Archive for June, 2018

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Quiet men are always misinterpreted. Norman Westberg has always been a gentleman but, sheer truth, the stern aesthetic of Swans in the eighties – his whip-taunt frame, tattoos, sharp look, the fury he unleashed on guitar – made for an unnerving impression. At some point age weathered that into an air of calm and patience – again, as a relatively private and peaceful soul people read into appearance and the work produced. Since 2012, while the odyssey that was Swans drove him round and round the world battering audiences into blissed-out submission, Westberg commenced a new series of solo releases (most available directly from him: https://www.etsy.com/shop/normanwestberg) and others via the Room 40 label.

https://room40.bandcamp.com/album/after-vacation

Listening to his solo releases has helped me listen to Westberg’s back catalogue with fresh ears. Where I used to see only the overwhelming nature of Swans, I increasingly see the wide range of textures he brought to the music and how varied is work was – that he was plucking out aspects of his abilities to serve the needs of each composition on which he played which allowed him to span so many years and so many different Swans releases. I’ve reviewed three of the solo releases in the last couple of years:

http://www.wordsandguitars.co.uk/2015/11/norman-westberg-13/
http://www.wordsandguitars.co.uk/2016/08/norman-westberg-mri-the-all-most-quiet/

And have built up quite the little collection (The Chance To, Somewhere Else, Idling Live, Jasper Sits Out, 13, The All Most Quiet, MRI…) After Vacation is billed as a move away from the on-the-spot immediacy of the existing releases with a degree of overdubbing and after-work conducted. Aesthetically it’s very visibly tied to the previous works 2012-2017, there’s a consistency of feel and territory.

The pieces here are mostly relatively brief: between three and seven minutes with even the outlier, ‘Levitation’, only just over the ten minute mark. Each one seems to explore an image or a particular approach. Opener ‘Soothe The String’ mirrors its title in that there’s a sense of tactility, that one can hear a physical guitar string being touched, stroked, drummed even though the resulting piece contains a glowering and ominous undercurrent. ‘Drops in a Bucket’, similarly, feels like the expansion of ripples in broken water with a heavy wave sweeping outward over and over again while other currents and collisions play beneath the surface.

‘Sliding Sledding’ plants heavy guitar strum (circa Bad Moon Rising Sonic Youth) against a descending chord pattern that sounds like an anesthetized I Wanna Be Your Dog, all layered over a waterfall backdrop of glittering notes. In it’s final moments there’s a sudden change into something like the triumphal hum of strings that might mark the peak of an orchestral composition. There’s that same merging of the small and the gigantic on ‘Norman Seen As An Infant’ which exists somewhere between the large canvas works of Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham and the detailed up-close electronic treatments of someone like Christian Fennesz. A Warm flickering bass tremor with a hollow dancing tone weaving back and forth over the top reminded me of a more danceable and carefully controlled result of Steve Reich’s pendulum music.

‘After Vacation’ is the real sucker punch – over a background shimmer, Westberg plays a beautiful melody, all slides, reverberating close mic’ed strings, plucked notes – it’s perhaps the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard him do. His solo records have always belied the roaring temperament of the music he’s best known for and it’s genuinely fun hearing an artist surprise with something so mellow. The combination of ambient backing and heat-stroked improvisation suggests there’s so much more in the tank.

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Moth Club_July 4

The perfect U.S. Independence Day celebration – heading up Hackney way to absorb some dark ambient glories courtesy of Low Company (https://www.lowcompany.co.uk/pages/about-location) and Kenny White – a good mix here:

Then, courtesy of film-maker Marco Porsia, we’ve secured an exclusive preview of a section of his upcoming film about Swans due for release later this year. I’ve been keeping avidly tuned into Marco’s work this past year – saw an intriguing early edition of the film but very aware that he’s pouring energy into honing the final work this summer. If you didn’t catch the short work he released last year for Swans’ final shows in NYC check it out:

We’ll then move into a reading from SWANS: Sacrifice And Transcendence – The Oral History and a Q&A including some of the materials that I wound up not using in the final book.

Basically, did you have other plans for a Wednesday in early July? Is there a better way to celebrate Independence Day than communing with one of the most awesome musical entities to ever emerge from the U.S.? That fiver you were going to spend on coffee today, tuck it in your pocket and keep it – music, a film, a book, live experience all for a fiver.

https://www.revolvermag.com/music/swans-talk-pushing-their-bodies-live-performances-dangerous-limits

I personally created this excerpt for Revolver Magazine as the first brief public snippet from the book. I used the relevant section of the book, combined with other materials including a few elements there weren’t room for in the book itself to try and make something that really got inside what its been like on stage for Swans during the 2010-2017 run.

Why this piece? Frankly there was something horribly exciting in the way so many of the band and the people associated with it recall that night in New York City. This is a band that has played 600+ shows inside seven years and they still remember this night. There’s no exaggeration involved: everyone I asked recalled feeling like they would die – but this is NYC, this is their home town, they couldn’t help but give everything to the moment.

It captures something for me about the nature of Swans: this is the most HUMAN of music. What do I mean by that? I mean the music of Swans changes fundamentally based on who is playing it, the conditions on that night, the demands of the moment. While most bands hack through a known song in a known way, Swans twist and warp night-to-night, wanting the same thing in the same way, but better, higher, more intense. Everything is pushed to an extreme because the band know, for a fact, that playing music on stage isn’t just a  reproduction of recorded sound, it’s a communication of energy between performers, space and audience. Live performance, at its finest, is a psychic moment never to be reproduced in which those watching can feel the drama, the tension, the euphoria and the pain being lived on stage. It ceases to be two domains – audience and stage – and becomes one space where everyone is a part of a feeling.

It always made me smile too that this was the night Michael met his future wife Jennifer. Beauty in defiance of death and pain? Is there anything more Swans-ian than that? It’s a very brief excerpt but there’s a momentum and a power to the shared memory that I felt was right to be the first piece given to the world.

 

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Who doesn’t love a mystery? In 1982, after a frustrating few months auditioning potential members, Michael Gira and Jonathan Kane recruited Sue Hanel: “the most ferocious noise guitarist in the city” (Jonathan Kane).  After several months of rehearsals, she took the stage with Swans at their first gig sometime in early summer ’82. Sue would perform with Swans for the next six-to-eight months, including the ten dates of the Savage Blunder tour with Sonic Youth in Nov/Dec, before departing after a final show at The Kitchen on December 27, 1982.

“There was an incredibly gifted, though also unstable and unpredictable, guitarist by the name of Sue Hanel who created a tremendous wailing sound but the problem was she could never replicate what she did from one night to the next…She was a very nice person, kind of troubled, but very down-to-earth. It just didn’t work out artistically because she just wasn’t interested in repeating anything: her sound would be different, her chords would be different, we could never pin it down — but when she hit the sweet spot it was tremendous.” (Michael Gira)

I’d seen the name about over the years and noted Thurston Moore’s Facebook post in early 2016 listing her as “One of the Best Guitarists Ever”. Underneath the post Wharton Tiers (engineer, producer, performer, gentle soul) had asked if anyone had any idea where Sue was now. Bob Bert (Pussy Galore, Lydia Lunch Retrovirus, Sonic Youth…) responded “I’ve been asking around for years, no one has a clue, she literally disappeared off the planet! I wonder if she’s alive! Hope so!”

Working on “Sacrifice And Transcendence”, naturally I asked about her: Swans first permanent guitarist. The compliments flew thick and fast:

“Sue Hanel blew me away—what a beast! Her energy reminded me a lot of Patti Smith at her most intense.” (Ivan Nahem – Ritual Tension, Carnival Crash, Swans)

“Sue is a legend to all of us who were part of that scene. She was this young lesbian girl who played the most incredible loud splaying guitar. It’s such a great mystery, how she vanished.” (Thurston Moore)

“It’s a real shame there aren’t any real recordings of her playing because she had this amazing guitar sound. Lee Ranaldo used to compare her guitar sound to brontosauruses fucking.” (Bob Bert)

 

Where did she come from? Bob Bert recalled “my wife — she wasn’t my wife then — she had this job as a photo retoucher and there was this girl that arrived from the mid-west, all wide-eyed and kinda preppy looking: her name was Sue Hanel. She said she was playing with this band Swans so I went to those two shows and, holy shit, she was!” I never asked but now I wish I’d inquired whether anyone even knew if her name really was Sue, or was it Susan, Susanna – was Sue a second name or a nickname?

She’s a presence on a smattering of recordings. On November 30, 1981 she performed at Radio City Studios for Glenn Branca’s Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses (Music For Ten Guitars And Drums), the recording of which didn’t emerge until 2006. May 14, 1982 she was at St Mark’s Church participating in Branca’s Symphony No.2 The Peak Of The Sacred (released in 1992). Sometime that summer she would contribute guitar to one track on the only LP by the band Interference with David Linton, Anne DeMarinis, Joe Dizney and Michael Brown – again, it went unreleased until more recently.

Though I’d be curious to learn more about her early years in NYC, she’d established sufficient reputation that she was able to contribute a minute-long solo track called ‘Agenda’ to the State Of The Union compilation in 1982. She also performed on the Peripheral Vision compilation for two tracks (‘Roughage’ and ‘Jargon’) with a drums-sax-guitar three piece called The State with Charles K. Noyse and Dave Sewelson.

Then that’s virtually it. Her live performances with Swans are on the Body To Body, Job To Job compilation and maybe she plays on the live performance added to the recent Filth reissue. There are three (?) CD-Rs available from TheLivingJarboe.com of a number of Swans’ 1982 shows. Where did she go after Swans?

There’s a brief reference online from New York Magazine listing a performance on Monday February 21, 1983 with Ann Caroline Chubb of the band Mofungo:

New York Magazine_Monday Feb 21, 1983

Jonathan Kane also states that he proposed bringing Sue in to play during the recording sessions for Swans’ first album Filth in April 1983 but the idea was rejected.

On my shelf I have the Tellus #10 All Guitars cassette and Hanel makes two final, fleeting, appearances. ‘Dupe’ is another minute-long solo track, undated and with no further details provided. How does it sound? A fidget of strings surging out of the speaker then retreating, volume pedal manipulation creating a wave effect, a held tone…Then it’s done. But I never expect a studio recording, let alone a solo guitar recording, to match the kind of power someone can rip live.

The other track at least sheds potential light on her place of origin: Sue performs as part of New Detroit Inc. with a batch of former natives of that area – Norman Westberg, Carolyn Master (who moved to NYC as part of Bag People with Al Kizys), then David Tritt of Rat At Rat R and Wharton Tiers. The performance, ‘Brown Dub’ is dated August 1, 1984: the last formal recording of Sue. It’s a strange track, is that Norman or Sue roaring over the top?

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After that there’s a void. Bob Bert mentioned “in 1986 or 1987 I had this side-project called Bewitched and got asked to play a benefit show for a fanzine: so I asked Sue Hanel if she would do it. We got together to rehearse, I was doing something on drums and she was just going nuts on guitar then she invited me over to her place on 2nd Avenue. She’d been living there seven or eight years and I’ve never seen anything so bizarre: she had not a stick of furniture, no bedding, nothing — there was one folding metal chair, a boombox and a poster of Motörhead on the wall, otherwise it was barren. I asked her, “Sue, where do you sleep?” and she opened a closet and showed me a sleeping bag. Even when we did the gig, I’ve no idea what drugs she was into but she was drinking cough syrup. She got really skinny; she only ever wore black pants and a black cut-off t-shirt; black make-up circles under her eyes; and she was a bike messenger so I’d see her haring round the streets at a hundred miles an hour — then all of a sudden she disappeared and no one ever heard another word about her.”

Meanwhile Catherine and Nicolas Ceresole, who amid their other artistic endeavours provided a social hub for musicians in the  NYC scene, recall “Sue Hanel was a crazy guitarist but a very nice girl too — she was also doing painting and I still have one from her. Then she disappeared. The last time we saw her was in New York City in ’89-’90: she got really sick and went to the hospital, then got even sicker because they gave her good food and she was used to eating junk.”

That’s it. Pre-Internet era so there’s nothing more to find. Did she leave town? Change name? Die? How old would she be? Who knows? Did she have family? There are Sue Hanels on the web but it seems unlikely they’re THIS Sue Hanel: born Oberlin (KS) and died age 57 in 2005; born in Aransas Pass (TX) died aged 55 in 2010 in Belleville (KS) having married an Alan Hanel in 1982; a Sue Hanel in Oklahoma who worked for a law firm but died sometime around 2011…Germany meanwhile is full of Susanne/ Suzanne/ Suzan Hanels. But there’s nothing suggesting NYC/midwest Sue Hanel had anything to do with Germany.

Asking around, the clearest response I received was “she was a junkie and I heard via the grapevine years ago that she was dead.” Blunt though it might be, and with no special insight, there are some fairly familiar elements at work in the story: the long absences, the way only one person I’ve encountered used the word ‘friend’ or discussed her in a way that seemed personal or up close, the cough medicine on stage, the talk of ‘troubles’, the ultimate disappearance…But, then again – even in the absence of our always-on, always-connected technological accoutrements and despite the sense that this isn’t someone who wrote letters or had a phone number – it would seem surprising if she’d died sometime in the late eighties, when she was still known to at least some on the scene, without someone noticing. The only thing I can think – macabre though it is – is a trawl of death records for New York City, an inquiry to the NYPD and a request they search their Jane Does…

…But then, there’s the truth: she’s gone. One way or another. A guitarist remembered as fearsome by all who saw her perform but one the rest of us will likely never know. I’m hoping I can gather more information about her and flesh out this picture and I know there’s a lot of people out there who hope she’s alive and well out there somewhere.

 

I had such good intentions to write up my Kurt Cobain/Michael Gira comparison (bear with me on this) but totally didn’t make it…

…So what am I doing that might amuse you? Well, I spent some time absorbing some intriguing work on YouTube: always kinda awesome what people get up to!

What I like about these is the construction of a fictional scenario to explain the context surrounding the making of each record in an imaginary world where Cobain lived. Then there’s the music: full band mockups built on top of shreds never taken to conclusion, revised mixes of work that it always would have been nice to hear without demo hiss, songs placed next to each other creating intriguing resonances and comparisons…The sheer workload that must have gone in impresses me – and what the hey, it makes for a good accompaniment to work on a Friday.

Covers of Nirvana have always left me a bit cold but the cheapness of modern technology has opened up this new avenue of exploration – hearing original Nirvana works tweaked and altered in different ways is intriguing. It’s also valid: Cobain’s death in ’94 leaves an utter void in terms of understanding any musical intentions. There’s simply such limited data that one guess is as good as another – it’s not something worth getting uptight about. Seeing the above in that context I just think, “why not?” and dig through the results to find moments I enjoy.

Also listening to Jpegmafia. The Sonologyst record that just came out on Cold Spring (I’m ALWAYS finding something of interest on Cold Spring: the Bleiburg 2 disc record was five quid well spent) http://coldspring.co.uk/2018/03/sonologyst-silencers-cd/#.Wxp4q4pKhPY

Best gig of the past month was catching Aidan Moffat (Arab Strap) and RM Hubbert at Rough Trade Bristol (really neat performance space they have – even if no one can open the bloody door to get in n’ out!) They were promoting their new record Here Lies The Body which sounds like prime-era Arab Strap (that’s a compliment) with renewed warmth and gentility. http://www.hereliesthebody.com/

Currently putting together a playlist related to the SWANS: Sacrifice And Transcendence. Music books always deserve a soundtrack!

 

 

I’m waiting now for the first hardcopy of “Sacrifice And Transcendence” to arrive in my hands. Swans are one of my ‘holy trinity’, the ur-texts where my taste really began: Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Swans. What spans my interests from age 18 to now, age 38, is the appeal – to me – of outsider artists, of people who chose to do something with no real hint that there was a reward beyond the experience and the self-expression. Of course, what now fascinates me is the individuals who manage to sustain their level of creativity and wide-ranging curiosity way beyond the point when most humans have given up on ‘the shock of the new’ and are, instead, mostly administering lives already set in stone.

For music famed for its use of mantras and cycles of sound, the lack of repetition across Swans’ albums draws me back to the music across all these years. From 1982-1997 – the original run of Swans prior to disbandment – the band’s sound would shift on nearly every release. EP-Filth-Young God-Cop-Greed-Holy Money-Children Of God-The Burning World-White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity-Love Of Life-The Great Annihilator-Soundtracks For The Blind: the level of evolution and growth displayed is extraordinary. More importantly, few other artists have managed to extend such a lengthy spell without going over old ground, making changes that sound gimmicky or ‘put on’, losing the sense that it truly matter in a “bet your life?” way. Even after all these years every one of their releases stands up to scrutiny.

It’s impossible to speak of ‘the Swans sound’ in many ways given that sheer variety: you might love the early Swans grind, or maybe the cinematic expanses of the early nineties is your Swans. Perhaps the in-the-room Americana of The Burning World hooks you, or you could prefer the ambient wash of Soundtracks For The Blind. Whatever. They’re all amazing albums. And what it took to bring them into this world: the era of indie labels meant no money for anyone ever – it was hard enough to get music out there in the first place and to claw one’s way up onto a respected indie…But Swans wound up fully independent: owning and paying for every aspect of the band’s music whether live or recorded. That’s no small feat: to not just stay afloat or continue to make music, but to continue to push forward, make advances, retain the level of acclaim and devotion that Swans earned.

SWANS cover only

The return of Swans in 2010 could have been a disaster – no doubt. But whatever strange alchemy exists within this entity remained. The first album, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, was masterful and – from any other band – would have been a career high. For Swans it feels, in retrospect, like a throat clearing (albeit an impressive one) prior to the absolute statement that was The Seer and the subsequent two volumes – To Be Kind and The Glowing Man – that make up an unofficial but acknowledged trilogy. It’s the first period of Swans’ entire career where a certain unified sound stuck around long enough to be honed, perfected and taken to it’s limits.

I’m simply stunned no one chose to wrote about this band before. Music that stands the test of time. A commitment to the art that goes far beyond normal drive and determination. A sound that has influenced or ignited numerous sub-genres of rock and metal that we take for granted today – while remaining a singular and solitary entity, never part of a scene. To even be one of the few bands that returned in the mid-to-late-2000s without milking nostalgia and/or disappointing on record would have been exceptional enough – but Swans went to create music that stands shoulder to shoulder with earlier peaks. I wouldn’t want to devote nights and weekends to work without passion…It requires a subject worth being passionate about. Swans is a unique concept and a singular entity in the world of music. How could I not want the people who were part of the band to tell me how it all came about and how it felt to make it?

http://smarturl.it/swansbook