Recreating the gurgling dry-retches of Dawn French’s back passage during a virulent bout of random-onset dysentery using the medium of guitar feedback may seem a concept album conceit too far for the tastes of the masses; the sort of self-indulgent quackery previously the sole privilege of greying doyens whose early releases had solidly banked a major label enough of the green to put a sizeable downpayment on, well, all of the planet.
It used to be the case that those whimsical whims (and what other sort of whims are there?) were only committed to record reluctantly, and only at the stage in an artist’s career where the first ten albums each had entire Sileasian manufacturing plants devoted solely to pressing out copies, and entire floors of Berlin skyscrapers were cubicled off in the mode of battery egg farms, each ergonomic cell populated by preening twentysomething meedjuh types with angular hair devoted to the invention of marketing wiggles and wurbles sufficient to justify yet another purchase of the same record by fans desperate to hear groaningly dull stadium rock anthems in a different configuration of studio monitors, or featuring the original cut of track 23 (the one with the studio engineer filling in for the comatose percussionist by crunching pork scratchings and belching).
marketing wiggles and wurbles sufficient to justify yet another purchase of the same record
That was partly because records were once made out of petroleum/oil/dinosaur poo derivatives and was thus expensive to make and move, and mainly because, unlike CDs or mp3s (both of which have been rejected by the US Library of Congress as valid forms of long-term sound archiving), vinyl LPs are robust forms of data storage. Even the dusty vacuum of a 1970s major label exec’s soul cavity twisted a little at allowing any more Roger Waters compositions be bequeathed to infinite posterity than was strictly necessary.
Now of course, anyone with a pair of rubber bands, a smartphone and a sufficiently incontinent throttle on their creative ego can record, distribute, market, synch-license, copyright, copyleft and generally bang on incessantly via a daily-multiplying plague of social media outlets, an album. Some of which are very conceptual indeed. Sometimes even, (who’d have thunk it?!) conceptual far and beyond the musical talents of the concepty person doing the concepting.
Which is of course a fine and wonderful thing (as any fule no), because the brainwashed suits in charge of the chequebooks at the exploitation farms that were the major labels were nothing but dollar-hungry lobotomonkeys keeping the music for the Man, and out of the reach of the masses. Or something.
the three-day week meant Tuesday afternoons could last for up to 36 hours
Which means that the concept album is in ruder health now than it ever was. Once, such were relegated to the 1970s, and tolerated only because the years between Nixon and Thatcher were institutionally boring. Eighteen-minute tonal explorations of a Moog synthesiser bending a two-inch tapeloop of Ted Heath saying ‘call girl’ were tolerable in an era where the three-day week meant Tuesday afternoons could last for up to 36 hours. Entertainment options limited to sawdust-strewn public houses (which opened for twenty-three minutes a week) and three channels of monochrome television all showing Bob Monkhouse meant robust sales for each of the five or six rock albums released in any given month.
Where exactly a concept album featuring (in the words of the press release which accompanies it) ‘an unusual haze of oscillator sweeps, dying batteries, ripping solos and clean(ish) two chord backbones forming a very unique angle on the possibilities that the “psychedelic rock” format could aspire towards’ fits into the 2012 paradigm of music-making and music-selling is anyone’s guess.
Normally it wouldn’t matter, being that modern music fans have adapted to the realities of the post-Napster age with a swiftness and amoral insousciance that allows them to square themselves with the idea that content should continue to be of a quality only achieved by career musicians, but that recompense should be of a level akin to that of a particularly meek and inneffectual beggar.
In this case though, Tom Carter (one half of Sarin Smoke), needs the cash. Having been fortunate enough to have contracted a malady that is easily treated and not life-threatening to the young and healthy (pneumonia), he nevertheless hails from a nation where the benefits of modern medicine are unavailable to any but the economically fortunate. On returning to his native US, Carter faces medical bills and ongoing treatment, in a nation where jibes at the general wussiness of suggesting universal healthcare can be used as an effective election campaign slur against the opposition.
With all profits from the sales being donated directly to The Robert Thomas Carter Irrevocable Trust, it needs to be a good album.
And, happily, it is. Notwithsanding the first track, which does bring something of Ms French’s bowel perambulations to mind in its heavily-processed, closely-tonal guitar lines, there is a great deal of satisfying, unhurried tension, mood and atmosphere on Vent. The melodies may be simple, but the appropriateness of each (screeching, resonating, overdriven, timbred, harmonic) is absolute, without ever being obvious.
twatspeak for ‘has a tune you can whistle’
In concept it owes much to the much-loved electric guitar atmospherics of Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, but plucks its melodies from a far more exotic branch of musical imagination. Music writing convention would witter on about how it is not constrained by ‘the plodding chord progressions of the western blues-based tradition’ at this point, but as that is merely twatspeak for ‘has a tune you can whistle’, it’s probably better to just say – doesn’t do what you expect it to next.
Where the guitars build to an obvious crescendo moment, it doesn’t come. There is a sublety to the interaction between Carter and Swanson’s playing which is a joy to listen to, as they find notes to accent the other’s chords (or vice versa) which are plucked from a range of possible harmonic complements that is mathematically pre-ordained, but usually restricted by musicians’ imagination, training, or experience.
Swanson and Carter reach for the lesser-taken notes, structures and ideas. There is all-out guitar shred on Vent, for example, but rarely where you anticipate it. More than anything, there is confidence, self-belief and artistry. John Coltrane used to sketch out intricate mandalas with cardinal points representing keychanges. His assembled band were to improvise freely, but follow the progress of the key changes around the mandala. Other bands smoke a bale of weed and just jam.
Vent feels as if it is some offspring of the two extremes – solidly founded on the heft of chordal guitar rock, yet with fizzing leaps of dark-arts scales, arpeggios, pentatonic jiggerypokery and feedback screech that extend, fractal-like, from the notes that make up those very chords.
It’s stoner rock for the unstoned, and all the better for it.
On MIE, in partnership with Rarely Unable, September.
Pete Swanson released the following statement in relation to the release of the new Sarin Smoke LP.
“MIE Music and I have agreed to donate all profits from this new album to The Robert Thomas Carter Irrevocable Trust, as well as release a very limited version of the album with hand-done covers by Ilyas Ahmed that will also include an exclusive cassette of music from Sarin Smoke. This set will be priced at a premium with the intention of encouraging people with more resources to consider supporting Tom.”