Thursday, 21 September 2017

Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols - The Sex Pistols

Provenance: I'm no punk, believe you me, but this is as canonical as it gets. Got this in an independent record store in Bournemouth that was by the town centre bus stops. The guy who worked there absolutely loathed me for liking bands wot did guitar solos.

Review: You've got to be shitting me, right? This ain't punk.

To clarify - formally, Never Mind the Bollocks... is closer to some of the classic rock and power pop of the era than it is to its genre contemporaries. Trying to speak intelligently about punk as either an aesthetic or an attitude is difficult, because it often depends where and when you're talking about.

But if you associate punk with a lo-fi sound, an amateur ethos and a prickle of danger, you would not be thinking about the Sex Pistols. This album is every bit as big, bright and chunky as any of the classic rock bands supposedly so derided by the young pups of punk. Never Mind the Bollocks... is also a wonderful bit of grave-robbing, as practically every guitar lick is copped from the golden age of rock 'n' roll. That's not just me either - goddamn Chuck Berry could hear it too. Hell, for a gaggle of snotty upstarts they certainly do like their interpolating guitar breaks, as much as any blooz rock band. The one element that does stand out from the crowd is Johnny Rotten's sneering alveolar trill, but even then, is it any weirder than, say, Family's Roger Chapman?

And yeah, one other thing - the songs are fucking brilliant.

At the end of the day, who gives a monkeys if the Sex Pistols were ultimately resurrection boys who added a smear of mucus to their retrograde rockin'? There are still real, visceral thrills to be had; the blathering about going under the Berlin Wall on 'Holidays In The Sun', the sand-blast nastiness of 'Bodies' and that opening couplet of 'God Save The Queen' are all absolutely spot on. I should probably acknowledge that, writing in 2017, I've become somewhat inured to the 'Sex Pistols as shockmasters' narrative, especially as every blessed documentary about British pop music in the 1970s is obliged to include a transition depicting the dinosaurs of prog (scene: Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower) being swept away (music: opening bars of 'Pretty Vacant') by the rising tide of punk (scene: it's only the bloody Sex Pistols!). Yawn.

The truth is, Never Mind the Bollocks... is little more than an update of a structure and sound that was popular twenty years before its release (rock 'n' roll, baby), and one could make the argument that its simple chord progressions and cavernous drum sound are the legacy of a genre - glam rock - that had its heyday only a few years prior. If you sped up the stomp of, say, Slade, Gary Glitter or Mud, would it sound so different to what the Pistols were selling? To these jaded ol' ears, the most 'punk' song on the album is 'Sub-Mission', if only because it wouldn't be out of place on Iggy and the Stooges' Raw Power. 

The Sex Pistols were a great band, who represented a mood, a time and a moment that was bigger than they were. Ultimately, the music didn't go anywhere daring, but nor did it have to. It was still recognisably loud, spirited and disruptive, and if not revolutionary then certainly revanchist when it came to rock 'n' roll reclaiming the mantle of rebellion. And besides, even if I were not privy to even a semi-quaver of their music, I would love them anyway purely on the basis of their interview with Bill Grundy. Also, there's a good chance that had the Sex Pistols not existed we wouldn't have been treated to Sloppy Seconds and that, frankly, is an intolerable state of affairs.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Damnation - Opeth

Provenance: I'm just back from a trip to Romania to attend the marriage of my old friend Joe to the lovely Elena. Joe's one of a group of guys who I've all known since the age of 11, and gradually became pals through a shared love of music. At one time or another we've all played with each other's bands and to this day remain tight as a group of people. It's really rather wonderful.

As is customary for any group that bond over music, recommendations fly back and forth, and one I was happy to catch was Opeth. So now, as I reflect upon the sumptuary and sublimity of the Carpathian landscape (Transylvania is a beautiful place), lately surroundings, it seems fitting that my first review upon returning home is one of Opeth's most dreamlike and ethereal collections to date.

Review: Well, I've already given the game away by labelling Damnation 'dreamlike' and 'ethereal'. Let me begin by saying that once upon a time, these would not be words readily associated with Opeth. The band - which continues to be led by the multi-talented Mikael Akerfeldt - began life as a progressive death metal outfit. However, since their 1995 debut Orchid, Akerfeldt has gradually allowed his love of classic prog rock to shine through, with 2003's Damnation representing a culmination of sorts; it was both the most nakedly prog album Opeth had put out to date, and also their most mellow.

Gone, then, are the death growls of pure death metal; in their stead is a stately, sorrowful singing akin to that John Wetton contributed to King Crimson's Red. The King Crimson comparisons don't end there, either; again, Red is invoked with some of the guitar tones and the liberal use of Mellotron to produce the very particular note of mournful foreboding that characterises the album. Which is not to say that Damnation is some kind of sequel to Red; it is perhaps unsurprising that Porcupine Tree also spring to mind, given that Steven Wilson co-produces this album.

However, if it never quite reaches the levels of tension or intensity of Red (and let's face it, what does?), Damnation is very much a collection of uneasy moods, thanks to tricksy minor-key arrangements coupled with drumming that is itchy and imaginative, pulling the seams out of the music, both establishing and deleting a groove at the same time. There are songs here too; by which I mean Opeth write strong melodies throughout, twining them sinuously around the skeletal instrumentation.

It's about this time I feel I should digress a little, and state for the record that I'm fucking sick of music publications that act in amazement when unabashedly progressive bands can write a goddamn tune. From Yes to Caravan, Jethro Tull to Genesis, Steve Hillage to Kevin Ayers, prog has been chokka with superlatively hummable music, some of which just happens to be in 13/8. Of course, there are artists in the genre who chose to create more impressionistic music, or to privilege virtuosity over what one might describe as a certain pop sensibility, but prog has earned an undeserved reputation for masturbatory excess and self-indulgence. If we're talking jam bands - well, now you're onto something, brother...

There's precious little fat on Damnation. At times it can feel like a very quiet album, with a spectral piano refrain picked out, or a shivering, chiming guitar figures ringing out over a sparse, empty landscape of sound. It's not a stretch to say that some of this is utterly spellbinding - and when the Mellotron kicks in, one of the few full-bodied instruments in the mix, the effect is at once both startling and thrilling. The guitar work is woozy and beguiling, natural and harmonic minor scales lulling the listener into that weird, heavy-lidded moment between wakefulness and sleep. The last track, 'Weakness', signs off on the most hesitant and tentative note struck on the entirety of Damnation, bringing to a close an album that feels like it was conjured entirely of gauze and ghosts and fog.