Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Give me the Low Down: Post Punk to the Present: 10 Alternative Baritones Part 1 - Curtis, Murphy, Eldritch, Rawlings

I have always been attracted to a certain type. I make this statement purely in the musical sense because for me it has always been about 'the voice', in particular the baritone - a lot of my most played songs, albums etc. feature this type of voice, usually combined with a high level of lyrical ability and awareness.
But why?

1. I think this affinity started very early on, it was almost imprinted - perhaps we are predestined to gravitate towards a certain type of music, certain keys, major or minor etc. but that's another blog topic of a more scientific nature.   In my case, I grew up from the year dot listening to my mother's  favourite singer, Scott Walker, a fine example of a baritone and of course a very accomplished songwriter, so the die was cast.

2. I often gravitate towards the 'darker', more atmospheric side of music, and of life....the psychology of human situations, what makes us tick etc and this is an area where the baritones go - they emote it like no other.

3. I feel a certain kinship with the basement department via my own singing voice... it is pretty low for a girl, what is termed a dramatic contralto, my range is B2-F5 so tonally I figure I relate to it more .

During my formative years of musical education during the late '70's and '80's, I grew up listening to some of the finest purveyors of the post punk, independent & gothic rock movements so I will start my personal area of concentration here - in no particular chronological order I might add!.  These are often not technically perfect voices in the classical sense but that is besides the point, what counts is that each one has intrinsic unique qualities that draw you in, of course you are welcome to disagree and let me know of any singer you feel that is worthy of recognition, I am 'all ears'...........

"Don't Walk Away in Silence...."
If anybody could make you stop in your tracks and listen, it was post-punk Joy Division's Ian Curtis.  His monotone bass-baritone so haunting, it sent shivers-down-the-spine.  A perfect contradiction to the band's angular sound, his voice achingly conveyed his portentous talent as a lyricist so powerfully and his own human condition that you felt it to your desolate core. Echoes of disconnection are everywhere on Joy Division's work.  Curtis' lyrical style is one of true majesty and draws you in completely, you are a bystander to disintegration:

A change of speed, a change of style. 
A change of scene, with no regrets, 
A chance to watch, admire the distance, 
Still occupied, though you forget. 
Different colours, different shades, 
Over each mistakes were made. 
I took the blame. 
Directionless so plain to see, 
A loaded gun won't set you free. 
So you say. 
New Dawn Fades

Curtis was something of a dichotomy, hardly surprising really given the effects of his epileptic medical condition. This undoubtedly manifested itself in many ways not least his extraordinary live performances, mesmerizing but rather uncomfortable to watch.  Schizophrenic. It all adds to the magic and mystique of Ian Curtis.  His voice I feel, is best observed and captured through the production of songs such as the glittering 'Atmosphere' and disjointed urgency of  'Shadowplay':

To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you, 
To the depths of the ocean where all hopes sank, searching for you, 
I was moving through the silence without motion, waiting for you, 
In a room with a window in the corner I found truth.

He was a defining influence for many, and for many more to come.  Bristling with intensity, and several cuts above the rest. I don't think anybody could argue with that.

Top tracks She's Lost Control, Shadowplay, Atmosphere, New Dawn Fades

"Every care is taken, with my rejection, and my abduction, to my addiction"

Bauhaus' Peter Murphy was the drop-dead-gorgeous gothic poster boy during the early 80's and I am not ashamed to admit that I rather adored him! This may have of course clouded my vision somewhat, but he rightly deserves a place in my list for sheer vocal melodrama, he was with gothic art-rock practictioners Bauhaus particularly, a whirling dervish and a master of performance live.  As singers of gothic rock goes he is right up there, he has great range and use of phrasing, usually preferring to sing in the upper registers of his voice and a wonderful vibrato to boot.  I love his delivery, some find it too 'nasal' but it works for me - sneering one moment, the depths of hell bound the next, like some cracked actor he uses what God has given him well....nobody else could intone:

The virginal brides file past his tomb
Strewn with time's dead flowers
Bereft in deathly bloom
Alone in a darkened room....
The Count
.............Undead, undead... during 'Bela Lugosi's Dead'

or give us the machine-gun intensity of that ode to prostitution 'Dark Entries', quite like him.

Caressing bent up to the jug again
With sheaths and pills
Invading all those stills
In a hovel of a bed
I will scream in vain
Oh please Miss Lane
Leave me with some pain
Went walking through this city's neon lights
In fear of disguising my warping seething
Pressure lines and graceless heirs
Intangible of price
Trying so hard to find what? What was right

Departing Bauhaus in 1983, his solo material has proved interesting, notably The Deep album (1989), but also somewhat erratic and dare I say bland AOR at times which I think is largely due to his choice of backing musicians and style.  There has however been, what I consider, quite a return to form with the album Ninth in 2011, standout tracks being 'Velocity Bird', 'I Spit Roses' and 'Memory Go' which are much more reminiscent of  the dynamic Murphy/Daniel Ash combination that worked so well .  Although considered by many to be the 'gothfather' - a fact Murphy is more than happy to acknowledge, I am afraid nobody does dark & atmospheric quite as well as my next contender...

Top tracks: Dark Entries, Passion of Lovers, Kick in the Eye - Bauhaus, Strange Kind of Love (Version One), Velocity Bird

"Lay me down the long white line. Leave the sirens far behind me.
Paint my name in black and gold. My heart my flame my heart my road"

Whilst I clocked a quintessential early Sisters of Mercy release 'Alice', it was actually somewhat later that I really made a true connection with Eldritch's imposing deep baritone voice.  This occurred when a boyfriend of the time played me the song 'Marian' featured on the album 'First And Last and Always'. Like liquid darkness, it poured out of the speakers, an aural narcotic experience.  The boyfriend thought that The Sisters should get a real drummer instead of a drum machine.  I thought that he had missed the point completely and so the boyfriend eventually went but I kept the album!  Perfectly coupled to those tense drum machine rhythms, Eldritch took in my mind, what Peter Murphy in Bauhaus, Richard Butler in the Psychedelic Furs etc possessed, to a much darker area of the psyche .  Influenced certainly by Suicide, nuanced with subterranean menace, his vocalizations and timbre primal, hypnotic, seductive, bombastic - all of these apply to Andrew Eldritch.  Technically his range is believed to extend from D2-G4 and he uses those low to mid registers of his voice to great effect.

With Eldritch you never quite know what he's going to do next, he likes to keep you guessing and his singular approach is to be much admired.  He can confidently switch from signature reverb-cloaked angst & howl,  to bombastic production numbers, dark psychedelia or all out foot-on-the-monitors arena style rock, but within these realms, he is also pretty capable of exposing a fine brittle quality and laid bare approach when he wants to, particularly when the production and song allow.  This can be witnessed on the sublime 'Nine While Nine', '1959', 'Bury Me Deep',  or if you care for it Vision Thing's 'Something Fast' for example.

His voice has changed over the years, gained in character etc. I guess that several factors are responsible - years of live experience especially, give one the confidence and better technique, control, to be able to ‘play’ with the vocal range more, the physiological effects of a lifetime of cigarettes do come into it (!!!), changing technology/production/mic techniques etc. I personally like the vocal production on both Floodland and Vision Thing more than First and Last and Always, the vocals sit in the mixes better. On Vision Thing the vocals are really quite ’dry’ so you get to hear more of the attitude, natural inflection and vocal texture - very Bowie in places. First and Last and Always (as a whole, and not just the song) is a defining cohesive moment for the Sisters,  and I think the production, the way the vocals are eq’d etc, show Eldritch maxing out on his atonal dramatics (by forcing the larynx down to achieve this I reckon) and of course it is reverbed to the hilt which only adds to its brooding quality.  Granted, it is over the top, but against Wayne Hussey‘s 12 string melodic backdrops it works rather perfectly!

Gifted with a blinding ear for a hook - he is a king of drill-a-chorus-into-your-head-like-a broken-record, undeniable presence both recorded and live and a great deal of sharp lyrical prowess, Eldritch delivers his lines with delicious bomb-like intensity and flair.  One sees in interviews that Eldritch is measured, articulate and as sharp as his cheekbones - it's all done behind dark glasses of course so you never get to see the actual windows into the soul, however his acute intelligence often translates into his lyrics which suggest a life lived very much through the senses.  Here's a few personal favourites, I love the way he sings these - but you will have your own:

"Hot metal and methedrineI hear empire down"  - LucretiaMy Reflection

"Love, is a many splintered thing....Flowers on the razor wire'"- Ribbons

"I don't know, why you gotta be so undemanding , I want MORE' - More

"An the earth break your fall, and the hurt break your will, and the heartbreak be over, it will" - Neverland (full version)

"This place is death with walls....too much contact and no more feeling...acid on the floor so she walk on the ceiling" - Body Electric

"Rape, murder. It's just a kiss away" on their splendidly contorted cover of The Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter. Their version of Hot Chocolate's Emma is rather tidy too.

There are many more instances of course depending on whether you like your lyrics served 'straight up' or on the more intellectual level, leaving you in no doubt that Commander Eldritch and The Sisters in their various forms have carved out some superlative English rock in their time.  Which brings me to the present, whether we will ever see Andrew Eldritch, who appears to be in some kind of live limbo, commit any more output to a 'proper' recorded format rather than leaving newer material since Vision Thing, which is only ever played live, idling in the YouTube generator or bootlegged to assuage fans thirst, is a subject of some protracted debate. Time will tell and I won't hold my breath, as nobody forces Eldritch into anything as Time Warner found out............

NME February 1988
Is your vocal style a fair representation of how you feel, or do you occasionally force it for the sake of the song?

"That's a very good question; I'm going to have to think about it. There are times when I know I'm going over the top and there's nothing I can do to stop myself, and where I know it's appropriate. It's not staged, I'm acting quite naturally...and those are the times you get to hear it. But I'm sure there are parts of me that stand back and watch... And in other areas, maybe in the movement of an eyebrow or an arm I will always acknowledge the ludicrousness, but there's nothing I can do about it."

When interviewed in the past, he has been rather self-effacing about his vocal abilities,  "I'd been banned from music classes at school since I was ten cos I couldn't sing in key or play anything. I was completely incompetent.  Tone deaf. I still am. Even today, if you listen, I've got a way of implying notes rather than singing them. And if it's not in A, I can't sing it anyway. The musicologists among you will notice how many of our songs are in A. It's quite a lot. It is remarkable how much one can make of one's limitations. That's all I've done."  (Select Magazine 1992).  Yes, well... technically some of that may be so, but I think he uses the theatrics of his voice superbly, he's very adept at using vibrato to weave his phrasing together and this gives an even greater illusion of prepossessing depth.  So, who cares about absolute technical perfection when you command it so well, and I don't know, why you got to be so unassuming...

Top tracks: -very, very difficult to choose but will go with Body Electric, Bury Me Deep, We Are The Same Susanne (live),  Heartland,  Neverland (full version) and a certain tour de force called Temple of Love (1992) featuring THAT riff and the wonderful vocals of Ofra Haza RIP -  a powerful combination of two voices indeed.

".....In Heaven, Everything is Fine"
I am not content to leave the fine county of Yorkshire in the North of England just yet!  Done with Eldritch, The Sisters and the Leeds connection, we come to one of Barnsley's brightest stars during the early 1980's, God no not Saxon, but The Danse Society, and their vocalist Steve Rawlings.  Their edgy debut 1981 single Clock/Continent was rightly championed by John Peel, they then followed it up with one of the musical highlights of 1982, their magnificent 6 track LP Seduction (Society Records).  The band embraced alternative post punk dance and electronic genres and fused furious drum and bass rhythms, atmospheric hook laden guitar riffs, and sonically majestic synth lines.  The icing on their brand of alternative dark gothic dance music was Steve Rawlings' cool, detached  baritone voice.  Seduction is something of a triumph, no fillers here, the ultimate tracks in my humble opinion being the whispered disintegration of 'Falling Apart' and the immensely hypnotic 'Danse/Move' - its vocal and lyric tinged with death disco isolation:
 "...just don't know where I'm at. Get me.  Just get me one more drink, just to help, help me to forget, forget" ...Whose party is this, can't be mine, don't recall, Hold me, hold me closer still, help me to forget" 

Following the release of  single Somewhere in 1982, The Danse Society made the move from independent to major label Arista.  Their first release to arouse interest in their debut album for Arista, was the manic dancefloor clash of Wake Up with Rawlings imploringly plaintive chorus vocal.  Long player
Heaven is Waiting followed in 1984 and there are some shining moments - 'Wake Up', 'Come Inside' and  'Valiant to Vile' where Rawlings caustically lets us know " a knife in the back and you scream at me".    Danse Society's demise unfortunately lay with Arista.  As too often happens, major labels sign without ever understanding (or lie that they understand) the whole ethos, raison d'etre etc of the band and then proceed to whittle away whatever character the band had in the first place with their nonsensical A&R commercially driven bullshit i.e. "I don't hear a single...give me something that fits the mainstream please" blah blah.... Until the inevitable implosion.  This is exactly what happened to Danse Society in a nutshell. Shame. By the time we reach the somewhat ironically titled Hold On (To What You've Got) in 1986, the ideas were becoming diluted, the raw appeal of early work smoothed over and DS sounding more akin to Simple Minds, which was probably Arista's original goal.  Anyway I digress, back to the voice... Rawlings is not what you would ever really call a technically gifted or strong singer, he could be rather atonal in character, but within the context of DS it worked wonderfully for a time and for the Seduction LP alone, he gets a place on my list.

Top Tracks: Buy Seduction LP you can still pick up reasonable vinyl copies or go the cd/iTunes route - the whole thing is textural and really quite wonderful.  I have just recently come back to it after 20 plus years.

Next up in Part 2 >>>>> Nick Cave, Mark Burgess, Richard Butler

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Chromatics - Kill for Love...

"I got a new rose, I got her good" - know the feeling when you find a new love?!....Oh yes you do, and this latest offering from Chromatics (Italians Do It Better label) has grabbed me by the heart & hand and could well be my favourite album of the year, pushing Mark Lanegan's superb 'Blues Funeral' off of my current top spot  - well, we shall see and time will tell.  Every once in a while, a jewel (no pun intended..!!) of an album appears, and 'Kill for Love' is just that.

Featuring the considerable talents of Italians Do it Better label co-founder Johnny Jewel, singer Ruth Radelet, Adam Miller and Nat Walker on guitar and drums respectively, Kill For Love skillfully mixes noir electro-pop and guitar spangled moments with pure cinematic bliss.   I love the way this album sounds, the production is not overblown, no histrionics is spatial & everything follows and fits so well together.  It is a soundtrack for driving miles and miles to, yes... it is long, it is a journey going through day & night, a visceral thrill invokes wonderful cinematic flashes - I think of Cronenberg's Crash, Lynch's Mulholland Drive, Deckard and Rachael in Bladerunner etc etc. 

The opening track 'Into the Black', a cover of Neil Young's 'Hey Hey, My My' is beautifully executed by Radelet, it is sophisticated and understated and sets up the score of what is to come....there is a lot to love and from here on in, we are exposed to some spine tingling songwriting and composition.  Title track 'Kill for Love' and its neon arpeggio electro brilliance is coupled with some New Order-esque guitar work and Ruth Radelet coolly tells us her story:

Everybody's got a secret to hide, 
Everyone is slipping backwards, 
I drank the water and I felt alright, 
I took a pill almost every night
In my mind I was waiting for change, 
While the world just stayed the same.....

I can't remember if I like what I said

I can't remember it went straight to my head
I kept a bottle by the foot of the bed
I put a pillow right on top of my head
But I killed for love

Emulating the heartbeat of the night, a stand out quartet of songs 'The Page',  'Lady', the glittering spire of 'Candy' and the sublime 'These Streets Will Never Look the Same' continue the journey - I really sense those feelings of being in limbo, of metropolitan isolation, decaying love etc and Chromatics convey this very well and in much the same way as say Burial does.  These feelings only deepen as one gets totally lost in the instrumentals, particularly 'Broken Mirrors' and finale 'No Escape'.  

Kill for Love is of breathtaking, hypnotic quality, it is the stuff that dreams are made of and I eagerly await Chromatics next chapter.

Friday, 29 June 2012

it's all about Gary....

Now I'm not into the order of ABC (although I do have a penchant for a gold lame jacket a la Martin Fry but that is another story.....) so I will start with the letter G........for Gary....Numan. There is no doubt that GN is an absolute electronic pioneer, who paved the way for many during the 80's and onwards.  I remember being totally entranced by his Tubeway Army TOTP appearance of 'Are Friends Electric', he was so perfectly packaged and a breath of fresh air, and subsequently fell in love with his synth driven hooks.

Recently I went Back to the Future again, and me and my 'electric' friend Andrew, caught GN on his latest 'Machine Music' tour in Bristol, efficiently supported by Officers.  Concentrating on his key singles, GN has definitely not stood still in some electronic 80's time capsule, but has become something of a consummate industrial style rock god, the synths are still very much there but used to enhance the overall edge of his sound.

GN turned up the heat (quite literally - we were surrounded by sweating Numanoids in past tour T shirts - Gary apparently had asked for the air-con to be turned right down in the O2 so that the dry ice machine could do its thing and GN's chief sidekick Ade Fenton also later commented that the stage had become an ice-rink, anyway I digress...) with fine, driven performances of 'Berserker', 'Metal', 'Bombers', 'This Wreckage' et al,  alongside newer material such as 'The Fall' and one of my personal fave's of the night 'In a Dark Place' off of the Jagged album.  There was overwhelming rapture for a faithful version of 'I Die You Die' and the appearances of old bandmates rRussell Bell & Chris Payne, finally culminating with encore crowd-pleasers 'Cars' and a wonderfully stripped back 'Are Friends Electric' and with that Gary & his cohorts disappear into the Bristol night air.  Thank you Gary, it was a joy to watch....

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Electro/Indie passion.....

Ever since I can remember, music has been an absorbing, all-consuming passion and it has punctuated all my memories, I have tried to walk away from it sometimes but it always sucks me back in!!!.....when I was very young, Scott Walker and Beethoven notably, permeated the walls of my parents house, then when I acquired my own means in my teens, of playing music, it was under-the-covers covert listening to Radio Luxembourg etc and of course the inimitable and wonderful John Peel on Radio it was & is for so many others growing up in the late 70's/80's era, Peel well and truly sowed the seeds of what has become pretty much, my life long love affair with electronic and indie/alternative music in particular.

This blog is intended not just to be a retrospective of those artists who I feel have contributed (in my 'dark-centric' opinion!) so much to these genres but to highlight the new and emerging let's light the fuse...............