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?