Monthly Archives: June 2009

Antibalas (I wish I was).

It’s taken me two years of searching and disappointment, but today I finally came into the ownership of Antibalas’s 2007 album, Security, an event that has also coincided with me finally discovering the meaning of the New York collective’s name: Antibalas is Spanish for “bulletproof”, which, in many ways, is pretty much anathema to how their music sounds. Here is a troupe of post-Fela-Kuti-styled musicians whose contributions to other records (Return To Cookie Mountain, Antidotes) never fail to get mentioned, but whose self-contained output has frequently passed under the radar. Who can forget the dissonant slabs of brass on Foals songs like “The French Open” and “Cassius”? Would TV On The Radio’s “Golden Age” be half the joyous celebration without the rousing brass arrangement? In short, Antibalas’ guest slots on other records have been universally crucial to the success of these records. So why hasn’t anyone really heard their music?

Thanks to Spotify, I can confirm that the band’s first three albums are really tremendous works, even if none of them are terribly original or groundbreaking. Of particular note is 2002’s Talkatif, which channels the spirit of Fela Kuti, Tony Allen and Parliament through… a well-tuned photocopier. All three albums are enormous fun, but I always get the sense I’m listening to a really competent tribute band as opposed to being witness to an exciting new stage in the development of Afro-beat.

Luckily, Security does much to address these concerns, thanks in part to the exciting production of Tortoise frontman John McEntire, who brings to the band a renewed sense of experimentation and a willingness to break out of genre conventions. Security couldn’t begin in much weirder circumstances: like the loping, demented love child of Foals, Tortoise and Stockhausen, the opener, “Beaten Metal”, is exactly that. Showers of alien, metallic percussion rain down on a snake-like bassline, competing all the while with torrents of dissonant brass textures. Keyboards and clavinets that sound tortured and angry flutter in and out of the tight, busy beat. The effect is at once disarming, otherworldly and actually quite good fun once you get past the initial scary-factor.

“The exciting production of Tortoise frontman John McEntire brings to the band a renewed sense of experimentation and a willingness to break out of genre conventions.”

After this somewhat chilling opening blow, Security settles into a familiar, yet subtly improved, formula, with the two lengthy jams, “Filibuster X” and “Sanctuary”, cleverly shoved in at the front to create an overall balance to the album, tempered as they are by the more concise second half. The first of these, “Filibuster X”, is the more frantic, with amusing call-and-response vocals and intentionally messy trills of organ and saxophone. “Sanctuary” is more sultry and leisurely in pace, with ample room for meandering solos and beautifully measured guitar work.

And then comes Security’s second secret weapon – a second half that is unexpected in its direction, and, if anything, even more rewarding. “Hilo” continues where “Sanctuary” left off in terms of tempo, but the two songs could not have more different moods. Where “Sanctuary” was resolved and, for want of a better word, happy, “Hilo” is far more humid and frustrated. Clavinets ping off each other in each channel; rich and lush synthesisers cast a slightly ominous sparkle; the vocals are more mournful and bleak. As a reference point, imagine the Gorillaz song, “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead”, re-imagined by In A Silent Way-era Miles Davis. The two songs share a sense of dread and paranoia, conveyed through a musical form that is typically spirited and rousing—it’s a bit like The Specials, maybe. The next song, “War Hero”, has been circulating through my iTunes library ever since the album was originally released, and the intervening two years have done nothing to change my opinion of it – it’s the truest idea of a collaboration between the older style of Antibalas with Tortoise circa-TNT. Drums real and artificial ricochet off the walls; keyboards and buzzing synths swap riffs and melodies; by the end, it sounds like bits of Abraxas are being implanted into a Brooklyn block party.

“Clavinets ping off each other in each channel; rich and lush synthesisers cast a slightly ominous sparkle; the vocals are more mournful and bleak.”

The final pair of songs are great summaries of the album as a whole. “I.C.E.” oscillates and shifts between Jaga Jazzist-style atmospherics and humid jazz; “Age” slows down to a crawl that is almost too sluggish: as a wash of reverb from the percussion threatens to drown out everything, excitable whooshing synths provide a modern counterpoint to the New Orleans funeral jazz stylings of the brass and guitar.

Ultimately, Security still isn’t quite the original and break-out piece of music I’d hoped it would be, but that’s not for want of trying. Musically, it never fails to excite, or at least evoke some kind of strong passion, but it still gets out of its comfort zone frustratingly rarely. That twenty-five minutes of it are still devoted to Talkatif-style jams do little to dispel the preconception that Antibalas are still thoroughly in awe of their progenitors. Nevertheless, when Security does do things a little differently, it succeeds so outrageously that you wonder why they don’t mess with the formula more often. Very often, you can see the influence of John McEntire struggling to do more than add some sonic bells and whistles, when what you really dream of – a full-blooded Tortoise-Antibalas hybrid – is only manifest on a few occasions. When it does so, it gets it spot on – the end of the album is right up there, on a par with TNT’s “Everglade”. I was left with a slightly false emotion of enjoyment – I loved every minute of it, without being challenged as often as I’d like. But have no doubts – it’s a lot of fun, and it’s certainly less of an imitation product than one might have feared given Antibalas’s previous output. Be sure to track it down. If you can.

I got trimm trabb, like all the flash boys have.

Continuing with the theme of unlikely favourite albums by bands, today I bring you the surprising admission that my favourite Blur album is… not Parklife, Modern Life Is Rubbish, or even the underrated eponymous Blur, but 1999’s moody and introspective 13. Recorded in a pre-millennial, post-Britpop world, 13 is an emotionally raw and musically exhilarating account of broken relationships and a dissatisfaction with the prevalent chart trends.

It is worth noting that, in his excellent account of the Britpop era, The Last Party, journalist John Harris locates the creative high watermark of the time as being “This Is A Low” – the totally un-music-hall-stomp closer to Parklife, which channelled a very English sense of nostalgia (a relationship, described through the metaphor of the shipping forecast, of all things) through a musical style that hovers halfway between The Kinks, Neil Young, and early Pink Floyd. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Blur would go on to make, in my opinion, their finest work when they intentionally severed all ties with the parodic soap opera that was Britpop, and ventured further into the songwriting toolbox that they undoubtedly possessed.

13 is undoubtedly a difficult listen, and yet it begins on a false promise, with the strangely uplifting gospel-backed “Tender”, which grows slowly and serenely from a wistful and lonely music box, through a processional guitar figure, into an achingly weepy epic. It is little wonder that, years later, Damon Albarn would get all emotional when performing the song in the absence of Graham Coxon. The various twists and turns the song takes in its backing instrumentation seem to depict an external fragility and precariousness of the band, which peels away to reveal a rock-solid core of a song underneath – the perfect image for the band on this album, as they weave in and out of ambient soundscapes, scratchy noise rock, meandering krautrock, under the who-knows-how-watchful eye of producer William Orbit.

Where Blur suggested a band in flux, throwing themselves into a genre (lo-fi American alternative) for the sake of being different, without fully believing in the cause, 13 shows the quartet completing their mastery of a range of different styles, each suffused with a typically dark, wry humour that would come to characterise the band far more than any one sonic palette.

The remainder of 13 is unwelcomingly beautiful, in an alien and inhospitable way – again, a true reflection of Albarn’s mental state, pitched as he was into a painful break-up and a getaway to Iceland. Songs like “Bugman”, “Swamp Song” and “B.L.U.R.E.M.I” are rightfully angry and confused and goofy; others, like “Coffee & TV” and “Mellow Song”, betray a love of affectionate melodies and storytelling.

Then, halfway through the album, things shift up a gear in the melancholy stakes, with the sonically dazzling “Battle” heralding a total immersion in sadness through samples and beats. “Trailer Park”, with its jarring, perplexing refrain of “I lost my baby to the Rolling Stones” (because to me, Blur were always much more similar in scope and ambition to the Beatles), takes unexpected diversions through sonar pings and industrial grind. “Caramel” emerges from a fog of organ and intricate guitar, and takes on a new life as a Can-style krautrock journey – feedback and an otherworldly palette of noises ricochet between the channels, held down by the insistent drumming of Dave Rowntree. In the last of these weird-out experiments, “Trimm Trabb” morphs from a mellow, house-piano meandering into a knuckle-grating freak-out, with Albarn’s affected vocals resembling a man gargling with treacle and acid.

The whole beast dissolves into an uneasy, fragmented chorus of seemingly unconnected vocals, which leads beautifully into the traditional Blur-faux-album-closer of “No Distance Left To Run”, which sounds like “This Is A Low”, driven to suicide, not on the “white cliffs of Dover”, but on some distant, alien shore, where the sky is crimson and the water is salty with tears. Whereas Parklife‘s closer was regimented into a 4/4 beat, here, the band favour a looser-limbed waltz, allowing greater space between the sounds. Albarn’s lyrical chops were never in any doubt: here, on 13, the band’s music is allowed to take on freer expressions and more wide-reaching influences, to dazzling effect. As “Optigan 1″‘s lonely carousel-ride music box shuffle winds away into oblivion, we are left with the faint echo of an album that perfectly captures the band’s sentiments: sorrow, emotional turmoil, and the desire to push the boundaries of pop music just as much as The Beatles did several decades previously.

When I first heard 13, I thought I was hearing Blur’s very own Kid A, but released to an uninterested world a year earlier. To this day, I still think that’s an image worth thinking about. Sprung upon the public at a time when we were more interested in the private lives of the Spice Girls than the immersive musical statement that is the album, 13 was destined to fade quickly from the charts and enter only in the conversations of critics. But to continue to ignore it would be to do it a great disservice, for in amidst the unfamiliar experimentation and bizarre sonic assaults, there is an absolute pot of gold full of richly rewarding, emotionally complex songs that anyone can enjoy.

In what way is it a better album than Parklife? Purely for the reason that here, Blur stopped writing about the world outside, and started telling us about themselves. Incredibly, far beyond the witty social commentary of their earlier works, hearing a man confess his bleak state of mind is wonderfully enriching, more so than hearing about a civil servant-cum-golfing fanatic.