Sunday, 24 June 2012

Soft Riot-Hyperbolic Masses

Soft Riot have been mentioned on here a couple of times now without receiving any of the individual attention they deserve. So, it's an enormous pleasure to now say a few words about their recently released cassette album, "Hyperbolic Masses", a copy of which passed into my hands a few weeks ago. I'm mightily pleased it did, too, as it's truly wonderful.

I used the word "their" above when, in fact, I should say "his" as Soft Riot is a one-man band in the form of Canadian, but living in London, JJD (Jack Duckworth, would you believe?) who, he says on his website, has been doing band things for a decade and a half, "starting off in the mid-nineties in North America's vibrant art-punk/hardcore underground through to the revival of synth-based post punk music just over a decade or so ago." Again, cribbing from his website, it says that Soft Riot initially functioned as an occasional studio project amongst his other activities until rising to prominence early in 2011 with their first release, this soon followed by the earliest examples of the Soft Riot live experience which, unfortunately, I'm still to catch but which sounds to be rather a spectacle with him commanding no less than three synthesizers, on-stage mixing and various effects, all accompanied by what is enticingly described as "atmospheric on-stage lighting".  

The sound he describes as, "drawing inspiration from synthesizer-based film soundtracks of yesteryear, drones, early EBM, minimal wave, a bit of synthpop and a heavy dose of throbbing arpeggiated rhythms," thereby creating, "a science-fiction heavy sound that narrates the listener through today's fractured post-modern world with hints of black humour," and this is a pretty good summation or distillation of what's to be found on the eight tracks which comprise "Hyperbolic Masses", four on each side, just like in the good old days. 


So, with that description, my job has been done for me already, by the look of things, although a quick trawl through some of the tracks will hopefully add to what's been said above. These start with "Another Drone In Your Head" which I believe was released as the lead track on a recent E.P. or something. I get very confused with all this MP3 download culture. Anyway, it begins, rather unsurprisingly given the title and lyrical content, with a bit of a drone before a stately, crunching rhythm starts up, this supported by a pounding, confident bassline over which a vocal, almost conspiratorial in delivery at times, and  swathes of more strident electronics slash across and weave in and out of the audial field. It rather reminds me of Cabaret Voltaire during their transitional phase in the run-up to their leaving Rough Trade and making the move to Some Bizzare/Virgin around the end of 1982. They're quite an influence I would imagine as track number two, "There Just Isn't Enough Time", an accomplished, rather funky and propulsive number with whip crack beats, bubbling  electronics and punchy, rhythmically delivered vocals sounds like it would have sat very comfortably on their 1983 album "The Crackdown". 

This isn't to say that JJD's music is totally derivative of its forebearers, though,  as it still has a very contemporary feel to it rather than sounding like it has been lifted directly out of the eighties, as well as a well-crafted poppier element which is definitely the case with the track just mentioned and the one that follows, "You Can't Please Everyone". This is probably my stand-out track and, I believe, would have made a fantastic single in the days when these things mattered. The fact that he's made a video for it probably belies an intention that it be taken this way, too. It begins quite gently but ominously with eerie, science fictiony chords, a bit like Dopplereffekt on their "Myon-Neutrino" single, but soon develops into a much more layered, sophisticated and quite wistful entity which puts me in mind of people like The Associates, Blancmange and Depeche Mode at their most thoughtful and yearning. "Write Yourself Into The Void" which ends side one, aside from a short excerpt from "Jubilee" with Jack Birkett in the role of Borgia Ginz opining about his rise to power, does so in a similar vein of highly engaging, unobvious and textured electropop. 

Turn it over and Side Two is equally impressive, "Some Abstract Terror", retaining many of the qualities of the two songs that ended the first side with the track that follows, "You've Got To Use It", being moodier, more sequencer based and reminiscent of what used to be called funky alternatives in some quarters during the early to mid eighties; people like D.A.F., Hula and Cabaret Voltaire (again!) spring to mind when listening to it, although it directly apes none of these. "Do Less" which comes next seems to have a foot in both camps as it pulses and pricks along like a kind of cinematic, dance-orientated pop number and then proceedings end with the rather dystopian soundscape of "How Can You See Them?" which again brings the starkness of Dopplereffekt back to the table, as well being reminiscent of things like Throbbing Gristle's "E-Coli", the S.P.K. track "Genetik Transmission" from their "Leichenschrei" album or German Bite favourite Fad Gadget on "Arch of the Aorta". It's a perfect, minimal palette cleanser after the richness which has preceded it.

The cassette which contains some previously released material, as well as some being outed for the first time round, is intended to act as a bridge to forthcoming new material and, maybe for this reason, comes in a hand-numbered limited edition of seventy five copies, each with an individual download code for those who haven't got a cassette player or the means to transfer from it to their Ipod, MP3 player or whatever it is they use. The download does, though, come in an impoverished form compared to the three-dimensional object, and rightly so, as it does not include the additional incidental music and film extracts which segue one track into another on the physical release. I would, therefore, strongly recommend getting one whilst they're still available from as the inlay card informs the purchaser that these tracks will never be released as this collection again. And why is it a cassette rather than a record or a CD? On his website, JJD explains all, this basically boiling down to ease and cost of reproduction, durability, physical interaction and sound quality.

I wish I'd written this piece a few days earlier now, as he's just been on a bit of a jaunt around the continent with Noi Kabat, taking in Berlin, Budapest, Vienna and Prague, plus possibly Brussels and Leipzig. However, they played their final date last night, I think, so I can't encourage anybody living in any of these places to go out to see them. I think there is another tour being lined up for later in the year, though, possibly with Lebanon Hanover whose track "Die World" has been given a rather radical Soft Riot "Ice Cave" remix.

I think we're going to hear a lot more about Jack Duckworth and Soft Riot in future. I certainly hope so as he's a real talent deserving to be recognised. He does rather brilliant surreal collages, too, which remind me a bit of John Stezaker in places and which act as a perfect visual compliment to the music. So, he gets a double thumbs-up from German Bite.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Simon Barker: Punk's Dead

I had a trip down to London for a few nights a week or so ago and, as often happens when you go somewhere with no concrete plans, there was loads of brilliant stuff going on, so much so that I was rather unhappy about having to drag myself away on the Sunday afternoon to head back up north, as one extra day would have allowed me to see one of my very top films ever, "Pierrot Le Fou", being introduced by Cerith Wyn Evans at The White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey and what promised to have been a truly memorable gig at The Macbeth up in trendy Hoxton, Dalston, Hackney or whatever, this featuring Soft Riot, Noi Kab├ít and Linea Aspera, none of whom I've managed to see live yet...and all on the same bill. 

On reflection, my absolute highlight was an exhibition of Simon Barker's photographs from the years 1976-7 and thereabouts which was on at the Divus Temporary Gallery on Wilkes Street in the Spitalfields area. Being a little out of touch lately and not being one of the Facebook set, I knew nothing about it until myself and my host went to meet another friend of ours who was doing some business on Brick Lane and we went into Rough Trade to kill time and have a look around prior to our rendezvous. There on the counter was an eye-catching postcard featuring the unmistakable and dolly eek of Jordan, fully made-up but posed rather casually, on the back details of the exhibition which turned out to be just a minute or two's walk away. So, once we were in our planned triumvirate state we had a wander round, finding it to be just round the corner from Gilbert & George's gaff on Fournier Street and also that of Miss Tracey Emin who we'd passed in the street just a few minutes earlier. It's such a happening area, it really has to be said!

What we found was an absolutely superb exhibition of photographs of many of the key players from the earliest days of what came to be known as punk, those often referred to as The Bromley Contingent of whom Barker was a core "member", all taken by an insider for personal rather than professional reasons and all the more fascinating and culturally significant as a consequence. So much has been written, published and broadcast about punk and this group of people in particular, all accompanied by what images and footage is available, that it seemed as though  not a stone had been left unturned in a quest to visually represent the era. However, I can safely say that I'd never previously seen any of the photographs on dispaly, and then expanded across the pages of the accompanying book, before so for that reason alone it was a completely refreshing experience, never mind enjoying the intimacy of the shots which offered a peek into somebody's private album of friends often sitting around, preparing to go out or looking as if they've not long been back from a night on the town. 

One of my crowd is a friend of the photographer, having known him for several decades and she was, therefore, delighted to find him and his partner, Derek Dunbar, still hanging around the gallery twenty-four hours after the exhibition's opening. This also proved to be somewhat of a bonus as he walked us around some of the images on display, reminiscing a little as he went and explaining that they were all just taken with his instamatic camera for personal reasons, just as we've all taken pictures of our own mates over the years. Quite a good number were, therefore, taken in the St. James' Hotel close to Buckingham Palace where he lived for a while with one Linda Ashby, elements of whose story and significance can be read about in the better punk books, and feature friends who used to come to visit or crash over after missing their last trains home to the suburbs. As a consequence, old school friend Steve Severin and other Bromley dwellers such as Siouxsie Sioux and Bertie Marshall (Berlin) are much in evidence, as well as the aforementioned and seemingly ubiquitous Jordan and people like Debbie Juvenile, Tracie O'Keefe, John Mackay, Nils Stevenson and Kenny Morris.

The camera wasn't just confined to home, though, and a very interesting set  of pictures are those which were taken at the premiere party for the film "Jubilee" which was held at Derek Jarman's studio/dwelling at Butler's Wharf. As well as some of the usuals, these also include others in snapshot scenes: the film's director himself, Little Nell, Jayne County, Helen Wellington-Lloyd, Adam Ant, Marco Pirroni and one Max who was in Rema Rema and The Models, I believe, with the last of the aforementioned, as well as being the voice of the single "I Confess" by Dorothy which came out on Throbbing Gristle's Industrial label in 1980; quite a favourite round here it is, too, I can tell you. Others were taken at gigs and on tour with The Banshees and, as well as featuring action shots of people like Adam and Jordan on stage with the Ants, several of Siouxsie doing her stuff and figures like Poly Styrene, Alan Vega, Wayne Barrett from Slaughter and the Dogs and even journalist Jane Suck with microphones in their hands, the scene surrounding such events off stage is  also documented. In the book, for example, there is a small section titled "Managers" which includes images such as one of Richard Boon chatting to Malcolm McLaren at the Croydon Greyhound and a rather sartiorially elegant Leee Childers and friend at The Music Machine. Elsewhere, there's a casual shot of Billy Idol at The Vortex and dressing room images from early Ants gigs, including a hilarious one of Jordan posed with teenage fans decked out in all the clobber.

As I've said at least once, one of the best aspects of this exhibition is that the photographs were not taken for any other reason than the personal and they, in places, essentially feature friends doing what friends do, albeit in a rather exciting place and time. So, a lot of the pictures have an unplanned lack of self-consciousness to them which I like. If I had to pick my very favourites they would have to include a little set entitled "Negative Jordan" where she is wearing her recognisable geometric make-up design only this time with the white parts of her face shaded in black. As she poses against the wall at the St. James' and pulls a face in one of them, she looks a bit like a collision between the Ballet Russes and the Black and White Minstrel Show, displaying an aspect of her character which I strongly suspect would never have been revealed in a more staged, public setting where a more demure, stand-offish aspect seemed to be more the order of the day. I also like one of her caught talking on the phone, made-up but with her hair unfinished or one of her lying on the floor, at the foot of a sofa, smoking a fag and looking half-asleep. There's also one of  Tracie O' Keefe caught sleeping in bed which I like, the fact that she drifted into her eternal sleep as a result of a rare form of bone cancer not long afterwards adding quite a degree of poignancy to it. She also appears in photos taken at The Vortex speaking to a young Bella Freud in one and a young Steve Strange in another, their subsequent fame making them interesting shots. Other real favourites, although they're all so brilliant, are of Jordan with the Ants wearing a long black wig and looking more like Jayne County than herself as she belts out what is presumably "Lou" on stage at The Marquee. I've never seen pictures of her is such a get-up before so another new angle emerges here, too.

Similarly, I've never seen pictures of Siouxsie Sioux wearing an eye-patch, a la Bette Davis in "The Anniversary", before but here she is looking terrific both at the St. James' Hotel and on stage at an early Banshees gig, presumably on the same night as the continuity in her outfit suggests. As he walked around with us for a bit, Herr Barker picked out the former as one of his favourites as not only does it feature his old mate posing very upright with her arms at her sides, but also, in the background, Jordan sitting on the floor leaning against the wall with a poster of Marilyn Monroe above her head. "The three women," he explained. It's a favourite of mine, too. When I'd bought the book / catalogue, Derek picked out a favourite of his, as well, one of himself and Derek Jarman talking at the "Jubilee" party where he is wearing a shirt with a photograph of Siouxsie in the clear, plastic breast pocket. As he explained, following record company wranglings, the Banshees were removed from the film's soundtrack and, as a punishment, they were not invited to the party. "I made sure she was there, though, if only in a photograph," he told us proudly.

So, I think we can agree that, if this kind of thing interests you in the slightest and you're in Londinium, a visit to the "Punk's Dead" exhibition is pretty essential. It runs until 7th July, I believe, and is open from midday until 9pm daily which is very civilised. I would also strongly recommend shelling out thirty quid on a copy of the book as it is a beautiful, hardback creation consisting mainly of photographs, a lot of which aren't in the exhibition, presumably for logistical reasons, and fascinating bits of text introducing thematic sections with titles such as St. James' Hotel, Linda, Jordan, A Jarman Party, Seditionaries, Siouxsie and Live. I also suspect that a lot of these images, once exhibited, will slip back into the realm of the private so the book will offer an invaluable, permanent record. Plus, as often happens with these things, it will no doubt sell out pretty quickly and start passing between hands for ludicrously inflated amounts on the second-hand market. Mine's autographed, "...pissing on the past, Simon Barker". Act now, whilst you can, is my advice.