Jenny Hval - Apocalypse Girl

‘Apocalypse, Girl’ by Jenny Hval – Totally disorienting

The world is a tough place. You can’t deny it. At least when you allow Jenny Hval’s ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ to spread its tentacles into your mind – and I did. The artwork features a woman tripping over a space hopper rather clumsily. Face down.

If we may believe Hval, such uncomfortable situations dominate our lives. The pressure not to make a fool out of yourself is unbearable. A phenomenon the Norwegian chanteuse analyses with an almost painful self-awareness.

Championed by Michael Gira

When in September 2014 noise guru Michael Gira (Swans, Angels of Light) agreed to do a brief Q&A session before steamrolling Brussels’ Ancienne Belgique, he turned up at the eleventh hour. Luckily, he picked some interesting music for the eagerly waiting audience.

Not particularly extreme-sounding, the combination of a fairylike female voice and some seriously disturbing words, was surprising. Later on, back home with ears still ringing, buzzing and roaring from Swans, Google told me the singer was Jenny Hval.

Deceivingly innocent

Hval’s writing style is rather, erm, carnal. Involving a small army of cunts and ‘soft dicks’. Mastering a sense of drama likely learned from childhood idol Kate Bush, Hval sets her angelic, deceivingly innocent voice against a spiky musical backdrop. You’ll understand it doesn’t take ages before ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ totally disorients you.

Hardly a melodic piece, opening song Kingsize immediately shows Hval is capable of tremendous mental leaps. In a matter of moments she mentions bananas rotting away in her lap, cupcakes and a “huge capitalist clit”. Ominous strings and spoken word set the tone. And it’s a grim one.

Fierce social commentary

Take Care Of Yourself dissects what people do to keep themselves happy. Which apparently comes down to: meeting the expectations of others (“shaving in all the right places”) and … masturbating. Hval sounds in turns joking, elegiac and unpleasantly disturbed. While synths paint the scene in ever darker tones.

Only after that there’s room for a more or less accessible song: That Battle Is Over. Hval’s voice might sound heavenly, but excells in fierce social commentary. Specifically about the burden on today’s women’s shoulders:

“Statistics and newspapers tell me I am unhappy and dying
That I need man and child to fulfill me
That I’m more likely to get breast cancer
And it’s biology, it’s my own fault.”

Washed up from a wild sea, Heaven takes the tempo to a mild trot. With pounding electronics and strings and harps spiraling around Hval as she climbs to a higher register. But again, her words are arresting: “I never was a girly girl, forgive me”, reveales that it’s damn hard to swim against the tide.

The pains of being a female outsider

The velvety Sabbath is dominated by the feeling that we have zero control at all. Self-doubt is the starting point for Angels and Aenemia, while the lengthy Holy Land culminates in Hval violently gasping for air.

Despite her unfiltered stream of consciousness, Hval’s message is crystal clear: people are constantly judged – even more so being a female outsider. Taking herself as an example, Hval exposes her inner self as few did before.

Stand-out track:

This review is based on a piece I wrote for daMusic.be in Dutch.

FFS - 'FFS' - 2015 Album Review

‘FFS’ by FFS – Not some kind of monster

Sparks have been going since 1971, Franz Ferdinand surfaced in 2001. Sparks have twenty-two albums under their belt. Franz Ferdinand reached five. Sparks is a duo. Franz Ferdinand is a quartet. And the six of them now form one band, FFS, which just launched a captivating eponymous debut album.

The Franz-Sparks alliance dates back to 2004, when Ferdinand was dominating the airwaves with Take Me Out. The Mael brothers thought it was a cool song and wanted to meet the Glaswegians in their hometown LA. A demo for the song Piss Off stems from that period, but didn’t come to fruition back then. So there it lay … an auspicious ditty, gathering dust. Until the guys bumped into each other in downtown San Francisco.

Franz Ferdinand - Take Me Out

“Take us out, Ron and Russell!” – Franz Ferdinand

Born out of that lucky encounter, ‘FFS’ sounds equally spontaneous. Which is a small miracle, given the fact that it must be extremely hard to drag two seasoned bands away from their routines. The danger of creating some kind of monster is real. Especially when – the initial romance waned – both bands realize that this town ain’t big enough after all.

Dramatic falsetto vs. deadpan delivery

Collaborations Don’t Work – an update of Bohemian Rhapsody? – speaks volumes: sooner or later mutual respect will make way for frustration and envy. A fear brilliantly transmitted by the quarrelling between Russell Mael (S) and Alex Kapranos (FF):

S: I don’t need your patronizing
FF: I don’t need your agonizing
S: I don’t need your navelgazing
FF: I don’t get your way or phrasing

Rest assured: Sparks and Franz Ferdinand did not fall into that trap. Both sporting a very distinctive style, they give each other plenty of room to move and breathe. Indeed, what’s making the FFS sound so potent, is the clash of musical contrasts: Ron Mael’s dramatic piano gestures and orchestral leanings against Franz Ferdinand’s guitar crunch, his brother Russell’s falsetto against Kapranos’ deadpan vocal delivery.

Transatlantic humour

Dictator’s Son sees Ron and Russell hopping over a light melody, while heavy guitars vainly try to tone them down. An abundance of great, subtly incorporated ideas aside, most songs are pretty straightforward. Glued together by transatlantic humour and a mildly sardonic tone – what else did you expect?

Sparks - 'Kimono My House' (1974)

“Kimono our house, Franz” – Sparks

Call Girl revolves around wordplay, while Police Encounters hysterically revolves around the wife of a police officer. The Man Without A Tan is about the threat imposed by an all too popular new kid in town, and Piss Off is a Pythonesque way of saying goodbye.

A nod and a wink

To thicken the intellectually amusing ambience, FFS indulges in clever winks to popular culture and auto-reference. For instance on the Japanese-titled So Desu Ne, which mentions both Hello Kitty and ‘kimono’ – a clear nod to Sparks’ 1974 breakthrough album ‘Kimono My House’ (1974). Indeed, the one that made a lasting impression on a teenage Morrissey.

Driven by tiresome cadences, Save Me From Myself and The Power Couple are slightly less memorable. But overall, ‘FFS’ is a surprisingly coherent album. Hopefully inspiring more bands to put their heads together.

‘Juggernaut’ by zZz – Dealing exzZzitement!

For a decade now, zZz has been building excitement in home country Holland, and far beyond. Their third LP is a self-proclaimed ‘Juggernaut’. An apt title, especially if you flip to side two.

Playing just keys and drums, zZz is quite an usual sight: Daan Schinkel pounding away on his organ and synths, and Bjorn Ottenheim keeping a sturdy beat and singing fuzzed-out lines. Recorded on a converted houseboat and launched in 2005, debut album ‘The Sound of zZz’ contained one of my favourite Dutch rock songs … ever: Lucy.

Not in it for a Pulitzer

Let’s cut to the chase: if you’re into deep or poetic lyrics, ‘Juggernaut’ is not for you. But it’s clear zZz is not after a Pulitzer Prize. They deal excitement. They want your heart to bounce out of your chest and your eardrums to keep trembling when the music’s over.

zZz’s style may be wild, but it’s not flat. Which is largely down to Schinkel’s swirling keyboards.

Hawkwind! Punk! Krautrock!

The first thing that hits me on album-opening track Blood, is Ottenheim’s vocal eruption and the immediate reaction of drums and synths. It makes me think of Silver Machine, an unlikely hit for Hawkwind in 1972. Did anyone mention the word juggernaut?

Hawkwind - Silver Machine (1972)

Hawkwind – Silver Machine (1972): an inspiration for zZz?

zZz’s style may be wild, but it’s not flat. Which is largely down to Schinkel’s swirling keyboards. ‘Juggernaut’ rolls on in a variety of moods: punky (My Girl), slow-burning (Dead End), moving (Doze) and voiceless (Red Beat). The latter a pastische of late seventies, drum computer-fed electronic music. It sounds as if the album’s end is near, but the real Juggernaut is yet to come: a sidelong, trance-inducing slice of neokraut.

Surfing the waves of intensity

Considering the shorter songs on ‘Juggernaut’ are not too bizarre, the title track signals a radical change of direction. Luckily, the piece does not stumble forward aimlessly: its teasing intro and subtle waves of intensity are arresting enough to keep you from feeling completely numb.

A bit of a mixed bag, ‘Juggernaut’ is a more than decent record – and a worthy addition to the discography of excellent Dutch rock label Excelsior Records. It’s striking how zZz carves out its own path. In these times of hot air, ‘Juggernaut’ is refreshingly welcome.

Stand-out track:

This review is based on a piece I wrote for daMusic.be in Dutch.

‘Different Every Time’ – Brilliant Robert Wyatt biography

In 2004, Björk lands in the English town of Louth to record Robert Wyatt’s voice for her album ‘Medulla’. Wyatt is extremely nervous and asks his guest to leave the house while he sings his parts … It is but one of many striking passages in Marcus O’Dair’s excellent Wyatt biography ‘Different Every Time’.

A most modest national treasure
In the UK, Robert Wyatt is revered as a national treasure. But you‘d hardly encounter a more modest musician. A pioneering drummer with psych and jazz-rock ensemble Soft Machine, he ends up in a wheelchair and then starts building his masterful solo repertoire: genre-free music with a social impact, released at his own pace. Brilliant in its simplicity. Continuously veering between the sombre and the cheerful, thanks to Wyatt’s high-pitched, fragile voice.

A two-sided story

‘Different Every Time’ is an authorised biography. Meaning: the book has the blessing of Wyatt himself. Yet writer O’Dair makes no compromises. He manages to sketch the man Wyatt in all his complexity. And doesn’t shy away from delicate topics – even though Wyatt isn’t always keen to discuss them: his drinking problems and depression, his stage fright and painful split of Soft Machine, and of course the unfortunate fall that paralyses the lower half of his body …

Robert Wyatt - Rock Bottom

Robert Wyatt – ‘Rock Bottom’ (1974)

The fall not only breaks Wyatt’s back, but also the course of his life. An insight that O’Dair masterfully integrates into the structure of his book: there’s a Side One and a Side Two. At the beginning of Side Two, Wyatt leaves Stoke Mandeville Hospital. It’s January 1974. The same year he releases his first solo masterpiece ‘Rock Bottom ‘ and marries Alfreda ‘Alfie’ Benge – his soulmate and guardian angel, lyricist and cover artist.

A two-people galaxy
Wyatt’s relationship with Alfie is life-changing. It runs like a thread through ‘Different Every Time’. Björk, who was allowed to stay in their mini-universe for a while, aptly sums it up: “They’ve got a little two-people galaxy that functions , and has its dark sides and its harmonious sides. And they’re not trying to hide anything.”

Socially inspired and self-deprecating

Marcus O’Dair takes you on board to show Wyatt’s musical odyssey:  from the early influence of the recently deceased Daevid Allen (Gong) and his involvement in the colourful Canterbury Scene, past socially inspired songs like Shipbuilding and The Age Of Self to the mosaic-like albums’ Cuckooland’ and ‘Comicopera’.

O’Dair introduces the man behind the revered musician and doesn’t leave a stone unturned.

At the same time, he introduces the man hidden behind the revered musician: Wyatt’s womanizing, his socialist sympathies, his humour and pataphysical views on life, his fragility and (too strong) sense of self-deprecation, … O’Dair doesn’t leave a stone unturned.

Definitive Wyatt biography

O’Dair is a musician himself, and one half of electronica-outfit Grasscut. His biography unites sublime research with countless interviews of his own, not the least with Wyatt and Alfie. He doesn’t merely list the facts, but arranges them logically, interprets them and describes them in depth. That way O’Dair is a present biographer, pouring his story into a fluent, highly credible style.

I’m more than confident to say that ‘Different Every Time’ is Robert Wyatt’s definitive biography. Now let’s hope that the rumours of Wyatt’s retirement are nonsense. And that within a few years O’Dair has enough new material for at least one extra chapter.

‘Different Every Time. The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt’ is published by Serpent’s Tail. Hypergallery offers hardback copies with a unique card signed by Robert and Alfie.