Tag Archives: Guitar

Caspar Brotzmann & Page Hamilton – Subsonic 4: Zulutime

Zulutime @ Greenwich Meantime.

Look at that album cover on the right >>

It features a photo of a huge lump of wood. Well, it’s actually a sculpture by Bernd Lohaus, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it is a giant, solid, rectangular prism of wood. I like to think of it as a clue as to what you’ll find on the CD; solid slabs of sound.

As I‘ve alluded to in previous entries, Page Hamilton & Caspar Brotzmann’s Zulutime is one of the most important records of my life. It’s up there with Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, Helmet’s ‘Betty’, The Manic’s ‘Generation Terrorists’, Killing Joke’s ‘Revelations’, Wu-Tang Clan’s ’36 Chambers’, Cable’s When Animals Attack and…yes…Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. Look, it was the first album I ever bought, aged eight! It was quite the stepping stone.

Some records only feature in a short part of your life, others drift in and out of favour over the years; repeatedly being rediscovered. But then there are the special few that you stick with. Like any good long-term relationship there are peaks and troughs but the love is always there.

Zulutime is one of those albums.

I’m almost certain that there hasn’t been a month in the last eleven years in which I haven’t dug out the CD, and it’s certainly never left my iPod in the five years I’ve had one. It often has different neighbours either side, but like the TV News it’s always there…standing firm.

Why though? What is it about this particular album, one that horrifies most people who hear it, that pulls so hard on my heartstrings? This is not party music, it’s not club music – and if any radio DJ has ever played a track from it on air then well, frankly, I owe them a drink. Strictly speaking, it’s not even rock music. Yes, the electric guitar is the primary instrument, but the drums, bass, vocals and restrictive rhythms and repetition expected of that genre are nowhere to be heard.

I think the answer may lie in the respective talents of the two players involved. Helmet’s Page Hamilton and Massaker’s Caspar Brotzmann are nothing less than masters at this sort of thing. Although their two bands are wildly different, they both employ economy and space to create powerful, dense music.

At the point Zulutime was recorded Helmet were known for groovy stop/start riffs fused with totally whacked-out, but technically amazing, guitar anti-solos. They were also blessed with one of the most funky rhythm sections never to play funk (including drummer John Stanier now playing with the much touted Battles) . Helmet sold a million records and had a few hit singles along the way.

Caspar Brotzmann Massaker has always been a decidedly more challenging listen. The songs are much longer (albums generally have five or so tracks but clock in at an hour) and whereas you can dance to Helmet if you’re drunk enough, Massaker really pushes the repetition and jarring rhythm to hypnotic levels. They are sort of like the musical equivalent of Stewart Lee.

Caspar Brotzmann

Where Helmet took the minimal blueprint laid down by bands like Killing Joke and Wire then heavied it up, Massaker always came across more like a tall, white, goth, German Jimi Hendrix Experience…with no tunes whatsoever. It’s often noted that Caspar plays a left-handed Strat upside down, mirroring Hendrix. He (rightly) states that this arrangement lets him make more sounds – there are few guitarists out there who use as much of the instrument as he does – but I’m sure Hendrix must have had some influence on the young Caspar.

Helmet and Massaker toured together around 93/94 (what a tour!) and it may have been when Caspar joined Helmet on stage for their closing track each night that the potential for this project was noticed. Nevertheless, when I met Page Hamilton last year he mentioned that the whole thing came together really quickly and was recorded in just a few hours.

My signed copy...

In fact, I’ve had the immense privilege of meeting both Brotzmann and Hamilton; albeit some years apart. Although I was dying to ask Caspar about Zulutime I was a little too starstruck and blown away that he was being so warm and open, telling me about his young son, to crowbar in a few questions about a noise guitar record. When I met Page I was a little older and a bit more confident. I also had a copy of Zulutime in my bag to use as a handy prompt. Incidentally, Page was incredibly warm too and amongst the Helmet/Zulutime chat told me how awestruck he’d been when he first met David Bowie whom he went on to play guitar for after Helmet split. His advice – never be scared to approach the people who’ve influenced you, just get up there and do it.

L-R: Page Hamilton, a very drunk Kowa Axis.

But anyway, on to the record…

I may as well lay my cards on the table right now. Zulutime is the yardstick by which I judge all other records of this type. Not only is it the first noise/improv guitar record I ever got, it is also still the best. Everything is right.

[Ok, non-guitar geeks may wish to skip the next two paragraphs]

The guitars, recorded by longtime Brotzmann studio cohort Bruno Gephard and longtime Hamilton studio cohort Wharton Tiers, just sound incredible. Brotzmann has always kept it simple with a pedal setup of Wah, RAT distortion and an ancient Roland Phaser or Chorus running into some battered Marshall stacks. When this album was recorded, Hamilton was probably at the peak of his effects experimentation. Photos of his rig at this time are mind-boggling. He also changed stuff so frequently that it’s difficult to pin down much of what he uses, but it’s likely that a his magenta ESP Horizon and Harry Kolbe GP-1 preamp are responsible for most of the basic sounds here.

Like Brotzmann, Hamilton relies heavily on a wah (in fact he credits Brotzmann with teaching him to use a wah as a device to control feedback pitch and tone rather than a do things with it that someone like Slash might). But amongst the noise I can definitely pick out a harmonizer and the unmistakable octave-up sound of a Prescription Electronics Outbox; a device I once read that Hamilton uses solely for ‘white noise’. Needless to say, this record is textural heaven.

[OK, welcome back. Thanks for sticking around]

The opening title track simply explodes out of the speakers. I talked about the first time I ever heard Zulutime before, so I won’t go into it again, but needless to say the mission statement is clear from the outset. There’s no fade-in to lull you into a false sense of security, you are thrown straight into the maelstrom. It takes half a minute until the first discernable note even crops up.

But this isn’t just pointless thrashing at guitars. Despite the aural violence on display here the playing is actually surprisingly dynamic and focused. Caspar is clearly taking the lead, his guitar steams along whereas Page’s parts are slightly more subdued, as if he’s teasing you, holding back the goods. It roars at you for a good few minutes until at 6 min 12 sec they pull together one of the most eerie things ever put to tape. Somehow they suddenly hit the same harmonic of wailing feedback before they start weaving around it. The melancholic effect is simply sublime.

The next track ‘Head Hunter’ takes a slightly more tactical approach. Beginning with choppy guitars, it grandually builds up into an absolute noise monster. Caspar’s divebombs weave in and out of Page’s more metronomic pulse before he moves on to attacking the springs of his guitar vibrato. This isn’t the sound of guitar strings, it’s the sound that the guts of a guitar make.  Guitars were never meant to sound like this.

‘Hit Single’, yes ‘Hit Single’, follows a similar path but stretches the method out to nearly twelve minutes before the album’s ‘ballad’; ‘Dream Date’.  This is actually quite pretty to begin with, and when the guitars do start to go off the rails again, they’re expertly reigned in. The pair never let the song run away despite repeated attempts at self sufficiency.

Penultimate track ‘Suburban Blight’ is a study in bottom end frequencies that also has the dubious honour of being my favourite song title ever. Think about it; Suburban Blight. Amazing. The sound is all derelict factories and detuned radios.

The closing track ‘Imbiss’ (a German term describing the small snack huts that dot the country’s city streets) veers dangerously close to a verse/chorus/verse structure. Oddly, it’s the also most representative of both artists other bands. Caspar’s howling high-up-the-neck playing could have easily come from his 1992 ‘Der Abend Der Schwartzen Folklore’ record, whereas Page stays within the lower register so familiar to Helmet fans. Sure, it’s still noisy as anything, and Page’s Tesla Coil guitar stabs are deeper and more fluid, but the space created in the gaps help to accent and punctuate the blasts of fuzz.

The debt I owe this record will probably be clear to anyone who listens to any of the heavier Kowa Axis tracks. It taught me that the guitar could be used as a means of pure expression and through that, I learned to do the same.

This is an album at will please very few. It’s about as un-listener friendly as it gets. But it’s also a masterpiece. On the train, at home working, at home not working, it seems to soundtrack so much of my life.

In fact, the album became so much of an obsession I even managed to track down a promo poster for it which hangs in my home office/music room.

It features the very Burroughs-esque text printed inside the sleeve that’s split either side of the page, making it very hard to read.

The writing is surreal, urban, confusing, difficult, but ultimately rewarding.

Just like the music…

Buy Zulutime here.

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Justin Broadrick & Andy Hawkins:Azonic – Subsonic 3: Skinner’s Black Laboratories

It would be easy to write a biography of Justin Broadrick here. That’s not really my aim, so perhaps the best thing I can do is send you here to check out the insanely long list of records he’s put out since the early eighties and let you dig around the internet to your heart’s content in search of more info.

What this is about is Subsonic 3: Skinner’s Black Laboratories. [Note: I covered how I came across this record in the last entry.]

This album brings together Broadrick and Andy Hawkins from Blind Idiot God‘s ‘Azonic‘ project.  As on the majority of Subsonic albums the two don’t collaborate. In this case however, this probably for the best. Both guitarists have very different styles and Broadrick’s sparser playing on this record might not blend well with Hawkins’ huge washes of sound. This incidental segregation of the two artists also makes this record one of the most diverse and exciting of the series.

Skinner’s Black Laboratories was recorded in 1995 at the mid-point of the career of Godflesh, Broadrick’s uncompromisingly heavy and bleak project that may still be what he’s best known for. Since then he’s done an awful lot more (go back up to the top and look at that discography) including Jesu, the band where he’d finally master blending his pop influences with the crushing riffs that he’s so adept at churning out.

But it’s the essence of Final, yet another Broadrick project (and possibly his longest running) that is most evident on this CD. This is by no means as uncompromising and drone-based, but the spirit is very similar – lengthy solo tracks where the only accompaniment is the loops he creates himself. The track titles are a dead giveaway too; Guitar One, Two, Three and, most tellingly, Four/Infinite. The lack of more creative song titles totally fits the minimal Final aesthetic.

The music on display here is really varied. ‘One’ fades in incredibly slowly until that famous Broadrick guitar tone comes to the fore. It’s perhaps less distorted and aggressive than usual, but you can still tell that the inorganic, curiously boxy, sound is him. He builds up more and more rhythm but never loses the space in the music.

‘Two’ is simply one of the prettiest songs I’ve ever heard, the naked guitar chimes and it builds into one of the most hopeful pieces Broadrick has ever put out.  Years ago I played this to a friend whose room I was crashing in for the night. We lay in our beds, somewhat wasted, talking nonsense. Five minutes into the song he broke the long gap in conversation that had developed without either of us noticing with a simple ‘this is beautiful’, and it is.

‘Three’ fares less well. It’s a scratchy, broken affair that brings to mind the old dial-up tone that nobody in the developed world hears any more. Proceedings are saved by the lovely final track that brings back the bell-like tones from ‘Two’. The song feels a lot more shy. There’s real discipline on show here. The use of space and cathedral-style reverb is perfect. Many lesser musicians (myself included) would have just let the song turn into an over-the-top mess.

It leads wonderfully into ‘River Blindness’ – not only the first song on the record to be dignified with a real title – but also the first track from Andy Hawkins the guitarist with odd noise rock/dub band Blind Idiot God. There are definite hints of that band in his playing here, but the rhythm section has been dispensed with and replaced by more and more guitar. Hawkins only released one other recording as Azonic and although they were put to tape a year apart, the sound is near enough identical.

Hawkins has a HUGE sound. It’s smothered in stereo effects run into at least two amps. The most remarkable thing is the lack of attack, it’s almost as if the chords blend between each other, he must be using some sort of sustainer pickup as I can’t for the life of me replicate it.

On ‘River Blindness’ his guitar screams, roars, throbs, shreds (if only for a moment) and sometimes it just rumbles. Fans of rhythm needn’t cry though as tablas emerge from within the dirge too.

His other track ‘Nine Tails’ follows a similar vein. The guitar’s whammy bar gets a proper shoeing here, the already detuned strings rattle against the fretboard before being yanked back up to pitch time and time again.

Hawkins really throws down the heaviness gauntlet on these tracks. Enough to claim the ‘Heaviest of the Entire Subsonic Series’ title?

Maybe…

This is a stunning record, one which fans of experimental guitar should definitely seek out. There’s so much depth and range. Of course, you can listen to all of the songs on YouTube, but it really benefits from a full, uninterrupted, listen.

Thanks for reading.

Bill Laswell & N.J. Bullen – Subsonic 2: Bass Terror

This second part of the Subsonic series is a bit of a wild card. Whilst sonically it can claim the right to be the most representative of the Subsonic name, it stands out in that there isn’t really much six-string action on here at all. What there is is added more as embellishment rather than being the main focal point.

The primary focus of both artists on this is the bass guitar.  Both are pretty well-known for their bass playing past, but each also shares a reputation for being exploratory musicians who deviate far from the traditional brackets that pop music often imposes upon its proponents.

Bill Laswell

Bill Laswell may well have the heftiest discography out there, almost certainly when it comes to bass players. Reading through his CV reveals his involvement in a number of records sitting on my shelves here at home that I’d never really noticed in the liner notes. Miles Davis, PiL, Last Exit, The Damage Manual…the list goes on. It’s also interesting to note that he would also pop up on Andy Hawkins:Azonic’s contribution to the next in the series – Subsonic 3: Skinner’s Black Laboratories credited with ‘Guitar Production & Design’.

Nic Bullen is another highly prolific artist who emerged from the West Midlands in the early 1980s as part of the original Napalm Death lineup. This lineup soon added Justin Broadrick who contributes  the other half of Subsonic 3; making these two records the most closely linked of the series, by personal connections at least.

Nic Bullen

Bullen went on to work on a number of different projects.  One of these was alongside other Napalm Death alumnus – blast beat pioneer, and self-proclaimed ‘whirlwind’, Mick Harris in the long-term project Scorn. I feel it’s safe to say that Scorn is a much better indicator of Bullen’s contribution to Bass Terror than Napalm Death. In fact it was recorded while he was still a part of Scorn before his 1995 departure.

The most obvious thing about Bass Terror is that this is clearly the one you can dance to. Beats are essential to both these artists contributions in a way that doesn’t occur in the rest of the series.

Laswell only contributes a single track; the 15 minute ‘Tetragrammation’. What starts out as a very 1990s sounding ambient piece soon develops into a pretty rapid 4/4 beat funkathon. Laswell’s bass quacks through an envelope filter while vocal samples and monophonic synth lines splatter themselves over the rhythm.

Guitars crop up later adding a whammy bar manipulated drone that could well have been provided by the aforementioned Andy Hawkins; although he’s not credited as such. Theoretically the track is split into three different ‘methods’ which allows it to cover a lot of ground. My favourite is the third – ‘Evaporate’, which ironically drops much of the bass and brings it closer to the feel of subsequent records in the series.

Bullen provides two pieces here which, although they are also more rooted in beat culture than the rest of the series, have a distinctly darker tone than Laswell’s somewhat cheerful track.

The first; ‘Nocturnal Crawl’ brings to mind DJ Krush; with it’s speaker-threatening levels of low-end and ominous hip-hop beats. These sometimes give way to the relief of sampled tabla before pulling you back in to the grimy dirge of layered treated bass and drones. Towards the end of the piece the beats disappear altogether and it disintegrates into wobbles of sub-bass and reverb. In short…it’s wicked. Subsonic 3 and 4 are the albums I’ll listen to if I want to relax alone. This is the one I’d put on if I had company.

The closing track ‘Again & Again’ spends its first half riding a more up-tempo beat with spooky organ sounds and a floor shaking dub bass-line. The beats abruptly drop out at the mid-point taking things into ten minutes of some of the most atmospheric and unnerving sounds the series has to offer.

Bass Terror was the third record I bought in the series and I have to admit I was pretty disappointed at the time. Still obsessed with the more singular guitar sculpting of the third and fourth records; I found the more processed nature of both Laswell and Bullen’s tracks far less exciting. Subsequent listening over the past few years though has revealed a real depth and level of feeling in these tracks. I’m a bit older, perhaps more open-minded, and I really have grown fond of this record. Don’t get me wrong, nine times out of ten I’ll go for the guitar feedback, but at the right moment this record really delivers the goods. I do think Bullen wins out as Laswell’s bass is just a little bit too chirpy for my miserable tastes.

Bullen is soon to feature in a new exhibition ‘Home of Metal’ celebrating Birmingham’s contribution to metal which is organised by the people who run the rather excellent Supersonic festival. You can see him talking about it here.

I’m currently booking a trip to Birmingham to see the exhibition as well as return to the place where I studied at university for three years. Sadly, it seemed that I lived there during its least metal era – but I’ll check out the exhibition, hopefully catching Nic’s contribution, and report back.

Meanwhile, I suggest you find a copy of Bass Terror, and build.

Next in the series Justin K Broadrick & Andy Hawkins:Azonic – Skinner’s Black Laboratories.