Tuesday, 9 June 2020

SPK ‎– Auto-Da-Fé (1983)

Style: Abstract, Industrial
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: The Grey Area, Walter Ulbricht Schallfolien, SMS Records

01.   Contact
02.   Germanik
03.   Mekano
04.   Retard
05.   Slogun
06.   Metal Field
07.   Walking On Dead Steps
08.   A Heart That Breaks (In No Time Or Place)
09.   Another Dark Age
10.   Twilight Of The Idols
11.   Culturecide

Compact Disc Edition Planned & Supervised By – B. Lustmord

As a compilation, this is a somewhat odd proposition:  the first half consists of singles dating back to before the release of Information Overload Unit, the latter is post-Leichenschrei, but pre-Machine Age Voodoo material, so essentially sandwiched between their zenith and their nadir.  With early material vacillating between noisy textures and punk trappings, and the later tracks showing hints of their synth-pop direction, there's a definite dichotomy here, but both halves excel greatly in what they seek to do. 
Walter Ulbricht/Mute 
Opening with material from their confusingly early singles, "Factory," "Mekano," and "Meat Processing Section" (all of which shared tracks between them), "Contact" and "Mekano" both use abstractly processed and effected guitars with what sounds like metal barrel percussion and rather naked vocals to create something that’s closer to "punk" than "industrial," to attach genre terms, but fits into neither pigeonhole well.  "Germanik" amps up the dissonance, with the guitar sounding as if it is piped in from another room while metal percussion and barked pseudo-fascist German vocals become the norm. 
Once we get to the middle portion of the album the dissonance is ramped up.  The previous three tracks come across as downright quaint once "Retard" starts.  Different from the Information Overload Unit track of the same title, the combination of extreme high and low frequencies rival TG's "Subhuman" for pure obnoxiousness, and the lyrics discussing the autopsy of a 12 year old girl is anything but pleasant.  I honestly have problems sitting through the entire song just due to the high pitched whistling noise that never relents. 
But, of course, there is "Slogun."  I think an entire book could be written on both the track and its legacy in various forms of aggressive music.  An unidentifiable morass of electronics, guitar, distortion, and what sounds like power tools blast for over six minutes, underscored by an overdriven, rudimentary drum machine beat.  Probably most well known is the vocals:  manic shouts from both Neil Hill and Graeme Revell barking the slogan of the original Socialist Patients Collective, "Kill for inner peace/bomb for mental health/therapy through violence." Words can't do "Slogun" justice:  it is a visceral, physical experience that never stops.  I’ve never heard any other piece of music from any genre that hits on such a somatic level.  I cannot disagree with the masses that sing the praises of this song:  most of SPK's career was great, but this is the perfect culmination of their work, and perhaps the definitive song of the era. 
There wasn't an attempt to do a "Slogun 2" after this, on either Information Overload Unit or Leichenschrei, nor should there have been.  The remainder of Auto Da Fe is a selection of studio and single tracks from 1982 and 1983, taking the song-oriented direction that was hinted at on Leichenschrei (i.e., "Despair," "Day of Pigs"), but strip away much of the noise and distortion, revealing a sparse, dour proto-pop that is quite different from what they did before, but not entirely out of character either. 
"Metal Field" keeps many of the pieces from Leichenschrei:  synthetic and metal drums, analog synths, and vocals, but it’s more restrained and subtle.  Revell is actually singing, though in a flat, emotionless monotone, and the synths are sequenced into actual melodies and bass lines.  It is ostensibly danceable electro, but has this cold, detached feel that makes it anything but conventional. 
Similarly, the more upbeat "Walking on Dead Steps" puts together many of the same pieces, but even with its faster tempo and higher energy, lyrics like "fascism is in fashion again" show it wasn't an attempt to gain commercial success.  The material from the Dekompositions EP that rounds out the album is comparatively more atmospheric, channeling the mood of their darker work, but with notably more polish and poise.  
"Culturecide" and "Another Dark Age" sound less aggressive compared to other tracks, but are far from danceable, instead beautifully capturing a depressive, bleak mood throughout, even without the layers of grimy distortion and feedback. 
It should also be noted that this is not a complete collection of early SPK, and a fair number of things were left off.  Somewhat understandably, "Factory" was left off, as it's just a different take of "Mekano" with alternate lyrics, though I would have liked it to have it included for completeness sake.  "No More" also comes from these early sessions, but is at its core rather amateurish, high schooler punk rock.  It's not bad per se, but it doesn’t fit in with any of the other SPK material either. 
The "See Saw/Chambermusik" 7" is also excluded completely, likely due to the fact that Revell was not part of the sessions:  he was away in the UK recording Information Overload Unit, while Neil Hill, and Hill's wife recorded these tracks in Australia.  They actually aren't far removed from what Revell and company were doing at the same time, so their exclusion seems to be more about Revell not participating in the sessions, or perhaps licensing/legal issues. 
I think we all know the story after this point:  Revell and Leong recorded their attempt at pop music, Machine Age Voodoo, which always struck me as trying too hard.  The stiff attempts at funk and conventional pop vocals made the last remnants of the "old" SPK that were there: the metal percussion, feel like an attention-seeking novelty rather than an asset.  Coupled with the stereotypical, almost offensive Asian influenced sound, it was an unpleasant piece of generic pop.  I'll shamelessly admit that I have the entire Pet Shop Boys discography and actually like Ministry's With Sympathy, but Machine Age Voodoo was simply too much. 
Afterward, Revell went on to record Zamia Lehmanni as SPK, paving the way for his current career in film score.  That album I can certainly appreciate, but barring "In Flagrante Delicto," it never grabbed me like their early stuff.  The slight reprise of pop that came with Gold and Poison I actually found pleasant, if innocuous and vanilla. 
But obviously, their catalog up to Dekompositions is what represents their strongest contributions to adventurous music, and it all has held up well over the years.  While Leichenschrei is their most cohesive, singular work, I probably show Auto Da Fe some favoritism because it has such a varying sound to it.  It actually excels in its disjointedness, and the fact that it has "Slogun" on it doesn’t hurt either.  I don't think that any these three albums can be separated though, as they all have their own strengths and contributions to experimental sound art.  While I personally only been exposed to them for a bit over a decade, they have lost none of their impact on me, and continue to be as brilliant as ever.
Creaig Dunton / brainwashed

Elvis Costello And The Attractions ‎– Imperial Bedroom (1986)

Style: Alternative Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Rykodisc, F-Beat, Columbia

01.   Beyond Belief
02.   Tears Before Bedtime
03.   Shabby Doll
04.   The Long Honeymoon
05.   Man Out Of Time
06.   Almost Blue
07.   .... And In Every Home
08.   The Loved Ones
09.   Human Hands
10.   Kid About It
11.   Little Savage
12.   Boy With A Problem
13.   Pidgin English
14.   You Little Fool
15.   Town Cryer

Composed By – Elvis Costello
Producer – Geoff Emerick

After years of furious parrying with his obsessions in a long ride that’s taken him from arsenic tinged punk psychodramas to gin-mill country & western weepers, Elvis Costello has made his masterpiece. Imperial Bedroom doesn’t make its point by hurling bolt after bolt of hard-rock epiphany; rather, its intensity is cumulative, the depth of feeling evident in the hard-won wisdom of Costello’s lyrics and his extraordinary attention to musical detail. 
He begins with an axiom — “History repeats the old conceits/The glib replies, the same defeats” — sung from the inside. Having cast this deterministic nod to the unchanging order of human affairs, Elvis Costello ambitiously sets out to bring new wisdom to old rituals. Casting fresh light in hidden places, he throws open the double doors to the imperial bedroom, that private arena wherein romance burns hot, and then burns out. Costello plays the canny spy in the house of love, sifting through smoldering embers for clues; twisting clichés and commonplaces, and finding truth in their ironic reconstruction; making his passion felt with the most varied and committed music he’s ever played in his life.

When Elvis Costello hit these shores in 1977 for a club tour that coincided with the stateside release of My Aim Is True, he was already more into the razor-edged material of his then-unrecorded second album, This Year’s Model. I have an indelible image of him sweating clean through a rust-colored suit by the third or fourth song; his palpable anger ignited the audience, but there was a distance there that wouldn’t allow him to connect — that is, share a conspiratorial sputter — with his zealous following. His guard was up, and his rage precluded communality. But even the bitterest alienation seeks eventual relief, and Costello, after writing countless volumes on the subject (twenty songs on a single album — twice?), gradually got happier. With Trust, the faint trace of a smile crossed his face, and on Almost Blue, he paid loving tribute to country music. With Imperial Bedroom, he’s opened the door to his heart even wider. On “Town Cryer,” this LP’s closing number, Costello sings: “Maybe you don’t believe my heart is in the right place/Why don’t you take a good look at my face.” He could well be offering a rebuttal to those who’ve consistently and wrongly judged him to be only venal, spiteful and vindictive. 
While there is nothing overtly “country” in the sound of Imperial Bedroom, it evokes a pair of C&W classics — Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and George Jones’ The Battle — in its thematic concerns. Imperial Bedroom‘s fifteen songs paint a sometimes droll, ofttimes grim picture of love eroded by the inevitable procession of time and temptation. Even a marriage vow isn’t sufficient glue to hold two people together. Like his C&W mentors, Costello has become an expert storyteller; he now knows that the accusing finger can often be pointed in both directions, and this has given him a newfound generosity of viewpoint. Witness “The Long Honeymoon,” in which he describes the sorrow of a woman who knows only too well what’s keeping her husband out after dark: 
Little things just seem to undermine her confidence in him 
He was late this time last week 
Who can she turn to when the chance of coincidence is slim? 
‘Cause the baby isn’t old enough to speak 
The lesson of “The Long Honeymoon,” almost a throwaway line, is that “There’s no money-back guarantee on future happiness.” With the deck so hopelessly stacked, the only reasonable emotions would seem to be pessimism or rage — and, indeed, Costello has generally embraced the latter. This time, though, there are glimmers of vulnerability, unexpectedly candid admissions of yearning and need, as when the lonesome protagonist of “Human Hands” — stuck at home with only his TV set and shadows on the wall for company — blurts out, “All I ever want is just to fall into your human hands.” 
Imperial Bedroom is not all doleful lamentations, however — not by a long shot. Though its narrative preoccupation with scenes of domestic blistering recalls the oeuvre of Jones and Nelson, it’s got a potent, articulate musical kick that summons the heady spirit of such seminal Sixties rock masterworks as the Who’s Tommy, the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow and, yes, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Like those records, Imperial Bedroom achieves depth and resonance by presenting a stylistically varied musical program rich in ingenious arrangements and strong melodies. Thus, the glib barroom singalong of “Tears before Bedtime” is juxtaposed with the sobering judgments of “Shabby Doll,” whose jazzy, staccato piano chords and wandering bass give the song a disembodied air. Four songs on side one are linked by a frantic segue — amphetamine guitar and wordless screaming from Costello that sounds like the howl of the id, the rage beyond words that lurks in the upstairs of the psyche, counterpointing the deliberate, rational voice of those numbers it interrupts. And the eight songs on side two brim with an effusive vigor that takes some of the sting out of Costello’s more rancorous lyrics. 
Due credit must go to Steve Nieve, who orchestrated many of the songs and whose keyboards predominantly color in the sour d. Mention should be made also of Geoff Emerick, whose full-bodied, wide-screen production gives Costello ample room to sow his plangent visions. The paramount instrument, though, is Costello himself: he makes his voice over into a hundred voices, from reverberating chest tones to plaintive wailing at the top of his range. He cajoles, pleads, remands; turns passionate, then contrite; whispers a confidence, rails at betrayal. In one of the album’s most telling moments, he drops the mask of insolence and revenge to confide, “So what if this is a man’s world I wanna be a kid again about it.” 
Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom is really a mansion, each of whose rooms is decorated with painstaking care and detail by the artist. In every aspect of this masterfully wrought, conceptually audacious project, he’s managed to bulwark his emotional directness with vision and clarity — and to make an album that lingers and haunts long after the last note has died out. Like a long, episodic novel — or a long, episodic relationship — you can look back when it’s over and measure how far you’ve traveled.
Parke Puterbaugh / Rolling Stone

The Young Gods ‎– Only Heaven (1995)

Genre: Electronic, Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Interscope Records, Play It Again Sam Records

01.   Outside
02.   Strangel
03.   Speed Of Night
04.   Donnez Les Esprits
05.   Moon Revolutions
06.   Kissing The Sun
07.   The Dreamhouse
08.   Lointaine
09.   Gardez Les Esprits
10.   Child In The Tree
11.   Kissing The Sun (Orange Mix)

Arranged By – Mosimann
Band – Alain, Franz, Üse
Producer – Roli Mosimann

A quarter century on from the Swiss powerhouse’s fifth album, Ned Raggett takes a look back at what sampling, live drumming & roaring vocals could produce

Somewhere in my personal archives is the interview I did with Franz Treichler of the Young Gods 25 years back, when Only Heaven came out. It was a phoner, but I met Treichler briefly before the show he and the band did for that album in Los Angeles. In both cases he was affable, thoughtful, energetic, the type of person you could pretty easily imagine chatting with in a variety of contexts. He could have almost fit the image of a bro on the beach in SoCal to an extent. That’s part of the reason why the show they did was so fantastic - even if you don’t quite expect your head to be torn off after such an exchange, when a band goes ahead and does it in front of your face, that’s a sign. You know you’re in the right spot at the right time. 
Where I was in America, Only Heaven was the crossover moment for the Young Gods - where the work they’d already done over a previous decade culminated and theoretically could have broken through. It was on Interscope, then riding the era’s waves ridiculously high on a number of fronts, from Dre and Snoop via Death Row to, most relevantly in this case, Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor’s announced that plans for the Interscope-distributed Nothing Records (as a home for his own favoured artists) were already in the works. He won a first feather for his cap after signing and producing one Marilyn Manson. When I first heard about Only Heaven I figured this was part and parcel with Nothing as well. Such wasn’t the case, but seeing as the Young Gods had been subsumed into a general definition of ‘industrial’ here over the previous years, thanks to Wax Trax distribution and the like, it seemed like it could happen. 
But that was the point of the Young Gods - they didn’t fit into anything. They were near sui generis - hell, they flat out were. The combination of wider international distribution, technological possibilities and that always necessary spark of some genius allowed them to come almost crashing out of the gate with something that didn’t many any ‘sense’ as such, and then completely did soon after. In an interview from earlier this year, Treichler discussed his young fascination with classic and punk rock, his schooling in classical guitar, his love of hip hop from early on, as well as adding this: "[W]hen you watch a band, you can anticipate most of the time what’s going to happen because you physically see the guitar. You see he’s going to play. If you have all this on the keyboard, you never know what’s going to come next. Is it going to be a wall of guitars? Is it going to be violent? Is it going to be pleasant? It puts you back to a state where it’s like the first time you’re listening to music because you don’t know what it is." 
And from the debut single 'Envoye!' forward, that’s what happened. At a time even then when a certain sort-of guitars and drum machines orthodoxy was emerging, it was the combination of sampling, live drumming, Rosi Mosimann’s mentor role and production and Treichler’s rough, roaring vocals - almost all initially in French - that turned heads and rewired possibilities. Much was made rhetorically of how the Young Gods took ‘metal’ as concept - riffs, bursts, melodies, sometimes mere moments of a solo - and turned what was seen as lumpen into quicksilver. It was a reduction, but there was a logic to it in turn. As dedicated to the studio as an instrument as any other avant-garde performer at the time, the Young Gods matched in with performances that felt like rock & roll but didn’t look like it or seem like it, a constant disorientation. Even if the medium of recorded music removed that element of surprise Treichler outlined - you could consider it a 'classic' instrumental lineup on initial blush - there was still something unexpected. It could be the way parts cut too quickly for the human hand to play, that brutal loops and twists evolved and tore through arrangements. Add to that a voice that, for many, was the first time they’d heard a French voice sing over and with heavy as hell music and it’s no surprise they made a mark.

There’s an interesting thing about Only Heaven at that stage in the band’s career to consider, beyond the fact that they’d settled into a sharp trio line-up of Treichler, keyboardist Al Monod and drummer Üse Hiestand. After their perfect headfuck move with the Sings Kurt Weill album, transforming the work of the mid 20th century songwriting legend into their own sonic universe, 1992’s TV Sky was, in many ways, their most American album to date. There was the ZZ Top electric blues kick of 'Gasoline Man' to 'The Night Dance'’s brawling punch and careful use of an iconic Guns N' Roses part to the explicitly Doors-referencing 'Summer Eyes' - the latter concluding the album with Treichler’s majestic howl of "America! America! The flowers need water!" over a slow burn fade. It almost felt like the record that a big American record deal should have produced, a knowing grasping of the bull by the horns. Having done that, and avoiding repeating themselves, it makes Only Heaven its own distinct effort - something that, per Treichler’s quote above, was a reflection that one never knew what would come next. 
If songs like 'Gasoline Man' demonstrated that the group could do pop-rock numbers on their own terms, a song like 'Strangel' added to that all the more, with a chugging base charge, a clipped snarl of a guitar figure as a recurrent motif, and an instantly catchy, strong chorus. But being followed up by the explosive 'Speed Of Night' was something else again. With a huge cascade of samples somewhere between Joey Beltram’s mentasm riffs played backward to start, the arrangement suddenly blew open and out into a focused bass/drum charge. It felt like nothing so much as an open-ended chase down city streets at high propulsion, Hiestand’s drumming a live wire. Treichler doesn’t so much sing the verses as deliver them as observations, a drive riding rails almost beyond his control and locking down in order to keep some sense of focus and sanity, then breaking out on the verses with an agog wonder at everything flowing through and past him. Being able to capture the impact of what a song itself is actually doing is not the easiest of tasks, but it’s a fusion here that might as well be Kraftwerk at its own propulsive height, capturing and interpreting the moment.

Then there’s 'Kissing The Sun', a single from the album and understandably so. There’s no one lyrical high point for the Young Gods - in French or English they seemed to have a knack for invoking the elemental in a way that made it all feel like it was actually happening. But this has a perfect title, a kind of Icarus-in-excelsis who didn’t fall from the heights but kept on laughingly going all the way, high off everything. The song varies from quick dizzying upward spirals, notes rising in an echo as Treichler delivers two quick lines in each verse, then a huge cutting slam on guitar matched by blasting drums like whoever the kisser is has taken a massive dive right past a flare. Breaks and bridges allow Treichler to deliver the title line - notably, he says "we’ll be kissing the sun", inviting everyone, "boys and girls", along with him, rather than revelling in a solo power trip. 
For all the noise, a quieter mood never disappears. It was something that was always part of the Young Gods approach but sometimes understandably was lost in the sheer frenzy of their loudest and most extreme moments. 'Donner Les Esprit' is slow loping mood, textures and sounds bubbling in and around a mix, less interested in guitars directly as the sounds that can be extracted from them and other sources. Keening tones, distant cascades, the feeling of an irregular series of waves on a beach and more besides all come together. 'Lointaine' is almost nothing but Treichler’s singing and a nervy loop from some unclear source, shadows and fog and ghosts of feedback shimmering past and back again. 'Outside' and 'Gardez Les Esprit' almost bookend the album with quick, minimal approaches that’s almost nothing but Treichler and a bit of rhythm in both cases. 'The Dreamhouse' almost feels like something from the Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II from the previous year, all squelching loops, high wailing drones and barely there rhythms, Treichler’s whisper. Things start to fire up and coalesce towards the middle of the song, but the sense of initial disorientation remains paramount, so when it all drops away again, the feeling is of unresolved suspension. 
Like TV Sky, Only Heaven had a lengthy track as a key part of the whole, but where 'Summer Eyes' concluded the earlier album as a grand, angrily formalist gesture towards classic rock as such, 'Moon Revolutions' is something else again. It’s smack dab in the centre of the collection and divides the album almost exactly in half. A distant riff behind a combination of drums and another rhythmic sample heralds another Treichler lyric about motion and action. Moon revolutions can be about a revolution in the common sense if you like but its origin is astronomical, a progression of a huge globe in space around another and the cycles that invokes in turn. It all slowly builds up in vocal and instrumental intensity even as the rhythm holds the line and then, seemingly nothing. By floating into pure ambient exploration - something the band did even more thoroughly on the companion album, Heaven Deconstruction - it’s another distinct contrast from what was expected of the group. But the context feels like the top of an arc of a space launch, tones and shards of feedback and guitar flying past before a long slow downward plunge. It just gets more dramatic and powerful as it goes, a guitar chug, drumming building up, ever more dramatic riffs placed just so, Treichler moving from observational moments to a commanding invocation of the titular figure. It seems like everything is going to impact at beyond light speed, only it pulls a little bit of a twist by fading away into serenity. Why not continue to surprise? 
And they continued to surprise right through to the end. 'Child In A Tree' concluded the album on the gentlest note for the band yet, with the lead being acoustic guitar rather than electronic riffs and reworking - practically a folk song, or more accurately a lament. There’s soft touches of electric elements in the background, but otherwise it has the feeling of what’s been an awesomely powerful machine suddenly stripped down to basics. Even Treichler’s voice takes on its softest edge - there’s no leering swagger or commanding urge to power, or even murmuring restraint. Reportedly inspired by the early death of a friend of Treichler’s, it’s not maudlin or weepy, but it is exhausted in its sorrow, and he sings it in an almost hard to hear, high pitched half-gasp, tender and lost. But even its two minutes isn’t quite the end, as a further combination of ambient tones dissipating into calm eschews all the extremity at one end of their sound for something completely removed. It’s not even the arcing top of 'Moon Revolutions'’s progression, more simply a empty end and finality. 
Seeing the Young Gods that year at last was a definite revelation, getting a sense of how such a combination actually worked on stage instead of dreaming it or just guessing via videos. I remember Monod’s careful intensity on his keyboards - he wasn’t simply triggering guitars, he was playing the whole thing, creating all the bombast and tone - and Hiestand’s drumming was at its most extreme a classic full wallop, not so much overbearing as a punch and pulse in the gut. And Treichler, sometimes lost in the flow but never to the point where he wasn’t singing every line just so, aiming to will a feeling into existence among the usual enough LA crowd of hardcore fans and label folks and just people out in a club all in a mix. More than once it seemed like he was flying without leaving the ground, and more than once, I felt like we were all there with all three of them.
Ned Raggett / The QUIETUS