Philip Matthews did two stints as arts and books editor at the Listener, and was its film reviewer for a long time, before he went south and took a job as a feature writer for The Press newspaper in Christchurch in 2007. He continues to blog about film at secondstogo.blogspot.co.nz and writes regularly for Gordon Campbell’s online magazine Werewolf . He doesn’t really write about music, except occasionally on Twitter, where he is @secondzeit. Here are five albums he’s loving right now …
1 – Swans, The Seer: The Swans comeback album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope To The Sky, sounded transitional, with one foot still in Michael Gira’s more song-based Angels of Light project and the other heading in a new direction, which opened up fully on The Seer. I’ve had this album for a few months and I’m still nowhere near getting to grips with it. Like Swans around 1986/1987 (Holy Money, Greed), language is reduced to its simplest and least ambiguous forms and the volume and rhythm can be overpowering and relentless. But 25 years on, something fundamental has shifted: the sound was intended to punish before, but now it aims to be ecstatic or transcendent. You’re not crushed by this music, you’re losing yourself in it. It’s about white-light annihilation of the ego and all that. Actually, I think the Swans experience can be neatly summarised in two moments from Gira’s life: the time he took acid and saw pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd at a rock festival as a teenager and the time he helped out at a Hermann Nitsch performance (he was washing the blood off). Put those things together, add three decades of rumination, experimentation and commitment, and you arrive at this mad, brilliant, monumental record.
2 – Demdike Stare, Elemental: Demdike Stare first seemed to come out of a “hauntological” scene in which found sounds and images, often from 60s and 70s British sci-fi and horror films and sound libraries, were set against often fairly organic-sounding electronics for freaky supernatural effect. Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age by Broadcast and the Focus Group is a really good example of that idea. My first exposure to Demdike Stare was an insanely good video for Hashshashin Chant that seemed to be doing much the same thing, but their most recent album, the two-CD Elemental, is darker, with a basis in slow techno and dub, and more ominous and atmospheric use of samples and sound effects. In terms of background, they are two guys from Manchester, Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty. The band name relates to the popular local name of a Lancashire witch – Demdike – from the 1612 Pendle witch trials. The same witch trials that the Fall were “live at”, I guess.
3 – Scorched Earth Policy, Keep Away from the Wires: Apart from anything else, Christchurch 80s post-punk outfit Scorched Earth Policy are responsible for one of the funniest New Zealand rock anecdotes. In his “personal history” of his band Sneaky Feelings and the so-called Dunedin sound generally, Positively George Street, Matthew Bannister sets up Scorched Earth Policy as the dark, belligerent antithesis of the sensitive, earnest and (in his view) unfairly neglected Sneaky Feelings. The anecdote: Sneaky Feelings member David Pine is in Christchurch, staying at Roger Shepherd’s house. There is a knock at the door. Some of Scorched Earth Policy have popped round for the sole purpose of telling Pine “how much Sneaky Feelings and their wet music sucked” (in Bannister’s words). They were then “forcibly ejected”. It’s a good story, but Scorched Earth Policy deserve to be more than a footnote in the history of a band they hated. They were at the intersection of a series of legendary Christchurch groups: the Terminals, the Renderers, the Victor Dimisich Band, the Pin Group, the Max Block. But while they had the same garage-band influences – the Velvet Underground, 60s psych, Pere Ubu, Can, etc – there was a violence and sense of danger in their sound, particularly in Andrew Dawson and Mary Henrey’s vocals, and a druggy black humour that owed much to the Fall. The aptly-titled compilation Keep Away from theWires, which appeared on drummer Peter Stapleton’s Medication label about a decade ago, collects their two Flying Nun EPs and some raw live stuff. It’s an impossibly rare artefact now, as is an oral history of the band by Christchurch punk historian Wade Churton. Christchurch City Libraries has the only copy of that I’ve seen. It covers the “Sneaky Feelings incident” in detail.
4 –PJ Harvey, White Chalk: This introverted, electric-guitar-less PJ Harvey album is the one I always return to (second choice is To Bring You My Love). White Chalk was clearly a step away from the rock circuit and its expectations towards something older, darker, archetypal, almost folky, and set specifically in Dorset rather than, say, New York. The piano, which Harvey doesn’t really play, is the central instrument. She sings much of this in a higher register than usual, bordering on Kate Bush or Joanna Newsom, which gives it a touching vulnerability. There is a sense of the album being somehow private, more sad than angry, almost timeless and sort of unfinished, as though you’re eavesdropping on it.
5 – Hacker Farm, UHF: Coil and, before them, Throbbing Gristle still influence a whole raft of British electronic and experimental acts, both in sound and substance. Kemper Norton has developed Coil’s blend of rural folk and minimalist electronics, while Hacker Farm, to me, are how the recent Throbbing Gristle reunion should have sounded: antagonistic, seething, wayward, oppositional (reunited TG were too stately and respectable). The Hacker Farm tagline is “broken music for a broken Britain” and this second album (the first is called Poundland) follows a free release from mid-2012, nicely titled Fuck the Olympics. The music on UHF evokes austerity’s urban wasteland of empty high street shops and surveillance cameras, and even when UHF’s post-industrial noise gets closer to traditional rave and techno, as on tracks called Grinch and Deterritorial Army, it’s like we’re hearing electronic music from a salvage-punk future, made on broken machines (“car-boot electronics” is another tagline). On One, Six, Nein, an electronically treated, carefully anonymous voice delivers something resembling a manifesto: “We reject your hollow spectacle … our hearts and minds are not yours to privatise or monetise … we refuse your bribes … we refuse to participate in this pale simulation of reality that you have created for us to consume.” It’s like the 2013 update of Fitter, Happier.