Bonus Episode: Throwing Muses – Untitled (1986)

Way back around the time Endtroducing appeared on Mookbarks’ 52 Albums in 52 Weeks project, I remarked that it would almost certainly have been one of the three records I would pick as my favourites were I ever to be asked to do a piece for Ruth and Martin’s album club. And at that point, I said I’d at some point get around to writing a couple of ‘bonus’ pieces about the other two. I thought I’d start with the one least likely to crop up in the remaining 6 weeks…

In 1994, when R.E.M. had briefly, and somewhat improbably, become one of the biggest bands in the world, I heard a song – and I can’t remember where – in which their singer, Michael Stipe, provided the haunting backing vocals while someone else, a woman whose voice I did not recognise at all, sung about, what, an ex-lover?, a dead friend? a dead ex-lover? Calling them in the middle of the night, or possibly only in a dream, seeking to wake a ghost. It stayed with me.

Some months later, I mentioned this to a friend who told me “Oh, that’s Kristin Hersh, the song’s called Your Ghost. I could make you a copy of that. But what you really want to hear is her band, Throwing Muses’ debut album.” So she bunged a recording of it onto a cassette, along with Your Ghost, and so it was that for much of my late teens, a slightly poor C90 recording of the band’s by-then deleted first record was a fairly constant soundtrack to my life. When I was in 6th form, and most of us couldn’t afford to buy many records (we are talking about a time well before Spotify or Youtube, or even Napster and torrenting…) and C90s were like Samizdat copies of forbidden, or rather,  very difficult-to-obtain, records. And this was about as obscure and difficult to get hold of as anything I had…

At the age of 16, it sounded not quite like anything else I had ever heard before. It begins with Call Me: For a few seconds, there’s tension building duel between the band’s two guitarists, – so far, so indie – and then the banshee wail of Hersh’s vocals kick in. “Read the stop signs!” she implores, at the beginning of what can best be described as a four part song.  If it were classical music, you might say it has four ‘movements’. It’s a shade under 4 minutes long, and yet fits in several changes, not only of mood and melody, but of time-signature with the band’s other guitarist, Tanya Donelly providing ethereal backing vocals. At a time when Radio 1’s take on alternative music was to play the singles from the first Oasis album on heavy rotation, this was music you could lose yourself in.

The second song, Green is perhaps the closest thing to a conventional pop song on the record, and the only one written by Donelly (who in contrast to Hersh, would go on to produce at least one million-selling record later) and perhaps a good route into the band’s sound for someone who is initially ill at ease with Hersh’s vocal pyrotechnics.  But it’s still recognisably a Muses song in a way that her later work, untethered from her step-sister, never quite was.

I Hate My Way could so easily be parody miserablism in the vein of latter-day Morrissey, and yet it isn’t. There seems to be kind of awareness of the ridiculousness of it all in lines like “I could be in a holocaust/ And hate Hitler/ My god I’m a child/ And hate school” – although last year I saw her performing at the Dissection room at Summerhall and she told a story about how the song was basically just a straight transcription of a conversation she had overheard on the college campus where her father worked.  And it’s just a really great song, whatever you make of the lyrical content.

There’s nothing resembling conventional story-telling on the record though. Much of what Hersh is singing I can hardly discern at all, and what I can make out is aimed more at creating images, at evoking a mood, than telling a story. On America (She can’t say no), a percussion track that sounds like a steadily cantering horse that speeds up as the song goes on provides a backing while Hersh appears to recount an especially bad dream “Oh/ It was a funeral/ Mine” And can anyone make a line like “A kitchen is a place where you prepare. And clean up” sound quite so ominous, so threatening as she does on Vicky’s Box. She makes it sound like she’s describing a scene from a horror film, where it is more likely a body that is being dismembered than a meal being cooked.

Delicate Cutters was a song about self-harm that meant that an awful lot of people assumed all the songs were essentially Hersh’s account of mental illness, though in the liner notes for the 1997 re-issue (that C90 wore out in the end…) she comments “I swear to god, we thought we were a party band… It has been suggested that I was insane during the Muses early days, something I have vehemently denied in my effort to prove that this stuff could come out of our girlfriends, our sisters, our mothers. Listening now, I wonder if I was all there. But maybe that was the point. Our girlfriends, sisters and mothers have been known to go elsewhere at times, too.

It’s a record that is influenced not by goth, but by the gothic. And specifically, the American gothic. Where European vampires are well-dressed upper-class sorts, American vampires, at least, southern state American vampires, are dusty and down on their luck. They would have spent their living years hopping rides on box-cars. And there’s something really rather unique about David Narcizo’s drumming. Apparently he had been the drummer in the marching band at Hersh and Donelly’s school, and he learned to play on a kit that didn’t have any cymbals. I’m sure that by the time they made this record, he had got hold of some, but listening to it, I’m not sure I can hear any. I do wonder if this rather unusual background goes a long way to explaining the record’s sound.  Although it is only a part:  more significant is that Kristin Hersh had either never been told that songs usually were in a single time signature, and consisted of verses, a chorus and maybe a middle 8 and a bridge, or else she found such restrictions boring.

The band are still going, over 30 years later. To my ears, they never quite topped this moment. The follow-up House Tornado sounded forced, like they were trying to maintain a reputation for weirdness they had picked up on that first record. The Real Ramona is worth a listen, and includes perhaps their finest moment, Two Step, the sound of the calm after the storm. University is a record that could have made them huge during the grunge/alt-rock explosion of the mid-1990s, but for whatever reason, didn’t. Hersh’s solo stuff is mixed, though a good way in is her 2010 album, Crooked. The band’s other guitarist, Tanya Donnelly, went off to be in The Breeders for a while, before forming Belly who were kind of a Throwing Muses-lite,  re-tooled for commercial success.

Why did this record connect with me at the age of 16? Perhaps because where so much pop and rock music is made by twenty-somethings already reminiscing about their teenage years, the band were all still in their teens themselves when they wrote this record. I had a much more mundane, settled adolescence than Kristin Hersh, who at the age of 18, had been (mis)diagnosed with schizophrenia, was pregnant with her first child, and was having record companies making apparently outrageous offers to sign her band (at least as recounted in her memoir, Paradoxical Undressing, which is worth a read). But it’s still a record that speaks to a time that even those of us with the most settled upbringings could find difficult. On its own, I doubt that would be enough.  It’s

On its own, I doubt that would be enough.  There are lots of things that I loved at the age of 16 whose appeal now slightly mystifies me. And I can’t guarantee that hearing this record for the first time at 40 or 60 or whatever wouldn’t be a very different, and less pleasant experience. The line between genius and failed art-school experiment is both a thin one and in the eye of the beholder. But I know which side of that line it falls on for me…

A word, finally, about where you can find this record: To the best of my knowledge, it never received an official release in Throwing Muses’ home country of the US. British indie label 4AD released it here in the UK in the mid 1980s, though it was subsequently deleted from their catalogue, and so, for a long time, was very hard to get hold of. Thankfully, 4AD re-released it in the late 1990s as part of a compilation of the band’s early work, called In A Doghouse. The album is the first 10 of the 26 tracks spread across 2 CDs, and may now possibly not be the easiest thing in the world to find either, but it is on Spotify. If you’re curious it also includes the early demo versions the band recorded between 1981 and 1985, although personally I thought the highlight of that record was a rather surreal hoe-down called Sinkhole which didn’t make it onto the finished album.

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Week 46: Any Other Way

I grew up two doors down from a rather odd, taciturn man whom I was dimly aware had long ago been the DJ at the apparently iconic Northern Soul club, The Twisted Wheel. Mostly, what I heard coming from the speakers when I walked past his door was rare reggae, and I’m guessing that his fascination with Detroit soul was long in his past, but I can imagine that Jackie Shane might be exactly the kind of record that might have got people onto the dance floor on a drug-fuelled all-nighter in Manchester or Wigan. For those unfamiliar with what Northern Soul was, as far as I know, there wasn’t a whole host of folk from Barnsley, Bolton or Wigan belting out soul music in the 1960s, but rather that the music coming out of Detroit at that time became enormously popular in the night clubs of northern England.

And Any Other Way sounds to me like exactly the kind of music that would have been played in The Twisted Wheel. It sits at the meeting point between soul and rhythm and blues. I enjoyed it much more than I expected to. The sax on the opening track sounds like a call, if not to arms, then to the imaginary dance floor. My living room might just about be big enough for embarrassing dancing, but as such would be both visible to anyone looking in from the Meadows, and liable to upset the dog, any dancing occurred only in my head.

Soul music, and its modern cousin r&b, has never really been my thing. But this goes back to the early 60s and represents perhaps an early branch on the tree of all the different musical genres that would eventually emerge from the rhythm and blues of the American South in the first half of the twentieth century – everything from indie rock to r&b and even hip-hop. And maybe that’s why I got on with it. It’s got a combination of the energy of rhythm and blues with the vocal pyrotechnics of early soul.

It’s not quite a blues record – it sounds a bit too much like it is meant for the dancefloor for that, but it’s really not a million miles from it. Though it was recorded in Montreal and Shane was originally from Nashville Tennessee, it is the sound of Tamla Motown that dominates this record. Shane’s vocals on title track Any Other Way remind me more than a little of Percy Sledge and Jackie Wilson. She does a spirited version of Berry Gordy’s Money (That’s What I Want) and, though I couldn’t find a wikipedia article to confirm my hunch, I think a lot of the songs on this album were Motown standards. Another song that stood out for me, Walking the Dog, has been covered by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Green Day. Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag I’ve heard more versions of than I care to remember, but Shane’s take on it was as good as any I can recall (though before I heard of any of this, I heard Papa’s Got a Brand New Pig Bag.)

Of course, insofar as Jackie Shane is any more than a footnote in history, it is that she was an early trans artist. These days, I can go past the Potterow underpass on my way to work and see a chalked advert for a club night playing ‘only female and non-binary artists’ but its fair to assume that 1960s Tennessee was probably a less welcoming place to be someone whose biological sex and gender identity did not match. That said, soul music might in its way have been a more welcoming place than many. Or at least a genre where the men sing a bit like women and the women a bit like men. Listening to this record, I think I’d guess the vocalist was male, but I’m not sure I’d have staked too much on that guess. That said, I’ve always been easy to fool. When Tracy Chapman had a big hit in the 1980s with Fast Car, I remember being unsure if the singer was a man or a woman. And looking at the big vinyl EP cover with her portrait on it in the living room didn’t help clear up that mystery for me either (in my defence,  I was ten years old).

I don’t drive, and I live in Scotland and it’s November. But if I did, and if, say, I was in California in the summer – probably a fictional version without the traffic jams – I could imagine putting the top down and blasting this out on a nice empty road leading out into nowhere in particular.

Highlights: Money (That’s What I Want), Walking the Dog, Sticks and Stones

Week 45: Lady Sings the Blues

Not for the first time when listening to a record from an earlier time as part of this project, I find myself mulling over how different it might have sounded if I had been listening to it at the time it was recorded. Does Lady Sings the Blues sound cliched to me because it was, even on its own terms? Or is it because this kind of 1950s blues music has been used in so many films as a shorthand to evoke a certain smokey, hotel bar kind of mood that it’s actually quite hard to listen to it as music, and not as a shorthand for a particular kind of atmosphere. People old enough to be able to say are increasingly thin on the ground these days. Someone who was my age in 1956 would be celebrating their hundredth birthday this year…

What hasn’t changed in the intervening six decades is that Billie Holiday very definitely has a remarkable voice. From the opening title track, it is front and centre, and rescues an awful lot of what might otherwise be entirely run-of-the-mill blues by numbers tracks. There are an awful lot of recurring themes in these songs – specifically that she is repeatedly being mistreated by good-for-nothing boyfriends – but perhaps that was not yet quite the blues cliché that it would later become. And to be fair, from what little I know of her biography, good-for-nothing boyfriends were a fairly significant part of her life story (What I do know comes mostly from the thumbnail sketch in Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream, a history of the war on drugs, tl;dr – much, though not all, of the harm from illegal drugs is a consequence of their very illegality.)

As Fiona remarked on Mookbarks, Strange Fruit sounds like it comes from another record entirely. In amongst these variations on fairly standard themes of relationship, well, blues, is an arthouse political protest song with a doom-laden saxophone piece. I have to admit that, until I looked it up on wikipedia, I’d laboured under the delusion that Holiday had written the song (it was actually written by a Jewish New Yorker some twenty years ago) Whatever, she does a great job of making someone else’s words sound as if they are her own. If the rest sounds like it is merely the background music, it’s perhaps unfair to blame her…

Highlights: Lady Sings The Blues, Strange Fruit

Week 44: Edith Piaf A L’Olympia – 1961

There were always too many obstacles for me to overcome if I was to stand much chance of appreciating this record. My A-level in French was a very long time ago, and oral comprehension was always the bit I struggled with most. Hell, as I’ve remarked upon before, half the time I can’t make out song lyrics when they are in English. And on top of that, the music is so far-removed from anything that I normally listen to that I don’t really have a way to get a handle on it. Piaf is a rough contemporary of my grandparents. There’s just not enough of a link to anything I know for me to really understand it. It might be great. It might not. But you may as well hand me a book in Arabic or Japanese, and ask me whether it is a great work of literature. It might be the complete works of Shakespeare, or it might be 50 Shades of Grey. All I can do is admire the calligraphy.

For the first couple of listens, it just sounded like the background music for a vintage cabaret act, or for a film set in the 1920s or 30s (which is almost certainly somewhat anachronistic as this was recorded in 1961, only a couple of years before the Beatles’ first LP), but on about the fourth play through, I find that while I don’t really warm to her voice – I don’t know to what extent it’s just an artefact of the recording technology of the time, or whether it is just what she sounded like, but she sounds too harsh, too nasal for my taste – I do come to appreciate some of the songwriting. Yes, there’s nothing that stands out quite like Non, Je ne Regrette Rien, but tracks like Les mots d’amour and La Ville Inconnue have a certain charm. And without being able to discern a word of what she’s singing on La Belle Histoire D’amour there is something genuinely slightly chilling about the orchestral backing. As if it could be the soundtrack to a really quite sinister murder mystery, or great tragedy, set in 1930s France, rather than the light nostalgic romance that some of the other songs evoke.

And finally, on my fifth day with this album, I can start to see how traces of it can be heard in the work of Kate and Anna McGarrigle (and yes, I’ve linked to one of the few songs they sang in French, if mainly because I couldn’t find a Youtube clip of Foolish You) some fifteen years after this was recorded. A kind of unexpected link between 1970s folk and belle epoque French chanson? Who knows, perhaps if I stick with this, I might even start to like it…

Highlights: Les mots d’amour, Non, je ne regrette rien, La Belle Histoire D’amour

Week 43 – I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got

This week’s album thrust me back in time in the way that only music can do. All of a sudden, I’m sat in my first year geography class in my anachronistic (for the 1990s) all-boys state school. Determined as we always were to distract the teacher from the subject of the class, we’re talking about what’s in the top 40 that week. I don’t think it could have been our usual teacher, Mr Greenway, who I think would have been in his mid 50s, a child of the immediate post-war period, and too old to get pop music (although a) I was 11, he might have been younger than I recall and b) even if I’m right he would have been no older than John Peel). Instead, I think it was a younger guy with a beard, whose name entirely escapes me, and who sometimes filled in for other teachers. Probably young enough to know what was being played on Radio 1, but old enough to disdain most of it.  And I don’t remember much of what we talked about (this was the time of Rob n Razz, Kylie Minogue in her pre-ironic-cool phase, Technotronic Featuring Ya Kid K, and an awful lot of other more-or-less bad attempts to appropriate acid house music for pop purposes) but the one thing I think the class and teacher was agreed on was that we never wanted to hear Sinead O’Connor’s awful Nothing Compares 2 U again.

Which just goes to show that eleven and twelve year old boys know nothing about anything.  Or at least nothing about heartbreak. Because listening to it properly again for the first time in nearly three decades, it’s clearly a classic pop song.  One of the great ‘break-up’ records.  Just listen to the string section that comes in at around 2m 55. And the vocal delivery, the exact choice of phrasing and emphasis, is just spot on. Its one of pop’s great cover songs. She finds something in the song that really doesn’t appear to be there in Prince’s original version.

And it was far and away her biggest hit. Asked to name another Sinead O’Connor song before last week, I might eventually have dredged up her far less successful cover of Nirvana’s All Apologies a few years later (personal prejudices, but if you want to hear a mellow acoustic version of this song, I prefer Kathryn Williams‘ take on it.) And that would be about it. All I knew about her was that she had very close-cropped hair and had at some point effectively declared herself to be a Catholic priest while fighting a one-woman crusade against the same.

So what of the rest of this record? Well, the beginning of the opening track seems out to confirm my every prejudice about her: Earnest, dull, takes herself far, far too seriously. Intoning the serenity prayer… Thankfully, once that is out of the way Feel So Different is not a bad song, although I’m not sure I’d want to hear a whole album of songs in its vein.

Which is ok, because that’s not what this record gives you. The following track, I am Stretched On Your Grave sounds like a kind of prototype for the poppy end of trip-hop that made such as brought Moloko a modicum of success in the mid 1990s. Which is perhaps not surprising as Nellee Hooper was the producer. In other places, the string arrangements remind me of his work with Craig Armstrong on the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. In contrast, The Emperor’s New Clothes and Jump In The River sound like early 1980s new wave songs. It’s like we’ve suddenly gone ten years back in time. I could just about imagine Jane Wiedlin doing something similar.

Three Babies illustrates that, whatever else you think of her, Sinead O’Connor is certainly capable of a remarkable vocal performance. I can hear hints of Elizabeth Fraser. I have absolutely no idea what she’s singing about, although in contrast with Fraser, I can at least make out most of the individual words, but I’m not sure that matters.

For the most part the more stripped back, minimalist songs didn’t really work for me. The lack of embellishment just draws attention to what I’m afraid is to my ears the album’s weak spot: some of the songwriting is a bit so-so. The final trio of songs mean the record ends on something of a flat note. Black Boys on Mopeds was an exception to the rule. Just a gently strummed acoustic guitar to accompany O’Connor’s tale of police racism and violence in 1980s London.

All in all, it’s a medley of different musical styles of the time.  And perhaps that’s no surprise, looking at the list of collaborators on the record:  Karl Wallinger of the Waterboys, Andy Rourke from the Smiths, Nellee Hooper, as mentioned, and Jah Wobble, some time of Public Image Limited.  In an Amazon-style ‘if you like this, you might also like…’ kind of way, I was put in mind a little of 90s American singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan. I can’t quite make up my mind whether I’d rather listen to this or to Surfacing. Surfacing is a bit more middle-of-the-road in its production values, but I think the actual quality of the song-writing is better. If you were a Buffy the Umpire Slayer fan back in the day, it’s got Full of Grace for nostalgia points too. I bet my eleven year old self would have hated both records…

Highlights: The Emperor’s New Clothes, Black Boys on Mopeds, Nothing Compares 2 U.

Week 42: Three Ragas

One thing I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to offer a view on this week is whether this is a good Indian classical album, a middling one, or a bad one. Just as last week, I wasn’t so much writing specifically about Korn’s Follow the Leader but about the whole nu metal phenomenon, so this week, I’m just going to be offering up a few disjointed thoughts on the influence of Indian classical music on western pop and rock music.

Because this record definitely doesn’t sound entirely alien to me. And not just because it’s the kind of thing that might be played in the really rather good takeaway over the road from me. If you’ve grown up with a background of 60s and 70s folk music, or, equally, present-day indie folk, you can’t help but hear traces of Ravi Shankar, or at least, of Indian music, running through it. The most familiar, but to my mind, far from most interesting example would be the Beatles circa Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, but on that record, the occasional use of sitars never feels much more than decorative.

As I’ve said, for all  reminds me a little of 1970s folk music. Not so much the obvious stuff, not Joni Mitchell, Richard Thompson or John Martyn, but less mainstream names that I discovered a few years back, if I remember rightly, because I read about it in Uncut Magazine: People like Pete Walker and John Fahey. I don’t know in what direction any influence might have run: Were Walker and Fahey influenced by Indian classical music? Perhaps via the 60s explosion of interest in eastern mysticism that, at least in my head, is tied up with the hippie culture of the time? Or is it just that music which makes a lot of use of repetition and droning bass notes has a certain sound, irrespective of whether it is being played on a sitar or a guitar.

Some of the sitar playing made me see why it is that guitarists like Jimmy Page were so admiring of Shankar. At times it is the sound of someone showing off their fretboard skills, but with a different instrument.  And I can hear echoes of the drumming in any number of rock records of the last forty years.  To pick the first example that springs to mind, the more low-key moments of Screaming Trees’ excellent dying-embers-of-grunge record, Dust.

So what did I actually make of it? Well, I enjoyed it in much the same way that I enjoyed John Fahey’s The Dance of Death And Other Plantation Favourites. Or even, in its mood, if not the actual sound, the electronic experimentalism of someone like Kieran Hebden (better known as Four Tet). It sounded like good background music for working to even if, in this case, the work in question was nothing more complicated than packing most of my worldly possessions into boxes. I know that describing something as ‘background’ music comes across as dismissive. And I don’t mean it to be, at least not in this case. There is enough variation in the repetition, for want of a better way of putting it, to keep me interested in the music, rather than what I am putting into the boxes.

Over at Mookbarks, Emily commented that she was struck by how much Morning Raga put her of a morning frame of mind, and Evening Raga  “capture the mood of a bustling night out with friends.”  And I was struck by how much that matched my experience of listening to the record. Except, as it turned out, I had mixed the two pieces up. I had assumed that Morning Raga was the first track, and Evening Raga the last. Which did leave me wondering if this was music as a Rorschach test. That if the same song had been called Music For The End of the World it would have sounded apocalyptic. If it had been called Sunny Day then – you get the rest… Maybe that’s why Mogwai started giving their instrumental songs titles like Oh How The Dogs Stack Up!

So in complete contrast with the last couple of weeks’ records, this is something I would be more than happy to listen to again. If I have to add a caveat, it’s that I’m not sure I’m ever going to need to hear lots of different Indian classical music. It didn’t leave me curious to hear a hundred different variations on the raga theme. But that’s fine, there’s a lot of music in the world…

Highlights: It really has to be listened to as a whole, but if forced to pick one song, I think I’d pick out Morning Raga…

 

 

Week 41: Follow the Leader

I was too old for nu metal. I remember coming home from university one christmas to find that my youngest brother had put Slipknot posters up in what had once been my bedroom (posters that I was actually slightly discombobulated to find had finally vanished the last time I visited a year or two ago, having haunted the back bedroom for years after my brother would ever have had any interest in the Iowa nu-metallers). On another, earlier, trip back, I caught up with a group of old schoolfriends who had, in the interim, ‘discovered’ metal and spent a night in a club in Manchester that played an awful lot of stuff that sounded like Korn, and I don’t remember it being a particularly enjoyable experience. Certainly not by 4am, knowing that there was still another two hours to go before the first morning train home would leave from Oxford Road station.

So I wasn’t expecting to have much time for Korn’s Follow The Leader. The first moments of album opening It’s On had me wondering if I had been too quick to write them off. It sounded interesting in a chin stroking kind of way, but unfortunately it’s ruined the moment the vocals kick in. Wikipedia’s entry on nu metal informs me that “vocal styles used in nu metal music include singing, rapping, screaming and growling.” I didn’t hear much that I could call ‘singing’ but there’s an awful lot of guttural growling on this record, of a kind which rather makes me wonder if my four-legged flatmate, who has quite a woof on her, could have had a career fronting a nu-metal band. Steiff even sounds like it could be the name of the singer in a heavy metal band.

The opening tracks flash by – a kind of dropped-d tuned sludge, and I can’t help noticing that the singer is shouting ‘dead bodies everywhere’. Which turns out to be the chorus of, um, Dead Bodies Everywhere. Maybe it’s meant to be about the horror of war, but I couldn’t help picturing a kid in his bedroom blasting monsters playing a first person shooter like Doom or, given this was released in 1998 and not 1993, perhaps Quake while this was on in the background. Although, apparently lead singer Davis was a mortuary science student, so perhaps it’s just a fond reminiscence about his student days.

Children of the Korn – which may or may not be a nod to the Stephen King story of the same name is the first song on the record that does, up to a point, make me sit up and pay attention. It might just be that Ice Cube’s rapping is easier on the ear than the throat-infection-metal vocals of Jonathan Davis, and seems to fill in the spots where a more traditional metal band might have shown off their fretboard skillz, but it sort of works. It does have a line in homophobia and sexism that had me wondering if there’s a gap in the market for a right-on politically conscious nu-metal band called Quorn. Actually, it occurs to me that there was one, and they were called Rage Against the Machine.

Which is all a bit of a reminder that nu metal wasn’t really doing anything radically new or different. The merging of rap and hip-hop beats with crunchy metal guitars had already been done from both ends – be it the aforementioned Rage Against the Machine or the Beastie Boys’ co-option of heavy metal in songs like Sabotage and the most that can be said for it is that they had the idea of merging that with the sound of the 80s industrial bands whose names seemed to be etched into so many of the wooden benches – Throbbing Gristle, Ministry. Hell, even U2 had been experimenting with incorporating industrial music into their sound years before Korn came along.

Anyway, back to the record: It’s followed by B.B.K. and it’s getting hard to ignore the fact that while there may be interesting stuff going on with the effects pedals, and there’s no denying that the rhythm section have something, I just don’t want to listen to it. It all sounds the same. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, as a 17th century rock critic might have put it.

And my mind goes wandering. This band were, when they produced this record, coming up fast on their 30th birthdays. And yet they were making music which sounds like it is directly channelling the mental state of disaffected teenagers (I was going to say, specifically, teenage boys, but I’m not sure that is quite right. My dim and probably wildly inaccurate recollection in first year at university that there were more women wearing Korn t-shirts than men) and must surely have sounded a bit silly and overwrought to anyone their own age. And how much more strange must it feel for them now they are all fast approaching 50 and as far as I know, still doing much the same sort of thing Such I suppose is the fate of anyone with ‘longevity’ in the music business – trotting out songs from thirty years ago each night to an audience looking for a shot of nostalgia. Yet how much stranger this must be for a band like Korn than for say the Rolling Stones.

On a second listen through, having perhaps gotten used to their sound a little more, Got the Life sounds like it might actually have worked for me if it had been recorded by a different band, with a different singer, playing the song completely differently but the over-riding feeling I had listening to this was that it was hard work. I try to give every record in this project three listens, on the grounds that it seems unfair to dismiss something after a single play, but this is an hour of de-tuned guitars, overwrought grunting and texture and volume at the expense of melody. No light and shade. No hint of extending their musical palate. And, in contrast with, for example, Rage Against the Machine, who actually had a certain knack for writing a good song, whatever you think of the rap-metal sound, only Got the Life sounds like there might be a half-decent tune lurking beneath the sludge. I know I’m at least twenty years too old for this, but ye gods its grim listening.

Highlights: Well, it made me go back and listen to the Beastie Boys. And you know, those early 90s industrial-influenced U2 albums are better than received wisdom would have you believe. What, you mean the highlights of this record? Well, it does end, in the end…