Friday, 3 February 2012
The Age of Distortion
Some more great LPs have come into the Oxfam Music shop in Exeter, and this time the emphasis is very much on distortion, on the racking up of effects pedals for a headlong dive into the ocean of reverb, echo, chorus and anything else that comes to hand, all in order to get carried away on deep currents of overdriven noise. The band which exemplified this fascination with overwhelming washes of hazy, multi-layered sound more than any other in the late eighties and early nineties were My Bloody Valentine. We have their 1988 LP Isn’t Anything, along with the You Made Me Realise EP on Creation Records which led up to it. You Made Me Realise is the song in the course of which they unleashed the sonic assault of their extended white noise section in recent comeback concerts, a high decibel tsunami which seemed to sculpt solid, dense matter from sound. In the interim between Isn’t Anything and its follow up Loveless, the band released the Glider EP, which we also have the 12” of. It’s a taste of the even more nebulous approximations of songs which would appear on the album, with its blurred close-up of a hand striking guitar strings drenched in pink and cerise light giving some indication as to the sounds within.
Also active towards the end of the eighties were Spacemen 3, whose frank or self-mythologising openness about the narcotic influences on their musical style fed into a droning, static music which drew on minimalism via the usual conduit of the Velvet Underground, but also from the more primitive but equally bloody-minded bludgeoning of the Stooges, a copy of whose 1969 debut LP, produced by John Cale (to its detriment, some have said) and graced with their resolutely unglamorous mugs on the cover, we also have in an 80s Canadian repressing on Elektra. Spacemen 3 were formed around two central creative forces, Pete Kember, aka Sonic Boom, and Jason Pierce, aka Jason Spaceman. Mr Spaceman would go on to form Spiritualised, where he would peddle the kind of maudlin, self-pitying songs mired in narcotised abjection tinged with gospel inflected spiritual yearning previewed on a couple of tracks on the 1989 LP Playing With Fire, Lord Can You Hear Me and Come Down Softly To My Soul. Boom/Kember immersed himself more in the electronic side of things after the Spacemen set off for new worlds, collaborating (notionally, anyway) with two very different musician in Experimental Audio Research: My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and improv collective AMM’s Eddie Prevost. He also briefly brought Delia Derbyshire out from her internal exile towards the end of her life, coaxing her into new collaborations and experiments. The lengthy track Suicide directs attention to another point of influence, the confrontational New York synthesiser duo active since the mid-70s. We also have the Performance LP, recorded on a 1988 tour in Amsterdam, which foregrounds the maelstrom of their more guitar-driven live sound from the time. This was propelled by the rhythm section of Pete Baines and Rosco (or, more formally, Stewart Rosswell), who went on to form the band The Darkside, who offered a more traditional sixties sound. We have two of their LPs, 1990’s All That Noise and Melomania from 1992.
More droning guitar noise comes from The Telescopes, whose debut LP Taste was filled with thrash and thunder, before they went on to discover a more melodic side. Like many of the bands in this selection, they reformed to play at an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, in this case last year’s I’ll Be Your Mirror offshoot of the main events, held at Alexandra Palace. I saw some of their show, but have to confess I was a bit droned out by this stage, and went out to enjoy the incredible night views across the illuminated London cityscape from the top of the ridge outside. We also have the 1992 Moonshake LP Eva Luna, released on the Too Pure label, a band whose borrowing of its name from a Can track off the Future Days LP indicates another vector of influence upon the music of this era. Moonshake were formed around the dual singing and songwriting talents of David Callahan and Margaret Fiedler, whose divergent approaches created a productive tension akin to the blend of voices in Jefferson Airplane. Guitars were distorted again, but beats incorporated from dance music and hip-hop added new elements and colours to the base of indie fundamentalism. It was to be a short lived affair, however, producing just the one album with this frontline, Fiedler going on to bring her skewed and dark worldview to the band Laika (and we’ve got one of their CDs here, too, the Morton Subotnick referencing The Silver Apples of the Moon).
Over the other side of the pond, Pavement were offering a more angular form of guitar experimentalism, more in line with the likes of Sonic Youth, although their avant tendencies were thinly layered over a melodic sensibility which showed unabashed affinities with sixties pop and rock. We have their debut LP Slanted and Enchanted. Also showing an ear for sixties pop beneath the ringing layers of fuzzed up guitar noise were Dinosaur Jr, whose 1988 LP on Blast First Records, Bug, contains several songs which could be stripped down to their acoustic fundamentals to reveal the Neil Young or Byrds song lurking within. Or indeed, on some of the more stretched out numbers, the Tim Buckley song within. We have the double LP of the 1968 live concert, recorded in London and released as Dream Letter, with Danny Thompson on bass, Lee Underwood on jazzy, octave strewn electric guitar and Dave Friedman on vibes accompanying Tim’s crooning and twelve-string picking and strumming. Lovely, freeflowing versions of Buzzin’ Fly and Happy Time. Bob Mould, a member of 80s hardcore band Husker Du, really did reveal the melodic and reflective songs behind the sound and fury in his 1989 debut solo LP Workbook, which features an acoustic palette including keyboards, strings, and even cellos.
Finally, heading back across the Atlantic, we have two LPs by arch musical synthesists of the era. 1988’s So Good It Hurts by The Mekons mixes their punk sound with South American and Caribbean influences, along with a look at the politics and history of the area, whilst not failing to take into account the state of their own nation and its dissenting history on Johnny Miner and Robin Hood. The 1989 LP Red Water (or L’Eau Rouge – they provide a bilingual option) by Swiss band Young Gods uses samples to interpolate the occasional loop of classical or European music over slowly amassing, driving noise. The opening track, La Fille du Mort (the Daughter of Death) probably sets the tone. In all, a fascinating selection (and there’s more which I haven’t got around to mentioning) which offers a snapshot of a particular era, and a particular stream of music within it, as the late eighties turned into the nineties.