Saturday, 4 May 2013

Sniffs-Black Glass Floor: German Bite Records BISS01.5

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It's a little over a year and a half now since I first wrote about a new and intriguing Leeds duo, Sniffs, then only a few months old and with their first two gigs just performed during the summer months of 2011. As I did so, they stood poised to play for the first time out of town, supporting The Monochrome Set in Newcastle, this being an occasion where, once again, they won round an audience initially bemused but soon to warm to their blend of highly controlled yet seemingly wild layers and loops of guitar, buzzing, flashing and swooping electronics and forceful, declamatory vocals, these sometimes treated and echoing as they feed through synthesizer and kaoscillator, sometimes natural, sometimes both at the same time, but always regaling with twisted vignettes of death, defiance, passion, paranoia and a whole lot more besides. Again, on that night, as over the preceding weeks, people tried unsuccessfully to draw comparisons in order to explain and place Sniffs at some reference point. Early Patti Smith was mentioned, Suicide, too, maybe The Shangri-Las but none would suffice in the least. I think it has to be said that, although influenced by a whole bag of things, some peeping through on occasion, others not so obvious on the surface, Sniffs have distilled and shaped what turns them on into something both unique and massively attractive.

In the months which have followed, it would seem that not an enormous amount has been going on. They've only played out sporadically, their gig count nudging double figures at most, I would imagine, and the first set of demoes they recorded in an attempt to capture their early live set on a multi-track was only circulated rather tightly amongst a small set of supporters. However, in private, there has, in fact, been much activity occuring as the pair have worked pretty tirelessly to refine and develop their sound, both through the acquisition and incorporation of new equipment and the writing of so much new material that they don't really know what to do with it all. Now, though, following a second set of home recordings and in an attempt to make available some of their earlier songs which are in danger of being superceded and lost into the recessess of history, they've packaged together a CD so that people attending their next gigs will have something they can take home with them. It's a beautifully designed, ten track affair, taking live highlight "Black Glass Floor" as its lead number and, with them being old and close friends of German Bite, we've decided to make it a joint release and give it a half catalogue number prior to our hopefully collaborating on something of a vinyl nature in the near(ish) future.

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“Nous Sommes Les Sniffs” opens the set forcefully and in a beguiling and vaguely disorienting fashion with what sounds like a door slamming, a starter pistol acting as ignition for something akin to a guitarist tuning up, only this, it quickly emerges, is on a loop. Round and round, over and over it goes, building gradually to quite hypnotic and dizzying effect, both droning and attempting to squeal at one and the same. Over the top, tension starts to build with the addition of random electronic droplets, pittering as they’re tapped out on some piece of techno hardware. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, the vocals then rush in, like a strong gust of wind down a chimney, barking swiftly and self-importantly the words: “Nous sommes less Sniffs! Vous portez le chiffon!” - three times, like all good incantations, before being sucked off giddily into an electro-vortex. The listener is left with a feeling of having been spun around sharply or maybe having experienced an aircraft fly by at Mach 1. Although a little sketchy compared to other Sniffs numbers, this is an important piece which dates back to their very earliest days and, as the title suggests, has been used as an opener to their live set, acting as a statement of intent in triplicate which sets out the duo’s stall attitudinally, sonically and aesthetically in just ninety seconds and, by its conclusion, leaves the listener in no doubt as to where Sniffs’ values lie. “Hey! Hey! We’re The Monkees”, this one ain’t!

Another early number is “Black Glass Floor” which follows, a drum machine kicking off proceedings with a simple and instantly recognisable beat  which evokes sixties girl groups and the death disc genre to which it lovingly pays homage. The tone is further set by the twang of a guitar, then a rather pretty, subdued melody begins to be strummed and picked out so that, with this backing established, the tale can begin: “We were so happy that night, Jimmy and I, getting dressed up and looking so good. As we walked down the street to the disco, a car whipped round the corner and crashed on the black glass road. We were so happy, we just laughed. They were alright, just hurt. We kept on walking.” Flashes of white noise sweep across the proceedings, providing a sense of urgency as the vehicle careers out of control and a helpless and rather portentous echo is added to the voice, more of which later, as festivity quickly turns to tragedy. “BGF” is unusual amongst Sniffs numbers in that it is quite traditionally structured with verses and a chorus refrain, the first occasion for which has now arrived, as our narrator tells us: “Jimmy can dance. Oh! Jimmy, you’re fine! I’m so proud that you’re mine, all mine. Jimmy can dance. Oh, Jimmy divine! Oh, so happy, gonna burst inside.” The tale then continues, our protagonists having reached their destination, with friends laughing and Jimmy stealing the show, at least in one person’s eyes. All’s well until she returns from having a cigarette, swelled with pride, to find her lover doing what he does best, “his new Cuban heels, stomping, stomping on the black glass floor.” He’s something of an ill-fated, pre-destined character, like those from classical tragedy, it seems, as suddenly he slips out of control, just like the car before him, the black glass floor now covered in an inevitable pool of red. “NO! NO! NO! NO!” Our storyteller’s screams echo in horror and despair, as she watches Jimmy’s life slip away, just before she launches into one last poignant chorus. Don’t worry, though. She’s a tough cookie, this one. She’s soon over it, as she reassures the listener with no mention of poor Jimmy: “I’m alright, just hurt”. This number, although not wholly representational of their sound, has become quite a favourite amongst those who’ve seen them live, hence its title leading the whole kaboodle, here. You could call it their Greatest Hit, thus far, if you like.

Track number three, “(Do The) Rotation”, one of a second wave of Sniffs songs, pretty much does what it says on the tin, I feel. An eddying gyre from the outset, it drags the listener around woozily, similarly to the way that double-holed Boyd Rice single does when played off-centre. A peremptory vocal straightaway instructs the increasingly enchanted listener to, well, “Do The Rotation”, looping and spiralling to quite dizzying and mesmerising effect. Meanwhile, what had started out as quite innocuous rhythm guitar soon takes a sinister twist, quickly layering into a Velvet Underground-ish chaos and an underlying pulse of a siren adds further force to the maelstrom. After a minute or so, it begins to consume itself; the vocals begin to become suffocated, like a drowning man sucked down by the circling current. In spite of a few valiant attempts to resurface, the momentum’s too strong and, before the two minute mark is again reached, the fight is over.

“Macho Bravo, Bravo Tango” roars track number four rather fizzily, the first pairing providing its title. There’s a twanging, Cramps-y raucousness to this one, something akin to an early-ish Fall number, too, only lacking the beat, both in the way that the vocals are partly delivered with a cocksure swagger and the guitars rhythmically career and slice out a captivating groove which then grows to quite thunderous proportions at times, the song being structured in a series of waves. Two microphones are traded, a la early Diamanda Galas, one untreated, the other dalek-ised, as the word “Sensational” is repeatedly puked and lashed across proceedings, this vocal dominatrix asserting her mastery over the situation as she weaves another of her perverted little scenes. Is she cunningly concocting her own version of the phonetic alphabet? Is she the mastermind of a criminal syndicate or a gangster’s moll? Is she simply on the pull? It’s not tremendously clear. An early track, too, this is a real Sniffs tour-de-force, combining looping guitar filigree with a strong rhythmic foundation, whilst an assertive and electronically distorted top layer lures the listener through domains both exotic and slightly dangerous. Sensational (and bitterly delicious)!

As we reach the halfway mark, my two favourite Sniffs tracks rear their heads, one relatively new, one having been there from the genesis. “Eyes” which will have recently celebrated its first birthday has a tone not heard thus far, being propelled along by a deep, sequenced, thrumming bass groove which you’d think was created by the synthesizer, if you’d not had it personally explained to you by the guitarist from whom it emanates. It feels like a slightly swampy D.A.F. number, perhaps, whilst remaining a million miles away from their disciplined, coaxing, sexquencer generated disko. As the first layer of circling guitar kicks in, cascading and sweeping like a psychotic take on rockabilly, you feel a little like one of those helpless passengers aboard Mark Gertler’s hellish merry-go-round ride. More guitar then starts to weave and ascend, dropping discordantly and a tad incrementally as soon as any sense of expectation has been established. The process then recommences, and seemingly without pattern, to most discombobulating effect. Meanwhile our vocalist is, on this occasion, in complimentary mood. “I like eyes. I like your eyes,” she echoes and purrs with insane glee, having hummed ominously over the intro. “I like your eyes. I’m going to take them and put them in a box. I’m going to keep them with all my pretty rocks. I like eyes.” The spell is once more cast three times, with ever growing lapidarian delight, all this pumped along hypnotically and with the addition of a cautionary siren effect, before this lunatic charabanc disappears over the brow in search of its next victim.

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“Pictures” is a clip-clopping, paranoid, preening, petulant, spoilt little princess of a number which never fails to delight these ears, having done so from their very first performance two summers ago. Our heroine seems a little on the defensive this time, as she complains that she’s been hurt, that her flash won’t work and that she’s down on her knees. She’s perennially ferocious and more in control of proceedings than we first thought, though, as she cries out repeatedly, both commandingly and a tad coquettishly: “No pictures! Don’t look at me! No pictures! Don’t Look at Me! Oww!” Guitars, in the meantime, squeal and twist, seemingly arbitrarily but clearly not so, before breaking occasionally into a temporary rhythmic clarity, creating short-lived space for the spotlight to become focussed sharply on the aforementioned vocal refrain before order is once again lost.

“Maria” is Mediterranean in feel but the spaghetti western warmth with which it begins is short-lived, as it quickly descends into darker tones, for this is a southern climate as refracted via Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Jess Franco rather than Ennio Morricone, José Feliciano or Raffaella Carra, even though the latter does, I believe, hold a place in the Sniffs pantheon. Supported by an unsettlingly perverse variation on flamenco guitar, our heroine is now a thwarted, love-crossed Hexe, seated at her crystal ball or tarot table, perhaps, as she accusingly declares: “Maria, I see. You’re wearing his ring...You and I shall meet, Maria!” A fight is soon contrived, a bit like in The Whyte Boots’ “Nightmare”; only our narrator needs no encouragement for her actions nor does she display an ounce of contrition as she stands atop her victim’s blood and hair, announcing with pride that the authorities are on their way to get her. Then, as she’s led trudging to her cell, the ghostly curse which has been there from the start repeats itself so as to follow poor Maria to her grave.

“Hello Luv / Good Girl” is a bit of a medley as two soupçons segue together to make a whole. The opening segment, another Sniffs favourite of mine, begins rather gently with guitars tinkling like crystals but you just know that this prettiness isn’t going to last as a more sinister layer enters the fray, strengthening the overall structure. Vocals are less confident this time round, however, feeling like an ectoplasmic visitation has seeped in and begun to circle the room, dancing in a gentle skein amongst the increasingly menacing guitars which thrum and gather momentum, circling, too, but with ever growing power. “Hello, hello – I think I love you. I think I love you”, the voice repeats, somewhat tentatively and in a muffle, twisting and reversing in on itself, like words spoken in tongues, trying to push through the clarity barrier. Then, just as it seems to be succeeding, rhythm guitar hooks us off unceremoniously to a fresh scene, this one another of rebel(ette) defiance, as a second prison-bound persona proudly unfolds her criminal story, asserting strongly: “Good girl! Good girl! I’ll never be a good girl, now!” Electronically treated at times, these words declaim and squidge over another intricately layered texture of guitars.

The set now draws to a close with two recent additions to the Sniffs repertoire. “Lonely House” is up first, its length of knocking on three minutes belying a new confidence compared to earlier numbers. The looping guitar is more bold, perhaps, than before, also more rhythm and riff oriented than those original songs, whilst also still retaining some of its less structured, plucked-out anarchy. The growing, catastrophe-bound element of so many Sniffs songs is once again in evidence here, as new, sharper, strident textures begin to enter the brew, combining with machine generated ingredients to dizzying effect. The tale this time takes us back to 1972 as our voice rather disturbingly begins to tell us of her first encounter with this “lovely” house. Once more, though, there’s something unhinged as she lovingly remembers its floors, walls, doors, windows upto the sky and the way the house smiled at her as she enjoyed it in solitude. Unsurprisingly, given what we’ve come to expect, tears, collapse, violence and malevolent spirits quickly enter the darkening whirlpool which, at the same time, has a tilted, cascading sense throughout, as though all is slipping gradually towards a precipice, both mental and physical. By its conclusion, rather subtly buzzed out rather than explosive, there is a vague sense of ruination of some sort or other. Have we experienced an Escher-like, Dali-esque dream?

Here we are, almost at the end, and Sniffs’ Roland SH-101 buzzes its way into the foreground on closing number “Bad Little Witch”, the sequenced notes of which make it sound like it was recorded in a wasps nest courtroom, our commanding vocalist reaching almost hysterical levels as she plays the role of Matthew Hopkins, snatched viciously from the grasp of Mr. Vincent Price. The voice ranges from something akin to Suzi Quatro or Joan Jett at times through to a screeching, supernatural witchiness of its own at others, as it puts its accused on trial, recounting charges of betrayal and lies before passing judgement: “Burn, witch! Burn, witch!” A more electronic track than any which precede, the guitar is still a strong ingredient, though, as it picks away in the background before swooping down bomber-like on occasion, adding power and gravity to proceedings. It’s a real palette cleanser on which to end, this one, and another favourite, I have to say.

Well, I sincerely that hope you’ve enjoyed this rather florid and effusive account of the Sniffs CD and that it’s made you want to catch one of their future gigs – there are, though, none lined-up currently, as I understand things. Maybe you’ll want to snap up a copy of this little treasure, too, whilst you’re at it and, of course, whilst you still can. I think they’re going to only make about sixty or so in total so speed might be of the essence. If you’re a bit too far out of reach, however, but still want a piece of the action, I’m sure we can sort you out with something, if you drop me a line. In the meantime, rather than taking my word for it, have listen to Sniffs on their Soundcloud page. Here’s the link:

Here’s three videos, as well, the first made by Rent Boy Dan Commons for “White Jaguar”, a number you won’t find on the CD, and then a couple filmed at the Monochrome Set show referred to above. These are quite old now but still stand up pretty well, I feel.

...and with tracks like their Manson Family number “Creepy Crawling” and the enticingly titled “Germany John” waiting in the wings, the journey is still, it seems, in its early stages. I’m trying to encourage them to do a cover, too, a version of Soft Cell’s “Metro MRX” which I’m sure they have the ability to interpret quite stunningly. Watch this space!

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1 comment:

  1. First of all thanks for having linked my blog to yours.

    They remind me, in a positive way, to pre/early Pere Ubu, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks.

    As I like a "tight sound", as of now I prefer studio versions to live ones.


    Steg AT