Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Therapy? - A Rough Guide

If you didn't go through your teenage years in the early-to-mid 1990s you probably don't know who Therapy? are, and that's a real shame. Let's just take a moment to reflect on how remiss you have been getting through life so far without them.

Here's a belt. Feel free to flagellate yourself thoroughly.

All done? Lovely. Now while you're mopping the blood off the walls, have a listen to the following tunes.

Therapy? started as a threepiece in Belfast at the sodden arse-end of the 1980s, fuelled by industrial punk nightmares and feverish European electronic sensibilities. Their first two mini-albums, 1991's "Babyteeth" and 1992's "Pleasure Death" are obviously influenced by the likes of Big Black and The Jesus Lizard - but they manage to be somehow denser and more claustrophobic, melodic punk whistled through a serial killer's broken front teeth. Andy Cairns' vocals are a death threat overheard on a busy street, while Michael McKeegan's pulsating bass underpins everything else like a twisted disco beat.

Therapy? - 'Innocent X' - 1991 - from "Babyteeth"

Their first full album followed soon after, and loosens up the metronome drum patterns ever so slightly, letting the songs breathe out in the open. Raw buzzsaw guitars and distant wailing vocals are still the formula, but the end result is ever so slightly more friendly. But the unhinged dementia is still waiting in the wings, a squealing mental breakdown all the more terrifying for being hidden in the open.

Therapy? - 'Teethgrinder' - 1992 - from "Nurse"

And then everything changed. A series of EPs and singles were followed in 1994 by "Troublegum", which might just be the greatest pop-punk record ever recorded. Packed to the gills with melody, soaring choruses and infectious riffs, all of the torment and nihilism here were embedded firmly in the lyrics rather than edging their way clear into torturous music. At its heart, it isn't any lighter an LP than Therapy?'s early work. It's just better at covering the scars with brightly coloured balloons and manic smiles. Modest chart success followed for the likes of 'Screamager', 'Nowhere' and 'Die Laughing', and some high profile festival slots and tours put the word around that the band were maybe going to make it bigger than one could have expected from an oddball industro-punk squall from Northern Ireland.

Therapy? - 'Screamager' - 1994 - from "Troublegum"

So they changed everything, pretty much. Why not? Stagnation is a killer. The very next year "Infernal Love" hit the shelves, and while many of their newly acquired fanbase were put off by a record that slotted in an uncomfortable art-rock wet dream for every summer-bright pop tune, it is a record that stands firmly as their second best work. With the benefit of hindsight from the salty shores of 2014, it's a classic. But back then, the fickle UK music press and even more fickle alternative rock fans met it with a lukewarm response at best. But it's the sound of a band maturing and undergoing massive nihilistic trauma at the same time, and who doesn't want that in their life?

Therapy? - 'A Moment Of Clarity' - 1995 - from "Infernal Love"

Changes followed, as they often do in the midst of turbulence. Founding drummer Fyfe Ewing departed the band, taking his staccato rhythms with him. As well as replacing him with Graham Hopkins, they also incorporated Martin McCarrick on cello and guitar. A fourpiece for the first time, this more traditional rock band lineup resulted in a more traditional punk rock sound. 1998's "Semi-Detached" was to lay down a blueprint for the many variations in their sound that have followed since, as a raw garage vibe was laid across most of the tracks. Less pop, more punk.

Therapy? - 'Church Of Noise' - 1998 - from "Semi-Detached"

This raw punk aesthetic was pumped up even further for 1999's "Suicide Pact - You First", which was a fuzzy battleground of growling cynicism sprinkled with the occasional melancholy escape hatch - such as the superb 'Six Mile Water', which is solid proof that they should write an alt. country record at some point. The LP also seemed to mark a turning point in Therapy?'s career, which shifted inexorably towards a lack of interest from the press and survival primarily through a ferociously loyal (though smaller) fanbase. That's the story for the UK, in any case. I suspect they still make new sales in Europe, where folk seem less concerned about what haircut a lead singer has.

Therapy? - 'Six Mile Water' - 1999 - from "Suicide Pact - You First"

2001 saw Therapy? record what I consider to be their only stinker of an album to date, the ironically titled "Shameless". All the deities created by mankind love you if you can hack it, but a couple of singles aside I find it thoroughly underwhelming. So moving swiftly on. 2003's "High Anxiety" was a return to form of sorts. Not a groundbreaking work by any means, but definitely carrying on the legacy established by "Semi-Detached" in its packaging of punk rock tempered by the band's ongoing talent for a soaring chorus hook. Neil Cooper also arrived on drums, and has marked his place in the band with a penchant for a rolling punk rock percussive assault that suits their later material well.

Therapy? - 'If It Kills Me' - 2003 - from "High Anxiety"

Martin McCarrick departed soon after, which is a shame for him since the last great Therapy? record to date, "Never Apologise Never Explain" followed in 2004 and came as quite a surprise to most of their fans. A scuzzy hyperactive bullet-train of rumbling intensity, it is packed end-to-end with the sound of a rock band creating the rockiest rock they can rock. ROCK.

Therapy? - 'Die Like A Motherfucker' - 2004 - from "Never Apologise Never Explain"

I've always got the sense that Therapy? are uncomfortable following up an album with one that carries the same sensibilities as the last. I don't have a problem with that whatsoever, but it does make it really difficult to predict what direction on their ever-flailing trajectory the next recording will take. "One Cure Fits All" hit in 2006, and was in a sense the final entry in the melody/fuzz fusion trilogy that began with "Semi-Detached" and "High Anxiety". Said trilogy got patchier as time went by, but it still had some quality tunes on it.

Therapy? - 'Dopamine, Serotonin, Adrenaline' - 2006 - from "One Cure Fits All"

"Crooked Timber" followed in 2009, and was a slightly directionless mess of rock tunes that tried to pitch in every adjective I have previously used to describe their music. As a mish-mash of everything with songwriting that is below par for veterans of this caliber, it's not a must-have despite a couple of cracking songs in the middle. Their most recent LP is 2012's "A Brief Crack Of Light", and it comes across like a version of "Crooked Timber" that had a hell of a lot more work put into it. Or maybe a lot less, resulting in greater immediacy. Either way, the tunes are more tunely and the punch is more punchtastic. And it also proved that despite having been going all these years, they can still put out a killer single in the form of 'Living In The Shadow Of The Terrible Thing'.

Therapy? - 'Living In The Shadow Of The Terrible Thing' - 2012 - from "A Brief Crack Of Light"

Listen To A Whole Load Of Therapy? On Spotify HERE.

Essential Records: Babyteeth, Troublegum, Infernal Love, Never Apologise Never Explain

Monday, 27 January 2014

The Overlooked - 10 Damn Fine Rock & Metal Bands That You Should Have Listened To

Another year, another sporadic ATCB update where I proselytise about music. Today I'll be rounding up some excellent rock and metal acts who you probably missed the first time around. All of them are either defunct or active post-resurrection, all of them are awesome and all of them prove that I have better taste than you.

Let's crack on. In no especial order.

Liberty 37 - 'Oh River' - from "The Greatest Gift" - 1999

Straight-up rock with grunge elements and a soaring vocal delivery, Liberty 37 were one of the seemingly hundreds of bands swarming the UK live rock scene in the late 1990s. I suspect they would probably still be going if they had been American.

Cyclefly - 'Supergod' - from "Generation Sap" - 1999

Irish/European sparkling glam punk-ish rock. Mix Placebo with vinyl catsuits and a heightened sense of violent aggression, season to taste. I can guarantee that this will be the only band I ever list on the site who collaborated with Linkin Park's Chester Bennington, unless the new Godflesh album has some REAL surprises on it.

Onedice - 'Know Your Role' - from "Life" - 2001

Thrash-tinged metal assault, with both ferocity and precision in the delivery. My overriding memory of these guys is slamdancing in a large tent at a small Exeter festival while a French man punched me repeatedly in the kidneys. My girlfriend at the time told me not to say anything or he'd beat me up. Those were supportive times.

The God Machine - 'Painless' - from "One Last Laugh In A Place Of Dying" - 1994

Like Swans colliding with Alice In Chains in a darkened underpass, The God Machine's two albums may be the most profoundly depressing and oddly uplifting music I have ever heard. Oh yeah, descriptive contradictions baby. That's how you know I am an amazing music hack.

Engerica - 'Roadkill' - from "There Are No Happy Endings" - 2006

Demented threepiece punk rock with the melodic nous of Therapy? and the acid-etched lyrical bite of Steve Albini. This tune is even straightforward enough on the surface that it could appeal to the teenage emo crowd. And chart. As long as they didn't pay too much attention. 

Will Haven - 'I've Seen My Fate' - from "El Diablo" - 1997

Reverse metal riffs chugging at you from the ultradense heart of a neutron star, while the vocals howl in your forebrain. Part of the Sacramento scene that also birthed Far and Deftones, and it shows. Will Haven are undoubtedly both the heaviest and least immediately successful of the three, though they have proven to be highly influential - which is the same thing, only without any money or groupies.

Aereogramme - 'Indiscretion #243' - from "Sleep And Release" - 2003

Genre-wise Aereogramme laughed and spat in your face playfully, with elements of post-rock, indie, folk and metal jostling around for attention. No song was the same as another, nor one album akin to its predecessor. Follow-on acts include similarly excellent The Unwinding Hours and indie/electro sweethearts du jour CHVRCHES.

I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness - 'According To Plan' - from "Fear Is On Our Side" - 2006

A lot of bands swarmed around the feet of the pseudo-post-punk renaissance in the middle of the last decade, but these guys did it bloody well. If you absolutely need a comparison, think Interpol but swathed under layers of atmosphere and therefore better.

Psycore - 'Medication' - from "Your Problem" - 1998

The more cerebrally satisfying of metal acts have traditionally not been the best-selling, Tool aside. Here's just one example from Swedish mentalists Psycore, who were like Helmet playing a jazz club where everyone just fucks and eats each other instead of applauding.

earthtone9 - 'Tat Twam Asi' - from "Arc'Tan'Gent" - 2000

Hey, speaking of cerebrally satisfying metal. These guys are back in action these days and are still a formidable live prospect. Back in the day their tribal intellectual roar was without peer, and they have produced some of the finest metal albums ever made.

This will undoubtedly become an ongoing series, by which I mean I'll knock out another one then get bored with the concept of exhaust my stock of bands. JOIN ME FOR THAT GLORIOUS MOMENT.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Game Review: The Bureau - XCOM Declassified

Format Played: PC

The Bureau was hard-wired from the start to receive a difficult reception among critics and gamers.
Nervously sheltering under the XCOM franchise umbrella, it came across as a desperate turnaround from the first-person investigative shooter initially touted to the raging screams of a million neckbeard fanboys. More independent observers such as myself though that original vision looked like an interesting, creepy blend of The X-Files and L.A. Noire, but instead we have been delivered a more tactical third-person cover-based effort with some very light RPG elements slathered on top.

A good decision to have made? A big old "Nah" with some caveats.

With the re-emergence of XCOM as king of the turn-based strategy planet, a more immediate game in the XCOM universe seemed less of a sacrilege-fest for fans. But The Bureau ends up straddling so many fences that it forms a far less than coherent whole. Its setting is the ace in the hole in many ways, as 1950s small-town America is cracked open by towering (if generic) alien architecture and strewn with high school-jacketed corpses and infected humans. If there isn’t a body hidden somewhere who has been designed to look like The Fonz, the developers have missed a trick. Graphically it impresses as well, lush and complex environments unfolding ahead of you with nary a glitch to be seen aside from a somewhat odd framerate hit that some PC users (including myself) have reported.

The gameplay is split between combat missions and the central hub – in the former, you roll forward into setpiece arena after setpiece arena, splatting aliens with a range of satisfying powers and weapons. Time can be slowed significantly while you pass out orders to the two agents accompanying you, which allows for tactical decisions while remaining under the hammer to a certain degree. It’s a fine balance which the game just about achieves – and when it all comes together, it can feel very satisfying to pop your agents into flanking positions, slamming down turrets and airstrikes as you do so. A hefty flaw is that the targeting reticule for positioning or powers cannot move through cover – a bizarre decision that wastes your time by navigating the inevitable chest-high walls just to tell your agents to do the same. Enemy AI is fairly competent and will ruthlessly flank you if given half a chance, though the same compliment cannot be paid to your team members who have a tendency to try to incubate grenades flung at them by sitting on them and producing a less-than-pleasing explosion baby.

Unfortunately by the end of the game the satisfaction in combat has dulled through repetition, with no new alien types showing their faces after about one-third of the way through. Given the variation available from both the older games and the reboot, it’s a shame only 4 or so different aliens actually make an appearance. It’s justified in the backstory somewhat, but you get the impression throughout that said backstory has been constructed to limit the amount of work needed rather than to fit any kind of overall writing decision. Perhaps even more unforgivable is the amount of time you spend running onwards between encounters – some worldbuilding is attempted in these sections with dialogue and scenes of devastation, but more often than not you are just running through empty corridors or woodland clearings. Not since Space Marine has one game made you rack up the cardio so much for no obvious reason beyond padding.

Agents themselves have some levelling up within very limited skill trees, with a paltry 5 levels handed out to them while your protagonist rent-a-gruff William Carter has 10. There’s not a tremendous amount of variation on show and they're mostly standard powers veteran gamers will have experienced a thousand times before, with the likes of criticals, healing, aggro buffs all showing their faces. All four agent classes are fairly distinctive and have some use on the battlefield, though I found my favourite two fairly early on and stuck with them throughout. Much has been made of the agent permadeath in an effort to evoke the main franchise, though it’s hardly much of an imposition on anything but the hardest setting.

Which leaves us with the between-mission central hub area. Oh, the dull horrors of this. The hours spent strolling (since running is turned off inside your base) around corridors to have a boring conversation with a non-character in order that they can send me to talk to someone else. Or, occasionally, on a mini-mission that will likely involve strolling down further corridors to find something of little-to-no interest. For a completionist like me, it’s torture. For more normal human beings, you will escape some of this but are still railroaded through enough monotonous chats where Carter animatedly pounds his fist into an open palm so often that he seems to be punishing it for horribly onanistic crimes committed during his sleeping hours.
In short: these bits are awful tepid shite, and they should in no way have made it through to the finished game. It’s not often you’ll read a gaming writer clamour for cutscenes, even an amateurish one like myself, but all of this could be achieved with two minutes of inter-mission exposition. Said exposition would be drab however it is presented, since the story is largely not even worth mentioning. Aliens, protagonist with a haunted past, fighting back, this is our independence day, blah blah blah.

In fact, I get the feeling that the hub was inserted intentionally to break up the repetition of the combat. If this was the case, then they succeeded only in wedging deeper monotony into the middle of some light monotony. ‘Grats.

So what are we left with? Chunky combat that slowly exposes a lack of depth throughout the length of the game and interminable inter-mission sections. It looks pretty, it has a unique setting and towards the end manages to have a bit of narrative fun with the concept of third-person control within gaming. But none of that is ultimately enough to recommend a purchase above bargain-price. There are the bare bones of a decent game here, but the whole experience comes across as a polished rushjob.  

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Gig Review: Infest 2013

I just checked, and it has been 3 years since I last attended Infest. That is moderately appalling, considering it is my favourite UK electronic festival. Still, I went this year and now you get to read all about it. You are truly blessed.

I headed down to Bradford in good spirits if not rude health, almost perishing of dehydration on a train that was running the heating in the middle of one of the warmest British summers on record. I realise to any overseas readers that seems like borderline Arctic conditions, but you must remember that my genetics have gifted me with the equivalent of several walrus-hide overcoats in terms of body hair. Ladies.

Currently Infest retains the same layout as on its return to the revised Bradford Union venue a few years past, and while it maintains the same issues – stairs leading down to the front rows of the audience, a somewhat rambling multi-room layout – at this point I am detached enough from my nostalgic love of the old layout that I am beyond grumbling. Additionally it seems somewhat gauche to do so, since every other aspect of the festival is managed superbly. Copious bar and (non-intrusive) security staff, excellent timekeeping and a joyous compère in the form of Mr Tails all lead to a warm atmosphere quite unlike any other festival I have been to.

The Friday was launched in style by Metal Tech, a self-confessed 'kissdustrial' act who take on a '90s industrial rock sound before slathering it sexually in glam stomp and silly. They came, they threw out glowsticks and party poppers and they conquered. There are some serious musical chops going on with the construction of tunes, though the beats backing them could do with a bit of sophisticating. But maybe they don't want to. Maybe they just want to put on makeup and masks and make bitter muso twats like me grin, just a little bit, despite ourselves. Metal Tech closed with a German language number called 'Hammstein' that, if my Deutsch is standing up from GCSE, contained the chorus line “My little dancing pig”. That's worth the price of entry alone.

Long-running UK act Inertia followed. I have seen these guys a few times over the years and each time they strike me as almost getting close to attaining their own identity beyond borrowed beats and synths. This is the best I've seen them, but I still can't in all honesty recommend them. These days they come across as a bronze medal-winning Mesh, which could be fine if you don't have anywhere else to go. But before they are inevitably claimed by their eponymous emotional gravity well, it'd be nice to hear what just being Inertia sounds like.

Next up was Dive, solo project of Dirk Ivens – and this blew me away. One man, contorting on stage to a minimalist old school industrial/EBM fusion with noise elements. That sounds like a total grab-bag, but in practice it slots together so perfectly. The performance being centred entirely around vocals – all music was 'on tape', as they'd say back in the day – lent it a slightly surreal performance art vibe as Ivens beat his chest and addressed the audience via microphone and loudhailer. Constant slow white strobe accompanied the claustrophobic beats, flickering independent of the rhythm and helping to build what was undoubtedly an intense but approachable performance. Excellent musical construction, exquisite delivery.

Friday's headliners were Pride & Fall, a band whose futurepop/darkwave crossover material has never particularly grabbed me. This night was no exception. They seem to be trying for a melancholy poetry with their material, but for me every single stanza rhymes with 'boring'. It comes across as overwrought and self-indulgent, which is perhaps a criticism-by-numbers for a band who arguably fit under the incredibly broad umbrella of goth. But they just leave me rolling my eyes, despite an obviously professional live presence and an enthusiastic reception. More power to you if you still have the teenage flights of fancy to appreciate this stuff.

Two things were hammered into place by the first day of this year's Infest – firstly, this may have been the best sound I have ever heard at a festival. Aided by a superb sound setup, most of the weekend's bands (with one exception, noted below) were crystal clear from the front of the stage to the back of the crowd. Kudos to the engineers. Get out there are work every other festival I attend, please. Secondly, the second real strength of this festival year on year (after atmosphere) is the variety. Other alternative electronic festivals haul a bit of pick and mix on stage, but typically there is still an overriding sense of whatever is fashionable that year. Not so Infest. If you don't dig a particular sound, there will undoubtedly be something very different along in a minute.

And just to illustrate this, Saturday began with Manchester's AAAK – As Able As Kane if you like your capital letters spread out a bit – who come across as an energetic, defiant blend of old-school industrial and grebo. It's always a thrill to hear live guitars and drums as festivals such as these, and this year we were spoiled for them. A political kick wrapped in proto-Madchester punk sneer, AAAK 'ably' prove they 'kane' hold their own in good company. Punnage, motherfuckers. This is what life has driven me to.

Wieloryb are this year's contingent from veteran art noise label Forms Of Hands, and they play a blinding set of techno-tinged noise soundscapes, leveraged by a dynamic and infectious songcraft that pushes through the somewhat willfully difficult barrier many of their peers lurk behind. The end result is a dynamic, infectious and danceable set that stood out as powerfully unique to ears that are too often bored by the 4/4 crunchy beats of live noise acts. A melodic underpinning was provided on many tracks by what hacks like me tend to summarise as 'Eastern' vocal samples, which is about as effective a description as one would get describing every singer west of the Prime Meridian as 'Western' vocals. Still, you know what I mean, don't you? Yeah, you do. We're all going to hell. Except for Wieloryb, who are awesome. A mixed-gender duo also highlight something that struck me as extremely positive from this year's festival – a much higher number of women on stage who aren't there simply to dance or look pretty in uniform. This is a good thing, and laughably overdue. It's not a historical problem with Infest specifically, but one with the scene – and hey, the music industry as a whole – that can only have passed you by if you are either utterly ignorant of these things or an MRA asshole. If you are an MRA asshole, stop reading and pollute some other site. We don't like your kind round these parts.

Next up are French trio Chrysalide, who stride onstage blackened and raw to deliver a festival-topping set of early '90s industrial power tempered in a crucible of 21st century sounds and howling screams. Many comparisons have been made to Skinny Puppy, and while that is entirely accurate it struck me when watching how much these guys also sound like a gnarly, pissed off version of ohGr's solo work as well. Making comparisons seems somehow to undermine what Chrysalide do, since the shrieking violence of their performance comes as a breath of fresh air even over a weekend with as many quality acts as this one. It's all sweat, contortion and closed-eye bellowing over a bedrock of beats and synths forced open wide with a bloody, rusted ribcage spreader. If you can stand another band comparison, they come across as Mindless Self-Indulgence only created for rabid adults instead of attention-deficit-afflicted toddlers. Vital. Get yourselves on the bandwagon before it builds up full speed.

Typically after a set that explosive, the following act would struggle to build up a head of steam. But for new wave veterans Click Click, it's a chance to infect the entire venue with their slithering, creepy melodies that sneak softly inside your skull and perform unspeakably horrible, but consensual, sexual acts with your psyche. Frontman Adrian Smith - a withered Lex Luthor in Lennon glasses whispering secret things to the rodents under your bed – occasionally brings out random instruments to play into the microphone before tossing them over his shoulder with disdain, while his brother Derek pounds drums with stone-faced glee at the back of the stage. It's powerful and disturbing and oddly majestic. It has inspired me to raid their back catalogue thoroughly, and I would be surprised if many others watching were not doing the same even now.

Click Click
Controversial opinion for pretty much everyone else at Infest 2013: I didn't enjoy Da Octopusss much. European hard dance with pseudo-dubstep bits performed by two guys in gimmicky Cthulhu masks, their recorded material struck me as interesting enough with a degree of horror creep to it that at least somewhat justified the Lovecraft angle. But live... well, with a sonic/visual experiment that will blow your tiny minds, let me attempt to replicate the set for you.



Seriously, have a bit of non-telegraphed dynamism. Was your father betrayed and murdered by treble? Have you sworn revenge? Are you even now polishing a dagger in a run-down Eastern European hostel room, weeping as you anticipate the joy of plunging it directly into the stomach of the cymbal unwittingly waiting for your violent attentions in a backalley absinthe bar populated by human traffickers and government informants?

Probably not, is the answer.

But of course everyone except me and a few others are left ejaculating with joy on the dancefloor. It's my own fault. I can't just like things for being things. I need some kind of existential reasoning. 

Fuck it.

Saturday's headliners were Imperative Reaction, a band I am most enthusiastic about on record. They peddle a distinctive brand of driving electronica that comes across to my ears as almost identical to '90s American industrial rock acts – the likes of Gravity Kills and the criminally forgotten Machines Of Loving Grace – only sacrificing traditional rock instrumentation for pulsating beats and synths. However, live they chose to represent their sound with limited synthwork and vocals backed by guitars and drums. This was, to my ears, an absolutely critical error. By translating your work into another genre framework, you really risk exposing the weaknesses of your songwriting within said framework. Imperative Reaction write great heart-pounding electronic anthems. They do not write great rock songs with added synth. It also highlighted that as a live rock act, they simply do not cut it. I'm sorry – and many rivetheads and cyberwhatevers might be left frothing in fury at this – but the standards are simply higher for live performance. Them's the breaks.

In the end it all reduced itself to a mushy mess with drums riotously pounded over the top, like someone a few seats away on the train listening to anonymous German techno while your earphones are pumping in metal-lite. The sound itself struggled to maintain it's weekend-long clarity, and I was left listening to my favourite song by them – the brainmelting asskicker 'Judas' – and shaking my head at the unrecognisable mess before walking away. A shame.

Sunday opened with Yorkshire's own Autoclav1.1, whose live performances I have in the past considered to be sub-par to the recorded output, with too much emphasis on big beats and noise elements. OH GOD HERE YOU GO AGAIN, you think. Well, wrong. Dead wrong. Focusing far more on the strengths of the often disturbingly melodic and ambient elements of the sound, the performance was a lesson in the fragmented destruction of elegantly-weaved industrial soundscapes. Colourful and vivid visuals only served to augment the dreamlike quality of the music. A lack of sleep on my part doubtlessly helped provoke this, but Autoclav1.1 annihilated my brain-based cobwebs with aplomb. More of this, please.

Future Trail are next, functional but comfortable EBM traditionalists who are unafraid to mix their 1998 blueprint with 2013 sounds. Some elements of synthpop breaking through, but mostly a sound we have heard before and will hear again performed with workmanlike precision. Nothing spectacular, but potentially an act to watch in the future if they can find their own voice a little more.

It wouldn't be a UK alternative electronic festival without a spot of electro-industrial to make me swear under my breath and barely tolerate long enough to gather fuel for the review. And so I bring you XMH, who I suppose don't do anything wrong with the formula laid down by other acts. It's Suicide Grendel Tactical Commando Sekt, and they are here to goblinise your vocals and go UNK UNK UNK SQUEAL UNK UNK RAARGH. I shouldn't complain too much. They are certainly competent at what they do, and the frontman is undeniably energetic and providing a focal point for the crowd to get enthusiastic about. It's just a sound that is so ubiquitous as to be utterly irrelevant for me. Plus I am getting a bit sick of men standing on stage and screaming about bitches, sluts and whores like they're the next Andy LaPlegua. Issues much?

Sono are pretty much the opposite of electro-industrial, as a synthpop act with the emphasis on pop and a significant investment in huge quantities of melody. They seem pro as it comes, as well as delighted to be on stage – always a great combination – and frontman Lennart Salomon spreads his friendly enthusiasm to all corners of the crowd as they Depeche Mode it up with the best of them. There's some minimalism and hypnotic sensibilities at work that are enough to lift the songs up from merely fun pop tunes, and the end result is a more than solid addition to the lineup.

Cervello Elettronico are a surprisingly leftfield choice as the penultimate act of the weekend, and they reel out a set of refreshingly old-school glitchy techno sounds. While my bass-based criticisms over the weekend are mainly aimed at Da Octopusss, it's good to hear a beats-centered act that knows how to layer its material right up the scale to provide a sparsely lush experience. Slightly trippy, a bit evocative and ever-so accomplished.

And then Covenant rolled on stage to detonate the venue. With their unique take on a synthpop/futurepop crossover they are an act that carry elements to appeal to most of the varied audience, and are one of the few acts who can get away with performing a festival set remarkably laden with more obscure tunes – including no less than three from their debut album “Dreams Of A Cryotank”, which I can comfortably say probably does not sit in the music collections of many folks in the crowd. I find myself in the odd position of not having much to say about Covenant. They are solid gold headliners, and they know it and play accordingly. A storming 'Call The Ships To Port' comes off the blocks with astonishing energy and only ramps it up in the now well-established blood-pounding instrumental kick that follows the chorus. The entire venue levels up and bursts into life. Light flashes, sound solidifies and a short time later everyone wipes themselves down and agrees that yes, that was A Very Good Thing.

I achieve approximately zero sleep that night (for no fascinating or controversial reasons) and rise at dawn to wend my way home. Somewhere nearby there is a wobbling, grinding beat of a party still going down. A few seconds later I realise that it's a broken extractor fan breathing its last.

And that's why I love Infest.

Bands Who Receive The Bastard "At Least 50% Of The Set" Live Seal Of Approval: 
Metal Tech, Dive, AAAK, Wieloryb, Chrysalide, Click Click, Autoclav1.1, Sono, Covenant

Tuesday, 27 August 2013


For anyone who didn't get the drill from the first entry of these beautifully-titled series – songs that many of us danced to back in the day* that don't get much dancefloor play nowadays, because nostalgia.

On with the show.

If there is one thing modern music needs more of, it is gruff men shouting KILL EAT EXPLOIT THE WEAK along to bouncy industrial metal. Enter Pitchshifter, stage right.

For me, the first Rival Schools album has that perfect nostalgic blend of rose-tinted glasses, youth, a thematic link between sound, time and place, and a gutwrenching level of self-loathing. Woo!

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have never really specialised in pumpin’ dancefloor-fillers, but it is possible to creep around looking like a suitably sleazy maniac to a few of their tunes. My overriding memory of this particular track is repeatedly bashing my head against a low, sloping ceiling while grinding my hips sexily along to it in the old venue for a night of ill repute named The Wendy House. The swearword-laced barks this provoked only helped to sell the song to anyone watching.

People tend to view the ‘90s as a time of unlimited optimism and positivity these days, but it’s important to remember that we had to deal with tragedy as well. Such as liking nu-metal acts with awful hair and beards against our will. Coal Chamber: the 9/11 of the ‘90s.

Addendum: for some reason everyone at the metal club I grew up at danced to Coal Chamber while staring at the ceiling. Like, with their eyes looking up but not their faces. It was only Coal Chamber they did this to. Weird. Some kind of doomsday virus at work.

Given the current trends within the games industry, I’m surprised no one has yet adapted this song by The Cranberries into a multiplayer survival-FPS. If they really wanted to be edgy they could incorporate elements of what the song is actually about, too. Pro-tip for this song: try singing along to it without an Irish accent. It sounds so fucking wrong.

Sometimes, when no-one is listening, I make the weird AUUUUW noise from this song. I’m not sure what purpose that serves. It just happens, like gravity and love and magnets. I have to include the unedited non-official video here, because the song is approximately 2,000,037 times better with it.

Before they split into two bands, each approximately half as good as old Sepultura, the original Sepultura were the fucking tits. Example? Example.

I’m not even sure why this ended up on the vaguely alt.ish dancefloors of sweaty York rock clubs. It’s a good tune, but not an obvious rhythmic hipswinger and even back then hardly anyone knew who VAST were. Still, this list is what it is and now we just have to buckle up and deal with it one snarky entry at a time.

I miss this Sisters track getting significant dancefloor airplay, partly because it’s a great track but mostly because it isn’t over an hour long with three-quarters of the entire length spent repeating the same chorus line over and over again. HEY NOW HEY NOW NOW PLEASE STOP.

People who don’t like the final song for this edition of STANK should be rounded up and dropped onto a tropical island with some basic supplies and rusty weapons to eke out a harsh survivalist lifestyle, carving out territory in a lawless land where warlords can live as tyrannical god-kings.

A loudspeaker system would be set up so that this song is broadcast island-wide on repeat, interspersed only with wild, shrieking abuse from the condemneds’ loved ones – denouncing them for having let them down and betrayed them on every conceivable level.

And the whole thing should be filmed and broadcast on television 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with commentary delivered from a team of existential philosophers and nihilists under a banner partly comprised of Ant & Dec’s swollen bloody corpses.

You know it’s the right thing to do. The campaign starts here.

See you next time for more of the same. Just the same idea repeated, over and over again. Until we're all gone.

* "back in the day" to be defined as whenever the hell I say it was.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Godflesh - A Rough Guide

I have to confess to a real love for bands with names that tell you exactly what you are going to hear before the needle even drops to the wax. And it could never be said that anyone would listen to a band called Godflesh without expecting to have their aural canal battered mercilessly.

Formed in 1988 by Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green, the band already had an astonishing musical pedigree given that it was two teenagers bellowing about urban disillusionment. Broadrick had played for both grindcore pioneers Napalm Death (co-writing the first and superior half of their highly influential debut 'Scum') and noise rock obscuronauts Head Of David.

They wasted no time in outlining a manifesto of decay, intensity and brutal collapse. Unlike many bands, for Godflesh influences are to be woven together into an unrecognisable whole rather than worn on the sleeve. Thus from a heady concoction of '80s crusty punk, raw piercing industrial, spaced-out dub and experimental hip-hop comes the roaring wounded beast that was their eponymous debut EP. It's difficult to overstate just how different this was to anything that had come before it. The closest touchstone at the time was Ministry's work in transitioning from synthpop to something far more aggressive and evil, but beyond some superficial similarities in fusing guitars and electronics the comparison runs dry. At the time, there was simply nothing out there remotely like Godflesh.

Godflesh – 'Godflesh' – 1988 - “Weak Flesh”

The following year Broadrick and Green dropped 'Streetcleaner' on an unsuspecting audience of musical extremophiles. Still widely lauded as their best work (which I would disagree with), it takes the formula set down by their debut EP and fucks with it harshly. Forming a cogent whole that physically seethes with insignificant fury, to listen to this album is to invoke the absolute nadir of Thatcherite urban life. It is broken glass, shattered concrete and random violence written large under a banner of godless horror. Mechanised self-flagellating impotent apathy. Music to detonate council estates to.

Godflesh – 'Streetcleaner' – 1989 - “Christbait Rising”

A flurry of EPs followed through 1991, with Godflesh doing their subconscious level best to alienate the metal-oriented fanbase that had begun to build around them. This audience was an unintended consequence of releasing debut material so unrelentlessly punishing, and while it is remarkable now that more experimental material would piss off Godflesh listeners, the early '90s were a much more provincial time for metal. The Slavestate EP, and in particular the title track, took ahold of the spreading techno contagion and grasped it lovingly around the neck, finding yet another chemical infusion to inject into an already hæmorrhaging organ. This would not be the first time that Broadrick and Green would take a more popular electronic genre and crumple it into their own weeping shapes.

Godflesh – 'Slavestate' – 1991 - “Slavestate”

'Slateman' was released the same year, a single that was later fused with the 'Slavestate' EP for collectors and latecomers. It offers another fascinating early insight into a later direction, this time with a melodic underpinning that makes the buzzsaw guitars and Green's deep sea bass detonations into a thing of soaring beauty rather than a discomfiting trauma.

Godflesh – 'Slateman' – 1991 - “Slateman”

It's astonishing even now to consider how many boundaries were left crushed and broken in the wake of Godflesh's advance, before they had even inflicted a second full-length LP on the planet. 'Pure' arrived in 1992 and delivered 50% monstrous rolling metal set to beats that were in turn half early-'90s techno slowed down to heartbeat pace and half puncture wound-rhythm hip-hop. The other 50% of the record satisfied their more experimental urges with extended feedback and noise pieces that are at points exquisitely masochistic trials to endure. By spinning out the length and focus on some tracks, the duo had started to build the sense of churning hypnosis that would be so fundamental to their next album. Looking back on 'Pure' now it is easy to make some criticisms. The production isn't fantastic and both types of song have a tendency to bleed into one another – this does the job of painting a single portrait of the needle-swamped alleyway of British culture nicely, but also chokes the delivery before it can scream its name.

Godflesh – 'Pure' – 1992 ' - “Spite”

'Selfless' was voided into the world in 1994, and was (in my mind) the absolute perfected fusion of everything that had come before it. Brutal, hallucinogenic echoes in the silence. A more natural sound that nevertheless machine-tooled every single percussive concussion and tortured riff to unbelievable precision. Astonishingly produced and released partly by major label Columbia records, this would be Godflesh's only flirtation with mainstream distribution. In every way, 'Selfless' is a mad creature split between several worlds and all the better for it. Unlike the previous releases that meshed organic with mechanical in a blood-and-hydraulic fluid wreckage, this album sequences them together on a genetic level. It would also be where the real seeds of their influence on the world of post-metal would start to be overtly sown.

Godflesh – 'Selfless' – 1994 - “Xnoybis”

1996's 'Songs Of Love And Hate' continued the more organic feel of the previous record to a logical conclusion – replacing many of the beats with a drummer in the form of Brian Mantia (though some hip-hop influence is still clearly on display in the beats that remain), stripping back the sound to a more coherent song-oriented approach and turning every track into a controlled collapse. It's an extremely energetic and powerful record, maintaining the unmistakable bellowing control of Godflesh while dancing around the edge of more mainstream metal. It is, without a doubt, their most easily listenable record. For a crushingly heavy industrial metal album named for a Leonard Cohen LP, that's a hell of a trick. A remix collection of more of less the entire album followed - the imaginatively titled 'Love And Hate In Dub' - and is a darkly entrancing curiosity rather than a necessary investment.

Godflesh – 'Songs Of Love And Hate' – 1996 - “Wake”

Three years later Godflesh decide to fuck with everyone one more time with pretty much the opposite polar extreme of their sound. Electronics are pushed to the fore, guitars are stripped back to an underpinning and everything is suffused with an uncomfortable existential dread for 1999's “Us And Them”. It's sourceless drum n' bass-slathered body horror for a select and elite few, and it is the only time Godflesh have been beaten to the punch. Cubanate's 'Interference' emerged a year prior to this, and while the two are obviously distinct and vital records they carry the same internal agony to the bitter end. Thankfully, by this point the band had so inured their fanbase to a constantly shifting musical landscape they were happy to be pulled violently in whatever direction the duo desired. It is truly the most beautiful thing in existence when an audience matures enough to obviate the term 'sellout'.

Godflesh – 'Us And Them' – 1999 - “I, Me, Mine”

Of note for a decent overview of their albums to this point, as well as a collection of rarities, is the anthology 'In All Languages'. While summarising Godflesh's discography is an exercise in futility, it makes the best stab it is probably possible to make and is therefore a decent starting point. It also contains this slightly obscure gem from a 1989 compilation.

Godflesh – 'In All Languages' – 2001 - “Love Is A Dog From Hell”

Godflesh's final LP to date arrived in 2001, and 'Hymns' is an oddly appropriate coda. More stripped back and direct than any previous work, a live drummer in Ted Parsons is again brought on board to relegate electronic beats to the occasional background piece. Finally perhaps finding a balanced point between the melodic and the furious, it is a unique record that reduces what has come before without sacrificing integrity, quality or the inner emotional turmoil that enabled it all. It is the final whistling noises in the ears of Icarus three seconds before impact.

Godflesh – 'Hymns' – 2001 - “Regal”

The band imploded in 2002, with G.C. Green's departure and Broadrick's ensuing nervous breakdown. Throughout the timeline of Godflesh, Broadrick had released hordes of side project material and continues to do so, as well as being the central force behind the masterful post-metal/shoegaze act Jesu. In 2012 the duo reunited for some live shows and potential new recordings. Beat the pack of inevitable awful hipster twats and get into Godflesh before they emerge. You will not regret it.

Listen To A Whole Load Of Godflesh On Spotify HERE.

Essential Records: Streetcleaner, Selfless, Us And Them, Hymns

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Another Half-Arsed Music Blog Series

Today I had an idea for a new series of blog pieces while sitting in the bath. And like all great bathtime thoughts, it was positively steaming with nostalgia and self-indulgence. So here we are, you and I, staring at each other through the internet with expectation and anticipation tinged with just a hint of dry reptilian lust.

Hold yourself back from screaming in hot bouncing desire, but I am about to fling a bunch of songs at you based on the fact that I used to dance to them a lot in my teenage years at alternative clubs. But they're not just any only dancefloor fodder, oh no.

They are...


That's catchy as all hell. Though if you struggle with it, just remember it as AFOT90STANKOOATRUTBPCTOSBTSA. You have no idea how much I am tempted to shorten that to 'STANK' for the next installment.

Enough chat. Let's play some fuckin' tunes.

Dub War – like Skindred, only the exact same band a couple of years earlier. I'm not exaggerating, incidentally – they actually were the same damn band. They changed their name because reasons, and had a bit more success. But for us children of the nascent days of metallicfusionhybridcore, they were mainly known for the likes of Strike It. AH YEEEH.

Oh, Pete Steele. You were such a massive weird Playgirl bastard with a voice that undressed anyone who inclined that way in a ten-mile radius. I'll forever remember you for your passive-aggressive love/hate relationship with your own subculture, your potential troubling racism (although equally potential hilarious satire) and awesome songs like this one.

Cradle Of Filth weren't always a ridiculous pantomime version of themselves. Once upon a time they were ridiculous pantomime versions of other, more Scandinavian black metal bands. During the latter period they actually seemed to take themselves seriously, which made it all somehow better. If you're going to go rifling through the apocrypha for cool ancient deities to pop into song lyrics, you might as well include some delusional teenage conviction while you're at it.

This Apoptygma Berzerk tune used to get played all the time, but, like, now it isn't? Like, their other stuff gets played more instead? Like it's different now? What's with that?

There's a misconception among old bitter idiots like me that DJs nowadays just play the big bands, whereas in the old days they found time for smaller bands too. It's nonsense. It's just that I, and others like me, no longer recognise the smaller bands. Because we're old and they're shit and everyone dies. I used to dance to this Rosetta Stone song all the time in a long-gone York city centre goth night that took place in a large ballroom with many patrons who wore very little clothing. Outside there was a takeaway van that would make grilled cheese bread rolls if you asked for them. I always had about four while walking back to my student halls. Summary: times now past were the fucking BOMB.


In front of unsuspecting nightclub punters in Preston, Lancashire I and several friends would form a shoulder-linked circle and madly bounce up and down and around the dancefloor to this System Of A Down song until we had achieved our goal of just fucking pissing off everyone in the world. This blog is probably a continuation of that original project, now that I think about it.

Look, Babylon Zoo just happened. Like a natural disaster or a flu epidemic or Curt Hennig's persistent time away from the ring due to injury. It's no one person's fault, so we just have to get on with things and try to build a new life of hope and fulfilled dreams and all that shit.

A prime example of a band who still get decent dancefloor airplay with some long-forgotten and deserving tunes that never get out there anymore. I'm sick as pigshit of hearing that one about not wanting to tidy your bedroom when great Rage Against The Machine songs like this are put on a shelf in a quiet room where grandpa can listen to them without interference from the kids.

Last one for this round. Nine Inch Nails, with a typically upbeat summer pop hit.

STANK will be back! Or not. You know how this blog goes by now. In the meantime, look out for a new Rough Guide coming next weekend/soon/eventually.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Alkaline Trio - A Rough Guide

Alkaline Trio. In the world of the alternative mainstream, they would seem to be a dead cert for stardom. Melodic, catchy, lyrics about murdering people then running off to wash your hands in a river. And don't get me wrong, they have had plenty of success and recognition. I'm pretty sure none of them will ever need to turn tricks on the street-corner again. But hold them up against their pop-punk peers and it is odd that they haven't achieved the same levels of worldwide fame.

Or maybe it isn't.

And maybe that's a good thing. After all, then everyone would like them and people like me would have to pretend they sucked to maintain our fragile veneer of aloof credibility.

Let's have a wee look inside their crimson-and-black painted box of wry horrors, shall we?

Kicking off in 1996 Illinois with a flurry of EPs, the band (Matt Skiba being the only founding member currently remaining) found their feet proper with the foundation of Dan Andriano on bass and co-vocals – an addition that led to the two-headed beast of songwriting and vocal duties they ride to this day. Debut album 'Goddamnit' was spat out in 1998, and shows a surprising maturity given the youth of the band and the undeniable – indeed, self-conscious and proactively - immature nature of the American pop-punk scene. Lyrically it deals with much of what they would concern themselves with for the years to come. Failed romance, addiction, wry observations about friendship and loss. Never one to club you over the head with meaning, even this early in their career Alkaline Trio preferred to sidle up to you stealthily and whisper these things into your ear underneath the melody.

Alkaline Trio – 'Goddamnit' – 1998 - “Nose Over Tail”

'Maybe I'll Catch Fire' followed up in 2000 – and for many old-school fans is their definitive record. Again, it displayed shocking variety and incisiveness for a band in the early stages of their career. It ratcheted back the speed and pure pop-punk bounce somewhat, instead introducing elements of classic rock that they have sneakily kicked around in plain sight since, to varied levels of success. Album closer “Radio” is the solution to every tender quiet song by an alternative band feeding off the mainstream. At this point the band were still regularly releasing EPs, which are also worthy of attention once you have exhausted their LP output.

Alkaline Trio – 'Maybe I'll Catch Fire' – 2000 - “Radio”

A switch in labels and some attention from music journalism worldwide led to the increased success for third record 'From Here To Infirmary', which was undeniably slicker and less raw than their earlier work – both in terms of songwriting and production. It was the start of what can be seen as the band's middle incarnation, which brought them their most immediate success and is in my mind their best work. It kicked them much further into the public eye, but still denied them the headlining recognition many of their peers were to receive. I've touched on that above, but I suppose the real reason is that Alkaline Trio's feelgoods come with a huge, overbearing caveat. They are frequently songs about redemption in one form or another, but it is a pessimistic redemption that is uncertain of ever achieving a lasting success. Murky stuff if all you want is a three-minute three-chord riff to bounce to on a sunny day.

Alkaline Trio – 'From Here To Infirmary' – 2001 - “Take Lots With Alcohol”

I'm not usually a massive fan of split records – I find that bands tend to relegate songs they're not quite happy with to them, since they're not being released under a single banner – but of note at this point was a split EP recorded with the similarly excellent Hot Water Music, who will likely get covered in another chapter of this series. Featuring the bands covering each others' songs as well as a few new tracks, it was notable that Alk3's songs were a bit less straight-forward pop-punk in structure than they had been before. A sign of things to come.

Alkaline Trio – 'Alkaline Trio/Hot Water Music' – 2002 - “Queen Of Pain”

2003's 'Good Mourning' solidified this shift with the majority of the tracks stretching themselves out from their simplistic, if well-crafted, origins to something that straddled the borders of downbeat melodic pop-punk and straight-up mournful hard rock like some kind of thrashing flame-drenched creature. It exemplifies exactly what the band does best, reaching out from a place of dour self-reflection to cheerfully smack you across the cheeks with a shiteating grin. If you start anywhere with Alkaline Trio (and you really should), then start here. Like so many bands, the best work lies in this transition record between two states. In addition, at least part of this is likely down to the band actually settling on a drummer – with Derek Grant's furious attack frequently matching the lyricists' dark melodies perfectly.

Alkaline Trio – 'Good Mourning' – 2003 - “This Could Be Love”

Most of the songs I use in these come from records, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention possibly their best song - “Warbrain”, off the slightly-embarrassing-now-titled 'Rock Against Bush Vol.1' complilation. Yeesh. How 2004. It's also available on the excellent odds n' sods record 'Remains', from 2007. So. Y'know. Get that instead.

Alkaline Trio – 'Rock Against Bush, Vol.1' compilation – 2004 - “Warbrain”

The transition away from their raw punky origins was more or less complete with 2005's 'Crimson'. Certainly divisive among their fans at the time, looking back it's growing increasingly difficult to see where the fuss came from. They have done far worse things since, and the transition was really so natural as to be unnoticeable unless one is invested fully in their first couple of albums. It's definitely a rock record, as opposed to punk. And the slow creeping inevitability of repeating yourself with age means it comes across as more crafted and less directly honest. But it's still a solid album, introducing new gothic (and I use that word in the American sense of a bit creepy and sad rather than actually goth) elements and a penchant for using instrumentation other than guitars and drums that has served them in good stead since.

Alkaline Trio – 'Crimson' – 2005 - “The Poison”

Less favourable things can be said of 2008's 'Agony & Irony', without a doubt the lowpoint of their career to date. Advancing further into the dull comfort of adult rock, there really is little to recommend about the album over their others. It's not appalling and embarrassing in the way that many bands become when they fully shed their youthful energy, but for a band based around hooks and melodies there are surprisingly few on show. The one exception is this track from Dan Andriano, which I suppose proves that even their turds have the occasional blackened gem in them. Often overlooked, certainly in terms of singles, Andriano's contributions to their albums over the years have provided a steady pulse that Matt Skiba can dance around while crowing about flames and hearts and oh-so-dark things in the basement.

Alkaline Trio – 'Agony & Irony' – 2008 - “Do You Wanna Know?”

Touted as a return to their punk rock roots, 2010's 'This Addiction' certainly delivered a far more immediate and satisfying record than they had produced since 2003. The raw energy – and certainly the pining lyricism – seems a bit more forced than it had done previously, but for a band stepping over the corpses they had left behind them they were certainly not really putting a foot wrong. As an effort to recapture their glory years (creatively if not financially, since both 'Crimson' and 'Agony & Irony' were fairly resounding successes sales-wise) it's a solid one.

Alkaline Trio – 'This Addiction' – 2010 - “This Addiction”

And y'know, I only got the new album 'My Shame Is True' this week. So forgive me if I'm vague on it. But it seems like a decent if unremarkable follow-up to 'This Addiction', following a similar blueprint for their mid-period material with an up-to-date production sheen. Ask me again in five years, and maybe I'll hold a more controversial opinion on it. But for now, pitch yourself bodily into their back catalogue. If you're committed, make sure you're wildly laughing, covered in oil and flinging lighted matches around while you do it.

Alkaline Trio – 'My Shame Is True' – 2013 - “Midnight Blue”

Listen To A Whole Load Of Alkaline Trio On Spotify HERE

Essential Records: Maybe I'll Catch Fire, From Here To Infirmary, Alkaline Trio/Hot Water Music, Good Mourning, This Addiction