Tagged: Krautrock

Blank Realm: Illegals In Heaven

There’s a moment in every great band’s career where they shrug off their influences and assume their ultimate form. Blank Realm – that brilliantly erratic Brisbane quartet made up of three siblings and a “spiritual brother” – have long been the sum of their parts: a sound drawn from Krautrock, New York’s No Wave, New Zealand’s entire Flying Nun roster, and those closer to home, like the Go-Betweens.

Illegals In Heaven, though, is their definitive statement, the album no one other than Blank Realm could have made. It’s taken them a decade to reach this point, where their rough beginnings have been sculpted into a perfect marriage of pop, art and noise. If there’s a comparison to be made here, it’s with Sonic Youth, circa that band’s masterpiece Daydream Nation.

This is the band’s fifth album (not including the numerous, now impossible to find cassette recordings and CDRs from their formative years), and the first proper studio outing for this determinedly lo-fi band. To be honest, it’s not an obvious leap, sonically speaking: Blank Realm still sound thin and trebly, the mix a dogfight between Luke Walsh’s guitar and Sarah Spencer’s keyboards.

At times, the sound is practically bottomless. Drums and bass become all but irrelevant in the final passages of River Of Longing, Flowers In Mind and obvious single Palace Of Love. It doesn’t matter. These are breathlessly exciting songs, with tightly wound melodies that explode into unforgettable choruses and instrumental passages that see the band playing to the limit of their capacity.

Blank Realm have always been capable of moments of translucent beauty, the dizzying high points of previous albums obscuring the weaker moments. Illegals In Heaven, though, is both varied and consistent. For every bug-eyed monster like No Views – a whooshing slice of comet-rock that opens the album as if it’s been shot from a cannon – there’s a quiet, meditative counterpoint like Dream Date.

There’s a confidence here, too, that is reflective of a band on top of its game. Listening to Daniel Spencer belt out the lyrics to No Views (“I’ve been spitting blood in the dirt, baby, I’m tired but I’m ready to fight”) – is exhilarating, his earlier tremulous yelp replaced by something desperate and crazed. Sarah gets a turn behind the mic, too, singing lead on the shimmering ballad Gold.

There haven’t been many singing drummers in rock & roll. Daniel is akin to Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart, a punk-pop craftsman with a serious romantic streak. On Cruel Night, he comes on a drunk Lee Hazlewood backed by Spiritualized; on Flowers In Mind – the album’s centrepiece – he’s the wide-eyed dreamer: “You can waste a day or waste your whole life / Chasing fragments of dreams out in the night.”

At the opposite extreme is Palace Of Love: “I’ve been feeding the sharks, been diving down in the writhing dark / I’ve been listening to you, scramble my head like a Rubik’s cube.” In another place and time, this thrilling track – played at Ramones pace, but over five minutes – would be a massive hit; as it is, it’s the one that confirms Blank Realm’s arrival at the top of the noise-pop tree.

For most bands, a record like would be a career full stop. For Blank Realm, who have been developing at a dizzying pace since their 2012 breakthrough Go Easy, it’s the beginning of a new chapter in an already impressive story. If there’s a missing star on this album, it’s only reflective of what they could possibly achieve next, having found the sound they’ve spent a decade searching for.

First published in The Guardian, 4 September 2015

I saw the real o-mind with Endless Boogie

If you’ve ever listened to any Stooges or Radio Birdman records, you’ll be familiar with the idea of the O-Mind. The concept came from a lyric in the Stooges’ Down In The Street: “floatin’ around on a real O-Mind”. In the literal sense, it meant the whacked-out bliss of a drug stupor. But musically, it meant something else: a state of transcendence where all earthly concerns fall away and you’re left focused on the only thing that matters, which is Right Now, the moment you’re in.

I’ve never seen it referred to as a kind of orgasm, but the effect is similar.

For the Stooges, the O-Mind was the musical holy grail. They were bent, as American critic Ann Powers once memorably put it, on touching rock’s molten core, and they did it again and again – on Down On The Street, on I Wanna Be Your Dog … Hell, the entire first two Stooges albums constitute a trip into the deepest recesses of the O-Mind. For the Stooges, pharmaceutical and personal psychosis was the inevitable result.

I saw the Real O-Mind last Thursday night. The band was New York City’s Endless Boogie, playing to a crowd of about 50 people at the Jubilee Hotel.

I generally hate jam bands. I prefer brevity: the Ramones are my favourite band ever, hands down. And if ever there was truth in advertising, Endless Boogie are well named – the infinity symbol adorns all their recordings. Despite that, there’s an economy and simplicity about what they do: find a riff; lock the groove; then drive the whole thing over a cliff. There’s touches of psychedelia, to be sure, but it’s not remotely progressive. Nothing is complicated for the sake of it.

Besides, their primary singer-guitarist, who’d been propping up an impressive merch stand up until that point, doesn’t look like Cousin Itt so much as a caveman. As soon as I spot him propping up an impressive merch stand, I know this is gonna be great.

He’s got long, long hair that hangs in his eyes, a row of stumps for teeth and he’s wearing the clothes he’s probably worn for a month. Calling him a singer is a stretch, since he doesn’t so much sing as gargle and howl and grunt, but you realise singing’s hardly the point once they launch into their first song and not a syllable’s been crooned after about eight minutes.

After about 12 minutes, there’s a power failure. The band, unfazed, continues – or rather, the drummer does. He doesn’t miss a beat. To play this music you need to be above all accurate, and this guy is a human metronome. There’s a bit of fiddling from the house engineer and we’re cooking again. The band plough on – and on. The song must clock in at over 20 minutes.

But length doesn’t matter in the way I might expect it to. Firstly, because it’s all about groove, it’s actually easy to dance to. And secondly, the longer some of these songs go, the better they seem. The guitar playing is clean and sharp and always tasteful. The music hits fantastic peaks, sustains them,  backs away, then builds again. It’s mesmerising.

“Floating around on a real O-Mind” indeed.

It’s no exaggeration to say this changes the way I listen to music. I’m not sure if Endless Boogie are necessarily fantastically original – in fact, I’m sure they’re not. It makes me wonder about all those Hawkwind and Grand Funk Railroad records I’ve ignored all my life. Drawing on my more familiar reference points, it’s like Asheton-era Stooges crossed with Krautrock influences like Can or, more particularly, Neu!

There’s also more obvious classic-rock influences like Crazy Horse, and early ’70s Australian shit like Lobby Loyde’s Coloured Balls. (That connection’s underscored by the fact that Steven Malkmus, an avowed fan of the Balls, is also a fan of and friends with Endless Boogie, and has joined them on stage more than once.)

Now I’m at home, writing this blog and listening to Focus Level, their first album. It’s a double, of course, and stretches to the full 79 minutes – the maximum length a CD can handle. The reviews I’ve read haven’t been all that kind, so maybe it helps that I’ve seen them live, and am not reacting to it the way a time-poor critic needing to write a dozen McNugget-sized reviews might.

Right now, it’s all I want to listen to.