Saturday, 12 April 2014

70. Alec Finlay

Originally written last year for Cadaverine blogzine, previously unpublished.

Alec Finlay
Be My Reader82 pp., Shearsman, £8.95

How much can you put into a poem without appearing to try? Yeats claimed, in 'Adam's Curse', that the appearance of effortlessness required by good poetry was always the result of vast effort (“I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe'”), a claim whose apparently casual expression itself belied its large implications, its deconstructive effects on the poem and its explorations of nature and artifice. The problematic reappears in connection with Alec Finlay's work. Finlay, the son of poet and sculptor Iain Hamilton Finlay, works mostly as an artist, but also produces pamphlets, mostly through his own Morning Star Publications, that straddle poetry and artists' books. Be My Reader collects texts produced for commission with other lyrics. Many, particularly those produced for fine art projects, were made by, or toy with, process. Most are fairly short (only four poems are over two pages long), sparse and seemingly very casual – the kind of thing that could be jotted in an afternoon. Reading them, one has the sense that a lot more is going on in each gesture of the text than there appears to be. The question is, just how much?

Finlay Snr. was interested, in his books and text-sculptures, with the model of the haiku, in which perhaps a single image (literally: some haiku, in the original Japanese, may consist of a single character) seems to hold intense depths of feeling or philosophical significance. It also expresses a relation to nature: the elements of the haiku relate to each other as in nature's patterns of order. (One may wish to contrast this with the popular anecdotal mode of contemporary poetry, in which nature, fragmented into convenient images, is belaboured with explanation and confession.) It has room for humour: haikus can mention drinking and other pleasures of the flesh – there are a fair number of poems about football, or “fitba”, in Be My Reader – and frequently involve visual puns, a device used in both Finlays' artworks. Finlay places a similar trust in the finely turned image: sections of the long poem 'The Wittgenstein House (Skjolden)' read like renga; many of the shortest poems – including one, 'The Scottish app', only one word long – posit themselves as a single image; 'Cove (Kilcreggan)' is a succession of such images (“a purple thistle without prickles / cloud shadows stroking the hills”), a list poem of “[k]nown cures for melancholy”. This form, hiding beneath the surface of the poems, also ensures that the short comedic poems are, for the most part, actually funny, rather than fussily contrived jokes (in which the title often sets up the punchline of the poem's body). They aren't, though, necessarily funny a second or third time.

The lyric poems thankfully don't take their subjects too seriously. Rather they try to follow, in a process of simple mimesis, the weave of movement or thought (or, more truthfully, both conjoined) in language. 'The Wait' begins with motion and location – “I rock the swing-seat to-and-fro / in the low sun / chatting with Christine” – moving to another part of the house at the end of the third tercet – “Upstairs // with the girls / kneeling on soft cushions / surrounded by scarves” – looping back round to the swing, the narrator imagining “you” coming “down / the turning stairs / from your painted room.” There's a guilelessness to this, to the choice of incidents and the diction, which feels refreshingly uncontrived (where so much contemporary poetry that deals in everyday occurrences and language collapses immediately into whimsy), even confrontational, as if daring the reader to force him to be more ornate, more 'writerly'. It works most obviously in the tradition of transparency of William Carlos Williams, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler, but somehow feels more ordinary than them, an ordinariness that the intelligent syntax and linebreaks belie. Their modesty and provisionality at least feels more truthful, less burdened, than the false universalising that plagues contemporary British poetry.

There is, then, something depthless about these poems: their play or playfulness is an endless movement on the surface of things. Which is, perhaps, appropriate to the nature poem in a period when human subjugation of nature is reaching an almost total scale. Certainly the 'found' or processual poems, in spite of their uneven quality, feel this way. Those most allied to process don't necessarily wear so well on repeated readings. 'RCAENLGTEIRCS', whose title is also the text of the poem, is a bit too self-explanatory to do much more than, uh, explain itself. 'E-D-W-I-N-M-O-R-G-A-N', in which every word contains one letter from the late Scots Makar's name (in sequence), is impressively virtuosic, and contains some nice phrases – “anagraMs Of youR orGan And hymeN, // sharEd iDeograms Within whIch Nothing / becoMes pOetry”– but little more than that. By contrast, 'Hid in a Tale: a Folio of Leaves', which uses the subtle device of embedding “leaf”, usually spreading it between the first and last letters of consecutive words, as a kind of golden thread weaving through the poem, is direct,.transparent and sweet, a repeated return to the consolations of a mute nature: “Clustered / azalea fills my eyes; / the young heather // springs gentle, / affords me cover”. But it returns also, perhaps more strangely, to the Romantic trope of imploring nature for tenderness, an action whose belatedness contributes to the awkwardness of the address, like listening to the erstwhile Romeo of a Miranda July film:

Tree, hear my plea:
      forgive me; console
          a friend, so pale,

afraid; allow me
     to amble afternoon &
          evening, seeking meaning

in the whole affair.
There's something faintly embarrassing about this, an affect ironised by the wry turn of “the whole affair”. Notably, there's no answer to this imprecation for the provision of meaning, the poem concluding “Now I leave this // dark green wood”; the comedy of our relationship with nature is in its inadequacy, not in any heartening climactic marriage. It's further evidence that, even if the experiments of Be My Reader don't always work, there's more than enough here to tempt anyone to join in.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

69. Erewhon Calling

Picture via Flying Nun Records

Alternate version of a review published in The Wire #348 (February 2013).

Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound In New Zealand
Bruce Russell (editor)
Audio Foundation Pbk 191pp

Editor Bruce Russell says in his introduction that the project of Erewhon Calling is “an investigation, in some senses an 'ethnography'” of experimental sound culture in New Zealand: sound art, improv, noise, experimental composition, avant-garde song. It is interested in that culture's self-experience or self-knowledge: “who they are, what they think they are doing (and why they think they're doing it), as well as how they got to where they are now.” The result is a blur of ideas and perspectives that suggests many potential patterns, never cohering into them. But then in a music-writing market that too often demands cut-and-dry conclusions, this may be a virtuous intention, and one that suits its subject: the experience of investigating this and other music from NZ is a slow, delirious tumble through sound that alternately smears and crystallises patterns, slipping between constitutive categories: melody and noise, intimacy and distance, liveness and mediation, grotesquerie and pop nous.

In one sense this book is welcome. There's a distinct lack of writing on avant-garde music in New Zealand (even on the web information's hard to come by), and this anthology contains a lot of interesting primary materials, including memoirs and surveys by Peter Wright, Pin Group's Peter Stapleton, Dan Vallor (on lathe-cut records as a medium for experimental musicians in NZ), Alastair Galbraith and Su Ballard (on the minor but encouraging support for sound-art in public galleries), as well as some lovely visual work by the likes of Michael Morley. By contrast, what's become reified in retrospect as 'New Zealand indie', the mainstream (centred around Flying Nun Records) against which this book's subject is ostensibly set, is surrounded by gossipy memoir, hagiography and archival repackaging, instruments of that reification. Part of the problem is that Erewhon Calling threatens to do the same for its own subject.

For the music that developed in New Zealand after punk, mainstream and underground existed less as separate realms than as resources to be reimagined or eviscerated. Many of the first releases by Russell's label Xpressway were from musicians originally on Flying Nun, including The Dead C, Galbraith, Peter and Graeme Jefferies and The Terminals. Even many of those that Flying Nun continued to support, such as Chris Knox (on whom Byron Coley contributes an unusually good piece), produced extremely odd, noisy homemade pop records throughout the 80s and early 90s. Russell's recent and essential compilation of neo-psychedelic Flying Nun sides, Time To Go, in fact makes this very argument about the closeness of these strands of music. He doesn't help the book's case by stating that “[i]t doesn't try to describe the sounds these people make.” Divorced from aesthetics, subject to a narrow discursive focus on the 'experimental', its program comes across as crypto-sociological boundary-marking; what the best contributions here add to previous writing, against the book's will, is a sense both of the social dynamics of the scene and what escapes the social, into the enclosure and exposure of mediated sound – the often intense privacy and strangeness of the music.

The NZ underground, as channelled primarily through Xpressway (until its closure in 1993) and Forced Exposure, enjoyed a certain cachet in the 1980s, but even this was complicated by the cultural politics of centre-and-periphery. Part of the appeal for both the international mail-order crowd and native listeners, John Bywater recalls, was “its geographical isolation and cultural difference”, and “the pleasure... in liking things no one else knows”. Such an enjoyment of the esoteric was frowned on in the scene – Bywater cites a zine's “satirical portrait of Christchurch at some point in the 90s, including a character Paul, listening to 'mail order records from the USA'” – as, at the same time, those involved struggled to make space for themselves in a country known for its relative social conservatism, in which the idea of community is primarily a stick with which to beat cultural nonconformists. Jon Dale's marvellous piece on the still mostly unknown bands of Wellington, includes this “droll summation” from Douglas Bagnall of Fever Hospital: “we had a local context – three houses and a community hall – with national and international links, but no regional scene.” Auckland's 90s scene experienced the city as “just a city, a glorified parking lot made specifically for commerce, leaving no room for culture”, scored by the grey, anonymous noise of the records of RST, Thela, Rosy Parlane and others. The portrait of the same city's ongoing Improv collective, Vitamin S, suggests a climate in which creativity is unacknowledged, everyday, intensely ordinary.
Such an account is moving, not least because it mirrors the situation many of us in the arts who don't live in metropolitan centres confront day-to-day and almost never see portrayed in music writing. It also, in theory, makes a fitting conclusion for the chaotic mass of material gathered in this anthology: definition, solidity, product don’t need to emerge from the companionship and entertainment of creating music. But this is, it feels to me, insufficient. If the attempt here is to provide a social portrait of NZ music as a total aesthetic – and fans often agree that it does have a shared atmosphere or tone, as well as a visual identity – then it's worth noting that the best pieces in here aren't about social scenes, and aren't academic analyses, but passionate writing about records, experiences of sound that chafe vitally against expectation. They're about 7”s, tapes and lathe-cuts issuing from sources that just as quickly disappeared; about “broken, distressed, recalibrated and/or malfunctioning equipment”, grime and distortion on the tape; about troubled song, photocopied zines and fugitive performances. Such writings give a stronger sense of what it is to produce sound “at the end of the earth”, a place where ultimately, as Jon Dale puts it, quoting William Burroughs, there's “nothing here now but the recordings”.

Monday, 10 June 2013

68. Ben Rivers

Alternate version of a review that appeared in The Wire #340 (June 2012).

Two Years At Sea
Ben Rivers (director)
Soda Films 2011, 80 mins

Contemporary culture dreams of disappearance. Two Years At Sea, Ben Rivers' first full-length film, shows us one version of that dream, reconstituted as waking reverie. Jake Williams, this portrait's subject, lives in remote Aberdonian woodland. He's seen and heard working – wood-cutting, tidying, fixing – in between other pottering activities: reading, walking, cooking, napping. No other character, his cat aside, is seen. The film's title refers to the period of work he undertook to make this isolation possible. The result is not exactly bucolic, but does gift the film a certain quality of unwavering, uncoercive attention. A great deal of its rich, unhurried loveliness proceeds from all of this: a Cageian bringing-out of the buried life in auditory and visual 'silence'.

Rivers is, though, far from the nature-piety into which the Cage cult so often degenerates. His cinema, like that of Patrick Keiller and certain parts of Tarkovsky, makes clear that its attention to natural appearance is possible only through film's mediation. Filming on hand-processed black-and-white 16mm, Rivers lets the medium's accidents and peculiarities – flicker and distortion, intense contrast, light glare, graininess – play. Film is revealed as the dark matter of the visible, just as sound – vividly captured wind and birdsong, the distorted psych-rock tapes and raga tapes Williams plays in his car, 40s crooners blasted over outside loudspeakers – marks out the diffuse and dense contours of his oneiric space. Williams is also a singer and accompanist of folksongs for mandolin and guitar; though we never see him play, we do see him listen - giving ear to the sky and forest - and his listening seems to subtly shape the film.

Rivers hints at the constructedness of the scenario, undercutting the impression of an innocent rural idyll even as he builds it up. Several fantastic sequences Рsuch as that in which Williams hoists a caravan into a tree, has an Keatsian lie-down in a heather-bank, or the final shot's quotation of Richard Bennett's death scene in Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons Рemphasise the sense that the forest is a theatre in which to play out his Grizzly Adams role. It's interesting to note the ways in which the film coincides with Rivers' portrait of 'island utopias', Slow Action (2010). In interviews Rivers has drawn analogues between Williams' life and his film-making Рsolitary, labour-intensive Рwhich rather suggests film as a craft activity, with the latter's twee associations, a deadly combination with Two Years At Sea's rural seclusion. The Lévi-Straussian innocence of his island societies is the result of apocalyptic loss via a future rise in sea-levels, rather than any willed escape into cosy primitivism. A dream is a kind of ruin: the dissolution of concrete life, vanished lifeworlds turned into active absences. Rivers has made, through technological dreamwork, an enchanting, becalmed ruin.

Monday, 25 February 2013

67. Raime

Director's cut version of a review published in The Wire #345 (November 2012)

Quarter Turns Over A Living Line 
Blackest Ever Black CD/2xLP/DL

If it feels difficult to praise Raime's debut album unreservedly, it's partially due to a mistrust of the frankly adolescent impulse to align Importance and Profundity with sombreness or outright despair. It's also out of concern for readers' emotional equilibrium. In a moment when electronic music's libidinal economy is one of exquisite overload and frenetic sensuality (Rustie, HudMo, Flying Lotus, Night Slugs' whole roster) it seems almost callous to recommend something so sparse, so fatalistic, so blackly compelling. But then it's difficult not to think that it forms the other side of the coin to that aesthetic: it is, in that sense, just as necessary, sensually and historically. Its pleasures are those of the violent hollowing-out of dancefloor forms, of the exhaustion that waits at the end of the night.

The album arrives loaded with both anticipation and context. One of the attractive things about the first Raime 12”s and mixes was their opacity: minimal sleeves, gnomic titles, no physical presence, a return almost to the jungle records that, we would later learn, Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead loved. Soon enough the fog around them, and around Blackest Ever Black, the label that has put out all their releases to date, cleared: they did interviews, gigs; we learned that FACT editor Kiran Sande runs the label, and of its connection to Downwards, Sandwell District and the more brutal end of British Techno. It became clear, in fact, just how carefully 'curated' (that dreaded term!) both act and label were – from mixes of ultra-obscure European post-punk and a website dotted with grand guignol graphics that clicked through to Industrial and rave tunes, to an exquisitely-designed catalogue that combined all of these with Noise and archival soundtrack releases.

The relevance of all this to Quarter Turns Over A Living Line itself is questionable. It feels as fully-formed and autonomous as those first records; far from the smug flaunting of taste that so often takes itself for formal innovation now, it feels like the ruination, the explosion, of a sonic language, its dissipation into particles until all that's left is a choking, noxious cloud. Like the shape of a Rorschach blot, any number of influences or resonances can be traced out of it, but none convincingly names it; more than that, any other music belongs to a comforting past that's out of reach to the devastated present it inhabits. If any echo convinces at all, it's with Shackleton's re-sculpting of dubstep as a thing of negative space and primal dread. (They even share some tropes: quasi-tribal hand percussion, vocal fragments blurred almost into non-existence.) To listen is to confront it as sound that gives no signposts: opener “Passed Over Trail” begins with a huge thrum of bass noise, ghosted by mid-range ebbs, squalls and treble arcs like stifled screams, less a track than an atmosphere that seems like it could go on interminably. When the tripping percussion of “The Last Foundry”, a version of “This Foundry” from their debut EP in 2010, enters, it feels like regaining solid ground momentarily; but rather than being joined by the expected half-step snare, it's left to sharp and melancholy pads and suppurating bass tones. When the snare finally lands more than a minute in, it's huge and hollow as any doom metal hit, as if the drummer had slumped on the kit; when it repeats it seems uncanny, a motion suspended between life and a dwindling into stillness.

The duo have a virtuosic sense of composition, of how to organise both large elements (bass tremors, percussion hits) and spaces, and micrological details, like negatives of darkside jungle tunes. The tracks benefit immensely from high volume: they constitute themselves as forcefields of tension between starkly delineated fragments. Individual gestures nag like scraps from faltering memory, links to a physical reality now wholly alienated – the scrape of guitar-strings on “Your Cast Will Tire”, the thump of toms on “Exist In The Repeat of Practice”. “The Walker In Blast And Bottle” takes the venerable video-game bleep from “Planet Rock” and turns it into a brittle siren, the barely-holding centre of a construct of muffled drums, juddering noise that substitutes for bass and a choir of synths that call to mind nothing but the end of Godspeed You Black Emperor's “Antennas To Heaven”. “Your Cast Will Tire” shows how subtle their construction is, its astute uses of reverb, syncopation and space – echoing fretscrapes and bass-drum punctured by dry hits like the “fell sergeant, death” knocking – establishing a beautiful webbed architecture of resonances. The rhythm is frequently close to a flatline, every heave of percussion effortful, its logic one of resignation, as each pulse, its rise and fall, pulls you further down a path with no end.

Where a lot of what Ryan Diduck, in a recent piece for The Quietus, has tagged as “the new bleak” is in certain ways quite soothing – blurred, drugged-out, bleakly soporific – Raime's work, alternately crystalline and amorphous, provides, if any, a very cold comfort. The raw strings that gird “The Dimming Of Road And Rights” – hard not to connect that title with the entropic loss of all good things most of Europe is currently experiencing under the rubric of 'austerity' – indicate the cold, almost cosmic depths and spaces of this music, the only thing to get lost in beside the hurt, cathartic joy beside a percussion track that feels like nothing less than the death-drive, frustrated. Having come this far, it's difficult not to feel that it's a brilliant dead-end for the project: what, after all, could they do from here, but refine the formula, go further out into the ruins? In this, it seems, Quarter Turns... dramatises a more general situation. Raime are now identifiable auteurs, tagged with identifiable influences. The sheltering shadows of obscurity in which their work gestated are rare in an economy demanding the constant turnover of novelty. In zeroing in on the darkness at the heart of that frenzy of languages, the intimation of last things in a crisis-ridden culture, they've made something deeply necessary.

Monday, 28 January 2013

66. Mark van Hoen

Director's cut of a review published in The Wire #335 (January 2012)

Mark van Hoen 
The Revenant Diary 
Editions Mego CD/LP

Time is the alarming issue, the element most subject to the shearing pressure of social contradiction today. As average working weeks increase, we're enjoined ever more to indulge in colour-supplement leisure activities (“get making those memories”, as a recent advertising slogan had it). In the face of systemic crisis, we're haunted by the vague sense that time's running out; simultaneously, we seem to have more of it than ever – in abundant archives, in multiplying ephemeral media of memory-inscription (Twitter, Facebook, blogs). Like Blade Runner's Roy, our memories press maddeningly on the present, bursting into the body of music, blurring or sharpening their significances, at the moment they threaten to disappear “like tears in the rain”. As the archivists carry on their pursuits (witness the hauntological barrel-scraping of the Found Objects blog and the continuing vogue for 'austerity chic'), the quality of that time seems to matter increasingly little, just so long as it's past.

The latest solo album by former Seefeel member Mark van Hoen (who previously worked under the name Locust) seems to come with the same set of conceptual baggage as all the nostalgia-swollen albums of the past few years. But there is immediately a disturbing spark. The story goes: listening through his archive, van Hoen came across a track made in 1982 by his adolescent self, setting off a recall of even earlier recordings; in turn he was encouraged to try a more primitive recording set-up, of the kind he started out with: 4-track tape, minimal equipment. The potential dangers present themselves immediately: soft-focus recreation of simpler times, the sonic equivalent of the mid-life crisis car. From the first, though, he avoids them: the beats are rough, cutting hi-hats and a loping kick like distant depth-charges, frayed at the edges, synth-strings and female vocal as if imported from from a horror film. Nowhere, in fact, does the percussion become very sophisticated – as with his often somewhat portentous 90s work, van Hoen seems defiantly to occupy the only corner of electronica untouched by Techno and House's seductions. There's something queasy and out-of-joint about the mixing; it's as if van Hoen were adopting a deliberately broken language, feeling out the possibilities in stuttering, cracked versions of familiar gestures, of the slick, brooding digital productions that have dominated his catalogue to date. (Notably, where van Hoen sang on last year's Where Is The Truth, here the voices are borrowed, though whether from vocalist Georgia Belmont or sampled is hard to tell.)

This lure of primitivism seems to lie behind much of the last few years' fetishisation of analogue – think of the often clunky beats of Ekoplekz's catalogue, or the laborious, semi-aleatoric methods of Keith Fullerton Whitman's synth records. This partly evokes the relationship one has with sound-making technology when just starting out: the directness and simplicity with which one plays with sound, but also the physical particularity of analogue – tape recorders with their buttons that clunk, synths, drum-machines, guitars with their knobs for settings and tone, turntables and the motion of needles and record surfaces, all this that filled the adolescence of musicians of a certain age. It's unsurprising that van Hoen seems fascinated on this record by certain granular qualities of noise, the kind of roughened grain (usually applied by him to the voice) often arrived at by happy accident. The sonic account of adolescence in The Revenant Diary is far more interesting than the simplified version that lies at the core of, say, chillwave – and far truer to the difficulty of adult being. The perspective on the narrowness, the hateful, humiliating, unnecessary agonies of adolescence that hindsight purchases does so at the expense of its sense of possibility, of a meaning that saturates every second (and that spills out into overfilled diaries), from which it is in reality inextricable; van Hoen maintains this desire, this danger – adolescence as a wager, a roll of the dice.

Van Hoen's position is complicated by one of the narratives hiding behind The Revenant Diary: he was adopted as a child, a fact that became the sort-of subject matter of Where Is The Truth. To be suddenly dispossessed of a past, to have what lies at the centre of self-image disturbed: this, in fact, is our condition today. “Don't look back” warns the voice at the centre of the eponymous track – not because the past is somewhere to get stuck, preventing the subject from constructing the future (the traditional argument against nostalgia) but because its truth-content is put under question, if not hollowed-out. Van Hoen, notably, although working with an earlier set-up and methodology, doesn't use particular textural or pop-idiomatic signifiers (as hypnagogic pop does). In this respect (as in most others) the beatless tracks are most interesting: “37/3d” is a minimal construction of static burbles, pointillist synth and backward, overlapping voice; “No Distance” is the kind of haunted sequencer architecture explored on Oneohtrix Point Never's early releases; “Holy Me” is 9 and a half minutes of solo multi-tracked voice, I Am Sitting In A Room as remixed by Oval. There's a sense of suspension in these tracks: a glittering sadness, but a refusal of the particularising pathos of meaning, which pins sound to a particular time.

Diaries sought to organise life: month after month, year after year, experience is recorded. The present nostalgia for analogue media (tapes, vinyl records, chemical photography) and all its – as often as not trashy – content is also a longing for a moment when time could be experienced this way: coherent, slowly accumulative, humanly meaningful, experienced in the “pseudo-cyclical” (the phrase is from Guy Debord) passage of seasons and festivals. What is swiftly becoming clear is how useless nostalgia is to getting a grip on our own sense of time in the ongoing crisis – not least because it leaves us with the alienated figments of time, emptied of historicity, of what might be meaningful to our present. The Revenant Diary, spooking us in its best moments with the unremembered fragments of van Hoen's self, confounds all of that. It's a very good start.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

65. Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Alternate version of a review published at The Quietus in November 2012.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

There were always going to be any number of ways to approach this record, that the the writer rushes through serially or all at once: slowly, feeling out its subtleties and flaws, living with it as sound, as he once did with all the records that preceded it, or quick, in gut-level affirmation or negation, assigning it to its ready pigeonhole, freeing himself from the obligation to think about it further; as the reappearance of one of the most politically vital bands of the last 20 years, or as an intervention into a changed historical landscape that renders their critiques obsolete; as the pretext for autobiographical riot or faux-disinterested critical appraisal; as reaffirmation of the dignity of indie, so degraded since F# A# Infinity came out in 1997 or as experimental (whatever that means now) miasma; as a fractional addition to a monolithic body of work, or the best thing they've ever done.

The depths of ambivalence or contradiction that Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! provokes is justified enough by the album's substance to conclude that isn't simply the projection of this writer, already overfond of ambiguity. That title, with its almost parodically positivist screamers, is nicely misleading regarding the content. It would have been easy enough on re-emerging in 2010, especially given the somewhat lukewarm work that their sister act A Silver Mount Zion have been doing in the last few years, for Godspeed to play to the assumed image of what 'Godspeed' are: the big, parabolic structures, the soaring climaxes, the earnest altermondialiste politics that made sense in Seattle circa 1999. This would be to ignore the contradictions and ironies and aporias present in the band from the beginning. The apparently total purity of intent expressed in fleeting interviews and lo-fi sleeve artwork (not to mention the infamously mordant monologue at the start of 'The Dead Flag Blues', the first track on the first album: “The car is on fire and there's no driver at the wheel...”) was always altered in its charge by its presentation – the jokes (who didn't think the dedication to “the Reverend Gary Davis” was at least slightly funny?), the collision of different materials in the inner sleeve collages, the conflicting energies and textures of the songs, sliding and grinding from rage to placidity to uninvited noise to lullabies. The albums were, as the band suggested in a recent Guardian interview, “a joyous difficult noise”: their aesthetics bear the closest relation to punk, detonating their conflicting materials through negation, antagonism, to produce works of strange and searing energy. (The distance from Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts' council estate branded “Land Of Milk And Honey” to “Fuck la loi 78” on the sleeve of Allelujah!... is shorter than we might choose to think.)

All of this is a slightly roundabout way of saying two things. One: it turns out that the things about the band that enthralled the first time around – the sincerity, the leftism, the obscurity, the extremes of sound – were as much pop hook and manifesto as, say, anything in the early canon of Adam and the Ants (as masterfullyanalysed last week by Mark Sinker) – and that this is precisely where their politics, and their brilliance, reside. (Certainly when, on the last few Silver Mount Zion albums, Efrim Menuck's vocals have been unimpededly front-and-centre, the desperation seething within the collective's songs has been written in ten-foot-high slogans, untouched by context or irony, the results have been either comical or too painful to keep up.) Two: a decade's hiatus has given them the chance to sound more like themselves, as a collective entity, an idea, a mass of interacting forces, a project and intervention operating according to what they call their own “particular stubborn calculus”; more like Godspeed than 'Godspeed'. The two long tracks, 'Mladic' and 'We Drift Like Worried Fire', apportioned to a side each, press together all of their seemingly incompatible elements, and do so in a stronger, more boldly articulated way than the somewhat episodic progress of their last major statement, 2000's Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. The band sound here more like a collective sound generator than, as they did sometimes on previous records, a big band in which every section has to have its turn, as it were. Rather, field recordings, lambent drones, melody, concatenations of guitar noise, strings that veer into shredding atonality and back again, are all folded into structures whose thematic successions or juxtapositions feel dreamlike or counterintuitive. (The short tracks – 'Their Helicopters Sing' and 'Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable' – do something different, but more of that anon.) In this it reconnects with the distant, seemingly halcyon days when post-rock meant feverish drift through rock's debris – Disco Inferno, Gastr Del Sol, Bark Psychosis, Pram – rather than white guys playing rock slowly whilst looking sad. (Ten years of listening to other stuff has also allowed us to notice things like this.)

It's tempting at this point to zoom in on significant details – whether to draw a curtain over what opposition there might be to our preceding argument, or to highlight the strange political freight the record carries, or just because they sound so lovely: the jumping clatter of the Montreal casseroles at the end of 'Mladic'; the strafing slide guitar that starts about 2 minutes into that track; the scything treble guitar noise that cuts through the middle of 'We Drift...'; the wonky ebb to which the crackling noise of 'Strung Like Lights...' dwindles, as if heard on tape. But the tracks deserve to be taken in their entirety: 'Mladic' as a slow, groaning build to a thundering foment that breaks off, reiterates parts of itself – guitars strangled into noise as the drums – and slides into drawn-out breakdown, flaring up and burning out over and over; 'We Drift...' as a low, gathering drone that reaches a peak of treble noise simultaneously light as air and crushingly static, before a long, intricate patchwork of musical gestures leads into the repeated, ecstatic thrash of the ending. Pitchfork's Mark Richardson sees in 'Mladic' “the pummeling repetition of Swans and the fiendish drama of metal”, and certainly there's something of the latter-day Swans of 'Eden Prison' to it: harsh, pounding, with heavy mid-range and bass frequencies, but never locked into a temporally bound, teleological form, ready to stray into side-roads of atonal noise, its peeling apart from the central groove and remaking itself become the unfolding of its drama. (Notably there are moments when the drumming recalls a heavier version of Steve Shelley circa Daydream Nation, supporting and puncturing the song in equal measure.) The long tracks here are, nonetheless, hard to experience or hold in memory as entireties – too big, too detailed, too multiple. (We should put a word in here for the production of both Howard Bilerman, who recorded the long tracks, and the four members of Godspeed who recorded the short ones: there's a remarkable clarity and depth-of-field, the clashes or layerings of instruments satisfyingly dense without being mushy or congealed.) Gone is the guilty thought prompted by Yanqui U.X.O. that every next move was, if not predictable, at least intuitable; for the moment, it's all a surprise.

But more than all that, there's a palpable fierceness, a disciplined savagery, to the playing here – no doubt honed over a long period (both long tunes have been in the band's live repertoire, more or less, since before their hiatus in 2003), but not polished. Which makes what comes afterwards more genuine: the two shorter tracks (relegated to a dropped-in 7” on the vinyl version) each explore a moment that would have formed part of the succession of the longer tracks, probing atmospheres of breakdown, exhaustion and drift as if opening up the microcosmic heart of their work. 'Their Helicopters Sing' layers an almost improvisatory clash of circling, scraping string phrases over tape-drone and guitar that moves from hesitant to looming, as if choking back the fury that animated the violins on 'Mladic'. At this point, wearing my contrarian hat, I'll say that 'Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable' is the best thing on the album: bleeding in from the cut-off quiet at the end of 'We Drift...', it presents a rich, troubled drone, treble noise, heavy with the sound of instruments' resistant materiality – mistreated strings and e-bowed guitar – gathering and breaking over deeper, woozy pulses that come from nowhere and disappear just as mysteriously. It condenses and suggests the flicker, flash and clash of their collective elements, off to one side.

There's as much of a palpable freight to these obscured moments, these negatives of the fullness and presence of rock – and, as is always also the case, rock as a carrier of political discourse – as where they left off a decade ago: the brilliant first ten minutes of 'Motherfucker=Redeemer', the following cut-up of George W. Bush that, as Anwyn Crawford has pointed out, his “sound like – morph into – gunfire.” The most poignant moment in the Guardian interview comes when they talk about “the dull fact” of being a band: “we spend most of our time engaged with the task at hand – rehearsing, writing, booking tours. We do our best to get along, to stay engaged with each other and with the shared labour.... Nothing special, nothing interesting.” The press has talked almost incessantly about the timing of this release, its relevance to the current moment – or irrelevance, in the case of those who've complained about the attention being given to it. That remark by the band prompts a slightly different reflection, concerning what's changed politically since the dour days of the first Bush regime's mid-term – what possibilities have appeared, in Cairo, Tunis, Wisconsin, New York, London – and what continuities, what lack of progress, what causes for despair, still exist. It seems apposite to note how strange it is, this hard-won document of anger and lovely stasis and ghostly drift, just as popular struggle, at least in Britain and the post-Occupy US, seems to be undergoing its own moment of hiatus, when that arduous thought, of the “shared labour” of ordinary collectivity, of the contradiction and difficulty out of which cultural politics grows, seems the most counterfactual, and the most important. The album's meanings begin but don't end here, any more than the struggle itself does. But we can start by saying: listen; it's worth it.

64. Adam Curtis

Me on All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace at The Boar back in June 2011.