2008: Ben Donnelly
The 2008 Memorial Mix
The Bug’s London Zoo is an album full of caustic and thumping dancehall. It portrays the meltdown terminus of our decade as vibrantly as the caustic and thumping post-punk that appeared at the start of our eight years of mistakes. The A Frames debut and this record will serve as my personal bookends for the times.
Zoo is filled with bullets, bunkers, curfews and police state actions. As each MC takes the mic, it’s like a tribunal. If many of the specifics are drawn from South London, it’s equally applicable to the larger blunders of the U.S. and Britain over the last seven years.
The climax of all these testimonies is Warrior Queen’s “Poison Dart.” The lyric itself is far more abstract then the rest, mostly just MC boasting. But the two-note bass riff rolls along like heavy armor moving through a desert (something the video makes explicit, at once funny and menacing). As she taunts those who’d underestimate her, the poison dart conjures up a very now apocalypse: the small prick that puts venom into the whole system. It’s poetry that hits even harder than the razor-like accusations that precede it. The beats that the Bug is cooking up deserve a spot next to sprawling funky tracts like Maggot Brain, Sandinista, Double Nickels on the Dime and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
“B4 The Dual”
Diary of an Afro Warrior
Elsewhere south of the Thames, Benga’s Diary of an Afro Warrior shows a deejay adept at mixing wispy chills with harsher stepping. His coolest clash of textures is “B4 the Dual” where icepicks rub against stately bebop horns.
Thee Oh Sees
The Master’s Bedroom Is Worth Spending A Night In
(In the Red)
Cheap Time come from Tennessee, home of so much of the great garage punk of this decade. Thee Oh Sees is the latest re-spelling of John Dwyer less-noise/more-songwriting project. On these outings, both bands work a sound closest to mid-’60s mod guitar wreckage.
“Visit Colonel” has the cracking reverb coils of early Pink Floyd. They resonate and resolve on a twangy turnaround. Boy-girl vocals are in there somewhere, nasal and pushed to the periphery. Like the latest Magnetic Fields and Raveonettes records, Master’s Bedroom is drenched in so much echo, it’s natural to compare them to the production of Phil Spector and the Jesus and Mary Chain. But with the strangely mixed harmonies, it’s more like a great lost album from 1966, with the lead vocal track eliminated.
“Too Late” is the first of the 14 strong tracks on Cheap Time’s debut. Like Yardbirds or the Who, bass and drums anchor a simple pop song while the guitar keeps changing its mind, like it’s trying to escape into another tune. It’s a great strategy. Whenever their songs veer close to three-chord cliché, someone stomps on an out-of-control phaser effect, or their voices join up for a monster hook.
“It’s Not Fun Until They See You Cry”
We Have You Surrounded
(In the Red)
Until now, my favorite Dirtbomb tracks have been covers. Stevie Wonder, Brian Eno, ADULT – head Bomb Mick Collins could make you hear them in a different way. Like Mark E. Smith of the Fall, he’s long demonstrated equal love for avant-noise, gritty oldies and slick synthetics, even if he mostly gives us guitar rock. On We Have You Surrounded, Collins douses himself in sci-fi paranoia, and creates his best batch of songs, the equal of his wide-ranging references. Funnily enough, “It’s Not Fun Until They See Your Cry” sounds just like the Fall, right down to the trailing “ahhs” on end of the syllables. He’s let his nerdy, Linux haxxor, comic-readin’ self push the cool soulman to the side. I wish he’d tried this years ago.
Imperial Wax Solvent
The eight minutes of noise Collins puts at the end of the album suggest he could still learn a few things from Mark E. Smith. Imperial Wax Solvent is another strong Fall album to toss on the heap, near the top even. There’s a wealth of rowdy hooks and even a few sing-alongs, but the experimental tracks fascinated me most. “Alton Towers,” in particular, holds together without the instruments being in tune or in time.
In the Future
A John Lee Hooker boogie is one of those beats, right up there with a Bo Diddley, that’s a reliable way to build a rocker. Boogie turned up three times on my heavy-rotation playlists this year. First, Black Mountain fashioned a glammy groove on their “Stormy High,” the best track on an album of peaks and valleys, In to the Future
Bison (aka Bison B.C.)
Sped up to a thrash, boogie fueled “The Curse” by another Vancouver band, Bison. Their succinct six-songer Earthbound was strong enough to land them a full-length on Metal Blade (with a “B. C.” appended to their name; apparently they weren’t even the only metal band called Bison). But I still prefer the indie release. Their precision and the skaterdude vocals have a ’90s feel, along the lines of Prong and Helmet. I hadn’t been missing that sound, but it’s starting to sound fresh again.
Since their early-decade emergence as synth-pop revivalists, Ladytron have grown shaggier, but they’re still a long way off from hemp-shoe beardos like Black Mountain and Bison B.C. While Velocifero backed off the shoegaze guitars of their last album and brought back more circuitry, “Ghosts” puts a grinding boogie bass up front. They’ve draped it with crystal synth pads, but the dynamics of noodling high notes over tenacious low-end is the same.
With the electroclash moment long past, Ladytron have become like Siouxsie and the Banshees – too skilled with haircare products to garner underground respect, but too melancholy to scale the charts. Like Siouxsie, they come up with killer singles on every outing, and their albums are surprisingly free of filler. Because they always have a straight face, they get away with lines like “wants to kill the unicorn”. I give them major props for sticking around for nine years and never once winking.
Wild Side of Life / Honky Tonk Kind / Long Time Ago
Feathers was one of the original Memphis rockabillies. He passed a few songs to Elvis. His voice, the source of the rockabilly hiccup, had an old man quality, like he was missing teeth. That probably limited teen appeal during his prime. But he never stopped recording good material. Norton rounded up three volumes of odds and ends this year. While he was someone who could get a good boogie going, the most fascinating artifact is a near-instrumental, “Cockroach.” A stiff guitar, just on the edge of fuzzing out, grumbles over a pulse that could come from a drum machine. It’s from the early ’80s, and sounds uncannily like Young Marble Giants, as sparse and dark as any Rough Trade band of the time. It must have been in the air.
Matador Singles ’08
On his In the Red comp, Jay Reatard gathered up his considerable vinyl-only output of the last few years, then pushed his sound in a janglier direction on the Matador singles. “Screaming Hand,” with it’s gulping and galloping vocal silliness, was the high point. But my favorite moment of Reatardation in the Reatardnation was “Styrofoam,” from the Arizona band Digital Leather (Jay did the final production). Over a melody and rippling synths stolen from New Order, it’s a love song where the singer’s object of desire might be extruded plastic and nothing more.
Ranking the Full Lengths:
1. The Bug – London Zoo
2. Cheap Time – Cheap Time
3. The Fall - Imperial Wax Solvent
4. Thee Oh Sees – The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night In
5. Jay Reatard – Singles ’06-’07, Matador Singles ’08
6. Bison (B.C.) – Earthbound
7. Ladytron – Velocifero
8. Amon Amarth - Twilight of the Thunder God
9. The Dirtbombs – We Have You Surrounded
10. Benga – Diary of an Afro Warrior
By Ben Donnelly