HEAVEN, LONDON | MARCH 28, 2017
Before punk came along and pulled the pickle out of Britain’s mottled backside, old Britannia was really struggling for new ideas. Angel-faced choristers, sick of pulling the pud to Elgar’s refined pomp, had successfully swapped motion for motion, with bands like ELP, Genesis, and Yes knocking out intense, studied compositions to bedazzle their audiences into believing cosmic progress really could come in capes.
While Britain’s choirboys were raging firmly within the machine, things were looking a hell of a lot tastier Stateside. Born of the blues, musicians like Mingus, Monk, Miles, the Coltranes and Nina Simone were breaking through the stratospheres of spontaneous musical interaction, and using their voices to promote new ideologies, and greater civil liberties for black and female Americans.
With jazz choosing the right moment over the right notes, punk had to go one step further. Bin your scales; fuck it, bin your instruments, if it helps you get your kicks. Opening the door for the industrial, noise and no-wave movements that followed, punk ditched the choral tradition for whatever felt right, calling popular music’s basic architecture into question through feckless experimentation and wilful ineptitude. You gotta transgress to transgress, man.
In the middle of all this heat lies Thundercat (Stephen Bruner), the LA bassist who at 32 has already collaborated with the likes of Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, and Kendrick Lamar, not to mention a nine-year stint in legendary LA thrashers Suicidal Tendencies. Bruner’s latest offering, Drunk – released February 24th on Brainfeeder – is a perfect combination of all of these influences, and his dizzying flurries of amphetamine-riddled smooth jazz have drawn all sorts to Heaven’s packed arches tonight.
On stage, Thundercat’s studio recordings are enhanced with a series of madcap geometric fills, which are miraculously kept in check by his calm-set falsetto. He’s joined on stage by keyboardist Dennis Hamm, and drummer Justin Brown, whose left hand snare – some two inches deeper than that to his right – adds a gutsy acoustic weight that sits perfectly with Bruner’s six-string hollow body bass. On ‘A Fan’s Mail’, Brown’s drums could easily pass for a slap bass, whilst Hamm’s underlying synth rumble opens up the floor for Bruner’s bass to elicit a sequence of slick oily wahs. Maybe it’s just the sound of bottles popping in the mixing desk, but it all sounds way punchier than Drunk lets on.
The extended space between songs is where the band’s telepathic interplay really steals the show. With cerebral harmonics sparking from six flurried hands, the instruments’ own identities blur and interchange, and you’re forced to question whether you really are witnessing just three musicians on stage. Conservative and clunky in comparison, the studied unison of bands like Yes and Jethro Tull restricted them from ever cutting this loose.
With brain-melting riffs noodling out at a dizzying rate, many of the audience watch on in bemused astonishment. Others adopt the kind of hypnotized sway you’d expect Aphex Twin to summon. Unsure of what to hang shapes on, the audience just finds new ways to get down. Still, there’s plenty here for everyone. Thundercat’s set finishes on the more radio-friendly trio of ‘Oh Sheit it’s X’, ‘Friend Zone’ and ‘The Turn Down,’ whose obsidian R&B whirlpool is the perfect antidote to two hours of intergalactic trans-instrumental deviation.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly – whose slick production bagged Bruner a Grammy – knocked rock and roll off its dusty perch, crowning hip-hop as popular music’s sharpest political tool. Now once again, Thundercat has flipped the script, using his genre-hopping explorations to screw with the basic physics of instrumentation. Yes, there are points where Hamm’s marauding synth sax lines lack a little on the high end, in a way that a live saxophone wouldn’t. But even the JBs would struggle to knock out two hours at this intensity. It’s a small price to pay to see a band dextrously take jazz beyond the capacities of embouchure. Transgression, man.
Shapes Warehouse, Hackney Wick, London | May 21, 2016
“We’ve just booked the Black Lips!” hoots Fluffer Records’ founder Al Brown, his moustachioed bonce smacking incredulity. The Whitechapel label’s been exhibitioning East London’s finest in garage rock, psych, punk and grunge for the best part of three years now, but the rolling success of its recent ‘Pit Parties’ series appears to have taken even its mastermind by some surprise. Offering floorfuls of riotous torsos, flying pints and bands in the middle, the parties’ growing popularity have helped snare one of the world’s most notorious party bands for this next instalment. As Brown mischievously notes, “this one is four times bigger than anything we’ve thrown before.”
Inspired by the glory days of early-Eighties US hardcore – where bands such as Minor Threat and Black Flag sacked off unaffordable venues and reluctant promoters by staging off-grid floor shows in friends’ garages or abandoned warehouses – Fluffer’s wide-angle sweatfests have already welcomed the like of Bad Breeding, Kagoule and The Wytches. With ten bands on show, a Fluffer debut for the raised 360º stage and Atlanta’s finest hellraisers soon to grace it, the secret warehouse venue – revealed mere days before as Hackney’s Shapes – seems the perfect spot for twelve hours of teen spirit debauchery. From this point onwards, t-shirts are optional.
The music kicks off at 2pm, but it’s not until surf-punks The Black Tambourines let loose a few hours later that the floor really begins fleshing out. A voyeur’s dream, the 360º set-up shines light on a competitive streak between vocalist Sam Stacpoole and guitarist Josh Spencer-Fletcher, though it’s the shuffling charisma of bassist Jake Willbourne that really ignites onlookers. When he introduces ‘Dolphin Blues’ by maniacally cawing over Brubeck’s ‘Take 5’, enthused chuckles emanate from the emergent crowd.
The stage’s rubbernecking potential isn’t lost on Wonk Unit frontman Alex Johnson. “We don’t come out East all that often but you lot are hot!” he pruriently croons before bouncing into the catchy lo-fi-ska of ‘Horses’. DIY punks from south of the river, the collective’s choppy pub clatter is the perfect soapbox for Johnson’s sink-estate witticisms. Blending Keith Flint’s wild-eyed fervour with the redolent beat poetry of Karl Hyde, the ringleader’s at his very best during ‘Elbows’; his scathing attack on public transport manspreading just one of the many brilliantly garbled social critiques punctuating Wonk Unit’s set.
It’s a case of ‘what goes on tour stays on tour’ for Madrid’s The Parrots. Sporting porn ‘staches, tinted shades and an arsenal of infectious dance moves, the three-piece’s playful slacker-punk mixes shrieked reverb with ricocheting riffs that will undoubtedly appeal to the Black Lips fans in the room. All is going well until swaying frontman Diego García swaps his guitar for a bottle of Jäger, inviting bassist Álex de Lucas to have a shot at six-string glory. The set ekes out with a plodding two-chorder, during which drummer Larry Balboa also jumps ship to drag a member of the sound crew on stage, who perplexedly plods the bass drum through the closing piece. High-spirited but overawed, the fun-loving party band partied too hard this time round.
A Fluffer original, Virgin Kids’ restless bedroom fuzz proves far more polished. The trio skilfully weave punchy choruses and singalong backings through a sea of noise, shooting out quick-fire hits with formidable urgency. It sets the perfect stage for Heck, who turn proceedings up a notch with an onslaught of thunderous bass lines, pig squeals and thumping drums. Easily winning the award for best use of staging, their 360º circle pit is wildly ensnaring. When guitarist Matt Reynolds leaps in, all noise-thrash hell breaks loose, claiming his guitar’s neck as its ruinous spoil.
Bo Ningen provide little respite, dishing up an hour of rapacious psych perfection. Dizzying walls of fuzz push gut-rattling riffs to cosmic intensity, their unforgiving noise mesmeric, deafening and imaginative. Transfixed, the audience gawps on as lead vocalist Taigen Kawabe pirouettes and stomps about stage, casting furious incantations and summoning supernatural power from Monchan Monna’s time signature-marauding drums. Then he pirouettes, slinging his bass overhead to assault it with Lovecraftian fingers, whist continuing to belt out guttural growls and cochlea-caving shrieks. Meanwhile, guitarist Yuki Tsujii postures spritely above his terrifying pedal board, wrestling from it a vicious tempest of screeches, throbs and squalls whilst executing similarly extraordinary footwork. And then it’s done; Bo Ningen elope into shadow, leaving a trail of reverb-battered onlookers astonished in their wake.
“For as long as we’ve been organizing Pit Parties, Black Lips have been top of our list,” Al Brown tells us before the show. “They’re the ultimate party band, and when we got in touch, hats off to them, they were up for it.”With a delay in scheduling pushing back the headline event, revellers’ anticipation is equally palpable. Packed to the rafters, the room ramps into a baited-breath sauna, and when the band finally takes to the stage to clatter into ‘Family Tree’ it reaches boiling point, bodies careering over bodies, toilet paper flying, sweat sheen omnipresent. By Black Lips’ standard it’s a relatively sedate affair. No vomit. No nudity. No fireworks. But their succinct set plunders their extensive back catalogue to reel off belter after belter; ensuring limbs keep flying with breathless abandon. The incendiary opening line of ‘Modern Art’ takes a shotgun to the hinges of any remaining static urges, before ‘Bad Kids’ festive shuffle draws dozens on-stage for a riotous closing singalong. Black Lips are old hands on the party band scene, and as the audience files out into the cool summer night, smiles erupt between deafened ears.
So what’s the verdict? Well whereas for Rollins and MacKaye the ground-level set-up was a necessity, Fluffer’s aesthetic suggests more careful thematic planning. It’s impossible to deny the mild disappointment felt when realizing the all-Orange backline had been hiked up onto a square dais in the centre of the room, fenced off by a photo pit. Still, as the Black Lips proved, this wasn’t too great an obstacle to the destruction of audience/artist boundaries, one of the most exciting upshots of the original hardcore scene’s DIY solution. Perhaps the least punk call is the no readmission door policy, which with the FA Cup final being played mid-afternoon, will have averted many from coming down earlier in the day. But all things considered Fluffer’s brilliantly curated set list produces a day out that will live long in the memory. Like the hundreds of Vans-wearing, sportswear-clad, slacker-moustache trendies who turned up to watch, the label is basking in the glory of the golden days, and giving us all a taste of what it was like. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Fluffer’s next pit party takes place on Saturday 18th June, with TRAAMS headlining. Tickets are available here.
The Old Blue Last, London | May 4, 2016
Stevenage anarcho-punks Bad Breeding don’t look like nice boys. They look like nasty little bastards. Buzz cuts. Phlegm. Callouses. An ugly sight for ugly times. In an age where London’s homeless have doubled in the space of six years as non-domiciled millionaires hoard piggy-bank flats, the band’s zero-hour generation has been blind-eyed by a self-interested political class in which one in four MPs are landlords. When #ventyourrent is as far as we’re willing to go to redress the balance, words need to be had, and it’s in this DIY reactionary spirit that the riotous four-piece recently dropped their debut album S/T. Penned between grunt shifts on building sites, self-funded and released for free, it’s a record fuelled only by an urgency to be heard in a society that’s increasingly determined not to listen. The word is out: Bad Breeding ain’t happy.
As the band enter The Old Blue Last’s low-ceilinged upstairs, all chatter subsides with a few seditious glares from frontman Chris Dodd. After hacking, gobbing and giving off the distinct impression that someone’s about to get lamped, Bad Breeding effortlessly shrug off a technical blip to launch into the droned rubato of ‘I Strive’, Dodd setting a precedent for the evening’s entertainment with the furied proclamation: “I Strive for something better/ I strive for something new/ There’s got to be another way to end this maxing void.” Next up is ‘Remembering’, in which Ashlea Bennett’s hammered snare lays the way for guitarist Matt Toll’s frenzied squall, an insta-pit Molotov that throws perturbed onlookers into wild motion.
Bad Breeding’s raw, primitive noise is fast, foreboding and extremely loud; so loud in fact, that much of Dodd’s defiant social critique gets lost in the clamour. Even so, his message bludgeons through loud and clear. As Toll, Bennett and bassist Charlie Rose charge their way through condensed eruptions of anger and energy, Dodd prowls pit centre. Microphone-bash blood creeping down his enraged grimace, he sprays antagonistic truths into personal spaces with a vehement urgency equally reminiscent of Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra and Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson. It’s charismatic, intense, up-front, and ultimately liberating, and as Dodd turns from the crowd to watch his bandmates close on ‘Blurring Out’, his uncharacteristically static silhouette cuts a content figure. Sure, Bad Breeding have plenty to be angry about; but as one of Britain’s most exciting political acts they can take great pride in the way they’re challenging Westminster’s thoroughbred negligence.