It’s easy, through the rosy tint of nostalgia, to believe that indie’s Year Zero came with the release of C-86, the NME’s now legendary compilation of bands from across a musical spectrum which at the time felt all consuming, but in retrospect proved to be less so.
As our tastes became moulded over time by a particular strain of machismo led, sixties-filtered tropes, history became even more blurred, to the point that a British flag would be draped over everything with direct lineage to 1976, a panoply of genres from post-punk to Britpop.
Beat Happening are not only a neat, cross-Atlantic rebuttal to that theory in evolutionary terms – their first EP was released in 1983 – but also proof that the fiercely non-conformist values of punk could be subverted into a perverse art form, one whose ethic was almost consciously as much anti-music as it was anti-performance.
Formed in 1983 in Olympia, Washington, local college students Calvin Johnson and Heather Lewis along (eventually) with guitarist Bret Lunsford found themselves feted almost from the outset to be either critically adored or condemned. Kurt Cobain biographer Michael Azerrad devoted an entire passage of his alt-rock odyssey Our Band Could Be Our Life to them yet, both live and in the press, they drew criticism and aggression which ran in almost inverse proportion to their apparent passivity.
To further both parallel and underline his credentials as an auteur with a prescient Alan McGee-like vision, Johnson had in 1982 set up the K label (based initially in his kitchen), one which prospers today and (in)famously whose logo the doomed Cobain had tattooed on his arm.
Back with the Beats, ‘Look Around‘ is a chronological retrospective which spans an on and off career of fifteen years, one in which they offered cues to generations of kids who grew up to cool out on twee, lo-fi and stereotype free songs complemented by ham-fisted instrument craft. Their gift was to downsize the egotism of rock and roll, hence the elemental feel of opener ‘Our Secret‘, its childlike simplicity rendering the chutzpah of contemporary entertainment awkwardly redundant. Johnson’s hugely atonal delivery – since mimicked by vocalists in a swathe of alternative bands – is then as now however a bridge for the determined to cross before enlightenment.
Not that singing duties were his alone; Lewis providing a slightly more harmonic counter, one which challenges far less on the otherwise just as rudimentary early material ‘Foggy Eyes‘, ‘What’s Important‘ and ‘In Between‘.
Whoever was at the mic, the whirl of superficially disparate influences – garage psychedelia, folk, primeval fifties grease monkey strokes – meant a lack of mould which many British groups who so obviously aped them could’ve learned from. Johnson’s evil, drug guzzling, sex monster twin plies his trade for instance on ‘Bad Seeds‘ (think groovy, early B-52’s), ‘Bewitched‘ (ditto but instead fellow Washingtonians The Sonics) and ‘Pine Box Derby‘ (The Cramps). As occasionally jarring as its libido-spilling wantonness displays a much needed sense of self-deprecation and humour, there are still – whether by coincidence or design – just as many incidences of ‘Teenage Caveman‘s or ‘Angel Gone‘s, cut from cloth so basic they skate the line between genius and parody.
Given the thousands of words spilt about the trio since the time when an inky, decrepit fanzine was the only way to meet like-minded people, ‘Look Around’s finest moments are found in both an archetype and key moment of Beat Happening’s unreserved profundity. The bubblegum star prize goes to ‘Cast a Shadow‘, on which over a rolling, dark-eyed surf pop rifferola Johnson almost reveals some inflection over his words of misanthropic longing. By contrast, the grit in the oyster is ‘Godsend‘ over nine minutes of forlorn, latter dayish understatement, leaving you to consider that having seen pretty much all of their oeuvre out and seen them all back, was this now a moment of ironic mimickery, or an oblique celebration of what they’d somehow achieved? Anyway, it’s still an essay in build and build, eschewing the notion of climax, always spinning like a launderette machine left alone in the middle of a rainy afternoon.
Exercises like this one always seem to have that vague feeling of commodity, no matter how much hipster wattage can be squeezed out of the artists in question. Thinking laterally there’s just as much argument that Beat Happening accidentally created the professionally amateur ethos which has brought us everyone from My Bloody Valentine to Beck.
Whether this set of unlikely parables constitutes proof to you of something as radical as that or not, it’s undeniably an always fascinating listen.
With a building hype in their native Australia, Holy Holy’s debut album ‘When The Storms Would Come’ finally crosses over the Pacific and gets its European release.
The nucleus of this musical project comprises singer-songwriter Timothy Carroll and guitarist/composer Oscar Dawson. The duo initially met whilst teaching English in south-east Asia, but Holy Holy didn’t begin until they fortuitously encountered one another again while in Europe some years later.
The duo honed their craft and sound on the snowy streets of Berlin and Stockholm, but eventually returned home and began working with drummer Ryan Strathie (ex-Hungry Kids Of Hungary) and bassist Graham Ritchie. The project’s musical heritage can be traced back to the songwriting and musicianship of artists like Neil Young and Crazy Horse, but together with producer Matt Redlich, Holy Holy here have created a remarkably mature, contemporary indie rock record.
The wistful opener ‘Sentimental and Monday’ peers softly like a morning dawn as Dawson’s sparse guitar twinkles transform into razor sharp scrapes and Carroll reflects on the past over a relaxed groove, musing over the fact that time is just a series of moments slowly slipping through our fingers. The booming, eerie single ‘History’ hypnotizes with a creeping sense of destruction as Carroll’s delivery and sentiment lures and stalks with a tamed rawness that is rare to find.
Carroll’s songwriting, on a fundamental level, is rooted in tradition with influences such as Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac; the latter’s presence felt on the mystical, acoustic led ‘Outside Of The Heart Of It‘ – in an album full of gorgeous moments, the track’s piano-led outro ranks as its most serene.
The modern desolate balladry of ‘If I Were You‘, meanwhile, gallops over icy arpeggiated guitars as Carroll lists his regrets and misgivings. The results are better when Carroll displays some equanimity, as he does on the album’s most emotionally potent track ‘Wanderer’. “I gave myself to you when I was empty/You filled me up with something that I could hold”, he contently states, coming to terms with the dissolution of a relationship
Dawson’s and Redlich’s modern aesthetic, juxtaposed with Carroll’s conventional songwriting, is the fundamental element that makes Holy Holy a vital project. With its driving rhythm ‘You Cannot Call For Love Like a Dog‘ will surely get audiences swaying, Carroll’s vocals soar over Dawson’s soundscapes as the latter’s guitar heroics close the track with a tasteful dose of bombast. Further on the syrupy flange of ‘Holy Gin’ drips with psychedelia while Strathie’s dynamic drumming gives the track an underlying dark blues stomp.
Complete with Beach Boys-esque harmonies and inspired leads, ‘A Heroine’ is a dynamic jangly waltz, and album standout ‘Pretty Strays For Hopeless Lovers’ is a glorious 6-minute chug encapsulating everything which makes this record special. With a rumbling bassline, entangled harmonies and a driving piano line the track builds into a Crazy Horse influenced guitar freak-out before dreamy closer ‘The Crowd’ airs and cools, Dawson closing with some David Gilmour influenced slide guitar textures.
Holy Holy join fellow Aussies Tame Impala, Jagwar Ma and Courtney Barnett in what is becoming one of the world’s most vibrant scenes. It’s clear Dawson and Carroll have carefully crafted their material, few debut albums sound this assured, and the music is remarkably mature yet retains a dualistic vibrance that keeps it fresh and exciting.
Carroll dynamically balances rawness with restrained grace as Dawson’s precise arrangements sharpen and deepen his partner’s artistic prose.
Don’t be surprised if the storm of Holy Holy starts making waves across the Atlantic – these two are the real deal.
In a world where there’s an increasing amount noise – whether it be media or industry – Sweden’s own Josefin Öhrn seeks freedom from the chaos.
Öhrn opens herself to the maelstrom of effects that isolation brings within modern society, and together with her aptly titled backing band The Liberation she deciphers the hazy static of modern culture, transfiguring it into a coolly focused work on the subtle, but deeply rewarding debut album ‘Horse Dance‘.
The album revs-up for launch with ‘Dunes’ as 8-bit synths survey the icy soundscape like an X-Wing looking Luke Skywalker. “It’s not a matter anymore, it’s not a matter of knowing anymore”, Öhrn’s states as live drums and a viciously strummed rhythm guitar roar in, bringing krautrock pulse and energy into the fold. With a relentless rhythm in the driver’s seat, various instruments as well as Öhrn vocals are allowed to fade in and out of the fray with ease, creating a thrilling scenic journey. Momentum reaches fever pitch with a driving high-hat rhythm as synths whir back to place, bookending the track as it started.
The drifting ‘Green Blue Fields’ similarly weaves in subtle flourishes, this time juxtaposing spry wavering guitar lines against a sneakily shuffling disco gallop. Both of these compositions highlight the group’s knack for concise and tactful arrangements.
Öhrn sings with a whispered hush throughout most the album, but it’s clear her voice isn’t the focus here. Her vision is. Her band mates admirably give the material a vibrancy by adding various sonic textures and dynamics, the elegiac Scandinavian influenced ‘You Have Arrived’ a spooky elegy that twitches to life with a deep sub heartbeat and broken trinket synths. Results aren’t as promising on the album’s title-track though, as Öhrn mumbles over cluttered and an overly elongated jam. Album closer ‘Talk’ by contrast tugs in the listener with a hitch bass line before oscillating into a cosmic wonder, Öhrn’s delivery marvelously alluring as her voice mysteriously and playfully pirouettes through the sly rhythmic grooves
‘Sanity’ and the definitive ‘Take Me Beyond’ see a shift in Öhrn’s approach; both are minimal and relaxed as the production opts for an undulating undercurrent instead of relying on the whirlpool pull of sonic textures that characterize some the album’s weaker material. The Edison-lit guitar prickles illuminate the rhythmic pounce of the former, while the airy breeze of the latter soothes and refreshes as guitars peer and glimmer underneath Öhrn’s celestial vocals.
The tribal jungle beat of ‘Sunny Afternoon’ will rightfully draw comparisons to fellow Swedish artist Lykke Li. Öhrn gives us an unusually harrowing vocal performance that is equally part Nico and part Florence Welch. The driving fuzz bass acts as a foundation, while ticking guitars and hammering pianos poke the pace along.
At its highest points ‘Horse Dance’ is a remarkably daring and distinctive debut album. Öhrn’s artistic vision is pristine and The Liberation’s execution well delivered. There are moments when the band tend to aimlessly wander through their whims, but for the most part this record is a model work in the beauty of subtlety.
It’s an album you can drift in and out of, yet deserves full attention and patience.
Public Image Ltd., and their somewhat notorious frontman John Lydon, are never too far away from hyperbole.
Which is ironic, as Lydon is probably one of rock’s only protagonists who would loathe such language and sentiment. And that alone is always amusing.
But amusement aside, it’s hard not think in such terms when confronted by PiL’s live show.
It’s not that they’re breaking any new ground, they already did that some time ago. It’s not that they are rewriting the rules; they also did that quite some time ago. And it’s not that they are ageing gracefully, they are as disgraceful as ever. Lydon’s almost childlike persona and disbelief at the world around him seems somehow more authentic with age. He seems to have grown into his incredulity.
So what exactly is it they do live? In simple terms they hit hard, and they hit low. This isn’t lavish, or beautiful, and it isn’t about recreating the moment. Instead it seems more about celebrating the moment. These songs feel vibrant and relevant, whether recorded 30 years ago or yesterday. Tracks from their most recent record mingle appropriately with more recognised classics, and it’s no short change.
But as assured as new tracks like ‘Double Trouble‘ or ‘The One‘ may be, their impact does not, and may never, resonate quite as much as the moments that everyone present is there to see. To watch Lydon and PiL in full flow during classics such as ‘This Is Not a Love Song‘, ‘Rise‘ and ‘Public Image‘ is to witness when the hyperbole spills forth.
The fire that burned in these songs is still present. ‘Public Image’ is almost the pinnacle of punk, what the Sex Pistols never achieved (but should have). Still today it feels vital, harsh and brilliant. ‘This Is Not a Love Song’ is as unhinged and obtuse live as it was when it was released, ‘Rise’ as jubilant a way to finish a show as any band could ever hope for.
This is a wonderfully exciting constant; ‘Poptones‘, ‘Warrior‘ and ‘Disappointed‘ all amaze, and all bring with them the intensity and excitement that becomes the staple setting for the evening. PiL may not be as young or as central to music as they once were, but that never affects the power of what they deliver. And deliver they do, time and time again.
PiL are originators, unwavering they have stood their ground even after all these years; they know what they do isn’t for everyone, and they quite simply don’t care. It’s this attitude which makes them so exciting live. What they do isn’t about driving sales, or pleasing crowds, it’s about the music and it always has been.
And it’s this commitment to the music itself that defines the performance. It’s all commitment and attitude and that is a truly brilliant combination when achieved with the kind of style and tunes that PiL have on all the pretenders.
Here, standing before a very excited Manchester crowd, are the originators, still bringing the thunder.