An Introduction

I first became interested in 4AD, a UK independent record label founded in 1980, towards the end of the '80's. I was falling in love with the music of Dead Can Dance, Clan of Xymox, Pixies, Bauhaus and The Birthday Party and was surprised when the 4AD label sampler "Lonely Is An Eyesore" came out in 1987 that all these bands were from the same label.

After visiting a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition of some American's collection of art, I came to thinking of all this musical art that 4AD have released that may one day drift into obscurity unless someone shows it as art. So now I'm on a crusade, to collect the first ten years of 4AD's releases and exhibit the collection on 4AD's 50th anniversary in 2030. This is a big task which will have some interesting twists and turns along the way.

Friday, 23 September 2011

A Lifetime of Music in Ten Albums

The hardest thing for any serious music fan to do, is to give any sort of favourite band, song, album etc. But it’s also loads of fun. So I decided to compile what is one of the hardest things to compile, a top ten album list.

Of course, this list is likely to change on a daily basis. But I’ve tried to be as subjective as possible. So this is a list of albums that I have always thought to be sheer brilliance. Also, I have included only albums where there isn’t a single track that lets the whole album down. With one exception. The only order they are in is by release year.

And the relevance to this blog I hear you ask? Well, two out of the ten are 4AD. That may not seem much, but out of hundreds of albums that have been the soundtrack to my life, it is quite incredible that two are from the same independent label.

Budgie - Never Turn Your Back on a Friend

Apart from the Roger Dean gatefold cover, this was is an incredible album. A clean and crisp recording, the whole album is like a set of sessions rather than an over produced set of layered tracks. All the songs seam natural on this album. The song lengths reflect where they should go and for how long they should go on for and not a second too long or short. So it has a mix of quick hard rock anthems and thoughtful journeys that don’t over indulge. They never did it again as good as this.

Mike Oldfield - Ommadawn

This is the one exception to the rule. A perfect album, with an awful twist at the end. A vocal track about about the joys of riding your horse. Apart from this terrible little ditty, the album is magical. The album has two tracks, where as usual Mr Oldfield plays thousands of instruments. The magic though is in the play of styles that runs through the songs. This is a mixture of classical, folk, medieval, tribal, all rolled together seamlessly as though he’s asking “how else would it sound?”. It’s also modest and not loud and brash. It takes genius to get that balance.

Joy Division - Closer

I was listening to this album quite a lot before I knew of it’s significant back story. One of the most Gothic albums ever made, but don’t dare ever say that. I love the schizophrenic element to this album, one minute up, the next minute right down to the very bottom. The depth this album reaches is beautiful in it’s darkness and yet manages it without any pretension, just sincerity. Then when you think you have understood the gravity of it’s aura and go on to discover the back story to this album, an even greater depth that you thought wasn’t possible is added.

Shock Therapy - Shock Therapy

An early “Industrial” pop album from the US, it’s raw, honest and at first you don’t notice the depth of the lyrical content. The music mixes the styles of Killing Joke, Alien Sex Fiend and Death Rock with a synthpop edge which would be more akin to the industrial pop bands of the 90’s. Filled with a satisfying mix of catchy riffs and mental conflict, it has a surprising depth which is given an added dimension with the unfortunate circumstances of it’s lead man, Gregory ‘Itchy’ McCormick who died in 2008 aged 44.

Clan of Xymox - Medusa

Not every band are completely original, but some perfect their genre. Clan of Xymox were great in the UK if you were elitist in your musical tastes. The music is very accessible, but by the late 80’s and early 90’s were not in the “it” crowd’s repertoire of music. I was shouting to every DJ in the early 90’s about how good this band were and no-one took me seriously. Now they are the darlings of the underground Goth movement when their music has become dull and predictable. Pieter Nooten is the shining star on the album and Clan of Xymox are the lesser for his absence. Mixes Joy Division, The Cure and Depeche Mode together with almost progressive changes and switches, that stop the songs becoming typically pop structured. Medusa is filled with emotion without going too deep, but deep enough.

The Cure - Disintegration

This was the second in what was to become a trilogy of albums. (Pornography, Disintegration, Bloodflowers). This is a perfect album and considered by many to be The Cure’s best. Very serious, purposefully depressive and fueled by Robert Smith’s drug of choice, it’s glimpse into what may have become of Joy Division in another world of what if. Disintegration also has a rare quality, of making the user slightly annoyed at the more upbeat tracks, but they help unhinge the listener before knocking you straight back down again.

Dead Can Dance - Aion

Dead Can Dance have led an interesting musical journey, from Post Punk debut to almost African jingly janglies on the final album. Aion was the halfway point which perfected a sound before quickly moving on to other styles. Even though it mixes classical, tribal, medieval and rock, it mixes in just the right amounts. Brendan Perry still gets plenty of great bass lines in, and the percussion moves you in a primeval way. Lisa Gerrard’s vocals are not classical, but unique to...well, herself. Many bands have tried to imitate this album but have fallen well short. It’s a fine line to walk to achieve an album like Aion succesfully. Many imitators are either too far on the rock end to be interesting, or too far on the cheesy end of attempting classical music and failing miserably. Dead Can Dance are genius.

Spock’s Beard - Beware of Darkness

Progressive rock is not to everyone’s taste. Some of it is way too over indulgent and on the other end of the spectrum, too boring, rigid and afraid of itself. Since the seventies turned on prog, it was very uncool to do anything other than 4 minute pop or rock songs. During the 90’s, the tide turned and now in the new century most types of music are at least tolerated. Spock’s Beard were not afraid to be out and out prog rock. But they also learned the lessons of the seventies. Although Beware of Darkness is typical of Yes and Gentle Giant, it has little to no pretension and has tongue firmly placed in cheek. It’s a fun album, but incredibly genius and clever and yet remains very accessible. Unfortunately, Spock’s Beard never did it again.

Tea Party - Transmission

It’s all been done before. The Tea Party picked up in the 90’s where Led Zeppelin stopped in 1980. The Tea Party have always leaned heavily on Led Zeppelin, especially with the hint of Indian and middle eastern percussion and strings. But this album has a depth I’m afraid Led Zeppelin never had. A depth even the lead singer Jeff Martin has said he never wants to go back to. The lyrics on Transmission making reference to Huxley, Orwell and Zamyatin, about death and the afterlife, have such depth and power, that you get completely lost in it’s dark waters. While still holding on to the Tea Party blues and the eastern influences, Transmission also mixes in industrial and plenty of keyboards.

The Girl & The Robot - The Beauty of Decay

I try to steer clear of newer albums making a top list, as time does change things when it comes to music. And a list like this usually has longevity as a proof of reckoning. But two recent albums were in close running. The one that didn’t make it was an album called R.E.T.R.O by a band called Mind in a Box. But pipped to the post is this Swedish duo under the moniker of The Girl & The Robot. Synthpop duos have been around for thirty years now. But the female fronted synthpop duo is a difficult variation to master. Eurythmics managed it with the Sweet Dreams album. But it’s rare to get the level of warm vocals mixed with cold minimal synths. The Beauty of Decay is a wonderful album. Dark enough to keep you gripped, warm enough to fall in love with and cold enough to make you shiver. A rare treat and I’m ready for a new album from them!!!

So that’s my top ten albums of all time.

It’s about time some of you readers added some comments. Get a google account and stop me talking rubbish, otherwise I’m likely to think that everyone agrees with every scrap of rubbish I come out with. I would love to read some of your top ten albums.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Dead Can Dance

If I remember correctly, I first discovered Dead Can Dance through the Lonely Is An Eyesore 4AD compilation album.  They had two tracks on the compilation. The first was a track called Frontier. What a eye opener that track was!  Partly classical, but with a tribal percussion running all the way through.  I was transfixed with the liner notes saying that the main percussive instrument that Lisa Gerrard bangs away on, was a water drum of some kind, and they struggled to get a full recording from it in one go as the water just kept leaking out of the drum due to the aggressive nature of being belted for three minutes by Lisa.

I had never heard anything like it before.

The second track and the compilations closing track, was called The Protagonist.  This was a slow 9 minute droning piece that slowly built up a momentum from near nothing to a barrage of what sounded like brass instruments.  This track I wasn’t so sure about.  I had come across this kind of slow build up repetitive atmosphere style on a couple of albums from my earlier youth.  There is a track on Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygene and another on Mike Oldfield’s Ommadawn that did a similar thing.  They built up layers slowly on a repetitive loop. I also heard a similar thing in classical music, such as Saturn The Bringer of Old Age from Gustav Holst’s The Planet Suite.  As a youngster I didn’t appreciate these kinds of pieces as much as I should have.   I was always tempted to skip over them.  Of course, this was the impatience of youth. I learned to appreciate them much more as I grew older.

So for a while Dead Can Dance took a slow burn with me.  I bought a Clan of Xymox album called Medusa around 1988 and got heavily into that. I bought the first Dead Can Dance album in 1989. This was the debut album from 1985. This wasn’t an album that I just got straight into. I was discovering so much music at the time that the album got lost in the collection for a short while.

I was getting heavily into the Goth scene at the time, a scene which was becoming more transfixed with the rock element of itself than it’s punk foundations.  I was more fascinated by it’s experimental punk origins than where the scene was by the early ‘90’s.  To my amazement, in a high street newspaper and magazine shop in 1990, was a book called “Gothic Rock” by Mick Mercer.  Goth was so underground at this time that to see an A4 size book on the high street was a shock.  It was a fascinating book, full of interviews with Goths in the UK, fanzines and most of all a full ten year history of Goth bands.

Within these hallowed pages was a surprisingly small section for Cocteau Twins. If I remember correctly they were roughly described as pretenders of Dead Can Dance.  This was a shock.  I had picked up the Blue Bell Knoll album a little earlier and loved the sound, but was shocked at this opinion.  Cocteau Twins had been releasing music from 1982 under 4AD and yet Dead Can Dance hadn’t released their debut EP until 1984.  I assumed, if anything Dead Can Dance were the pretenders. The debut Dead Can Dance album was a little early 80’s obvious in it’s style on a quick listen, and without study seemed nothing groundbreaking at all.

Then in 1990 the Album Aion came out, which I bought not knowing what to expect.  This time I was more determined to give it a bit more time and patience than the debut album I had only passively listened to. Aion was a world away from the debut album, so far away that I wondered if this was the same band at all. Medieval sounding, baroque with unusual instruments and powerful and yet what some at the time may have said, bordering on cheesy keyboard pad sounds. This album was going to take a bit of work to understand. But over the next year I really found the power it held, and realized it’s incredible beauty. During this time I also found out that Dead Can Dance had been together since 1980 writing music and preceded Cocteau Twins by a small margin. I also found out how unhappy Brendan Perry was with the production of the Dead Can Dance debut album and how it didn’t properly capture the band at the time.

So maybe Cocteau Twins were the young pretenders?

After “getting” what Dead Can Dance were all about, I started picking up every album they had done and were releasing.  I went over the debut album again, afresh.  Along with Aion, this is my favorite Dead Can Dance album now. It is quite different from the rest, but unique and powerful. I
find it a shame that the debut album seems to have become a work of slight embarrassment to them.  They never play anything live from this album either as Dead Can Dance or separately.  I think this album rings loudly with the Goth tag, which every band of this era has tried desperately to drop.

Dead Can Dance toured in 1990.  I was right in the middle of personal crisis at the time and couldn’t go and see them, which I regret deeply.  I never saw them live while the band were still together.  It wasn’t until 2005 when they briefly got back together to do a tour that I got the rare opportunity to see them live.  Seeing them live was an incredible experience, an experience you feel that you are deeply sharing with the rest of the audience.  The atmosphere was one of awe,  appreciation and respect.

However, a couple of years later, I had the privilege of seeing Lisa Gerrard live and that was an experience on an even greater level.  From the very start, the atmosphere in the theatre was not like anything I had experienced before.  A spiritual power came from stage that enveloped the whole audience.  You could practically see an aura of light passing from person to person.  By the end of the first song everyone in the audience was nearly in tears, and by the end of the performance, many were.  I have been to hundreds of bands, ranging from Death metal to classical, yet I have never had an experience like that before or since.  I’m not really a hippy dreamy tree hugger, but I know this description makes me sound like one.  The whole performance and mutual love and respect from my fellow audience members made the evening an experience I will never forget.

The news from the Lisa Gerrard camp is that Dead Can Dance are reforming in 2012 to do an album together and tour. I would strongly advise anyone reading this post to keep an eye out for them and see them when they tour, otherwise get your hands on a copy of Aion or Dead Can Dance and open your senses to a world of beauty

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Slap my thighs and call me Betty

I seem to be slowing down in my blogging. One of the reasons is perhaps down to the fact that I’m a bit useless at motivating myself to buy stuff. I must admit that in the great scheme of things, justifying spending money on second hand and old records and CD’s etc, seems a bit of a waste of money. Don’t get me wrong, food, heating, and the other necessities of life are an absolute priority, but once all those things are paid for, how do you justify what you spend the remainder on?

Here’s a run down of purchases from the last week or so.

Cocteau Twins   Aikea-Guinea UK CD Re-release
Pixies    Dig For Fire UK CD
Dead Can Dance   Spleen And Ideal UK CD
Colourbox UK CD
Bauhaus    Ziggy Stardust Greek with 4AD labels
Cocteau Twins   Head Over Heels    US CD
Breeders, The   Pod    German CD

The general stuff like this has to be collected in order to have a complete collection. But it’s hard to get as excited as a release I don’t have any copies at all of as yet, yet alone something rare and unusual. But then I suppose there is some excitement in finding something unexpected. The Colourbox CD listed here was a little unusual. The release on Discogs had an expected matrix the same as the catalogue number. The Matrix on the one I had though, had a completely different matrix, and slightly different to the same release I already had. So on closer inspection, I find out there are at least three matrices for the same release. Although 2 of them have “Made in France” on the disc, but I still believe they may all be UK releases.

I always think too much before buying anything. The same goes for my 4AD collection. There is always a hesitation before buying anything for the collection, and the more general the release, the greater the voice in my head argues over justification.

I will make a sincere effort to mentally beat myself into submission and slap myself around the chops a few times in order to get my daft brain in the correct collectors frame of mind. Come on Mr Halfhead, sort yourself out!!