Performativizing Papyrocentricity #54

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Protean ProseThe Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, Charles Kingsley (1863)

SchmetterlingsschmuckButterfly, Thomas Marent (Dorling Kindersley 2013)

Criblia – ბიბლია / Biblia (Georgian Bible) (2013)

Micro MacroSuper Bugs: The Biggest, Fastest, Deadliest Creepy Crawlies on the Planet, John Woodward with Dr George McGavin (Dorling Kindersley 2016)

Chute: The LotThe Fallen: Life In and Out of Britain’s Most Insane Group, Dave Simpson (Canongate paperback 2009)

Twice Has Thrice the VicePisces, Peter Sotos, with an introduction by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (TransVisceral Books 2017)


• Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

The Sound of Silex

Some of the most beautiful patterns in nature arise from the interaction of three very simple things: sand and water, sand and air. Sculptrix Sabulorum, a side-project of the Exeter band Slow Exploding Gulls, are an attempt to do with sound what nature does with sand: turn simple ingredients into beautiful patterns. Here are extracts from an interview and review in the Plymouth fanzine EarHax:

Hector Anderton: OK. The obvious first. Sculptrix Sabulorum. What does it mean and why did you choose it?

Joe Corvin: It’s Latin and literally means “Sculptress of the Sands”. We chose it, well, because we thought it looked and sounded good. Good but mysterious.

Hector Anderton: And who is the sculptress? The sea?

Joe Corvin: Well, the sculptress is Mother Nature, in the fullest sense, but she uses the sea. The wind. Gravity. Simple things, but put them together with sand and interesting things happen.

Cath Orne: Which we wanted to explore, but we didn’t think S.E.G. [Slow Exploding Gulls] was the way to explore them.

Cover of Silica by Slow Exploding Gulls

Hector Anderton: But hadn’t you done that in Silica?

Joe Corvin: We’d started to, but Silica hadn’t exhausted the theme. Of sand, I mean. It’s something I’d always been interested in, but with S.E.G. we tend to go with the organic side of the sea, with sea life.

Hector Anderton: Whereas sand is inorganic?

Joe Corvin: Exactly. Silica was a bit of a departure for us, in that respect. It was as though we were walking down a corridor and we opened a door in passing and thought, yeah, that room looks interesting.

Sand Band: Sculptrix Sabulorum

Sand Band: Sculptrix Sabulorum

Cath Orne: So we’ll come back and have a proper look later.

Joe Corvin: Yeah. Under a new name. Which we’ve done. Hence, Sculptrix Sabulorum.

Extract © EarHax (1992)


Skulsonik, Sculptrix Sabulorum (Umbra Mundi 1995)

Macca to Madonna: “Listen to the music playing in your head.” In fact, we never do anything else. We don’t experience the world: we experience a sensory simulacrum of the world. Light or sound-waves or chemicals floating in the air stimulate the nerves in our eyes or ears or nose and the brain turns the resultant stream of electrical pulses into sight or sound or smell.

Skulsonik (1995)

Sculptrix Sabulorum: Skulsonik (1995)

But it does more than that: it covers up the cracks. Raw nerve-stuff is not smooth and polished sensation. We have blind-spots, but the brain edits them out. Only a small part of our visual field is actually in clear focus, but we think otherwise. If we could see raw nerve-stuff, it would be a blurry, fuzzy mess.

The same is true of hearing. And Skulsonik is an attempt to record raw nerve-stuff: to capture not sound out there, but sound in here – the music playing in your head. Sculptrix Sabulorum have set out to answer a simple question: “What does music really sound like?” Or rather: what does music cerebrally sound like? What does it sound like in your head?

Extract © EarHax (1995)


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Mental Marine Music – Slow Exploding Gulls

Court in the Act

Cover of Bombshell by The PrimitivesBombshell: The Hits and More, The Primitives (1994)

In all walks of life, from pop music to drug-dealing, some people achieve far more success than their talents deserve and some people achieve far less. Paul Court, the song-writer for the late-’eighties-and-a-bit-of-the-’nineties indie group The Primitives, is one of the second group. And perhaps drug-dealing describes his largely unrewarded talents too. Like a drug, music is designed to alter your consciousness and some of the songs on this compilation album are perfect little pills of pop, filling your brain with a two- or three-minute rush of jingly-jangly melodic pleasure. And maybe jungly pleasure too: The Primitives were a primitive band in the garage-and-bubblegum-pop tradition, particularly when they played live. Female vox, occasional male backing vocals, guitar, bass and drums, and that was it. There was no pretension about them, but they achieved the kind of a-lot-in-a-little simplicity that only an intelligent and skilful songwriter can give a band.

“Crash”, their most famous song, both opens and closes the album (apart from the doubly unexpected hidden track). It appears first as the album track, then as a demo, and some of the other songs come in a second version, whether demo or acoustic. I enjoy the chance to hear the different interpretations, but this padding does reflect the brevity of their career, which stretched from about 1987 to about 1992. Unfortunately, a twice-misspelt “Way Behing Me” and the appearance of “Secrets (Demo)” as the already-heard album track rather than the demo also reflect the sloppiness of the German company that put the compilation out. Court deserved better. There’s further proof of that in the single cover version, “As Tears Go By” by the Rolling Stones. It’s given the light treatment of the early Primitives and isn’t anywhere near as good as Court’s own compositions, I’d say.

Bombshell by The Primitives (CD)

Perhaps that’s why he chose it, and perhaps the darker songs on their final album, “Glamour”, reflect his frustration at not achieving the success that seemed to await him in the beginning. But there was a big obstacle ahead of him: although bands with attractive female singers can get attention more easily, they find it harder to get taken seriously. The Primitives never did drop any bombshells in the end and I suspect that the title of this compilation is a self-ironizing acknowledgment of that, as well as a reference to Tracy’s gleaming blonde locks.

Voc and Rôle

Medieval music by Vox Vulgaris and Trouvère

At one time, people could never hear their own voices the way others heard them, because our own voices come to us partly through the flesh and bone of our skulls. Then phonographs and tape-recorders were invented and nowadays we all know what we really sound like. But what does the medieval music of groups like Vox Vulgaris and Trouvere really sound like? It comes to us through the flesh and bone of history and we listen to it with uninnocent ears, soaked in a hundred different genres. Medieval music doesn’t stand alone any more, it stands in contrast: acoustic, not amplified; simple, not complex; authentic, not artificial.

Or is it authentic? No, because it’s not the music that comes most readily to hand or to ear any more. Playing it and listening to it are roles you choose, not roles you’re born into, because it’s part of a cultic fringe nowadays. Ferns once ruled the forests; now they’re pushed to the damp or rocky margins by more advanced plants. So this is ferny music: fresh, green and simple, with a glamour of exile and overthrow. You can hear that glamour more strongly in Trouvere, who play slow, sad and sometimes stately music that seems both to celebrate and to lament the Middle Ages. Vox Vulgaris, which literally means “Popular Voice”, celebrate and don’t lament: they’re raucous and almost rocking and sound like a group for inns and peasants’ weddings, not for courts and cathedrals. They’re fun, not bittersweet like Trouvere, who remind me of the Early Music Consort of London. But, like Vox Vulgaris, Trouvere play instrumentals and don’t add lost languages to their lost music.

The music is enough, but they’re surely playing it with a modern accent that would raise smiles or laughter in a real medieval audience. We can’t go back and that is part of why their music is so attractive. It lilts, it longs and it laments, searching for something it will never find. And that is another way Trouvere evoke the Middle Ages:

La royne Blanche comme ung lys,
Qui chantoit à voix de sereine;
Berthe au grand pied, Bietris, Allys;
Harembourges, qui tint le Mayne,
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu’Anglois bruslèrent à Rouen;
Où sont-ilz, Vierge souveraine?…
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

“Ballade des dames du temps jadis”, François Villon (1431-c.1485)

White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies,
With a voice like any mermaiden,—
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice,
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,—
And that good Joan whom Englishmen
At Rouen doomed and burned her there,—
Mother of God, where are they then?…
But where are the snows of yester−year.

Translation by Rossetti.

Tattoo Your Ears

“The most merciful thing in the world,” said H.P. Lovecraft, “is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Nowadays we can’t correlate all the contents of our hard-drives either. But occasionally bits come together. I’ve had two MP3s sitting on my hard-drive for months: “Drink or Die” by Erotic Support and “Hunter Gatherer” by Swords of Mars. I liked them both a lot, but until recently I didn’t realize that they were by two incarnations of the same Finnish band.

Cover of "Die by the..." Swords of Mars
They don’t sound very much alike, after all. But now that I’ve correlated them, they’ve inspired some thoughts on music and mutilation. “Drink or Die” is a dense, fuzzy, leather-lunged rumble-rocker that, like a good Mötley Crüe song, your ears can snort like cocaine. But, unlike Mötley Crüe, the auditory rush lasts the whole song, not just the first half. “Hunter Gatherer” is much more sombre. Erotic Support were “Helsinki beercore”; Swords of Mars are darker, doomier and dirgier. They’ve also got a better name – “Erotic Support” seems to have lost something in translation. Finnish is a long way from English: it’s in a different and unrelated language family, the Finno-Ugric, not the Indo-European. So it lines up with Hungarian and Estonian, not English, German and French. But Erotic Support’s lyrics are good English and “Drink or Die” is a clever title. They’d have been a more interesting band if they’d sung entirely in Finnish, but also less successful, because less accessible to the rest of the world.

Es war einmal eine Königstochter, die ging hinaus in den Wald und setzte sich an einen kühlen Brunnen. Sie hatte eine goldene Kugel, die war ihr liebstes Spielwerk, die warf sie in die Höhe und fing sie wieder in der Luft und hatte ihre Lust daran. Einmal war die Kugel gar hoch geflogen, sie hatte die Hand schon ausgestreckt und die Finger gekrümmt, um sie wieder zufangen, da schlug sie neben vorbei auf die Erde, rollte und rollte und geradezu in das Wasser hinein.

Some Indo-European


Mieleni minun tekevi, aivoni ajattelevi
lähteäni laulamahan, saa’ani sanelemahan,
sukuvirttä suoltamahan, lajivirttä laulamahan.
Sanat suussani sulavat, puhe’et putoelevat,
kielelleni kerkiävät, hampahilleni hajoovat.

Veli kulta, veikkoseni, kaunis kasvinkumppalini!
Lähe nyt kanssa laulamahan, saa kera sanelemahan
yhtehen yhyttyämme, kahta’alta käytyämme!
Harvoin yhtehen yhymme, saamme toinen toisihimme
näillä raukoilla rajoilla, poloisilla Pohjan mailla.

Some Finno-Ugric


All the same, being inaccessible sometimes helps a band’s appeal to the rest of the world: the mystique of black metal is much stronger in bands that use only Norwegian or one of the other Scandinavian languages. Erotic Support haven’t joined that rebellion against Coca-Colonization and tried to create an indigenous genre. They’re happy to reproduce more or less American music using the more or less American invention known as the electric guitar. But amplified music would have appeared in Europe even if North America had been colonized by the Chinese, so I wonder what rock would sound like if it had evolved in Europe instead. It wouldn’t be called rock, of course, but what other differences would it have? Would it be more sophisticated, for example? I think it would. The success of American exports depends in part on their strong and simple flavours. “Drink or Die” has those flavours: it’s about volume, rhythm and power. It’s full of a certain “drug-addled, crab-infested, tinnitus-nagged spirit” — the “urge to submerge in the raw bedrock viscerality of rock”, as some metaphor-mixing, über-emphasizing idiot once put it (I think it was me).

Cover of "II" by Erotic Support

Erotic Support are “beercore”, remember. Beer marks the brain with hangovers, just as tattoos mark the skin with ink. And just as loud music marks the ears with tinnitus. There are various kinds of self-mutilation in rock and that self-mutilation can have unhealthy motives. It can be an expression of boredom, angst, anomie and self-hatred. Unsurprisingly, Finland has the nineteenth highest suicide rate in the world. Beer, tattoos and tinnitus are part of the louder, dirtier and loutier end of rock: unlike Radiohead or Coldplay, Erotic Support sound like a band with tattoos who are used to hangovers. “Drink or Die” is a joke about exactly that. But what if rock had evolved in a wine-drinking culture? Would it be less of a sado-masochistic ritual, more a refined rite? Maybe not: the god of wine is Dionysos and he was Ho Bromios, the Thunderer. His brother Pan induces panic with loud noises. But black metal looks towards northern paganism: it’s music for pine forests, cold seas and beer-drinkers, not olive groves, warm seas and oenopotes.

Erotic Support don’t create soundscapes for Finland the way black metal creates soundscapes for Norway, but they do create beer-drinkers’ music, so they do express Finnishness to that extent. Swords of Mars, being darker, doomier and dirgier, are moving nearer an indigenous Finnish rock, or an indigenous Scandinavian rock, at least. This may be related to the fact that genes express themselves more strongly as an individual ages: for example, the correlation between the intelligence of parents and their children is strongest when the children are adults. Erotic Support create faster, more aggressive music than Swords of Mars, so it isn’t surprising that they’re the younger version of the same band. In biology, the genotype creates the phenotype: DNA codes for bodies and behaviour. Music is part of what Richard Dawkins calls the “extended phenotype”, like the nest of a bird or the termite-fishing-rods of a chimpanzee. A bird’s wings are created directly by its genes; a bird’s nest is created indirectly by its genes, viâ the brain. So a bird’s wings are part of the phenotype and a bird’s nest part of the extended phenotype.

Both are under the influence of the genes and both are expressions of biology. Music (like bird-song) is an expression of biology too, as is the difference between the music of Erotic Support and Swords of Mars. As brains age, the behaviour they create changes. Swords of Mars are older and not attracted to reckless self-mutilation as Erotic Support were: it’s not music to precede hangovers and induce tinnitus any more. Sword of Mars aren’t trying to tattoo your ears but to educate your mind.

Angst, Anguish, Abjection

It’s half tradition, half tic. At every Ruin-Dredger gig, the lead-singer Jerome Daziel asks the same simple question. Sometimes he shouts it and demands a reaction from the audience. Sometimes he whispers it and ignores what the audience does. Depending on the country, he’s asked it in French, Italian, Greek, Russian, Georgian, Mandarin, Thai, Samoan and Quechua. He’s also asked it in complete silence, having written it across his chest and on the palms of his hands in phosph-ink, invisible when the lights are on, glowing ghoulishly when they’re turned off. Occasionally he’s asked it backwards. In English, the question runs like this: “And What Doth It Mean To Be Flesh?”

Cover of Triple-A by Ruin-Dredger (2000)

But you could see the whole of a Ruin-Dredger gig as asking the same searching thing. The band specialize in unusual frequencies that hunt out – and hum out – the resonances of the human body: the lungs, the bones, the blood. And their music sets up strange resonances in the mind. It’s both mindless and masterful, at once tearful and tyrannous. Sometimes it sounds like mathematics trying to come to life, and sometimes like mathematics trying to commit suicide. There’s a lot of science in their music, and a lot of silence too. “Star-clusters having tantrums,” is how one early review ran. “With occasional episodes of narcolepsy.” That mixture of sound and silence is mutually reinforcing: the sounds are sterner, the silence is sharper. They began their career with the albums Xoli-Hein (1992) and Pyramidion (1996), where they forged a series of griffs, or “gruff riffs”, that were often Ohrwürmer, or “ear-worms”, as German calls tunes that stick in your head. Even if you don’t want them to. But I’m not sure “tune” has ever been the right word for the music Ruin-Dredger create. It’s part industrial noise, part wolf-howl, part bat-twitter, but mostly “folded, fused, fissured, fractured, fidgety phonaesthesia.” And if you want to sample it, this album from the turn of the century is a good place to start.

What to call the album is one of the first puzzles it will set you. The band’s website usually calls it “a3” or “a3”; in interviews, the band themselves refer to it as “Triple-A” or “that A-fucker”. The second name comes from a plagiarism suit by the astro-music veterans Kargokkult that put Ruin-Dredger’s career on hold for nearly a year, 2002-3, and allegedly threatened to bankrupt their record-company. In the end the case was thrown out of court and even today some conspiracy-minded Dredge-heads claim it was cooked up for publicity between the ’Dredgers and the Kargonauts. The case might never have got as far as it did without that lunar cover for Triple-A, where the corroded letters of the band’s name and the album’s name hang above a lifeless moon-scape. Only it isn’t our moon. And it isn’t necessarily lifeless. Ruin-Dredger have a bee in their bonnet about the pre-biotic – the conditions necessary for the appearance of life. That’s what the first track on Triple-A, “Invention of the Cross”, is about: the chemicals that gave rise to life. And it literally has bees on it: the band sampled bees and bumblebees in flight and gathering nectar. They then altered the pitch and speed of the buzzing and made it sound both unearthly and unsettling. I’ve known people demand the track be turned off or skipped when it’s played to them.

But skipping track one of Triple-A is a bit like jumping from the frying-pan into the fire, because track two, “Seventh Sword”, is even more unearthly and even more unsettling. Bat-twitters hurtle through the speakers, falling from the ultra-sonic to the infra-sonic, rising in reverse, twisting, turning inside-out, mating, mutating and miscegenating. Then, as though the band have taken mercy on your ears and your mind, everything slows and soothes for track three, “Titanomachia”, which is often preceded in concert by the aforementioned carnal question: “And what doth it mean to be flesh?” This track is one of the last outings for the griffs of their early career: a slow, synth-based triple chord underlain by a sample of waves washing on an unknown shore. Track four, “Breathing Vacuum”, has also been known to provoke a “Turn it off!”, because the mumbling beneath the music is both sinister and sorrowful. You feel as though you should understand the words or, worse, that you will in your dreams. The chimes in the track are sinister too: they sound like a deep-sea, or deep-space, monster tapping on its fangs before putting them to famished use.

Which sets things up nicely, or nastily, for track five, “Scylla / Charybdis”. This is named after a pair of sea-monsters faced by Odysseus on his journey home from Troy and has been described by the ’Dredgers as a “battle-song”. The waves on “Titanomachia” are back, but bigger, badder and in a mood to fight. Daziel’s electronically treated voice wolf-howls a series of unintelligible questions, answered by patches of silence and gong-like drum-rolls. Track six, “Nyctogigas”, starts softly, builds back to the volume and violence of “Scyl/Char”, then breaks apart to allow the bats and bees of “Whilom” to steer your imagination out and up into the freezing star-light on the outer fringes of the solar system, where comets, shorn by the cold and dark, wait to swing sun-ward and regain their blazing locks. I like to listen to “Whilom” in the dark, wearing a blindfold, but then that’s the best way to listen to all of Ruin-Dredger’s music. Listening like that conjures visions and commands the viscera. Not an easy album, nor an unrewarding one, Triple-A isn’t their finest hour, if fan-polls and sales are any guide, but it’s an excellent guide to where they had come from and where they were about to go. If it’s the alpha-and-omega of their career, perhaps that explains the title: the “a” is the alpha (α) and the “3” an omega (ω) tipped on its side. I see it, or hear it, as a bridge between the ’nineties and the ’noughties: they’d give up the griffs and big up the bats, from then on, but they’ve never stopped asking that simple, sinister/sorrowful question of themselves and their listeners: “And What Doth It Mean To Be Flesh?”


a3 / a3 / Triple-A (S.R.K., 2000)

1. Invention of the Cross (5:26)
2. Seventh Sword (3:33)
3. Titanomachia (7:18)
4. Breathing Vacuum (9:03)
5. Scylla / Charybdis (6:11)
6. Nyctogigas (4:20)
7. Whilom (13:37)

Mental Marine Music

Cover of Magna Mater Marina by Slow Exploding Gulls (CD re-issue)

“Thalassa! Thalassa!” The chant that began the first song on the first side of the first S.E.G. album is still inspiring the group twenty-six years and eighteen albums later. Few fans will need reminding that it is ancient Greek for “The Sea! The Sea!”, as shouted in ecstasy by a mercenary army after a long and dangerous retreat across Asia Minor in 401 BC. Ecstasy is not so much an inspiration to the group as an aspiration. They try to use melody, rhythm and “drowned sound” to take their listeners out of the everyday and into the otherwhere, to sink them “full fathom five” in music as rich and mysterious as the sea. The S.E.G. story begins in 1987, when Joseph Corvin, the ever-present Kapitän und Kappellmeister, as he jokingly calls himself, was living in an old house in the ancient Celto-Roman town of Exeter on the southern English coast. When the sea-wind blew, his living quarters became lowing quarters: “an eerie wailing used to sound from the roof and there were all sorts of weird sound effects in the bathroom, because of air moving in the overflow pipe and the walls. I liked what I heard and I thought I could do something with it, musically speaking.”

Corvin recorded some of the wind-sounds, mixed them with gull-cries and underwater engine-noise, added vocals and electronically treated flute and drums, and put out the results on a cassette-only album called Magna Mater Marina (Latin for Great Marine Mother), under the odd but memorable moniker of Slow Exploding Gulls. The name was inspired by Corvin’s love of the surrealists Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, but it would dog him and his cohorts for years to come, partly because it pigeon-holed the group as “Kraut-rock” and partly because it suggested cruelty to animals, which was not appreciated by some of his potential audience. Both assumptions were completely wrong: Corvin says, first, that, as a fan, he was then much more into The Cure, The Smiths and Siouxsie and the Banshees than anything electronic or experimental, and, second, that far from advocating cruelty to gulls, he was celebrating them:

Not for one moment was I suggesting any harm to anything with wings or feathers. Gulls are my favourite birds, highly potent symbols of freedom, grace and the life-force. The title was meant to be metaphorical, not literal, and it was partly a reference to the explosion of joy that sudden sight of a flying gull can waken in your heart. There’s something very Nietzschean about them and yeah, I will admit to a Friedrich-fixation in the 1980s, though the Kraut-rock label was an albatross around our necks, no pun intended, for most of the ’90s. It came mainly from a review in the N.M.E. [New Musical Express, one of Britain’s big “pop-papers”] claiming to detect similarities between us and Einstürzende Neubaten, which means “Collapsing New Buildings”. Well, I can’t say there wasn’t a subliminal influence, name-wise, but I’d heard very little by any of the German groups at the time and when I did hear more, I didn’t detect many similarities between their music and ours. We were and always will be inspired by sea-sounds, everything you can hear under and over the water of the British coast. The next label they tried to stick on us was “goth”, on the ground that we made gloomy music and always dressed in black. We didn’t: it was dark blue, it wasn’t all the time and there’s nothing gloomy about our music, if it’s listened to right. (Interview on the fan-site GullSegg, November, 2003)

Corvin’s protests were to no avail: S.E.G.’s next album, A Grey Mist (1989), was reviewed under titles like “Submarine Electro-Goths” and “Solipsistic Entrail-Gazing”. Again he says the press had got hold of the wrong end of the stick: “The title of the album comes from ‘Sea-Fever’, a very beautiful poem by John Masefield, and far from attempting to be gloomy or depressing, it was all about the joy of the sea, the cold in the early morning and the bite of the wind, ‘the white clouds flying’ and mist as a symbol of mystery and possibility, not as anything glum and gothic.” Happily, S.E.G. would outlive that early hostility and journalists’ insistence on labelling, rather than listening to, the music they created, but a lasting effect of both has been the playful name-switching they’ve indulged in since their early days. They’ve released albums under at least eight different names and performed gigs under all those and more, but every name has been based on the acronym S.E.G. and had a maritime theme. 1994’s Mew Upsilon Sigma, for example, came out under the name Swim with Elegant Gods, and 2003’s Yr Wylan Ddu (Welsh for The Black Gull) under the name Seaside Excursion Guide. They’ve also recorded songs with titles like “Sunken Etruscan Gold”, “Sailing to Ecstatic Gnosis”, “Submersed in the Eternal Gulf” and “She’s an Exeter Girl” (a reference to Cathleen Orne, Joseph’s then girlfriend, now wife, who is indeed an Exeter girl).

Cover of Silica by Slow Exploding Gulls

This S.E.G. motif means that hardcore fans, of whom they’ve garnered and retained a flighty fair few down the decades, are generally referred to as SEGheads, while their biggest – and best – fan-site is GullSegg, where you can find the earliest and most accurate news on the group’s activities, plus detailed and reasonably objective reviews of every piece of music they’ve ever recorded. So can S.E.G. be described as Shadowy Exeter Goths? No, Soaring Elemental Gods is much closer the mark and I join many mental-marine-music fans in wishing them well in their ambition of recording music in every major sea-side town of the British Isles. Wexford on the eastern coast of Ireland is next, according to GullSegg, and Wassernyxe, album #19 (and German/Greek for “Mermaid-Night”), should be released before the end of the year. It’s unlikely it will sail new seas, or sound new depths, but after twenty-six years of mer-music-making who could expect it to? Yes, never mind the rowlocks! S.E.G.’s Saline Esoterica Gangs on – and gongs on – every time someone plays a classic album like Mew or Thalas/Socratic, their 1996 split-EP with their own whale-song side-project Schatten über Exeter Gruppe (German for “Shadow over Exeter Group”).


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Stoch’! (In the Name of Dove)

Proviously post-posted (please peruse):

The Sound of Silex

Guitardämmerung

Cover of Nation of Ashes by Man Will Destroy HimselfMan Will Destroy Himself, Nation of Ashes (2007)

I’ve enjoyed this album a lot. It’s short, sharp and psycho-sonically stimulating. It could be called sonic-ironic too. Hardcore, in the guitar sense, is an accelerated and intensified form of punk that first appeared in the late 1980s. It was then an extreme, bleeding-edge – and bleeding-ear – form of music. But now it has three decades of tradition behind it. One of the men who first championed it, the BBC D.J. John Peel (1939-2004), would be seventy-four if he were still alive today. This is from Peel’s auto/biography, Margrave of the Marshes (2004), which was begun by him but completed by his wife Sheila after he died of a heart-attack in Peru:

William [one of Peel’s sons] and I [his wife writes] went regularly with John to gigs that Extreme Noise Terror and Napalm Death played together at the Caribbean Centre in Ipswich. They were grimy, chaotic affairs attended largely by crusties wearing layers of shredded denim and dreadlocks thick as rope. The moshpit was like an initiation ritual – if you could make it out of there in one piece, you knew you could survive anything life had to throw at you. People would stagger out with nosebleeds, clutching their heads, complaining of double vision, drenched in sweat. And yet a good-natured atmosphere prevailed somehow. William, who was around thirteen at the time, took one look at these crusties, who mostly shunned bathing or showering, and decided that this was the musical sub-genre to which he wanted to pledge undying allegiance. His karate teacher attended the reggae nights upstairs at the Caribbean Centre, and would say to William on the way out, “What are you doing listening to that?” (Op. cit., pg. 387-8)

That extract sums up the music well: hardcore is adolescent and part of its early appeal was its ability to shock your parents and conventional society. Okay, the adolescent William Peel was attending Extreme Noise Terror gigs actually with his parents, but then John Peel was a permanent adolescent and the music didn’t appeal to the karate teacher. Before long, William Peel probably did something his father never did, namely begin to grow up. He would then have lost interest in hardcore. Or grindcore, as Sheila Peel calls it. I don’t think E.N.T. were grindcore (and neither do they, apparently) and I don’t think Napalm Death belong with E.N.T. or with Man Will Destroy Himself. For one thing, Napalm Death are crap. For another, they are, or became, much more metal and lost the grimy authenticity of E.N.T. and M.W.D.H.

Grime is authentic, after all: you’re closer to reality when you’re dirty and smelly and living in a squat, far from the nine-to-five conformity of deluded mainstream society. Or are you? In fact, the crusties – named from the crustiness of their unwashed skin and hair – could not have existed without the generous benefit-systems of Western Europe. Crusties sneered at straights – and lived off the taxes of straights. They bemoaned the brutal military-industrial complex – and were kept safe by it from a communist system that would not have tolerated their rebellion for a second. And, of course, they were using electricity to create and record their music. Not to mention benefitting from the transport network for food, the sewage network for hygiene, and the generally law-abiding, relatively uncorrupt societies that surrounded them and without which their “lifestyle” would have been impossible or unsustainable. If crusty political ideas had been realized – or are realized, because they’re alive and well in the Occupy movement – even crusties might begin to see that Western society was rather more complex and benign than they recognized.

But recognizing the complexity and benignity would get in the way of the self-righteousness that is another and essential part of hardcore’s adolescent appeal. You have to strip down your music to get the exciting speed and you have to strip down your ideas to get the exciting sneer. The first track on this album, “Subdivide”, begins with a sample from the end of the film Planet of the Apes (1968), when Charlton Heston learns, in a particularly dramatic and memorable way, where he has been all the time and what man has done with his super-sized brain. “Goddamn you all to Hell!” he cries – and the music swells up and screams off in that exciting, but by now very familiar, hardcore way. It’s an effective opening, but it reminds me of the term used of art by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1931): “emotional engineering”. The sample relies for its power on listeners’ previous knowledge of the film. Man has indeed destroyed himself – but in a science-fiction universe. The sample is effective, but insincere. Heston is acting and so, I feel, are M.W.D.H. The theme of nuclear armageddon was very well-trodden well before the ’noughties, when this album was released: Planet of the Apes appeared in 1968 and is based on a book published in 1963. Extreme Noise Terror were railing against the arms-trade from the beginning and E.N.T. have been assaulting ears, offending noses, and straining their throats for a long time now. Which is sonic-ironic: M.W.D.H. could never shock E.N.T. with their music, even though E.N.T. are probably old enough to be their dads.

Global warming, the apocalyptic theme now occupying the progressive community, isn’t so much fun to scream about: it’s slower and less obviously an act of malevolent free-will. But what about the much bigger threats posed not by man but by Mother Nature, with things like asteroid-strikes and mega-volcanoes? Well, hardcore bands have never worked themselves into self-righteous frenzies about those. How can you be self-righteous about billions of people dying if no human agency is involved? If we’re wiped out by an asteroid or a mega-volcano, it will be, at worst, a sin of omission. We could have spent more money researching the threat and inventing ways to prevent or avoid it. We’ve not been wiped out like that yet, but the threats remain and I think we should spend more money watching the skies, for example. But it’s difficult to get emotional about it: there are no self-righteous thrills to be found in nearby asteroids. Nuclear arsenals are different: men made those and men may use them. So you can get emotional about the threat. The strong sensations of hardcore aren’t supplied by just the speed and volume: the self-righteousness and sanctimony are important too. That’s why M.W.D.H. use that sample from Planet of the Apes and put nuclear missiles on the front cover of this album.

I don’t know whether they scream about global warming too, because I can’t understand the lyrics and haven’t found them on the web yet. The final track, “M.O.A.B.”, is presumably about the mega-munition called the “Mother Of All Bombs” by the U.S. military. Whether or not that bomb is the subject, it’s surprising how quickly you reach “M.O.A.B.”: this album whirls by and can seem even shorter than its actual running-time of twenty minutes. Hardcore is headlong, like sheets and shards of metal being blown along by a hurricane. And metal is a word that comes to mind a lot as you listen to this album. The sounds are metallic in an almost literal sense: strong but flexible, meaty but malleable. Nation of Ashes sounds like a sonic factory taking the raw ore of volume and hammering, twisting, and rolling it into shape. That’s appropriate for a form of music that depends on an advanced technological civilization, though it’s sonic-ironic because the music is being used to criticize that civilization. But Nation of Ashes also sounds metallic in a more strictly musical sense. As I’ve said, M.W.D.H. and E.N.T. aren’t metal bands like Napalm Death, but heavy metal does influence the sound of hardcore. There are throbbing, thundering passages between the headlong charges on this album, but that variety increases the power of the music. And has been doing so on hundreds of albums for thousands of days. So, as M.W.D.H.’s music pounds, listeners can ponder things like authenticity and originality.

I’ve certainly pondered my own originality while writing this review. I’m pleased with the title of the review – “Guitardämmerung” – but I’ve found from a web-search that it’s been used before. Other minds have worked like mine, noting the similarity between “guitar” and Götter. The point of a pun is to distort language and create a new sensation from something familiar. That’s also what punk did to rock music, and what hardcore did to punk: they were distortions for new sensations. Sometimes musical distortion is inadvertent: new forms of music, like new forms of life, can arise when there’s a mistake in copying. Or when the technology of the art does undesigned and originally unwanted things, like causing feedback. An accidental thing like that can then become something pursued and valued in its own right. Hardcore is about distortion in lots of ways: it uses distorted guitars and voices to protest about the distortion of society and justice. But this album isn’t distorted in one way: it adheres faithfully to the hardcore recipe first laid down in the late 1980s. So that’s sonic-ironic again.

“Guitardämmerung” also blends ideas in the way that hardcore blends punk and heavy metal. Götterdämmerung means “Twilight of the Gods” and refers to the cataclysmic end of the world in Norse mythology. Man Will Destroy Himself use electric guitars to create music about cataclysm and apocalypse, but are we now in the final stages of guitar-based music? Will hardcore, heavy metal, and other forms of rock exist much longer? I don’t think they will. There are cataclysms of various kinds ahead: political, social, scientific, and technological. The political and social cataclysms probably won’t be those foreseen by the self-righteous and sanctimonious crusty community (crummunity?). And that community may realize that it’s been working for political and social cataclysm in a lot of ways, rather than against it. The scientific and technological cataclysms will be more powerful and long-lasting in their effects – assuming science and technology survive what is ahead in politics and sociology. I don’t think the Deus Ex Machina, the electronically enhanced superhuman now in preparation, will be interested in loud guitars. But I’m not superhuman, or properly grown-up, and I am still interested in loud guitars. Although the music is quite different, this album makes me nostalgic – or prostalgic – in a similar way to the mediaeval ballads on Music of the Crusades. That music was traditional, and so, sonic-ironically, is hardcore, three decades after it first appeared. Hardcore expresses ugly emotions in an ugly way, but it’s still human. And Man is indeed about to be Destroyed.

Nation of Ashes is available for free at Last.fm


Elsewhere other-engageable:

Musings on Music

Lauditor Temporis Acti

Music of the Crusades, David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London (1991)

If a real mediæval audience could hear this magical and sometimes spine-tinglingly beautiful collection of mediæval ballads, I suspect they’d burst into roars of disbelieving laughter. It might sound like the real thing to us, but nobody knows what the real thing sounded like and this album must be getting something badly wrong. But it can’t be getting everything wrong and I think the spirit of the Middle Ages is here, or several spirits: some songs are wistful and yearning, some boisterous and playful, some pious and icily perfect. As was the medieval way, the artists and musicians did their work gratiâ Dei, for God’s sake, not their own, and most of the songs are attributed to a simple “Anonymous”. But one, “Ja nus hons pris” (“No Man Who’s Gaoled”), is attributed to a certain imprisoned “Richard Coeur-de-lion”. The best performances are by a tenor called James Bowman, who has a voice that would have made him famous across Europe back then; nowadays, when “early music” has to compete with thousands of other genres, it’s a treasure known only to a discerning few, rather like the languages – Latin and mediæval French – in which the songs are performed.

Music of the Crusades

You have to know both the Vulgate and mediæval history to appreciate titles like “Sede, Syon, in Pulvere” (“Seat Thyself, Zion, in the Dust”), but “Palästinalied”, or “Palestine-Song”, the only title in German, shows that the Middle Ages have never really gone away. Wars in the Middle East and the threat of militant Islam have been with us before, and though part of the joy of this album is the way it allows you to escape the modern world, there are some things you can’t escape and a dose of real mediæval life would cure many modern discontents and dissatisfactions. Still, as the human race enters its final days, some of us continue to look back and regret what we’re going to lose and what we’ve already lost. It’s a pleasing irony that a compact disc, product of the scientific hangman, can contain so much of both.

Stoch’! (In the Name of Dove)

Stochasma, In Abysso (2012)

The Sueco-Georgian avant-gardists Stochasma were formed, in their own words, “to interrogate, eviscerate, and exterminate the ultimate experimental envelope of acoustic idiosyncrasy”. That’s “Sueco-” as in Sweden and “Georgian” as in the Eurasian nation, not the American state, by the way. Going one up on some bands from Wales, Ireland and Scotland, who issue their material bilingually, in English and one or another of the Celtic languages, Stochasma issue all their material tri-lingually, in English, Swedish, and Georgian. The strangeness and beauty of the Georgian script match and enhance the strangeness and (occasional) beauty of their music, but, unlike their last two releases, there’s no spoken English, Swedish or Georgian here: In Abysso is intended to be an “abhuman listen”.

Front cover of Stochasma's album In Abysso 

Believe me, it is! The title of the album is Latin for “In the Abyss” and the liner-notes extend thanks to H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Stanislaw Ulam for “infernal inspiration”. If the last name makes you think “Who?” (or “U?”), you must be new/nu to Stochasma, who draw inspiration not just from art and literature, but from mathematics too. Stanislaw Ulam (1909-84) was a Polish mathematician perhaps most famous for inventing the “Ulam spiral”, a graphical representation of the prime numbers that reveals mysterious patterns in this strange and fascinating set of integers. Ulam stumbled across the spiral while “doodling” during a boring lecture at a scientific meeting. That kind of serendipity has always been important to Stochasma, who explore the musical abyss/chasm partly through random, or stochastic, techniques. For the first track, “Pr1m4l Skr33m”, the five members of the band had electrodes attached to their nipples before being asked, at random, to indicate, with a nod or shake of the head, whether a randomly selected number between 1 and 10,000 was prime or composite (for example, 1,433 is prime, being divisible by no numbers but itself and 1; 1,434 is composite, being divisible by 2, 3 and 239). If they were wrong, they received a painful electric shock.

The resultant collection of grunts, gasps, and screams was electronically worked over in fully traditional Stochasma fashion to create “Pr1m4l Skr33m”, which sounds like a fully traditional Stochasma track: fucking weird and unsettling! Is the irregular chorus of voices in agony or ecstasy? Are the band being tortured in a hell run by sadists or pleasured in a heaven run for masochists? Or both? It’s hard to decide, and at times hard to listen, but as Stochasma themselves put it: “We’re queasy listening, not easy – easy listening is for cubes.”

Elsewhere, the band have used the ultra-sensitive microphones they first experimented with on 2003’s AnguisaquA (sic – it literally means “SnakewateR”). This time they’ve recorded the bloodflow of a dove and the movements of parasites in its feathers for “Täubchen”, which sounds even stranger than it reads. That and “Pr1m4l Skr33m” are the first two tracks: the next fifteen are entitled “Ignisigil I” to “Ignisigil XV”. Stochasma used a fire-proof microphone to record the sound of books being burned. They selected fifteen wildly different authors for this literally incendiary homage, from “J. Aldapuerta to J. Archer, from K. Marx to K. Minogue”, as they themselves put it. (That’s the über-trangressive Spanish horror-writer Jesús Aldapuerta and the über-cruddy British thriller-writer Jeffrey Archer, and the Anglo-German philosophaster Karl Marx and the Australian pop-pixie Kylie Minogue, for those unfamiliar with the names.) And the band insist, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that the sonic textures of the recordings are dependent not just on the physical nature of the paper and ink being burnt, but also on the ideological and aesthetic nature of the burning text.

It’s hard to agree: the “Ignisigils” all sound pretty much alike to me, though that sound is uncharacteristically soothing and relaxing by Stochasma standards (on my first listen, I dropped off during “Ignisigil VIII” and didn’t wake up till “Ignisigil XI”). The album is rounded off with three of the strangest pieces of music I’ve heard this century: “Musgomorrah”, “Gradus ad Parnassum”, and “CoMoXoCoI”. The first sounds like a slowed recording of men in armour fighting in thick mud; the second like a choir of giant glass insects singing themselves to splinters; and the third like echoes chasing each another in a collapsing or burning maze. These three might grow on me or might not: for now, “Pr1m4l Skr33m”, “Täubchen”, and “Ignisigil IV” hit the sonic sweet’n’sour spot that Stochasma seem to have copyrighted. I don’t know why “IV” hits the spot and the rest of the Ignisigils don’t, but that’s often the way with Stochasma: you like the sounds they create and you haven’t a clue as to why. In company with a select band of other electronicognoscenti, I look forward to their seventh album, whenever it appears and whatever musical mélanges or macedoines it manages to mulch, mangle, and miscegenate.


Elsewhere other-engageable:

Musings on Music