Sunday, June 24, 2018

Attrition at Valhalla

This one was an unexpected discovery on Bandcamp last week. One with something of a local connection. Six chunky slabs of dark industrial electronica from Coventry’s Attrition - aka Martin Bowes - recorded live at Valhalla, Wellington, six weeks or so ago. Serving as an ideal sampler for the work of a largely unheralded veteran darkwave act, it’s a very generous name-your-price download.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Fresh Miromiro

Ashok Jacob, who makes ambient “organic” electronica under the guise of Miromiro, is a young guy I had the pleasure of profiling for NZ Musician a year or so ago. He contacted me this week to alert me to the fact that he’s put an entirely new set of tunes up on Bandcamp, an album, Prachanda Path, which is a follow-up to the well-received Kembe Falls release. It’s also available for streaming on Spotify. Have a listen …

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Porky Post … Lost, but never forgotten: Win

In the first post of what may or may not become a regular series – ‘Lost, but never forgotten’ – our good friend Porky reminisces about Scottish band Win, beer adverts, and an album that should have made them world champions …

The Scots have a knack of mixing grimness with humour in culture, and TV commercials are not immune. One such ad for McEwan’s Lager in the mid-80s (clip below) was bleak and dystopian, and photographed in sepia. It featured a litany of people clad in well-worn rags pushing large boulders up a maze-like building, before dropping the boulders onto an assembly line. In the background was a tune that initially appeared to be yet another a synth-led electro radio friendly sound, but soon mutated into a bewitching pop tune with a magnificent chorus.

This was ‘You’ve Got the Power’, by a newly-forming Edinburgh band called Win, a name that’s short and snappy and maps out their ambitions.

More than halfway through this two minute-ad, the lumpen proletariat spot, on the other side of the screen (how that appeared can’t possibly be explained in such a short piece), some revellers in a bar, and use the boulders to smash through the glass and get the goodies (the pint). Smash the state, or at least just smash something to get a drink.

At this time there was a Cuban-style limitation on the lager you could get in Scotland. It was either Tennant’s or McEwan’s, with the arrival of international brands still in the formative stage. But unlike Cuba, these two varieties were utter pish.
The remixed version of ‘You’ve Got the Power’ used in the ad was the first spotting of Win, but the resulting single (all three issues) made little impression on the UK charts, after all the ad was only shown in Scotland.
Why they were even doing this ad bemused the uber-indie fanatic, but the rationale was very simple: Win wanted to be fucking famous and fucking popular and super fucking rich. Alas, they were none of the above, but that was none of their fault.
Win was formed in 1984 by Davy Henderson, the former frontman for cult post-punk band The Fire Engines, with fellow fire fighter Russell Burn and Ian Stoddart. Mani Shoniwa, Simon Smeeton and Willie Perry would also be band members.
Like many Scottish bands, such as the Beta Band and The Associates, Win’s musical style largely defied categorisation. Sure, there were plenty of guitars, but these mingled merrily with drum machines and synthesisers.
Win were bright and shiny, but the people behind Top of the Pops, the charts, and the record outlets, were always suspicious of acts that might try to gate-crash their way into their money-making party, and Win’s religious and Hollywood iconography, plus a love of images of disposable consumer goods, set them apart.
‘You’ve Got the Power’ contained lines such as “You’ve got the power to generate fear …. You’ve got the power to censor what is real”, which fitted like a condom on the lager ad, but perhaps not on Radio Happy pumping out good-time guff to get the drones to work on time and to keep them from resisting the urge to slit their wrists as they served another coffee or stacked another pallet during the day.
Another earlier single, ‘Un-American Broadcasting’, came with a flashy, never-pausing video featuring clips from over half a century of US TV and films, including Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, and the ad scenes in Blade Runner.

A 1987 single, ‘Super Popoid Groove’, released to promote the album Uh! Tears Baby (A Trash Icon), takes the frantic electro-guitar funk to another level, and in a celebratory, tongue in both cheeks vid, the band adorn puffed-out puffa jackets. 
‘Shampoo Tears’ was a great single, but was, of course, unsuccessful. ‘Charms of Powerful Trouble’ has tinges of Prince in his seductive way, and ‘Hollywood Baby Too’ is magnificent in its orchestral majesty. Yep, this is a classic album.
Uh! Tears Baby was voted into the top 30 (albeit only just) of both the Melody Maker and the NME’s annual albums review, no mean feat at a time when the weekly music press could make or break an act.
Two years later Win gave it another crack, with Freaky Trigger, and this time they were on Virgin Records. It saw Win sound slicker and glossier at a time when music was moving away from such concepts. There was a song about Dusty Springfield – ‘Dusty Heartfelt’, which is built on a chorus that’s both pure pop and as irritating as an itch on the rear that you can’t get rid of or scratch in public.
This was intelligent pop for people who dig tunefulness but had a snooty attitude about “quality”. Freaky Trigger is a mixture of songs that just don’t work and songs that continued the trend from the first album, such as ‘What’s Love When You Can Kill for Chocolate’ and ‘Mind The Gravy’, food clearly bringing out the best in them.
A year later they would split, though a third album was mooted. Henderson’s mercurial talents would be found in Nectarine No.9 and the Sexual Objects, where success was not a consideration - they recorded an album but had just 500 copies pressed.
Here's the irony-embracing 'Super Popoid Groove' ...


Sunday, June 17, 2018

Classic Album Review: Gary Clail & On-U Sound System - Emotional Hooligan (1991)

This one isn’t a classic in the mainstream sense, but it does qualify as something of a cult classic for a certain generation …
Emotional Hooligan is often heralded as Gary Clail’s debut album, but that fails to take into account a number of projects he’d previously been involved with as part of the wider On-U Sound collective.
And if we’re being honest, while Clail may take the credit as “the artist” in this instance, all those familiar with the work of uber producer Adrian Sherwood will be well aware of where the real art exists.
This album is an odd beast in that it is essentially the same set of musicians who recorded the End Of The Century Party album a year or so prior – at least the core of that collective, with dubmeister Sherwood at the controls – yet this one was released on the Perfecto label (as opposed to Sherwood’s On-U Sound vehicle) and curiously enough, this release was far more successful from a commercial standpoint.
Again, it is Sherwood’s standard template to the fore – dub, roots reggae, techno, funk, morsels of post-Punk, and Gary Clail “singing” (mostly ranting) politically relevant lyrics over the bass heavy kaleidoscope of sound. There’s a dance flavour to most of this work, with techno pioneer Paul Oakenfold recruited to remix 12” versions of the singles ‘Beef’ and ‘Human Nature’ (hear Oakenfold's mix in the clip below).
Emotional Hooligan was released around the time of the first Gulf War and references to the Persian Gulf and Middle East tensions are sprinkled throughout, George Bush Senior apparently fooling nobody in his quest for oil and the steps he’d take to get it.
Other issues like poverty, racism, social injustice, and greed are, as always, tackled head on, without fear nor compromise, and evidently nobody was safe from scrutiny when it came to this politically savvy bunch.
Outside of the aforementioned singles, both of which are outstanding, other highlights include the self-explanatory opening track, ‘Food, Clothes and Shelter’, which sets the tone of things to follow, plus ‘Escape’, and ‘Rumours’, while the closer, ‘False Leader’, which features sampling from a Big Youth track, is my pick of a very consistent set.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Album Review: This Pale Fire - Alchemy (2017)

Another review I had published in the May/June 2018 issue of NZ Musician magazine:
It feels like an age since Auckland’s Corban Koschak announced his arrival as a young songwriter of depth and eloquence on This Pale Fire’s debut EP, Dusk (2014). The intervening years have seen Koschak hone his craft and build a solid reputation on the local live circuit, prior to the release of this full-length debut, Alchemy, in late 2017. Alchemy resumes where Dusk left off, with a 12-track set full of gentle, emotive, acoustic gems of understated beauty, which mostly deal with love, loss, and all manner of existential angst. Throughout, Koschak, working closely with frequent collaborator and album producer Levi Patel, demonstrates an innate understanding of songcraft and arrangement. Each tune is given ample room to breathe, build, and develop a life of its own. From pastoral opener 'Northern Lights' through to dreamy closer 'Outro', nothing feels out of place or rushed. Each track benefits from rare attention to detail, whether it’s the range of instrumentation on offer – acoustic and electric guitars, keys, and strings, most notably, cello – or whether it’s the sumptuous production gloss provided by Patel. If there’s a slight concern, it’s that some of This Pale Fire’s work can tend to come across as being a little one dimensional in places. Much of this stuff is dark, intimate, and haunting, to the point where, depending on your constitution, you may feel like tuning out, or looking the other way, to avoid (what feels like) an element of rubber-necking on Koschak’s heartfelt personal pain. Or perhaps it’s simply the case that being able to draw you in so close in the first place works as the album’s greatest strength? Whatever the case, Alchemy is a dreampop masterclass, and a terrific debut from an artist surely destined for much greater things.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Album Review: Stef Animal - Top Gear (2018)

I had this review published in the May/June 2018 edition of NZ Musician magazine:

Dunedin’s Fishrider Records has a long history of raising a pointy middle finger in the general direction of all things orthodox, and the debut solo release of Stef Animal (Golden Awesome), the aptly titled Top Gear, is certainly no exception. Upon my first sighting of Top Gear, in immaculately packaged CD form, with the relevant equipment credits listed beside each track on the back cover, I wondered if it was a sampler release meant for an antique music shop, or for a sound tech, or at the very least, someone eminently more qualified (to review) than myself. It turns out I was wrong, it’s a fully legit album in its own right. More than that, it’s a superbly executed concept album with strictly adhered to rules and parameters in place. Not content with being fascinated by old keyboards and vintage synth equipment, Stef Animal is an unashamed collector, and on Top Gear she puts fifteen of the decadent old beasts, or variations thereof, to very good use. With one piece of equipment used for each track on the album (rule one), and each composition being written and recorded in one sitting (rule two), it quickly becomes an exercise in not only wanton nostalgia, but life-affirming wonderment. Sounds produced by the pre-loved likes of the Casio SK-1, the Casiotone MT-800, the Commodore Amiga 500, and the Atari 2600 do tend to have that effect. And while Yamahas and Rolands of various vintages will have you either wistfully reminiscing about the days of yore, or simply wondering what all the fuss is about, Top Gear’s coup de grace arrives relatively early, on a track called ‘Ducks’, which features something called the Cass Creek Electronic Waterfowl Call. Yes, it’s an electronic duck caller, no less. Experimentation, ambition, talent, and life in general, are indeed wonderful things. Sometimes it takes something as seemingly inauspicious as Stef Animal’s solo debut to remind you of that.    

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Album Review: The Cure - Torn Down (2018)

My good buddy Ron is probably the biggest Cure fan I know. Ron queued on Record Store Day just to pick up a copy of the band’s RSD special, Torn Down/Mixed Up Extras, on picture disc vinyl. Ron’s also something of a vinyl purist. To the extent that the download code he received as part of his purchase meant very little to him. I’m not nearly as fussy, and naturally I was more than happy to put it to good use when he offered it to me.

Therefore, this review takes no account of the album’s packaging or overall presentation, just the music as found on the Torn Down portion of the release, not the wider expanded RSD reissue of Mixed Up. The download itself offers 16 tracks of old Cure, revisited and remixed by Robert Smith himself.

Of course, it’s a full decade since we last had any noteworthy or new Cure material. Which means the band - in its touring incarnation - is now starting to resemble a nostalgia act, and is in grave danger of losing any relevance it once enjoyed. However harsh that assessment will seem to fans of The Cure. I’m certain Ron, for one, would dispute and condemn such blatant blasphemy.

All of that said, this release is a timely reminder of just what it was that made the band so special in the first place. Keen fans will note that Smith is nothing if not pedantic, or very deliberate, with his track selection - each of the band’s 13 studio albums contribute one track each, with the remaining three makeover choices being culled from three compilations (Japanese Whispers, Mixed Up, and the Greatest Hits package of 2001). This means we get a terrific overview and a career-spanning set of remixes, with no single era of Cure music finding favour over any other.

It’s seldom the most obvious choice of track either - who knew, for example, that Faith’s gloomy album cut, ‘Drowning Man’, could be given an entirely new lease of life thanks largely to the addition of several layers of glistening synth. That remix - the Bright Birds Mix - is certainly one of my own favourites from the album.

There’s all-electric takes on ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ and ‘M’, which strip away the acoustic elements of the original album versions, as each track veers into a most unlikely trip hoppy realm.

‘A Strange Day’, ‘Just One Kiss’, and ‘Shake Dog Shake’ all stay relatively faithful to the originals, before an injection of additional sax on ‘A Night Like This’ (the Hello Goodbye Mix), turns it into a strange blend of yacht rock and acid jazz, with trademark levels of angst thrown in for good measure.

The Edge of the World Mix of Disintegration’s ‘Plainsong’ is another highlight, with just the right amount of gloss added by Smith, enough to allow it to remain true to the original, while also benefitting from the additional spit and polish applied.

‘Never Enough’ is the only Mixed Up contribution to get a makeover on Torn Down, and it comes in the form of the Time to Kill Mix, which, truth be told, is perhaps a little less compelling than that original take.

At this point, I should admit, my knowledge of latter period Cure is quite limited. I’m a big fan of most work up to and including Disintegration (1989), but most of the 90s is a void, or a big black hole for me in terms of Cure releases. The epic Bloodflowers (2000) temporarily pulled me back into the fold, but after that - post-millennium - I start to struggle again when it comes to recall and recognition.

Which basically means there’s a fair amount of stuff on Torn Down that I’m less familiar with - tracks like ‘Want’, ‘Cut Here’, ‘Lost’, and the closer, ‘It’s Over’. This probably doesn’t matter too much, as each of these tracks hold some appeal, but the danger is, over time, across repeat listens, the Torn Down remixes will tend to become something akin to definitive versions for me. For what that’s worth, as it’ll be different for each listener.

It also means that the second half of Torn Down feels a little more like new Cure, for all that I lamented earlier the lack of actual genuinely new Cure material. Which, I suppose, must be a good thing, right?

Torn Down is a worthy addition to the band’s extensive discography, not least for the wide scope of the project, and for the superb attention to detail on offer. And as a nice sequel, or sister release to the hugely popular Mixed Up. Thanks Ron.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Porky Post ... Classic Album Review: Max Romeo - War Ina Babylon (1976)

Another guest post from Porky, looking back at a genuine roots reggae classic:

1976 was a pivotal year in music: reggae was its peak and punk was an obscure art school sub-genre just about to be turned into a commercial anti-art dogma.

While punk flared up on the streets of London, Manchester and New York, Jamaica’s capital Kingston was literally on fire, with uncontrolled violence and gang warfare occurring during much of the decade. Political divisions and tribal loyalty were fuelling the economic distress afflicting the island.

Reggae reacted by getting proactive and putting down a roots agenda. 1976 alone saw some exceptional albums from Peter Tosh, Johnny Clarke, Linval Thompson, Burning Spear, the Mighty Diamonds, Tapper Zukie, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, King Tubby, and the genre’s sole superstar, Bob Marley and the Wailers, with Rastaman Vibration.

So it was a tough time to release a record with the danger of any record falling between the cracks, but among all of the above, please add this: War Ina Babylon by Max Romeo and the Upsetters (but commonly just attributed to Romeo), with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry at the controls.

Romeo had experienced a burst of Warhol-esque fame/infamy in 1968 with a worldwide hit in Wet Dream, a song that really, like really, does not require any explanation. Then he grew up, became a Rasta, and saw the shit hitting the fan.
The music reflects the cover: a distraught woman holding her head in her hands with a handkerchief to cry into.

The magnificently roots reggae One Step Forward is a call to reject a narrow road to despair and urges politicians to take the “narrow” road to righteousness.

It opens side one, which contains the four heavyweight tracks that tie War Ina Babylon together. As we’re digesting the demagoguery of this, Romeo tears into Uptown Babies, a more accessible track, feathering the traditional pop modus operandi of musicians in other parts of the Americas, with a dissection of the class divide. For some, life isn’t a chore if you have a network of people to look after you.

“Uptown babies don't cry/ They don't know what hungry is like/ Uptown babies don't cry/ They don't know what suffering is like/ They have mummies and daddies/ Lots of toys to play with/ Nannies and grannies/ Lots of friends to stay with.”

How nice it is in Pleasantville.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks …

“Hear that little baby crying?/ Yes she's crying, she's crying/ She's crying because she's hungry/ You can hear her mama saying/ It ain't easy, ain't easy/ Ain't easy when you're poor, you see/ And speaking of life in the ghetto/ Where survival is the motto/ And putting it to you/ Poverty is a sin.”

Chase the Devil (later sampled by The Prodigy) begins with Romeo bellowing: “Lucifer son of the morning, I'm gonna chase you out of earth”, before it turns into this magnificent spiel on the righteousness of Rastafarianism and the dangers of turning to the ‘other side’.

Playing into the run-out groove is the title track, a spectacular, foreboding track that is up there amongst the best things Perry has produced – and this during a period in which he was positively hallucinating with ideas which he provided to Marley et al.

The second side seems almost an after-thought in comparison but neglect it at your peril. Stealin' (in the Name of Jah), is a gospel-style condemnation on the corruption of the clergy with an easy, swinging chorus.

“My father's house of worship/ Has become a den of thieves/ Stealing in the name of the lord,” and bemoaning the fact the clergy makes everyday sacrifices while the reverend drives a fancy car and “buys everything tax free”.

“Strike the hammer of justice/ And set my people free,” demands Romeo.

Tan and See sounds very much like the Wailers at their peak, with female backing singers; Smile Out A Style is back to Romeo’s late 60s early reggae sound, sans the smut, and the penultimate track, Smokey Room, is an infectious track with a hook line spitting out ‘riddim’ over and over.

War Ina Babylon is in many ways a snapshot of reggae; it harks back to the early almost soulful days of the mid to late 60s, to the movement to the political mourning; an expression of the anger of the Rasta people and also a nod to the movement towards the rockier sound of roots reggae at the time that Marley and his rump Wailers used to such effect after the ’73 split.

It was just the beginning of a tremendously fertile period for Perry. In under two years he would produce an impressive batch of albums, several of which remain classics, such as Junior Murvins’ Police and Thieves and the Congos’ Heart of the Congos. War Ina Babylon can measure up to those and many others and is an essential piece of the roots reggae canon.

Romeo and Perry fell out over this record (the singer apparently felt he didn’t get remunerated properly) and while he recorded for many more years (including working with the Rolling Stones), nothing quite touched on War Ina Babylon. I would also suggest seeking out Fire Fe the Vatican, an immense single that didn’t – but should have – appeared on this album despite coming out in the same year.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Karyn Hay, RWP, Music Month, and all that …

Last Thursday I attended a fascinating New Zealand Music Month presentation hosted by Nga Taonga Sound and Vision in Wellington, which featured a Q & A session with iconic former Radio With Pictures presenter Karyn Hay. It was the culmination of several NZMM events I personally engaged with this year (throughout May), and I was happy to be able to share this experience with my close buddies Simon and Ron, both of whom who share my passion for 1980s nostalgia of a local “grassroots” flavour … and other things, like drinking, football, and fantasy bands.

Radio With Pictures was an institution on New Zealand television throughout the 1980s, well in advance of anything like the 90s excesses of 24/7 MTV, and while other presenters like Barry Jenkin (aka Dr Rock) and Dick Driver enjoyed tenures on the show, Hay’s presentation across the mid-80s period has always been the most memorable element of the show, for me.

It was something I looked forward to every week. Its late Sunday night timeslot – just prior to the regular Sunday Horror feature – provided temporary respite from the horrific sense of dread I’d usually experience when contemplating the start of another working week. Quite aside from introducing me to a wide range of new music, the show would regularly transport me into another world, one I would otherwise feel very isolated from down here at the bottom of the world. It also championed local music in a way we’d never really experienced before, beyond the realm of student radio.

As part of the sold-out theatre/cinema presentation we were privileged enough to view a full episode of Radio with Pictures from 1985 – introduced to us as episode 15, I believe, although that itself was the source of some confusion for me, as surely there were more than 15 episodes prior to 1985? … with Hay herself having been involved with the show since 1981.

Regardless, this particular episode was a special one in that it featured women artists entirely, including a priceless segment covering the 1984 Women’s Performance Festival in Auckland. We learned later that at least one artist who appeared in that segment was in the audience with us. Other clips highlighted the extraordinary talents of Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Ricki Lee Jones, and the fabulous Patti Smith.

The post-viewing Q & A, or discussion, was both amusing and mind-numbing in equal measure.

The amusement came from Hay’s account of things like interviewing a brash (and drunk) Billy Idol, her frequent costume dilemmas, and stories around the wider DIY (and live) approach of Television New Zealand at the time. Plus, a mention of the show’s often bulging postbag, the correspondence viewers would send in, often just to voice criticism of her VERY Kiwi accent. One thing Hay emphasised, given today’s highly regulated environment within that medium, was the amount of genuine freedom both she and the show’s producers were given to do whatever they wanted. Radio With Pictures was all the better for that.

The mind-numbing aspect related to a couple of dodgy middle-aged blokes lamenting the state of “today’s modern music”, or asking moronic questions like “where can I source good music today?” … like Karyn Hay could help them with any of that? Clue: you can source good music everywhere, in abundance, on multiple platforms, in a way we couldn’t possibly have conceived back then.

For my own part, in relation to the accent thing, I was able to offer the perspective of a regular viewer who could dig her accent, with all other mainstream television of the era – beyond comedy – being presented in very correct post-colonial BBC English. Hay’s point of difference, her casual languid chatty style, or her “lazy tongue” as she put it, was precisely the thing that transported her into our lounge(s) … and that colloquial accent had a certain girl-next-door appeal, long before that style became popular on our screens.

More generally, it was a pleasure to get Karyn Hay’s behind-the-scenes take on a show that proved formative for so many New Zealanders of my generation. These days, at age 59, as a mother, an award-winning author, and current Radio New Zealand presenter, Karyn Hay is an unheralded national treasure. I’ll certainly be making more of an effort to check out her radio show in the future.


I know New Zealand Music Month has its fair share of critics, for reasons many and varied, usually in context of it being unnecessary and a little self-indulgent, but I embrace it for the opportunity it presents to celebrate our pop culture history. If we don’t do that, nobody else will … so what’s not to like?

Throughout May, on the blog’s Facebook page, I shared a daily “sleeve of the day” post, a local album or single sleeve (record cover) I had some sort of personal connection with, or felt some sort of affinity for, posting a short blurb about the sleeve (or about the music/each release itself). As I worked my way through the month, while contemplating each day’s selection, I was continually reminded of the broad base of genre local artists have established, musically, and in a wider artistic sense. Indeed, how incredibly creative a lot of those record sleeves (or CD covers) were/are. Of course, some have stood the test of time better than others, but even the worst of them are still able to inform, or tell us something about where we’ve come from, or to offer a glimpse back into our collective past.

Just a quick word on May’s Wellington Museum exhibition, Burning Up The Years, which dealt with the Wellington music scene 1960 – 1978. It was only a small exhibition, and probably not music month’s most high-profile event, but it was well worth a good half hour of my time. There were old gig posters, rare vinyl displays, band profiles, and interactive stuff like listening posts etc. The best thing of all? … big screen flyover footage of the city and central Wellington landscape as it stood in the mid-1970s, and a startling reminder of just how much development inner city Wellington has seen over the past four decades.

Finally, a shout out to DJ Bill E and the San Fran crew for putting on another ‘See Me Go’ event a week or so ago in celebration of all things “us”. New Zealand music, all vinyl, all night. Fantastic. You can listen to the (pre-gig) promo clip on Radio New Zealand at the link below:

Here’s Split Enz with ‘Give It A Whirl’, which just might be the greatest local thing ever committed to black magic plastic: