Wednesday, September 30, 2009

End Of The Affair



This is it, isn't it ?

As none of you were in the pub last night, a recap. We're prepared to acknowledge that maybe music didn't begin in 1976: it all started when a few troglodytes started to bash rocks together while waiting for the sabre-toothed tiger to marinade, giving themselves an edgy rhythmic soundtrack for their cave paintings (or modern art, as it was known at the time). It's just that between 200,000 years B.C. and that pre-ERII Silver Jubilee year, nobody really did anything much with this "music" invention.

Then came (punk) and all that went with it, swiftly branching out in a million directions to give us a panoply of delight so wide it draped from Magazine to Discharge, a period captured with such flair and erudition in "Rip It Up And Start Again" (or, for those less patient, later distilled into the two minutes of Sportique's mighty "Modern Museums"). But that was only the start. In England, roots reggae, briefly allied with the punk culture, came into its own to soundtrack and outflank a society that ever tried to pigeonhole it. While over the water, the hip-hop culture sprung into being, sowing the seeds of the art form that would probably give us both the very best and worst music over the thirty years since. As the decade turned, there was a spate of "waves": new wave, NWOBHM and (gulp) that infamous second wave of punk (altogether now: "DEAD CITIEEEEEES!!!")

From a brace of those myriad post-punk strands (the DIY self-consciousness of the TVPs, the starry-eyed would-be soul of Orange Juice), the C86 movement would emerge. Today it's both brutally over- and under-rated, modern hacks sporting either rose-tinted or shit-stained specs, but for us the likes of the Shop Assistants and the Wedding Present sublimely mingled a spirit of punk with girl and boy-next door narratives; the "other" bands made wonderful, angular, artful noise; and all of them created music that eschewed pretention at a time which otherwise reeked of it. (And if you wanted the *fastest*, most intricate jangle you looked to Zambia and Zimbabwe rather than Leamington Spa). The punk / metal tape-traders had also been busy, constructing an international underground which gave life and breath to Repulsion and then to the grindcore dynasty, and continued to gain succour from the works of breakthrough artists like Slayer (who, by now, were part of the melding of genres that saw Rick Rubin harnessing - no, unleashing - Run DMC's true and frightening potential at the same time as producing thrash's sit-up-and-mosh moment, "Reign In Blood").

So it was all mixed up, but all good. The Smiths were at the peak of their powers, before their split in '87 marked the first throes of the long, drawn-out death of "indie", but those in what would later be known as the indie-pop camp had Sarah fighting our corner for a few years yet, and if some of the alleged new Smiths would be, to put it politely, disappointing (Paul Calf certainly had it right on Suede), for some of us Public Enemy were emerging as the real new Smiths in terms of reach, ambition and sheer life-changing vigour. In the UK, PE's Brixton Academy takeover was that decade's "100 Club" moment, and the evolution of hip-hop over here was swift, even startling: from Three Wize Men's rough charm to the gift of Hijack's full-on (swoon...) inspiration in what felt a short burst of months. Across the pond, the golden era of rap came - and admittedly went - but not without changing musical lives forever with its education, poetry and power. Those four Eric & Ra albums still stand so strong.

Things got a bit rocky in the 1990s with the bad joke that was Britpop, and it's probably kinder not to mention "C96" (save for having captured Lauren Laverne's career high): only HMHB's tongue-in-cheek invention of "godcore" truly sought to stop the indie rot, but luckily the house, techno and acid revolution that had begun at the tail-end of the Thatcher junta was starting to develop into more interesting, sometimes less hedonistic splinters, and by the end of the decade the Britpop bandwagon lay justly in a ditch with the best electronic and experimental music showing there was still material out there that could challenge and excite. And soon, there would be those who had the guile to draw together many of the disparate threads. Jangle was no longer "massive" (boo), but jungle was (yaay). The early-90s gangsta rap albums and artists had true potency and range, but before too long that scene bred only rappers whose interest was in milking cliche rather than communicating truth. Still, at the same time that hip-hop in the States was disappearing up P. Diddy's nu-capitalist fundament, there was still UK talent starting to kick hard against the pricks, while garage music transmuted into grime, originally a soundtrack for the musically-savvy dispossessed that - at its finest - delivered a *compelling* listening experience.

It was now metal's turn to struggle a little, the sports- and nu- varieties ineffably lame, and even the real but cheap-feeling thrills of the black- or death- bands no substitute for the politics & righteous anger that expired once hardcore crossed over (and the world and his wife hijacked the grindcore parade). Even the quintessential metal roster, Earache, was finding that its blue riband releases were more likely to be uncompromising, post-gabber hammer techno straight from mainland Europe than next-gen Floridian thrashcore. But across the board, there were always jewels worth scrabbling for: here in London, acid techno was on a delicious rise (it was surely no coincidence that many of its leading lights had been schooled in punk and indie bands themselves in day). And, until the sad news came, Peel was playing pretty much "all of the above".

And the internet came, a Pandora's box that made crucial fashions easier to pursue, and for us to discover our own new pet bands and labels and scenes, who we could instantly enthuse about with our new-fangled paperless fanzines. Admittedly, the web being worldwide rather than worldy-wise, a few wood vs. trees issues were starting to appear, but quality and quantity were still - just about - different things. And grind begat goregrind, and dubstep begat wobble, and drum n' bass begat jump-up, and indie-pop... well, begat nothing, just kind of serenly drifted on, although on every corner there was some clown trying to subvert it, to invoke the dead hand of TWEE.

So in this exhausting time since '76, there have seemingly been no constants (apart from the Fall, of course). We've had everything from 2-tone to 2-step, from romo to emo, from white metal to "life" metal to pirate-metal to "nu-grave" ffs: there are surely no musical genres left to be invented (but if we're wrong, we'd nominate "riot boy" and "lo-NRG" to try). And the last five years have been especially breakneck: micro-scenes replaced by nano-scenes as the human attention span plummets all the time towards that of the poor unburdened goldfish. The average pressing no longer 10,000 shellac slabs but a dozen homecooked CD-Rs, even for those who haven't abandoned pressings altogether in favour of brittle seas of 1s and 0s.

And to top it all, we were all growing up, and life was getting complicated enough in itself. There was work and there was romance and there was family and there was work again. And for every great record there were exponentially more terrible ones, and sometimes we seemed only to be being sent the terrible ones for review. And reviews were pretty redundant anyway because anyone could just click a mouse and listen to the tracks for free, and in the rapidfire, impatient '00s reviewers only gave each song the most cursory listen before cutting and pasting the press release anyway. We thought that sucked, and wanted to *say* something more, but both flesh and spirit were weak. And every year brought wave after wave of newness, inducing a spiral of grey-green migraine visions as we struggled in vain to catch up not only with the new school, but with all the wonders we'd missed since the Pistols launched their raid on the national consciousness in days so distant that Jim Callaghan, Lord rest his soul, was but a new broom. And much as we still loved digging for gold, we found ourselves, increasingly, heretically, thinking that perhaps what music really needed was a full stop.

* * * * *

AT ABOUT THE SAME time as most right-thinking world citizens realised that Houston's Insect Warfare, bassless grindcore fiends par excellence, were one of the globe's better musical combos ("Disassembler" was the single best song of 2008, with Boss Money's "Cold World" and Keitzer's "No Justice No Peace" second and third, in case you were wondering), they've only gorn and split up. What they have left us with, however, is a full release - via a resurgent, post-gabber Earache - of their album masterpiece, "World Extermination". The front cover, a monochrome montage of a seemingly unsaddled horseman of the apocalypse towering over a disintegrating skyscraper city swarming with giant insects, forewarns us of what is to come. Less fittingly, the cooling towers on the back sleeve remind us of the cover of Monograph's "Paper Museum". A bit.

The record, on the other hand, most sincerely doesn't. There's a curt, ramrod sheen of intense, fidgety white noise before we bundle excitedly into the opening "Oxygen Corrosion" and the tone is set for the splendid next 22 minutes 24 seconds of your life. They've been called thrashcore, noisecore, power-violence, all sorts, but *this is grindcore*, as Jarvis didn't say. A message in a (broken) bottle from a time before "grind" became a lazy catch-all for anything that crossed a fairly rudimentary noise vs. speed threshold. That wonderful sound you can hear is a barrage of Dobber's blastbeats and hi-tensile yet superclean drumming, Beau's furious locked-groove riffage, and "singer" Rahi's barked and yelped quickfire staccato vocals, from which the words cannot sensibly be divined.

(Luckily, the lyric sheet does allow the words to be deciphered, and while it's clear - for example, from Terrorizer's excellent double feature on grindcore past and present - that main music man and spokesperson Beau doesn't regard IW as an overtly political band, there's no doubting Rahi's splenetic ire and lyrical energy, often directed at political targets. Ditties like "Paranoia" and "Enslaved By Machinery" decry where the human race has got to: a title like "Internet Era Alienation" describes just what we were lamenting only a few paras ago. Over the score of songs here, Rahi tells stories of stalking, confusion, message board idiots, targeted Luddism, the mind of a suicide bomber and, of course, nuclear extinction. The whole of life's rich tapestry, then).

And if that "wonderful sound" is the template, then the experience of this record is a series of variations on the formula, each song emphasising some of the common elements, whether the blastbeat, the breakdown or the coursing riff, a little more than others. (None of this, of course, means you can't dance to "World Extermination": our favourite tracks for jiving to are album highlight "Manipulator", "Self-Termination" and the frenzied finale of "Necessary Death", since you ask). The track lengths are pretty consistent, with most tunes crashlanding after a minute or so, only a couple at 20 seconds or less, and only a couple above 90. Occasionally the hurtling metallic onslaught seems to lose focus - when a track parks the noise for a scintilla of time before the next resumes and just BRINGS the chaos once more - so a few listens help to get used to the disquieting, pummelling music. Many albums have light and shade: Insect Warfare just play dark, making those briefest pauses of breath between songs shine like Blackpool illuminations.

Over this bleak palette of deep urban greys, occasionally other reference points or textures come into play: the disarming brevity of the unforgiving "Street Sweeper" and "Zone Killer", a spreading of wings on "Hydraphobia", a more reflective slow grunge tint to "Decontamination". "Mass Communication Mind Fuck" has a certain (hyperfast) grindcrust quality to it: tinges of ye olde Extreme Noise Terror, dare we say. Other nods are textual: the closer, "Evolved Into Obliteration", melds the title of Napalm Death's genre-defining second album with that of its legendary opening track. Unlike "Evolved As One", however, there is no brake pedal to fan the record's searing pace: instead, the song simply becomes one final attack in the aftermath, as concentrated and visceral as the previous nineteen. As Confucius once observed, if you don't deviate from a template this good, there can be no bad songs.

And the album was recorded in a single day: quite an achievement, given the skill and sheer physical endeavour needed to fashion something so technically tight, but perhaps also a part-explanation of its unrelenting focus. It's this purity - unity - of vision which is the reason this has to be album of the year, even if a few lucky souls got hold of it in its original incarnation in '07. If you trace a line through every grind landmark - "Horrified", "From Enslavement To Obliteration", "World Downfall" and then "Inhale / Exhale" - it's quite probable that it would finally lead you to this record. And now IW have gone the way of all the greats, leaving this (oh, along with a 51-track one-sided LP and a few unbelievably obscure split 7"s and an even more limited demo bootleg LP which we've a moggy-in-hell's of ever getting hold of) as their parting gift to an ungrateful Earth.

Maybe music has, indeed, come full circle (evolved into obliteration, natch), in which case "World Extermination", full of grindiloquent splendour yet as rugged and primitive as the rocks those cavemen once banged together, is the ultimate soundtrack. And if we're right in these our gloomier moments, and music does deserve a perfect full stop, this record might just be it.

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