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

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Various Artists – The Tyranny Of The Beat (The Grey Area Of Mute album, 1991)

Various Artists 'The Tyranny Of The Beat - Original Soundtracks From The Grey Area' CD artwork

the grey area of mute | cd agrey1 | 1991

The Tyranny Of The Beat – Original Soundtracks From The Grey Area was a 1991 compilation issued by Mute to showcase releases from its Grey Area sub-label. The Grey Area specialised in reissuing the back catalogues of Cabaret Voltaire (their Rough Trade releases), Can, Throbbing Gristle (plus various Industrial Records acolytes), Graeme Revell‘s SPK and many others. The label also became home to early albums by artists that had been signed to Mute, such as Nick Cave‘s pre-Birthday Party band The Boys Next Door, D.A.F., Wire and Einstürzende Neubauten.

The reissue programme conducted by Mute through The Grey Area inevitably produced a varied counterpoint to the releases issued through the main Mute imprint, through Paul Smith‘s hugely diverse Blast First (which itself, at times, also reissued plenty of older material) and NovaMute. Alongside The Fine Line, specialising predominantly in soundtracks for TV, film and theatre, The Grey Area represented a hugely interesting opportunity to hear some out-of-print releases on CD for the first time.

There days, at least nominally, The Grey Area no longer exists. Can reissues have never officially carried the logo, and whilst Mute remains the custodian of the seminal Cologne unit’s back catalogue, it is done in partnership with Can’s own Spoon imprint; Cabaret Voltaire’s latest reissue programme through Mute is done through the main label and consequently all releases now carry stumm catalogue codes, and Throbbing Gristle effectively bought back their work to reopen the doors of Industrial Records. The opportunity to reinvigorate The Grey Area upon securing the opportunity to reissue the Swans back catalogue in 2014, alongside the Cabs programme, feels like something of a missed opportunity.

The Tyranny Of The Beat then serves as a useful overview of what The Grey Area were up to at this point in the early Nineties. A small four-page flyer inside the sleeve highlighted just how comprehensive the reissue programme undertaken by Mute was through the sub-label – after all, they were effectively re-releasing whole or sizeable elements of back catalogues, not sporadic releases. The flyer also included some items that were planned for releases but which have never materialised – chief among these was the Robert Rental / The Normal live album recorded at West Runton, which Rough Trade had released in 1980 as a one-sided LP.

The sleeve also features liner notes from Biba Kopf, famed NME journalist and currently (under his real name Chris Bohn) the editor of The Wire. Kopf also wrote the copy for the Documentary Evidence brochure which inspired this site.

The breadth of music included in sampler form on The Tyranny Of The Beat is impressive, taking in the grubby pulse of TG’s live track ‘See You Are’, their Industrial signees Monte Cazazza with the truly horrible ‘Candyman’, a bit of early electro from the Cabs, the detached punk of Swell Maps‘ brilliant ‘Midget Submarines’, the similarly aquatic ‘Our Swimmer’ by Wire (still one of their best Seventies pieces), a truly ethereal piece by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert / Graham Lewis as Dome with A.C. Marias and the still-devastating Rowland S. Howard-penned ‘Shivers’ by The Boys Next Door. Can’s ‘Oh Yeah’ – one of Daniel Miller‘s personal favourite tracks – provides a rhythmic counterweight to the urgent mechanical production-line beats of Neubauten’s ‘Tanz Debil’ and Die Krupps‘s ‘Wahre Arbeit, Whare Lohn’. Dark relief comes in the form of SPK’s ‘In Flagrante Delicto’, a track which suggests Graeme Revell was always destined to compose the scores for spooky, suspense-filled films like The Craft.

Like a lot of sampler albums, The Tyranny Of The Beat can sound a little uneven, and whilst a lot of these bands were part of common scenes – industrial, punk, the terribly-named Krautrock – it would have been a pretty weird festival if this was the line-up.

Kopf’s liner notes deserve a mention, if only for the way that he positions the concept of a grey area as a place that people run to for escape or as a means of consciously assaulting musical norms, a place that both acted as a reaction against the regimentation of beats and simultaneously gave birth to the repetitive rhythms of techno. ‘In The Grey Area you get the sense of limits being pushed up against and breached,’ he says, and even now, listening to Genesis P. Orridge deliver a maniacal vocal over corruscating waves of sinister noise from a distance of thirty-five years, or Monte Cazazza’s detached multi-channel reportage of a serial killer’s victims and the nauseatingly vivid listing of the savagery he put those victims through, you can see exactly where Kopf was coming from.

Track listing:

cd:
1. SPK ‘In Flagrante Delicto’
2. Throbbing Gristle ‘See You Are (Live, The Factory July 1979)’
3. Cabaret Voltaire ‘Automotivation’
4. Chris Carter ‘Solidit (Edit)’
5. Die Krupps ‘Wahre Arbeit, Wahre Lohn’
6. D.A.F. ‘Co Co Pina’
7. Einstürzende Neubauten ‘Tanz Debil’
8. NON ‘Cruenta Voluptas’
9. Can ‘Oh Yeah’
10. Wire ‘Our Swimmer (Live, Notre Dame Hall July 1979)’
11. Swell Maps ‘Midget Submarines’
12. The Boys Next Door ‘Shivers’
13. Dome ‘Cruel When Complete’
14. Monte Cazazza ‘Candyman’
15. The Hafler Trio ‘A Thirsty Fish / The Dirty Fire’

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence