124. MY BLOODY VALENTINE- ISN’T ANYTHING (1988)

First things first, Isn’t Anything > Loveless.  I’ve written regularly in these pages about the music of 1988, and twice during the course that year, in Glasgow and Manchester, I was fortunate enough to witness the new improved My Bloody Valentine in action. The title of their second (mini) album Ecstasy (released late ’87) had promised euphoria but hadn’t really delivered. Still, the record was a marked improvement over those early shambling – if faintly charming – singles and EPs for which the critics as well as the record-buying public had little time. By summer of ’88 however their ‘You Made Me Realise’ EP had completely transformed indie guitar music in the UK. If there remained subtle traces of the familiar janglepop, those pretty melodies were now buttressed by dissonant metallic chunks culled from the Transatlantic sounds of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. But songs such as the ravishing ‘Slow’ confirmed the extent of their reinvention, owing as little to C86 as to US Hardcore, and sounded as if they had discovered sex and noise on the same day, fully immersing themselves in both without the slightest inhibition. This was an altogether more enthralling proposition, so much so that, surveying the audiences at those gigs, one envisaged every boy suddenly reimagining himself as Kevin Shields, stealing the odd glance at those guitar pedal boards whenever his gaze could avert itself for one moment from Bilinda Butcher.

Holed up in the studio surviving on little more than two hours sleep per night, the conditions were less than ideal for making music, and the album sleeve with its bleached out faces mirrored the opaque out-of-focus blissfulness contained within. MBV would prove themselves to be master manipulators of sound gliding their guitars through accelerating/decelerating warped arcs of noise, procuring shivering little eargasms all over the place. The hard graft on the album’s opening track ‘Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)’ was undertaken by Debbie Googe’s bass which maps out a melody over a grating twisting dragging guitar riff, which can’t be bothered to get going at all, with the beat equally laborious, as if Colm was nodding out or the drum machine had broken down.

That almost post-coital languor and imprecision characterises much of the album – be it the hushed crescendos of ‘Lose My Breath’ or the whirring cloudbusting atmospherics of ‘No More Sorry’, while on ‘Cupid Come’ the verses collapse on top of one another, almost as if Colm had accidentally overextended the beat by a few lengths, forcing the others to slow down to accommodate his error. It’s not all hazy and nebulous atmospherics of course, with ‘(When You Awake) You’re Still In A Dream’ and ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ proving that Shields, despite the blurry weightlessness elsewhere, still had a penchant for some good old-fashioned rifferama.

At its pinnacle, on ‘All I Need’ (there is nothing quite so ‘out there’ on Loveless I assure you) we find MBV rewriting the rule book completely to create one of the most authentically psychedelic things I’ve ever heard. Here our intrepid sonic explorers climb aboard some pulsing spacecraft attempting to negotiate its way through the eye of a terrifying cosmic intergalactic battle – comets flying in every direction – with the machine’s engine slowly burning up. Or at least that’s what I’m hearing.

On Side Two the tempo and energy is relentless. ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ was the follow up to ‘You Made Me Realise’ released just prior to the album itself – this one’s all about the rhythm section. If at times on the album Colm’s drumming is narcoleptic almost arrhythmic, here he could be Keith Moon on a strict diet of super strength amphetamine while Googe’s skullcrushing pummeling bass riff drives the whole thing. You shall submit. ‘Sueisfine’ (is that really what we’re hearing?) meanwhile could be Husker Du blasting out ‘Blue Jay Way’ inside a hornet’s nest. But almost everywhere else, buried beneath those layers of distortion are melodies to die for. ‘Nothing Much To Lose’ (almost conventional by the rest of the album’s standards) is torn to shreds by a monster riff and a blizzard of feedback, while the dark droning  beauty of ‘I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It)’ leaves us aching and aching for more.

At the very least the sonic leap forward from Ecstasy to Isn’t Anything is a far greater one than that from Isn’t Anything to Loveless. Loveless gets all the plaudits, perhaps rightly so – it took three years to refine the rawness of the experiments on Isn’t Anything, and is in some ways the latter album is even more pinkly delicious, but by then we fully expected it to be so, and I actually recall it coming as something of a minor disappointment at the time. By contrast not a soul would have been disappointed by Isn’t Anything, bursting as it with ideas and energy and awash with sheer beautiful ecstatic noise.  (JJ)

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122. AR KANE – SIXTY NINE (1988)

No subsequent calendar year has yielded quite the same abundance of brilliant new music as 1988 did. Looking back, I could barely keep pace with it all, and neither could my student grant. It seemed an altogether more adventurous time, more creative. Everywhere bands seemed to be taking risks, determined to outdo one another in their inventiveness – artists who sounded very diverse musically, seemed connected by some invisible thread of inspiration. Daydream Nation, Surfer Rosa, Blue Bell Knoll,16 Lovers Lane, Miss America, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Hairway To Steven, Tender Prey, Bug, The House Of Love, Bummed, House Tornado, California all nuzzled up beside one another on record store racks itchy with expectation.

But even these terrific records sounded little more than the next natural step in the artistic evolution of their creators. Two other albums – by contrast both radical departures – would deliver a more significant sonic leap forward: Isn’t Anything by My Bloody Valentine and Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden. And then there was Sixty Nine, the only debut album of ‘88 whose vision reached as far as, and possibly even beyond that of its contemporaries.

And yet, upon first listen, Sixty Nine was for me a major disappointment. Often the most adventurous albums elicit that initial impression. It certainly did not sound as I had expected it would, but in hindsight that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

They weren’t wilful obscurantists, but intrinsic to AR Kane’s mission was the desire to break with convention, defy expectations. It is unsurprising, given that Alex Ayuli had been the brains behind successful creative PR campaigns for Saatchi & Saatchi, that he and Rudy Tambala were savvy in their dealings with the music media, presenting as much or as little as they felt expedient, carefully nurturing their own enigma in the process. To begin with they were two black London boys reared on a diet of dub, jazz and dance music, who were making ‘rock’ music seemingly tailored for the indie market. If that sounds like a crass or racist comment, this was most certainly out of the ordinary in 1988. Their name was somewhat obtuse too, even if on closer inspection it could be at least partially decoded; thirdly, rather confusingly, their first three EPs were each on different labels (One Little Indian, 4AD, Rough Trade) – were these guys petulant, demanding, awkward to deal with?; then there was the collaboration with Colourbox on the MARRS single ‘Pump Up The Volume’, which seemed a bizarre move (it wasn’t really – AR Kane were responsible for the flip side – a very different proposition from the runaway chart-topper); finally the music itself – hazy, nebulous, fluorescent, ecstatic, whether drowned in feedback or shrouded in dubby experimentation – was almost impossible to categorise. So Alex and Rudy were left to do that themselves, coining the term ‘dreampop’, and inventing a new genre into the bargain. It was an apt definition in the sense that their career followed the logic of a dream, each move they made unprecedented, sometimes downright confusing to the point of being frustrating, but never what one had the right to expect from them.

If there was sufficient thematic unity in those early EPs, with a few instantly recognisable touchstones (The Cocteau Twins, The Jesus & Mary Chain), yet there was always another dimension to their sound, as if they were reaching beyond the infinite. The Up! Home EP was a case in point, and had critics near tongue tied in their loquacious commendation. Still, no one could have anticipated what was to come next, possibly even Alex and Rudy themselves. And that is the point. The pair’s “fragile but telepathic” sixth sense ensured the process of composing and recording the album would be an organic one, spontaneous, unpredictable, as they indulged their love of jazz, dub, world musics and the avant garde. With the resources at their disposal from their recently acquired 16-track studio (for AR Kane always a crucial instrument in itself), which they embedded in the basement of Alex’s mum’s house, they sought to capture on tape the pearls of inspiration issuing freely from their collective imaginations.

The opening track provided scant indication of the almost polymorphic iridescence which would follow. That’s not to suggest ‘Crazy Blue’ is a conventional rock track. It was anything but, the bass (courtesy Ray Shulman, ex of prog band, Gentle Giant) providing almost all of the melodic content, the main guitar line gently metronomic, with the second pealing like a hundred broken bells clanging inside an aluminium cage. The elasticism of the bass becomes more taut on ‘Suicide Kiss’, sucking into its vacuum washes of feedback as guitars seeking an escape route eventually burst the walls of the dam and suddenly we’re left with Hendrix submerged beneath the waves bashing out an orgiastic version of ‘If Six Was Nine’! It was this kind of noise which gave rise to the description ‘oceanic rock’.

‘Baby Milk Snatcher’ (read Thatcher – in ‘88 edging towards her last moments as PM) successfully harnesses together the archetypal (Wobble-y) bottom end (this time by regular bassist Russel Smith) and the band’s flight towards the stars. There are little sonic shoots sprouting all over the place, and here, the feedback which drowned the version on the Up! Home EP is absent allowing the band’s masterful use of space and dynamics to take centre stage. Lyrically, like in much of their work, there was no overtly political sentiment, in its place vaguely erotic inferences (“Baby suck seed slow slow slow”), which often seemed a by-product of the prevailing atmosphere of playful experimention.

If those two tracks are definitively left field, the brief acoustic wriggle of ‘Scab’ threatens to rein the weirdness back in again, but we are soon reassured by arguably the least reassuring piece on the album, ‘Sulliday’, which closes the first side. One imagines the preliminaries to have included a discussion around how many different sounds guitars can make. It captures what sounds like a lengthy experimental (de)tuning of their instruments, sewing sounds on top of this static industrial heartbeat, while a madman sings gentle lullabies to himself. It’s, shall we say, ‘out there’.

If ‘Sulliday’ takes us close to the abyss, then ‘Dizzy’ drags us kicking and screaming inside the corridors of the asylum itself, the solitary cello solemnly soundtracking Alex’s deranged call and response. It’s a disturbing noise, recalling Beefheart’s hysterical wails over Jeff Cotton’s lead vocal on ‘Pena’. In complete contrast, ‘Spermwhale Trip Over’ is surely the prettiest thing here. If the template is undoubtedly Robin Guthrie, yet the waltzing rhythm and wiry fluorescent guitar shapes take us into even more blissful territory. It may be wise for novices to begin here.

Until now the album has had something of a schizophrenic feel: blissed out but chaotic, unsettling but narcoleptic. But now it’s time to throw caution to the wind, and with painstaking concentration enter once and for all into the void. From this point forward Rudy and Alex elevate Sixty Nine onto a higher plane altogether. This is not some embracing of art for arts sake, but a total surrender to the moment. In truth, I’ve no idea how they created the astonishing sounds on ‘The Sun Falls Into The Sea’ and I wish I’d asked Rudy when I had the chance, but those shimmering uncoiling filigrees of guitar are like the ultimate aural benediction. “Cast your shadows like dreams and whispers/And I can see your breath/The sun is on the sea” sings Alex, enraptured, possessed, but what are words anyhow? For now they are meaningless.

The penultimate track, ‘The Madonna Is With Child’ is just as gorgeous – a patient spiral of piano, injections of shrieking feedback and Alex, lost to the muse. Then, finally, a doff of the cap to Miles Davis with the aquatic abstraction of ‘Spanish Quay’, its eddying guitar pattern returning us safely to the harbour,

AR Kane’s very next move was the Listen Up 12-inch, which saw them more openly incorporate their dance roots. A flawed but ambitious double album (‘i’) would follow in ‘89. It was poppier if less intense but showcased an even broader range of influences. Their profile then dipped significantly – with sporadic recordings until the mid-‘90s – although many bands have cited them as a formative influence, including Bark Psychosis, Seefeel and Slowdive. Over the past few years, Rudy has been working once again under the name AR Kane. I spoke with him about the early days and in particular his recollections about the making of Sixty Nine. (JJ)

Interview with Rudy Tambala (January 2018)

Your early EPs invited comparisons with The Cocteaus and The Jesus & Mary Chain, yet you claimed at the time all you were listening to was Miles Davis! Were you just playing with the press? 

“Not sure we said that. From the start, we cited CTs as a big influence; they made us want to start a band. But it was as much their spirit of newness, experimentation, as it was their actual sound. We were not indie fans, didn’t even know what indie was. We were very much into Miles and Coltrane and Sun Ra, and similarly, more for the spirit than the actual sound. Although we loved the sound too. As for JAMC, I remember Alex getting the album because someone that’d seen us live said we sounded like them, so we played it one evening when we were song writing and decided to approach one song with some of the elements, specifically the feedback layers of noise and the big reverbed drums. That was our first single, but not really anything after that. Oh, and the attitude. I would say that Cindytalk and Joy Division and Bowie were just as much an influence at that time. I had been to university and been exposed to so many different musical styles from people I met. Likewise, Alex was out in the big bad world, getting influenced by stuff. So yeah, maybe playing with them a bit, the writers, but there was a core of truth; our main musical influence was a free kind of jazz, and experimental music, like the dreamscapes you hear on the 80’s ECM label, that Manfred Eicher sound, a kind of jazz rooted in a European tradition, as opposed to, or maybe complementary to, the African blues root.”

The Up Home! EP was in many ways a blueprint for the Shoegaze Scene, albeit much more than that. Simon Reynolds hailed it as rock’s “Antarctica – its final petrifying spell”. When you read reviews like that, how did you respond at the time? 

“We laughed. Sometimes we rolled on the floor crying with laughter, reading bits to each other aloud between hysterical fits. It was a way of coping I guess. It was so over the top, like these writers were competing with each other to compose the most pretentious and absurd prose, but absurdity as art. We knew what was happening; a symbiotic relationship with Simon and a few other intellectuals. We, as people on ‘the scene’, and our sound, for a while, defied categorisation, and so this gave them a big space to play in. At the same time it was amazing, to be found interesting, at that level; these were not blogs, they were music fans’ weekly bibles. People we knew, so-called friends, were freaked. Envious. They didn’t see the humour in it all, and they didn’t get why the press loved our sound so much. We made it look easy, to get in the press every week, but we were not actually doing it. We knew we were not in control of it, so we decided to just enjoy the trip. It encouraged us to go even further out there. That was the best effect.”

Hearing Sixty Nine was a real shock at the time. It wasn’t like anything else you’d done. Had that always been the plan – to create something quite different from the EPs, or did the sound and direction develop organically in the studio? On first listen, it sounded quite formless? 

There were some things that we figured out early, one being that the studio is itself an instrument. Growing up with dub music this was natural. We recognised that in the pro recording studios we were limited in the level of experimentation we could achieve. We were treated like proper musicians. We never thought of ourselves in that way, it was quite limiting, and always a struggle “no, you can’t do it like that, it won’t work, this is the way it’s done…” and that kind of crap. Kill the idea before it wreaks havoc. Don’t get me wrong, working with Ray Shulman, Robin Guthrie, John Fryer; these guys were gods to us and the EPs we did with them were sublime, but we could not have done 69 with them, in the that familiar studio setup. We didn’t want to fight for our ideas, and we didn’t want to seek approval or ask permission. Even the subtlest of implied resistance would have killed the vibe we needed, the playful experimentation. We needed to understand how it all plugged together, how and why things were used. Then we needed to fuck it all up. We needed our own studio.  

So we took a small advance from Rough Trade and bought all the gear necessary for a 16 track studio, with a sequencer and a sampler and a drum machine, reverbs and fx boxes, a quirky ½” tape machine that gave the mixes a fat, warm and bright sound. Set it all up in Alex’s mums cellar underneath 53A Romford Road, Stratford, E.15. We hung old carpets over a couple doors to make a vocal booth. It was cramped and damp and smelly, but when we shut the door, it was like a starship to us. Lift off! We recorded and learned at the same time. Only way to do it. Without pro engineers, producers and pro attitudes, we were set free. We were in a state of extreme excitement the whole time. We were able to freely experiment and play. Yeah, playful freedom. Kids in candy store. We never had a particular structure in mind until it came to mastering the album. We went from one song to the next, without pause. Sometimes we brought in an idea, a guitar part, some words, whatever. Other times we just hit record and did stuff. Compiling the songs for the master is where the final structure started to crystallise, and we took the tapes to Abbey Road to do this. We expected the engineer to say it sounded shit, technically I mean, but he was really cool and said it sounded fine and didn’t really need much tweaking. I think we were influenced by records like Pink Floyd’s DSOTM, the idea of three-machine cross fades, to blend tracks, one into the next. To create something seamless, and let the narrative emerge. And welcome happy coincidences. Songs take on a different meaning, and the listener experiences things in a more holistic way. Great for tripping to, or so I am told. Might try that before I die. Just before.”

I always detected in there elements of PiL, Basement 5 etc. Were those influences conscious, subconscious or would you not acknowledge them at all? 

“PiL for sure. Alex owned everything they created, I had a couple LPs. The Jah Wobble bass, Levine’s Guitars, Lydon’s weird charismatic genius – this was to us a high standard. A very high standard. Basement 5 less so, although we knew some of their stuff, I think it was too obvious in a way, not the same spirit. I wonder if you pick them because they’re black and punky? Anyway, The On-U sound was a big influence too – Playgroup, New Age Steppers, etc. A Certain Ratio Sextet LP – still play that. The punky reggae vibe but very much out-there kinda thing I guess. 

Can you describe what the atmosphere was like in the studio during the recording? How long did it take to complete and who made key contributions apart from yourselves? 

Kinda already touched on that. Experimentation. The willingness to try an idea, go with it or kill it, quickly. The willingness to be surprised. A degree of discipline – we both had a strong work ethic – would start in eve’s after dinner and work thru till sunrise. Weekends we were like monks; locked away. H.Ark! Studio was out of bounds to girlfriends and old friends. We never recorded on drugs, but when we felt we had a mix we’d spliff up, sit back, hit the lights and have a proper mashup listen. We probably took a month to get all tracks down, but I’d need to check the masters for all the dates. We had several contributors. Russel Smith played bass on number of tracks. As did Ray Shulman, who doubled as mentor and technical guru. Billy McGee played cello. Maggie Tambala sang backing vocals. Stephen ‘Budgie’ Benjamin, clarinet. We’d just ring people and say, hey wanna come and play some shit on this, or what? Sometimes they gave us the ‘or what’. We were a bit stroppy. We upset a few folk. This was because we put the music above people’s feelings. If they weren’t cutting it, we said so. Without the least bit of tact. Listening to ‘Crazy Blue’ over Christmas, I remembered singing the bass line to Ray and saying, I want it to sound like that Weather Report sound. He played it in one take, with improvisations. Fucking amazing. Russel, our bassist and third member at the time arrived while Ray was laying. He was really pissed off. I think he may have left the band that day, but it’s al a bit of a blur. I must ask him. Russel was, in person, quite edgy. Nervous. Unconfident – is that a word? – in many ways. Hilariously funny, in a dark way. But when he picked up the bass he was a rock. Solid, calm, perfect feeling, tone and timing. I badgered Russel to bring in songs of his own for 69, but he never did. I remember he had a 4-track set up in his living room, with guitars and effects, and he was working on a version of ‘Golden Hair’, it was extremely far out. Would have been interesting if that had been on 69. He completely got us, and mentored me with hot knives and Sonic Youth, Syd Barrett, Butthole Surfers, Swans, and such things. He brought some real avant-rock knowledge into the band, without which I think we would have been less out there. Maggie would drift in, do her part, float out again. Spacy chick.  

Alex and I argued all the time, on every subject. We had been friends since we first met at primary school, aged 8. Our arguments were silly, like “Genesis are better than the Sex Pistols because …’, anything really. We enjoyed this exchange, and in retrospect I see we were just exploring and challenging each other, sharpening our wits. From this we developed our own language and a point of view. It was a clique of two. Sometimes, in a very cruel way, we would turn our wit onto others, and pick them apart, like pulling the wings off a fly.  We could be horrible. But anyway, I digress. The point I’m getting too, the relevant bit, is that over two decades we became very close, connected, to the point that when we discovered music, we no longer argued. We poured all that energy into discovering sounds, pushing each other further, supporting each other’s efforts. We hardly ever spoke when we were in the basement. It became a kind of telepathy. A trust. Very intense, but in that focused way you see when children are building something or drawing. As soon as it was right, good enough, we moved on. We instinctively avoided over doing it. We knew that we needed to leave imperfections.”

With something like ‘The Madonna Is With Child’, did it only last 4 minutes or was it culled from a longer improvisational piece? 

“That was pretty much it; a fade at the end but not much edited out. Interestingly, a cool US producer and fan offered to remix the entire album for the 30th anniversary, and I was wondering if it could be longer or different. Recording this weekend, a new song, and remembering how the experimentation works, I kind of felt it would be pointless to try and remix it. It is what it is. Was what it was. Of its time. It could be fun though.”

The album got a lot of good press – how did it do commercially? 

“It did pretty good. Number 1 in the indie charts. Can’t remember where it was on the pop charts. I remember around 60,000 units moving in the first year, across all formats and territories. I guess that’s OK for something so uncommercial sounding. If everyone that bought it played it right now, at full volume, it would make a right bloody racket. I don’t think we even thought about how ‘well’ it would do while we were making it. I listen to the radio from time to time, or hear music in shops and eateries, and always feel sad that once great pop songs that sold millions, for example from Motown, sound so worn out now, flat, like when you’re waiting for someone and can’t see the world around you. Guess I’m glad we made ours sound fucked up. Still sounds fresh. So yeah, commercially, did ok. When Rough Trade went down the pan in the 90’s, Brian Bonner from the pressing plant, and One Little Indian, swooped in like carrion crow and picked up our entire catalogue for pennies. They have sat on ‘69’ for 20 years and done nothing with it. I tried to get them to release the rights back to the band but they refused, they are a nasty bunch of artistic slavers. The contracts bands signed in the 80’s were a complete sham; so-called right on indie labels were worse than the majors, where at least they were upfront about raping you. These indie labels that coerce young talent into these deals are con men, dressed up as ‘the alternative’. They have no scruples, and little business talent, so they can only cut it by ripping off the artists. So, 69 and the rest of ‘our’ catalogue has been pretty much shelved, except an awful digital copy on iTunes that has completely lost the dynamics of the analogue master. OLI are threatening to re-release it this year on vinyl – they do not have the masters so it will probably be CD to vinyl. For Fucks Sake! This might be the saddest end to our story I can imagine. I personally will not endorse this. Our plans to play 30th anniversary shows this summer and re-release 69 ourselves from the original tape masters, are dead in the water. Rough Trade and OLI sold us down the river, to quote the prescient lyric of ‘WOGS’.

You always had one foot on the dance floor, with the MARRS project and it was no surprise to hear more of a rhythmic dimension to the sound on ‘I’. Did you and Alex see eye to eye on this? Was it your very eclecticism which caused things to unravel in the end or were there other factors? 

“We both grew up on dance music and clubbing, not indie rock, which is the whole fucking point, n’est-ce pas?. By age fourteen we were clubbing in the West End, doing bank holiday soul weekenders, vibing to jazz funk, funk, soul, ska and reggae, and the emergent electronic sounds from UK and Europe, Chicago and Detroit. Both feet solidly in the fucking dance floor. Alex and I were completely in sync about this, he would sing a melody to me, and I’d say wow, that’s like MFSB, we need strings, or I’d play a guitar chord and he’d send it to the Copycat tape echo to get that rythmic dub effect. Even in the more rocky songs, we tried to add a groove element, with beats or a deep bass. Sometimes it might just be implied, like on ‘Scab’. This is essentially what separated us from the indie bands, alienated much of the white indie crowd, and endeared us to other musicians, DJs and producers, like Andy Weatherall, David Byrne, Saint Etienne etc. I’ve said this before, about the ‘unravelling’ as you put it, that A.R. Kane was two people acting as one. Like when you are deeply in love. The telepathy, the connection, the intensity, all were necessary, and all were fragile. These essential ingredients did not survive physical separation, and so when Alex moved to California, A.R. Kane became A & R Kane. The connection was lost. We began to argue in the studio about the music we were supposed to be creating together. This was exactly like those moments of insanity in a relationship, when instead of fucking, you fight. You watch it happening, it’s unreal, like watching a bad moving with awful actors. The music suffered, it was less spontaneous, less honest. We didn’t so much forget how to do it, we could no longer, ‘sense’ how to do it. A shared sixth sense was lost. We used to call the actions derived from that sixth sense, ‘Kaning it’. If a track was slightly off, we’d say ‘let’s Kane it’, and it shifted us into a different way of working. Like a magic spell. Alex might turn his amp to 10, and chuck his guitar on the floor and attack it with a screw driver, or I might sample a door slamming and use it as the kick drum, or we might cut up the lyric and randomly rearrange the words, then start screaming them through a massive reverb, while I did a poor imitation of Theolonius Monk on the piano. There would be no discussion, just set it up quick, hit record, see what happens.” 

109. BRIAN ENO & HAROLD BUDD – AMBIENT 2: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR (1980)

Occasionally, very occasionally, music delivers a transitory release from the things in life that we find perplexing or unbearable. In an instant it can make the world look and feel a very different place.     Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror by Brian Eno and Harold Budd is one of those records. Unremarkable to many, perhaps as much for the contrast it provides with Eno’s more immediately gratifying post-Roxy output as for its sonically supine disposition (try hearing it out after a hard day’s graft), Plateaux Of Mirror is one of the few records I know of which has the capacity to utterly transport me – not simply to some soporific place of refuge, but to a subconscious realm of half-forgotten memories and fragments of dreams never lived. 

    By 1979, Eno had already demonstrated unmistakable signs of disaffection with staid rock conventions, firstly in his work with Cluster, and in particular, with his inaugural foray into ‘ambient’, Music For Airports. Eno’s recorded output was prolific during this period, yet still struggled to keep pace with his inherently inexhaustible appetite for experimentation with treated and textured sound. Just prior to recording Plateaux Of Mirror in late ’79, he had collaborated on a second album with Cluster’s Moebius and Roedelius and made Music For Films. Before the latter was finished, he was already hatching plans to work alongside Laraaji and Jon Hassell for future releases in his Ambient series. 

    By then Harold Budd had developed a reputation as a highly respected avant-garde pianist and composer. On Plateaux Of Mirror, Eno offered him full range of expression in his utilisation of electric and acoustic piano, while he himself constructed a backdrop of minimalist soundscapes within which Budd could improvise. Together they produced a miraculous minimalist classic, characterised by short pieces such as ‘Steal Away’ – washed out, dissolving in its own timorous flightlessness, and lengthier pieces which to some may sound monotonous upon first hearing, but patiently reveal marvellously disorienting little secrets. For instance, on the album opener ‘First Light’, it takes the best part of six minutes before Budd’s impressionistic sonata cedes to a wash of ascending synth, almost as if suddenly, and very discretely, a trifling little celestial drama has unfolded somewhere in the heavens. It and its reprise ‘Failing Light’ (the closer), have a steady tempo, whereas the gaps in ‘Above Chiangmai’ are wider, the harmonics looser, the playing irregular, creating an atmospheric stillness that is taut and unsettling. It makes Erik Satie sound like Fats Domino. 

Meanwhile ‘An Arc Of Doves’ resembles something from Eno’s Another Green World, but Budd’s playing is pretty and optimistic.

    The title track, ‘Plateaux Of Mirror’ possesses these unbearably poignant melodic shifts which – much like the music on Victorialand by The Cocteau Twins (future Budd collaborators) – bring you face to face with childhood memories, real or imagined, the faces of loved ones past and present, beautiful landscapes once observed or perhaps not. Here, it’s capacity to extract from the deep well of the subconscious parallels the work of Boards Of Canada, if not musically, then certainly spiritually.

    A little incongruous upon first listen is ‘Not Yet Remembered’ – a voiced consonant amongst ariated vowels, it’s sudden increase in volume and utilisation of choral synth make it the most human and earthbound thing on the album. It contrasts sharply with something like ‘The Chill Air’, which barely seems to exist, leading us to doubt whether these sounds are the work of human hands at all. Instead they sound like a strange balancing act of nature.

     The other day I passed a woman struggling up a steep hill with her pet on a lead. It wasn’t a dog she was dragging along, but a ferret. A young girl cycled past her, pedalling on the wrong side of the road. Her protective headgear looked like a WW2 Nazi helmet and she had a big old leather rucksack tied precariously to the back of her seat. It was stuffed full of plastic bags. Then a car came thundering down the road with its exhaust hanging off, making a dreadful noise. I turned round and noticed a van parked in front of someone’s driveway. It had tasteless heavy metal style signage on its carcass, although I can’t recall what it said. I did however notice that behind the windscreen sat an ugly toy gorilla. The gorilla looked imperious, holding his Flying V guitar. How strange this life is, I thought to myself. And then a gust of wind came along and it blew hundreds of tiny little cherry blossom petals in my face. I looked up and the sight and sound of the wind breathing through the oak trees almost made my heart burst with joy. In a moment the world was transformed. (JJ)

 

86. BEACH HOUSE – DEVOTION (2008)

  
In the mid-1980s it would have been obvious to most – particularly to those with unwieldy stockpiles of vinyl – that it was only a matter of time before we were carrying our record collections around on a small portable device. A marginally less reasonable expectation of mine was that, without being troubled by having to make an awkward selection, I could instantly be dispatched the music my heart and soul desired. A telepathic transmitter (we’ll say app) would process neurological data, consult my hungry eardrums, and, bingo, the perfect musical recipe would materialise instantly. Alas, if this idea is ever fully realised, it will serve scant purpose. Nine times out of ten, the dial will point to Beach House.

So many of the things I love about music – the listless two chord purity of the ballads of The Velvet Underground and Mazzy Star, those swirling somniferous waltzes of Spiritualized, the empyreal sojourns of Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and Hugo Largo, the spooky toy town keyboards of early Fall, the pagan folksiness of Vashti Bunyan and the Incredible String Band, not to mention Brian Wilson’s blessed gift for melody (his left ear has been left here, believe me!) – are manifest in the glorious six album harvest reaped by Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand over the last decade.

From the very beginning, on their self-titled debut album, Beach House orbited a universe of blurry memories and hazy dreams. Nebulous narratives alluded to fractured relationships, but everything in that low-fi reverie lacked definition and precision. Four years later the duo had transformed themselves into sophisto-dreampop auteurs, their third album Teen Dream, a purring dislocated pop classic, universally recognised as one of the decade’s landmark albums.

In between those two, they released Devotion in February 2008. It marks the precise moment where the confidence is surging but the ambition still held in check by a mushrooming adventurousness sufficient in itself to procure its own reward. The music at this point is still facing inwards, basking in its own glow; after Devotion it would reach outwards. No harm in that at all of course – it deserved a wider audience, and the subsequent albums are of consistently high quality – but something of the charming amateurishness was lost as the production became progressively more assured. The Suicide-al drones may have remained, but a little less would be heard of that primitive programming (those Casio-style rhythms and beats) or those yearning Wicker Man folk stylings. Scally’s guitar is often buried lower in the mix than it would be on the later albums – here it often sounds unobtrusive – fuddled pedal steel, frilly licks – and is certainly of secondary importance to the organ. Along with Legrand’s velvety Nicoisms, balanced with that magical childlike imagery, the versatility of the organ – equal parts Sale Of The Century game show, spooked out Munsters moongazing, and Cale-ist celeste à la ‘Northern Sky’ – is as integral to the sound here as it is on say The Doors or Felt’s Forever Breathes The Lonely Word.

‘Wedding Bell’ rolls along jauntily with a kooky harpsichord riff – Alex mixes up the guitar lines with a burst of garage fuzz, followed by backwards psych. In spite of the lyrical ambiguities, ‘You Came To Me’ is a gorgeously haunting slice of chamber pop; it’s choppy oriental rhythm resembles something explored previously on ‘Tokyo Witch’ and anticipates the epic ‘Take Care’ from Teen Dream. But here the magick lies in Legrand’s irresistible delivery, particularly on these swooning lines: “you came to me/in my dreams/and you spo-o-o-o-o-oke of everything/sweeter than the days/ that I was breathing.”



‘Gila’ has a knockout off-kilter melody – the bass hits its bottom note in a fleeting but jarring collision with the sparkling organ while Scally plays out a simple repetitive sonar rhythm and the phantasmagorical harmonies threaten to disintegrate completely… it’s the sort of song that books into your cranium for an extended vacation. Like a good host you welcome it warmly, but a warning: it may not check out on schedule. 

The languorous melancholia of ‘Turtle Island’ suggests a loneliness beyond repair: “By the dock of the pond, Turtle Island/I will wait for you there, creeping/Silently, I can’t keep you/Right behind me/All my days in the sun...” Likewise, on first hearing ‘Some Things Last A Long Time’ may be noticeable only for its brevity. However, the evocative lyric (by Daniel Johnston) hints at desperate heartache. As with the greatest love songs, it is what is left unsaid rather than what is voiced that matters. Beach House know this all too well and there is rarely anything explicit in what is being communicated. They simply intimate, we duly evaporate. I have found myself at times, eyes tightly shut, singing along to the words of the twinkling ‘Astronaut’ as if they had fallen out of the pages of a William Blake anthology, where, on paper, they are absurdly childlike. But the music is so ravishing they are afforded an uncommon poignancy. 

The holy fire of the solemnly gothic ‘Heart Of Chambers’ adds dark layers of density to proceedings. After momentarily threatening to mutate into ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ it recovers with its very own anthemic finale (“In our beds we’re the lucky ones/filled with the sun/In our beds we’re the lucky ones/fill us with the sun”) – this would become a Beach House trademark – the splicing together of two different song ideas into one, the second part a protracted coda, an unexpected left turn, the Beach House twist on the perfect pop song.

I can’t even begin to describe ‘Home Again’, the album’s closing track. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I am transported back in time: 26 years to be precise – 18 years before this song was even dreamt of! I realise this is illogical at best and can only imagine the song’s atmospheric sweep must resemble something I listened to once, as a young man, at a time when anything was possible. It possesses the power, the resonance to resurrect that daydreaming youthfulness, long ceded to the concerns and responsibilities of adulthood. Perhaps that time was my true ‘home’, the time when everything was simpler, more spontaneous, more free. And perhaps my love affair with Beach House is indicative of an onrushing midlife crisis as I long for a return to those lazy days. But, oh to have heard these wonderful songs when I was nineteen…

“Home Again/Constant heart of my devotion/Must be you, the door to open/Home again, be here, be with him/Will I swim out of your ocean?”
(JJ)

69. JULEE CRUISE – FLOATING INTO THE NIGHT (1989)

In Heaven Everything Is Fine   

I recall during a particularly acrimonious musical discussion, eliciting an incredulous response when I compared Julee Cruise’s Floating Into The Night’ to Captain Beefheart’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’. Stay with me here… This isn’t one of those ‘odd one out’ rounds on ‘Have I Got News For You’ where the most tenuous link can be constructed between, say for instance Donald Trump and Germaine Greer. Neither does it originate from the simple yet excruciatingly uninteresting fact of both albums being permanent fixtures in my all-time top ten, for by that criterion alone, ‘Trout Mask Replica’ would rather absurdly, have less in common with ‘Safe As Milk’ than it does with ‘Floating Into The Night’. So what might the two possibly share in common? It may be harder to imagine two albums which sound so completely different, that are so utterly incongruous: one a primitive, abrasive, angular, chaotic cacophony; the other one whispers it’s cotton wool lullabies so bashfully that it almost isn’t there at all. Indeed one might take the latter as a medicinal antidote after swallowing too much of the former. Playing the albums back to back may prove to be the ultimate aural speedball.

David Lynch. He might understand where I’m coming from. And not simply because ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is reputedly the great man’s very own favourite LP. That is not the answer to the puzzle either, although there is really no puzzle to solve. This isn’t ‘Mulholland Drive’ after all (we all have our own answers to that particular puzzle, but you’re welcome to enlighten me with yours – answers on a postcard please). Here’s the deal. There are genuinely few albums I can think of which have ‘Floating Into The Night’s untainted singularity of mind. ‘Trans Europe Express’? For sure. ‘Ramones’? Without question. Perhaps only one or two others, ‘Trout Mask Replica’ for example. ‘Floating…‘ creates it’s own sound world, possesses it’s own authentically unique atmosphere and timbre, but ultimately, its genius lies in its economy and purity of vision. It stands oblivious to the world around it, completely at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist, and is the work of obsessive perfectionists. And that’s a description equally fitting of ‘Trout Mask Replica’.

Those obsessive perfectionists were of course Lynch himself and Angelo Badalamenti. The fruit of their first collaboration was the soundtrack to ‘Blue Velvet’ which featured ‘Mysteries Of Love’ by the then largely unknown singer Julee Cruise. The timbre of that song – in common with other Lynch soundtracks, hinted at the existence of a dark underbelly beneath the respectable wholesome veneer of small town America. But it is an even earlier Lynchian incarnation which provides a clearer indication of what he intended to accomplish more fully on ‘FITN’: in the 1976 experimental film ‘Eraserhead’, a petite woman with a bizarre facial deformity sings a song – the song is ‘In Heaven Everything Is Fine’. It is also known as ‘The Lady In The Radiator Song’, and is the archetype for the ballads Julee Cruise would sing so beautifully on ‘FITN.’ Of course by 1988-89, Lynch was working on the ‘Twin Peaks’ project (film and TV series) which yielded as it’s main theme ‘Falling’ also included on ‘FITN’. Lynch’s genius as a director has been to match beautifully unsettling images with gorgeously transcendent music, the innocence of which is instantly perverted by its often disturbing visual accompaniment. His capacity to surprise viewer and listener by uncovering the more sinister dreams and desires in human nature is what makes his work so distinctive. As a consequence, the unspoken fear that all may not be well hangs like a pall throughout this recording too.

This is not a record characterised by passionate performances; Cruise’s gentle but bewitching delivery alongside it’s phantasmagorical little brushes with doo-wop (the wonderful ‘Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart’) and rockabilly are almost ironic. One senses the record’s grooves like human veins have been invaded, each drop of its blood extracted, sacrificed. On only two occasions (‘I Remember’ and ‘Into The Night’) is there an unexpected twist (a disarming little change of tempo), or anything overtly soulful in the musicianship (a blast or two of brass). Elsewhere the music is characterised by an almost stoic reverie, but underneath, always an air of unease, uncertainty. The penultimate track ‘The Swan’ typifies this. Over Badalamenti’s achingly hypnotic melody, Julee’s enchantingly mysterious vocal is mournful, almost funereal. [‘You made the tears of love /Flow like they did when I saw /The dying swan…Then your smile died/On the water/It was only a reflection/Dying with the swan’] 

Best of all is ‘The World Spins’ – the solemn eternal slow motion circular dance of the Universe unfolding. We gaze at the stars. What little we see of life’s mystery has become fleetingly clear, but angels are weeping for who knows what tomorrow might bring. But for this moment at least, on this, the last day of another year, everything is fine. (JJ)

15. COCTEAU TWINS – TREASURE (1984) / (A) COCTEAU TWINS – BLUE BELL KNOLL (1988)

TREASURE

There can hardly be a word in the English language more precisely defined, yet more persistently misused, than unique. It’s really not complicated – it simply means something is one of a kind, nothing more, nothing less. Yet more often than not, it’s used when the word that’s really required is distinctive or unusual. It’s rarely that something truly is unique and this means that the word shouldn’t be bandied about like it belongs in a chat about the weather – we should treasure things that genuinely are unique and, however frequently and hamfistedly they’ve been imitated, I contend that the Cocteaus were, and remain, among them.

You can detect the fingerprints of Siouxsie and the Banshees and, to a lesser extent, Joy Division on their first album, Garlands, but by the time of its follow-up, Head Over Heels, they’d grown to a point where it was hard to divine any obvious influences at all. Robin Guthrie was arguably reinventing the guitar even more thoroughly than Kevin Shields would half a decade later, creating labyrynthine textures from what very soon ceased to sound like guitars. Meanwhile, Liz Fraser sang like she had no choice and, as is well known, literally invented a new language as she strove to express the inexpressible. Even their drum machine was more versatile and dextrous than many of its peers – human or mechanical – and wasn’t there simply because it drank less and took up less room.

Treasure came at the end of a year which had seen the vast Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops – where Guthrie’s guitars are transformed into bagpipes playing a pibroch worthy of Culloden – give them a top 40 hit. Guthrie later furiously denounced the album but I’ve always heard it as the most fully-realised and downright beautiful thing they’d done up to that point, despite a tracklist composed entirely of quaint names that could double for a Hampstead school register.

Beatrix has a music-box sound that’s always put me in mind of cloisters, while Otterley plumbs depths of mystery that you’d need Sonar to penetrate and the almost Californian tinge to Pandora is an unexpected yet completely fitting counterpoint to Fraser’s voice tiptoeing up a spiral staircase.

At the risk of heresy, better versions of some songs were done elsewhere – opener Ivo, which had all the conditions for another hit, on an EP given away by the NME, Lorelei on Whistle Test and Beatrix, under the unrepentantly Scottish working title Wheesht, on a Peel session. But none of this dilutes the majesty of Treasure – they’re complementary to it and a reminder that a band who play a song the same way every time will be a very bored band and it will show.

I was 16 when Treasure came out, restless to move on from school and see more of the world. This didn’t necessarily mean far-off lands and was as much about people as place, people I knew nothing of who could be in towns just a few miles away – the Cocteaus’ native Grangemouth, for example. Their music was one of the foremost soundtracks to these times and that’s at least my perception of it – like your perception of it and like the music itself, it’s unique (PG)

(A) BLUE BELL KNOLL

Conventional wisdom identifies two distinct camps of Cocteaus fans. There are those who reckon Treasure their finest moment, and those who prefer Heaven or Las Vegas. Sandwiched between these two undoubted creative peaks are a couple of oft overlooked gems – which for a minority third camp, might well represent the summit of their achievements.

Victorialand is in some ways a transitional album – while it retains some of Treasure’s icy nerve (as on the closer The Thinner The Air) the listener is no longer made to feel like a worm stuck in a glacier. However, Victorialand, the Cocteau’s aural perestroika, was merely paving the way for the majesty of Blue Bell Knoll.

Blue Bell Knoll contains everything you need in a Cocteaus album. And you do need at least one. The song titles have reached new supra-semantic heights: Spooning Good Singing Gum; A Kissed Out Red Floatboat; Ella Megalast Burls Forever. The music itself is dense, playful, exultant. There is a vibrancy about it that sounds a million miles away from their dour gothic beginnings.

The album has a glowing heart. The outer sleeve with its blurry image of cold grey fingertips opens to reveal the same picture burning gently within. And that’s no accident. The one frosty moment – The Icy Glowbo Blow – transforms itself in a gloriously chiming finale. Everywhere else, the ice has melted. On Phoebe Still A Baby, with its beautiful marimba accompaniment and Cico Buff, Liz is at her ecstatic best – while she recalls recording sessions for BBK as being particularly exhausting, the fruits of her efforts are plain for us to hear. On the magnificent single, Carolyn’s Fingers, and the aforementioned A Kissed Out Red Floatboat in particular, things come together in spectacular style. The latter features a remarkable keyboard part that strangely conjures images of a fluttering locomotive on its way to another solar system.

For some, Robin Guthrie is really more of a producer than a great guitarist. But here even the sumptuous trademark reverb cannot disguise his masterful playing. For me, this is Liz is at her absolute peak and words simply cannot do her performances justice. Indeed when it comes down to it, what do words matter? So if the opportunity to use the familiar adjectives (celestial, ethereal etc) seems wasted, it is only because Blue Bell Knoll transcends these cliches to feel like a meeting with God Himself. (JJ)

1. HUGO LARGO – METTLE (1989)

Melody Maker famously called 1988 “rock’s greatest year” – perhaps with some justification. Across the Atlantic there was a proliferation of post-hardcore experimentation in guitar noise (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Pixies, Butthole Surfers etc) while at home, others (AR Kane, MBV) absorbed some of that inspiration to create something even more ravishingly beautiful and radical. If the apex of this first ‘blissed out’ generation was AR Kane’s aptly titled  Up Home! EP (which Simon Reynolds memorably described as “rock’s Antarctica…it’s final petrifying spell – the sound of a million icicles”) …then Hugo Largo’s Mettle was stretching the limits in the opposite direction. Their only full-length album was released on Eno’s Land label, but the crucial rule here was not to remain on terra firma. As if Brian would sanction that. If the likes of MBV were rocketing through the sonic stratosphere, then it was only natural that their visionary (distant) cousins should aim to go back down again, down as far as one could go, even into the womb – to the warm blue belly of a new aquatic Eden.

Their singer Mimi Goese probably believed in new age crystals. She sang about turtles and Native American  philosophy. She threw a few words of Japanese into the mix. All in the name of art you see. Pretentious? Perhaps. Don’t you know it’s dangerous to play with knives girl? But did it matter? Not a bit. The band broke all the rock rules. No guitar in sight. Hearing and seeing them for the first time in 1988 (supporting That Petrol Emotion bizarrely!) that seemed strange enough, but it took me a bit longer to realise that the drummer hadn’t simply been given the night off. Instead the soundtrack was provided by two bass guitars and a solitary violin. You might think there’d be something missing from the sound, but no, it surrounded and enveloped the listener like a velvet glove.

Hahn Rowe’s undulating violin tugs like the undertow around the rippling melodic lines of the brace of bass. The songs are strong, the melodies soporific yet full of surprises. Mettle may not be a post-rock blueprint (AR Kane’s 69 has a greater claim to that title) but it is a post-rawk blueprint. It is also the bluest album ever made, and by that I mean azure, the colour of the ocean, rather than morose. In fact it’s quite the opposite of blue in that sense. “Try taking off your noisy head; rest it on a pillow soaked in melting wax” Mimi sings with almost evangelical zeal on ‘Hot Day’. Quite. (JJ)