SWANS/XIU XIU

(June 24, 2014; THE READY ROOM; Saint Louis, MO)

The Ready Room (photo crdit: JASON STOFF)

The Ready Room (photo crdit: JASON STOFF)

At some shows I’ve been to in recent years, particularly smaller ones, I’ve looked at the audience as much as the performers, trying to gauge people’s reactions and suss out what kind of experience they were having. When you’re dealing with a noncommercial act like Swans, the Michael Gira-led entity that inhabits one end of the post-punk spectrum, you can’t help wondering about the fans and why this kinda assaultive sonic maelstrom appeals to them. This is not to pass judgment, as I AM such a fan. It’s just… why? How can long, discordant, punishing slabs of dark drone and indecipherable lyrics be life-affirming? Do you leave such an experience in a good mood, and just say to your concert-going pals, “Man, that was great!” the way you would after a normal concert? I dunno. But I did indeed utter “That was pretty amazing” to MY companion for the night, and I did experience SOME kind of catharsis. But I’m not sure what it was. I do know I won’t forget it.

Xiu Xiu (uncredited photo from June 20, 2014)

Xiu Xiu (uncredited photo from June 20, 2014)

I wasn’t overly familiar with Swans going in; I’d heard a few bits and pieces, and read some articles about them. But never had a chance to experience their sound up close before. Warning was given via a sign on the door that the concert was going to be extremely loud (helpful hint, that!), so ear plugs were clearly in order. But actually, I’ve been to louder, even though it WAS a punishing volume throughout. Things kicked off with a bizarre half hour opening stint by an incarnation of Xiu Xiu that included only founder Jamie Stewart. I’d been looking forward to hearing some songs from Xiu Xiu’s early CDs that I happened to own, but it was not to be. Stewart sat at a synth console and delivered a piercing monolithic tone that gradually got louder and louder, and gradually added other drone elements until it evolved into a squall of noisy dark ambient matter that was alternatingly hypnotic and tedious. He never said a word and never looked up, and I wouldn’t have even known this had anything to do with the Xiu Xiu I once listened to unless I’d done some research the next day. One thing’s for sure; you don’t see this kinda thing on stage in Saint Louis very often.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

The wait for Swans was short and, it’s pretty clear when you lay eyes (and ears) on a crazed codger like Michael Gira that you’re in the presence of a twisted original. It seems almost irrelevant to mention song titles, because at a show like this, only hardcore fans would care about such a thing. Swans “tunes” are really long, really repetitive and singularly immersive; variety is not what you’re in for at a show like this. But, okay… “Frankie M” and “A Little God in My Hands” were the first two tunes. Layered gongs kicked off the former, and your ears had no choice but to instantly surrender to the onslaught. I was distracted almost immediately by a comely young woman swaying to the sound, yes, swaying to a sound that most of my friends would’ve bolted from within minutes. Heck, I thought girls liked dancing to stuff with a beat and a sing-along chorus. But damn, even the weirdest and most anti-commercial of bands gotta have their female followers, I suppose. “ …God… ” began with a slashing, repeated chord or whatever you’d call the combination of tones that kicked this one off. I was reminded of Eno’s oblique strategy card, “Repetition is a form of change,” a notion that Eno pioneered and that Swans have seemingly taken to another level. No one would be able to lose themselves in this kind of sonic overload if it was truly just one continuous, unvarying tone but, the fact is, Gira’s band conjure a gargantuan symphony of strident yet structured noisetronica that is ferociously willful and ultimately transfixing. The crowd was apparently riveted, although one girl sitting next to me was peacefully reading a paperback novel half the time, and I wondered about her temperament. I wouldn’t have been able to get through a single page of any book with this kinda music in the background.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Gira has a trademark way of holding his hands out to each side, shaking them a little, symmetrically, sometimes with eyes closed. He’s a curious figurehead with his long hair and piercing gaze, and seems genuinely appreciative that he gets to do this sort of thing. My companion and I chatted about how this sort of music can only exist and, in fact, progress, if its makers are utterly serious and committed to what they do. Not an issue at all with Swans. The cacophonous “The Apostate” was next, and it was thunderous, with atonal chord play, primal sludgy ambience and a sound that struck my ears as “Da U WOOM/ Da U WOOM!” It went on for a long, long time and, again, I couldn’t help watching the Ready Room patrons, most of whom watched with rapt attention and, a few of whom attempted to move their bodies in one way or another to this crazed sound. I wouldn’t want to hear this sort of thing every day, but experiencing it live was a pretty singular experience. Something almost approaching “tonal variety” came with the song “Just A Little Boy,” which made me think of the eerie Talking Heads song, “The Overload.” Straight-up dirge-y angst, the lyrics go, “Now I sleep in the belly of woman/And I sleep in the belly of man/And I sleep in the belly of rhythm/And I sleep in the belly of love.” Maybe not manifesto territory here, but Gira is clearly saying SOMETHING, and trying to do so in the context of a long, assaultive drone makes it brave and interesting. It was actually one of the more emotionally resonant moments of the evening.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Fire trucks appeared in fromt of the Ready Room two different times, once early in the evening, and once during “Don’t Go,” when the flashing red lights got the attention of anyone near the windows (including yours truly) and made me wonder whether a fire code violation had occurred, or whether the crew outside had been tipped off about something that needed to be “watched” at this show. No doubt the attendance was amazing; the line waiting to get into the RR was thrice longer than I had been anticipating. Gira gets good publicity. Anyway, the sound slabs during this number were particularly intense, with two or three bass notes played insistently while granite chunks of guitar, percussion and keys were hurled out into the crowd with abandon. My mind wandered (and a few Shock Top drafts added splendidly to the mood), and I thought that if Gira’s story was ever made into a movie, either Michael Madsen or Guy Pearce would have to be cast as the lead. Scruffy intensity was definitely called for. The one-two climactic punch of “Bring the Sun/Black Hole Man” was sometimes evocative and haunting, sometimes poundingly nasty, with lyrics almost impossible to decipher (although I’d swear I heard the phrase “Joseph is riding” once or twice). But, hey, lyrics are not the point of a Swans song. Immersive surrender to the darkest of dark waves is more in order. And, actually, I left in admiration for the perverse, primal simplicity of what Swans have to offer. Though there is little pleasure or comfort to be had in a show like this, the catharsis is real, and the visceral release is palpable. It’s important for music to stake out EDGES to explore, places where few dare go and declare, “Okay, this is what’s out here in THIS place, check it out if you’re so inclined.” I’m grateful to have experienced that thing that Swans do, even if I’ll be scratching my head for a long time over what it means, and how that girl could’ve gotten through a good portion of her book with Swans as the background soundtrack. Each to their own in this world, truly…


CABARET VOLTAIRE: #7885 (ELECTROPUNK TO TECHNOPOP 1978-1985)

(MUTE RECORDS; 2014)

Cabaret Voltaire album cover

In the days of our youth (to quote that Bob dude from the New Yardbirds), we were continually in search of the next new and exciting sound (thankfully, unlike our hairline, that hasn’t changed!). Somewhere around 1980, we became enamored of an English synth-pop group called Cabaret Voltaire (after the famous Zurich night spot), via their excellent second album, THE VOICE OF AMERICA. In the next couple of years, they also released the exceptional RED MECCA album and an equally impressive double 12” set called 2X45. We thoroughly enjoyed (and continue to do so) these three slabs of influential music, at the forefront of a genre that also included Throbbing Gristle, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode and others but, as is our wont, we were soon off, exploring new musical boundaries once again. Now, thanks to Mute Records and founding Cab (and sole remaining member), Richard H Kirk, we have a purposely concise collection, highlighting the prime years of the band’s output. With #7885 (ELECTROPUNK TO TECHNOPOP 1978-1985), Kirk has taken a backward glance at some of the shorter recordings (in fact, the longest track, “Animation,” clocks in at around 5:40) from the band – compiling single tracks, radio edits and well-chosen album tracks – to give old fans and newcomers alike a taste of the growth and diversity experienced by the Cabs during that six year period.

Cabaret Voltaire (publicity photo)

Cabaret Voltaire (publicity photo)

The set starts with two tracks from the first Cabaret Voltaire release, the four track EXTENDED PLAY. Both “Do the Mussolini (Headkick)” and “The Set Up” feature industrial beats, a heavily processed vocal and stinging guitar, a sound that was instrumental in ushering in the post-punk era of rock music. The next three tunes exhibit the punk side of the Cabs: “Nag Nag Nag” is one of the great punk singles of all time; “On Every Other Street” is a killer track from the original trio’s first full-length, 1979’s MIX UP, a primitive punk stomper with snarling vocals; “Silent Command” is a dancey, jangley, dubby, happy single release from the same year… kinda like “This Is Radio Clash” or any of the other dub offerings from that band. A track from THE VOICE OF AMERICA follows. “Kneel To the Boss,” is an oddly minimalist dance track with moody, disjointed vocals. The single, “Seconds Too Late,” is slower, moodier and more repetitive than anything presented so far and, it’s the better for it. “Landslide,” from the RED MECCA album, has a slinky Eastern European or Asian feel that is very appealing (you can check out the entire RED MECCA release, too, as Mute has recently reissued it in a new vinyl edition). 1982’s 2X45 gives us the hard funk of “Breathe Deep,” complete with horns and a guest appearance by drummer Alan Fish.

The second half of the disc is mostly 7” mixes or radio edits, starting with “Just Fascination.” It’s got a creepy Aphex Twin sort of vocal thing going on… kind of breathy and menacing. The synth and bass are particularly menacing here. Following is a radio edit of “Crackdown,” which features a repeating, syncopated drum pattern and almost whispered vocals. The synth and bass are more spongy on “Animation,” a mood lightening dance track. The next two songs, “The Dream Ticket” and “Sensoria,” feature a rather hyper dance club vibe, reminding me of Thomas Dolby’s brilliant “She Blinded Me With Science.” From 1984, “James Brown” is exactly what you think it should be: A sweaty groove with horns and a funky wha-wah guitar thing happening down in the mix. DRINKING GASOLINE featured four tracks, each running over eight minutes. Two tracks, “Kino” and “Big Funk,” were whittled down for radio consumption. They’re both suffering from disco overload but, as the name implies, the latter is funkier and more adventurous, sorta like “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock from a couple years earlier. “I Want You” is a stylistic hybrid. Think Spandau Ballet meets Duran Duran. The final cut, “Warm,” comes from the 1985 record, THE COVENANT, THE SWORD AND THE ARM OF THE LORD (retitled, simply, THE ARM OF THE LORD for obvious reasons in the US). It is a rather unremarkable tune from a rather unremarkable release. We understand that Mister Kirk wanted to be representative of every phase of this period in the group’s career, but #7885 could have done without this last one. This really is a good introduction to Cabaret Voltaire. After checking it out, we strongly suggest that you delve further into the three releases mentioned in the first paragraph, as well as EXTENDED PLAY. They are, indeed, the pinnacle of experimental, post-punk bliss from the group.


ROMAN REMAINS: ZEAL

(HOT RECORDS; 2014)

Roman Remains album

Roman Remains is the electro-industrial pop side project of Leila Moss and Toby Butler of the Duke Spirit. With a sound that draws from the vanguard of the multiple genres that form the basis of their music, Butler and Moss weave an elegant and mysterious veil throughout their eleven track debut, ZEAL. The duo uses an old-school industrial base of such groups as Gravity Kills and God Lives Underwater (both bands that are much-loved and much missed by this scribe), augmenting that with an updated electronic sound that leans heavily on the pop sensibilities of (recent tour mate) Gary Numan and a voice that isn’t too dissimilar to Siouxsie Sioux. Mixing everything together, the result is something new, relevant and distinctly original.

Roman Remains (publicity photo)

Roman Remains (publicity photo)

The first track, “This Stone Is Starting To Bleed,” has that Gravity Kills vibe, while also reminding me somewhat – and I really hate to make this comparison – of the pop tendencies of Brian Warner, minus his “shock-for-shock’s-sake” lyrics and persona. The song also introduces an Arabic theme to the music, which is repeated throughout the album, adding to the mysterious feel. The poppier side of the music drives “Tachycardia,” a song whose melody wouldn’t seem out of place on a tune by Britney or Shakira, even if the lyrical nuances would be lost on either (well, maybe not Shakira… she seems to be fairly intelligent but, you get my drift). “Nest In Your Room” features an ominous, slightly ghoulish lyric (“Hold a thousand mirrors up to your nose/Comb your hair with the scent of a rose”) as the guitars and synthesizers buzz into a hive-like drone. This one definitely has the underlying menace that has always been present in Numan’s music. A dark, Gothic ballad, “Agrimony,” features uncharacteristically gauzy vocals from Moss amidst a minimalist backdrop, the various parts morphing into a very creepy whole.

Apoidea” ups the machine quotient, with more bleeps and wheezes and a heavily synthesized percussive track. With everything kind of going off at once, the tune sounds very disjointed but, a closer listen shows it to be a calculated risk amongst the other, more “standard” tracks. The next track, “Thirsty As a Truck,” has a calliope-like rhythm alongside an odd guitar signature and lyrics to match. “Gazebo” is a slow burning, taut ballad. The beautiful vocals and chiming guitar adds to the mesmerizing tension of the track. The Arabic influences are more prominent on “Influence and Atlas,” which features strong Middle Eastern percussion. The guitars and vocals also evoke the sound and feel of the region’s music. The occasional odd (as in, out-of-place) synth bloop actually distracts from the potential power of the track. A minor complaint for an album of such musical and lyrical depth.

Roman Remains (uncredited photo)

Roman Remains (uncredited photo)

There’s a sort of sexy menace that permeates “Animals.” The track is a fairly solid mash-up of Creatures-era Siouxsie vocals (not to mention the Budgie-style berating of several percussion instruments), some “clanging” guitar chords and a strange, modernistic take on traditional Hip-Hop. “Vulture Bird” starts with a serious horror movie minor key introduction and things just get weirder and more violently ominous as it moves along. Along with “Nest In Your Room,” this is probably my favorite (at least, as I’m writing this). A throbbing synthesized bass line and a pumping-heart drum beat, again, takes “It End In Other Ways” to a dark, dark place, a modern equivalent of the Gothic Darkwave music that all the hip young ghouls danced to in the graveyard a few years back. There are a lot of comparisons to be made but, in the end, ZEAL is emphatically, above anything else, a Roman Remains album. I, for one, can’t wait to hear their next progression.


BILL NELSON: GETTING ACROSS THE HOLY GHOST

(COCTEAU DISCS/ESOTERIC RECORDINGS/CHERRY RED RECORDS/PORTRAIT RECORDS; reissue 2013, original release 1986)

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I fell in love with Bill Nelson, his songwriting, his voice and his guitar playing in 1977, with LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE, the fantastic live release from his then-current band, Be Bop Deluxe. In the early ’80s, I rediscovered Bill through a pair of commissioned works for the stage – DAS KABINETT (THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI) and LA BELLE ET LA BETE (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST), both for the Yorkshire Actors Company – and 1982’s THE LOVE THAT WHIRLS (DIARY OF A THINKING HEART); the second commissioned piece was released as a bonus record with THE LOVE THAT WHIRLS… and stands in stark contrast to the album proper’s poppy New Romanticism. I eventually discovered Nelson’s Red Noise project during a trip to the used record bins at a local shop; I initially passed on those releases as virtually every review I read at the time called it – and I’m paraphrasing here – “A disappointing attempt at electronic dance music.” Anyway, after Red Noise, finding a new Bill Nelson record in the hinterlands of Illinois became an effort in futility; now, nearly thirty years after Red Noise, comes the expanded edition of one of the man’s most well-received records, GETTING ACROSS THE HOLY GHOST (called ON A BLUE WING in North America and Australia). The new edition features a remaster of the original ten-song UK version of the record, as well as a second disc featuring the two EPs culled from the same recording sessions: WILDEST DREAMS and LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT.

Bill Nelson (photo credit: SHEILA ROCK)

Bill Nelson (photo credit: SHEILA ROCK)

There seems to be a vague theme running through …HOLY GHOST… , a theme that reminds me of Sunday mornings in a small country town or village. “Suvasini” is a short, introductory ambient piece with a nice jazzy guitar running throughout; it leads into “Contemplation,” which features a snaky kind of guitar, some mid-’80s poppy keyboards and a slinky bass line (courtesy of Iain Denby). Bill’s voice has always been sort of an acquired taste; here, he straddles the stylistic line that falls somewhere between David Bowie and Bryan Ferry. The song itself is very poetic and lyrically dense (as in, a lot of words). The only part I find objectionable is a sax part that tends to ruin the feel of the whole track. “Theology” is closer to the esoteric near-rock of some of Be Bop Deluxe’s more experimental stuff. The number rather reminds me of solo John Foxx or, maybe, a type of Enoesque Ambient rock. Preston Heyman adds an industrial (as in, machinery) percussion thing that is very cool. There’s more of that industrial sound happening on “Wildest Dreams,” a happy kinda tune that also tosses marimba into the percussion mix. You know, I really like Nelson’s more experimental pop stuff but, I gotta say… I really miss his exceptional guitar playing on some of this material; 1980’s style keyboards just don’t do it for me, though there is a great violin solo from Peter Greeves. “Lost In Your Mystery” could have been an outtake from Bowie’s LET’S DANCE sessions. The music has a very Asiatic (in reference to the Continent, not the band) and pre-programmed (it all sounds synthesized) texture and feel; it’s a very laid back song with an equally laid back vocal from Bill.

In its original form, you could listen to those first five songs before being forced to flip the record over to hear the rest of the music. That’s the way I’ve chosen to review the first disc of this reissue, picking up here with the music on Side Two. “Rise Like a Fountain” comes across as an Adrian Belew/King Crimson kind of thing… if Crimson were an ambient band. Iain Denby chimes in with a great (fretless?) bass part, plus… there’s an actual guitar solo (short though it is). There’s an unfortunate BEVERLY HILLS COP/Harold Faltermeyer synth vibe (sorry, folks… great movie, horrible theme song) happening on “Age of Reason.” Nelson’s vocals are pretty good but, I’m not sure they actually save this thing, especially once the Clarence Clemons-like sax bleats (provided by William Gregory and Dick Morrisey) come in. Simply stated, the tune comes off as nothing more than dance music for left-footed mathletes. “The Hidden Flame” continues the dance floor goofiness, though some nifty processed piano and some funky lead guitar somewhat negate the damage. As always, Bill’s vocals are a highlight, as is the stinging guitar solo toward the end. “Because of You” is up next. Now, this is more like it: Great guitar, great lyrics (“Nailed to the cross of love/Because of you”), funky bass; this number could easily have worked as a Power Station song. The album ends with “Pansophia,” a very short (less than a minute) nylon-string guitar solo laced with minimal processed piano and ambient noises. So, in the harsh reflective light of nearly three decades, the first half of GETTING THE HOLY GHOST ACROSS fares much better than the second half, though there’s enough meat on the bones to enjoy this rather dated blast from the past, mostly because… well… Bill Nelson!

Bill Nelson (LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT)

Bill Nelson (LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT)

And, so, we’re on to the second disc of this collection as we ponder the question: What would a “Deluxe Edition” (or reissue of any kind, really) be without “bonus material?” That material usually manifests as a vault-clearing effort to delve into the artist’s psyche at the time of the recording of the feted release. Thankfully, the minutia that practice entails is eschewed for a more slim-lined package that includes the two EP releases associated with the 1986 album… a total of eleven tracks. Even though the sequencing here is kinda wonky, for the purposes of this review, our exploration will begin with the music from the first of these releases, LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT. Following the first cut from the later WILDEST DREAMS record, the seven tracks from …SPANGLED MOMENT – five of which were issued as part of the original English cassette version of the …HOLY GHOST,,, record – follow in sequence. It should be noted that this release is more of a “mini-album,” clocking in at a little less than a half hour. “Heart and Soul” is another synthesized, mid-tempo dance tune, featuring sax and clarinet solos from Ian Nelson. This is probably as stuck-in-your-head catchy as you’re likely to hear from Bill Nelson. Nelson’s minimalist approach to guitar-playing is once again the touch point for the title track, which is awash in various keyboard texturing, a slinky bass part from Denby and another Morrisey sax solo; the track is… okay… just not great. Though brighter in tone, “Feast of Lanterns” comes off feeling like an extension of the main album’s “Pansophia.” This longer investigation of that tune’s themes features some backward guitar alongside some well-placed harmonic guitar swells and ambient keyboard for a little added atmosphere. The result is quite a pretty piece of music.

Bill Nelson (publicity photo)

Bill Nelson (publicity photo)

Illusions of You” has a nice band vibe, very happy and bright. Bill’s guitar is more prominent here than elsewhere, which is a welcome sound; everything seems to come together on this track… except for Ian Nelson’s sax solo, which somehow seems terribly out of place here. With an almost somber kinda Peter Gabriel feel that belies a sprightly Denby bass line and Nelson’s vibrant vocal performance, “Word For Word” is a slow-build non-ballad. A neat Spanish guitar solo gives way to one of Bill’s trademark ambient electric guitar solos. “Finks and Stooges of the Spirit,” besides having one of the greatest titles ever, is quite possibly the best tune from this period of Nelson’s career. It’s an electronic rocker, with a dense instrumental bed menacing just below vocals that border on the dispassionate (think Gary Numan). Since I’ve been a little hard on him, I must compliment Ian Nelson’s woodwinds; they are an integral part of this wall-of-sound production. Bill’s reverb-drenched solo leads into a short duet with Ian’s clarinet, which really adds to the (intentionally) disjointed feel of the number. Like the closer to Side One of the original LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT release, “Nightbirds” closed out Side Two – and, indeed, the entire record – in similar fashion: It’s another short ambient soundscape, this time featuring Iain Denby on bass. For pure atmospheric effect, it certainly does a nice job, as it leaves the listener yearning for just a bit more.

Bill Nelson (WILDEST DREAMS)

Bill Nelson (WILDEST DREAMS)

Now, back to the top, with the “Wild Mix” of the WILDEST DREAMS’ title track. You know how I feel about remixes… don’t like ‘em. However, this one seems to have a little more of that industrial percussion that Preston Heyman brought to the original album version, as well as a more prominent bass line and… wait! Is that an extended violin solo from Peter Greeves? Okay… I may actually prefer this version to the one found on GETTING THE HOLY GHOST ACROSS. “Self Impersonation” (or, “Self Impersonisation,” as it was originally titled), which crops up after “Nightbirds,” is another ambient thing with some heavy percussion aspects (this time, by Bill himself, who plays everything on this cut) and just enough soloing and noodling throughout to remind us that Bill Nelson coulda been a big shot rock star guitarist. Up next is another version of “Wildest Dreams.” The single mix is basically the album track cut by a few seconds and featuring a more vibrant high-end (for airplay, doncha know?). It doesn’t sound too bad, removed, as it is, from the entirety of the album. “The Yo-Yo Dyne” is another keyboard and percussion piece, with a cool pipe organ thing happening. Once more, this is all Bill, all the time. The song has an odd, Reggae feel to it – not that Reggae is odd, just in this setting. A nice way to end the record, I suppose, but a tad too repetitive to be allowed to go on for five minutes. As mentioned above, this may not have been my favorite period in Bill Nelson’s career, but there is enough meat on the bone to intrigue.