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

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Body/Head – No Waves (Matador album, 2016)

The duo of ex-Sonic Youth bassist / guitarist Kim Gordon and improv musician Bill Nace continue their Body/Head collaboration with the release of a live album recorded in Tennessee in 2014. Titled No Waves, this is more than just your typical live album, being a headlong journey into the outer edges of music’s malleable core.

I reviewed the album for Clash and you can read the review here.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Kim Gordon – Murdered Out (Matador single, 2016)

‘Murdered Out’ is a new collaboration by former Sonic Youth bassist / guitarist Kim Gordon and producer Justin Raisen, featuring Stella Mozgawa from Warpaint on drums.

The track was inspired by Gordon’s move to LA and her observation that so many cars were being resprayed to a black matte finish, a rejection of expected norms and an anti-corporate, anti-establishment, undeniably alternative approach to life. Like that attitude, ‘Murdered Out’ is anything but conventional; everything here is fuzzy, messy and utterly non-linear. Distortion is used with heavyhanded abandon, leaving this track with the same black matte finish that Gordon was originally inspired by. There’s no doubt that the style of the track was entirely conscious and not as loose as it perhaps sounds, but nevertheless Raisen and Gordon give ‘Murdered Out’ a messy, detached quality that’s refreshingly ugly.

‘Murdered Out’ is available on iTunes.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Sun Ra – Brother From Another Planet (dir. Don Letts, BBC film, 2005)

Brother From Another Planet is a 2005 film by Don Letts about the inimitable Sun Ra, telling the story of the pianist and band leader as he migrated from a traditional brand of jazz to something altogether other.

Through contributions from fans like MC5’s Wayne Kramer and Sonic Youth‘s Thurston Moore, Ra biographer John F. Szwed, poet Amiri Baraka and sundry Arkestra members, Letts’s sympathetic documentary highlights Ra’s distinctive spirituality and his ruthless work ethic, as well as a pioneering approach to composition that found him an early experimenter with synths and electronics. 

Central Arkestra member and his devoted successor Marshall Allen recounts how intense rehearsals with Ra were, often lasting over 24 hours, with the band playing while walking from their communal living / rehearsal space right down the street to whichever venue they were playing that evening. Drugs were eschewed in favour of workmanlike discipline, even though, to look at the band dressed in glittery, space-meets-Egyptian garb, you’d think the band were off their faces the whole time.

Ra comes across as a sincere and avuncular perfectionist, using astral spirituality as a means of channelling the energy of his particular big band toward an enlightenment that it still might be impossible to fathom today. “People have no music that is in co-ordination with their spirits,” says Ra during the film. “Because of this, they’re out of tune with the universe.”

Thurston Moore, a massive Sun Ra fan and collector, describes Ra’s level of independence and massive body of self-released recordings as the original “music from the bedroom”; a pioneer of the independent spirit that would influence everything from punk to electronic musicians bashing out tracks from next to their beds.

Through archive footage, interviews, live footage and extracts from Ra’s Space Is The Place film, Letts paints a compelling portrait of this incredible, misunderstood visionary, the likes of which we will more than likely never see again.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Sonic Youth – Spinhead Sessions (Goofin’ album, 2016)


The full sessions for Sonic Youth‘s unused soundtrack to Ken Friedman’s movie Made In The USA have finally seen the light of day, some thirty years after they were recorded. In the UK the band had recently signed to Paul Smith‘s Blast First imprint and were about to release their seminal Sister LP after replacing Bob Bert on drums with Steve Shelley.

Despite the transition they were just about to make, Spinhead Sessions – named for the studio where these instrumental tracks were recorded – has more in common with the spooky atmospheres of their Blast First debut Bad Moon Rising.
I reviewed this for Clash. The review can be found here.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Liars & Saint Laurent – Women’s Spring / Summer ’14 – Collection VIII (30/09/2013)

A video from Paris Fashion Week 2013 showcasing the Saint Laurent Spring / Summer 2014 collection, soundtracked by an exclusive remix of ‘Mr. Your On Fire Mr.’ by Liars. The stark neon catwalk design also evokes the angular sleeve stylings of Liars’s WIXIW album.

Video:
Saint Laurent Women’s Spring / Summer 2014
Collection VIII
30/09/2013
The official Saint Laurent page for this video can be found here.

Music:
Liars – ‘Mr. Your On Fire Mr.’
Originally recorded 1999 and available on the album They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top (Blast First).
Remix and additional recording for Saint Laurent by Angus Andrew in LA, September 2013
Soundcloud stream available here.

Content (c) 2013 Saint Laurent / Liars
Blog post (c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

The Afghan Whigs – Up In It (Sub Pop album, 1990)

The Afghan Whigs 'Up In It' artwork

sub pop | sp60b | 1990

Released on the seminal Seattle-based Sub Pop in 1990, this was the first Afghan Whigs album proper – the future Blast First band’s ‘real’ first, Big Top Halloween, was released in a limited edition of 2000 in 1988, and three tracks from that debut are included here. Sub Pop’s quest to sign the Whigs caused not inconsiderable consternation among the likes of Mudhoney, arguably Sub Pop’s second most famous band, prompting their leader Mark Arm to start shopping the band around majors. His action was understandable given that Sub Pop were struggling to pay Mudhoney’s royalties, yet they were throwing money at the Whigs to get them to sign – a classic indie faux pas and one that Sub Pop certainly made more than once. In the end, the Whigs signed with Pavitt and Poneman, while Mudhoney defected to Reprise, just after Nirvana – Sub Pop’s most famous band – had signed with Geffen on Sonic Youth‘s advice.

With the exception of the three tracks from Big Top Halloween and the album’s final track, Up In It was produced by Jack Endino, unintentionally Sub Pop’s ‘in house’ producer in much the same way as Steve Albini / Butch Vig at Touch & Go, Martin Hannett with Factory or even Flood / Gareth Jones / Paul ‘PK’ Kendall at Mute, only considerably more prolific – Endino recorded 75 singles, EPs and albums for Sub Pop between 1987 and 1989. Among these was Nirvana’s debut Bleach, but there is little point of reference between Up In It‘s broad-brush rock appeal and Bleach‘s raw tone. Endino pulls off a sequence of recordings that is simultaneously highly polished and frighteningly urgent. It’s generations removed from their later work, and light years away from vocalist, guitarist and perfect front man Greg Dulli‘s later band, The Twilight Singers. The Whigs here comprised John Curley (bass), Rick McCollum (guitar), Greg Dulli (guitar, vocals) and Steve Earle (drums).

Up In It kicks off with the frenetic ‘Retarded’, which is perhaps the closest this album gets to the grunge sound that Sub Pop and Endino were famed for. Discordant guitars – similar to a Thurston Moore / Lee Ranaldo jam – and gritty vocals ensure that the album steps out on the right foot. Wah-wah guitar (and some additional guitar work that sounds dubiously like ‘Eye Of The Tiger’) ushers in ‘White Trash Party’, a swirling hurricane of howled vocals, grinding guitars and urgent cymbal-playing. ‘Hated’ on the other hand is an emotional melodic song that prove the Whigs were capable of producing sentimental music even at this early stage, even if the dueling guitars and turgid bass owe more at this stage to metal than soul.

‘Southpaw’ has an excellent groove and very muscular drumming, approximately a heavy dirge that manages to blend ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, Pixies and even the shrill vocal of Axl Rose, to surprisingly good effect. At under two minutes, ‘Amphetamines And Coffee’ sees the band tearing into a metal-influenced riff with some fretwork that J. Mascis would appreciate and stop-start drumming that would be captivating to watch. ‘Hey Cuz’ has a really clever sound, with Blixa Bargeld-esque spindly guitar cycles and a snare-dominated backbone, all of which breaks down into a very free and unstructured jam during which Dulli frantically crams words and vocal sounds into seemingly the smallest of spaces. With a great, melodic bass line and descending guitar melody (and tightly-controlled feedback), ‘You My Flower’ is another impassioned, powerfully-sensual rock song, finding Greg offering a tender vocal on the verses before growling his way through the chorus. Appropriately, ‘Son Of The South’ is a heavy blues number, which Jon Spencer would presumably be very proud of, and is certainly one of the best songs here; Endino pushes the bass section right up, and Dulli delivers an arch vocal on the verses over little more than the bass and drums before the howling guitars force themselves back in. ‘I Know Your Little Secret’ is nothing short of an emotive masterstroke, where rage is replaced with bitter melancholy.

‘Big Top Halloween’, ‘Sammy’ and ‘In My Town’ are all taken from the Whigs’ self-released debut, and are much rawer cuts, just a shade above demo standard in the production stakes; they do, however prove how honed the band were, even in 1988. The tracks were produced by Wayne Hartman. ‘Big Top Halloween’ is a classic heavy indie track, finding Greg in places providing a genetic link to White Stripes’ Jack White, while the band manage to sound like Dinosaur Jr. and Guns n’ Roses in the same three and a half minutes. Beginning with a melodic, elastic bassline, ‘Sammy’ is a heartfelt, lo-fi track with a killer sing-a-long chorus and lyrics that seem to blend genders at will, also deploying a fine harmonica solo. ‘In My Town’ is a melodic, jangly guitar track not wholly dissimilar to James circa Laid, with a definite folk / country sound. Back to 1989 for closing track ‘I Am The Sticks’ (produced by Paul Mahern), a muscular rocker with some very Rowland S. Howard guitar melodies, over which Dulli supplies a typical tonsil-shredding vocal performance. It’s a mysterious and sonically-adventurous conclusion to a gripping album. Not a dud track here.

First published 2004; re-edited 2015.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence