Aches, Pains and Shivers
January, huh, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Music junkies mope about as they suffer withdrawal symptoms, being deprived of new releases. The symptoms are aches, pains, shivers, and the sudden urge to buy Brazilian drum'n'bass, or Tibetan singing. It's true!
We might dream at this time of year, dream of living better lives, finding love, or losing weight. One person's dream can be another's nightmare, as in Tottenham thrashing Chelsea. Perhaps we music-lovers dream of fantastic new genres to come, like Electro-Punk-Improv-Grunge-Breakbeat. Sounds stupid, but here come Sand with their new album. They'll be terribly fashionable for five minutes in March, I'm sure, even though (or probably because) they look stupid.
Sand wear boiler suits and gas masks. Very bio-warfare chic, oui? One of them even wears a leather biker's jacket, which is very '77 and all that. I forgive them because they make music which reminds me of loads of bands whose music I do not own. They sound like 23 Skidoo, Faust, Suicide and Napalm Death. They only sound like Napalm Death once, on the final track, and it doesn't last long, so don't worry.
On 'Airlock' they sound like Red Snapper until the grungy guitar riff and electro-fuzz merge to sound like Can getting together with PIL to form a Hard Rock tribute band. Sometimes they sound like Barry Adamson making Electro-sludge Metal. 'Body In The River' has a RAM-style b-line, in slow motion, before the mid-section goes up a gear, but only so far as to sound like lethargic d'n'b. And it's good.
Sand are tricky. One minute they're daft punks, the next they're hinting at Improv mixed with lo-fi Prog-beat circa '72. You know what I mean, don't you? I think I know what I mean. Their metal machine music (oh yes) flirts with history in a playful manner, but perhaps they're not joking. Still Born Alive is the first Album Of The Year. You can take that statement seriously, if you like. As seriously as you chose to take Sand.
The first electronic music my generation heard came out of tiny tv speakers in the form of the theme tune to 'Dr Who'. Ron Grainer's early masterpiece of Electro Pop turns up on Rough Trade's new compilation, imaginatively entitled Electronic. It's a double package that spans four decades but spends more time in those remembered by Rough Trade shoppers, unsurprisingly. Despite reading and, more to the point, sounding like an ad for the shop and the anoraks who shop there, it's a handy collection. It's also better planned than their CD racks.
I would have preferred a chronological order, though. Time is important historically. It's how we gauge what was done when. Perhaps that is too obvious. It would, however, have demonstrated more clearly the shift in attitude and style from, say, '78 to the early-80s. It's the difference between early Human League ('Being Boiled'), and their eventual mining of the Electro Pop vein. It's the (three year) difference between The Normal's brilliant 'Warm Leatherette' and Depeche Mode's awful 'Big Muff'. I can't believe I've bought an album featuring Depeche Mode.
Snippets of, er, avant-gardism from the likes of Cage, Oval, and Pan Sonic are thrown in too, just to remind everyone that electronic music could be more than catchy Pop tunes, I suppose. Not being a purist, or too snobby about my electronic music, I don't mind the fact that they haven't included long excerpts from synthesised conceptual masterpieces by Germans. Kraftwerk's 'The Robots' is here, of course, but no Soulsonic Force, or classic Detroit. Rough Trade shoppers don't go to clubs you know. Not in the common sense of the word. They go to rooms to watch knob-twiddlers and ignore the DJ. I speak from experience.
Autechre's 'Basscadet' still sounds great, almost ten years on, but the most fun to be had comes from two versions of classics from non-electronic fields. Schneider TM's take on The Smiths' 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out', and LB's injection of irony into the soul of JB's 'Superbad' are a real hoot. Other highlights include Throbbing Gristle's 'Hot On The Heels Of Love', a fetishistic tribute to Donna Summer's moan-along-with-Moroder, and Christian Zanesi's 'Marseille 2'. The latter sounds like an inter-galactic ocean liner in cosmic fog. Neither of which exist, as far as I know, but then electronic music's potential is to suggest the fantastical, isn't it?
On the whole I'd say that the balance between Pop and radicalism is just about right. There's early lunacy from Joe Meek, Prog from Faust, and more recent mousebeat merchants such as Dexter and Pan Sonic. Boyd Rice's Non project I can leave, but thankfully 'Out Out Out' is at the end of Disc 1, and hitting the 'stop' button rather than the 'skip' one is, as you know, much more satisfying.
Steve Reich may have influenced modern electronic music in the form of repetitive trance-inducing sound, but let's not blame him. Deep down, the soundtrack to modern clubbing is quite superficial, whereas a piece like 'Music For Large Ensemble' appears superficially simple whilst complexities unravel the deeper you listen. It's on Triple Quartet, which also contains 'Electric Guitar Phase', the title piece, and 'Tokyo/Vermont Counterpoint'. Less is more in the hands of a knowing minimalist, and less is less when it's the work of a dope who doesn't know any more, of course. Whilst performing my duty as a pioneering (ahem) DJ I was playing his 'Electric Counterpoint' (1987), when someone came up and asked if it was The Orb.
'Electric Guitar Phase' was written for a solo guitar, and it could drive you quite mad. But if you think it's just 'less', try playing air guitar to it and you'll find yourself lost in the realms of phased lines that repeat and interweave to form lines upon lines, running in the same direction. At first it sounds Kerrang-tastic, but if you can stay the 15min course (I challenge you) it develops/mutates/evolves into a trip of epic, trance-inducing magnitude. You haven't heard the like since Rory Gallagher forgot where his was going during an epic solo at Reading Festival in 1974 and played the same riff over and over again, with feedback.
'Triple Quartet' consist of three movements played by the Kronos Quartet. It can be played in various ways (by three separate quartets, one 12-piece, or 12 soloists who don't get on. OK, I made that last variation up). Kronos mesh three pre-recorded parts to form a fantastic sequence of swooping sounds which positively sing in a cyclical fashion, when they're not switching to Bartok-inspired angularity. On 'Tokyo/Vermont Counterpoint', Mika Yoshida runs the sounds of the marimba and xylophone through a Midi for extra fluidity.
All of these pieces repeat previous themes explored by Reich. His is the master of recycling sound-upon-sound and, you know, every wave is different. You can wash-up to this music, or allow it to free you from the tyranny of conscious thought and enter the realms of natural absorption whereby sound rearranges your brain, all without drugs. Sound-waves carrying melodic lines wash upon the shore of your conscious mind, phasing your brain. Sounds-within-sounds, waves-upon-waves (repeat variations for about 15mins)...you could go insane in the membrane just thinking about it, so it's best not to. Steve Reich is a genius. Most of the time.
© Robin Tomens 2002
Sand - Still Born Alive (Satellite Recordings)