Thursday, 28 March 2013

Ruin the day

A more spontaneous post this time - an interlude, if you will. This morning I had no idea I would be writing it, but I am so glad that I am.

If you've delved into my blog before, you may have read the post where I raved about a fantastic band I'd recently discovered called Bitter Ruin. (If not, it's here.) I won't go into that much detail again tonight, but suffice to say that the duo play a highly original blend of Americana, cabaret, flamenco and folk (and who knows what more besides)... alongside a genius for bringing their songs alive on stage with a blend of acting and choreography that blurs the line between 'gigging' and performance art.

Bitter Ruin have decided to use Kickstarter to ask their fans to help fund the completion of their home studio and the recording of the next album. When done right, Kickstarter is a great idea anyway; but it particularly suits this band because they undoubtedly have a special connection with the fans (they even have a name - 'the Ruined'). Today, it became clear just how special.

Georgia and Ben (for it is they) have spent a good deal of time on some serious maths. Their logic is straightforward - finishing the home studio means they can get the album out without relying on a producer or a label, and make future records without anything like the same level of outlay - but the challenge is anything but. They need nearly £30,000, so have asked potential backers to come up with £20,000 of that.

Kickstarter uses a reward system - the more attractive the rewards, the more likely it is that more people will be willing to contribute. Sure, BR have a solid fanbase and I'm sure we could all be relied upon to pay something. But, correctly, the pair have identified that if you put thought into the rewards on offer, the response from fans is not just instant finance, but long-term involvement and engagement.

In the earlier write-up, I touched on what I called the 'Bitter Ruin universe' - the way that the aesthetics used in anything from the look and feel of their website to the CD artwork are all part of the package and fit the music like a glove. The rewards Georgia and Ben have come up with allow us to enter that universe - whether it's simply being named as a backer on the record sleeve, through to attending a listening party, purchasing original paintings or receiving a limited edition book of lyrics and illustrations - organise a whip round and they may even come and play at your house!

The duo's inventiveness - combined with their willingness to grab Facebook and Twitter by the scruff of the neck and talk directly to anyone showing an interest - has resulted in a spectacular outcome: the entire £20,000 has been raised in one day. There are 34 days to go.

So, what could be achieved in the next month? Quite a lot. For example, we already know the band will probably have to spend another £10,000 and those still to pledge will be directly contributing to that. The band are already cooking up possible variations or additions to the rewards.

Bitter Ruin's records are thrilling and captivating experiences, and they are without doubt one of the most exhilarating and dramatic live bands in the UK. Their ongoing success is basically vital for everyone's well-being. So, please perform a public service by checking them out and making a pledge, if you can. I think you are almost certainly going to want the album, and once you're hooked, you'll be casting your eye over the other rewards as well.

And while you're at it, be proud of them. They raised that money in a day - but only after years and months of thinking, planning, writing, practising, performing and working really hard. It's payback time.

Their Kickstarter page is here. You can see a couple of videos there and link to their website for the full Bitter Ruin experience...!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Cut above

I've talked before about how I'm drawn to extreme music, but so far - live, at any rate - I'd only experienced it as made by recognisable instruments (my recent grindcore expedition, for example). Here I was now at my first 'noise' gig: two acts conjuring up sonic mayhem using machinery alone - Cut Hands, supported by Dalhous.

I wasn't sure what to expect. Photos accompanying live reviews of noise gigs tend to feature folk turning knobs while sweating - and to a certain extent Dalhous fit this stereotype. Mind you, Cafe Oto, while a marvellous venue can on occasion lead a double life as a very large oven. So I can probably guarantee that the entire audience were perspiring just as much as the performers were.

Dalhous gave the impression of being as much a 'project' as a band. Throughout their entire set, they back-projected some fairly full-on footage (looking like 70s vintage) of what looked like a bohemian commune undergoing some kind of collective therapy. The most dramatic moments in the footage coincided with the quieter sections of music, so dialogue snatches became audible without an actual narrative ever emerging. I closed my eyes from time to time to try and focus on just the sound. It's beautiful - the beats slightly fuzzy and fractured, the 'noise' actually quite mellow - whirrs and purrs - as if trying to soothe the troubled minds of the people in the film. Impressive and involving.

One thing Dalhous couldn't hope to do, though, is prepare us for what came next. Cut Hands is a current alias of William Bennett, who pioneered the 'power electronics' genre of noise/extreme music over 30 years ago as founder of the band Whitehouse. Cut Hands honours that legacy, while allowing Bennett - one of the underground's true originals - to create something entirely new, once again.

Cut Hands is now two albums old. Nursing a long-held interest in African rhythms and percussion instruments, Bennett has found a way of feeding these beats and drum sounds into his bank of electronics. The result - on CD - is an exhilarating onslaught of pure processed power, channeling polyrhythms back out in layer upon layer, as though you are listening to a ritual from the future. Apart from some almost ambient, intriguing tracks that give you an opportunity to pause for breath without allowing you to lose concentration, the sound is exclusively and relentlessly effects/rhythm-only, which somehow makes the experience at once authentic and synthetic.

Live, I knew I would probably still be happy if Bennett just wired up his favourite tracks to the PA and blasted us into next week - but there was so much more than that to this performance. The Cut Hands aesthetic (the typeface and graphics on the album artwork are carefully controlled and all of a piece) is projected on the screen, interspersed with fragmented black and white film. All the images are hallucinatory and elusive, but they seem to include ritualistic behaviour, alongside other arresting visual loops of hands playing a piano, or blood as if seen under a microscope. I hope you'll forgive me if I didn't actually see all of these things clearly, as there were times when the visual accompaniment consisted mostly of the back of someone's head. In some respects, all gigs really are the same...!

Bennett is at first tucked away behind his equipment stage right. He builds up the intensity of the set steadily and mercilessly. At times, I'm reminded of a DJ - but instead of lining up components with matching 'beats per minute' speeds, Bennett appears to be mixing his own multiple rhythms into a seamless whole. At any given time you could probably hear any number of rhythm tracks, moving at different rates, syncopated in different places, loud and soft at various times, and the end result is always exactly precise. Precise, in fact, to the point where people started to realise how *danceable* the music was, and the Oto crowd began to move and feed back some of Bennett's energy.

And we are talking proper energy. It soon becomes clear that Bennett is as transported by this music as we are. He soon starts to dance himself, loose-limbed and without inhibitions, yet with at least one fingertip on the laptop, as though it was supplying the electricity to keep him on his toes.

The extreme heat in Cafe Oto keeps us thirsty and I think this must have affected the performers most of all. At various times during the set, Bennett brings his hand to his face, appearing to wipe his dry mouth. Behind him at one point, a celluloid snake crawls across the screen, and Bennett's arm movement matches the elegant winding motion of the reptile in the projection.

Anyone into the noise genre will certainly know Bennett's other work and will decide whether Cut Hands takes them along a road they want to travel. However, if you're the kind of listener who keeps digging out that Real World release with 30 solid minutes of the Drummers of Burundi - then you should definitely investigate. This is aggressively inclusive music. Volume and pitch that might once have punkishly tried to alienate now bring people together to listen, dance and appreciate.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Ray of Light

Two recent photography exhibitions have got my mind racing. The first showcases the extraordinary body of work of one man, while the other assembles the work of many photographers in one collection (the only link between them - at face value - being where they are from). It's interesting to think of the frenzied invention and wild variety of work in the former, compared with the unity of purpose and feeling in the latter.

The photographer with a show to himself is Man Ray. The huge retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery - called, without too much flamboyant excess, 'Portraits' - was a massive education for me, since I wasn't aware of his work much beyond some famous surrealist images (it's possible that many folk recognise the woman whose back resembles a violin, complete with super-imposed 'f-holes', without knowing who took the photo). But a saunter round this show and you end up convinced that there is nothing he couldn't - and didn't - do.

He wasn't always turning someone into a musical instrument or separating their face from the rest of their head, that's for sure. He had something of the mad scientist in him, developing the 'solarisation' techique, which made his subjects glow in a kind of metallic haze. He had an artist's self-absorption, producing self-portraits in several guises during his career. He also had at least one stroke of monumental good fortune, when Lee Miller forced herself on him as his student and model. Miller was surely the perfect muse for Man Ray - by which I mean, someone who not only brought out the best in him as an artist, but who was an equal collaborator and fully-formed photographic genius in her own right.

Amazing photographs from all of these phases or genres are present and correct. The ones that have stayed with me the longest, however, are somehow quieter. He did not proclaim himself a pioneer with every click of the shutter, and some of his portraits are almost conventional. Closer inspection, however, made me believe that nothing in his photographs is quite frozen - subjects seem to be mid-thought, mid-action, mid-laugh or mid-look. He captures the feeling that the image might be a still point in time, but the photographer and model were moving from the last shot and on to the next. My favourite expression of this is the portrait of Stravinsky, who is shown seated, looking upward. His mind on something else, he scratches his ankle. Everything in the shot is pin-sharp, except his hand, a blur next to the foot. What a grace note.

This picture, which might well whet your appetite, is one of the exhibitions's showstoppers, a portrait of Catherine Deneuve, surrounded by objects and motifs that Man Ray favoured. It's a good marriage of subject and setting - rightly, nothing is going to stop you giving the model your full attention to begin with. Then your eyes 'withdraw', you take in the full vision and wonder what wheels are turning in the mind behind the lens.

From bohemian glamour to something altogether grittier: 'Light from the Middle East', currently at the V&A, brings together work from (as the blurb says) 30 photographers across 13 countries. All the participants are alive and active, so the work is not in a time capsule - for each photographer, the two or three images we see are in almost all cases part of their ongoing project or statement.

As someone not from the region, I felt a bit wary and ashamed before I entered the exhibition that there might be a high degree, or multiple layers, of political meaning and allegory to much of the work that I would not be qualified to appreciate, at least not fully. And this wariness was partially justified, I think: to give the show a 'story', the artists featured were almost all using their photography to make wider points about faith, identity, and war. (Not really any 'pure' portraiture or landscape views.) Ironically, this had the effect of smoothing the edges off the exhibition, as if there was only one reason for this show to exist - when in fact, there were loads of reasons to enjoy it.

The execution of many of the photos completely knocked me for six. Shadi Ghadirian exhibits portraits that in tone and construction look like vintage, traditional portraits of young Iranian women, but the modern timeframe of the shot is revealed by a giveaway prop (such as a can of pop or a ghetto blaster) that looks totally incongruous in the setting. Ahmed Mater of Saudi Arabia creates images that suggest pilgrims at Mecca but are in fact iron filings around a magnet:

I found much of the exhibition beautiful and intelligent, purely on an aesthetic basis, and I happily took the book home: Tal Sochat's trees, captured outdoors but under indoor conditions (false backdrop, studio lighting, out in the open); Mehraneh Atashi's photo from a men-only gym, constructed as reportage but with her own image carefully reflected in the wrestler's mirror; Hassan Hajjaj's traditional dress portraits reframed as spoof fashion photography. I can see how these photos provoke responses about differing cultural values, repression and segregation, and identity (and the hiding or neutering of it). But before that, they gladdened my eye. As an amateur myself, I left the show fizzing with ideas and techniques that I wanted to try, and generally you can't ask more from an exhibition than that.

Some of the work I found less successful, where the reason for taking the photo overtook the photo itself. One strand of the exhibition features some fairly full-on violence against the pictures themselves: blurred images with deliberate damage wrought on the film, or some highly stylised 'false postcards' of pre-war Beirut with fire and carnage superimposed on the tourist scenes. Equally, a series depicting mothers holding portraits-within-portraits of their lost sons was unbearably poignant, but a particular picture made the entire point in one go, as one of the old women sat with her son's image, framed by bullet holes in the building's exterior. To my shame, I admit - because the photos ARE important - I felt the extension of this into a series risked being exploitative.

Sometimes art and reportage mix perfectly - but not always. Sometimes they are better kept apart.

Picture sources: Man Ray's Catherine Deneuve portrait from the Telegraph interview with CD - read it here. The Mater photograph is taken from the V&A website.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Gig antics, part 2: are you mad?

After the intense build-up of the first half of the week - and a couple of wholly necessary nights off - it was back into the fray for another pair of concerts. As I looked at the tickets side by side, it struck me how odd it was to be seeing these two groups on consecutive nights. Together they represent probably the only two types of music or band about whom I've had The Worst Rock Conversation - that is, having to defend and argue the case for why I like them, or even justify their very existence.

First up: Rotten Sound, a Finnish grindcore band, here - for one night only! - in the Camden Underworld. For those of you unfamiliar with grindcore, it's heavy metal, played very very loud, and very very fast, with the vocals roared rather than sung. (I know that description could apply to a lot of metal, but if I start going into all the subdivisions and scenes of that particular genre here, you will HATE me.) Hardly anyone I know can believe I'm into this. 'It's just noise,' they say - as if that was a bad thing.

It's just extreme. I am extremely fond of extremes. Grind is not, to my mind, linked that closely to other 'normal' metal (say, Iron Maiden). It's more the metal equivalent of free jazz, or particularly 'banging' hardcore techno. The voice becomes part of the rhythm section, and the tunes - brief and brutal - are in the riffs. Rotten Sound were spectacular - truly ferocious, but not without a kind of groove, resulting in the sea of moshpit die-hards moving in ripples and waves across the confined space. One chap was so overcome, he was shirtless by about song 3, and clambered regularly over the monitor speakers and onto the stage. Used to this kind of lunacy, Rotten Sound just step gingerly around him without missing a beat (which would be very easy at this speed). Then, as each song ends, he beams at them and lowers himself back into the crowd.

The audience is in fact full of very nice boys and girls. (For a metal gig, a pleasingly high number of women. Mrs Specs still gleefully remembers the only metal concert she accompanied me to - Iron Maiden again - where for once the women had room to set up home and hold flamboyant parties in the Ladies while us blokes were queuing for miles out of the Gents.) Like any other extreme music, it's an outlet for pent-up energy (dance away your frustration!) and between songs and bands - that is, the bits when they're not throwing themselves around with scant regard for health and safety regulations - everyone is incredibly well-mannered. Gig etiquette (so often ignored these days as audiences are quite happy to talk throughout acoustic solo sets and the like) is strictly observed, as pints remain unspilt and views left unobscured.

It does amuse me, though, that almost everyone except me turns up at metal gigs simply looking like they've come straight from the last metal gig. Whereas I, of course, am normally there straight from work. I belatedly realise that my light linen shirt makes me glow like some kind of well-fed lighthouse from my mezzanine vantage point. I begin to think people might mistake me for a mirrorball with glasses on. Luckily, my fears are unfounded, and I slip back into the night with a Rotten Sound t-shirt, making a mental note to change into that, or something similar, next time.

Speaking of mirrorballs and the like, there was a change in gear the following evening when Mrs Specs and I turned up at the O2 to see Girls Aloud. Again, when I rave to some people about Girls Aloud they react as if I should be quietly led to My Own Room and made to think about what I've done. I can only say: listen to the records. Really listen. Some people are resistant to performers who don't write their own material, but I would be wary of being so - some of the greatest music has come to pass because of the division of labour between the backroom boffins who can write amazing tunes, and the confident show-offs who can put them across. (I'm not including classical music here, although perhaps I should, because it 'works' differently.) Think Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Presley ... Motown and the Brill Building ... even *cough* Stock Aitken & Waterman (mostly not my cuppa, this last example, but much of the music has lasted along with everything else - there it is).

'Team Girls Aloud' are a formidable outfit. Pick one of the songs at random and there'll often be a great deal to pick apart. A track like 'The Show', for example, shuffles its constituent parts, working its way through two or three tunes into the chorus, then pinging back out again to how it started. GA had a hit called 'Long Hot Summer', where the two verses were totally different from each other and a completely new tune came in out of nowhere for the outro. Some bands would've made the number of ideas in 'Long Hot Summer' stretch over an EP at least. You don't have to sit by the hi-fi analysing this sort of thing to 'get' it - it's the subtle touches, quirks and anomalies that make truly great pop music, activating something in the brain that makes you go back for repeated listens.

Live, of course, it's all about the girls themselves and they are brilliant. It's easy to forget if you're hoovering to the greatest hits (er, I've heard) that they all have quite distinct vocal/physical personalities: Nadine has the range; Sarah the volume; Kimberley a rich, warm tone (ideally suited to the show-tunes she now performs solo) and Cheryl a kind of R'n'B sass; while Nicola is deployed whenever a hint of vulnerability or 'breathiness' is needed. None of them is in any way a weak link, or needs to be 'carried' by the others at any time. It's to Cheryl's credit that despite her latter-day existence as a kind of stand-alone megastar, she never takes over, courts the crowd's adoration or behaves as anything other than an equal fifth of the group.

An old git like me also spends a bit of time watching the musicians. The GA live sound is very, very good - no coincidence, then, that while there's plenty of synthesiser action, we also get live drums, live bass and live guitar - all clearly audible in the mix. The players don't have the freedom to solo into infinity, of course - on the contrary, the dance routines depend on their performing with military precision - but they provide the unmistakable 'oomph' that you only get when a bunch of separate instruments are wrangling various musical parts into a whole, on the spot in front of you.

We are treated to unashamed spectacle, too. Costume changes, two dancers for each Girl Aloud, and - most impressively - a mobile Girls Aloud logo. Halfway through, the five of them (as daintily as possible) clambered on top of it and flew above the audience to a second platform in the centre of the arena.

I will admit, you don't normally get that at a Rotten Sound gig - far more likely that a fellow member of the crowd will go soaring over your head at any given moment. Fortunately, I make room in my life for both types of evening.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Gig antics, part 1: are you local?

Just over a week ago, I turned 40. Fortunately, my mid-life crisis didn't take the form of waving cheerio to Mrs Specs, while hurtling down the cul-de-sac in the wrong direction on a Harley Davidson with a supermodel in the sidecar. Instead, I went to five gigs in seven days.

I go to concerts as often as possible as it is, of course, but I took myself a bit by surprise with this. There was some forward planning - we booked a couple of the gigs months ago - but, nearer the time, I noticed a couple of other irresistible shows that all fell in the same week. Since Mrs Specs wanted to come along to all but one of them, we just thought, 'what the hell' and went for it. (We were careful to take some leave, too - otherwise there might've been some 'early morning coping issues'.)

In this post, I'll cover the first half of the week, which found us easing ourselves fairly gently into the mayhem. First port of call was Epsom Playhouse, pleasingly close at hand to where I work. Playing in the studio theatre there was Barb Jungr, a jazz singer I've admired for ages but never had the chance to see live. I couldn't quite believe that someone of that stature was playing the smaller of two spaces in my local venue - but when we arrived, it made perfect sense.

Over the years, Jungr has built up a fascinating repertoire. She has recorded a wide range of material, but seems to feel a particular affinity for what she terms 'the new American Songbook' - skipping a generation or two on from the Gershwins and Porters and focusing instead on the likes of Bob Dylan (two CDs' worth, in fact), Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen. At the same time, for her latest album, 'Stockport to Memphis', she has weaved some of these covers into a set of songs she has co-written with jazz composer Simon Wallace. As the title suggests, Stockport is where she's from, Memphis is where she's yet to reach; her witty lyrics encapsulate this kind of deadpan nostalgia and fit perfectly with Wallace's sympathetic but never showy production.

The evening was intimacy itself. Although there are band arrangements on the albums, accompaniment tonight is solely by Wallace on piano and Jungr herself on harmonica - and just as well, since in this tiny space, there are probably only seats for 90 to 100 or so people. We manage to get two in the front row.  Live, Jungr is a disarming presence - between songs, her explanations for how they are written or why she chose to record them are fully fascinating and informative, but also blessed with the timing of a stand-up. During songs, it's of course all about THAT voice, which is full and rich to make you happy enough to hear her sing anything. It proves especially suited to shine a new light on previously 'male' vocals - Neil Young's 'Old Man' is particularly powerful, Jungr remarking that the older you are when you sing it, the more the song's meaning changes. The modest venue meant that stage banter felt like conversation and each song felt like it was being beamed directly to our nerve endings. Jungr's 'jazziness' does not really emerge as improvised 'vocalese' or scat singing - instead it's clear she has a rare kind of versatility, placing notes with absolute precision that you wouldn't necessarily expect but which vary, complement and fit perfectly into the tune. It was a privilege to experience this.

I'll say less about the following night since I've already written about this band earlier on the same tour - but the next gig on our list was Bellowhead. We'd already seen them last year at the Roundhouse - but when a band this brilliant plays literally down the road (Croydon Fairfield Halls this time), it seems churlish not to catch them again. What we'd hoped proved true - they were still fantastic, but this time we were nearer to the stage. We could properly appreciate the beautiful set, as well as enjoy the riotous interplay between the 11 musicians at a close enough vantage point to see their facial expressions (mostly: gleeful) and watch in renewed awe at their virtuosity. There is no sight in folk (or perhaps any) music more thrilling than the entire line-up, all in a row along the front of the stage, blasting a tune out at full tilt.

And the night after THAT, the 'folk put through the mangle' theme continued, with Richard Thompson at Shepherd's Bush Empire. I am a Thompson fanatic - so I'm clearly biased and probably incapable of giving a detached opinion. But for all the brilliance of the classic 'Richard & Linda' years and mid-career highlights like 'Amnesia', I think his later/current work is if anything setting even higher standards. I like the fact that he keeps having 'ideas' - not in the sense of concept albums, particularly - although concepts clearly play a part - but in terms of sound. Examples include the all-acoustic 'Front Parlour Ballads', the stripped-down revue '1000 Years of Popular Music' (does what it says on the tin - at least, if you happen to keep it in a tin), or the recent record 'Dream Attic', where he recorded an album's worth of brand new songs live with his up-and-running touring band.

His latest wheeze is to strip his group down to a trio for the album 'Electric' and its accompanying tour. In interviews, he's said that he wanted to try out a kind of 'commando' band who can, it seems, swoop down on festivals and venues for dates at a moment's notice. The record is a fierce thing - plenty of tenderness and regret (wouldn't be an RT album without it) - but more furious soloing and a noticeable 'grooviness'. Thompson says they were trying to create 'folk-funk', and you can hear what he means. It would probably lurch, rather than skip, around a dancefloor, but then, so would I.

I had temporarily forgotten that the word 'trio' is often preceded by 'power', and that is exactly what this marvellous show gave us. Trios like this are not modest or gentle, due to being a band member or two lighter than usual. Instead, the three people that are there, do a lot more, a lot louder. Particular mention should go to drummer Michael Jerome, who is simply explosive. Capable of that very satisfying manoeuvre of getting halfway through a song and suddenly being able to introduce new beats and rhythms on top of what you were already playing, Jerome powers every number to an enthralling climax. (The obligatory 'soloing into infinity' number - tonight 'Hard on Me' from the 'Mock Tudor' album - actually feels like the musicians might only stop when overcome by exhaustion.) He's also a showman - not quite a show-off - but keen to provide eye as well as ear candy, bashing all areas of his kit to kingdom come in a blur of sticks and limbs.

Thompson himself is on chipper form, his usual laconic wit well to the fore ('We'll do those old ones you like later!') but he's clearly enjoying the freedom and flexibility the trio format gives him. Every time I see him, I'm dazzled all over again at what he's capable of on the guitar - it doesn't seem humanly possible - and in this set-up, where he's the only lead instrument, his sheer range in volume, speed and technique is more obvious than ever. In a nod to great trios of the past ('like Peter, Paul & Mary,' RT mutters), they even cover the Hendrix classic 'Hey Joe'. It feels right. Everything else played around it feels at least its equal.

Here's a great track from the new album which we heard during the gig, called 'Good Things Happen To Bad People':

Part 2 of the Specs 'resisting the ageing process' gig frenzy to follow... 8-)