Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Magic Band @ Thekla, Bristol. Sunday 4th December

When rock visionary Captain Beefheart passed away in December 2010, he hadn’t performed live in almost thirty years. Tonight his desert-wracked boots are filled by long suffering sticksman and arranger John ‘Drumbo’ French, whose imitation of his famously cruel master’s strangulated holler may well be a form of exorcism. The affable French is joined by Magic Band veterans Rockette Morton (bass) and Feelers Reebo (slide guitar), as well as prosaically named newbies Eric Klerks (guitar) and Craig Bunch (drums).

The first half is dominated by frazzled good-times boogie, as the band warm up with a selection of the Captain’s most accessible work, although the duelling slide licks on ‘When It Blows Its Stacks’ hint at the mind altering intensity to come. French switches to drums midway through ‘Kandy Korn’ - leading into a series of tricky instrumentals that show off the musicians’ enviable chops.

It’s a turning point. When French returns to the mic the band are in full flight, and frenzied crossroads hoedown ‘The Floppy Boot Stomp’ kicks off a string of classics - ‘Moonlight on Vermont’, ‘Electricity’, ‘Big Eyed Beans From Venus’ – that are among the greatest in rock’s canon. Sounding like a titanic tag team battle in which Elmore James and Howling Wolf wrestle Igor Stravinsky and Ornette Coleman for control of the universe, The Magic Band take us to rhythmic and melodic places that few others have dared to dream of.

This review originally appeared in Venue magazine.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Multiverse Music

A feature I wrote for Venue magazine, based on an interview with producer Ginz, half of Emptyset, whose album 'Demiurge' is one of 2011's most impressive releases. He's also one of four people behind Bristol's all conquering Multiverse Music, which is what we mostly spoke about on this occasion...

What connects dubstep, ‘Transformers 3’ and cats with thumbs? The answer is a recording studio on Whiteladies Road, home to seven record labels and a music publisher. All of them are run by Multiverse Music, a four-man collective whose best-known member is Pinch, the producer of classics like ‘Punisher’, ‘Qawwali’ and ‘Joyride’. You’ll have heard his colleagues’ music too, although not necessarily in a club.

Multiverse was founded in 2003 by Rob Ellis (Pinch), James Fiddian (Fidz) and James Ginzburg (Ginz), an American who needed a visa to stay in Bristol after university. “I looked at my options, and the only viable one was to start a business,” he remembers. “But looking back at the business plan, it’s funny – by this stage we were supposed to be millionaires.” Multiverse might not have made them rich, but it’s been very influential, not least in the rise of dubstep. It was 2004, says James, when his friend Dickon (ThinKing) “started going on about this night in Shoreditch – FWD at Plastic People. He dragged a few of us down there and we had our minds blown.” Immediately connecting with the new sound, they used their Subtext label to unleash ‘Lion’ and ‘Pop Pop’, two stunning 12”s from shock-and-awe duo Vex’d. “We weren’t expecting them to sell”, says James, “because the music was obscure at that time, but they did well. ‘Pop Pop’ is still one of my favourite records.”

They founded Tectonic, which became the most important dubstep label outside London. It championed a techno-influenced strain of the genre, perfected on albums like 2562’s ‘Aeriel’ and Pinch’s ‘Underwater Dancehall’. “We were putting out seminal records that we didn’t realise were seminal at the time,” James says. “But to think about what we were doing as influential is to have serious delusions of grandeur.” He believes dubstep has moved away from the sound Tectonic pushed anyway. “We’ve put out some bangers,” he says, “but you’re in a club playing what you think are bangers, and then some kiddie starts playing the devil’s music and makes your tunes sound like... soft jazz or something. Nobody really likes the tag dubstep any more, because it bears no relation to what it was at the beginning.” Tectonic’s releases have since diversified, and Pinch is working on an album with maverick producer Shackleton: “I don’t know what you call it,” James says, “but it’s very strange.”

Definitions aside, Multiverse imprints have been involved with many of the most exciting club sounds of recent years, from October’s submerged techno to Baobinga’s good times, anything-goes ‘bass music’. Running labels on behalf of emerging Bristol producers is a speciality: “We started Kapsize for Joker, Wow! For Gemmy, Build for Baobinga.” Next up is a label for Guido, whose ‘Anidea’ album for Punch Drunk was one of 2010’s finest. Bristol is important to them, says James. “It makes a big proportion of the music that’s considered seriously in various genres. Before, you had places like Jamaica and Iceland, and you wondered how they were producing such a disproportionate amount of what you heard. When I came to Bristol in ’98 there was a list of influential names, but now you can just keep on rattling off interesting things that are happening.”

As Tectonic, Build and the rest push the boundaries of dance music, the re-launched Subtext is where they’re “taking things completely out of the nightclub”. James – who produced breakbeat and dubstep as 30Hz and Ginz – is half of “weird sound design and noise” duo Emptyset, and their brilliant ‘Demiurge’ album takes minimal electronica into the realm of pure sound. Paul Jebanasam, the collective’s fourth member, previously made dubstep as Moving Ninja but now concentrates on “composed music – a crossover between minimal classical and industrial drone”. They’re also working with Roly Porter of Vex’d, whose aunt is known for her mastery of obscure instruments like the ondes Martenot. “They recorded her playing various instruments and Roly created a universe out of that,” says James. “It’s simultaneously incredibly aggressive and blissful.”

As composers, they’re increasingly in demand. “Fidz is a pure composer,” explains James. “He wrote the music for the Cravendale ‘Cats With Thumbs’ ad. Then we did the trailer for the ‘Transformers 3’ movie – that was one of Paul’s.” They’ve also scored an advertising campaign for Lexus, and licensed tracks to films like ‘Children of Men’. “It’s not like we’re making jingles,” says James. “Film trailers feel like a culmination of all the weird stuff we’ve done. You can make alien sounds and big explosions and somehow it’s economical.”

2009’s must-grab Multiverse retrospective ‘Dark Matter’ was dominated by dancefloor material, but James says “I’d love it if in two years what we were doing was so diverse that you’d struggle to put it all out on one compilation. Hopefully that’s the way things are going to go.” The important thing is that the collective is sustaining for everyone involved. “It’s very difficult to make anything happen in isolation,” he says. “But when you’ve got a community of people who are doing good things, you can create a world that people connect with. Otherwise, you’re just throwing things out into a sea of stuff.”

Friday, 1 July 2011

Here Come The Sunz

Furious, foul-mouthed and frequently hilarious, The Bastard Sunz are one of the most exciting rap crews around. DJ Rogue and producer Rola Rok take care of the beats. B'Tol and Milestone – aka Tilla and Mylo – do the talking. They spark off each other like overgrown schoolboys, so it’s surprising to learn they’ve only known each other for a few years. Tilla “grew up in Easton mostly”, while Mylo started out in Plymouth. “Bastard Sunz came about from us both being the loudest and most upfront guys at a lot of the shows,” says Tilla. “We’re kindred spirits.”

Their 2010 album ‘Le Discoteque Martyrdom’ is a thrillingly fierce statement of independence from MCs who’ve paid their dues but aren’t afraid to highlight the scene’s failings. “It’s put a few noses out of joint,” says Tilla, “which is a thing of beauty in itself.” The most obviously controversial track is ‘Coup’ – a broadside against rappers who mistake political platitudes for insight. “It’s the tokenism of ‘conscious’ rap,” explains Tilla. “If folks are labelled as such, they tend to slide toward cliché.” It highlights “rappers who are on the dole who write about sticking it to the man, the lack of humour and self-awareness, and the ideological elitism that comes with it.” There’s a punkish irreverence towards hip-hop convention throughout the album, and they seem largely indifferent to rap’s big hitters. Tilla cites his influences as “Fat Club, 3PM, Wildbunch, Aspects and Numskullz” – Bristol crews to a man – while on ‘Top Rank’ Mylo baldly states “Pioneers can fuck off, my heroes are unknown.” It’s not hard to see why they’ve ruffled a few feathers.

Then there’s the bad taste. Bastard Sunz revel in it, and when they let rip – as on ‘Murder Factory’ – there’s enough body horror and violence to make a sadist blush. They find the ‘horrorcore’ tag hilarious, though. “Just look at the album artwork,” says Tilla. “Painting your face and wearing a wrestling mask shouldn’t be seen as mildly intimidating.” The album’s opener samples the theme from horror sitcom ‘Psychoville’: “an intentional nod to how we wanted the album to play out. We’re both pretty morbid in our sense of humour, but it’s a sample from a comedy, however dark.”

When B’Tol and Milestone get going, it isn’t always easy to tell where the joke ends and their opinions start, which makes their less guarded moments all the more potent. Tilla fires a warning shot against greed and self-corruption on 'The Shades', while the raw confessional of Mylo's 'Crescendo' deals with attempted suicide. There is a serious side to the group, then, albeit one that plays second fiddle to profanity, sick jokes and surreal juxtapositions. “I can’t believe some of these so-called conscious rappers are that virtuous 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Tilla. “If this is the ‘real’ that you are putting out, then you must be one of the most boring, self-righteous, indignant turd-burgers known to man. Do you ever laugh if someone isn’t blowing smoke up your back passage and telling you your 768-bar tirade on the ills of mortgage rates changed their life?”

The group’s next release is ‘Le Discotheque Remixicon’. It sees Sunz cuts re-armed for the dancefloor in a variety of styles, from the slamming electro-flavoured hip-hop of Awkward to the dubstep/drum & bass crossover filth of Maldini. “Superisk has given us what could be deemed a straight hip-hop beat with his unique, bass music tinged twist,” adds Tilla. “And Terry Hooligan has made some crazy, carnival-steeped breaks hybrid. Everyone stepped out of their comfort zone.” What we’ve heard of it so far is seriously impressive, and they’re already in the studio working on their second album proper with Rola, their “silent mastermind”. What exactly is a discotheque martyrdom, then? “It’s what British rap has become,” says Tilla. “People who should know better, myopically lamenting their woes to an audience of their peers. We want to re-engage the dangerous element, whilst also making it a bit of fun.” Mission accomplished.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Bristol Rock, St. Pauls Jammin'...

The year is 1980. Margaret Thatcher is at Number 10, youth unemployment is exploding and the sound of the inner cities is about to change British music forever. As an uplifting bassline emerges from a nightmare cacophony of police sirens and smashing windows, an accusatory voice calls “OK, Babylon… who pay your earning to set Bristol burning?” The song is ‘Riot’ by 3D Production. You probably haven’t heard it yet, but you should. ‘The Bristol Reggae Explosion’ is an eye-opening release from Bristol Archive Records, charting the city’s overlooked contribution to reggae. From the authentic roots style of Joshua Moses to the dub stew of Restriction, this largely forgotten music stands up with the best of British reggae – bands like Steel Pulse, Aswad and Misty In Roots. “Before Massive Attack and Portishead, the M4 might as well have been on Mars,” says Dubmart’s Martin Langford, who wrote the sleevenotes. “The people on this compilation didn’t reap the rewards.” Ironically, their rare recordings are now in such worldwide demand that “a nice copy of the Joshua Moses 12” will set you back £100”. In most cases, this is the first time these songs have been released since their initial small runs on vinyl. The album opens with ‘Bristol Rock’, a 1981 masterpiece by Black Roots. Inspired by the grave of Scipio Africanus at Henbury, it relates the experience of black Britons to that of a West African youth who died in captivity 250 years earlier. Haunting and provocative, it can’t have been far from John Peel’s mind when he said: "If anyone tells you that there is no such thing as good British reggae, first tell them they’re a herbert, and then listen to Black Roots.”

“We came from Jamaica at a young age,” remembers Jabulani Ngozi, the band’s rhythm guitarist. “We went through the school system in Bristol. We tried to get work, but work was not easy to get.” The band grew out of a soundsystem that played unlicensed ‘blues’ parties in St Pauls, and the community’s support was crucial. “Without it we would never have made our first single,” says Jabulani. ‘Bristol Rock’ was funded by proceeds from their first concert, attended by 1,200 local people.

Black Roots applied reggae’s language of struggle to Thatcher’s Britain. “Everything was going against the mass of the people,” Jabulani says. “We wanted to rise up against all of that. The music was there to ease that depression away.” By 1981 they were playing to 2,500 people, supporting John Holt at Hammersmith Palais, and they went on to record 10 albums and numerous sessions for Radio 1 without ever signing a deal. “EMI had an interest in us at one time, but they wanted us to go a certain way. They wanted us to make the lyrics a little more conservative.” While their uncompromising attitude limited their success, it didn’t stop them becoming a live sensation. They played with everyone from Jamaican stars like Eek-A-Mouse and Toots & The Maytals to homegrown icons like Linton Kwesi Johnson.

Their challengers for Bristol’s reggae crown were Talisman, a band from Easton. While both groups were big draws on the student circuit, they never played together, and there was a bit more to their relationship than professional rivalry. “It never came to fisticuffs, but there was definitely an extended vibes,” says Bekele, Talisman’s frontman. Archive Records' Mike Darby has described ‘The Bristol Reggae Explosion’ as “a personal crusade to get Black Roots and Talisman on the same record”.

With influences from rock and African pop, Talisman had a wide-ranging appeal, but they didn’t pull their punches. Their classic ‘Dole Age’ describes Margaret Thatcher as “a criminal” who “dig out me belly and cut out me tongue”. Talisman were a multi-ethnic group at a time when – in Martin Langford’s words – “reggae was seen as an fundamental part of West Indian culture. I’d be looking through the reggae section in a record shop, and black kids would say ‘you shouldn’t be looking at that’, but it cuts both ways. My African friends would get spat at in the street just because they were black.”

Bekele agrees. “The thing back then was ‘white boys can’t play reggae’,” he recalls, “so for us to have two white band members, that was unusual. There were very few white boys who could mix with a reggae band, or go to blues.” The mix worked in their favour, though, combining with their hypnotic live sound to bring in a varied crowd. Soon they were playing with bands like The Clash and Killing Joke. “The punk crowd identified with our philosophy,” says Bekele. The band’s crossover success peaked with a support slot for The Rolling Stones at Ashton Gate – “our one and only stadium gig” – but Talisman’s success as a live band didn’t translate into big sales. “We didn’t think about the business side – we just saw the audiences and wanted to play to them.”

By the late 80s, live reggae was in decline, and bands like Black Roots and Talisman began to wind down. The new digital dancehall style drew Jamaicans away, while Britain was transformed by a crumbling of cultural barriers. “Reggae defeated itself by infecting everything else,” says Martin Langford. “Hip-hop, house, jungle, garage… black youths had a new British identity, and they started creating music to reflect that.” Bristol’s music was particularly transformed by the rhythms and dynamics of reggae. As half of Smith & Mighty, Restriction’s guitarist Rob Smith went on to be an architect of the ‘Bristol Sound’, while Talisman have reportedly been cited as an influence by Massive Attack.

It’s hard not to see ‘The Bristol Reggae Explosion’ as a timely release. “I don’t know what other forces are at work,” says Bekele, “but the Conservatives are back in power and their policies are throwing up unemployment again.” Talisman have reformed, and are playing The Fleece on Fri 27 May to celebrate the release of their ‘Dole Age’ retrospective (review coming soon – it’s great). Meanwhile, 2010 saw Black Roots play their first gigs in 20 years, culminating in an emotional homecoming at Trinity. “We seen a lot of old faces,” says Jabulani, “still running and jumping and singing along like we hadn’t gone anywhere.” He’s writing songs again, and hopes to have a Black Roots album out by the end of the year. The message from both bands is clear – if people want them, they’ll play. As Jabulani puts it, “music is what we do, man. To uplift other human beings, to show them what life should be.”

This article originally appeared in Venue magazine. The Bristol Reggae Explosion 1978 - 1983 is out now on Bristol Archive Records.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Mugstar / Thought Forms / Vertical Slum @ The Louisiana, Bristol, Friday 4th February

Tonight’s three band art-rock pile-up arrives courtesy of Rocket Recordings. Vertical Slum’s Ian Green spatters volatile, Byrds-gone-garage guitar work over vacuum-tight rhythms in the style of Hendrix and The MC5. If Green’s singing packed the punch of his guitar playing, they’d be something else.

Superficially, Thought Forms recall My Bloody Valentine, but where that group used sensory derangement to connect with the world of dreams, the Bristol trio seem to be using it to invoke the spirits. Their stomp-box sorcery, ritualistic drum patterns and sparingly used female vocals bring to mind everything from North African desert music to the cosmic rock of Acid Mothers Temple. They could easily be Bristol’s best shoegazers, but they’re at their most thrilling when they kick off the footwear and wade into the deep.

Psychedelia of a groovier kind, Liverpool’s Mugstar were John Peel’s last great discovery, and they remain the best kept secret in British rock. Tonight they’re devastating – vintage psych guitar lines and whacked out Radiophonic synths probing deep into the universe; bass and drums locked in relentless forward motion. Irresistibly weird, yet fiendishly danceable –Mugstar are the house band at the end of the world.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Choke presents...'Minutiae'

I can't review this because I'm on it. I reckon it's well worth twenty-seven minutes of your time, though.

Here's a download link to 'Minutiae', a new release from Bristol's vaguely resurgent Choke community. It features 27 tracks - each of them exactly one minute long - in a wide variety of genres, from the dreamy indie-rock of The Sky Is Blue to the Wendy Carlos-goes-Happy Hardcore electronica of Alexander Thomas. All tracks were exclusively recorded for the compilation.

It's free. What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Youngsta Interview: Venue Meets Dubstep Royalty

Here's a little feature on dubstep don Youngsta, adapted from a Clubs preview I wrote for Venue mag last month.

Few, if any, have a better claim on dubstep’s throne than Youngsta. He championed the genre long before it had a name, and remains at the heart of the movement a decade later.

As his adopted name suggests, Youngsta started early. “I was 13”, he says, “playing garage on a pirate station called Freek FM'. Growing up in Essex, he was introduced to dubplate culture by his sister (Sarah Lockhart) and soon built a reputation for technical mastery he's enjoyed ever since.

Sarah went on to be a key behind-the-scenes figure in the evolution of the new sound, as head of Ammunition Promotions and Tempa Records. When she launched her club night – the legendary FWD>> - in 2001, Youngsta was an obvious choice to man the decks, and pairing him with Hatcha proved historic.

While other FWD>> regulars pioneered grime (and more recently UK funky), Hatcha and Youngsta gravitated towards minimal, bass-heavy instrumentals, tweaking the EQs for maximum low-end impact.

Before long, FWD>> and Big Apple – the Croydon record shop where Hatcha worked – became the focal point for a cavernous, dread-filled sound that rapidly outgrew its garage roots. “Dubstep was a bit darker”, explains Youngsta, with characteristic understatement. “I've known Hatcha and the Big Apple lot since day one. We've all been there from the beginning, watching the sound and the scene grow”.

Now 25, Youngsta remains one of dubstep’s most wanted. He is still the only person to have contributed two mixes to the Dubstep Allstars series, both of which were key releases in the genre's development. His forays into production include a darkside collaboration with dubstep producers-of-the-moment Kryptic Minds, which has already yielded the excellent 'Cold Blooded' / 'Surge', with more to come in the new year. A 12" with SP:MC (working title: 'Unidentified') is out now, while the buzz surrounding his next release – a mix CD for Rinse due “early next year” - is proof he's survived a decade in which dubstep has grown from an eccentric splinter of garage to the international phenomenon it is today.

If peers like Kode 9 have distanced themselves from the dubstep juggernaut, Youngsta remains passionate and optimistic. The genre's success “has not surprised” him, and he's as comfortable with “good jump up” as he is with “minimal and deep”. It’s this inclusive, discerning approach that makes Youngsta’s Thursday night Rinse FM sessions essential listening at a time when the scene sometimes looks to have fragmented beyond repair. Club sets see bedroom DJs crowd around his booth to learn from the master: “it’s nice that people show an interest”, he says modestly.

Despite expressing a growing interest in house and techno - "who knows what I will play in five or ten years?" - Youngsta says his priority is “the latest unreleased tracks of the dubstep scene”, adding “I don't play anything I don't like, and I don't play tunes for the crowd just because they're big at the time”. Listen, and learn.

Rinse (13?) mixed by Youngsta out early 2011.
Listen to Youngsta's show on Rinse FM, thursdays 9pm - 11pm.

Youngsta pic copyright Shaun Bloodworthy.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Anika - 'Anika' (Invada Records) - Best album of last year?

Not that any of you should care, but right up to the end of November I was torn between Guido's 'Anidea' (which I reviewed here) and Darkstar's 'North' (which I didn't) for album of the year. Both are brilliant, but for me neither of them summed up the disorientating character of 2010, in music as in life. Then Anika showed up with one of those classics that always seem to arrive just as the year starts fading out...

On first listen, 'Anika' pushes an unlikely
combination of retro buttons - 60s 'death discs', the existential dub-noise of P.I.L, E.S.G's schoolyard funk - but soon coalesces into something greater than the sum of its parts. Co-written with Portishead's Geoff Barrow and his band Beak>>, it's a throwback to the genre splicing of the post-punk era, and stands comparison with the best of it.

A large part of that is down to Anika herself, whose restrained vocals focus attention on the words. The album's largely comprised of covers, which combine to create a picture as bleak as the post-Iraq, post-crash, Cameron Age world outside.

The singer's precise diction and no-frills performance (recalling surreal New Wave diva Gina X) put her deliciously at odds with the mainstream, not least the karaoke wailing of stage school twats beloved of record companies everywhere. In this well worth reading interview with the singer, Julian Owen called Anika "the Anti-Nico", but she's also the Anti-Duffy. Both on record and in person, her performances are intense, ambiguous, unshowy - anything but a repertoire of hackneyed songbird tics.

While she and the band treat Twinkle's tragic love song 'Terry' with respect, the other covers are twisted until you can barely remember how they sounded before. Skeeter Davis's easy listening ballad 'The End of The World' becomes the statement of deranged grief it was always meant to be, while Yoko Ono's 'Yang Yang' - filtered through sound system dub and 90s Hip Hop - is transformed into an anthem for the new #solidarity. Or maybe that's just me. Whatever it means, it's one of the year's most exciting tracks.

And that's what makes this album so fascinating. It's pieced together from such disparate sources and performed so inscrutably that you're forced to explain it yourself. It begs a whole load of questions and answers none of them. It hints at a bigger picture, but never spills its guts. It might even be a joke at the expense of people like me who are prone to talking about things they should be listening to.
It's a mystery, in other words - and that's what music's all about.

Blood Red Sounds rating 9/10. Listen to the album here.

Here's a review I wrote of Anika and Beak>>'s recent Bristol show, which included a cover of Nirvana's 'Love Buzz' that was definitely a joke. Wasn't it?