Rowland S. Howard – Pop Crimes (Liberation Music album, 2009)

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Listening, belatedly, to Pop Crimes, Rowland S. Howard‘s second solo album is hard to contemplate without considering that Howard was suffering with what would prove to be terminal liver cancer during its recording, passing away while promoting the LP. Nevertheless, that feeling of listening to a ghost aside, Pop Crimes stands as a strong final chapter in the musical career of an uncompromising musician whose work in The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party and beyond marked him out as an inventive guitarist and songwriter.

Pop Crimes contains six new Howard compositions, as well as covers of Talk Talk’s ‘Life’s What You Make It’ and Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin”. The album saw Howard working with JP Shilo (credited with guitar, violin and other general strangeness), bassist Brian Hooper (who also co-wrote the title track and appears on ‘Wayward Man’ and ‘The Golden Age Of Bloodshed’) and saw Howard reunited with former Boys Next Door / Birthday Party colleague Mick Harvey (here on drums and organ). Pop Crimes was produced by Lindsay Gravina.

In spite of his ailing health, Howard’s voice had rarely sounded so interesting, containing a gruff tenderness and the barest trace of a sneer at the very edge of his delivery, while his guitar playing drew on the same style of layered anti-playing – skeletal notes that descend into howling static – that made The Birthday Party’s axeman such a thrilling proposition. The two covers are cases in point. Covering Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene’s epic Eighties hit ‘Life’s What You Make It’ was always going to be a brave move, but Howard / Harvey / Shilo give it an added edge of grungy nihilism, stalking bass and droning organs augmenting a defiant, reflective but bitter Howard, the spaces in his vocal allowing his distinctive, subtle guitar riffs to feed through. As with all the best covers, Howard takes ‘Life’s What You Make It’ into new, uncharted territory, taking Talk Talk’s optimistic original and turning it into a darker, somewhat sinister paean to individualism. Meanwhile the cover of Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin” showcases Howard’s strangled vocal style, a world-weary but mysterious quality with doomed blues backing from Howard / Harvey / Shilo that sounds like a nag sluggishly bearing its rider back from unspeakable horrors.

Occasionally there are small moments of levity which leaves you with the impression that this LP isn’t uniformly misanthropic, even though it really is. Opener ‘(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny’ is one. A duet with Jonnine Standish of Australian Blast First Petite band HTRK, ‘A Girl Called Jonny’ is an occasionally joyous, mostly dark Phil Spector-esque ballad with simple organ and drums, and gentle bass from HTRK’s Sean Stewart (who was found dead in the spring of 2010). Howard’s vocal weaves alongside Standish’s detached own while whining guitar drifts alongside. ‘Pop Crimes’ is another. The album’s title track consists of ponderous bass, guitarwork that straddles Howard’s punk-blues licks from ‘Nick The Stripper’ and the searing feedback / noise of ‘The Friendcatcher’ while Harvey’s drums contain a jazzy swing which has that effect of lightening the mood ever so slightly. I have no idea what the lyrics are on about, but it’s delivered with a sense of muted anger by Howard and so I guess he’s railing at the pop music industry somehow.

Elsewhere there is a sense of the personal drifting into the songwriting. ‘Wayward Man’, with its great wedges of metronomic bass and carefully-wrought feedback, has lyrics that find Howard resignedly accepting that he can’t be the wayward man whoever he’s singing to wants him to be. The whole thing hints at rage, at darkness, like an updating of Leonard Cohen’s sinister ‘I’m Your Man’. Likewise, ‘Ave Maria’, which is an introverted, quiet and sorrowful piece, all fragile percussion and gentle layers of guitar, organ and plucked bass. The piece has a filmic, emotional quality, marking it out as a low-key but tear-jerkingly moving highlight of Pop Crimes. As the music fades away, Howard closes the track with the words ‘we didn’t dance upon our wedding day’, singly the most regretful thing I’ve yet heard in a song. Then again, this is the man that wrote ‘Shivers’, perhaps the most beautifully depressing song ever written.

The album was supported posthumously by ‘The Golden Age Of Bloodshed’, which is a wry, apocalyptic piece that is strangely cynical at times; white hot feedback is draped laconically across and through an bleak, sparse backdrop. It’s hardly the most optimistic way to close out an album, but if you had terminal cancer, with no liver transplant on offer, I wonder how cheerful you would be.

First published 2012; edited and re-posted 2019.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Plastikman – Sheet One (NovaMute album, 1993)

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Plastikman ‘Sheet One’ 2xLP NovaMute sleeve.

Released in October 1993 on NovaMute, Sheet One brought Windsor, Ontario’s Richie Hawtin‘s Plastikman onto the label’s roster, Daniel Miller‘s imprint effectively licencing the album for the UK and Europe from Hawtin’s own Plus 8 label.

While Sheet One became notorious for all the wrong (or right) reasons by the CD sleeve’s recreation of a perforated sheet of LSD tabs, with the requisite and implausible rumours that the sleeve really did have acid on it, what’s most surprising is that electronic music designed to be listened to at home or in a club, as opposed to merely in a club, was still a relatively unusual thing twenty years ago. Warp’s Artificial Intelligence compilations (the first volume of which had included Hawtin in his UP! guise) and the series of clever electronica releases clustered around them – such as Polygon Window’s Surfing On Sinewaves and Black Dog Productions’ Bytes, as well as early releases from sometime NovaMute signee Speedy J and Autechre – had paved the way for a new strain of dance music that didn’t require any form of dancing at all.

If Sheet One found itself dropped neatly into that whole Artificial Intelligence genre, it set itself apart by eschewing the notion that these tracks couldn’t be played in clubs. Throughout the album’s eleven tracks, Hawtin maintained a focus on pared-back rhythms more usually found on acid house tracks, perhaps slowed down a fraction compared to the then-popular number of BPMs but not inconsistent with the original tracks by the likes of Phuture from the decade before. Added to that was Hawtin’s love of the key ingredient of acid house tracks – the Roland TB303 – which gave these tracks an energy and vibrancy that most armchair techno seemed to forget to include. Okay, so the 303s weren’t tweaked as hard as Hawtin would do on, say, his astonishing remix of System 7’s ‘Alpha Wave’, but they nevertheless contained enough of a squelchy urgency to get most acid heads excited and if would only take a modicum of pitch-shifting to get these tracks into a more adventurous DJ set.

The other distinctive element on Sheet One, and the element that meant it was able to align itself with the Artificial Intelligence crowd, was the use of reverb. Everything on Sheet One is swathed in rich levels of treacly echo, giving the textures here a languid, atmospheric and vaguely chilling quality. That echoing aspect always reminded me of the eerie static hum that wrapped itself around Kraftwerk‘s Radio-Activity album, and for some reason also made me think of some of the haunting passages on the soundtrack to Teen Wolf. I used to study and revise to Sheet One and its equally-enthralling follow-up Musik, which perhaps credentialises the atmospheric quotient.

In many ways the central track on Sheet One is ‘Plasticine’, an eleven minute epic consisting of a minimal pulse, nervous bass tones and a 303 line that rises up seemingly out of nowhere, bringing with it a more rigid beat and a degree of dark energy. Hearing a 303 like this, where it is presented more or less nakedly, shows just how weirdly versatile Roland’s instrument was – even if it’s being deployed in a way that the manufacturer never intended. A breathy voice that seems to be saying ‘it’s you’ adds to the overall vibe of a haunted, alien dancefloor. ‘Plasticine’ has all the requisite rises and falls associated with most dance music, only here it’s elongated, extended and somehow much more emotionally affecting. The track’s final moments are comprised of deep bass resonances and a thudding remnant of what used to be the beat.

The similarly-timed ‘Plasticity’ is the other stand-out track here, with the sounds of aircraft rumble ushering in a echo-soaked rhythm and ruminative 303 melody. There’s a floating, shapeless quality to some of the other sounds deployed on ‘Plasticity’ – brief melodic pads, clicking, noisy interventions, what might be a euphoric yelp or an anguished scream – giving this a psychotic vibe that would have suited a desperate chase scene in a movie. ‘Smak’ goes even further – a dense web of heavy beats and brooding synths underpinned by strings that evoke comparisons with Laibach and samples of screaming angst.

Any uplifting quality is there offset by a far darker energy, ebbing away into ‘Ovokx’, which reveals the stark message to the world’s population sampled from The Day The Earth Stood Still.

‘Gak’ departs from the regimentation of the 4/4 rhythm and instead opts for a clattering, bass-heavy electro beat draped in layers of cavernous reverb, and double-time percussion that leans close to the skeletal bone-rattling that would come on ‘Spastik’, an effect which is also deployed on the urgent ‘Helikopter’. ‘Helikopter’ really does sound like the rapidly rotating blades of a chopper, layers of hard-spun sound rotating around your ears with an infinite swirl. In complete contrast, ‘Vokx’ is a quiet, stirring cinematic symphony for the scene that surveys the scarred landscape, the second half dominated by sirens, screams and panicked sections of dialogue.

Sheet One is an unsettlingly unique album, and one that knocked its peers out of the park, retaining enough of techno’s key energy rather than disposing with it altogether. Twenty-five years on, it sounds as sharply arresting as it did at the time, while other albums from the time sound positively dull. The follow-up album, 1994’s Musik, was just as attention-grabbing but leaned harder into a more scientifically-assembled experimentalism, highlighting Hawtin’s restless dexterity.

Sheet One was released as a CD and vinyl edition in the UK. There were two versions of the vinyl album, the 2000 copy limited edition picturedisc version of which is now something of a collectors’ item. In 2012 Mute released a remastered Sheet One in the wake of Hawtin’s expansive Arkives 1993 – 2010 boxset, ditching the original NovaMute catalogue reference (nomu22) and replacing it with a Mute one (stumm347).

First published 2013; edited 2019.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Die Doraus Und Die Marinas – Fred Vom Jupiter (Mute single, 1982)

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Die Doraus Und Die Marinas ‘Fred Vom Jupiter’ single artwork.

Sometime in 2009, Steve Lamacq interviewed Mute‘s Daniel Miller on 6Music. I missed it and forgot to listen again via the website, but Mrs Smith happened to listen. She told me that Lamacq had discussed his favourite early Mute release, and so I asked her what it was. She couldn’t remember who it was by, what it was called, only that it had kids singing on it and – and I thought this was genius to have remembered this – it had a catalogue number of MUTE19.

And so I rushed upstairs, grabbed the CD-sized Mute catalogue in which I mark the releases I own, and scoured for a record with this number. I was disappointed to find that it was ‘Fred Vom Jupiter’ by Die Doraus Und Die Marinas, a record I’d tried many times to track down up to that point but which never, ever seemed to come up on eBay, and I’d given up. That day, however, it was on eBay amazingly, and for a paltry fiver filled in a major gap in my collection.

Worth it? Absolutely.

Die Doraus was Andreas Doraus and a bunch of session musicians, while Die Marinas were a revolving group of kids who, on this track were Dagmar Petersen, Claudia Flohr, Michelle Milewski, Christine Süßmilch and Isabelle Spelly. A friend of Palais Schaumberg member and future Mute artist Holger Hiller, Dorau was barely eighteen when he recorded the sessions for Blumen Und Narzissen in 1981 in Düsseldorf for Kurt ‘Pyrolator’ Dahlke from Der Plan’s Ata Tak imprint. The album was produced with Dahlke and Ata Tak co-founder Frank Fenstermacher. The album’s packaging presented Dorau as a clean, good-looking pop heart-throb, potentially surprising anyone buying the LP given its amalgam of angular post-punk and adventurous synthwork.

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Die Doraus Und Die Marinas ‘Blumen Und Narzissen’ LP artwork.

The lead track from the album was ‘Fred Vom Jupiter’, written by Dorau and Olaf Maureschat. The track would became a massive hit amid West Germany’s homegrown post-punk Neue Deutsche Welle movement. The single was originally released by Ata Tak in 1981, while Mute licensed it for release in the UK the following year. In hindsight, that move looks relatively opportunistic to catch some of the momentum of the single’s success in Germany for UK listeners, as Mute didn’t option either the album or any of Dorau’s copious other output with Die Marinas or as a solo artist.

‘Fred Vom Jupiter’ is, at face value, a novelty electronic pop track, perhaps in the style of Miller’s own Silicon Teens project – the sleeve certainly supports this. However, that would ignore the harsher synths and noises evident behind the innocent German accents of Die Marinas’ ramshackle choir. If you do ignore these, what you do have is a blissfully original slice of early electronic pop which fully deserves its cult status as a collector’s item. It’s incredibly catchy like all good pop should be, although my knowledge of German is so weak now that all I can understand is the title which is sung and repeated at the end of the chorus; but its infectiously hummable if nothing else. The sleeve helpfully explains what the song is about: ‘From Jupiter comes Fred, the marvelous Kosmonaut. All the girls feel enthusiastic about him and want to keep him here forever.’

The darker sounds are explored more wholeheartedly in the pulsing, electro-industrial instrumental on the flip, ‘Even Home Is Not Nice Anymore’ which was co-written with Fenstermacher. The sleeve explains that ‘Fred has come home to his planet after his “excursion” to earth. But there he feels very lonely and realises…’ – realises what, we are not told. Whereas ‘Fred Vom Jupiter’ is a cute pop track with a bit of edge, the B-side is claustrophobic and edgy and anything but twee. Its beats speed up as the track progresses over its short duration, rising like pulsing jackhammers inside your head, a huge throbbing bass synth anchoring the entire track into a sense of panicked urgency.

First published 2009; updated and re-posted 2018.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

F.M. Einheit / Caspar Brötzmann – Merry Christmas (Blast First album, 1994)

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You can forget your sleigh bells, your innocent choirs of cherubic children and your saccharine-sweet Christmas tunes; your Ertha Kitts, Noddy Holders and definitely your Cliff Richards; your Michael Bublé and Rod Stewart festive cash-ins. You can forget all of these, because I want my Christmas music to be dominated by distorted guitar manipulations and clanging metallic percussion. Nothing says Christmas like an album of ugly sonic experimentations that straddle the noise and free improvisation worlds, right?

Einstürzende Neubauten‘s F.M. Einheit and Caspar Brötzmann collaborated on this album, which was released in Germany by Rough Trade and in the UK by Paul Smith‘s Blast First imprint (the UK edition is essentially the Rough Trade edition with a Blast First catalogue reference on a sticker). The pair would also work together on Brötzmann’s Home, released on Blast First the same year.

Featuring a painted tank on the sleeve, and with its title, I can’t help but think of the front line at Christmas during World War I, where opposing troops would temporarily put aside their own national interests in the far more humane gesture of playing football instead. I’m not a fan of football at all, but I’m a fan of conflict even less, and so it struck me as a beautiful notion to do that.

The concept of violence is clearly closely associated, either deliberately or inadvertently, with Caspar Brötzmann. Not just in the way he tortures his guitar and bass into anguished shapes and textures but also in the name of his group with Eduardo Delgado Lopez and Danny Arnold Lommen, Massaker. If ever the name of a band perfectly captured the dense racket they recorded, Massaker would be it.

There’s also the small detail of Brötzmann’s father, Peter, a giant figure in the realms of jazz, whose 1968 Machine Gun octet recording cemented the saxophonist / clarinetist’s reputation as a fearsome collaborator and threw down a new gauntlet for free jazz expressiveness. And as for Einheit, or Mufti as he was frequently known – any man who regards himself as a ‘street percussionist’ is no stranger to the brutal timbre of non-standard instrumentation, which is why his contribution to both Neubauten and Massaker was so aggressively essential. Oh, and Mufti is military slang for civilian clothes, so there’s another conflict connection. And that’s before we get to track titles like ‘Panzerkette’ (‘Tank Tracks’).

So, without even needing to listen to it, Merry Christmas was always going to have an aggressive sound. Even a tracks ‘Headhunter Song’ and ‘Stück Frau Das Uhr Spiel’, with their nods toward traditional blues riffs, find themselves punctured and infiltrated by clattering sounds and general noisy detritus. Elsewhere, any concession toward what naïve listeners might describe as ‘music’ is over-ridden instead by vague rhythms bashed out on goodness-knows-what piece of junk, guitars subjected to intense distress and duress occasionally at volumes that cause your teeth to vibrate in your skull, at others producing fuzzy scratches and squeals that start to make you itch all over after a while.

There are also moments, like those on ‘Panzerketten’, that sound almost ambient, almost muted, in comparison to other pieces, the effect on that piece being a restrained, reverberating soundfield littered with casual aural notions, until a loud guitar tone at about the five minute thirty second mark ushers in squalls of noise to close out the track. Other favourite subtleties of the noise guitarist are in abundant evidence here, including plucking strings just above the neck, the effect being crystalline structures that evoke icy textures.

Merry Christmas is presented as a single long piece, including three additional untitled pieces on the CD edition. The collaboration was recorded at Conny Plank’s legendary studio on the outskirts of Cologne in January 1993 and was mixed and released the following year.

First published 2012; edited and re-posted 2018.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Carter Tutti Void – Transverse (Mute album, 2012)

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The tracks that make up Carter Tutti Void‘s Transverse collaboration were recorded live at Mute‘s Short Circuit festival at London’s Roundhouse on May 13th 2011, and according to the sleeve (more on that in a moment) the trio of Chris Carter, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Nik Void prepared the pieces together in the studio and then played them live on the day. No-one else had apparently heard the four tracks that made up their performance, but the prospect of witnessing a collaboration between one half of Throbbing Gristle teaming up with Factory Floor‘s Void had people being turned away at the door. Transverse, according to the Mute spiel, is one of a number of concert recordings from Short Circuit being prepared for release.

The first thing that grabs you about Transverse is the sleeve, a simple Bridget Riley-esque repeated monochrome pattern which appears to move as you tilt your head, and which really hurts your eyes if you stare at it too long. Simple is not a word you could use to describe the music contained on Transverse, however. Aiming for the complex end of the sonic spectrum, Transverse consists of four tracks of thudding, heavy, hypnotic ambience loaded with edgy sounds, dark tones and industrial style noise infiltration.

The central point of reference in each case is a deep, pulsing beat, not dissimilar from some of Orb’s most dub-esque soundscapes, that beat providing a consistent backdrop for the more challenging drones, squalls, yelps and clattering percussion that litter these tracks. At times barely-controlled bowed guitar feedback from Void drifts into view; at others Cosey Fanni Tutti moans wordlessly as though experiencing some sort of dark religious euphoria; at others snatches of words swing into view; at others, thick bass drones dominate; at others it feels like each track might just be a tweak of a dial away from complete overload and ear-shredding noise collapse.

Overall, the effect is exactly what you’d expect from this trio. Factory Floor have been heralded as taking Throbbing Gristle’s legacy and bringing that band’s name to a whole new audience, while Chris and Cosey have been toying with industrial clamour for decades. The four long pieces included here are detailed, intricate and confrontational all at the same time, particularly suited to those who need more angst and unpredictability in their deep listening soundscapes. Unlike most work of this nature, the fractured sounds and feedback bursts suggest that this should be listened to really loud, allowing the bass passages to have a similar, punishing effect on your body as that monochrome sleeve has on your eyes.

The LP + CD edition of Transverse includes an alternate version of the CD release, the four tracks being augmented by an additional track in the shape of ‘V4 Studio (Slap 1)’, a studio version of the final track played as part of the trio’s Short Circuit set. The studio version feels more playful than the version played live, reducing the prominence of the bass and eliminating a lot of the reverb and resonance inevitably presented on the Roundhouse performance version. Pre-ordering the album from Carter Tutti Void’s own Sandbag web store also meant you could get hold of an exclusive recording, ‘cruX’ which was delivered as a download on the day of release.

First posted 2012; edited 2018.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence.

Camp Christmas (Channel 4 broadcast, 24 December 1993)

Title from ‘Camp Christmas’.

Twenty years BSG – Before Snow GlobeErasure‘s Andy Bell and Vince Clarke participated in Camp Christmas, an alternative Christmas show broadcast by Channel 4 on Christmas Eve 1993. The broadcast formed part of the British broadcaster’s New York-themed suite of programmes that evening, though what Camp Christmas‘s connection to that was now seems lost forever. (I only even remember that because the ident for Channel 4’s NY Christmas programming theme was to be found at the start of my VHS recording.)

Camp Christmas was hosted by Andy Bell and Melissa Etheridge and saw the pair shacked up in a log cabin amidst a seasonally snow-filled studio set, joined on their Christmas vacation by Julian Clary’s wisecracking wall-mounted reindeer head, director Derek Jarman (who died from an AIDS-related illness early the following year) and footballer John Fashanu. Christmas video messages were included from Martina Navratilova and Ian McKellen, the New York Gay Men’s Chorus delivered a humorous song from the Wollman Rink in Central Park while Lily Savage played the role of the party’s hapless caterer.

East 17 made an unlikely appearance – unlikely because they were more or less the only participants on screen who weren’t gay – and Quentin Crisp delivered a soliloquy based on an alternative version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In a programme filled with strange moments, Simon Callow (currently performing his own one-man Dickens show at London’s Arts Theatre) delivered a bizarre hybrid of Shakespeare and panto which is probably not the highest point in his career as an esteemed thesp.

Vince worked as the ‘musical director’ for the broadcast, aided by Martyn Ware and Phil Legg – essentially the team that worked on the I Say I Say I Say album that would get released the following year. The songs for Camp Christmas were recorded in the same sessions with Ware and Legg.

Andy sang three songs with Etheridge (‘Walking In A Winter Wonderland’, ‘Sleigh Ride’ and a very special rendition of ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound Of Music), a lovely solo rendition of ‘Take Me To The Emerald City’ from The Wizard Of Oz and ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, joined by the assembled studio cast on the final chorus. It’s fair to say that the musical moments are the points where Andy seems at his most comfortable, and Vince’s accompaniment is nothing short of lovely, blending wintery chill with analogue wackiness as only he knows how.

Still from Andy Bell singing ‘Take Me To The Emerald City’.

Music to one side, Camp Christmas manages to work its way from sublimely daft to frankly cringe-worthy. One such audacious moment comes with Pam St. Clements – Pat Butcher from EastEnders – pretending to be a fairy on a Christmas tree, delivering a song I don’t recognise about farting. It’s ludicrous, naturally, but Vince somehow managed to work his magic effortlessly, even on such a ridiculous piece of over-the-top cabaret.

Channel 4 have always had a reputation for adventurous programming, and Camp Christmas was unlike anything else that had been broadcast up to that point. Adventurous as it was for its time, and despite some dodgy moments, Camp Christmas was also pretty funny in the same way as a pantomime can have you rolling about in the aisles. And that’s in spite of some appearances that are every bit as wooden as the shack they’re supposed to be holidaying in.

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My VHS recording of ‘Camp Christmas’, 24 December 1993, complete with neat teenage fountain pen handwriting.

Thanks to Martyn. Several YouTube rips of the broadcast can be found online, as can bootleg recordings of the Andy Bell songs.

First posted 2013; re-posted for the holidays 2018

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

2018 Rewind

Last year’s experience of assembling a simple list of what I considered to be my favourite albums of the year didn’t appeal this time around, so I’ve broken down my 2018 into four categories – concerts, interviews, events and albums. As ever, these are all chosen from personal (and often highly personal) vantage points; it doesn’t mean that other things aren’t better – it’s just that these things appeal to me more.

Concerts

Reed & Caroline, Pianos, NYC, May 2018

Last year I wrote gushingly – and, to some, perhaps offensively – about Reputation by Taylor Swift, and this year we saw Ms Swift twice, once at Wembley and once at the Raymond James stadium in Tampa, FL. Mrs S. cried throughout both concerts (I got emotional too, okay?) and, after Wembley, our impressionable eldest / almost-teenage daughter immediately asserted, via the medium of her WhatsApp status, that Taylor represented someone whose values meant a huge amount to her. I don’t even know how to use emojis, let alone add a WhatsApp status, but I will say this (again) – Taylor Swift writes fucking great songs, is an incredibly important role model for young females, and is a sensational live performer. Feeling the concrete vibrate under your seat high up in an American football stadium as thousands of people register their enthusiasm is pretty hard to beat. Weirdly, I was asked some questions about my unashamed love of Taylor Swift (among other things) for The Electricity Club, which you can enjoy here.

I go to fewer and fewer concerts these days, but GoGo Penguin’s strobe-heavy show at the Royal Albert Hall was incredible, as was Barry Adamson’s confessional / big band performance at the Union Chapel, as was Daniel Blumberg at our local gallery in Milton Keynes, as was Nadine Khouri at Rough Trade East. Having a rare dad-and-daughter night out with our eldest daughter to watch Erasure in Aylesbury was a treat, as was her watching me interview Andy Bell for Clash by the bins at the back of the venue during a fire alarm immediately beforehand; it gives new meaning to the fabled ‘bring your daughters to work’ day. Watching Reed & Caroline’s cosy show at Pianos on New York’s Lower East Side in May was another memorable event in so, so, so many ways. More on Reed & Caroline further down the page.

Interviews

Daniel Blumberg by Angela Beltran

As a writer, you always strive to get an opportunity to tell those stories which deserve to be told but which somehow get overlooked. This year I was fortunate to be able to write some really important stories for Electronic Sound, from the weird circumstances of Ciccone Youth’s ‘Into The Groove(y)’, to the still-unreleased synth-heavy ‘Rubberband’ sessions convened by Miles Davis in the 1980s, to Space’s ‘Magic Fly’, to the DIY recordings of Thomas Leer and Robert Rental.

The piece that I’m most proud of, though, was an interview with Daniel Blumberg for Clash. Blumberg’s Minus was one of the albums that caught my attention the most this year, situated as it is on the crossroads between improvisation and Townes Van Zandt-style balladry. Interviewing Blumberg about his creative impulses in his kitchen / non-kitchen for two hours, watching him drawing in front of me, and having the opportunity to piece together his disparate interests while tearing up every question I’d prepared was a profound experience, and one I will never, ever forget. A few moths later I rewatched an interview with David Bowie on the Dick Cavett show around the time of Young Americans, and some of Daniel’s mannerisms reminded me of that, convincing me yet further that I’ve been privileged to have spent time with an absolute artistic genius. The Blumberg piece for Clash is here.

Events

Andy McCluskey – Sugar Tax Interview CDr

April, 2018, an Irish bar in deepest Greenwich Village: not unlike the three witches at the start of Macbeth, Reed Hays, Vince Clarke and I are scheming intently, over, variously, pints of New York tapwater, Diet Coke and Stella. We are talking about how we might promote the new Reed & Caroline album, Hello Science, which would eventually be released in July of this year.

Other than profound enthusiasm, I can’t say I really brought anything new to the table (other than maybe a round of drinks) but it was a massive privilege to have worked with Vince’s VeryRecords on that record nonetheless. After lots of conversation among us and with Caroline Schutz about the song’s hymn-like qualities, at some point I managed to get permission to share ‘Before’ from the album with the music teacher of my my eldest daughter’s school, culminating in a mesmerising performance by the choir at a very special evening event in June which you can see below.

Another professional privilege was being asked by Mute to host a live Q&A with Barry Adamson at London’s Rough Trade East in early November to support his Memento Mori career-spanning compilation. This is the second such event I’ve hosted for Mute, and I can’t express how much of an honour it is to be offered the chance to support the label I’ve been a fan of for so long in this way, other than to say, humbly, and rather feebly, that I feel incredibly lucky. The Q&A, which I cheekily described as “Memento Mori Jackanory” (to the amusement of myself and one other person), was also a form of redress for an earlier Adamson interview I’d conducted just as he left Mute, representing one of the first Q&As I’d ever done, which I still cringe at today.

This year I interviewed OMD’s Andy McCluskey for the second time. The conversation, focussed exclusively on the album Sugar Tax, will never get written up, and the recording will never be heard beyond three people – myself, my mother and my father. The catalyst was my father’s January diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, and the significance of Sugar Tax was that it was an album he and I would often listen to in the car on Saturdays while he drove around our home town working his own second job. I cherish those memories so much, and am so grateful to Andy for consenting so readily to sharing his own, highly personal recollections of that LP so directly with my family and I.

Alzheimer’s has made 2018 a tough year for our family, but music has often been the salve to the suffering we have all felt since his diagnosis.

Albums

The album I spent most time with in 2018 was O.Y. In Hi-Fi by Optiganally Yours, a duo of Optigan aficionado Pea Hicks and vocalist / multi-instrumentalist Rob Crow. By way of quick summary, the Optigan was a Mattel home organ / pre-sampler keyboard that utilised discs of pre-recorded loops that you could use to make your own songs. I’d have known nothing of this this duo were it not for the enthusiastic recommendations of Reed Hays, who used an Orchestron – a kind of grown-up, professional version of Mattel’s 70s keyboard project – on the aforementioned Hello Science LP.

For O.Y. In Hi-Fi, Hicks dusted down the original master tapes of the sessions that produced the various LP-sized discs of Optigan loops (hence the ‘hi-fi’ reference in the title), meaning – deep breath – that this album samples original material that would end up being used as lo-fi recordings on an early keyboard that sort of used sampling technology as its basis. Honestly, this album contains some of the best songs I’ve heard this year. Well worth investigating, as is a tinker with Hicks’ GarageBand-bashing iOptigan iOS app, just like I made Vince Clarke and Reed Hays do as we regrouped over drinks at that same Irish pub later in the year.

As I’ve said before, so much of album reviewing is, for me, inextricably linked to where I am at that precise point in time, whether mentally or geographically. Reviewing Erasure’s neo-classical collaboration with Echo Collective while sat in a hotel window overlooking Central Park in a reflective and lonely state of mind takes some beating, while listening to First Aid Kit’s Ruins while ‘enjoying’ a freezing cold work trip to Canada also can’t help but leave a mark on you (possibly frostbite).

Daniel Blumberg’s Minus is synonymous, for me, with taking apart and rebuilding our youngest daughter’s wardrobe as we relocated her bedroom in our house, while the fantastic debut Ex-Display Model LP just reminds me of an evening wandering the West End after work, watching while everyone seemed to be having a good time in bars and pubs while I seemed resolutely outside of pretty much everything.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence