• An Unnerving Calm

    23 Abr 2010, 12:29

    In Gut's House by UT (1987)

    If five stars seems excessive for an album of squeaks, yelps and scrapes, then consider this: beauty is not a well-defined concept. To ask someone, "Isn’t that beautiful?" is to invite them into a shared viewpoint, one they might not have previously considered. Yes, that person is not conventionally good-looking, yet there is something intensely moving about how he holds himself; a fragility which fascinates the viewer, and which his portrait has somehow captured. If you'll allow that feeling in. Many don’t, and who can blame them? Fear is a scary thing.

    I loved the idea of Ut - three noisy women who swapped instruments and argued on stage - before I ever heard them play a note, but I had to learn to love them for real once I got over the disappointment of their not being as I'd imagined. Not all that noisy, actually. Not in a crushing, masculine way, at any rate. And not a Throwing Muses precursor, either, except perhaps in their best-known, misleading song, Evangelist, which opens In Gut's House. Get the skew-pop over early, girls, then on with the show.

    It's almost impossible to describe what you will find when you do allow yourself to enter these kaleidoscopic corridors, these labyrinths of unease. It is fairly easy to point to the New York No-Wave scene of the early 80s as the garden from which these fracturing sounds sprang; we can look at the freedom of rhythmic invention those times allowed, when every sub-beat was not micro-timed and synchronized, when pop's permitted patterns were yet to be fully described in terms of the histories of two monoliths called "Rock" and "Dance"; we might point to their deliberate relocation in the early 80s from the disco-bound US to an England which still permitted the perverse likes of The Fall to persist; we could try to describe Jacqui Ham's forlorn scat in terms of freed female contemporaries such as Gina Birch (The Raincoats) or Ari Up (The Slits); we could mention a subsequent lineage perhaps taking in Babes in Toyland, PJ Harvey, Huggy Bear, Coping Saw and Katastrophy Wife. These things get us somewhere close to what Ut sound like before our moment of surrender, but they are just circumstances. Every truly great band transcends their medium, and, like fellow No-Wave refugees and labelmates Sonic Youth, Ut were - ultimately, completely, indelibly – themselves.

    Ut is an invitation to do nothing less than re-hear music itself. Where noiseniks like Glenn Branca and Michael Gira embraced nihilism, Ut's art is closer to avant-gardists like Stockhausen and Cage who pointed towards the Zen stillness at the heart of life, while celebrating its chaos. The world according to Ham, Canal and Young is undeniably a restless place – witness ID's jagged drums, the darting vocal and harmonica stabs on Mosquito Botticelli, guitar gravel scattered all over Swallow. But over and above this there is an unnerving calm. Like one of the moving cities in Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines saga, every song is an awe-striking leviathan, slow to wake but unstoppable in its crocodilian movements, accompanied by the rattling of Handre-teeth. The album reaches its stumbling peak on side three of what was originally packaged as a double twelve-inch: Homebled is all rickety violin and soft guitar clawings under a plangent Ham monologue, while Shut Fog is catacomb-dark and arachnophobic; both songs oozing such sweet, sweet resignation all that can be done is to hold on for life itself. The album ends, surprisingly perhaps, with a sunrise – Landscape's interpenetrating ice-planes suddenly meltwater under a sustaining yellow crayon guitar sun.

    While they went on to produce a more muscularly powerful record, Griller, which scored more points with the hip-watchers, it is In Gut's House – in all its sullen, cracked beauty – that will still be there a thousand years from now.

    Reposted from
  • Buried Under Ice

    28 Ago 2008, 6:46

    Gary Numan faced a hail of bullets almost as soon as he landed in the UK music scene (a precisely definable, pre-watercooler moment: Tubeway Army’s first appearance on Top Of The Pops in 1979 with ‘Are 'Friends' Electric?’). To an already music-mad 12-year-old hearing a starkly-synthesized Devil’s Interval for the first time, it was obvious that something special and important had occurred; but for the music press of the time, to lampoon and lambast Numan for his makeup, his ambiguous sexuality and his obsession with William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick was a point of honour, even before his various aeroplane-related calamities made it mandatory.

    I continued to enjoy his music for several years, from the raw guitar and assault of his early work to later, more sophisticated layerings. But when I left home I also left my Numan cassettes to rot; and unlike most of the other sounds from my childhood I have not successfully revisited and re-absorbed these alien outpurings. Until now.

    God bless bittorrent! Downloading an artist’s entire output in one hit is not usually a great idea; you get overwhelmed by quantity rather than by specifics, the natural accretion of taste. But when you already have hindbrain knowledge of the material, what better way to fill your MP3? (Especially if you already paid for it all once, long ago – or, in the case of Dance, three times in various formats.) In fact with Numan I didn’t actually download all of it – the eight studio albums I know and contemporaneous extra material is quite enough to be going on with.

    It is a strange feeling, though, hearing this body of work with which I am familiar to the point of trainspotterishness for the first time in twenty years. It’s like meeting someone of whom you have carnal knowledge, many years after they have made a new life for themselves; critical faculties are on overdrive, but there is tenderness underneath, and you forgive the blemishes.

    Some impressions:
    There is a greater variety of moods than I remember – from the expected icily self-pitying ballads (‘M.E.’) to head-shearing guitar riffage (‘Steel and You’), from mournful violin-soaked wailing (‘Complex’) to cringe-making wank-songs (‘Everyday I Die’), from the disposably funky ('Films') to the spookily abstract (‘Telekon’).

    The recent discovery that Numan has been diagnosed with Asperge's Syndrome sheds a different light on his imagined Burroughsian futures; is as capable a writing mode as any, and the perfect vehicle for expressing the lonely present that a young man who finds intimacy difficult must inhabit. Many of the songs are painfully literal: ‘Me, I Disconnect From You’, “I’m never gonna trust you too far” (‘Blue Eyes’). There is also more intentional humour that a non-Numanoid might imagine - “I plug my wife in just for show” (‘I Dream of Wires’), “My dog runs AWOL/ I blame you all” (‘Telekon’).

    Tubeway Army, is as good as I remember it. Raw, faux-Punk with equally untreated and too-loud synth bolt-ons. But Replicas, the breakthrough album, is an awkward transition away from the uncomplexity of the debut and early singles towards the futur-nereal sound for which he’s best known. It lacks punch when required on the rockier songs, is overly simplistic when something subtler is asked for, and is really only sustained by that hit.

    The follow-up, The Pleasure Principle, is by contrast, surprisingly multi-layered and lacks the expected one-trick-pony starkness. There is a lot more guitar grind on it that I remember; the work is superb; the rhythm section simultaneously crisply mechanical and palpably physical. It is the early highlight of his career; ‘Cars’ possibly the worst thing on it (but then, you knew I was going to say that).

    The late Paul Gardiner, Numan's constant sidekck in the early days, was a massively underrated bassist who had the knack of rounding the corners of a foursquare synth-line with a thoughtful, organically twisted and wonderfully mellifluous bass-line. Look at ‘Metal’: its opening uber-moronic synth riff serves to underpin the song; why is there even a bass guitar on there? Because Numan and Gardiner understood that live bass and drums rock. The electronics are, like the sparingly-deployed real strings, like the ever-present vocal harmonizer, a veneer. You wouldn’t build a mausoleum in a tent; Numan’s music rests on mile-deep piles among whose baroque subterranean columns it is a pleasure to wander. Listen to Gardiner’s polished-wood mordents behind the famous synth riff on ‘Are Friends..?’ Although Numan will go on to work with star bassists of a very high calibre, in fact increasingly foregrounding the bass, these understated performances can’t be equalled.

    Drummer Ced Sharpley deserves a mention in this regard, too. That his subtle flams and fills also take the edge off the music’s surface inhumanity is actually in accord with the protuberance of Numan’s life story among a world of Machmen and SUs (aeroplanes, crashes and Ferraris make frequent lyrical appearances).

    In the days before sequencers and computers, even keyboards had to be performed live; little rhythmic slips constantly pull against the impersonal timbre Numan invariably selects; add in viola and you have an austere music which is still capable of emotional connection. After the break-up of the band, Numan partially succumbed (on Dance) to the lure of actual mechanised sounds, rather than a human facsimile of them, before later moving towards a kind of Funky Industrial Jazz. But while the allowance shrinks to homeopathic quantities, live drums and bass are never entirely abandoned.

    In short, like Tubeway Army, the classic band of ‘Are Friends..?’, ‘Cars’, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon is not, as Joe Carducci so charmingly named it in Rock And The Pop Narcotic, ‘fag-wave’. It is a Rock Band in full accordance with Carducci’s technical definition – a permanent band of brothers who make their own rhythms, in real time. In his rush to criticise synthesizer music, Carducci mistook a chromium exterior for a coldsteel heart. Beneath the dry ice and dystopian doggerel, the early Numan music throbs with the warmth of life as it is lived.