Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: I

I is for …

… The Icarus Line (Ben)

Nine letters in, and perhaps it’s about time I did the obvious thing and wrote about a band.

So, The Icarus Line.

One of the most obnoxious, provocative, spiteful, unhinged, brattish, amoral, cynical, vicious, violent rock bands around. And – naturally – one of the best.

A potted history. Vocalist Joe Cardamone and guitarist Alvin DeGuzman met at school in LA and formed a grunge covers band. By the time the pair were fifteen, that band had mutated into a hardcore-influenced outfit called Kanker Sores, guitarist Aaron North joining in 1996. When drummer Tim Childs was killed in a car accident in 1997, The Icarus Line rose phoenix-like from the flames.

The title of their 1998 debut EP, consisting entirely of Kanker Sores songs, gave notice of their raison d’etre: ‘Highlypuncturingnoisetestingyourabilitytohate’. ‘The Red And Black Attack’ appeared the following year, a similarly succinct description of the experience of witnessing the black-shirt-and-red-tie-clad maniacs in action. Drummers continued to come and go with ‘Spinal Tap’-esque regularity, and in 2001 they re-emerged with debut full-length LP Mono, an insanely intense mash-up of The Stooges, The Birthday Party and Black Flag.

Their status as a notoriously unhinged prospect live was cemented by a gig at the Hard Rock Café in Austin in 2002 when North decided mid-set that he fancied swapping guitars. The only problem was that the guitar in question used to belong to legendary Texan bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan and was on display in a wall-mounted glass case. North cracked it open with a mic stand and all hell broke loose. Most bands leave the SXSW Festival clutching a lucrative recording contract; The Icarus Line came away with death threats.

And then, in 2004, after yet more line-up changes, came second album Penance Soiree, prefaced by another marvellous statement-of-intent single, ‘Up Against The Wall Motherfuckers’. The familiar reference points are audible, but this time they’d gone much further. The record is a masterful pillaging of the graveyard of rock ‘n’ roll history. The corpses of everyone from Black Sabbath to The Jesus & Mary Chain and Suicide are gleefully exhumed and reanimated in thrillingly noisy and discordant style.

Perhaps most remarkable is the nine-minute-long monster ‘Getting Bright At Night’, an awesome tribute to a love of Spacemen 3 which features the lines “I don’t wanna fall in love anymore / But I can’t stop falling in love” and concludes brilliantly with Cardamone imploring “Never give up on me babe”. A glimpse of humanity, and this from the band that once gave away a 7” single called ‘Kill Cupid With A Nail File’ at a Valentine’s Day gig.

And yet despite Penance Soiree’s brilliance and the endorsement of a whole host of bands with whom they’ve toured (Queens Of The Stone Age, Primal Scream, …Trail Of Dead, Yeah Yeah Yeahs), the trail seems to have gone cold, and the band’s future looks uncertain. Aaron North has left to replace Robin Finck in Nine Inch Nails, they’ve been dropped by V2 (for whom they were never going to make any money) and then there’s the side project (Cardamone and bassist Don Devore’s Souls She Said) which so often spells the end.

I hope not. The Icarus Line are that rarest of beasts: an utterly untamed rock ‘n’ roll band. As their associate Travis Keller wrote in their 2004 biog: “At times it feels like they are the only punk band left. You might say their ethos, sense of integrity, confrontational nature of their performances, and their belief in what they do is very punk rock. They sound like what dangerous rock music should sound like”. Amen to that.

… ice rink (Paul)

For a time the preserve of the Whitley Warriors ice hockey team, and home to the most run-down bowling alley I’ve ever seen (you practically had to walk down and pick the pins up and reset them), in 1996 Whitley Bay Ice Rink played host to one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to.

Now, baring in mind that musically, I’m a Britpop kid, and it was around the time that Blur had just released The Great Escape (and in so doing had temporarily disappeared up their own arses) there was only one band who truly bestrode the British music scene as far as I was concerned.

Having postponed their intended November gig due to an injury, I was delighted to be finally presented with the chance to witness Oasis (when their whole catalogue consisted of good albums and cracking singles / B-sides) in the flesh. Abandoning any sense of logic at a friend’s house, I reasoned that I didn’t want to be burdened down by such bulky items as a coat or jumper, leaving them behind and then walking the mile from his house to the Ice Rink as the January wind blew straight off the North Sea.

Arriving at the Ice Rink, we fought our way past the touts. In my youthful eagerness I promptly splurged a tenner on a T-shirt (which given the rearranged nature of the gig lists Whitley Bay alongside a series of far bigger towns and cities across Europe), and hauled it over my torso, before standing around listening to the support act: a bunch of blokes I’d never heard of. Reliably informed they were Paul Weller’s occasional backing band, Ocean Colour Scene strummed their way through their half hour set as the barely arsed crowd waited for the main event.

The support finally over, we stationed ourselves about halfway back – set to take in the majesty of what was about to unfold. Now, aside from some Lindisfarne Christmas concerts as a kid (I was friends with the drummer’s son) and a very recent trip to see Blur play Newcastle Arena the previous month (when I was sat a long way back), this was my first proper concert.

It didn’t disappoint.

Oasis bestrode the stage with all the arrogance and swagger that epitomised their early days, with Liam’s whining Mancunian voice, and Noel’s poetic lyrics still showing the hunger that fuelled their rise to fame. One hour later, I’d long since abandoned my position halfway back in an effort to surge myself forward and join everyone packed like sardines near the front. The majority of the band trooped off stage, and Noel took up position on a stool, with only a mic and guitar for company, and proceeded to deliver a beautiful four song acoustic set before being rejoined by his cohorts for a final 30 minute blast.

Finally sated, the crowd drifted out into the cold night sky, and I contemplated the walk home, wearing two sweat drenched T-shirts and a healthy stroll away from some warm dry clothes.

I couldn’t hear properly, I burnt my tongue on a cup of scalding coffee purchased outside, and I nearly died of hypothermia, but to be honest I didn’t care. The gig had far exceeded my expectations, and a love of live music was born that is still with me to this day.

… In A Silent Way – Miles Davis (Steve)

Miles Davis seems to have made a career of “lines in the sand” – to the jazz-faithful, to other musicians or to the younger audiences he was forever courting. Remember that Kind Of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all time, was made up of material that had been played live on one or two occasions (if at all) and was recorded over two days by a line-up that had never played together before and would never play together again. After committing it to tape Miles said “NEXT!” and the world struggled to keep up.

In February 1969, Miles was in the studio making In A Silent Way. One of Miles Davis’s greatest strengths as a bandleader was his ability to assemble the right musicians in the right blend on the right day. But the band for In A Silent Way was assembled in a bizarrely off-hand way. The day before the session Miles was introduced to British guitarist John McLaughlin, who was asked to sit in despite the fact that Miles had never heard him play. Similarly, keyboard player Joe Zawinul was asked to attend the morning of the session, followed by a phone call asking him to bring along some music for the band to play.

The revolutionary approach Miles Davis applied to this album is best exemplified by the way in which Zawinul’s ‘In A Silent Way’ was tackled. After playing through the composer’s own arrangement, Miles decided that the piece was too complex and artful, too many chords. In one of his legendarily enigmatic instructions, Miles asked John McLaughlin to play “like you don’t know how to play the guitar”. McLaughlin responded by picking the tune out over one chord – E, the basic building block in any guitarist’s vocabulary. He played it through, the rest of the band joined in and that was the take.

From this point on, Miles Davis’s recordings wouldn’t start with the idea of a set piece. Fragments were explored and expanded in the studio, the tapes were left rolling throughout the session and Miles and producer Teo Macero edited the best bits into a cohesive piece after the fact. I wouldn’t say he invented the idea of remixing – editing and overdubbing had been around for ages – but no other jazz musician had taken such a radical approach to the composition process

The long, harmonically static pieces, rock sounds and emphasis on “the groove” on In A Silent Way would lead to cries of sell-out. How wild to be accused of selling out with an album consisting of two long 20-minute pieces.

He wouldn’t return to the gorgeously glacial sounds of In a Silent Way, though many others continue to do so.

By August of 1969 Miles Davis was working up what would become Bitches Brew, a raucous stew of jazz, rock and funk, and a million miles away from the motionless, shimmering beauty of In A Silent Way. NEXT!

… inCulto (Caskared)

Salsa, rock, ska, funk, hip hop; guitars, drums, samples, brass; Spanish, Lithuanian, English. InCulto claim to be the product of a melting pot, and I can hear it. Their songs are rich and textured, political and the right side of pop. They believe in melodies and songs and the front man, Jurgis Didziulis, has a powerful and tuneful sonorous voice. Jurgis embodies the band beautifully – he is Columbian Lithuanian, fluently tri-lingual and believes in taking different elements from the big soupy globalised world we all live in. The band is based in Vilnius and they are all of an age to have really experienced Soviet times and the seismic upheavals of the early 90s. Their graphics sport the motto “Post Sov Pop”, but more on this later.

Their biggest single so far is called ‘Boogaloo’ and owes much to the incredible Manu Chao. inCulto are high-energy and poppy, there are the horn sections, fat riffs that reminds me of a poodle rock song, and they even break it down so you can clap along while chanting out the words – whatever they mean. The lyrics: now this is something I absolutely cannot comment on beyond noting the seemingly solid scansion. I have no idea what they are about. My Spanish is limited to the words “Por donde se ba a la estacion” and my Lithuanian is mostly vegetable-based. What I can tell you is that these songs are about neither vegetables nor the location of the train station.

This band has a hunger to perform and their stage presence emanates a warmth and vibrancy that I hope they don’t lose. Their looping tricksy samples and beats string the songs together and the brass section is tight and powerful. Their graphics equal their upbeat feel and political stance – bright oranges and yellow camouflage polka-dotted with grenades, Che stances, Beverly Hill palm trees lead to cosmonaut platforms, subverted Communist stars. Regrettably also feature an “exotic” dancer with alarming regularity, which is not a good idea, but I’ll like them anyway! Their “Post Sov Pop” banners float in the digitised wind and represent the prevalent mood of looking out, looking back and using all this to look forward.

… indulgence (Skif)

With the self- suffix, this might be seen as pre-empting a potential entry next week for “jazz”. However, to call any piece of music self-indulgent is only a personal judgement call.

A great many people, of course, do not see the value of music that doesn’t adhere to the principles of the “tune”. With that in mind, it is usually those that fall into the pockets of jazz, prog and the avant-garde that have the self-indulgence accusation levelled at them. Indeed even Half Man Half Biscuit listed, in their song ‘Breaking News’, “an artist who says his next album will be more ‘song-based’” amongst other irritants who should be rounded up in an “Operation Less Pricks”.

However, going to the heart of it, if we love alternative music, and crave hearing new things, surely we must indulge the experimental inclination of artists who have the desire to push the envelope rather than rehash. When you consider how many bands have been influenced by the likes of Captain Beefheart and The Fall, you feel that without those who warp the current accepted norm, we progress no further. More mutated seeds in the gene pool, more I say!

Of course, I love the artists I mention, so I’m biased. Beefheart claiming that “Rock’n’roll has a fixation, that bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, mama heartbeat. I don’t like hypnotics. You see I’m doing a non-hypnotic music to break up the catatonic state” is, to me, tremendously inspiring. The Fall bringing a literacy to a quickly stagnating punk scene, Cardiacs re-applying it to the prog mindset that it had seeked to destroy – this is investigational music, to see what can be done, both musically and lyrically.

There are plenty of other artists to whom we can apply this, but I simply talk about those who have inspired me. Some may call these characters self-indulgent, yet I think their journeys down new paths should be indulged as it is surely to the benefit of music, and not just a self-perpetuating alt / avant-garde scene.

… interaction (Pete)

As in crowd interaction. Come on, you've all been to gigs before and I'm sure the bits in between the songs have occasionally stayed in your head. Go on, admit it. And when some bands do that "cool" thing and remain mute throughout their performance, no matter good they may have been on the night, you'll still regard them to as "muppets", "arrogant so and sos"…or worse.

On the other hand, someone along the lines of Jarvis Cocker who, like a good stand-up comedian, always has a droll quip at hand, remains an unforgettable performer. Or the likes of I Am Kloot frontman John Bramwell introducing '86 TVs' at a gig in Berlin with: "This song is about a transvestite friend of mine in Manchester. I know you dirty Germans will love it". Live music is just another form of entertainment after all, and the odd joke here or there adds to a good night out, even if its function is simply to smooth over an equipment failure.

Interaction may take many forms though. It may resemble the chit-chat mentioned above, or it might involve something as basic as chucking cold water over a steaming hot crowd at a mid-summer festival. There's also the option of using a foreign object… footballs or beachballs are a frequent popular choice, drumsticks less so. Nevertheless, verbal methods remain my favourite.

Of course, interaction works both ways; the crowd may want to express its enthusiasm or, as is the case with inexperienced (or just plain shite) bands, its disdain. "Play something the drummer knows" remains my favourite heckle ever.

Regular gig-goers will all have memories of a favourite gigs, but I'm certain that these performances will have had some form of interaction; let's face it, what would you rather remember: The Strokes' silent treatment or Badly Drawn Boy with a super-soaker?

… iPod random shuffle / “I love you” compilations (drmigs)

To be frank, I was struggling this week. I was mulling over two potential options; iPod random shuffles and 'I love you' compilations (inspired by last week’s ‘High Fidelity’ article). And that's when I had the idea …

But before I continue, for clarification:

The iPod random shuffle: This is the random function on the iPod that randomly shuffles all your songs. And as even the most undeveloped Amazonian tribesman knows, this function has revolutionised the way people listen to their music collections. Blah-de-blah-de-blah you've heard it all before.

The “I love you” compilation: If you're into music, there's a fair chance that at some point in the embryonic stages of a romance you've been tempted to give the object of your affections a compilation of music. Generally the point of this compilation is to say the words you haven't yet been able to say: “I love you”. It's the sort of thing that's romantic because it not only expresses what you thinking, but it also exposes your musical preferences. There are three types of responses to such a compilation: “Aaaaaaagghhhhh! Bunny Boiler! Run Away! Run Away!”; “Err, thanks” and “Hmm, I'll be liking a bit of that”. What makes it an “I love you” compilation is that you don't know which response you'll get.

So, can you see where this is going? Every book on relationships claims that they are best when they are built on honesty. Whilst a manufactured loved-up play-list is a way to reveal your intent, maybe the three-shuffle rule would be a better gauge of suitability. No more, “this is the schmultzy music I like, love me love me”, hello “three shuffles of my iPod, what do you reckon?”. There's no hiding dodgy tracks, just a cross section of your tunes. You're laying all the cards down on the table.

In the interest of (piss-poor tabloid-esque) science, I'd be judged on the following.

Shuffle 1: ‘Time Out From The World’ – Goldfrapp; ‘The World’ – The Beatles; ‘Cash Machine’ – Hard Fi; ‘I Can Hear Music’ – The Beach Boys; ‘You Won't See Me’ – The Beatles; ‘Silent Warrior’ – Enigma; ‘Most Of The Time’ – Bob Dylan; ‘Velvet Water’ – Stereolab; ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ – Nouvelle Vague; ‘Little Ghost’ – The White Stripes.

Shuffle 2: ‘Electric’ – Melody Club; ‘Modern Day Jazz’ – Courtney Pine; ‘On Mercury’ – Red Hot Chili Peppers; ‘There Must Be An Angel’ – Fantastic Plastic Machine; ‘Butterfly’ – Jamiroqui; ‘You Really Got Me’ – The Kinks; ‘The State I Am In’ – Belle & Sebastian; ‘The Bends’ – Radiohead; ‘Dialogue: Toby’ – Belle & Sebastian; ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ – The Rolling Stones.

Shuffle 3: ‘As Good As It Gets’ – Gene; ‘Take Me Out’ – Franz Ferdinand; ‘You Don't Have To Mean It’ – The Rolling Stones; ‘Mulder & Scully’ – Catatonia; ‘Can't You Hear Me Knocking’ – The Rolling Stones; ‘Threads 2’ – Backini; ‘On The Way To The Club’ – Blur; ‘Ring Of Fire’ – Johnny Cash; ‘Backyard Brouhaha’ – St Etienne; ‘Get Miles’ – Gomez.

Hmm, on the strength of the above however, I think I'd still have had to rely on the absinthe to get together with Wor Lass. Maybe it's not so inspired after all.

… Iron Maiden (Swiss Toni)

Everyone can remember the first albums that they bought. I can certainly remember mine. My first five (I’m back on Top Five lists again) were: Kings Of The Wild Frontier, Silk & Steel, Scoundrel Days, The Riddle & Human Racing. They were all great (yes, including the one by Five Star, and I once wrote to Jimmy Saville asking him if he could fix it for me and my best mate Will to meet Nik Kershaw, so you’d better watch what you say about him too), but I wouldn’t really say that any of those albums really rocked my world or had a huge and lasting influence on my music taste.

The sad truth of the matter is that I bought the album that changed my life because I quite liked the cover. I had absolutely no idea what the band themselves sounded like, but I was thirteen years old, and I found myself strangely drawn to the cartoon image of Satan as the puppet of some sort of skeletal rocker with a shock of white hair. So I bought it, and was thus introduced to the foot-on-monitor, string-vested and tasselled-leather-jacket world of Iron Maiden.

If you are unlucky enough not to be familiar with them, here are the two things you most need to know about them. They are utterly preposterous and they have a drummer who rejoices in the name Nico McBrain. They’re ace and I love them to bits. I was mesmerised by the ear-bleeding heavy metal of The Number of the Beast and rapidly made my way though their extensive back catalogue. All thoughts of Five Star were banished from my mind, and I took my first steps into a wider musical world.

Along the way, I may have made a few wrong turnings into albums by the likes of Poison, Slaughter and Warrior Soul, but I had discovered the primal thrill of the electric guitar and I’ve never looked back. At some point during my time at university, my idea of the perfect front man shifted from someone like Bruce Dickinson to someone more like Morrissey (hmm, is there really anyone else quite like Morrissey?). My taste in lyrics was shifting too, and I was now far more interested in punctured bicycles than bringing daughters to the slaughter, but the guitars were always there. Johnny Marr may not have had his amps turned up to 11, but he couldn’t fool me: I knew a guitar hero when I saw one.

That was fifteen years ago now, but the same is very much true today; the first time that I heard ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’, it made me dance in the shower. It was the guitars that got me, of course, and Iron Maiden are at least part of the reason for that.

* * * * *

Thanks to Paul, Steve, Caskared, Skif, Pete, drmigs and Swiss Toni for their contributions this week.

No A-Z feature next week, folks - but hopefully it'll return in a fortnight's time.


Blogger Ben said...

drmigs: For what it's worth, not one of those shuffles would get you past first base with me. In fact, you could say they'd leave you having to resort to the old five-knuckle shuffle... Ahem.

5:46 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

I totally agree with Pete.

I've fond memories of Michael Stipe telling a long-winded anecdote about Cher whilst putting his trainers on; and of Courtney Love welcoming crowd surfers on to stage before flashing her soundman and the crowd.

Conversely, I've always thought the Manic Street Preachers have been shit when I've seen them live, simply because they have failed to even grunt an acknowledgement to the watching crowd.

6:16 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

Paul - either Stipe tells that anecdote a lot, or you were at the particularly wet and miserable gig they did at the City Ground in Nottingham last year. I very much hope it's the latter, and not part of his schtick (like Keith Richards looking into the camera during his solo on "(I can't get no) Satisfaction" and mouthing "I love this job" directly into the lens. Every night. For two years)

I didn't think REM were good that night, but I thought the banter was ace, and it does make a difference. He remembered the first gig they played in Rock City. In 1984.



12:34 am  
Blogger Paul said...

I was there in the rain!

So the whole Cher/ corkscrew story was (I hope) a special moment for us.

8:54 am  
Blogger stevedomino said...

hola - if anyone is interested in hearing the miles davis tracks i was banging on about, i've just posted them here. Cheers!

2:12 pm  
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2:17 pm  

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