Kathleen Edwards is a great Canadian singer/songwriter who has released five albums, including the great “Total Freedom“. In a very revealing interview with Joe Pug, on a highly interesting podcast called “The Working Songwriter“, she describes how, in 2004, she went on her first big tour. She was booked as the opening act for an alternative rock band from Boston called Guster. She says that after the first night on tour she realised she had made a mistake. “That first night, I knew ‘holy shit’, I’ve just committed to six weeks on this tour. The audience couldn’t give two shits about my music. This is not the right audience for me to be playing in front of.”
In 1990, I started a job as Head of Department at a school in Harlow where I lasted five years. I disliked most of my time there and I wasn’t very good at the job. The only redeeming feature of my time there was meeting Graham, even though he had the most depressingly awful record collection I ever saw. On my first day, I heard the teacher in the adjacent classroom shouting at his class. A few minutes later, he was still shouting. Half an hour later, he was still shouting and eventually I ventured out into the corridor for a closer listen. He wasn’t shouting at his class, it was simply that he had a loud voice. A very loud voice. This was the way that he kept order and discipline in his classroom – by speaking very very loudly the whole time. On my first day, I thought “‘holy shit’, I’ve just committed to five years* at this school. The kids couldn’t give two shits about me. This is not the right school for me to be working at.” Despite first appearances, my teaching neighbour was a nice friendly guy and I found out that his son was in a local Harlow band called Collapsed Lung who have been playing, on and off, for over thirty years. One of their singles was produced by Graham Sutton. Back to him in a minute….
(*I hadn’t actually committed to five years at this school but that was how long I worked there and it would have been too complex to state that I had actually only committed for 4 months – the intricate explanation would have detracted from the analogy with Kathleen Edwards. Not that I’m comparing myself to her.)
I had a brilliant day yesterday! I met Rob in London and we went to the British Library to see the original handwritten lyrics of “In My Life”, “Michelle” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” along with an unrecorded song by George Harrison and a letter that John Lennon wrote to Stuart Sutcliffe. As if that wasn’t sensational enough, we also saw original manuscripts by Charles Dickens, William Blake, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Lewis Carroll. Later we went to the Cartoon Museum but the highlight of the day, apart from Rob’s scintillating conversation (of course), was meeting up with his son, who I first met about 15 years ago. The circumstances of our first meeting were unusual. Rob had been persuaded by our mutual friend Phil that we wanted to see a band called Explosions In The Sky in an upstairs room near King’s Cross. We arranged to meet in a pub beforehand and Rob’s son and his son’s girlfriend would also be joining us. Rob and Phil were delayed in their journey from Bristol by nearly two hours so the two younger people were forced into a long intense conversation with an overweight old man they’d never met before. As it was, we had a very pleasant evening before enduring an hour of impenetrable, tuneless post-rock from the Texas quartet.
The term “post-rock” was brought into common usage by a Melody Maker journalist called Simon Reynolds when writing about an English duo called Insides. When writing about Bark Psychosis, he developed the term and it fell into widespread use. In an interview with the band in 1990, he refers to their early days as a “post-hardcore outfit“; he says the band were disillusioned by “the stultifying homogeneity of the post-1988 consensus“; at one point in the interview, bass player John Ling talks about “post-Newtonian science” and the review of the album ends with “the future of rock is looking more buoyant than it has for a while, thanks to Bark Psychosis and their ‘post-rock’ ilk“. Clearly, use of the prefix “post” is typical of a type of journalism which we might call post-writing. Or post-pretentious.
Post-rock is experimental rock characterized by a focus on exploring textures and timbre rather than using traditional rock song characteristics such as chords or riffs. Examples of great post-rock bands are Bark Psychosis, Godspeed You Black Emperor, A Silver Mt Zion, and Sigur Ros. Best of all are Talk Talk, whose “Spirit Of Eden” and “Laughing Stock” are unsurpassed in their originality and beauty. Other post-rock bands that I have seen include Do Make Say Think, Explosions In The Sky and, of course, David Sylvian whose work sits alongside other music to be found in the most depressing record collection of all time which, these days, can be found in Ware.
The founding members of Bark Psychosis, Graham Sutton and John Ling, were initially fans of noisy bands like Swans, Napalm Death and Sonic Youth and the first song they recorded together was called “Clawhammer” which Graham Sutton described as “Crap. It’s not worth the fucking bit of plastic it’s printed on. It’s complete bollocks. Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks. We literally recorded it in five minutes.” However, when Pink Floyd fan Mark Simnett joined them, they changed their musical style and they spent a lot of time learning from Talk Talk that less often means more. Rehearsing in a church basement in Stratford, London they strove to inject more moments of silence and stillness into their compositions. In a 22 minute song called “Scum”, elements of “A Kind Of Blue”, “Wish You Were Here” and “Spirit Of Eden” can be heard which not only marked a new beginning but pointed the way to “Hex”.
A blogger called Jacob Nierenberg summed up “Hex” very well when he wrote “‘Hex’, along with Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, is one of the two most essential post-rock records. Bark Psychosis’ debut remains a spellbinding listen, weaving ambient, dub, electronica, psychedelia, and even jazz into a musical experience that doesn’t resist definition so much as necessitate the invention of new words to describe it. It’s difficult to describe what ‘Hex’ sounds like to someone who’s never heard it. It’s the kind of record that one has to listen to in order to understand it.”
“A Street Scene” was Hex’s first and only single and Simon Williams, writing in the NME described it as “Punk Floyd, in a nutshell.” The post-pretentious Peter Paphides wrote “there’s still nothing as straightforward as a lyric or a two-part harmony. However, what you do get is a beautifully disembodied guitar amble bolstered in the lead-up to — wait for it! — a chorus by some agreeable Miles Davis-style parping.” Sadly he missed the lyrics which, in their entirety are “You stand apart with the sinking sunlight. I just came to watch you smile. Clarity. You work so hard that you don’t know what it’s like to be so sure. It’s gonna work out anyway.”“
The second half of the album contains three songs, the shortest of which is over eight minutes long. “Fingerspit” reminds me very much of Mark Hollis’ solo album with very quiet passages punctuated by random bursts of noise. Graham Sutton’s singing of “reach inside, it’s upside down/ I can’t find any way out” is appropriately desperate, as if the discordant drums are the sound of him banging his head against a locked door. “Eyes & Smiles” is marginally more optimistic with twinkling electric guitar set above percussion noises that transform the song into a work of transcendent beauty. The final song, “Pendulum Man” is a 10 minute instrumental which starts with a repetitive two note guitar piece and is gradually overwhelmed by swimming keyboards that lead into a slow denouement of a truly wonderful and original piece of music.
This is the only known video of Bark Psychosis performing live. It’s a montage of two songs.
There are a few albums which seem to spring from nowhere. I’ve mentioned Talk Talk a few times here but, in truth, “Hex” is a totally original album in the same way as “Astral Weeks“, “Starsailor“, “American Gothic“, “Joy Of A Toy“, “Big Red Machine“, “Crazy On The Weekend“, “Don’t Stand Me Down“, “Back In The D.H.S.S.”, “The Livelong Day“, “The Marble Index“, “Rook“, “The Velvet Underground And Nico” or “A Child’s Guide To Good And Evil “ Music that originates from deep in the artists mind and soul, allowing us a glimpse of a complex psyche, blissfully delivering us from our own reality.