Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Empty promises


It seems my first impressions of the Regal, for last month's Rolo Tomassi gig, were more than a little deceptive. The reason it felt so small then was that, unbeknown to me, they were essentially playing on a stage erected in the bar, with the rest of the venue shut off. Tonight, though, we venture behind the curtain and down the ramp - and what a magnificent performance space it is.

Sadly, though, the room's cavernous proportions are only emphasised by the fact that it's virtually empty. Not only does that do the venue and the bands a disservice, it's also a disappointment for Shelter, as tonight is an Audioscope gig aimed at raising both money and awareness of the cause of those living in poor housing or vulnerable conditions (also performing at other Audioscope shows this year are Kid606, That Fucking Tank and Action Beat, amongst others). It doesn't help that Fucked Up's Pink Eyes is busy ripping the Zodiac a new arsehole on the same night, but even still, surely more intrigued members of Oxford's noise/post-rock community could have been expected to turn up?

But if the lack of attendance does the venue a disservice, then the same is true of the venue with regard to those who HAVE turned out. For some bizarre reason, the main bar only has a theatre licence, meaning they can't serve alcoholic drinks except during scheduled "intervals" - if you want to wet your whistle at any other time, you have to traipse out of the door and up the stairs to the smaller bar, far out of range of the bands, to discover there's very little available on draught except Guinness that's kept badly and poured even worse.

And the disappointment doesn't end there - oh no.

It's something of a concern when pieces about a band focus more intently on the knobtwiddlers and their pedigree than on the musicians themselves, and so it is with Secondsmile. A quick Googletrawl brings up countless references to the fact that their second album Years, released this summer, was produced by Andrew Schneider and mastered by Greg Calbi (if you don't know who they are, look Secondsmile up and you'll soon find out). The issue is that a sprinkling of studio and post-production magic can't save the day if the material isn't good enough in the first place, and while the Dorset quintet certainly aren't bad, nothing in their moodily melodic thrashings - post-hardcore in a 1995 Radiohead T-shirt - quite catches.

I was going to refer to Hreda as "inveterate gig whores", who always seem to be out supporting and/or checking up on the competition, but then that would very definitely be a case of someone in a glass house calling the kettle black. Of the countless times I've rubbed shoulders with them over the course of the year, twice they've been performing - with Vessels in January and then with Jonquil in April, both times at the Cellar.

That they're on tonight's bill I'd completely forgotten, but - though it's a shame my favourite track 'KHTC' seems to have been dropped from the set and they're starting to sound a touch more derivative (more Explosions In The Sky), to me at least - a new song promises much and set closer 'New Pastures' carries such a hefty clout you feel like you've been clipped around the ear by King Kong.

This isn't a comparison I suspect many people will have made, but the 2008 model of Don Caballero is in many ways like the 2008 model of Guns 'N' Roses. OK, so there's no kilt-wearing going on, and they haven't just released their first studio album for 17 years - but they too count among their number only one founder member, and as a result they too are eyed with suspicion by fans yearning for the original incarnation.

In truth, Don Caballero never had a settled line-up, so when drummer extraordinaire Damon Che resurrected the name in 2003 after a three year hiatus and recruited new guitarist Gene Doyle and new bassist Jason Jouver, it could be argued that this was only the latest in a seemingly endless procession of personnel changes. All the same, though, without Ian Williams - now busy creating a whole new genre of music with Battles (Che must have been gutted to have discovered he'd lost his guitarist to a drummer with an even bigger kit, Helmet's John Stanier) - they're not really the same band anymore.

More influential than outright popular, Don Caballero were revered by critics and fellow musicians alike for fusing elements of punk and metal with the spidery guitar work and drumming rhythms of Slint, thereby giving birth to the sort of math-rock that plays incessantly on Mike Patton's internal jukebox. New album Punkgasm - their second since the reformation, from which the vast majority of tonight's material is taken - places slightly greater emphasis on noisy aggression without really compromising its cleverness.

The problem is that for the uninitiated (and I count myself as such, together with the large proportion of the crowd drawn by the band's repute alone) their music is hard to engage with and not easy to appreciate or, yes, like instantly - and for the seasoned and expectant fans (like my companion) the narrow focus on new material and deliberate ignoring of a considerable back catalogue is equally alienating. Worse still is that for the most part ('Awe Man That's Jive Skip' being one exception) the performance is neither particularly tight nor fluid and feels half-arsed at best - a consequence of there being very little positive feedback from the paltry crowd, perhaps, but all the same we could be forgiven for expecting better.

While Doyle and Jouver gurn their way through the set without giving much sense that they're doing anything other than fulfilling a prior obligation, master of ceremonies Che - dressed in T-shirt, shorts and white socks like the American tourist he is - proves himself to be a highly capable drummer, but (as with Stanier and Battles) for me there's a line beyond which wizardry becomes wankery and it's definitely crossed tonight.

The silences between songs are painful rather than respectful, and as Che comments sarcastically that he's falling in love with the low hum of the amps I reflect that, while some nights everything is in perfect alignment, the opposite can also be true.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Art of Noise FACTS: Metal is bad for your health...

...or at least head-banging is according to this report in the latest BMJ.

I particularly liked the conclusion which suggests that a possible intervention for the reduction of injury risk is...

"the substitution of adult oriented rock and easy listening music such as the controls [Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie and Styx], or others including Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, Enya, and Richard Clayderman, for heavy metal"
Sadly, the amount of Burzum fans in Norway who list 'Orinoco Flow' in their Top 5 guilty pleasures went unrecorded.

It's good to know an esteemed professional periodical such as the BMJ can go into the Christmas period with its tongue planted firmly into its cheek (and not to study salival erosion of the facial protuberance either).

Know Your Enemy

"The decision on how tickets are allocated and sold lies with the promoter and the band. No phone company is going to have 48 hrs pre-sale access to any events I may put on. Priority would go to the bands' mailing list and my mailing list."

Fighting talk from Alan Day of local promoters TCT Music, responding to the news that the Oxford Carling Academy will be renamed the Oxford O2 Academy from 1st January (even though to me and most music fans, it'll still be the Zodiac) and that O2 claim this will mean all kinds of benefits for their customers.

Alan's to be applauded, of course - this would set a very dubious precendent and I'm with 3, for a start... But I don't really see that there's much he can do by it - promote gigs in an O2 venue and surely you have to play by their rules, no matter how damaging? The problem he faces, though, is that there really aren't many other venues of a comparable size to host his gigs - and to this punter at least the Regal certainly looks like a far less attractive alternative than it did only recently (see above).

In other music news, the distributor Pinnacle has gone into administration citing the "sudden and steep downturn" in the economy. Very bad news for the 400+ independent labels whose products it proudly distributed, Rough Trade being one of the most prominent. The problems started with the collapse of Woolies and its music distribution arm Entertainment UK, and could quite possibly now result in the demise of some of the nation's finest indies - and what that and the correspondingly greater concentration of power in the hands of the majors could mean for less mainstream, marketable music doesn't bear thinking about.

One industry that certainly is booming is that of stocking filler books (or, less charitably, toilet reading). All goes to show how much my finger is on the music and internet pulse that it took it being turned into one such book for me to even hear of the Sleeveface phenomenon. Great to discover that the genius concept was dreamt up by a couple of Cardiffians who I think may be involved with promoters Plug Two and the Swn Festival.

Lastly, am I the only person with absolutely zero interest in the fact that Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon have patched up their differences in the expectation of a shedload of cash? Can't believe Coxon in particular, signing on the dotted line just six months after making some of the most out-there (and admittedly rubbish) music I've heard in a while in support of My Bloody Valentine. In the words of RussL, "the correct answer to 'Who’s Bestest: Oasis or Blur?' is still, as it has always been, 'Pulp')"...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Two One out of three ain't bad


The concept: the Zodiac and esteemed local listings mag Nightshift join forces to put on a series of gigs on Saturdays called On A Saturday as a nod to the original name of Oxfordshire's most famous musical export, with the aim of showcasing the best the city currently has to offer.

So how the fuck did Vixens get on the bill, then?! They seem to have been abandoned as children in a big reed basket outside the door of the IPC offices and raised as NME staffers' own, and their lame, supposedly dark and often out-of-time indie owes a debt to Editors of such magnitude they can expect to be awoken by the sound of baseball-bat-wielding thugs testing the durability of their front door any morning now. I, meanwhile, can expect a torrent of abuse, if this is anything to go by...

So, what we're really craving now is originality - but, as they say, be careful what you wish for. Because if you wish for originality you might be landed with Alphabet Backwards. Sure, the contrast is something of a relief - for all of about one song, when it dawns on me that their perky pop (at odds with their scowling and strikingly square-jawed keyboard player) is intensely irritating. Case in point: 'Polar Bear', which has the repeated line "If we all threw an ice cube in the sea, could we save the polar bears?" Whether it's serious or in jest, it's naff.

So far so bad, then. Surely things can't get any worse? When the headliners have a naff tune of their own, 'The Good Fish Guide', it's always possible.

But, to my surprise, Stornoway don't play it, and better still, they're actually much improved from when I last saw them almost exactly a year ago (and thought 'The Good Fish Guide' was actually half-decent - blame it on fatigue from struggling up Headington Hill).

For an indie-folk band, they've got a real sense of the theatrical: their arrival on stage tonight is announced by an unconvincing transvestite (I think it's the beard...) beating a gong and their uniform - shirts, braces, trilby hats and the odd horse's head - makes them look like characters from 'The Grapes Of Wrath'. Brian Briggs is not only the owner of a fine voice but also of some nicely dry and bizarre bantering skills, at one point relating the strange tale of a famous fainting goat.

Aside from the song about Yo Sushi! that I first heard performed by guitarist Ollie Steadman's side project Palace Music in August but given its debut in a Stornoway set tonight and the very last song of the night, the frenetic 'Jonathan's Mullet' (they just couldn't resist slipping in one song about fish, could they - or is it about haircuts?), the emphasis is firmly on epic folk pop, from 'We Are The Battery Human's plaintive lament at being couped up at work to the rousing and anthemic 'Fuel Up'.

Like fellow Oxfordians Jonquil, Stornoway are becoming synonymous with warm-spirited, big-hearted music. A few more support slots like the one they score with The Magic Numbers a few days later and dustbowl chic will be all the rage.