Month: January 2017

Buckfast Band at Philomena’s

I took a night off from my usual Thursday open mic at the Admiral Hardy to play bass with the Buckfast Band at Philomena’s Irish Bar in Holborn. The Northern Ireland Supporters Club were celebrating after receiving a medal from UEFA for being the most passionate fans in Paris last year . I think they deserved it.

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I’ve never played a gig where everyone in the audience was so friendly and welcoming. They are a truly lovely bunch of people. I’ve had Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond running round my head all day since.

Good craic!

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Review: Graham Hancock – Magicians of the Gods

Graham Hancock is fast becoming a cult figure, known for his exciting new ideas about the history of humanity  and the West’s neglected relationship with spirituality. He is the nemesis of complacent academia: any time an orthodox opinion in archeology is presented as fact, Hancock is there, asking difficult questions and presenting his own contrary evidence.

I first came across him in his infamous 2013 Ted Talk, ‘The War on Consciousness’, which examined the shamanic practices of the Amazonian people and the lessons we in the West may learn from them. Ted withdrew the talk not long after its release, effectively banning it. Far from reflecting badly on Mr Hancock and his work, this is a case of Ted showing its true colours. Here we have an organisation with so little faith in its viewership’s ability to develop their own opinions that they would rather gag a controversial speaker than allow his voice to be heard.

Graham Hancock - Magicians of the Gods.jpgMagicians of the Gods, Hancock’s latest non-fiction work, is a globe-trotting historical adventure. The author’s quest is to illuminate evidence of a pre-historic civilisation supposedly lost from the archeological record – perhaps more accurately described as wilfully over-looked. The scope of this expedition is huge! Hancock takes us from Turkey and the Middle-East to Bolivia and Peru, from Egypt to Indonesia, from Easter Island to the flooded cities off the coast of southern India. As a tour-guide, he is inquisitive and insightful but above all credible: never does he jump to conclusions or fail to give an opposing view a fair hearing.

The opening chapter sees Hancock exploring the recently discovered hill sanctuary of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, an ancient megalithic site which has been reliably carbon-dated as 12,000 years old, making it around 8,000 years older than the date assigned by orthodox Egyptology to the Great Pyramids at Giza. To be confronted with such a place that flies in the face of everything we think we know about the story of humanity is bewildering.

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Who were these people who built vast, astronomically-aligned temples at a time when our ancestors were supposed to have been primitive hunter-gatherers?

How can it be that, according to the site’s discoverer, Professor Klaus Schmidt of the German Archeological Institute, the oldest parts of the site are the largest and most sophisticated, while later parts appear to be lesser works of imitation?

For Graham Hancock, the answer is clear: a lost civilisation. It thrived during the previous Ice Age and perhaps before, in the time we call ‘prehistory’. New geological evidence forces us to consider the possibility that its cities and people were all but wiped out by a series of cataclysmic comet impacts. The titular ‘Magicians of the Gods’ were the survivors of the cataclysm who undertook a worldwide civilising mission, teaching the remnant hunter-gatherers how to build, how to farm and how to read the stars.

This may all sound far-fetched, and indeed, I noticed the book in Waterstones shelved under the heading ‘Alternative History’. This implication of its being a fictional account, however, is misleading. What becomes increasingly obvious as you read is that Hancock has really done his research. The appendices and lists of references for Magicians could constitute a short book in its own right.
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The author is clearly accustomed to having to fight his corner, so he is careful to substantiate every claim he makes. At times, this can lead to a dry writing style, bordering on academic. Chapter 5 in particular goes into excruciating detail about the glassy minerals present in a particular layer of earth indicating extraordinarily high temperatures 12,800 years ago. While hardly gripping, Hancock is insistent upon establishing these observations as peer-reviewed fact because a large part of his lost-civilisation hypothesis rests upon it.

Despite its assiduousness, Magicians of the Gods is far from difficult to read. Peppered with exotic myths and curious anecdotes, it fires the imagination. We are presented with countless mysteries: the unknown origin of the labyrinthine network of man-made tunnels beneath Derinkuyu in Turkey; the striking similarities in iconography engraved at sites as far apart as ancient Mesopatamia and Central America; the fathomless age of the buried pyramid at Gunung Padang in Indonesia which, despite its deepest foundations having yet to be unearthed, already points to a date of 22,000 BC.

 

watu-palindoThe most stimulating thing about Magicians of the Gods is that it is by no means a complete and water-tight thesis. Hancock does not have all the answers, nor does he claim to. Instead, he presents us with anomalies, the things that don’t fit into the current gradualist historical paradigm. In a cold and drab January, the world suddenly lights up with new possibilities. Pre-historic cultures of vast antiquity erupt from the ground. Perhaps buried a few metres beneath the frost are relics of a lost world, a world in many ways more sophisticated than our own. This ancient world was not of stock-markets but of monoliths, not of Brexit but of art, not of draconian Conservatives and ineffectual Labour but of wise philosophers seeking balance.

An idea that echoes through all of Hancock’s work is that we must always challenge established ideologies. In this sense, Hancock has profoundly influenced the way I think about the West and what it values.

We can spend countless billions on warfare, on hatred, on fear, on suspicion, on division, but we can’t get together the collective effort to save the lungs of our planet. … Only a truly insane global state of consciousness could allow such an abomination to occur.

Equally pressing is our need to question the story the academic establishment tells us about our own history. Orwell very astutely wrote that ‘who controls the pasts controls the future’. We cannot allow ourselves to be in a situation in which our governments are able to use a false or incomplete account of what humanity’s past has looked like to justify violence and enforced inequalities. That is why I believe the work of Graham Hancock, not least Magicians of the Gods, is of utmost importance. Whether his historical hypothesis is accurate is irrelevant.

It allows us, empowers us, to imagine a better world.

 

 

Review: Bruno Mars – 24K Magic

With 24K Magic, the Crown-Prince of Swagger delivers a work coated in glitzy gold-leaf, but hollow within.

The album kicks off with a wash of frothy metallic voices, so heavily treated they are indistinguishable from a synthesizer. Mars’ voice rises stridently above the soul-tinged chords, sounding for all the world like a call to prayer for the Church of Bling. The beat asserts itself, infectious and head-bobbable, driven by a bendy bass synth.
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Mars is a vocal chameleon. One moment he’s Michael Jackson, the next he’s James Brown, with punchy call and response on Perm, while Too Good To Say Goodbye casts him as a soulful Stevie Wonder. This well-crafted song’s strong chorus is let down only by its gratuitous suspended chord, so cinematic in proportions it eclipses any subtlety in the rest of the song.

You would be forgiven for thinking the lyrics on That’s What I Like and Versace on the Floor were parodies, glorifying decadent clothing designers, brutish male dominance and, of course, that most coveted of precious metals. Mars is at times embarassingly puerile, boasting of his ‘too many girls on hold’ in Calling All My Lovelies and touting a teenager’s pornographic fantasy in Straight Up & Down. The garish album cover is therefore fitting. Mars, posing legs akimbo, models red pyjamas and ostentatious jewellery, the fruits of his Autotuned labours. He is however redeemed by his charisma and seemingly boundless energy.

The production is obsessively detailed: every moment is saturated with rhythmic vocal interjections, turn-table scratches, percussive pings, flurries and blurps. Initially, this sonic fizzy-pop cornucopia is arresting and renders the previous album, Unorthodox Jukebox, comparatively subdued. But by the third or fourth track, the sheer density of sound leaves your ears begging for a respite from the bombardment.

For producers Jeff Bhasker and Emilie Haynie, the rule is ‘more is more’. By contrast, in Mark Ronson’s 2014 collaboration with Mars, Uptown Funk, the brass section is used only sparingly so that its explosive entry in the chorus is a well-deserved up-to-11 moment. The new album is missing this sense of climax, of tension and release.

24K Magic is uniformly excessive, thus lacking highlights.

Cave and Cash

In 1988, an obscure band from Australia, then based in West Berlin, released a single that flew in the face of all other pop music at the time. The UK charts that year saw Kylie Minogue at the top with I Should Be So Lucky, alongside such other feel-good tunes as Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth and The Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. In the late 80s, as much as now, pop music favoured slick production, bright, crisp timbre and, for the most part, fairly banal, inoffensive lyrics.

Imagine, then, the unsuspecting audience’s reaction to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ The Mercy Seat upon first hearing it on the radio.

This is a dark, intense, droney and doom-laden song. Its production is intentionally hideous, its lyrics, when audible, are macabre and drenched in biblical allusions, and Cave’s distinctively low, gravelly voice drifts in and out of tune like a tortured, guttural wail. The average radio listener would probably have switched stations within the first minute. In fact, the average radio station probably wouldn’t have aired it at all. What’s more, this is the single edit. In the full version from the album Tender Prey, that hypnotic, morbid chant carries on for a further two minutes.

What’s the significance of this?

Well, it’s ugly. Really ugly. And it has to be. If a composer were given the task of setting Cave’s words to music, they would probably create something that was intentionally uncomfortable to listen to. The music has to reflect the words.

Of course, the idea of music being ugly is hardly anything new. Long before Cave, in the world of classical music, the likes of Bartok, Stravinsky, Hindemith and, of course, Schoenberg and his pupils, were writing expressionist music that, unlike Romantic music that pulled at the heart-strings, rather grabbed them in bloodied fists and tore them out. They sought to portray, as philosopher Theodor Adorno put it, ‘the truthfulness of subjective feeling without illusions, disguises or euphemisms.’ While Brahms might have conveyed his sadness and desperate longing with a succession of cadences in minor keys or a melancholic, descending melody (Adorno’s ‘euphemism’), Berg might represent unbridled fury with a series of violently dissonant, rhythmic stabs.

Ugliness is an essential part of art. There are certainly those who would argue that art and music should only be beautiful, that the world has enough ugliness already and that we should not try to create any more. But this severely limits artistic expression. The Berg excerpt you have just heard is, like The Mercy Seat, likely to have the average listener switching to something a little ‘easier on the ears’ before too long.

It is strange that this should be the case in music, but not in other art forms.

One of Britain’s most celebrated artists, Francis Bacon, had his critical breakthrough in 1944 with this triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.

This is certainly uncomfortable to look at. These three, agonised, writhing creatures are human enough that they force the observer to imagine themself as one of them, stretched, stunted and mutilated.

Perhaps music has the capacity to be even uglier than this painting, owing to its inherent abstractness. If we look at Bacon’s painting, we see only the screaming figures. But if we listen to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, our imaginations can conjure up all manner of sinister, nightmarish imagery.

However, Benjamin Britten believed that ugliness in music, and its capacity to evoke whatever extreme emotion, is beautiful in itself. ‘It is cruel,’ he said, ‘that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness, of pain; of strength and freedom; the beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love; the cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony.’ Being made to feel an unpleasant emotion by a work of art can be just as moving and beautiful an experience as being made to feel an enjoyable emotion.

Let’s return to The Mercy Seat

I think this song, one of Nick Cave’s signature tunes, is very important in the realm of pop music. There have been pop artists before, like  Tom Waits, Black Sabbath or The Cure who have made ugly-sounding records. (If you don’t believe me, listen to the first track on The Cure’s Album Pornography). But nothing was ever quite as remorselessly bleak as The Mercy Seat. It paved the way for pop music to take white noise, dissonance and inaudible lyrics to the extreme. Its string arrangement, a bed of scratchy, unstable, indistinct noise, bridges the gap between The Jesus and Mary Chain’s thick, fuzzy guitar sound and My Bloody Valentine’s relentlessly dense and obscure string samples.

To Here Knows When, described by Brian Eno as ‘the vaguest song ever’, has something in common with the music of the expressionist composers in that it tries to convey a feeling as literally as the abstract medium of music will allow. This song sounds like what it feels like to be stoned or high, not unlike Lennon’s Tomorrow Never Knows at the end of Revolver by The Beatles, though My Bloody Valentine have undoubtedly taken this idea to its extreme. In fact, some of the twisted stringle samples on their album Loveless are quite reminiscent of the ‘binaural beats’, (produced by playing two sine waves together which are only a few hertz apart in pitch), which can supposedly induce effects similar to those experienced while taking hallucinogenic drugs. Though it certainly makes me feel a little dizzy, I’m not entirely convinced, but you can try for yourself:

Let’s wrap up by taking a quick look at Johnny Cash. Nick Cave’s early albums often featured covers of songs by American bluesmen, including Johnny Cash, who Cave considered a personal hero. In 2000, Cash turned the covers correspondence on its head by covering Cave’s song, The Mercy Seat. His version is very, very different, but still excellent. I cannot choose which version is my favourite.

While the narrator in Cave’s original seems, despite his protestations, to be guilty of his crime and longing for the end of his imprisonment, accepting his fate on the electric chair, Cash sings as though his character truly is innocent and is fighting for his life. The final line of the chorus, ‘I’m not afraid to die’, is defiant for Cash, but resigned for Cave, who said, ‘like all the songs he does, [Cash] made it his own. He’s a great interpreter of songs – that’s part of his genius.’ Cash’s intention in recording the song was to draw attention to the issue of capital punishment, dedicating it to the ‘convicted innocent’. He asks, ‘if a man’s been [in prison] 25 years, maybe we should consider whether or not he has become a good human being and if we still want to kill him.’

These two interpretations are also very much reflected in, or perhaps determined by the music. Contrasting Cave’s dense, doomy, monotonous soundbed, Cash’s guitar is bright and lively, complemented with gentle strings and a soulful harmonium, with a few additional licks of colour in the harmony, like the descending chromatic line in the refrain. Neither Cave nor Cash have been imprisoned, (though Cash spent the odd night in jail), but both have been in the prison of addiction. Maybe it is the sense of autobiography that each brings to their version of the song which makes both of them sincere, legitimate interpretations.

The same cannot be said for this cover by American electronic/hip-hop band Stromkern, with which calamity I will leave you:

-Will Howarth

Transmissions from the Planet Gong

What is Gong?

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What is this supposed to be?

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Why is it in a teapot?

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To answer these questions, we must first answer the question:

Who is this?

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Meet Daevid Allen, Australian-born musician, fouding member of Soft Machine and the band Gong. However, to call Gong a band hardly does them justice. Gong was, and still is, a way of life, a philosophy, a belief, a mythology – one that has spawned numerous spin-off bands including Gong-Expresso, Gongmaison, Mother Gong, New York Gong and the Gong Global Family. Though Daevid left the physical world in the Spring of 2015, his legacy survives.

Gong has been described by skeptics as a ‘cult’ band, to which Daevid retorts, ‘to us, this means a band which too few people love too much’.

How did it all get started, and what is it all about?

In 1966, Daevid had a vision. He recounts:Daevid Allen 60s.jpg

I gained the impression that I was an experiment being supervised by intelligences far beyond my normal level of awareness. I would later call these intelligences ‘Octave Doctors’. I also saw myself on stage in front of a large rock festival audience, experiencing a connection with them that had the quality of intense LOVE. At the same time, I was surrounded by an enormous cone of etheric light drawing astral shadows from deep below us and dissolving them in the downpouring radiance focused at its peak.

Before long, the act of offering myself to the powers that combine, energise and transform all that lives through music became my only reason to exist. I becamSoft Machine.jpge aware of my life purpose.

Soon after, Daevid helped form Soft Machine, named after William Burroughs’ book of the same name. A brief synopsis of the book gives some idea of why Daevid was so interested in it:

A secret agent with the ability to change bodies or metamorphose his own body using ‘U.T.’ (undifferentiated tissue), makes a time travel machine and takes on a gang of Mayan priests who use the Mayan Calendar to control the minds of slave labourers used for planting maize. The calendar images are written in books and placed on a magnetic tape and transmitted as sounds to control the slaves. The agent manages to infiltrate the slaves and replace the magnetic tape with a different message: “burn the books, kill the priests”, which causes the downfall of their regime.

Daevid was clearly very taken by the idea that sound, and therefore music, had the power to influence people, their thoughts, emotions and actions. From this point until the end of his life, he would be a consummate musician, using his music as a tool to bring joy, understanding, love and peace to everyone he encountered all over the world.

Soft Machine started out playing in London’s UFO club (pronounced ‘you-foh’), along with the likes of Procol Harum and Pink Floyd. Here is Daevid performing his poetry with the band at UFO in 1967 to a mesmerised audience amid a psychedelic light show.

Despite their success, Daevid was dissatisfied with Soft Machine, feeling they ‘lacked the spiritual integrity’ he was looking for. He left the band, left London, and found himself in Paris, experimenting with his electric guitar and ‘a boxful of nineteenth century gynaecological instruments processed through an echo box’. He began jamming with Gilli Smyth (or Shakti-Yoni Space Whisper, as she is credited on a few Gong albums) and a host of other musicians, ‘improvising around nothing for hours on end, completely stoned.’

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This formed the foundations of Gong.

The band began living and recording together in a kind of hippy commune in Avignon in the south of France. Their being in such close and constant contact with each other allowed them to develop the extremely tight and polished ensemble sound that would come to characterise the band.

Not only that, but Daevid began Daevid Allen 60s 2.jpgdeveloping the mythology of the Planet Gong which became the subject of many subsequent albums. The world of Daevid’s imagination is a surreal and absurd one. He considered humour very important, believing that ‘laughter was a vital ingredient’ in what he described as ‘a cultural and spiritual revolution’.

Here is the Gong mythology (or at least, my understanding of it) in a nut-shell:Pixie.jpg

  • Far away, there exists a planet called Gong, home to the Octave Doctors, to whom we are little more than primitive animals with limited dimensional capabilities, and the Pot-Head Pixies.
  • The Pot-Head Pixies, the most numerous inhabitants of the Planet Gong, travel between worlds in flying teapots.
  • Zero the Hero, (Daevid’s alter-ego), travels to the Planet Gong with the help of inter-galactic wandering atheist missionary, Captain Capricorn.
  • YOU is the state of  enlightenment that the Gongfolk are all trying to achieve.
  • Once you have become YOU, you may experience life in higher dimensions, like the Octave Doctors. This is known as ‘going to Everywhere’.
A history

Those wishing to become Gongscholars should read the more detailed explanation of the characters in the mythology on Gong’s website.

What about the music?

Gong’s musical influences cover a vast range. The band flits effortlessly between psychedelic rock, musique concrète, jazz, French waltzes and poetry, to name but a few.

Gong’s golden age, before Daevid left the band (due to a ‘wall of force’ preventing him from going on stage at a gig in 1975), includes 3 albums known as the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy. Let’s take a look at some highlights from each.Flying Teapot 2

Flying Teapot (1972)

Having found their musical style in their previous release, Camembert Electrique, the band now begin to perfect it. This album is the perfect place to start listening to Gong. It has it all: mesmeric grooves, absurdly catchy tunes, trancy synth soundscapes and perhaps the filthiest chromatic riff in all of Gongdom which you can hear at the end of this video:

Also noteworthy in this track is saxophonist Didier Malherbe’s playing which is suitably untamed and raucous. The band apparently found Malherbe living in a cave in France, alerted to his presence by the sound of his sax echoing around the hills.

Angel’s Egg (1973)

Angel's EggWhile Flying Teapot was mainly focussed on extended improvisation, Angel’s Egg showcases the band’s songwriting skill. Selene is a sumptuously smooth ode to the Planet Gong’s moon Goddess, with the delicacy of King Crimson’s I Talk to the Wind, and the perfect pacing of Pink Floyd’s Breathe. On the other hand, Eat That Phone Book Coda is a wild, eclectic masterpiece of complex rhythmic word-setting.

But the album’s highlight is without a doubt Oily Way, with its infectious grooves and melodies.

You (1974)

For songwriting and extended jams, You is the YOUbest of both worlds. Isle of Everywhere is a masterclass in how to make a little material go a long way. With just one riff, the band constructs a hypnotic space-rock odyssey, ever-modulating, ever-building and ever changing time signatures.

But the strongest track on the album is Master Builder, a tour de force performance from every band member, especially drummer Pierre Moerlan who would take up Daevid’s mantle of bandleader after he left.

I leave you with A PHP’s Advice, which concisely encapsulates everything great about Daevid’s songwriting. It’s absurd, cheeky and, above all, catchy – not to mention its intriguing and inventive instrumentation: it’s not every day you hear bubbles, pops and tongue-clicks used as percussion.

Vive Gong!