Sunday, 27 November 2016

School of Underground Scrape Part 3

A Guide to Underground Violin sounds:

Fairport Convention - Liege & Lief
Fairport Convention - Babbercombe Lee

Well, to talk about the extraordinary importance of Dave Swarbrick's violin in the history of British music, and in particular the electric folk explosion of the late 60s/70s, is to make an understatement seem, well, understated. So an underground figure? Absolutely not. But the heavy electric fiddle sounds Swarbrick pioneered on his cuts with Fairport Convention not only sent him deaf, but also set a blueprint for just how intense and raw a fiddle can sound without pushing it into the sort of absurd realms your narrator is certainly guilty of. AND whether or not you see Fairport as a dusty old folk rock band your Dad loves, or trail-blazers who originated some of the Gothic electric sounds that would appear a few years later in extraordinary displays like Black Sabbath's Volume 4, there is something of use in much of their early output, particularly in their masterpiece Liege & Lief, though I personally find the Swarbrick dominated Babbercombe Lee to also be of note. But aside from this, explore everything Swarbs did back in the day, including the purely English folk filled solo records, the one that features a sozzled looking Swarbrick on the cover, sawing away at the violin with a fag hanging out of his mouth is of particular note, and his beautiful duos with Martin Carthy. Go on, it's worth it. RIP. 

Steeleye Span - Please to See the King

The hiss and scrape of Peter Knight's electrified fiddle on this Steeleye Span British electric folk classic from 1971 is not so distant from the sound of the more well-recognised wild-man fiddle of Fairport's Swarbs. It rips and tears through the jigs, reels, and ballads present on the one truly dark and forboding Steeleye record Please to See the King, a wintery collection that features Martin Carthy's booming electric guitar, Knight's scraping folk filddlisms and the haunting vocals of Maddy Prior. While Knight's playing itself is not as radical as some of the underground fiddlers I've discussed in these pages, and indeed there's not much "underground" about Steeleye Span or Fairport for that matter, there is a spirit of RESISTANCE in this work in its historical context. And this, my friends, is the true meaning of the underground, NOT "undiscovered", but "resistance", resistance to the status quo, to blind growth, greed and capitalist abandon, a call to return to the land and show it respect and love. There's much to learn here, very useful indeed, and the harsh, gain-knob-cranked sound of Knight's fiddle on this record is hands-down some of the best electric found scream you can achieve, a highly recommended choice for all and sundry, plug the fiddle into the biggest fucking valve amp you and find, straight in, and crank the gain. Cold. Should mention also what sounds like the fantastic drumming on the body of the electrified violin, accompanying the haunting vocal harmonies present on 'Boys of Bedlam', excellent use of the magnifying glass of amplification on the violin's surprisingly useful wooden body. 

John Doherty - Bundle & Go

This is an absolute classic of unique-as-fuck fiddle genius from an Irish Traveler who had lived such an itinerant wanderers existence that for the recording of this particular record, the engineers had to find him a fiddle to play on since he didn't presently own one - bringing to mind other mind-altering not-give-a-fuckers like Blixa Bargeld who by all accounts didn't own a guitar during his trail-blazing industrial noise forays in the early Bad Seeds (the Nick Cave kind of course). Of course to place Doherty - a great traditionalist - in the same breath as Blixa is perhaps incongruous to any of you stupid enough to read this, but there is a simple similarity in the immediacy of personality present in the playing. To depart from this line of thought instead let's reflect on ol' Johnny Doherty's life. A traveler, tinsmith (as were all Doherty's in the area it seems) and fiddler of the Donegal tradition, he would travel from house to house plying his wares (pots, pans and other useful goods, including tin fiddles it seems) or doing odd jobs, after which he'd be rewarded with a meal, some drink and in return he'd entertain with his fiddle and his rhythmically recited oral histories. His playing style is so narrative, packed with what seem to be improvisations impersonating animals, and the characters in the stories these songs tell, sometimes dating back hundreds of years, others more recent (that is the turn of the 20th century to the post-war period, Doherty passed into Saint Cecilia's arms in 1980 having been born at the dawn of the century in 1900). To see a prime example I recommend watching this excellent film and check out the scene where he plays in a pub to a collection of drunk blokes who request a piece that deals with a hunting scene. Bundle & Go is perhaps a limited snapshot of Doherty's life of song and story, hard work, and understated hardship, but it is a beautiful document of how music stays most alive within the oral tradition, and is only hung and dried when written down. Make your own oral traditions, and leave them that way will you.

Alexis Zoumbas - A Lament for Epirus, 1926-1928

The folk and early-mid 20th century musics of the Greek isles, especially the heartbreak of Rembetika, are truly worth exploring for anyone with half a mind. In the depths of this era of migration, refugees, war, terror and fascism (I'm talking about the 20s-50s in Greece but you know we could apply that to now pretty effectively), Greeks in exile produced records of soul-crushing beauty, and none more so effectively then this prize depressive Alexis Zoumbas. Recorded while he was in exile in the United States, these pieces collected by Long Gone Sound's Christopher King, feature Zoumbas' aching, broken-hearted violin, crying for what's left of his homeland. The wild, sliding, moans characteristic of this music, drag you down on your knees to weep for a homeland you never had, or inspire you to dance like a drunk marionette in the style of the ouzo-soaked gangster dandies depicted in Kostas Ferris incredible film Rembetiko (1983). A Lament for Epirus is an essential listen for any violinist, nay ANYONE, wishing to join the cultural resistance, for no truer notes were ever scraped out of bow, gut and wood.

Swans - The Burning World

The violin work on this album by NY industrial darkness peddlers Swans had a big impact on me upon first hearing it some years ago. I love this record and the other Swans records of the late 80s/early 90s that delve into this more neo-folk, folk-noir area, and the violin scraping on The Burning World is played by a host of legendary musos including Fred Frith, Mark Feldman, a Shankar! of the L. variety (double violin whatever that is), and Larry Packer who I hope is not one of those Packers. Rather hilariously, this record is Swans only major label number, recorded in 1989, and it would simply be amazing to think of a major label putting out something as bleak as fuck as this in the 21st century. At the time fans seemed to have thought it was a sell-out from the heavier industrial sounds that preceded it, but in the present context that seems laughable to say the least. The fiddle playing is not hugely exciting in and of itself, but it is inspiring to hear the mournful cries of the violin in the context of such monumental Gothicness. The violin is perfect for Doom and there should be more of it.

My Dying Bride - Turn Loose the Swans

To continue the gloomy swan theme I need to make mention of a band featuring violin that brought the instrument into the hallowed field of Doom Metal. Perhaps the most prolific Doom fiddler they had on board was Martin Powell - who plays violin and keys on Turn Loose the Swans - a leather and chains Goth nutter who also played quite a bit with Melbourne Doom Goths Cryptal Darkness, and laid keys on Cradle of Filth albums like 2000's Midian which was quite a popular listen amongst 17 year olds when I was a 17 year old. The first half of Turn Loose the Swans is great Death-Doom with violin, keys and a dark, grave-roaming Gothic feel that's well worth the trip. Then things get weird on the second side, and electronic and largely forgettable in my opinion. Still, My Dying Bride deserve respect for going so far out on a limb with such a weird album. A following release, Trinity, is a better listen in my opinion, but perhaps less of a milestone chronologically in the significance of violin DOOM.

Völur - Disir

Staying in the Doom and Gloom position, it's worth briefly exploring this recent gem. Volur distinctively feature a trio of drums, bass and elec violin + vocals. The violin is distorted to high hell, of course emulating metal guitar, but it still sounds distinctively violin and catatonic in its wailing. Trance-inducing doom, with Heathen themes and mournful melodies, it's well worth checking out this Canadian trio, buying this tape, and supporting a band who dare to take the fiddle to Doom weepage with such catastrophically beautiful effect. 

That's all in this lesson. Please note THE SCRAPES shall be playing 28/12 at The Bearded Lady, in Brisbane's West End, with Primitive Motion and Glam Fail joining us. Doors at 8pm. Tickets at the door shall be $10. We'll have vinyl copies of The Songs of Baron Samedi with us as well. Come along. Don't be shy. 


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