Tag Archive: post-punk


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A Man Alive’ is the fourth album from Thao Nguyen with her project The Get Down Stay Down (she also records as half of Thao & Mirah) and is one of the most personal to date. A large amount the lyrics deal with absence specifcally her father’s absence. These lyrics are a stark contrast to the albums thrashy party music. There is a bittersweet sense throughout the album that binds it together and rewards the listener with repeated listens as their understanding deepens and the layers are peeled away.

Merrill Garbus (aka Tune-yards) is on board as producer and contributes a lot instrumentally and back with backing vocals throughout the album. There is a lot of similarities between Thao’s vocal delivery and sonic and stylistic choices when compared to Tune-yards back catalogue. The use of lo-fi and distorted fuzzy production and funky, tribal rhythms that have a hint of Afro be about them I just two similarities. However, these similarities don’t spoil a brilliant album and is like a more direct version of Tune-yards “Nikki Nack” that sometimes suffered from overstuffing every song with elements and thus could be a very overwhelming experience. Another useful reference point is that of Deerhoof who combine serrated indie/post-punk guitars with Afro beat rhythms and poppy vocal melodies and have a similarly lo-fi aesthetic.

The album opens with ‘Astonished Man’ with a down tempo beat and vocals opening the track, then heavy buzzing synth bass joins in and push the track forward. In the chorus there’s a cool hook played by what sounds like a badly tuned guitar. Everything is very raw and lo-fi in a good way and reminds me of Deerhoof. Though Thao can create a more complex melody. Continuing in a similar vein is ‘Departure’ with its opening minimal sound set just a drum machine some percussion and vocals but then we get stabs of guitar and a deep thick synth bass joining in. At points in the chorus vocals to become a little grating and recall that of Garbus’ wI personally I don’t have a problem with Garbus’ vocals but I understand how they can annoy some people. ‘Departure’ is also the track where the lyrical theme begins With the shouted line “Half of all my blood in vain,” standing out. ‘Guts’ with its down tempo sparse beats and organ the only things accompanying the vocals, continues the lyrical theme with Thao stridently declaring “I’ve got the guts/ I don’t need my blood.”.

Next up is ‘Fool forever’ which opens with a tightly wound guitar playing across fast skittering drums while the vocal moves steadily over the top. This then breaks down temporarily before the riff returns to be joined by another riff played on very distorted organ, the jittery feel of the track is amplified by these elements combining. The Ballard-like ‘Millionaire’ Recalls ‘Maps’ by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs with Thao playing the part of Karen O. That this time the word is not directed at a lover but her father, “Oh daddy, I broke in a million pieces/ That makes you a millionaire.” The song opens with a sparse guitar melody and held organ delayed chords backing an almost bare Thao. A bass drum keeps time far in the background. Around 20 seconds in with the guitar and organ making a musical change to play soaraway chords for Thao to sing a long reverberant melody over. This structure is repeated throughout.

‘Meticulous bird’ puts us back on the upbeat tip with driving drums kick in the track off. Screeching synths play, counter point to the vocals weaving in in and out of the verse and chorus. The track is little difficult to listen to at first but once you get used to it actually works very well. It also another example of contrasts of sweet and serrated views on this album.The album closes as it began with a down tempo track and also brings back the main lyrical theme on The album closes as it began with a down tempo track and also brings back the main lyrical theme on ‘Endless Love’ where Thao sings a simple melody (sample lyrics include “I’ve got an endless love/ no one can starve,” and the chorus'”I don’t want it/ I don’t want it/ Carve it on out of me.”) over a sparse bass line and beat its Garbus on backing vocals again. The track provides very mellow end to the album though this is offset by nasty fuzzy guitar solo wind its wonky way through the middle of the track.

Let me know what you think of ‘A Man Alive’ in the comments or via Twitter.

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I’ve been a fan of Factory Floor since discovering them back in 2009 when The Quietus began championing their cause. Since then the trio have collaborated with the likes of Simon Fisher Turner, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, released a series of astonishing 12” singles and remixes and stunned many a gig and festival audience. All this has lead to one of most highly anticipated albums of the year and it doesn’t disappoint.

The album opens with ‘Turn It Up’ which sets the scene for the rest of the album perfectly. It opens with electronic percussion that’s swiftly followed by a bass drum, processed male vocals and intense electronic cowbell. Nik Colk’s vocals join the male vocals and the track starts to feel like a minimal Arthur Russell production but more industrial in feel. Chattering techno hi-hats cut in upping the tension. The vocals get increasingly more processed and alien as the track progresses recalling those of Laurel Halo circa ‘Logic Hour’. Next up is ‘Here Again’ which begins with a synth arpeggio that fades in and out of view. Live drums kick playing in a breakbeat style and female vocals echo out. The track reminds me of Chris & Cosey who Factory Floor have collaborated with. There a great clap that comes in around two minutess in. Another arpeggio comes in to play counterpoint to the original in the third minute. the second half of the track is dominated by lots of descending delay effects, rolling toms and chattering hi-hats Colk’s vocals hovering just above.

The single ‘Fall Back’ combines a thumping acoustic bass drum, throbbing synth arpeggio and slap in the face electronic snare and toms during its intro. Colk’s vocals cut in coated in  thick effects (pitched shifted, with maybe some reverb). The chattering hi-hats kick in around 2 minutes in and give the track extra forward momentum and a faster feel. I love the way the intensity builds and when the acid bass that kicks in part through with its great spluttering, squelchy sound. ‘Two Different Ways’ is an great track that shows off the band ability to make you dance as it does their industrial intensity. It starts off with electronic bass drum and snare, backing huge synth arpeggio, toms roll in and out and hi-hats tease, the female vocal drops in coated in reverb. Wood blocks kick in with a funky rhythm around three minutes in. Wet, gloopy delay effects drip over the mix around the four minute mark, then the track finds yet more momentum with the synth bass arpeggio growing stronger and stronger as the track progresses.

The album finishes with the one-two punch of ‘Work Out’ and ‘Breathe In’. The former picks up where ‘Two Different Ways’ left off as electronic drums and percussion thump and patter while a stabby bass synth plays over the top. Tom-toms fall all over the place. Colk’s vocal echoes out creating a harmony. In second half there are more delay effects and an arpeggio that add variety and intensity, as does noise mixed in with the hi-hats and synths. A funky more resonate synth enters around 5 minutes adding extra movement and impetus to the track. The latter is the perfect end to the album and strongly recalls Cabaret Voltaire in their mid 80’s electro prime.  A thick bass synths starts things off before being swiftly joined by a tough acoustic four to the floor beat and intermit processed vocals. The vocals are used as samples rather than typical use of lead vocals.

All-in-all Factory Floor have created a great debut album that both lives up to the four years of hype that preceded it and is also surprisingly accessible compared to what I (and most critics) had expected. Go out and get yourself a copy of “Factory Floor” you won’t regret it.

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Pere Ubu – “The Modern Dance” (Radar Records, 1978)

This month’s selection for Classics Critiqued is similar to April’s Classics Critiqued choice “Y” by The Pop Group. Like “Y”, “The Modern Dance” is an album that regularly receives critical praise (it has been featured in 24 different critics’ charts) but it and Pere Ubu still seem in the shadow of their more accessible peers. “The Modern Dance” was the début album by Pere Ubu who had formed out the ruminants of Cleveland, Ohio garage rock band Rocket from the Tombs in 1975. Ubu founders David Thomas (vocals) and Peter Laugher (guitar) (replaced by Tom Herman when he died of drug and alcohol abuse in 1977) were joined by Tim Wright (guitar/bass) (replaced by Tony Maimone (bass/piano) in 1977 after he left to form no-wavers DNA), Allen Ravenstine (synths) and Scott Krauss (drums) in the band’s original line-up. Together they “combined art and garage rock – synth whines, cut-up tape loops, atonal howling and chronic distortion”. They released their first three singles on Thomas’ Hearthen label between 1975 – 1977.

These quickly established the band as one that was difficult to pigeonhole. They were instantly “recruited to ‘punk’ then gathering momentum as journalists continued to talk up the CBGB scene while monitoring the early stirrings of insurrection in London.” All this despite the prog rock like structure of “30 Seconds Over Toyko” and Thomas’ assertion that “our ambitions were considerably different from the Sex Pistols”, he saw punk as puerile and destructive, “Pere Ubu didn’t want to piss on rock music; they wanted to contribute to it, help it mature as an art form”. By 1978 and the release of “The Modern Dance” the band were primed to show the world they weren’t part of the reductive punk movement but closely related to their early ’70s inspirations such as Roxy Music, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Neu!, The Stooges, Brian Eno and The Soft Machine as well as their current peers The Residents, Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, A Certain Ratio, Scritti Politti, The Pop Group and Public Image Ltd.

An important thing to remember when listening to Pere Ubu is that they formed in Cleveland, Ohio, which was in the ’70s a shadow of its former glory as a giant in the iron industry. This permeates the music with a strong sense of solid concrete and a metallic feel. The band described their music as “industrial folk” and like their peers in Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool their music spoke of the landscape in which they lived without actually referring to it lyrically. The harshness of Ravestine’s synths, the razor-sharp, mechanical riffs of new guitarist Tom Herman and the motorik rhythm section all added to this feeling of industrial buildings and decay as a back drop to their music. The band “waxed lyrical about the area in their first interviews: ore-loaded barge floating down the Cuyahoya; steel foundries pounding flat-out night and day; the glare from the blast furnaces bruising the night in hues of green and purple; belching chimneys and lattices of piping silhouetted against the sky.” “We thought it was magnificent … like going to an art museum or something” recollected singer David Thomas 20 years later.

The band saw music as multi dimensional and used Ravenstine’s synth and tape loops to invoke images in the mind’s eye. “I’ve always been into music more on a visual than aural level.” David Thomas said of Ravenstine in a NME interview in 1978, “He’s at the core of Ubu, I suppose. He’s a very unusual synthesizer player. He’s very purist with it, and he doesn’t even have a keyboard – instead he has a touch tone dial. He doesn’t want to combine anything musical with the synthesizer, because he feels – and rightly so, I think – that it’s a new instrument and should be treated as such.” Drummer Krauss agreed “He’d make a noise like a five-pound can with a whole bunch of bumble bees inside” said “Krauss then he’d change the wave form and it’d sound like a beach with a load of people on it. Ten seconds later, it’s flip to a freight car noise. The imagination-activating level was absolutely amazing.”

However, the music wasn’t all doom and industrial gloom. The Cleveland sense of humour came into play in the band’s lyrics. “Thomas is more of an ‘actor’ than a musician for whom surreal lyrics and student humour attenuate the dramatic force of the performance. Within the sound there is also a feeling of resigned fatalism, collective madness and rational fear.” Thomas’ vocals aren’t that a typical rock front man he “wails, yelps, gargles” and exploits the full gamut of human vocal sounds to enhance and underline the emotion he’s expressing. “Thomas never got “the modern dance”. The emotions were real, but everything else was a joke, just like the music which has a good laugh as well with, skipping along amid the destruction and anxiety as the singer asks to be humoured – “it was just a joke mon.”

All this combined to make an album that from the opener ‘Non Alignment Pact’’s “furious, deafening bacchanal of cryptic slogans, ungainly vocals, discordant strumming, electronic distortions and primordial pulsations”, through the title track’s sound “of primordial organic funk…which evokes the smoke of factory chimneys and the ordered structure of the production line”, the sweeping menacing winds of ‘Street Waves’ evoking the miasmic gust after a nuclear explosion, propelled at supersonic speed by a stop-start rhythm and invoking a prophetic vision of the apocalypse. Finally finishing with ‘Humor Me’’s jangly jesting undercut by the lyrics and atmosphere of despair.

For such a complex album that combined the world’s art and garage rock or as the band punningly put it “avant-garage”, it has gone on to be a direct or indirect influence on many bands and artists since. The most obvious of these would be the Pixies. Their sound, surreal lyrics and the appearance of singer Black Francis all echo Pere Ubu. It’s unlikely that the earliest works of TV on the Radio would have been the same without a trail having been blazed for them and modern underground rock bands like Liars and Oneida plough a similar furrow to that explored on “The Modern Dance”. Cult rocker Julian Cope also covered ‘Non Alignment Pact’, which seems to be an acknowledgement of the band’s importance by one of their post-punk peers. Like “Y” by The Pop Group mentioned at the start of this column, “The Modern Dance” tests the very boundaries of what music, particularly rock music, is capable of before it becomes a tuneless mess. It won’t be the easiest listen ever but “The Modern Dance” will reward those who stick with it and consume all of its intricacies.

You can listen to “The Modern Dance” here.

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Wire – ‘Pink Flag’ (1977, Harvest/EMI)


Wire and their debut album ‘Pink Flag’ are a complex proposition: arriving at the tail end of punk but too early for the beginnings of post-punk and the ideas and attitudes that aligned best with Wire’s. They were not musicians merely discarding the excesses of progressive rock but a band learning to play their instruments and hating that punk rock was becoming a self parody, descending into the yobbish pub rock that they had reacted against. A band not only interested in making music but ‘art objects’ and concerned with image and performance.

Wire, like many art rock and post-punk bands, formed at art school. Originally called Overload the band comprised of Bruce Gilbert (guitar), George Gill (lead guitar) and Colin Newman (guitar/vocals) and they were later joined by drummer Robert Gotobed and bassist Graham Lewis. During this period the members were divided. Gill the skilled musician and main writer wanted to pursue a more traditional approach while the others were interested in their school’s guest lecturer Brian Eno’s ideas about non musicianship and limited skill not being a barrier to artistic expression. Even at this early stage Gilbert and Newman thought of Wire as more of an art project than simply a band. The pair considered that by wearing the same black and white clothing and having a disciplined presence on stage they would not distract from the music. This idea of distancing of themselves from their music became an important feature of Wire.

Wire also detached themselves from other punk bands though they were spurred on by the notion that punk broke down the traditional concept of needing to be a trained musician to create music. Lewis recalls “We felt an affinity but we weren’t part of the social scene” while Newman says “I viewed as a bit of laboratory, not musically but culturally, because the people were experimenting with themselves: with their behaviour, their appearance and their clothes. Everything was up for grabs.” Their age was a big factor as punk was focused on youth and rebellion. As Ira Robbins of Trouser Press Record Guides puts it “Wire seemed like adults. They weren’t just kids spewing invective. They were intellectuals making a very informed statement that just happened to sound like kids spewing invective.” Wire were allergic to the ragged rock ‘n’ roll traditions that their peers were morphing into in front of their eyes. Their discipline shunned the messiness of punk but kept its speed and aggression while imbuing it with a minimalism that was closer related to Kraftwerk, Steve Reich and Terry Riley and though they didn’t sound like these artists they embraced their aesthetics and principles. Appropriately for their arty sounds and ideas Wire signed to Harvest, a label famous for releasing progressive and art rock bands in the early 1970s, before releasing their debut.

This minimalism manifested itself in the artwork of ‘Pink Flag’, which started as a simple line drawing and then later developed from a photo of a bare flag pole in Plymouth where the band was playing. Gotobed’s drum kit was stripped down to the essential bass drum, snare and hi-hats and his drumming style followed suit. By the time Wire came to record ‘Pink Flag’ they were down to the classic quartet having shed George Gill and his winding solos.

The album opens with ‘Reuters’, a brilliant introduction with its crawling build of guitar and bass standing in stark opposition to their peers’ records that opened with an upbeat anthem. It perfectly demonstrated the Wire blueprint and a statement of their intent. Immediately countering its predecessor is the 28 second rush of ‘Field Day for the Sundays’ and pace-slower ‘Three Girl Rumba’ (which features their most famous riff that was later used by Elastica for their hit ‘Connection’). The opener’s use of unconventional structural framing that concentrates on the beginning and the end of the song not the song’s content and ambiguous lyrics are threads that run through ‘Pink Flag’, particularly on ‘Field Day for the Sundays’, ‘Surgeon’s Girl’ (with its misplaced count-in subverting that rock cliché) and ‘The Commercial’. The next big moment is ‘Lowdown’ with its slowed down funk riff and atmosphere placing it firmly in a trio alongside ‘Reuters’ and the title track as ‘taut minimalist exercises in dread and menace’. ‘Surgeon’s Girl’ separates Wire further from punk and together with ‘Fragile’ and ‘Mannequin’ hints at why the band signed to Harvest. Newman described the former as ‘Pink Floyd, fast’ referring to Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, which the other songs echo and the jangly guitars of ‘Mannequin’ recall late 60s psychedelia. In another extreme swing the album ends with ‘12XU’ a punk blast that is one of the album’s standouts. It bursts out at full speed and doesn’t waste an ounce of fat adding to the split second feeling and then it’s over as quickly as it began.

‘Pink Flag’ could appear to be a collection of dissident tracks, certainly some were deliberately sequenced to jar, but this was conceived as an ‘art object’ and is best experienced as a glorious whole and it went on to influence a range of alternative and experimental artists, impacting on Blur, post-punk revivalists The Futureheads, radiophonic experimentalist Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud who formed Githead with Newman in 2004) and the 80s US punk underground with the likes of Henry Rollins and Minutemen extolling its virtues. Despite everything that could have not worked Wire created a disciplined work that still sounds as unique and strong today as it did in 1977.

Classics Critiqued

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

May 2010: ‘Metal Box’ by Public Image Limited (Virgin Records, 1979)


For this month’s Classics Critiqued I revisit a post-punk classic which fuses together dissident elements of propulsive disco beats, deep dub bass lines, shards of metallic guitar and caterwauling vocals. To say that Public Image Limited (PiL) were ambitious is an understatement and it is a credit to their ability to harness these elements that this album still stands up under scrutiny today.

Formed by John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) in the aftermath of the Sex Pistols’ break-up. PiL are often considered the original post-punk band though this is a subject of much debate as the term is a vague phrase. Lydon asked old school friend John Wardle, who was rechristened Jah Wobble due to his dub-influenced bass sound, to be PiL’s bass player and recruited ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene. An ad for a drummer was placed in Melody Maker from which they acquired Jim Walker. The band locked themselves away in rehearsal crafting their own style, fusing influences such as the Krautrock of Can, the dub of King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Levene’s ‘metallic’ guitar style and Lydon’s sneering and howling vocals. During this Lydon concocted the idea that they should be not just a band but a ‘communications company’ called Public Image Limited who credited musical and non-musical members at all times.

PiL were a fractious and embattled set of individuals at the best of times (the album features five drummers) whose sound was bound together by Jah Wobble’s dub bass lines. ‘Pure vibration’ is the phrase Wobble used to describe his grooves that brought movement and dread to the mix. Above this Levene chips, scraps, splutters and riffs on his aluminium necked guitar reflecting the album’s film canister casing with his shards of silver. Previous to their second release, Lydon’s central emotional expression had been one of anger at the establishment be that the Royal family, government or religion. Though there are still moments of this during ‘Metal Box’, it is an album preoccupied with death, destruction and darkness, the music acting as the perfect foil to Lydon’s wailings.

This creates a collection that can appear difficult to actually listen to and enjoy. At the time of release it was met with either devotion or derision by the music press yet ‘Metal Box’ is far from unlistenable. It is a well executed group of strong musical elements and personalities that could so easily have gone awry but instead produced excellence. ‘Produced’ is a key word for ‘Metal Box’ as the band recorded improvised takes in the studio and edited, layered and mixed multiple versions of these into the final album versions. Though tape editing and composite takes were not new in 1979 the manner in which they were exploited was ahead of the curve of modern music production and PiL used it to their advantage on tracks like ‘Memories’, ‘Careering’ and ‘Radio 4’, which are master classes in the employment of studio-as-instrument.

In some respects ‘Metal Box’ is the last true PiL album. Wobble departed to pursue a solo career shortly after its release leaving Lydon and Levene to persevere once more for ‘Flowers of Romance’ through fug of heroin addiction. Lydon spent days watching films while high as Levene struggled to overcome his drug induced creative block. When he did, however, his injecting of the drug meant Levene couldn’t play guitar and so with the tapes constantly running he slowly composed the album with Lydon occasionally joining in on a variety of acoustic instruments and treated vocals.

Yet the magic was gone. The glue that had held the band together and propelled it forward had dissolved and Levene left after an aborted attempt at a fourth album. Lydon continued alone with a shifting line-up of other post-punk musicians such as Bruce Smith (ex-Pop Group drummer), John McGeoch (former Magazine and Siouxsie & The Banshees guitarist) and Lu Edmonds (ex-Mekons guitarist) and a succession of session musicians. In some ways Lydon can be forgiven for what could be viewed as betrayal because PiL were a ‘communications company’, not a band and with each album released after ‘Flowers of Romance’ there is a different and diverse sound that is true to their origins.

Though they are rarely cited as a direct influence, PiL and ‘Metal Box’ have impacted on the music scene since its 1979 release. New York based post-punk revivalists Radio 4 named themselves after the album’s last song and The Rapture’s debut album ‘Echoes’ owes PiL a debt in many places, especially the claustrophobic production style. Many acts on DFA and the now defunct Output Records exhibit a tendency towards Wobblesque bass lines (check out ‘Make It Happen’ by Playgroup) and the dank and deathly atmospherics as employed by the likes of Tall Blonde.

Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream has spoken about PiL inspiring him to create their masterpiece ‘Screamdelica’ and their bass player Mani was influenced by ‘Metal Box’ during the formative years of his first band the Stone Roses. Two Lone Swordsmen’s electronic studio trickery renders PiL’s influence in a new context and Alan McGee named his record label Poptones and his club night Death Disco after two classic PiL moments. In truth, any deconstruction of rock music and retooling of studio created ideas are easily linked back to ‘Metal Box’ and its pioneering sound and style.

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