactic psychognomic minstrels are back! Not that they ever went away… Unlike their recent run of single-concept albums, such as the IAO Chant Gong homage or the fearsome Starless and Bible Black Sabbath, Myth of the Love Electrique is a varied collection in the vein of their debut or New Geocentric World. All facets of AMT’s personality are expressed here, from supercharged guitar freakouts and proto-blues metal to space-faring drones, monkish chanting and medieval troubadour strolls through purple-speckled toadstool towns. New vocalist Kitagawa Hao’s wondrous wails more than amply supply the cosmic sweetness that was once the reserve of Cotton Casino, and re-inject some much-needed femininity into the AMT sound. At the album’s heart is a new recording of live favourite ‘Pink Lady Lemonade’, the third and possibly best studio version thus far. Another superb album from the superhumanly consistent collective and a great starting point for those not yet converted, but possibly a bit of a retread for the faithful.

ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE – Mono, Glasgow, 14/11/06

Taking valuable time out from a fat-packed schedule that sees them releasing on average nine shockingly good albums an hour, Japan’s premier intergalactic beardshow touches down in Glasgow. Following recent excursions as the Cosmic Inferno, as SWR, and as the Soul Collective, Kawabata Makoto and his fuzzy brothers are once again travelling as Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso UFO. However, it must be said that the major difference between these bands largely comes down to how much room their names take up on a T-shirt.

Given AMT’s cosmic leanings, it’s surprising that they don’t begin with a Big Bang, but rather ease themselves into a drowsy, bluesy groove. But it isn’t long before the band’s kraut-flavoured freakout blows in like Hurricane Hawkwind until wilful ’70s stoner throwback ‘Dark Star Blues’ establishes a colossally heavy metallic chug. While the rest of the band kiss the sky with gusto, it’s Kawabata himself who is the centre of attention. He’s a truly monstrous guitarist, whose furious, intuitive and hugely physical playing can’t help but draw comparisons with Hendrix.

A hilarious, syncopated Occitanian-style chanting interlude sees bass-demon Tsuyama showcasing his throat-singing skills, but it doesn’t explain why tonight he has chosen to model his look on Compo from Last of the Summer Wine. Following a brief burst of herky-jerky Beefhartian insanity, Kawabata gently picks the heartbreakingly gorgeous opening guitar line of ‘Pink Lady Lemonade’, and Mono lets out a collective ‘aaaahhhhh’. It’s a strange and gratifying thing to hear an hour-long lysergic jam greeted as if it’s a number-one hit single, especially one whose beat is in a geological time signature. The delicate central phrase cycles repeatedly, constantly deferring the inevitable moment when the poignant, overdriven lead will break through. Twice during its extended lifetime, the Pink Lady literally fizzes away in intoxicating bubbles of dreamy fuzz, only to rise again, with far more vitality than before, opening rifts in space and doors of perception.

There’s a relatively brief encore of ‘La Novia’, the closest this band get to a singalong anthem, before it all ascends into blissful cloud-borne chaos, culminating in Kawabata’s guitar hanging by its strings from the lights as it attempts to achieve escape velocity. There are certain bands that everyone should see at least once during their lifetime, but with AMT that’s just not nearly enough. Try once per album in their catalogue. That should do it.

(all three originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

Monday, 27 July 2009



Perhaps the only band ever to appear in both this magazine and Sex and the City, Mogwai have been pursuing their singular muse – often elegant, sometimes crushing – since 1995. On the eve of the release of their latest album, The Hawk is Howling, Rock-a-Rolla cornered guitarist Stuart Braithwaite in Glasgow’s 13th Note to chat about longevity, living in a dystopian future, and Batman.

London ULU, circa. 1997. Mogwai pop in while touring their debut Young Team. Five unassuming Glaswegians pull down the heavens and reach down our throats to squeeze our souls dry. Right now, their shimmering, ultra-dynamic instrumentals seem like the most exciting music that it’s possible to make. Their balancing act between unabashed beauty and extreme physical brutality is so precarious that it seems impossible that it could be sustained for any length of time. We few here in this room ought to revel in every moment, as we may never get the chance again.

Eleven years on, in June 2008, Mogwai headline a cavernous room on the Glasgow leg of the Triptych festival. Older, wiser, the band exert greater control over their powers, are far more adept at wielding that vast, glorious sound. Arguably they’re more restrained now than in the old days, but is that really true when chugging new single ‘Batcat’ crushes all before it right from its opening moments? The most striking aspect of the gig is how utterly adored Mogwai are – every opening drift of notes embraced en masse like a lost lover by the sold-out crowd. At times it feels like being at a stadium-rock gig, where this kind of response would usually be reserved for anodyne but catchy power-anthems that express supposedly universal themes with artless, moronic bombast. But Mogwai’s is an unlikely aesthetic to find itself so dearly beloved – sombre, sensitive, full of yearning, with a flair for the (melo)dramatic and, most significant of all, wordless. It’s remarkable that a band with what seemed over a decade ago like a very special and select appeal has now become something approaching a treasured national institution.

Stuart Braithwaite is as surprised as anyone that a thoughtful, sometimes wilfully deafening and occasionally mischievous instrumental guitar band could achieve Mogwai’s degree of success. Especially when you consider that of those from their mid-90s Glasgow scene – Arab Strap, the Delgados, Ganger, etc – Mogwai are among the last men standing.

“Really, if you’d said to us after we’d made even our first album, which went down pretty well, that 11 or 12 years later we’d be playing even bigger places, we’d definitely have been surprised. You can’t be anything other than happy about that. But I suppose we’re stubborn. We refuse to admit defeat. We all still like it. And we never fell out. I think the only reason to stop making music would be because you didn’t enjoy it or you got completely fed up with the people you were making music with. Maybe we’ve just been doing stuff so long together that we’re just kind of stuck with each other. But I think all bands kind of have to have a siege mentality, that they have to be immune to stuff from the outside and stick up for each other.”

But surviving that long and achieving that kind of status that can make a band feel bulletproof, which brings with it the risk of complacency. Is this a danger for Mogwai?

“Aw, no. No no no no. I’ve seen bands go from complete adulation to a running joke after one bad album. Or another band comes out doing the same style of music a hundred times better. Definitely not bulletproof. I’d imagine that there’ll always be a fondness for the records we’ve made, but whether that will always translate into people being excited about what we do now – who knows?”

Of course, the flipside is that not being bulletproof carries its own dangers, i.e. stagnation, an unwillingness to transcend that which made you a success in the first place. Do you feel under pressure to continue to be the Mogwai that people expect you to be?

“If you mean do we want to do a jazz record, then not really. To be honest, I think that we sound the way we sound completely naturally. We certainly don’t have to try hard to sound like this. When the five of us start playing that’s just what we sound like. And even when we think we’ve done something amazingly different, no one else seems to notice! So we stopped worrying about what it sounds like, and just hoped that it’s something that we’re all happy with.”

An infectiously enthusiastic chap, Stuart seems very happy with Mogwai’s new baby, The Hawk is Howling, and quite rightly so. The sublimely massive ‘Batcat’ stands out as one of the band’s most immediate and ferocious tunes, while unusually bright, almost krautrocky avenues are explored by ‘The Sun Smells Too Loud’, and the wrenching ‘Scotland’s Shame’ should and will massage tear ducts not only in Caledonia, but beyond.

“We recorded some of it last year,” says Stuart. “But most of it this February. One of the songs on the Batcat EP was one from the last album that we didn’t get finished because we got Roky Erickson from the 13th Floor Elevators to sing on it, which was quite a long process. The Elevators are one of my favourite bands, but I don’t think he’s done anything for a long time.”

Getting Erickson, a famously reclusive and troubled figure, to sing on your record is a challenge, to say the least.

“It was quite complicated really… I thought he was completely off of the radar, but I heard he’d played some shows in Austin. He played the most surreal show at half time in a basketball game in Austin. Apparently it was amazing. And there was a recent photograph of him in Mojo magazine. I have a friend who works for Mojo, so I got the details of the photographer from Austin, got in touch with her, and she put me in touch with Roky’s brother. I sent him some music and we just to’ed and fro’ed until it actually happened. It took quite a long time. But his singing’s absolutely perfect.”

“It was all done remotely, but there were a few changes, so I went over to Austin and went into the studio with him. He’s a nice guy, and his brother’s really cool. It was a good experience, especially to meet someone like that, who hasn’t continued to make records. He really had kind of disappeared. He’s pretty delighted that people are still excited about the music he makes and the music he made.”

Although entirely devoid of lyrical content this time around, The Hawk is Howling continues the Mogwai tradition of irrelevant but oddly evocative song titles: the aforementioned ‘Scotland’s Shame’, ‘I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead’ and ‘Thank You Space Expert’. They outdo themselves on the Batcat EP with ‘Stupid Prick Gets Chased by the Polis and Loses His Slut Girlfriend’. Where do these titles that sound like snatches of overheard night-bus conversation come from, and are they at all relevant to the music?

“They’re just silly things people say. ‘I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School’ is based on a very ridiculous anecdote that I’ve been told not to tell anyone. None of them have any significant meaning. They’re nothing to do with the music. I hate all these instrumental bands that – well, I don’t hate the bands, but I don’t like the tendency of having these airy-fairy fifth-year poetry kind of titles. Personally, I think if you have something to say you should probably have some singing. We do it once in a while, but there aren’t any songs on this record that sounded like they’d be made any better by having singing on them. Otherwise, just let people evaluate for themselves how they feel about the music.”

Mogwai’s reputation to some extent is built upon their devastating sonic weaponry, the potency of which will be only all-too familiar to all those who ever experienced their monstrous live rendition of a Jewish prayer (which was later released as ‘My Father, My King’) – the merest mention of which may well produce painful Proustian twinges in the eardrums. In truth, the bulk of their music has always been subdued, intimate and tender. The occasional crushing riffs and/or head-cleaning noise provide punctuation, contrast, drama – all that simmering tension needs a release somewhere. So while Mogwai are sometimes written about as the quiet-REALLY LOUD-quiet band, this really is an unfairly simplistic reduction of their dynamic approach to melody, based on a relatively small sampling of their work. However, it is true to say that some people still associate Mogwai with that one trick, and to some extent expect to hear it on every release. Is that frustrating?

“Not really. It’d be churlish to complain about that because I suppose that the reason people remember us for that is because we’re pretty good at it, or that it was the first time that they’d heard that kind of thing.

During the tours for Rock Action and Happy Songs, the Mogwai live shows were growing more and more intense and brutal at the same time that the records were becoming increasingly subtle and more delicate. At this point, it almost seemed as if Mogwai was in fact two bands with conflicting aesthetics.

“I think one of the main reasons that that happened was that we felt – especially after Mogwai Young Team – that we hadn’t managed to record what it sounded like when we played like that. So we almost thought ‘why bother?’ So that’s why we got Steve Albini to record ‘My Father My King’, because that’s what he does. He records bands that can play live and makes it sound like you’re in the room with them. But then I suppose that coming up to Mr Beast we did think, well that’s why people like us. That’s the band. We might as well make a stab at it.”

Whereas a more concise approach has characterised much of Mogwai’s recent output, ‘My Father, My King’ stretched to 30 minutes, the live versions of ‘Like Herod’ clocked in at around 20, ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ was 16. Do you miss doing the longer, epic pieces?

“Not really. There are a few longer tracks on the new one. But to be honest we’ll probably start completely ripping the arse out of these ones as soon as we start playing live. It’s good fun. It never feels like we’re playing for a long time. Although on Happy Songs and Mr Beast we did edit quite a bit. I know ‘Ratts in the Capital’ was a lot longer. And it probably did make it a lot better…it probably would have been absolutely mind-numbing to listen to.”

This year also saw the reissue of the band’s debut album. The label, Chemikal Underground, deemed that a fresh buffing and boosting was required, as they were never happy with the original mastering of Mogwai Young Team.

“I haven’t got very sensitive ears, to say the least!” confesses Stuart to an astonished world. “But I was told by a lot of people that this was the case. So they went and did it again and we found some other songs from round that the time and some live stuff, so people are getting something new. I was going to say that most people wouldn’t notice mastering, but I dunno… people seem more conscious of these things these days.”

To mark the re-release, Mogwai revisited their youth by playing Young Team in its entirety at the Spanish Summercase festival.

“It was pretty weird, because there were quite a lot of songs on the record that we’d never even played, and because quite a lot of that record was done in the studio there were songs that one person had done most of the instruments, so it was like learning new songs. And there were songs that we looked back and thought ‘why did we put that on the record?’, which hit home even more when you had to play them in a room. All five of us were just like ‘Jesus Christ…what were we thinking?’”

“But ‘With Portfolio’ [Young Team’s excursion into white noise and stereo madness] was fun, actually. It started on the piano. Me and John played noise and faded it in and then we got the sound guy to pan it. I don’t know how it worked out front, but it sounded pretty fun on stage.”

“The second night that we played in Barcelona they put the stages far too close together, which happens at festivals quite a bit. And in the big quiet bit with the flute in ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’, all you could hear was ‘Belsen was a Gas’ from the Sex Pistols on the stage next door. I kind of liked it. Maybe if it had been any other band it would have been annoying. If it’d been Nickelback or someone it might not have had the same charm.”

Unlike the sometimes hectoring Godspeed You Black Emperor!, with whom they shared an audience and certain basic aesthetic similarities, Mogwai were as overtly political as you might expect for an essentially instrumental band. However, they were moved to make a statement for 1998’s ‘No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew)’ EP, an angry response to Lanarkshire Council’s imposition of a 9 PM curfew on the local kids.

“We got really wound up that they were trying to tell kids when to go home. Now they want everyone’s fucking DNA. It seems like such small potatoes. It was contextualised amazingly by Alan Grant, the Judge Dredd writer, who said he’s never doing it again because it’s beyond parody – everything that Judge Dredd said would happen in the future has happened now. There’s CCTV cameras everywhere watching what you do, the government spying on you to make sure your dog doesn’t shit on the pavement. It’s horrendous. Absolutely horrendous. I do think the way that the state controls people is pretty terrible.”

Does that make you want to do anything more explicitly political?

“I dunno… firebomb Downing Street? We try and get donations and make a bit of money for things like CND, Amnesty International, that kind of stuff. But I don’t really know what we can do. I guess in certain circles we’re pretty well known but we’re not famous. If we suddenly said that we hated ID cards it’s not going to get on the news. So there’s only really little bits and bobs you can do. But we’re open to offers.”

Mention of Judge Dredd leads, inevitably, to Batman. Allusions to the Dark Knight have cropped up once or twice in Mogwai’s history…

“I just really like Batman! Me and Dominic [Aitchison, bassist] really like comics. Aidan Moffat [of Arab Strap] is a really big Batman fan too. His girlfriend had a kid and the kid’s middle name is Batman.”

The extensive comics-related chat that ensued has been excised in order to spare the scorn and bewilderment of non-geeky readers. This is what happens when grown men who spend far too much time in Forbidden Planet find themselves in the same place.

“I actually did think about a Batman concept album,” says Stuart. “But I think it’d be better to do something involving really good comic writers. I really like Alan Moore’s spoken word stuff. It’d be great to do a record with him. The Hawk is Howling is the last record on our contract, so all of these mad ideas are now within our power to do.”

Once emancipated, Mogwai’s future releases are slated to be on their own label, Rock Action. A live album is tentatively mooted, but sadly no superhero-themed post-rock odysseys or collaborations with iconic Northamptonshire comic creators could be confirmed. Rock Action’s current residents include Remember Remember, whose compositions resemble a dream about a dream about a lost childhood kaleidoscope; the unlimited caustic guitar fury of Part Chimp; and the incredible DeSalvo, an unlikely cross between Botch and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

“DeSalvo are unbelievable. It’s frightening. They recorded their album in four days – it’s a record label’s dream. It sounds amazing. And the cover’s all nuns and pigs and stuff – so that’s exciting!”

Though clearly passionate about his own band, Stuart is equally obviously a gushing fanboy when it comes to the music of others. The recent (and astonishing) My Bloody Valentine reunion gigs at Glasgow Barrowlands set him all a-flutter.

“I’ve still got my free earplugs in my pocket! When they did the big noise part in ‘You Made Me Realise’, my wife kept miming ‘IT’S TOO LOUD’, and every time I’d smile and sound would get in. It was unbelievably loud. Kevin [Shields] had 20 amps on stage. You can’t get much louder than that. It was 135 decibels – that’s like the end of the world. It was crazy.”

When someone from Mogwai talks about excessive volume, it carries a lot of weight. And it’s oddly appropriate that, as a man who has spent the last 13 years inducing various degrees of deafness in his audiences, Stuart should receive the mother of all aural pummellings at the hands of one of Mogwai’s prime influences, one of the main reasons this band exists at all. But what’s the point of forming a band? Why make music in the first place?

“I dunno. Just…fun. It’s fun to make music. We just wanted to make a bunch of noise. And I really don’t think the fundamental reason we do it has changed at all. Obviously it’s completely different now – we’re not rehearsing at Martin [Bulloch, drummer]’s parents’ house any more. It feels like a privilege. Especially to be able to do it and make a living from it, it’s amazing. But even just to get to do it and have anyone give a shit about it, it’s brilliant!”

It’s become all too easy to take Mogwai for granted. They’ve been around for a long time now, and unlike My Bloody Valentine, they’ve never been away long enough to be missed. They’ve become relatively omnipresent – in video games, as bed music for televised football, even cropping up in Sex and the City. And they inhabit their style so completely that it’s easy to mistake immersion and evolution for inertia. But, despite their numerous imitators, they remain unique, a band who’ve succeeded on their own terms through continually developing a huge, beautiful and theoretically uncommercial sound that’s truly their own. Revel in them while you can.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

Monday, 13 July 2009



Oakland-based avant-whatever collective SGM’s second album out-bombasted their remarkable debut to the exact same degree that their debut out-bombasted everyone else. Album number three, therefore, comes burdened by the unreasonable expectations of their discerningly rabid followers.

They needn’t be concerned. Ten-minute lead track ‘The Companions’ is a bold opening gambit, expressing mortal terror through stark, overtly theatrical means. Nils Frykdahl’s normally domineering voice grows ever more pathetic in desperation as the music swells to a lurching throb. It’s as ominously subtle as ‘Helpless Corpses Enactment’ is excessively metallic, a brutal piece of pure mathematic evil, more rabid goat than song. ‘Puppet Show’ is similarly dramatic, its tinkling music box and thundering celestial choirs a perfect soundtrack for skewering Patrick Troughton with a cast-iron weather vane. Carla Kihlstedt’s beguiling voice shimmers and simmers on ‘Formicary and ‘Angle of Repose’, the latter’s paroxysmal climax her most powerful vocal to date. Best of all is the twisty-turny brutality of ‘The Widening Eye’, whose impossible cerebral heaviness will make Robert Fripp cry tears of proggy blood.

This is a beautiful-sounding, luscious and spacious record. And the combination of a massively heavy backline with violins, glockenspiels and Sleepytime’s arsenal of Heath Robinson-esque homemade instruments gives their super-intense arrangements a unique texture. It’s easily the band’s strongest, furthest reaching, most focused effort yet. But if there’s a drawback, it’s that there’s so much going on – a vast array of styles and sounds, an overload of rhythmic convulsions and melodic ingenuity – that it will keep you from listening to anything else for six months while you obsess over its abundant detail.



There really aren’t many bands like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. There’s the name for a start. There’s the fact that they chiefly draw inspiration from arcane literature, the Futurists and the proto-Surrealist Dada movement. Their records are packaged in warm, welcoming sepia, strewn with oblique 19th-century imagery and endless reams of possibly forged historical text. They hit the stage in facepaint and robes, wielding bizarre homemade instruments. Their stage shows have been known to incorporate pseudo-academic lectures and Japanese butoh dancers. In truth, if you didn’t know better you’d think they were a sinister atavistic cult or a performance-art collective, rather than a rock band. But that’s before you hear the music – and if the ephemera that surrounds the band appears to be wilfully obfuscatory, then the task of encapsulating their sound is just impossible. 

Suffice to say that if you’re at all intrigued by the idea of a backwoods Meshuggah jamming with a deeply paranoid King Crimson; or a junk-shop Mr Bungle performing monstrously twisted versions of Kurt Weill tunes; or Hair as mangled by a Magma/Voivod supergroup, then Sleepytime are for you. The music is insanely over-complicated, but it’s not exactly prog. It can be crushingly heavy, but it’s not really metal. It’s dramatic, excessive and technical, but simultaneously intimate, engaging and charming. It’s as dark, jagged and discomfiting as it is beautiful, funny and absurd. Lyrically, we’re talking the Unabomber, demonic donkeys, anti-technology tirades, heresy, fear and redemption through ordeal, all filtered through an expansive vocabulary and a highly literary imagination. 

And yet this most idiosyncratic, distinctive and inventive of bands has thus far had a relatively low profile in the UK – for one thing, they’ve never played over here. But all that may be set to change. Newly signed to The End records following a two-album stint on Web of Mimicry (the label run by Trey Spruance of Mr Bungle/Secret Chiefs 3), the band have just released In Glorious Times – their most ambitious and darkly rewarding collection yet. When Rock-a-Rolla catch up with Sleepytime, they’re mid-tour in the States, revitalised by simple pastoral pleasures following a gig with thundering stoner-doom trio Stinking Lizaveta. 

“We’ve got the day off,” explains a clearly contented and excitable Matthias Bossi, drummer. “We’ve showered for the first time in many weeks and we’re staying at my sister’s place, with her menagerie of dogs and cats and rabbits and kittens and ponies and things. Generally in great spirits. We’re just hanging out for the day and then we’ll probably take off into the woods to go camping or something.” 

Camping? Ponies and bunny rabbits? Not exactly what you expect from a touring band. Whatever happened to traditional on-the-road activities like snorting rat poison out of an unconscious groupie…? Mind you, all that stuff can become tiresome very quickly, and Sleepytime have been at this for a good many years. Bassist Dan Rathbun and guitarist/vocalist Nils Frykdahl formed their first band, Acid Rain (later Idiot Flesh), in the mid-1980s in Oakland, California. Nils, a laid-back, affable and thoughtful chap, offers some insights into their dim, distant past: 

“It started as a high-school band and transformed into the band that eventually transformed into Sleepytime. It was kind of a long, gradual process. We lived in an anarchist co-op together and we played there. There were huge parties…better than most clubs.” 

The late and indubitably great Kurt Vonnegut once summed up the directing force behind our lives thus: “I was the victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” The same is true of the circumstances behind the meeting of Nils and Dan. 

“It was a happy accident. Our bass player called to say he couldn’t make the gig. We saw Dan walking around and thought ‘That guy can play the bass’. He learned everything we had in the time it took to play the songs. He’s really sharp. At that point, I was coming more out of a metal background and Dan was coming from progressive rock.” 

Not only did the fusion of these two lead to some spectacular achievements on a musical level, but Rathbun’s wide-ranging technical proficiencies have proved to be vital in other ways during their 20-year partnership. 

“Dan is able to hold down the material aspects of a rock band,” explains Nils. “He builds instruments, records the albums, fixes the bus – we’d never have left Oakland if it wasn’t for him. And our relationship’s been pretty stable. We established our respective roles pretty early on and we cover really different ground while working together, which enables us to have pretty long-term projects in bands that are somewhat experimental and don’t have big record label interest. It’s not like we stay together for the big money that we’re pulling in.” 

Idiot Flesh became something of a cult, renowned for their bizarre heaviosity and extravagant, theatrical performances. Although the band ceased to be in 1998, Dan and Nils’ partnership had barely begun. It was through their work with Jewlia Eisenberg’s gender- and ethnicity-bending experimental troupe Charming Hostess that the two Idiot Fleshers met Carla Kihlstedt, and the singular chemistry for Sleepytime began to come together. 

“As Idiot Flesh was starting to unravel, we had in mind continuing to work with Carla as a singer. And then she started also playing violin and we knew we had some shared interests. When we first met Carla she was playing Bartok while warming up, so we knew we had in common an interest in incorporating new classical music into a rock context. David Shamrock (Idiot Flesh drummer) was also interested in classical and rock. But we didn’t know that it would turn into a band.” 

“The only wild card at that point was (original percussionist) Moe! Staiano. He was definitely very deliberately that – a physical player, very visceral, very chaotic, very destructive, who played with metal sticks on metal drums. We saw him playing around town and thought he’d be a great foil for David, who could play his ass off, but was the most controlled drummer I’ve ever played with.” 

It’s exactly this fortuitous convergence of styles and personalities that allows the Sleepytime sound to exist. Vocal responsibilities are shared between Nils and Carla, his full-bore death-metal roar and vast crevasse of a baritone a perfect counterpoint to her impure, strong and sensuous lullabies. Alongside traditional rock instrumentation, violins, organs, glockenspiels, autoharps, lutes and trombones are drafted into service, as are an array of exceptionally tantalising noise-making devices built by power-bassist Dan – the ‘sledgehammer dulcimer’, the ‘percussion guitar’, the ‘Viking rowboat’, the ‘popping turtle’. New drummer Matthias keeps this potentially sprawling cacophony grounded with precise, powerful polyrhythms, while percussionist Michael Mellender more than fills the now-departed Moe!’s seat as he beats the living cobblers out of a battalion of chains and metal objects. In keeping with the band’s roots on an anarchist co-op, it’s very much a collective effort, every individual playing their part in producing this remarkably complex and densely layered music.  

“All five people write,” says Nils. “In Glorious Times represents the widest variety of writing of all our records, with the addition of Michael, who is also a multi-instrumentalist, and Matthias, our new kick drummer. The compositional process really varies – Dan tends to bring in through-composed scores with everybody’s parts pretty fleshed out on paper, aside from Matthias’s drum parts. We then infuse it with our stylistic leanings and tones. And arrangement choices are always open to the whole group as an ongoing process. We kind of work on the material for a while, refine it and then record it and then play it live.” 

“I tend to bring in fairly skeletal song ideas, based on ideas that don’t necessarily fly from beginning to end, and we will embellish them and all jam on that. The composing happens through improvisation. By the time we’re playing it live it tends to be very wide open. Part of the benefit for me of that is that everyone’s playing is representative of their emotions and humanity, they’re playing the way they like to rather than the way it’s supposed to be instrumented. It’s very different from they way it would be if wrote everything down as a score, which I used to do more of. I was trained in that.” 

“Part of the inspiration for getting this band together was to have a group that could compose from a texture-based start on sonics, and work up melodically from there, rather than the other way around. And with the home-made instruments, if you don’t have your hands on them then it’s hard to imagine what the part would be for them. Like, say, the sledgehammer dulcimer or Carla’s percussion guitar, which is on at least half of the material on the new album, or all Michael’s metal and chains…it’s pretty hard to sit around under a tree somewhere with a guitar and imagine what the percussion guitar part might be.” 

So it’s left to the operator? 

“Yeah. That way you get something back out of their playing.” 

Although all five members of the band participate, In Glorious Times is perhaps the band’s most focused album thus far. In fact, in keeping with Nils’ interest in progressive rock, it feels almost like a (whisper it) concept album. Listening to 2001’s Grand Opening and Closing, the astonishing first record, you’d be forgiven for thinking Sleepytime were several different bands. It’s difficult to reconcile, for example, the explosive trailer-park metal of ‘1997’ with the Victorian Gothic unease of ‘Ablutions’ or the agrarian mosaic-prog of ‘The Stain’. The follow-up, Of Natural History, felt like a band finding their niche, being more confident in their vision, whether they were engaged in visceral avant-metal (‘The Donkey-headed Adversary…’), demonic show tunes (‘A Hymn to the Morningstar’) or Baroque revulsion (‘Cockroach’). Though the bewilderingly wide range of styles is still in evidence on the new record, the overall tone is more cohesive throughout, almost as if the album is one long piece. 

“Oh really? Well that’s great!” says Nils. “It was definitely a concern that the diversity, which has always been there, was starting to feel like just that. Not that it’s a derogatory term, but it’s not the overall intent. When somebody brings something in, we want to make sure that it makes sense within our trajectory, within absolutely non-dogmatic and non-defined parameters. We don’t want to cut ourselves off from anything. We enjoy a lot of different kinds of music, a lot of which sounds nothing like what we do…” 

Nils is keen to stress that the band’s personal lives have no bearing on their music, but it’s undeniable that there is a deeply personal aspect to the new record. 

“The lyrical, thematic concept of the album as a whole was based primarily on the fact of the death of my brother and band artist since Idiot Flesh days, Per Frykdahl. His influence is pretty immeasurable on me and on the whole emotional tone – the humour, the blend of black comedy and warmth – and the album as a whole, the title, many of the lyrical themes of death and rebirth or the recycling of matter or the persistence of form… Interestingly enough, a lot of these themes were already in place as a central theme in our work from the beginning anyway, but they took on a certain clarified form.” 

Though a background presence in the music, Per’s presence can be felt most strongly in the album’s packaging, a three-way gatefold adorned with pages and writing from his notebooks. Sleepytime have always had a particular eye for mysterious, elaborate presentation. Exploring the text and imagery of the first two albums is like being given the key to a musty library of occult tomes and anthropological curios. 

“We like to steer things in various directions with the album packaging, the liner notes…we want people to delve into another layer. Then people can make it their own, which is what it’s for, after all. We’re not putting it out there to write our biographies. The packaging is very important. The music comes first, but the art is a very big part of the whole. Most of us love books more than just about anything else, so the chance to assemble little books is a real thrill. None of us are writers per se, we’re grubby touring musicians, but we like to make little artefacts that somewhat resemble those that we so readily overload our bus with.” 

As well as the heavy, labyrinthine music and intriguing packaging, the band’s theatrical stage presence, the make-up and the robes all contribute to their esoteric air. 

 “There’s no heavy cult of personality,” offers Nils. “We’re keen to avoid that. I really haven’t had to deal with band fandom. People are hesitant to talk to us while we’re in ‘the mode’, with the costumes. But to counteract that, when I can I like to come out and sell the merchandise and talk to people. Although we don’t present ourselves as the real people that we are, we ARE real people. We’re regular folks.” 

Well, that’s debatable…but are the people who come to Sleepytime shows regular folks? Given the many levels on which the band operates, you might expect them to attract as many devotees of Thomas Pynchon or avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch as they do rivetheads in search of brutally heavy thrills. 

“Our audience is fantastically varied. There’s definitely an element of rock and metal fans, but also older progressive rock fans, or people who are there partly for the pageantry, the spectacle – there are people who come for various aspects of it. And the fact is that we are all of those people… I was and still am a metalhead at heart. I still get really excited about some nutcase from Norway burning my ears with the most brutal metal I’ve ever heard. But we’re also total nerds.” 

If all this talk of theatre and dance and literature has placed anyone in any doubt as to the intensity of the Sleepytime experience, it’s worth noting that a mere mention of things metal sends Nils into an enthusiastic reverie… 

“I saw Enslaved recently. They’ve been around for a while but I just saw them live. They were pretty fantastic. They’re getting more into ’70s progressive now. Also Leviathan, out of San Francisco, kind of a Burzum-like, textured black metal… And out of the Ukraine, a band called Hate Forest. Oh my god, they’re really, really intense! Utterly precise and super monotonous, completely fast, unwavering, no fills…” 

On the basis of their recent tours of the US and Continental Europe, the cult of Sleepytime seems to be growing, largely due to the rabid evangelising of their followers. 

“It’s pretty much word of mouth. Although I think the Internet helps. When we toured Europe last month, nobody had the album, but there were lots of people singing along in Poland, even though they don’t speak a lick of English. Really amazing.”

So does this mean a UK tour might finally be on the cards? 

“We certainly hope so. We’re very aware of a potential audience there. The whole front row of our show in Amsterdam had flown over from England, and were the most vocal and wildly enthusiastic people in the room. They were great! We know we have lots of friends over there so we’ll definitely try to make that happen.”


(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

Tuesday, 7 July 2009



First, a bedtime story. Way back in summer 2002, Boredoms played at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Unexpectedly, a last-minute act was added to the bill in the form of John Cale. Two experimental adventurers for the price of one – bonus. Boredoms played first, spinning infinite amounts of fizzy endorphin magic from just three drumkits and a yelping stick figure with dreads. There was much rejoicing, and much dancing in the aisles. Then Cale played, alone at an electronic piano, his dour Dylan Thomas-informed sprechesang almost visibly corroding the love of life that Boredoms had generated. Many people walked out, desperate to salvage those last remnants of carefree delirium. You had to feel sorry for Cale – it really wasn’t his fault that people valued the rare and lofty peak of Boredoms glee enough to want to keep it for as long as possible. 

There’s a moral to this tale. Don’t follow joy with misery; it doesn’t take. Tonight, history repeats itself, though some lessons have been learned. This evening also sees Boredoms twinned with a legendary merchant of melancholy – but at least he’s on first. Michael Gira, revered core of Swans and Angels of Light, almost seems to be mocking the aesthetic mismatch as he darkly croons ‘God damn the sun’. Could he make the dichotomy more obvious? With his Brylcreemed hair, white shirt and braces, Gira resembles a frontier barman. His appearance is an external symptom of his preoccupations, his role as a teller of tales from an forgotten, perhaps fictional America. The songs, performed solo on an acoustic guitar, are dusty byways where everyone is out to rob and kill you. His insistent, heavy grooves are overlaid with guttural howls that demand fight or flight. For all the flashes of primal power and endless darkness, there’s a fine, fuzzy line between a gutsy harrowing bellow and a Stars in Their Eyes Jandek performed by Ian Astbury. Gira crosses this line a few times, but at least makes apologetic reference to his wayward voice. And even though he’s not on top form, his presence and songs guarantee an enraptured crowd.

Gira is impressive, but there’s only so much crushing gloom a body can stand. Antidote time. But Boredoms’ drum-circle line-up – Eye plus Yoshimi, Muneomi Senju and Yojiro – has been plying essentially the same set for a good few years now. Is there anything new in Bore-world?

It’s always a good sign when Eye arrives on stage with his balls out. He throws shapes clutching his glowing, motion-sensitive electronic orbs; with every flick of the wrist, every snap of the elbow, they crack the air with blasts of coruscating noise. It’s so ridiculously exciting, the atmosphere so alive with energy, that you could go home right now and still have seen the best gig of your life. But then the three drummers take their seats and a lopsided, almost proggy beat begins to take shape. The percussive onslaught is as energised as ever, but it’s clear that the well-worked Boredoms set has either been refined beyond recognition or discarded almost entirely in favour of an even more ecstatic aesthetic. The 2007 incarnation is less linear, more intricately structured, with more microscopic attention to stops, starts, sudden shifts. And yet for all its enhanced structure it’s still compellingly danceable, especially during Yoshimi’s funky keyboard arpeggios. She’s a total powerhouse throughout, a blur of silver lamé and skinny limbs, while Eye raises the ritualistic temperature ever higher with his chants and samples. He has a new secret weapon too – a rack mounted with seven guitar necks, each tuned to a different chord and amplified beyond sanity. Beating them with big sticks or small, he’s a one-man Glenn Branca guitar choir. It’s a truly vast sound, one that takes the already supernaturally good Boredoms experience as close as it gets to utter perfection. If this doesn’t move your muscles then you’re probably dead. With so many new ideas crammed into a seemingly limited format, it’s clear that the Boredoms’ evolution from a chaotic experimental punk band into an unstoppable avant-trance joy-machine is still a work in progress. 

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

Wednesday, 24 June 2009




So 2009 has barely begun, but it looks like we have a winner: Roman bass/drums/sax trio Zu are waltzing off with the album of the year prize. Carboniferous wastes no time in justifying this arguably dubious and certainly premature claim… ‘Ostia’ kicks in with an impossibly sexy live techno throb underpinned by obese bass, before evolving through several larval stages, each more obscenely exciting, twisted and hyperactive than the last.

‘Chthonian’, featuring Buzz Osbourne, is so vastly sludgy that it out-Melvins Melvins and then gets all wildly polyrhythmic and irresistibly danceable, just to make you die from joy. There’s no room for slack here: eight more tracks blaze by, each and every one a killer, big on ultra-precise low-end syncopation, bawdy bludgeon and rhythmically fiendish tangents. Somewhere in there Mike Patton shows up twice, to great effect, but his usually domineering presence is somewhat more diffident, audibly cowed by the monstrosity that this band have become.

 The degree to which Zu have been enhanced is almost absurd, akin to bolting an interplanetary rocket booster to a Lamborghini. Their former mathpunkjazzcore was peerless in terms of intricacy and invention, but this is the new and improved 2009 model, in which raging complexity is supercharged by serious heaviness and copious grooves. No dry intellectualism, this – Carboniferous’s natural habitat is the dancefloor/moshpit/boudoir. To reiterate: album of the year. No lie.

 (originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)


A bass saxophone, almost as tall as the man who wields it, thunders like the Horn of Gondor, shaking loose kneecaps and rupturing intestines. A spindly man in shorts chokes and mangles the life out of a seemingly innocent bass, sputtering and stuttering deep-black arcs of metallic crunch. Impossibly twisted beats that lurch and thrash like the death throes of copulating snakes overtake the man on the drum stool, who abandons his post and rattles out trigonometric paradiddles on a speaker cabinet instead. Jaws drop, nodding heads simplify patterns, and stiff bodies dance awkwardly to irregular rhythms. It’s a wet March Thursday in Glasgow, and Zu are headlining Stereo. The three-piece from Rome have been perfecting their dextrous band of hyper-complex, twitchily heavy low-frequency instrumental skronk over the past decade, and my god but it shows. Musically, they’re one mind only ever-so-slightly inconvenienced by the necessity of being split into three bodies. Their post-human tightness and devious compositions have carried them across the world’s oceans, and attracted collaborators ranging from free-jazz legends to the godfathers of experimental sludge. Rock-a-Rolla finds bassist Massimo Pupillo backstage, accompanied by a vast bowl of gratis curry and the room-shaking soundchecks of support bands Action Beat and Vars of Litchi. A personable, inspiring and enthusiastic chap, he begins by explaining how Zu came together:

“Me and Luca [Mai, sax] met when we were 14. We were from the same neighbourhood in Rome, a very, very suburban area near the sea where nothing happens – except a lot of people stealing and a lot of junkies. Those are the main two attractions of the place. So with really, really few people who were into music at all, it was easy to connect with the one other weirdo who was. Friendship and music obsession became a band.”

“But it took a long time for us to focus and understand what we really wanted to do. The band came together in ’97, but we became Zu in 1999. We decided to stop gigging for two years. This why the band is called Zu – it means ‘closed’ in German. So for two years we just closed ourselves off in a room and just practiced until we found the idea of what we are. Everything we listen to is important to us. We don’t choose with a rational mind where we want to go and how we develop the direction of the band. We are such voracious listeners that we want to take out parts of our taste and explore them – we want to do this Naked City kind of thing, where we just slice up, cut and paste every kind of music. You play one bar of country, one bar of hardcore…we want everything digested, mixed together.”

“There were no conscious decisions. Not having a guitar came about because we couldn’t find a guitarist we liked. We try to work with what we have. By itself, the instrumentation we have is very limited. There’s no harmonic instrument in the band, which limits the music a lot. It’s good, it forces you to be more inventive.”

For all its compositional and technical intelligence, Zu’s music has always been emotional too, leaning heavily towards the fierce, the aggressive. Massimo believes a harsh environment may well produce harsh art. “Music and geography are connected,” he says. “You express many things in music, you write your biography. You listen to music by somebody, and through that you speak of your place. We started at an early age listening to metal, then hardcore punk, industrial music, free jazz, avant-garde…everything. All kinds of angry music. We think we express the other side of Rome, away from the classical architecture. Rome is such a Catholic place, and we are deeply anti-Catholic. My parents were completely atheistic, very, very left-wing people.”

A self-taught bassist, Massimo has developed a fiendishly spidery, twangy style that’s highly distinctive. But why pick up this most unglamorous and anonymous of instruments in the first place? “It’s the same story as each and every bass player. In my first band, the guitar player was better than me, so I played bass. It was the perfect choice. I really felt at home. It’s a very underrated instrument. I don’t use a lot of pedals… [One is] a crazy hand-made evil distortion. This also involves limitations. It took me ten years to use pedals. For a long time I went straight into the amp, exploring what it was possible to do with my hands.”

“I’ve always been drawn to bass players that built a structure and not just followed chords – like early Charlie Haden when he was with Ornette Coleman. Rob from Nomeansno has been a huge inspiration, as was Mike Watt, Sasaki from the Ruins, and of course the masters – Mingus, etc. And Peter Hook, who did something different, building the song from a bassline, not just following chords. I think maybe if you are taught how to play then it’s more difficult to unlearn what you’ve been taught and do something new.”

This striving for the new, pushing themselves ever onwards, is what keeps Zu alive, keeps their music fresh – and most importantly, keeps it fun for the band themselves. “Every song contains something that’s new for us, “ says Massimo. “If you repeat yourself, it’s easier to sell records, it’s easier for a journalist to say ‘They do this music’, but it’s less interesting for you as a musician. We want to grow through our music.”

What kind of music that is is open to debate. There are discrete elements of many things in there – prog, math-rock, noise, metal – but no genre’s norms dominate at any given time. And one particular classification raises Massimo’s hackles more than most. “We mostly know what we are not,” he says. “We are not a jazz band. We don’t consider ourselves to be a jazz band at all, especially not free jazz. People see a saxophone and think jazz. But the music is so structured and composed that I don’t know how anyone can think it’s free. I play exactly what Jacopo [Battaglia]’s kick drum plays, or play a counter-rhythm. If you listen, you’ll see it’s not free.” 

Though their albums and live gigs more than stand on their own merit, the subject of collaboration looms large when you talk about Zu. Following chance meetings, copious drinks and unfettered mutual appreciation at gigs and festivals, they’ve ended up recording with, among others, electro-ambient composer Nobukazu Takemura, scattergun free-jazzers Mats Gustaffson and Ken Vandermark, and experimental guitar legend Eugene Chadbourne. An album with Nomeansno’s Rob Wright on vocals and second bass is in development. Right now, they’ve just completed a short European tour with Mike Patton, giving avant-rock’s foremost workaholic free reign to splatter his vocal tics all over their work. “The plan is to have the next record on Ipecac, and he will be on some of the songs, but we don’t know how many yet. We’ve done one song with the Melvins too. There are a million bands trying to do what they do, but they’re very clever musicians.”

Massimo promises that the Melvins tune will appear in tonight’s set, and that it’s very easy to spot. It’s an optimistic claim, partly because Zu are far heavier, denser, more vicious than they were when they first visited the UK with (Sweep the Leg Johnny spin-off) Check Engine in 2001. Back then, their complexity, energy and presence was in place, but there was also a brittleness to their disorienting rumble. Zu 2008 have been working out, big style. At least half of tonight’s songs have sufficient mass and crunch to suggest that they are Melvins-bound. There’s a cowload more muscle to their sound, largely thanks to Massimo’s newfound willingness to embrace the effects pedal, but also due to a more bullish attack from the whole band. The cranking up of the heaviness quotient suits Zu, their syncopated sideways assaults more punchy, more brutal, but no less dizzying, no less structurally overwhelming. 

What’s clearly evident about Zu, both as people and in their intricately confrontational skree, is that they relish the oppositional, prioritise the importance of friction and struggle in the development of art and of the self. Playing the kind of music they do takes devotion, obstinacy, and courage. “It was really hard in the beginning, in Rome. Even friends of ours were like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ But we gained strength. We really wanted to prove something. That you could live, or at least survive, playing this music. It’s quite a privilege, even though sometimes you’ll be broke, and you’re always at risk. It keeps life interesting…though sometimes you’d like less interesting. But it’s amazing. Being on tour so much is also good for the music. We wouldn’t be so tight if we only played 20 shows a year. And if we hadn’t had such shitty jobs we’d have no perspective. For years I was illegally putting up concert posters in Rome. If I have to live a basic lifestyle, I’d rather be on tour. I never dreamed of playing arenas, I never thought of myself like that. I always wanted to play music for the love of it; I thought it could save your life. And I’ve achieved more than I ever dreamed of.” 

 (originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

Thursday, 18 June 2009



You know Scott. Toothsome Europhile American with a stirring baritone. Sang classy downbeat ’60s pop. Waltzed with Brel on four magnificent, eponymous records. Briefly a light-entertainment TV star. Released the industrial, nihilistic Tilt in 1995. Disappeared, resurfacing only to produce Pulp, curate a festival and record a song for a sub-standard Bond movie. One of pop’s most revered hermits.

Naturally, his first new record in ten years comes with an unfair burden of expectation and/or dread. And physically at least, The Drift is exactly what you might expect. A matte-black cover spattered with Rothko red. A lavish booklet sprinkled with cryptic lyrics spatially arranged with the attention to kinetic detail of ee cummings:


‘Stars led to sky/ lash led to eye/ herpes to clit/ then stopped.’

‘Rabbi crater/ keyed for action/ hits the marks.’ 

‘The chair had/ been shifted/ ever so slightly/ say/ five feet or/ two centimetres.’

‘Cossacks Are’ opens with surprising force. A high-pitched drone. A chiming double-helix of tremolo-laden guitar. Bass and drums grind out a galloping, desperate rhythm. Walker’s voice arrives, intoning ‘A moving aria for a vanishing state of mind’, as an incongruous operatic howl, trading his former sonorous powers for tremulous melodrama. He’s a Dadaist Orbison singing about torsos and cowboys for a minimalist Jesus Lizard. It’s profoundly unsettling – and by far one of most straightforward of the album’s ten songs.

The majority of the tracks are dense, amorphous nightmares, remarkable for their intensity, if not their accessibility. Monstrous mosaics assembled from atonal drones, merciless percussion, subliminal whispers, unexpected bursts of shore-leave jazz. When the massed onslaught of pounding drums, violently woozy strings and meat-slapping arrives in ‘Clara’, the visceral horror of it is astonishing even after repeated listens. But the arrival of the female voice representing the title character, Mussolini’s mistress, is even more jarring in its elegiac beauty.

In many ways this is an even more dark and vicious record than Tilt, but there’s bizarre humour in there too, in Walker’s infantilised use of ‘pee-pee’, the repeated declarations of his intent to assault an Irish donkey, even a Donald Duck impression. Just as baffling is the closing track, ‘A Lover Loves’, a relatively welcoming and upbeat 120 seconds of guitar, voice and some of the album’s most absurd lyrics. It is, apparently, ‘…a waltz for a dodo, a samba for Bambi…a polka for Tintin’.

So does it work? Is it Un Chien Andalou on record, a perfection of the art of the uncanny, the unknowable terror within? A bewildering mishmash of random signifiers of gloom? The most remarkable and unforgettable record you’ll hear all year? Most likely, it’s all three.


(originally written for Beard magazine. unpublished)



Being the most suffocatingly intense band in the world is clearly not enough for Sunn O))). No, they insist on gathering Eyvind Kang, Dylan Carlson, Julian Priester and others, referencing Miles Davis and Alice Coltrane, and evolving right out of their robes. Each of these four tracks is a standout in its own right. ‘Aghartha’ splinters under its own mass as chords fall like slabs of meat upon cold tiles, Attila Csihar intones at the speed of granite, and Namoric horns summon behemoths. The astonishing ‘Big Church’ interweaves the divine and the diabolical: a seraphic choir led by Jessika Kenney wards off hellish grinding, to genuinely theologically terrifying effect. Unusually direct and rocking, ‘Hunting & Gathering’ rides a gnarly riff redolent of Boris-era Melvins. But ‘Alice’, the most explicitly Kangy piece, is the apex. Rising swells of brass and electronics puncture prairie chimes, and its overwhelming climax is, quite unfeasibly, like emerging from a barbed nightmare into a field of fragrant orchids. Brutal, evocative, horrifying and beautiful, Monoliths… is the sound of Sunn O))) obliterating expectations.

(originally published in Plan B)


A sentient health-and-safety violation shambles his way through the crowd, swinging a hot censer billowing an intense High Catholic fug. Security bricks of intimidating proportions follow in his wake, stern, nervous. O’Malley and Anderson, standing before an altar made of amps, and hidden beneath austere, moon-grey ceremonial robes, cast claw-like gestures of supplication. The acolytes respond in kind. In case the symbolism is lost, this is Church. Yea, we are gathered here to worship. And the divine object of our pitiful, wretched adoration is the first two seconds of the opening riff of Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’. It’s in that moment, the first charred chord, a wrecking ball striking a tomb wall, that metal was forged. Many claims have been made for the diabolical influence of the whole tritone riff, but the real startling power lies in the pure intestinal impact of that single chord strike. Sunn o))) take this insight, and extrapolate it to infinity. Lower, slower, louder. Lower, slower, louder. Repeat until dead, deaf or immortal.

In truth, the second of those three options is the most likely. I’ve attended some sadistically loud gigs in my time. For me, Mogwai, a decade ago at the Astoria, was probably the first to go beyond pedestrian levels of stupefying heavy-metal volume and into the realms of Mega-City One sonic weaponry. Wolf Eyes, Merzbow, Jazkammer, My Bloody Valentine, Part Chimp, a particularly harrowing one-on-one in a small room with Kylie Minoise – all, in their own way, were thoroughly excessive in unreasonably thrilling ways. But Sunn o)))… Loud, yes. Stupidly loud, certainly. But loud in a way that you hear from the ground up. Music that gives your duodenum tinnitus, drones that reverberate through your skeleton. The knees take the brunt; the pelvis only suffers a touch of purpling at its crest. By the time the shockwaves reach your ears they’re a mere shade of themselves, only capable of semi-lethally roughing up your soft tissues for their lunch money.

Tonight’s one-off is a low-key low-end treat for grimm devotees. In town to plug their upcoming release, Monoliths & Dimensions, Anderson and O’Malley revisit the now-we-are-ten Grimmrobes Demos. (Or at least something potentially approximating them. Let’s be honest, it’s difficult to extract anything recognisable from this overwhelming caustic morass.) In recent years, Sunn o))) have expanded their line-up, their putrefying sound given living, liquid form by freshly disinterred vocals from Attila Csihar; extra muscle and mass from Justin Broadrick; morbidly swelling textures from Guapo’s Daniel O’Sullivan (whose support slot tonight as Grumbling Fur, in collaboration with Alexander Tucker, wove transporting rural gothic terror-drones from mere violin and cello), etc. But tonight, they’re devolved: no guests, no guff, just two guitars, some leftover Rosicrucian habits, a wall of Sunn amps, some really, really, really sloooow and heavy riffs, The End.

Not only that, but their usual obfuscating theatrics are hamstrung. The hot spotlights sizzle O’Malley’s cloak, and every few minutes he makes frustrated throat-slicing cut-the-lights gestures to the techies. The trademark shield of dry ice fails to co-operate too, dissipating almost as soon as it is fwooshed on stage, leaving them looking like thwarted conjurors. (As an aside, a universal gig truth: no matter how loud your band, that fwoosh is much louder.) Yet, denuded in several ways, Sunn o))) are at their most powerful. Underneath all the husks and disguises and grandiose artistic trappings that they’ve acquired lately is a concentrated distillation of the proper heavy stuff: pure mainlined Melvins tar, only without the distracting fripperies of, y’know, actual songs and words and beats and all that extraneous crap.

(Yes, Earth did it first, and arguably better, but Carlson’s gone all Shimmering Jim Jarmusch these days. A noble and beautiful pursuit, for sure, but someone has to keep the bones quaking.)

For all its cultish congregational air, this experience is in fact a solipsistic one, in which each individual locks into the psycho- and physiological effects of extreme bass and volume and slowness. We’re dwarfed by noise. We’ve shrunk to microscopic size and are being fired down a high-voltage cable. We’re trapped inside that Black Sabbath drang like a wasp in a jam jar. Music that moves at extreme speeds, fast or slow, makes its own tempo in a secret, personal pact with the listener. And this intimacy reveals a truth – the trappings of gothic doom and monastic horror, of extremity and misery and degradation, tend to detract from the simple fact that Sunn o))) are both FUN and SEXY, no? So cartoonishly extreme that they’re entertainingly preposterous; so perfectly refined in terms of pure Platonic-form sonics that anyone with even the vaguest love for the crushing chug must surely abandon themselves to this frill-free sensual celebration. This is metal-as-fetish, anatomical riff examination, the frotting of the frets, the orgasm of the overdrive.

Come and worship. Worship and come.

(originally published in Plan B)

so yerrrs.

this place is intended to be an online repository for my published and unpublished scribblings about music over the past few years.

I mostly write for Rock-a-Rolla, but have also done bits and bobs for The Quietus, and the now sadlydefunct Plan B and Beard.

generally speaking, we're talking avant-rock, weirdo metal, squalling improvisation, delicate sound weavings, gruelling noise, intricate proggery, naive charm, wayward jazz, crushing doom, gauche exotica, crass cultural tourism, exuberant orchestral fantasies, girl pop and lovely sprawling pronk.

from time to time I might write about some other stuff too.

all reviews will be posted in their original, unedited form.

enjoy. or not. what do I care?