Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The four most ridiculous metal genres

First, let me make it clear that I am not one of those people who scorns metal out of hand. In fact it pretty much my first musical love – after Queen’s Greatest Hits – was the vaguely edgy galloping-horse mega-riffing of Iron Maiden.

Once I got into the sixth form it was all 70s roots (Sabbath, Deep Purple), Metallica’s black album and Rage Against the Machine (a band that serious metalheads would scoff at but who were much cooler than most real metal, obviously). Basically, I like the famous stuff, but I kind of just feel that metal isn’t really good enough to deserve deeper attention.

No doubt I am wrong and no better than the reggae fan who only likes Bob Marley. But, y’know: there’s soul and funk and rock to get to grips with, and they all kind of take precedence

From an outsider’s perspective, one of the key aspects of metal seems to be its constant splintering into endless fusions, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres that end up being so specialist that, frankly, it’s hard to take these people seriously. So I don’t.

Here are four of them, for your amusement and listening (dis)pleasure. Do tell me if I’m wrong, though, I love a good pointless argument.

1. Funeral Doom Metal

Technically, there’s something genuinely impressive about how this actually depresses my mood within seconds of it starting.

Christ, make it stop.

Oh actually, it’s really quite difficult to turn it off.

2. Celtic Metal

Possibly the most preposterous genre of all? Wikipedia tells me that “Tuatha de Danann is a Brazilian Celtic metal band from Varginha, Minas Gerais; known for the merryful celtic dance rhythms, flute melodies, Celtic mythology-inspired lyrics and the original jesting tones such as gnome-choirs, etc."

Okay, let’s give it a go.

Oh right, yeah, it’s awful.


3. Goregrind

Leave aside the fact that what follows is a seriously impressive piece of musicianship. I just love the fact that – according to Rate Your Music – goregrind has “an almost exclusive lyrical obsession with medical terminology, pathological conditions, and violence upon the human body”, when (without wishing to sound like my mum) you can’t make out a single word they’re singing.

4. Nintendocore

I kind of wanted to like this, but then found myself asking whether this was really the best use of a classic games console.

Monday, June 10, 2013

100-word Album of the Week (44)

Can, Tago Mago (1971)

John Lydon worshipped Can but famously hated Pink Floyd, and it’s not hard to hear why. While Floyd offered meticulously constructed, beard-stroking prog, this is an altogether looser affair; it sounds absolutely nothing like Lydon’s PiL but at least feels like it’s from the same universe. At times during the seven virtually uncategorisable, creatively unhinged tracks, you feel as if you’re listening to someone trying to reconstruct a dream they had of what music is like, and not quite managing it. If both Can and Kraftwerk are supposed to be ‘krautrock’, then on this evidence the label is meaningless.

>> See here for a list of all the 100-word albums.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Something to believe in

You know when you hear it. There’s that extra pricking of your ears; that kind of sudden tuning in, cutting through the background noise to really focus on the radio for those couple of minutes. Who is this? Who is it? I need it in my life.
This kind of musical experience happens rarely enough to me these days, I’ll drop anything to get to the record shop (a real one: Amazon doesn’t cut it for properly supporting a new artist). This week I came out clutching Silence Yourself, the debut from Savages. I love it already. It’s got into my bloodstream with its all-female post-punk half-gloom, kind of like Joy Division sung for a festival crowd by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
At last, here is a new band for me to believe in. One that takes itself seriously, sounds vital and is entirely lacking the veneer of irony; a band that isn’t afraid of noise and likes the bass range as much as I do.
As someone who prides himself on an eclectic taste in music, there are surprisingly few bands who turn my head to this extent. I think it’s because I’m obsessed with buying 70s funk and soul, and frankly, there’s been a pretty low turn-out of artists coming anywhere close to that level of originality and verve of late. The music of the current decade seems too smug and detached, too concerned with sounding cool at the expense of sounding good.
The last band I believed in to this extent was probably Doves, who a decade ago were making anthems out of psychedelic, dance-influenced indie rock; kind of a Stone Roses for the 21st century, but better. Their epic Words, with its 64-note chiming riff of joy, feels like the soundtrack to my summer even now. I’m also still enamoured with Elbow (having crucially been a fan Before They Were Big), despite the BBC having played their every song to death in twenty second chunks.
Other than that, there’s been MGMT, but they screwed it up with their deliberately hard-to-like second album; ditto School of Seven Bells. There’s TV On The Radio, though possibly they are too clever for their own good. The last record I truly adored was High Violet by The National; then I heard the previous album Boxer and that spoilt it a bit for me.
So I’m going to enjoy Savages while the love lasts, and at least until they decide to turn into a psych-folk act or something. They’re supporting The Stooges at the Meltdown festival in London next month, a gig I would almost literally kill to see. But it’s sold out; you see, you discover something and then before you know it, a whole load of other people have discovered it too. I will attempt to be happy for them.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Our drugs policy isn't just ineffective, it's immoral and illiberal

In April 2010, a synthetic drug known as mephedrone – basically a cheap dose of euphoria with effects reportedly somewhere between ecstasy and speed – was banned by the UK government in the ‘wash-up’ period just before the last general election. The cause of this rush to action was pretty obvious: acting on shock-horror articles in the Daily Telegraph represents easy pickings when you need to win back a recalcitrant voting public.

It seems almost redundant to point out that next to nothing was known about the long-term effects of mephedrone before our elected moral arbiters rushed to action. Beyond a few reports of already unhealthy people dying after they took it, the ban had nothing to do with toxicity or addiction, and everything to do with the moral high ground. And yet there is pretty much zero depth to this moral point-scoring; almost no substance beyond the playground argument that mephedrone is a drug and drugs are bad.

It is so easy to pick holes in our drugs control policy that disdainful laughter might be the order of the day, were the consequences not so serious. What did the government hope to achieve by banning substances such as mephedrone, and subsequently butylone-based ‘party pills’ and others? An end to young people getting high? Quite apart from the litany of other illegal drugs that are out there, it is so easy to buy their legal alternatives on the internet that a ban achieves next to nothing. Nothing, that is, except to drive people to the next worst substance on the list, the ‘analogue’ of an illegal drug that isn’t yet illegal itself because of minute shifts in its chemical consistency. Our clubs and high streets are now full of people taking stuff that is unidentifiable: it may be a ‘real’ drug, it may be a dud, it may be any substance under the sun. The more chemicals we ban, the more spring up: untested and unknown, the cumulative effect being to turn thrill-seekers into unwitting chemical testing labs.

Most drugs remain illegal because governments believe it would be political suicide to argue otherwise. The hysterical tabloid reaction to every drugs ‘scandal’ helps fuel this fire, so that it is almost impossible to even discuss the issue in public. This might be an acceptable situation if it was somehow conducive to a healthier, better informed population. But it’s very clear that this isn’t the case. In fact, the dominance of the playground argument that “drugs are bad” is actively damaging people’s bodies and minds, not to mention their liberty. The anti-drugs policy is, in short, morally repugnant rather than morally vital.

Mephedrone is an illuminating example not because of the debate it sparked, but because of what was left out of that date. When mephedrone was legal, people bought it in large quantities on the internet because that meant no prosecution, but also because it was relatively reliable. If you make and brand drugs in a factory, and carry user reviews on your website, you are under pressure to deliver a decent product. This is plainly not the case when people buy drugs the street from dealers they don’t know or who, even if they do know them, wouldn’t want to cross. Those “unidentified white powders” might contain anything. While the old story of cocaine cut with rat poison shouldn’t be taken too seriously, that doesn’t stop people mixing their precious supplies with painkillers, sedatives and decongestants.

Even then, the people who were buying mephedrone weren’t doing so out of choice, or at least not real choice. They were buying it because they couldn’t legally buy MDMA, a relatively well tested chemical which, on the scale of relative harms, is about half as dangerous as valium. Between 1999 and 2004 there were about 50 ecstasy-related deaths per year, which sounds a lot until you take into account that 500,000 people used ecstasy in each of those years. This rate of 1 death in 10,000 is less than half that of alcohol users, and a tiny fraction of the death rate for smokers. And that’s before you take into account the fact that all that ecstasy was illegal and very probably impure, and it ignores all of the social harms caused by drinking and smoking. In other words, there is no big public health issue with many of our currently illegal drugs. Even where there is, legalisation and regulation would lead to a big tax intake to cope with it, as well as fewer people dying from dodgy street-quality chemicals. Smokers and drinkers are massive net contributors to the NHS; heroin addicts could be too.

So the argument for continuing to criminalise drug users is not a scientific one, nor is it based on a genuine case of public health benefits. The only possible conclusion is that illicit drugs remain that way because of the playground argument: Drugs Are Bad. Leaving aside for the moment that nicotine and alcohol are among the most destructive drugs we know, what is it about ecstasy, cocaine or psychedelics that is inherently terrible? I suspect it is their psychoactive properties, which can go beyond alcohol’s temporary delusions of machismo and loquacity and transport users into a different state of mind for a longer period. But that is all. Users of heroin, cocaine or ecstasy are not inherently more dangerous than boozers; the opposite is true. Take a trip to your local A & E on a Friday night and ask the staff who are the most dangerous people they encounter; it’s not the pillheads or the junkies.

Once you strip away the false arguments of public protection, all you have left is the proposition that the government should control what we put in our bodies for pleasure. This is profoundly illiberal, but it is also entirely inconsistent. It leads ministers to defend to the hilt people’s right to alter their minds with alcohol, to the point of 24-hour drinking and kowtowing at every possible opportunity to the drinks industry, while other drugs remain entirely beyond the pale and dangerous to even discuss.

The alternative, of course, is to focus on providing care and support for those who have a problem with drugs, rather than indiscriminately jailing or fining anyone who possesses them. In Portugal, which decriminalised personal drug usage in 2001, the evidence is clear: HIV infection from needle sharing has plummeted, as have deaths from overdoses. Portugal did not become some kind of drugs mecca, but the centre of a civilised step forward with genuine social benefits. The Red Cross and Red Crescent want governments to turn away from criminalization; so too, increasingly, do the Latin American countries which suffer most from criminal drug production. Legalisation is the logical next step: get rid of the gangs, control the ingredients, tax heavily to fund the health consequences of a minority of users’ dependence.

It hasn’t been tried yet – not least because of a decades-old international convention that would need to be rethought – but the first stirrings are being heard, and not just from the frontline of pro-drugs campaigners. The Global Commission on Drugs, which amongst others includes a former UN Secretary-General and US Secretary of State, is encouraging governments to experiment with legalisation as a means to safeguard people’s health and security. Even the Adam Smith Institute, that free-market think-tank highly favoured by generations of Conservatives, have done some workings-out on the tax haul.

Governments have a duty to protect our health and to protect our liberty. By doing neither, the UK’s drug policy – alongside pretty much every other country with a ‘drugs problem’ – is not only counter-productive, but counter-logical and immoral.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

100-word Album of the Week (43)

The Clash, London Calling (1979)

Revered by many for its broad sweep of styles, London Calling is in fact about twice as long as it needs to be. Yes, there’s the title track, Hateful, Spanish Bombs, Death Or Glory; but the rock-ska-dub-reggae-in-a-blender approach has run out of steam by the time Train In Vain comes along the tracks. The Beatles – one of punk’s bêtes noire, basically for failing to be angry about everything – were more eclectic a decade previously. Yes, it’s a pretty solid effort, but if I want punk, I’ll take The Stooges.

> See here for a list of all the 100-word albums.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Adele just isn't quite interesting enough

Oh, commercially interesting, I grant you. Interesting in the sense of ‘cultural phenomenon’, whatever that means in these days of Simon Cowell and social media-led marketing assaults. But musically I’m not convinced.

Take that single of hers, Rolling In The Deep. Adele has a great, expressive soul voice but the song hardly stretches her. It’s a pretty by-the-numbers rock number with a half-decent groove, unworthy of the vocals she lavishes on it. Then there’s the really famous number, Someone Like You. This one really showcases Adele’s admirable combination of vocal range and technical control, and I can almost feel myself falling into it, but not quite. It’s just – well, not Al Green. Or Aretha, or Smokey, or Stevie – all of whom had, or were paired with those who had, the great songwriting instincts that took their material beyond the middle of the road and into the heavens.

I do think that Adele has a fantastic voice, but basically I wish her talent hadn’t been born into the era of the Brits and YouTube and the 24-hour-sing-a-long-a-talent-show phenomenon. She needs a piano and a smoky nightclub, and no-one telling her to slap on bizarre levels of make-up and hair product in order to look good in front of a global pop audience. In the 1970s, Adele would have been it. But as it was, here are…

Ten albums which have more soul than Adele

(No explanations necessary. Do please buy them if you don't already have them.)

  • Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You (1967)
  • Curtis Mayfield, Curtis (1970)
  • Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
  • Stevie Wonder, Innervisions (1973)
  • Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On (1971)
  • The Isley Brothers, Get Into Something (1970)
  • Solomon Burke, Soul Alive! (1984)
  • Otis Redding, Otis Blue (1965)
  • Erykah Badu, Baduizm (1997)
  • Al Green, Gets Next to You (1971)
And one white bloke...
  • David Bowie, Young Americans (1975)

Friday, February 03, 2012

1996: End of Year Britpop Disco

It’s more like the middle of the new term, but that’s babies for you…

Last year’s disco came at the end of what would some argue was the finest year for Britpop – and what was also my first term at uni in Cardiff, a time of great revelation, wonder and inability to behave on anything like an appropriate level for the adult world.

All three of Britpop’s three big hitters – Blur, Pulp and Oasis – went quiet in ’96, readying themselves to launch on the world the following year, respectively, a lo-fi curveball, a dark masterpiece, and some cocaine-fuelled muddle-headed nonsense. Of course, their big hits were still the touchstones of a night out in your average club. But the lack of new material from the tabloid fillers gave some breathing room to a good number of other talented bands, with plenty of different tricks up their sleeves.

Here we go then: it was the year of banning British beef, the end of Take That, and the last gasp of John Major’s Britain. But more importantly, there were some serious chooons. Here are twelve of them, all blokes I’m afraid, presented in the month they were released as singles. Ready, set… stick your anorak on and pretend to be above it all.


Sandstorm by Cast

They were never as well loved as John Power’s previous band, The La’s, but they did know how to knock out some good guitar melodies and they were storming live. One of those forgotten Britpop acts – you’d never think to put on the CD, they wouldn’t play it on the radio, but stick with it for 30 seconds and you too will murmur to yourself, “Oh yeah, them…”


The Riverboat Song by Ocean Colour Scene

Used by Chris Evans on TFI Friday – the big Britpop era TV show – this has a whopping great guitar riff. Like almost everything Ocean Colour Scene did, it is utterly in thrall to classic British rock and hasn’t an ounce of originality, but it is undoubtedly a barnstorming floor-filler.


On And On by Longpigs

Now here was a genuinely interesting band, with – in this case – a folky aesthetic that has more in common with the Proclaimers than the Beatles. It’s one of Britpop’s few great authentic love songs. On the guitar was Richard Hawley, now big in his own right.


A Design for Life by Manic Street Preachers

Not really a Britpop band at all, but like Radiohead, the Manics were swept along with the tide, picking up swathes of fans who might otherwise have declined to touch them with a bargepole. The disappearance of Richey Edwards, and the introduction of a more commercial rock sound, helped no end, though arguably at the expense of artistic interest: this is the only really great song from a rather dull album.


Cut Some Rug by The Bluetones

Louder, sexier and downright better than their most famous track, Slight Return, this shows the Bluetones’ best side as a genuinely exciting, ever-so-slightly edgy guitar band.


Tattva by Kula Shaker

Kula Shaker were able to pull off a pretty solid approximation of the Beatles’ drony psychedelic stage. Everyone took the piss no end; but, oddly, not out of the countless other less interesting imitators that Britpop threw up.


Trash by Suede

Having accidentally invented Britpop a few years earlier, Suede managed to time their period of disarray (involving the departure of guitarist Bernard Butler) at the exact moment it was all going stratospheric. Their response to the turmoil: this utterly perfect pop single, stripped of all pretension, joyous, kooky and instantly addictive.


One to Another by The Charlatans

Another band that predated Britpop but whose baggy bravado fitted perfectly with its no-nonsense, have-it-large outlook. There was no mercy on the dancefloor with this beast: the rolling piano made it sound like the greatest party in the world was starting up and you were going to miss it. A right bugger if you were queuing at the bar.


C’mon Kids by The Boo Radleys

As we’ll see next year, Britpop was a short-lived thing which started eating its own tail almost as soon as it began. To the surprise of those who derided the sunny pop of Wake Up Boo!, the Boo Radleys got in their deconstruction first. This battering ram of guitars and mocking lyrics gave no indication of the woozy psychedelia of its parent album, but it’s a damn fine call to arms. Shame no-one ever actually played it in the clubs.


If You’re Thinking of Me by Dodgy

Dodgy were one of those classic acts of British modesty: a couple of normal looking blokes with little in the way of attitude, who just happened to make some great tunes. Good Enough and Staying Out For The Summer were the big hits; this one may not have such a chirpy disposition but it absolutely epitomises the mid-paced guitar ballads of the time.


Chasing Rainbows by Shed Seven

Widely derided as a poor man’s Oasis, Shed Seven here turn out a tune of such show-stopping proportions that Noel Gallagher would have killed for it in about a year’s time. Can still bring a tear to the eye even now.


Wide Open Space by Mansun

Mansun were clever-clever types who were hyped by certain intellectuals in the music press as some kind of era-defining iconoclasts. In truth they were just a rock solid indie band with a couple of corkers. This one absolutely lifts the roof.