Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Strange Stars

While I'm posting a few previously unpublished reviews, here's one written last year on Jason Heller's intriguing Strange Stars examination of the relationship between rock music and science fiction (and far from just the obvious ones as well, even if there's bands, such as SpAce for instance, that I'd have though merited a little more coverage). I'd first heard of Jason through a piece he'd written on Hawkwind for one of the US science fiction magazines (Clarkesworld I think), which had referenced some of my own writings on the band... and was delighted at the number of times the references section of his book saw my name included. That has to be one of the highlights of researching and writing non-fiction, to see another writer build on what you'd published.

I see that Strange Stars had its paperback release a few days ago; this review, originally commissioned by Record Collector but then left unpublished, derives from last year's hardback edition. I'd planned to write an extended review to coincide with the paperback edition, but that's got away from me with other work, so here's my condensed to print magazine review length thoughts on this book, from summer 2018.

Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, And The Decade Sci-Fi Exploded
Jason Heller
Melville House
978-1-61219-697-8; 254 pages
Ground Control to everybody

Bookended by Bowie’s laments to Major Tom, Space Oddity and Ashes To Ashes, Strange Stars is an immersive pulling together of the connections between rock music and science-fiction of prose and screen, a vast network of influences, inspirations and fantasies drawn from the classic writers of the genre, be it Clarke, Asimov, or Heinlein from one era, to Dick and Ballard from its next. 

At the core concept of the text is Bowie’s interest in reflecting science fiction ideas in the rock genre, something that he returned to multiple times. It’s the narrative that American journalist and musician Heller anchors his chronology to, while casting a panoramic eye across those who made sci-fi their lyrical driving force, or embedded it in their sound, or indeed those who simply adopted its imagery for visual effect.

There’s Hawkwind of course, an entry point for discussion of their sometime contributor and sci-fi giant Michael Moorcock’s wider rock connections, though their late lyricist Bob Calvert’s work merited more examination. And there’s the translation of J G Ballard’s dystopian visions into bleak disconnection by Joy Division and others.

But Heller delves further than SF’s use in muscular space-rock or clinically dispassionate post-punk. This book was also conceived from a love of Meco’s disco crossover Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band 7”, though not so much from the briefly acknowledged Magic Fly of its contemporary, Didier Marouani’s Space. And it’s built upon an extensive knowledge of the sci-fi sources that found their re-entry point in everything from Jefferson Airplane to George Clinton’s P-Funk, scientific romances that rocket-fueled these musician’s daydreams. 

Jason tweets as @jason_m_heller

Recent Reports...

Here's a few reviews from recent(ish) months originally anticipated for print publications which, for whatever reasons, didn't appear in their intended destinations. A couple of these will have longer reviews here soon.

Earthling Society: Mo - The Demon
Riot Season 

Always a shifting, changing concept, Earthling Society have worn many aspects since forming in 2004, from the space-rock of their self-released Albion debut, through championing from Julian Cope, the luscious psychedelia of Beauty And The Beast, and its gloriously out-of-focus masterpiece The Boy With The X-Ray Eyes, and onwards to an ever evolving, always experimental collection of albums. 

Their current LP is largely an imagined soundtrack to the justifiable notorious 1980s Kung Fu/Horror crossover movie The Boxer’s Omen, a film that Starburst magazine once characterised as a “mad-ass jumble of genre ideas…” Honestly, as a starter for ten that would go some way to depicting the shimmering, discordant eldritch of noise that, in grappling with the concept, the first five from seven tracks here spew forth. 

The cosmopolitan bright lights of its titular travelogue opening theme with its kaleidoscopic cult movie motifs only hint at the madness to be entered once its jagged melodies are left behind. In the same way that the film leaves many viewers eluded as to its narrative, the trust of Earthling Society’s interpretation is a screaming psychedelic tsunami mind-fuck, wailing, grating and sonically disturbing. Is your headspace cavernous enough to take it?

Pink Fairies: Resident Reptiles
Purple Pyramid

Since their original trio of LPs in the early 70s there’s been ad-hoc attempts to revive the Pink Fairies name by varying line-ups of ex-members, including a couple in the 90s by Paul ‘Blackie’ Rudolph and Twink, and the recent Naked Radio album led by Russell Hunter and Duncan Sanderson. 

This latest psychedelic rip-roar rock‘n’roll has a little bit of synergy to their occasional early days counterculture forays with Hawkwind as Pinkwind. It’s Rudolph with former long-time Hawk bassist Alan Davey, eschewing his multi-layered solo stuff to revel in lip-smacking rawness, and original Motörhead drummer Lucas Fox. There’s a nod to another Fairies/Head luminary with their cover of Larry Wallis’s Old Enuff To Know Better, a good old fashioned muscular no nonsense salvo, but then this straight-up, don’t give us any frills but load up on the thrills, guitar, bass and drums is rocking abrasiveness personified. 

Gritty and to the point, it’s a full-on brawl in a loud and packed bikers’ bar from guys who, thank God, don’t want to be old enuff to know better. Back in ’75 Rudolph replaced Lemmy in the Hawk ranks and gained an apocryphal legend that he’d pushed them towards a funkier sound – nah, not if this one’s anything to go by. 

Juju: Maps & Territory
Fuzz Club

Once of Italian afro-space-jazz groove band Lay Llamas, Gioele Valenti is on his third album as Juju, recording here by turns with fellow psychonauts Goat, who he’d toured with back in his Llama days, and the prolific Seattle-based avant-garde composer Amy Denio. It’s a heady and fluorescent mix of styles, chants and rhythms; a hypnotically danceable tune-scape that beats to something liberatingly primordial in its unshackled sense of freedom. 

What’s astonishing about Juju is the lightness of touch with which Sicilian-born Valenti explores an eclectic range of still complementary influences, from krautrock to world music, to electronica to acid jazz; these shifting sands are his foundation. I’m In Trance, his Goat hook-up declares, a hazy chill-out number pre-empting the insistently mesmerising sway of God Is A Rover, but throughout the album locks into a compulsive tempo.

Only when we reach the final track, Archontes Take Control, Valenti’s collaboration with Denio, is the pace reduced to a smoky jazz drawl, but it’s a moody and reflective end to another successfully unconventional suite. In his previous incarnation, one particular track titled itself as Spiritual Expedition, and it feels like it’s a mission statement that continues to inform the music here. 

Sun Dial: Return Journey

Loitering at an unorthodox meeting of Seattle grunge and home-grown shoegaze, Sun Dial have never comfortably sat in any genre, twisting and evolving at the guiding hand of founder Gary Ramon as they moved across labels from their self-released 1990 debut Other Way Out to mid-90s appearances on Beggars Banquet before disappearing until their 21st Century revival.

They lost Return Journey, their putative sophomore album, somewhere in the midst of establishing their early sound, its gritty rawness a step away from their initial neo-psychedelia and eschewed in favour of what became Reflecter for the Vinyl Experience shop’s UFO imprint. Ramon would then release it himself but, a couple of US reissues aside, it’s been unavailable in its original form since.

Yet, it has a special place in the Sun Dial canon, raided for reworks and distributed across EPs and compilations, and still sounding as relentlessly focused in its sonic propulsions as it ever did. And though Ramon’s ever-changing cast of cohorts had coalesced into a sharp trio at this moment, it’s his own guitar that is the superheated lava at this record’s molten core. Retaining its original black-and-white ink collage packaging by Edwin “Savage Pencil” Pouncey, this is a sterling reissue.