Fruits de Mer
Of all the relics of rock’s sainted past that could really use a kick start today, the 12-inch single is perhaps the most maligned, and misaligned as well. So easily dismissed as mere discotheque fodder, a home for those drum loops that go on way too long in an attempt to convince you it’s an “extended mix,” the 12-inch was actually born with far loftier principles - a 1976 reissue of the Who’s “Substitute” was one of the earliest; Television’s “Marquee Moon” among the most grandiose; and the format’s rise alongside the twin demons of punk and roots reggae saw some genuinely challenging sounds arise.
But imagine if it had been around a few years earlier than that. If the likes of Aphrodites’ Child, Yes, Pink Floyd and the Byrds had also had room to expand on their vision, and still kid you into thinking you were buying a single.
Instead they were stuck with side-long album tracks alone, and a whole new genus of horsefaced self-indulgence came spiraling out of the grooves. For every “Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” there was something interminable swimming in topographic oceans; for every “Supper’s Ready,” there was a grisly concept blob.
But, again, imagine….
Side Effects is a set of four twelve inch platters, each given over to two tracks apiece: the Soft Bombs’ take on Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”; Arcade Messiah’s version of Aphrodite’s Child’s “Four Horsemen”; the full-length version of Bevis Frond’s exploration of Electric Sandwich’s “China” (a much shorter edit was on FdM’s Head Music); Wreath drawing Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” out to unimaginable lengths; Superfjord expanding the Byrds’ “CTA-102”; the Luck of Eden Hall’s glorious recounting of Yes’s “Starship Trooper”; Julia’s Haircut mining marvels from MIles Davis’s “Shhh/Peaceful”; and, finally, space rock renegades Sendelica taking Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” and effectively dumping it somewhere past Uranus.
And all eight are so gorgeously redrawn that they more or less render the originals redundant.
Okay, that’s a little disingenuous. Playing through the box set that wraps the discs together, one never loses sight of the fact that this is tribute, not trauma, and traditionalist ears will not baulk at anything they encounter within. (Well, not much... Sendelica, we’re talking to you.) But the tried and trusted gets trampled upon regardless, a sensation you encounter just minutes into “Echoes,” as the guitars soar with a savagery that David Gilmour only hinted at, conjuring images of the albatross not simply soaring overhead, but dive-bombing down as well.
Eden Hall’s “Starship Trooper,” too, is a wonder to behold, an electrifying assault on such a well-worn favorite that it’s difficult to imagine them adding anything to the party. Instead, there’s a staccato lurch to the proceedings that feels almost punky, guitars that slash and a bass that bullies, while frontman Gregory Curvey (whose stunning artwork also decorates the package) delivers vocals that soar with all the passion that Jon Anderson was maybe too busy with his falsetto to embrace.
Stylistically, “I Feel Love” is the joker in the pack - although that’s historical hubris more than cultural awareness that shapes it with such sad intent. Both song and its creator are now so bound up with the dreaded disco that it’s difficult to recall precisely how revolutionary, and ear-scourgingly different our first taste of motorik felt at the time, and Sendelica do their damnedest to spring the surprise all over again.
Six minutes of pastoral psych prog and sound effects mask their intentions, and even when the rhythm kicks in, it’s still a gradual thing. It takes until then, too, for the melody to assert itself, but once it gets going, it’s unmistakable… so long as you can convince yourself that Gong were at the controls the day that Giorgio Moroder first handed the song to Miss Summer, and Didier Malherbe sent the synth man out for sandwiches.
“Sundown” comes as a similar surprise, with Lightfoot’s sweet pastoral seen through a haunted echo chamber, becoming a dream that only slowly reveals itself around that so familiar hookline and lyric, lazily loping across a soundscape of stunning eloquence.
And so on throughout the rest of the set, and a box that triumphs on so many levels that an evening’s immersion in its over-two-hour duration is akin to getting lost within every fairy tale that Roger Dean ever told. And the 12-inch single is back where it belongs, transporting realities to new realm of otherness.
Army of Mice
Six years old, but newly revitalized as the Mice munch on, Army of Mice’s debut EP is a six track collection that is probably best described as Rural Electronica - a synth band deeply rooted in the glories of English folk and tradition, with Ellie Coulson’s vocals both seductive and strident over her bandmates’ languid landscapes.
It’s a combination that could have proved fraught with difficulties, but the Mice trap a spirit that eschews both the modernity of the instrumentation and the expectations of the genre, to offer up instead a hybrid that is all the more effective for its occasional dislocation; the title track and “Pirate Queen,” in particular, radiate with eerie charm, while the closing “Making Love in the Airlock” belies its science fictional title with a deliciously haunted moodiness.
In fact, the only sour note is that sounded by the fact we’ve been waiting so long for a follow-up. Hopefully, it won’t be much longer.
Secrets of the Moon
Better known by his Child of a Creek alias, Fallen is Lorenzo Bracaloni’s latest venture, a dense, dark electro set that could easily be mistaken for a horror movie soundtrack, but which builds into a sequence of moods that could never rest content within a single plot line.
It’s cheap and easy to compare things to Tangerine Dream, although “Golden Dust,” for one, certainly looks in the direction of Ricochet, the Tangs’ mid-70s live album and the culmination of their early, darker driftings.
Elsewhere, however, the album flirts with so many other elements that straightforward parallels are pointless. Secrets of the Moon is a banquet of whispers, chants, drones and drifting, shifting imagery, the sound of ghosts moving silently through forgotten, cobwebbed clouds, while unseen watchers agitate the atmosphere itself. Again, the horror soundtrack analogy comes to mind, but warped through a prism of lost Krautrock classics and then oddly updated to help you remember - the nightmares that frightened you most as a child are still alive and well today. And they’re whistling some shockingly memorable melodies.
Six CDs are what it takes to tell the story of Jah Wobble, the erstwhile John Wardle whom history first encountered as one of Johnny Rotten’s camp followers. But the Pistols split and Public Image was born, and Wobble revealed himself to be a bassist of utterly seismic abilities, first across the earliest PiL sets (from which “Public Image,” “Poptones” and “Careering” still split your ears with shocking intensity), and then a career that has been all the more coherent for its refusal to stay in one place.
The discs are arranged more-or-less thematically: disc one serves up what could be called his “Greatest Hits,” eighteen tracks that range from the aforementioned PiL, through the multitudinous pastures that have exercised the Wobble imagination in the decades since then. Disc two then focuses in on his eighties, with the mighty “Invaders of the Heart” just one of so many highlights that it makes your memory burn. How easy it is to write off that decade as one long and lousy lost opportunity, but then you listen to “Voodoo,” “Despike,” “The Beast Inside”… maybe we should give the eighties a second chance.
Disc three dips into Wobble’s world music fascinations, to serve up perhaps the most varied of the CDs here, as he takes off from the dub roots that his early renown was built upon, to tour the world in search of fresh rhythms and energies; and disc four goes even further, into what Wobble calls jazz, but it’s a subjective description.
“Ambient and spoken word” is the more or less self-explanatory title appended to disc five, although this being Wobble, there’s surprises within; and finally, disc six brings everything crashing together in the shape of nine newly recorded cover versions that reach from Augustus Pablo to the theme from Get Carter, collide late sixties Lee Perry with mid-seventies British cop shows, and wrap up with a glorious re-envisioning of the theme to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, dubbed out and sun-soaked, and sounding for all the world as though the Shadows just walked in to a Skatalites session.
It’s a magnificent collection then, well annotated by Wobble himself, and so broadly structured that it’s hard to take it all in in one sitting. But if it opens your ears to additional Wobble, that really isn’t such an imposition.
…And the Shredded Field Mice
Recorded (for the most part) in 1975, released as a limited edition of 500 a couple of years later, and residing in absolute obscurity since then… it never ceases to amaze how often, and how apparently easy it is to locate lost treasures today, as though everything that we listened to through the years of our youth was ultimately controlled by some vast, malign intelligence, and it is only now that humanity’s ears have opened wide enough to hear what we missed. As if!
Certainly Newark, Delaware’s Snakegrinder slip into precisely that bag, a band whose five-or-so year life span barely escaped the state lines, and whose renown was apparently confined even tighter. Among the old posters reprinted in this reissue’s booklet, we find the band playing a benefit concert for the local food co-op, the student center at the University of Delaware, and the local branch of Eat at Joes. The liners mention the debut performance of the earlier Larry Adams Band at a festival in nearby Wilmington in 1970, and a Snakegrinder reunion at Newark’s Stone Balloon, at Christmas 1976. And that’s pretty much all we have.
Apart from the music.
Live, Snakegrinder’s influences apparently lurked in firm Grateful Dead territory, wandering towards Little Feat on occasion. But their sole LP was largely self-composed, and shows off a far broader palette, edging into proggy territory with an adventurous air that captures some of the more outre elements of period British psych… and Man come to mind as well, with a penchant for jamming that feels like it ought to go way off the chart, but keeps one eye on the sat-nav as it does so.
That’s where Snakegrinder are at their finest, too, as “Nothing’s Very Easy When Your Baby’s In The Lake,” one of two fourteen-minute tracks on board, segues sweetly from something Help Yourself might have concocted, into the fidgety “Moon Over The Delaware” - which itself amounts to 104 seconds of abstract clatter and tuning sounds. Later, “Feed the Hungry Hound,” one of four previously unreleased cuts that follow the LP itself, is playful experimentation that mashes soaring space rock with monkish calm, and winds up colliding “Dark Star” with “Help I’m A Rock,” then flirts with Floyd’s “Echoes” as well.
Elsewhere, “Freedonian Hat Dance” is a noodling boogie; “Better Late Than Frozen” wonders what southern rock would have sounded like if it had been born this far north; and the live “Dogland” includes a surprisingly endearing duet for discordant piano and gospel-tinged dog noises.
Demanding, danceable and action packed, …and the Shredded Fieldmice is loose enough to explain its strictly low-budget origins, but focused enough that you wonder how this band ever passed by unnoticed. But at least we can hear them now.