Category: On Shuffle

On Shuffle: Songs:Ohia – Ring the Bell

Songs stumbled upon, songs remembered, songs because why the hell not?

“All of this is an attempt to put a serious price on lyrics that are honest not witty, shy but not weak, weary if they are and sad without apology, depression without a fight and depression with a fight.” – Jason Molina

It would be reductive to classify Jason Molina’s rich back catalogue as nothing but a collection of songs about sadness. But there’s no denying that among his many gifts lied an uncanny knack for capturing the mundane horrors of depression. Recently whilst suffering with it I’ve found myself recoiling from music featuring easily understood lyrics, preferring to wrap myself in cacophonous guitar noise or elegiac ambient drift. They comfort like old blankets. But Molina’s words still shine like beacons in the black.

“Everyone tells you not to quit/I can’t even see it to fight it/if it looks like I’m not trying…I don’t care what it looks like.”

Didn’t it Rain is a record seeped in unnamed, unshakable sadness. From the solipsistic opening title track through no less than 4 tracks with the word blue, that saddest of all colours, in their title, it’s an album that sounds desperately lonesome from first note to last. Night is constantly evoked – the whole record seems to take place under the cover of darkness, “in the Midwest’s witching hour.” To me it plays out like a nocturnal roadtrip, under the swaying wires, past riverbanks, across the “bridge out of Hammond”, with the blue moon above being be pounded by wiper blades in the windscreen in Steve Albini’s Blues. It’s a lonely trip with no apparent destination in mind.

“Help does not just walk up to you/I could have told you that/I’m not an idiot.” 

At turns belligerent and desperate, Ring the Bell is trudges on with a three note bowed double bass refrain driving it forward, like the shambling gait of one who’s bones are starting to feel heavier than they’re worth. It switches between cryptic threatening imagery of ever present serpents and hounds (he might not be trite enough to colour the dogs black but it’s not a huge jump to make) and responses to some real or imagined questioning of his will to fight his demons. One of the most frustrating things of suffering from mental health woes is that the moments when it looks like you’ve given up are the ones you’re most likely to be fighting tooth and nail. And neither advice nor admonishments, however well intentioned, are much use in that battle. People can’t see your internal struggle, seeing instead only the tired lump of flesh before them, so they tell you to try harder. As if you’re not trying your hardest already. Why wouldn’t you be? “Why wouldn’t I be trying to figure it out? Why wouldn’t I be trying? Why wouldn’t I try?”

“If there’s a way out it will be step by step through the black.”

Of course it will. Confucius said, “to move a mountain you begin by moving the smallest rocks.” But you don’t see the rocks when you’re right down there in it. You see nothing but the mountain, you feel it’s sublime imposition upon you. It shakes you to your core, makes roots of your limbs. And the more you stare at it the more everything starts to look like a mountain; the more everything takes on a sense of unassailable awe.

Molina kept coming back to this theme of just keeping on, one foot in front of the other, throughout his work. Life as a battle to just keep on travelling. Later, on his most famous composition Farewell Transmission he sings, “The real truth about it is there ain’t no end to the desert I’ll cross/I’ve really known it all along.” There’s no end in sight, no destination to speak of. The only friend you have is a horizon that deigns not to get any closer to you. At the end of Didn’t it Rain, during closing number Blue Factory Flame, he sings directly to someone suffering under a cloud of, “endless, endless, endless, endless depression,” assuring them, “you are not helpless.” Ring the Bell’s advice is more practical.

“If there’s a way out it will be step by step through the black.”

But what if there’s no end to the black? And what if you’ve really known it all along? There isn’t really any way out. But you have to keep going. Step by step by step. Movement for it’s own sake: a journey without any plans for arrival. A hunt with no kill. Keeping on keeping on, as it were. Because what else is there?

On shuffle: Iroha – Eternal

Songs stumbled upon, songs remembered, songs because why the hell not?

Iroha sound a lot like Jesu. This is perhaps not surprising, led as they are Andy Swan of Final, one of Justin Broadrick of Jesu’s many other projects, as well as featuring Jesu bassist Diarmuid Dalton. It’s an unavoidable comparison and one they did little to swerve, utilising the same blend of crushing guitars and sad little melodies to very similar effect.

This should be a problem. But they sound a lot like the Jesu of Silver – that melancholic, lumbering beast of such beauty and majesty. I’ve waxed ridiculous about how much I love that track and lamented how little of Jesu’s other output really follows the same pattern. If only I’d spent more time listening to Iroha – a band that sound like an alternate universe in which Broadrick doubled down on the mix of shoegazey melodies, neolithic heaviness and sad-eyed whimsy.

I can’t even remember when I finally did stumble over them – I’ve got their records saved on Spotify but I never got around to buying them. I have a vague memory of going down a youtube/Spotify rabbithole one night and getting lost in that cavernous sound. They offer the ideal of what I look for in a lot of heavy music – noise that embraces you, welcomes you. Noise as a place of solace, a place to seek asylum amidst the drudgery of the day, against the unfathomable cruelty of life. It wraps itself around you, this world weary wall of crashing guitar and seething bass. There’s invariably a sad little melody played on keyboards or guitar drifting lightly above the swirl – so simple (anything complex would get lost in the waves of noise) it’s almost childlike, nursery rhyme-esque, which coats it in a sepia wash of longing nostalgia.

And where in many bands there’d be gutteral roaring to contend with – which at best becomes part of that elemental sound, and at worst distract from it – instead it’s the soft, hushed tones of Swan that gently intone amidst the cacophony. Swan, like Broadrick, knows what many purveyors of metal do not – sometimes there is nothing more crushingly heavy in this world than a sigh. The lyrics often sounding like sad little reflections scrawled in notebooks – on Eternal the central refrain comes across like a response to a psychiatrist, a stretch at an explanation. “It’s just a feeling that’s been there all my life…” It’s perfect – capturing nothing and yet suggesting everything, an existence e hampered by one nagging sensation that somehow can never be named.

I’ve no idea if Iroha are still a going concern – I’ll be picking up their criminally cheap self-titled record from their bandcamp page when I have a few quid to spare and it’d be nice to think I might catch them live at some stage. But since I finally picked up that thread from that night they fell into my lap they’ve already provided something much more vital to me – accompanied me on nights of fear and self-loathing, drunken moments of despair and long walks home from disappointments both large and small. Sometimes I think the things we find when we’re at our most lost are the most valuable we have. And amongst the gems I’ve found in those times Eternal is one of the most precious to me.

On Shuffle: Purling Hiss – Whipple Dam

Songs stumbled upon, songs remembered, songs because why the hell not?

I’m not quite sure what happened to Purling Hiss. They came out the blocks on fire but never quite backed it up on subsequent releases. I can’t remember where I stumbled over their Passenger Queen ep but when I felt I’d stumbled on something special. Whipple Dam in particular is something else, a hellfire blast of high paced freak outery. Rarely do you find heavy psych with quite so much raw aggression, so much viss and pinegar (see what I did there? It…it wasn’t good, was it?)

It’s like Comets on Fire at their most wild and free – when I think of the idea of Comets on Fire I find myself thinking aboutWhipple Dam. It’s frenzied riff monster with a recording that sounds like the tapes have been dragged through a puddle and respooled backwards. Reverb buried moans, whistles and groans that sound like they were recorded in a wind tunnel make up the vocals – at one point it sounds like the Clangers turn up for a guest appearance – while the unrelenting guitar solo sounds genuinely possessed. The rhythm section nail their groove to the floor with such determination they probably still wake up playing this through a comination of muscle memory and PTSD.

Long story short – it’s deleriously, gloriously bonkers in the way that many psych bands aim for but few achieve. When it finally stops it sounds like they just ran out of steam. Maybe this was it for them – the full lengths that followed sounded more like run-of-the-mill faintly psych tinged rock that jist happened to be recorded at the bottom of a well. Maybe Whipple Dam is the sound of a band flying too close to the sun and everything else is just the long trip down to the sea. Whatever – Purling Hiss gave the world Passenger Queen, four beautifully mesmerising slices of genuinely out there rock n’ roll, which is more than most bands manage in a career. And I’m grateful for that.

On Shuffle: Dälek– Megaton (deadverse remix)

Songs stumbled upon, songs remembered, songs because why the hell not?

For a while there Dälek were probably the only explicitly political band worth listening to. It probably helped that their only competition at the time were white dudes controversially pointing out that Dubya wasn’t the smartest of guys, but in any era the run from From the Filthy Tongues of Gods and Griots to Abandoned Language would be pretty much untouchable. MC dälek’s flow may not be able to boast much in the way of variation or dexterity but what he lacked in dynamics he made up for with raw, burning passion. Absence, perhaps their finest hour, begins with some of the most ferocious, incendiary lyrics ever committed to tape. “How the fuck can I ever shake your hand when we’ve never been seen as equal?” he spits towards anyone under the misguided impression that racial politics are somehow ok now. Then Oktopus, a sonic visionary if there ever was one, brings down what sounds like an apocalypse at the hands of giant machinery. It’s Industrial music if the term were taken literally – as much a product of harrowing soundscapes David Lynch dreamt up in his Eraserhead days as Throbbing Gristle.

Megaton (deadverse remix) starts by showcasing the other more subtle side of Oktopus’ toolkit. A dark, brooding loop of some noir-esque jazz number full of lonesome guitar lines and subtly mangled strings rolls out over a slow, narcotic beat. It seems constructed with rainy streets in mind, of late night Taxi Driver street scenes, portraits of humanity at it’s most bored and depraved between the dark of the night and the glow of neon. MC dälek speaks of masks disintegrating, idols selling out, a “corpse-culture nicely packaged for corporate vultures”, scanning religion, politics and the state of rap culture with an indignant, unsatisfied eye.  It’s an unsettling vision of the world made further unsettling by his voice being shadowed by a distorted, quieter version playing a few bars ahead, a disorienting timeshift that keeps you wrong-footed throughout. It’s no wonder that by final line MC dälek is longing for the apocalypse. Oktopus duly brings it with drums that sound like they mean to do physical harm and a climax which gives a taste of the carnival of static he ran on Absence. It’s a song of two halves – one showcasing the nuances that made Abandoned Language so intriguing and one bringing the aural punishment of Absence. 

Dälek returned this year without Oktopus. It remains to be seen whether the new line up can match the likes of Megaton. If so then we might just see one of hip hop’s most incendiary voices reborn. If rumoured collaboration with Blut Aus Nord comes to pass then we’ve certainly got some interesting times ahead..

On Shuffle: Karma to Burn – 43

Songs stumbled upon, songs remembered, songs because why the hell not?

I compare a lot of instrumental stoner/metal bands to Karma to Burn, partly because I’m a lazy hack and partly because when listening to 90% of instrumental guitar bands I’d rather be listening to Karma to Burn. They didn’t start out instrumental – they started out with a singer, lost him somewhere along the way (he’s probably down the back of the sofa) and decided just to carry on. In doing so they accidentally revealed a fact so many bands don’t pick up on – if your singer is mediocre he’s just getting in the way. Why simplify things in the verse and chorus just so some goober can sing nothing lyrics at a boring pitch? It’s usually a let down and the moment where for the vast majority of bands under the ‘stoner rock’ banner that I switch off and go listen to something else.

43 does not have that probem. It’s heavy rock at it’s purest – nothing but a bunch of big, dumb, head banging riffs loosely bolted together in a verse/chorus/middle-8 structure without needing to slow down to incorporate a singer. It’s a firework display without any lulls, just the big rockets bursting in incandescent fury non-stop for 4 minutes. Karma to Burn don’t even bother to name their songs – they’re not going to pretend to have anything to say. And why should they? Do you really need to hear some dude rambling about space or weed or, worst of all, bong-addled politics over your hit of fuzzed up guitars? I’ll answer for you: no, you don’t. Unless the guy doing it has the vocal power of a John Garcia or a Daniel Soren or, even more rare, the wit of Neil Fallon, then they should probably shut up*.

When you boil it down 43 is what it’s all about. The rest is just window dressing. I can’t listen to Karma to Burn for long periods – it’s just too pure a hit. And 43 is probably the purest they’ve got. Use sparingly.

*Honourable exception – Scott Hill of Fu Manchu, who made lazy dumb lyrics and vocals into their own unique art form.

On Shuffle: Jesu – Silver

Songs stumbled upon, songs remembered, songs because why the hell not?

Sometimes an artist writes a song that epitomises their aesthetic so perfectly they could pretty much retire on the spot, content that they’ve captured everything they came to do in several perfect minutes. You probably couldn’t say that of Justin Broadrick – he’s worked under so many names and in different styles that he couldn’t hope to condense it all into one track. But he could have laid the Jesu monicker to rest the moment he recorded Silver, the perfect distillation of the strange fragile beauty and monolithic heft of the work he’s produced under that name.

I’m glad he didn’t of course – there are scores of fine tracks that stretch and distort the template in interesting ways, as well as some weird outliers like the weary indie rock of the excellent Sedatives from Ascension. But the fact remains that as good as all that is it none of it quite scales the heights of Silver.

The weight of those guitar chords – it feels like they’re having to be hauled up by some Atlas like titan and dropped again. Above that a simple little melody chimes above it, carrying a childlike innocence to it that amidst the crushing heavy around it sounds revelatory and euphoric. The song last six minutes with few major shifts and only 8 lines on the lyric sheet. But it feels so much is said by the bracing gale of guitar at the songs core, the way the melodies gradually drift to more melancholic tones as it progresses to it’s end, that nothing else is needed.

“Silver’s just another gold/when you’re bitter and you’re old,” goes the main refrain. You can’t help but get jaded with age – it’s par for the course. Whilst your tastes may have crystallised over the years you can’t quite discern good from great in the new anymore as that young, fresh enthusiasm in which you encountered the things you love has faded. It’s ironic that Broderick would pen these lyrics for the most twinklingly beautiful work of his career to date, a perfect marriage of the depths of heaviness he dredged up in his Godflesh years and a new found shimmering, ethereal beauty. Contrary to the songs theme Silver shows that not only can old dogs pick up new tricks they can also find new dimensions in the one’s they already know. There’s something about this time of year, when the autumnal air starts to drop in, that whenever I hear Silver while feeling the crisp cold on my face I can’t help but feel it’s the best song ever written. Well, maybe it’s not quite that. But sweet god damn is it good.