Posts Tagged ‘Black Sabbath’

Dom Mariani and Greg Hitchcock‘s Datura 4 have released an album that says everything about the joy of electric guitar. Checking out the trippy cover art (I want what Joshua Marc Levy is having…) and taking in the title – Hairy Mountain – my son said “This just has to be good…”

It’s better than good, it’s the best thing I have heard all year (to be honest it is a tie for 2016 with Bill Hunt‘s acoustic and startling Upwey). Hairy Mountain serves up riff after delicious riff over ten killer tracks. As a fan of rock and roll guitar, I found myself happily saturated with huge tones, big hearted rock and roll and more than a few nods to the great original psychotic reactors of Detroit, London and Sydney. Rock with great pop sensibility – it is an unbeatable and irresistible one-two punch.

datura4_robbieharrold_1-720x617

Hairy Mountain is all about hooks, hubris and heaviosity. Not surprising considering the pedigree here: Mariani’s Stems and Hitchcock’s Bamboos were two of Perth’s most loved garage rock bands; what is it about Perth?

‘Fools Gold Rush’ opens with a Black Sabbath grind – the tone I expected from the last Sabbath album (but was given Foo Fighters instead) – before lifting off into a Byrd‘s jangle: pure pop for now people. ‘Trolls’ is blues-rock supreme – these songs all have a sour worldview, delivered with a curdled sneer that fights to be heard above the guitars – perfect! “Trolls will find you, they will wind you up…”

‘Uphill Climb” is Stooges-brutal with that momentum that only spiky drugs and/or rock and roll can give you. Same with “Mary Caroll Park” with its Rose Tattoo slide-guitar scraping the paint off my ears.

Title track “Hairy Mountain” rolls on big Led Zep wheels through a tale of perfect surf breaks and peace-pipes – a chink of (not quite) hippie sunlight in a doomy album. Hitchcock’s ‘Greedy World’ is back spitting at the stupid world, over that mutant breed of pub rock that only Australians seem truly capable of.datura4_hairy-mountain

After the raw and red-eyed ride, Hairy Mountain winds up/winds down with Mariani’s melancholically acoustic country-rock plea ‘Broken Path’. It is perfectly placed and just what we hairy mountaineers need to come down after our time spent on the slopes.

Lysergic, heavy, booglarised, wildly colonial, Hairy Mountain is – like all great rock and roll – perfectly imperfect and vice versa, and all the more thrilling for it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the 80s revival is over there; if you do then do yourself a Molly favour and grab some Hairy Mountain.

 

Hairy Mountain is available from http://www.alive-records.com/artist/datura4/

 

Advertisements

When I reviewed Melbourne guitarist/composer Tim Willis’ 2012 release Keep Your Chin Up, I referred to his music as ‘jazz for the Miasma Age’. It is not jazz or post-rock or contemporary classical music or minimalism and yet is all of the above. Beautifully.

Keep Your Chin Up, and its predecessor, The End – named for the collective Willis performs and records with – were both remarkable collections of music that springs from a mind equally free and grounded: the melodic invention is playful, almost colourful, yet the arrangements are tight as skin.

Willis’ new album – called Night and Day for the six-part suite that dominates it – has The End expanded from a five-piece rock-and-roll band to an eight-piece mini-orchestra, adding Dan Sheehan on piano, Brae Grimes on trumpet and a second electric guitarist, Dan Mamrot.

Tim Willis Night and Day

Altoist Jack Beeche and bassist Gareth Hill are carried over from the earlier group, with drummer Sam Young and tenor Kieran Hensey brought in, new.

The Night and Day suite was written for the PBS106.7 Young Elder of Jazz Commission and premiered at the 2013 Melbourne International Jazz Festival. I can imagine the mix of reactions among the festival goers at Willis’ uncompromising and entirely original approach.

Yet, despite the expanded palette of harmonies and timbres afforded by the larger band, Willis keeps a firm hand on the tiller throughout – his characteristic minimalistic and repetitive touches are all here, as well as the timbral and melodic surprises which playfully dent and scratch the sheen of his music.

The suite begins with ‘Night’ and moves through six degrees to ‘Day’. Willis’ night, far from being a dead dark empty void, is alive with rhythm and restless energy – of carnal human fun? of animals skittering on the hunt? of water and wind rattling in the moonlight? This night is relentless and propulsive, running on hammered eighth-notes, unstoppable as sex.

‘Cold’ kills the night-life off with long repeated grey chords only answered with patches of silence. ‘Dark’s guitars are reminiscent of the Black Sabbath flavours of the earlier End albums; Willis’ solo here reminding me how much I enjoy listening to composers when they improvise – like Frank Zappa or Gil Evans, Willis is shaping his solo as he shapes his compositions.Tim Willis Night and Day 2

‘Dark’ moves into a stabbing sixteenth-note texture that has a cry inside – the Dark here is not just environmental but in our sad hearts.

‘Dawn’ pushes a brighter tonality on and on, yet it feels more of hoping against hope, than one of hope. All of this music is deeply affecting, and has a sorrow either inside it or halo’ing it – Willis suggests and expresses the complexity of our feelings as humans; happiness is built on sadness, sorrow is almost a natural state.

The clipped syncopations of ‘Thaw’ push against that sorrow, sparring from all sides. The guitars have a King Crimson insistence and dark edge. Hill’s bass solo preludes a complex series of sound-pictures in the coda: morning sunlight on rocks, dripping icicles, wet branches.

When ‘Day’ comes, it is with a sense of joy over a heavy rock snare – Willis plays games with timbre and harmony across the final suite track: whether under horn solos, blazing ensemble sections or limpid sparse ghost-harmonies. ‘Day’ is the mirror of ‘Night’ but only a slightly more polished mirror. Nature continues unrelenting, whether under the gibbous moon or the white sun.

Night and Day is rounded out by two Willis originals – as equally fascinating in their shape and ideas as the suite – ‘Alone’ and ‘A Better Place’.

It has taken me more than half the year to find the album that is easily the best thing I have heard in 2015. For invention and a truly clear-eyed, uncompromised vision, Night and Day gets the guernsey. It is my only sad that my words can barely get across what a wonderful musical and poetic experience this album is. I guess you will just have to listen to it for yourself.

 

Published August 2015 on australianjazz.net

 

 

Several months ago I happened to catch a performance of a band called Video8 at The Annandale. They were tight, edgy, obviously influenced by the sharp end of the 80s and surprising. Surprising in their originality and sound, but also surprising because they were fronted by Maxine Kauter.genre maxine cred chris allen

I had only recently been enjoying The Maxine Kauter Band’s album Alibech The Hermit – a collection of literate, acoustic-flavoured songs that could not have been more opposed in style to the glassy funk of Video8. Yet the same Maxine Kauter who yearned and purred from within the carved wooden walls of Alibech… was up there before me proclaiming with equal intensity and depth from a very different place, an Orwellian synthetic tube-farm of right-angled rhythms and 80s guitars.

And she got me thinking about genre in music.

How can an artist seem totally and fundamentally committed to more than one genre? And how can their creativity work entirely effectively within both? Or in as many genres as they choose to work in? How can they even like such diametrically opposing stuff, let alone love it?

genre richard maegraith cred rifton recordsIt is not the pastiche of the teevee ad jingle writer, or the jack-of-all session muso or the numbed human jukebox of the RSL musician – it is original and fully-felt in creation. I’m thinking of Elvis Costello’s brief switch from caustic new wave to the alkaline pop-country of 1981’s Almost Blue, hippie roots-rocker Neil Young’s techno album Trans, and even Igor Stravinsky’s sudden dumping of High Art Modernism in the 1920’s for the cool marble touch of Neo-Classicism.

Thinking further on it, I realised this thing of genre-or-not can reveal something about the approach and mind-set of the creative artist – in music moreso than any other Art form – and that is something I always think is worth the price of admission.genre luis rojas cred john snelson

And thinking yet further I realised that it was probably best if I asked hose who knew – three Sydney musicians whom I have long admired for their individuality, genre-defying and plain great music.

As well as Maxine Kauter – who is always good copy – I sent the same six simple questions to jazz saxophonist Richard Maegraith and guitarist Luis Rojas. Richard has long been a leading light of Australian jazz and fronts his unclassifiable band Galaxstare. Luis is a member of the tranvestite-metal band Mechanical Black as well as Shanghai, an experimental group unfettered by genre, style or expectations.

Here are their responses.

___________________________________________________________

1. Why do you think so much music binds to one genre or another?

Maegraith: Humans love to compartmentalise. Genres help us feel safe and secure, and like we’ve got control over it.

Kauter: I think it’s because we need patterns to understand things right away. It’s the way we learn to play music too. Certain ideas are grouped together under particular headings known as genres. I think all of that comes back to narrative and to the way we pass on information. Like why is the Madonna always front-on in Madonna and child picture? Because that’s what tells me what the picture is about. It’s sort of like that with genre. Put a pedal steel on a simple chord progression and everyone will say ‘it’s country’, or ‘alt country’. Why? Because the Madonna is face-on.

Rojas: Two things spring to mind: Instrumentation/equipment and Influence.

A lot of genres are formed as a result of like-minded use of instrumentation, the line up of a band and the instruments played (eg. 4 piece: drums, bass, guitar, vocals) and the influence of past musical groups with similar instrumentation.

Take ‘post-rock’ for example, a non-specific genre that popped up out of nowhere, is basically a rebellion against the stereotypical 4-5 piece rock band sound. Compositions can involve classical and electronic influences performed within the confines of a typical rock band’s instrumentation. Different playing techniques and use of effects further help to differentiate from a typical rock band sound. A lot of these bands have a similar mindset, creating a community with a similar approach to their music and their influence. Influence begets influence until these bands end up painting themselves into a corner or pigeonholing themselves into that specific genre.

From a composer’s point of view, you have a choice of whether to compose for the limitations of an instrument (eg. an acoustic guitar may not be able to perform something written for piano), or the perceived rules of a genre etc.

A composer can begin writing a multi-instrumental piece on piano, for example, however, they would need to understand the various limitations and expressive playing techniques of the instrumentation for which they are composing.

A genre can arrive through a natural and organic process involving the progression from an initial musical idea which is then influenced by the choice of instrumentation and available equipment, as well as with the composer’s knowledge of musical styles and how instrumentation is used to create and execute certain musical ideas.

2. Is the idea of genre important to you and your music?

Maegraith: Not really.

Kauter: Yes, but in the sense of a history. Some ‘genres’ are really pointless. Like ‘indie’. Indie is the shark jumping moment in bending the definition of musical genres. That and ‘world’. In fact world might be worse because it’s also really racist. These genres are not really about music and are unhelpful as designations because other genres actually describe certain musical attributes that people have found a helpful name for grouping them together. ‘Indie’ and ‘world’ are the devils of genre. They’re the product of minds that actually don’t listen. Probably marketing minds. ‘Make it sounds like it didn’t cost a million dollars to make and then we’ll say it’s indie’.

For me the idea of genre is important when it is capable of evoking a history. For example ‘folk’ tells me about a long tradition of travelling musicians who comment on the political situation of the day and societal pressures on the common human, infusing these with their own personal stories so that the listener is reminded that they are part of something. Society exists. There is American, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese and on and on. There are lots of sounds in folk, patterns of playing that are particular to regions. All are characterised by the fact that they focus on acoustic instruments and a prominent singer. Lyrics are important. Emotion, story, the listener… all king. It’s democratic, it’s for the people.

In this sense, genre is important to me. I want to exist in that history, it informs me. I don’t have to sound a certain way. The patterns played, the roads travelled etc, they don’t have to be the same. I don’t need to stand in a field with my shoes off to say ‘folk!’ I just need to acknowledge that history and genre by recognising what it is at its essence. But that’s for me, not really for others. It helps me to stay connected to an idea of music that is important and poignant to me. I imagine people feel this way about a lot of different genres of music.

So, actually, the genres we bandy about are wonderful language devices that conjure whole histories comprising musical motifs, patterns, standards, instruments, repeated narratives, certain innovations, particular regions, sounds, political revolutions, great love myths, heroes, heroines, failures and villains. They all manage to be referenced by this one word that shoots out great lightning pulses like neurons into the collective consciousness, lighting up a whole galaxy of meaning and culture. And that can happen with any of these genres.

It’s for this reason that certain ones are really offensive like ‘world music’ because the history it lights up is such a boring one about ‘you’ vs ‘me’. This idea that there is me and all of my nuanced history with the many genres needed to express it and then there is all the other people who make this one kind of music called ‘world’. That’s the kind of story we don’t need to be lighting up. That’s bad logic that only gets worse the more we use it.

Rojas: Audiences use genre in order to make it easier to seek out music they may like according to their individual tastes.  I think as a composer, genre can be a hindrance, more than anything. Catering to any particular audience is quite easy to do once you know how, usually rendering the resulting compositions stale and derivative. As a fan of music, I can relate to the need for people to categorise music into easily to digest genres, but when I have my composer’s hat on, that need is superfluous.

I rarely start writing a song with any specific genre in mind.  As a song is formed though, it becomes clear which particular musical project I am involved in it would be most suited for.  Having said that, I have been able to translate a heavy metal song into a classical piece quite easily, because the compositions do not rely on the limitations or confines of any particular genre or instrumentation, rather their adaptability comes from a strong emphasis on melody and structure

3. Here are 3 genres: what are your brief reactions? – 1. Pop-country, 2. Blues-rock, 3. Hip-hop

Maegraith: Keith Urban, Gary Moore, Lecrae

Kauter: I think immediately of the film The Player by Robert Altman. There’s that great first shot that goes on forever and at one point we listen in on a writer pitching a film to a producer and he is describing a film in which a political candidate has an accident that results in him being able to read minds. The producer says, “So it’s a psychic-political-thriller-comedy… with a heart.”

I also think, “Hyphens are fun”.

Rojas: POP COUNTRY: Pop was my first love. I grew up listening to ABBA, The Village People, Elton John, and The Beatles.  I usually apply a pop mentality to everything I write. Pop music to me is catchy, concise and to the point, so just because you’re writing an avant-garde noise piece, doesn’t mean you can’t apply those same elements to it.

Coming from a guy whose standard answer when asked “what kind of music do you like?”, is “I like pretty much everything”,  I can honestly say that country music comes very close to the bottom of the list.  The amalgamation of something I love with something that I loathe can result in either one improving on the other, or one ruining the other.  When ‘pop country’ springs to mind, I would say it is the latter.

BLUES ROCK: I love rock music but I really do have a love/hate relationship with the blues.  As much as I appreciate its influence and importance in modern music, it is not the kind of music that inspires me or excites me on a day-to-day basis.  Having said that, my guitar playing is for the majority influenced by blues.  One of the only scales I know is the blues scale and so any solos that I play end up sounding very blues influenced regardless of genre.  Despite my apathy towards blues, it is very much an integral part of how I developed musically and currently unwittingly express myself.

HIP HOP: Growing up through 80s, hip hop was an unavoidable part of my musical shaping.  There was a particular movie called Beat Street that introduced me to artists such as Grand Master Flash, Kool Moe Dee, and Afrika Bambaataa, at an early age.  Later on, I also found an appreciation for NWA and Public Enemy.  A little known fact is that Shanghai sampled a Public Enemy track from ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ on our first EP, ‘Esoterica’. In more modern times, two bands that stick out to me are The Beastie Boys and The Avalanches.  The Avalanches’ first EP ‘El Producto’ is one of my favourite hip hop releases of all time, especially with its use of Theremin being a personal highlight.

genre rojas - shanghai

In more recent times, I appreciate hip hop when it is approached organically.  For instance my appreciation of Beastie Boys and Avalanches stems from their incorporation of rock band instrumentation as opposed to relying solely or very heavily on samples, synthesisers and drum machines. It’s the fusing of real world instrumentation with the electronic realm that works best for me in this particular genre.

A lot of recent hip hop does absolutely nothing for me as its stagnated into this pool of sexist, macho, repetitive, derivative, formulaic droll.  The only artist of late that has stood out for me is Kendrick Lamar and his second release ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’.

4. Is current music, in general, moving further away from genre constraints or aligning tighter to them?

Maegraith: Both, at the same time, I think. There are what I call ‘archivists’ (people/groups who seek to retain the ‘true’ or ‘original’ genre) in all genres of music. They can be forthright about what is ‘jazz’ or ‘swing’ or the notion that any jazz after bebop was rubbish, or whatever. These archivists appear in most genres. Thankfully, they’re in the minority, but they’re usually pretty vocal about it. These people are keen to keep genre lines tight. At the same time, globalisation has allowed a new kind of genre blurring o occur which is exciting for the most part, I think.

Kauter: Further away. We assign genres to things merely as a way of branding the music in a certain way. Usually we really need to talk about bands or musicians that a particular artist sounds like because the genres have become either very mixed or perverted by people hijacking them as a way of falsely associating certain music with other music. That perversion sort of builds up on itself until genres mean so little there really isn’t much to move away from. That in itself is an interesting thing to think about. The fact that when designations become so important that people feel they need to manipulate their meaning to infer greater importance, eventually those designations come to mean nothing and yet it is still very important. You might say assertions of genre are only as powerful as the agents making them, whether that is musicians, executives, critics or others.

Audiences are never involved in assigning genre. I think that’s significant, especially when it comes to the nonsense end of genre meanings. Only certain agents can assign genre and now they’re saying things like “indie/alternative grunge/dance” and the listeners brain explodes, they have nowhere to put it so they HAVE to listen. It’s genius. Delusions of genre.

Rojas: I would say that the genres themselves are actually expanding.  For example, heavy metal – once fairly easy to define – is now awash with a sea of sub-genres.  While it’s easier for people to describe themselves as heavy metal fans, a metal-core kid could quite easily detest a founding band of the heavy metal genre, eg. Iron Maiden. Black Sabbath fans may also detest the latest djent masterpiece.

The blanket term ‘Heavy Metal’ is a good example of where there are bands that have similar influences aligning under one broad banner, yet move away from each other in terms of sub-genre.

5. Have you ever been pressured to conform to a saleable genre for fame, limos and hoes?

Maegraith: No

Kauter: As a matter of fact I have. I was once playing at an open mic in a really upbeat afro-cuban bar in King Cross. It was a competition of sorts and my band and I were very much in the wrong place. It was the kind of place that you need to be high on cocaine to enjoy. The entire dance hall was crawling with B and C grade wannabe celebrities (now there’s a genre). After we had played I misplaced my drink and I headed to the artists’ dressing room to find an alternative. Metal featured heavily in in that room and from between a pair of bronze neo-celtic relief sculptures a woman appeared. It was Chan Marshall, aka, Cat Power: the queen of indie/folk. I’ve always really loved her so I was shocked. She said, “I really loved your set”. I looked at my shoes. She bought me a drink and told me that if I could ditch my band and become a lo-fi, ambient, trip hop artist that I could join her on a world-music tour as her support act. She had a lot of samples she’d been working on on her vintage casiotone and I wouldn’t have to write new songs, just set them to tiny drum beats and simple synths. I was quite freaked out.

She showed me her limo and told me she’d found a way to take the carcinogens out of cigarettes. She offered me one and it tasted sort of like the way I remember Malboros tasting when I was about 19 and they were still called Malboros. Of course, those days are over now. Hers were in these blue plastic bags marked “experimental house”. We made it to Japan before I woke up. My musical dream, in which I struggle with selling out and in the end reconcile myself to a life of public fame and personal sacrifice, was over.

Rojas: Not pressured, no. The only pressure in that regard would be any pressure that I put on myself in the past as a naïve young composer to try to fit into the stereotypes that I thought necessary at the time to progress successfully in a musical career.  Now with the benefit of hindsight, limos and hoes do not appeal to me, although some fame would be nice.

6. Who are your genre-bustin’ heroes? Why?

genre maegraith - Chris PotterMaegraith: There’s the obvious people like Ry Cooder and Bill Frisell but I’m pretty taken by Avishai Cohen and Chris Potter. They both have so many current influences permeating their music but still sound like jazz musicians. I dig that. Sometime world or really blurry genres end up sounding like what a potluck lunch tastes like. Neither this, nor that. And the musical conviction suffers.

Kauter: Hmmm, this is a tough one. Maybe my mother. She left school at 15 as a wayward fun loving, pubescent puberty blues-esque tearaway. At 16 she ran away with her sweetheart to Queensland where the odds were stacked against them and from where they returned 8 months later pregnant, prodigal. She worked as a checkout chick and had three kids by 22, a tough and kind-hearted down-on-her luck mother, fiercely protective of her kids and husband. Young and hopeful she began work for a major insurance company answering phones, ambitious and hard-working in a man’s world. Eventually she became a senior manager and policy writer at that company and was the high flying executive who feels guilty about leaving her kids at home alone after school. She was the perpetually busy career woman whose husband resents her success on some level. She was also a triathlete. Then she was the stay-at-home wife and mother who has seen the light and forsaken her career for the sake of her man and children. Now she is the happy, empty nester and grandma who spends her time working for the church and taking motorcycle trips through rural Australia with her teenage sweetheart.

Rojas: Frank Zappa. He has probably been the biggest influence on me since I first discovered his music, around the very early 90s, just before he passed away.  His prolific tendencies alone forced him to explore more musical styles within his lifetime than most composers of any standing.  I know that his roots lay in styles such as the blues, pop music and doo-wop, but even as a child, Frank appreciated the avant-garde music concrete just as much, with Edgard Varese and Stravinsky being two of his favourite composers.  He not only influenced me as a player – giving me a new found appreciation of the electric guitar – but also as a composer seeking out ways to fuse and reinvent different musical styles in a coherent and palatable way.genre frank zappa

John Zorn: Another prolific composer that has had a big effect on my writing, as well as exposing me to new musical ideas, approaches and artists.  From his covers of classic film soundtracks, to his intelligent use of musical game pieces, Zorn, and in particular his band Naked City, taught me that genre need not be a limitation on songwriting, and that the only restrictions as a composer or a musician are the ones placed on yourself.  Never did I think that an improvisational death metal grind-core band could exist with alto saxophone at its centre, totally devoid of guitar, but Zorn made it work in his band Painkiller, which also featured Mick Harris and Bill Laswell.

Carl Staling: Also a major influence on Zorn, Staling’s infinite smashing of genres and cut-and-paste aesthetic rings through my music in Shanghai.  I guess spending all that time watching Warner Brothers cartoons as a kid is paying off now.

Maxine Kauter, Maxine Kauter Band – http://www.maxinekauterband.com/
Richard Maegraith, Galaxstare – http://galaxstare.com/
Luis Rojas, Shanghai – http://www.myspace.com/shanghaimyspace
Published March 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

Jazz has often invigorated itself over time through transfusions of the blood of other musics – musics decidedly less blue-blood than itself. Rock has, since Gary Burton’s and Charles Lloyd’s psychedelic jazz of the 60s, through Miles Davis’s Hendrix-like albums of the 70s and more current groups such as EST, given jazz a shot in the arm it has sometimes – arguably – needed.

In jazz guitar, a legion of young post-rock players have been informed by such artists as John Scofield who added heavier rock flavours and Bill Frissell who has stripped and modernized the tonality of jazz. This is a massive and sweeping generalisation but one has to start somewhere.

Melbourne guitarist Tim Willis’s band The End is undoubtedly a jazz group – free wheeling group improvisation, exciting and taut communication between players – but one within which beats a very rock heart – solid and definite backbeats, grungy guitars, not afraid to have a bit of noisy fun.

Willis has put together an intriguing combo of electric guitar, double bass and drums with a frontline of tenor (John Felstead) and alto (Jon Crompton) saxes for The End’s eponymous debut album. The twin-sax front line is a smart move, adding a layer of rock crunch and bite but with traditional jazz instrumentation. Their timbre is such that, together with the distorted guitar they make some chunky block chords, and playing in unison they take on a ringing, almost-metallic voice.

The rhythm section of Gareth Hill, acoustic bass and Nick Martyn, drums have got the balance between rock’s solid riffing and the fluid of jazz down perfectly. The guitar of Tim Willis though, is the element that excites and inflames the whole concoction. Grungy, fleet lines with blues inflections flow out of him. The heavy riffing on ‘Dark Cloud’ could be a Black Sabbath riff – ominous and sulphurous – and his solo, haloed with reverb is a standout of this collection. 

This track ‘Dark Cloud’ is a good example of the freewheeling nature of Willis’s musical vision. Halfway through, the riffing drops abruptly away and the two saxes play an intertwining two-toned solo. It is a slight shock to leap between the two styles but it illustrates what is very cool about The End – this is not jazz-rock fusion as such, the two styles seem to be given more of their own space here. It is a conceptually clearer listen than many such style-pairings, bringing to mind what was so cool about Swede Esbjörn Svensson’s EST group.

Like rock, jazz never ever really needs ‘saving’ – but groups like The End and original thinkers such as Tim Willis can, by their youthful vigour and vertical vision, sometimes help the old tart out when she loses her puff.

The End’s website is here

 

Published April 2012 on theorangepress.net

The true artists of modernism make very much out of very little. In fact, many of the greatest have shaken the world with a handful of slight elements – in music: Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Black Sabbath and James Brown come to mind.

In 1971 Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger formed the band NEU! in Germany. Their musical philosophy and mission statement was to make a new music from the barest elements repeated until the idea was exhausted (a philosophy mirrored in the minimalist art music of the time and also in the visual arts). A way into this music was to expunge all traces of American rock, pop and blues influences from the performances.

On paper it looks frigid, inhuman and flavourless. In reality – in the hands of Rother and Dinger, with help and guidance from engineer Conny Plank – the music of NEU! (and Rother’s bands – such as Harmonia – and solo works that followed) contain some of the most uplifting, noble and achingly beautiful music of the late 20th/early 21st century. It is the musical path that lead to David Bowie’s “Heroes” and its tremors can still be heard today across all modern rock music.

Sydney was treated to an historical team-up for Michael Rother’s show at the Oxford Art Factory on Saturday night. Performing with Rother on the night was his Harmonia cohort, Dieter Möebius and on electric drums, Hans Lampe who played drums with NEU! in 1975. But this was not just an historical event –  the trio’s music sounded as sharp as tomorrow and full of power and surprise. And ecstatic beauty.

Before a large rectangular projection of pale olive and lime green blurs (a colour-shifted wheatfield swam in and out of focus) Rother would begin a groove or a vibe with a few notes; he would be joined by Möebius who would give further shape to Rother’s ideas as they built. The music would swim in and out of aural vision until Lampe started the motorik beat, and the whole thing would move forward, as if down a dot-lit highway in some European night.

Not enough can be said of the effect of the ‘motorik’ (trans: ’motor skill’) beat. It was perhaps one of the greatest aescetic thrills of NEU!’s 1971 debut, as heralded by the opening piece ‘Hallogallo’. A flat, straight eighth-note beat with backbeat on 2 and 4 of the bar, it does not vary in tempo or dynamic, rarely even utilising fills, and when there are fills, they are just more eighth-notes played across the toms. It is a perfect beat for rock and roll – see Maureen Tucker’s American take on motorik on the Velvet Underground’s early albums – primitive and modern all in one. Because it rarely varies it implies man-as-machine, but, as with everything about this music, it is deceptively funky. When Hans Lampe got going, every head in the place was bobbing to his motorik groove.

When I spoke with Michael for The Orange Press back in February (http://theorangepress.net/2012/02/qa-michael-rother-neu-kraftwerk-part-1/ and http://theorangepress.net/2012/02/qa-michael-rother-neu-kraftwerk-part-2/) we discussed his upcoming Australian shows and he said that “There was no chance to rehearse, but I know exactly what Dieter Möebius is capable of creating on the spot. So I am preparing the ‘backbone’ of the music, and I rely on Dieter adding special colours and spices to the music – that’s what he’s really great at: he can pick up the situation and come up with crazy ideas. I look forward to that experiment very much.”

With such an improvisational aspect to the music, it was even more surprising that it came together so seamlessly and with so much – dare I say it? – soul. As I looked around me at the height of the trio’s hurtling and thudding musical enmeshments, I saw many listeners bobbing their heads in time to the 8/8 beat, eyes closed, off in a world of their own.

And I asked myself: how can a music so devoid of harmony, so stripped of any syncopation or sophisticated rhythm, with melodies that are often flat and astonishly spare… how can that music conjure such feeling and high emotion? How can such bareness be so beautiful? Like so much contemporary art, this music gives the listener only part of the picture, often hazy suggestions, sometimes barely anything – we fill in the voids from the puzzle pieces of our own minds and experience. This is not any sort of explanation: the music is of course still utterly magical.

It is a magic road that rock music has gone down for 40 years now and it stretches out into the mapless future. To be taken for a ride by Michael Rother, Dieter Möebius et al was more than a thrill – after all, these men laid the diamond stones of that very road.

Published March 2012 on theorangepress.net

The recent Facebook War – the page  ‘1,000,000 Black Sabbath fans say yes to Bill Ward’ (check it out and ‘like’ it for Bill’s sake) – regarding Black Sabbath‘s drummer Bill Ward started me thinking.

The page, in support of re-adding Bill Ward to the upcoming Black Sabbath reunion album and world tour after he pulled out citing an ‘unsignable’ contract is a signifier of something bigger. I watched it jump from around 1,400 ‘likes’ midweek to almost 37,500 as I write, at the end of the weekend. Online Metal magazines, blogs  and fans got behind the push and it quickly flourished. Guitarist and writer Tony Conley, who set the page up, admits he would have been happy with 1,000 ‘likes’ – it looks as if he actually might make his 1,000,000 at this rate. Why?

Bill Ward is just a drummer from a ’70s heavy rock band who have not put out a significant album for 20 years and have the occasional reunion, playing their 30 year old hits. On the other hand Bill Ward is a demi-god among demi-gods who gave heavy metal to us and will live forever. (Before you get out the voodoo doll with my name on it, I want to say quickly that I subscribe to the latter view, as obviously millions around the world do).

Black Sabbath – through a once-in-a-lifetime combination of personalities, vision, happy accidents and the blessings of Odin in the form of good old luck – came fully formed into the world of rock music with a cinematic, doom-laden music that instantly electrified 15 year old boys the world over. All the elements that form Heavy Metal were there on their first album Black Sabbath (deliciously released on Friday the 13th, 1970) – even though the New Wave of British Heavy Metal of the early ’80s would refine and streamline the music in the hands of bands such as Iron Maiden, the template was set by Black Sabbath.

The band was helmed by the visionary guitarist Tony Iommi (now there’s a surname for a Lord Of This World) and bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler. Their singer was Ozzy Osbourne who brought an amazing, blood-flecked drama to Butler’s acid-fried sci-fi/Hammer Horror lyrics. And on the drums was a sweet natured stoner with the very workaday name of Bill Ward.

As a drummer, Ward was often overshadowed by his early Metal contemporaries – Deep Purple‘s sizzling Ian Paice and Led Zeppelin‘s towering John Bonham – and yet, he was the most human of all three. His playing was often sloppy and it struggled with some of the faster tempos or more syncopated grooves that Iommi’s compositions and riffs presented. BUT without a doubt he was the best, by a country mile, to air-drum to.

And before you 2012 hipsters start sniggering at the thought of a 1970 15 year old boy air-drumming to Black Sabbath, I want to say that it is reaction to music that makes music fun – and ridiculous reactions, such as air-guitar, air-drumming or singing along to AC/DC on your iPod make it super-fun, and stamp that music indelibly on your soul, often till the day you die. Dancing is not the only reaction to music, and some music draws out no reaction at all. Bill Ward’s playing was just perfect to air-drum to – check his tom fills on 1970’s (yes, that’s 2 great albums within 4 months of each other) Paranoid‘s ‘War Pigs’. Generations know these fills as well as they know the anti-war singalong refrain ‘Generals gathered in their masses/Just like witches at Black Masses‘. Unlike the regal rock-prince stance of Led Zeppelin or the concert-hall classicism of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath’s music was approachable and more inclusive (and, importantly, kids could actually play this stuff in their suburban garage bands). And Bill Ward’s style and personality had a lot to do with that.

Fans loved him for it, and obviously still do. But that is not entirely the cause of the groundswell of support. It is that Black Sabbath fans around the world want a Black Sabbath reunion to be just that – a reunion of the four original members of Black Sabbath. Sharon Osbourne was initially identified as the evil witch in this scenario (come on, it is Metal, and Sharon does seem to relish the Black Queen role now and again) but it seems she had nothing to do with it. There is silence from all sides as to how the contract presented to Ward was ‘insignable’ – but the consensus appears to be that for the most down-to-earth, no bullshit member of the band to walk away, it MUST have been an absolute iron-clad insult.

Who knows how it will pan out? Obviously, fans will accept nothing else than the original lineup – and i think this is very important. Since the Beatles smilingly destroyed the Sinatra-style solo star in the early ’60s, we have seen our bands as four- or five-headed single entities. It is generally the ‘original’ lineup that we stitch together into one being. And we don’t like it when that being loses a head, or replaces that head with another. The Beatles could never replace a member. Led Zeppelin did the right thing when John Bonham passed away – they split. The Rolling Stones tour without bassist Bill Wyman and it isn’t the same. They replaced Brian Jones after his tragic pool death with Mick Taylor, and then Taylor with Ron Wood – to all intents and purposes becoming a new band each time, stylistically. The Who soldier on without the theatrics of drummer Keith Moon or the dark bass-gymnastics of John Entwistle, which is getting kinda stupid (and faintly arrogant). Black Sabbath themselves have had some truly dreadful lineups over time, alienating fans hugely each time. This time Black Sabbath have moved forward with their album and tour plans by recruiting the drummer from Ozzy Osbourne’s band, Tommy Clufetos in Bill’s place. I am sure Tommy Clufetos (poor bugger, i would not like to be him right now) is a great drummer – maybe he is even technically better than Ward – but that is entirely not the point. Our four headed Black Sabbath is missing a head and we want it back.