Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The Guitar And Other Machines


Scott Sinfield, co-founder of the label Make Mine Music, has been recording under the name Portal since 1996. He has now decided to abandon that name, partly because of the associations that go with it. As he put it himself recently, it does have certain "Dungeons and Dragons" connotations. There are also a number of other acts using the same name. Whenever I search for Portal's music on sites such as Last.fm or Spotify, I am presented with a death metal band wearing scary masks. So it would certainly be less confusing if he started to use a different name.

To mark the end of Portal, Scott has put together "Home Recording Is Killing Music", a compilation that includes almost everything that he released under that name. He claims that it contains exactly 100 tracks, although I have only counted 94. It may be that I've miscounted as my brain is probably not functioning correctly after a week of excessive gig-going, or perhaps Scott is counting the extended piece "Music For Broadcast" as several tracks, even though it is packaged as a single MP3. But let's not quibble about the precise number of songs, the important thing here is that Scott has very kindly offered to give away the whole lot completely free of charge. He wants as many people as possible to download and share these tracks without feeling guilty. They can be downloaded from a blog, which also contains notes on the history of each song:

Within the blog, the tracks are sorted into a number of separate pages, representing the original Portal album and EP releases. If you don't have the time or inclination to listen to the entire archive, you can just download the tracks from an individual Portal album.

Portal's music has encompassed several different styles over the last 13 years, but it is often referred to by the general category of "dreampop". Some releases have more electronic elements than others, but the constant factor is Scott's very precise musicianship. If I had to compare Portal to one act, it would probably be The Durutti Column. I can't say for certain if this is a conscious influence on Scott's playing, but I would guess that it is and that he would be flattered by the comparison. An early Portal track, "Celebration", has the subtitle "Vini" and I am assuming that this is a reference to Vini Reilly. Another more obscure reference point that I sometimes spot in Portal's music is the Nuneaton duo, Eyeless In Gaza.

For anyone who is feeling slightly overwhelmed by the huge amount of music available in this archive, I would recommend the album "Reprise" as a good place to start. This was Scott's first collaboration with vocalist Rachel Hughes, and the combination of her voice with the luscious textures suggests something that would have been released on 4AD. I'm listening to this now as I type this article and the sound perfectly complements the snowy landscape I can see from my window.

"Prehistory" is also worth checking out. As the title suggests, it contains some of the earliest Portal recordings. Many of these are fairly simple in their structure, and less reliant on technology than some of the later tracks. The cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound", again featuring Rachel on vocals, is simply stunning.

By way of contrast, the final release, the "Options" EP, is Scott's attempt at a classic synthpop sound. It could easily be a New Order release from the mid-80s, and is one of my favourite singles from the past year. It features guest vocals from Glen Johnson, a name that should be familiar to regular readers of these pages.

These are just a few of my choices from Portal's back catalogue; I would recommend anyone with a bit of time to kill over the Christmas break to download as much of the archive as you can, and also please pass on the link to anyone who might not have read this post. Although Portal is no more, Scott has promised to return in the new year under a different name. I'm not sure whether this new music will continue in the same vein as "Options", or if we will be treated to something entirely different. But whatever Scott has in mind for this new project, I'm sure it will be worth the wait.

Monday, 21 December 2009

This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get

PUBLIC IMAGE LTD - Birmingham 02 Academy

As is usually the case in the run-up to Christmas, I find myself with more gigs than it is humanly possible to attend. What looks like turning into an exhausting week kicks off at the newly-opened Academy with the return, after a 17-year absence, of Public Image Ltd. I am expecting to be disappointed, for a number of reasons. The show marks the 30th anniversary of the band's classic second album, "Metal Box", but John Lydon is the only one present who played on that release. Original guitarist Keith Levene is nowhere to be seen and, more worryingly, Jah Wobble, whose basslines defined the band's early sound, has not been invited back, having fallen out with Lydon in the early 1980s. I am uncertain whether Lydon will be able to carry off the "Metal Box" tracks without these key players.

I am also concerned about how Lydon himself is going to behave, and whether he is going to make a mockery of PiL's reputation. In recent years, he has become something of a cartoon character, with appearances on "I'm a Celebrity..." and butter adverts, and many people still think of him as Johnny Rotten. I've always thought it a shame that he is remembered for the Sex Pistols, who were really just a short-lived novelty act, when PiL produced much more enduring material. Lydon seems to feel this way too, as he often talks of PiL as his first love. During the early years of the band, a lot of his lyrics (and not just the ones that were a blatant attack on Malcolm McLaren) seemed to express a desire for independence and to prove that he did not need anyone to run the band for him.

Despite this disproportionate media focus on his time with the Sex Pistols, PiL have become the latest name to drop amongst trendy, NME-approved newcomers, who I suspect have never actually listened to "Metal Box". Lydon makes reference to this before tonight's show has even started. He apologises for being "the band that taught all those fucking second-rate wankers how to play" before storming into the only song that could possibly open the set, the 1978 debut single, "Public Image". This is the most straightforward punk song that PiL ever recorded and is perhaps the closest they ever got to the sound of the Pistols, but it is still light years ahead of anything on "Never Mind The Bollocks". After that, the pace is slower, giving new bassist Scott Firth a chance to prove that he can handle the dub-inflected lines from the "Metal Box" songs almost as well as Jah Wobble. Lydon tells us that each one of the songs means something, and this is apparent from the emotion that he puts into the delivery. "Death Disco", a song about watching his mother die from cancer, sounds even more distorted than usual, while "Albatross" actually seems slightly more funk-influenced and maybe not quite as unlistenable as it did when it opened "Metal Box". I've always thought that this song referred to casting off the chains of the Sex Pistols, and perhaps celebrity in general. It is clear tonight that after 30 years, Lydon has still not managed to get rid of his own personal albatross, whatever that may be. Between songs, he is chatty and almost camp at times, joking with the crowd and sarcastically scolding us for cheering "Poptones", a song about being raped and dumped in a forest to die. The songs themselves are often very dark and Lydon's delivery of them seems to conflict with his otherwise jovial nature. It's not clear whether there are two contrasting sides to his character. I am inclined to think that the schoolboy prankster is just a mask he still feels compelled to use after 30 years, and only in his songs is the true, cynical John Lydon allowed to come to the fore.

The darkest moments come during the three songs from "Flowers of Romance", PiL's least-accessible album, consisting of just percussion and Lydon's wailing voice. I've always enjoyed this album but been wary of recommending it to anyone else, so I am heartened when a friend who has only just got the hang of "Metal Box" suggests that he might try "Flowers of Romance" next, on the strength of the live songs. We are also treated to a handful of songs from the tail-end of PiL's career, but it seems that Lydon realises that these are never going to stand up to comparisons with the early material, if the bias in the setlist towards the first few albums is anything to go by. More surprisingly, the set also includes two songs from Lydon's solo album (has anyone actually listened to that?) and as a final encore, we get "Open Up", his 1990s collaboration with Leftfield, making use of the laptops dotted around the stage. Despite this song being very different musically from the rest of the material, it highlights how Lydon's distinctive voice can be put to good use in different surroundings.

The full setlist, for those of you concerned with such trivia, went something like this, although probably not exactly in this order:
Public Image / Careering / This Is Not A Love Song / Poptones / Tie Me To The Length Of That / Albatross / The Suit / Death Disco / Four Enclosed Walls / Flowers Of Romance / Disappointed / Warrior / USLS 1 / Psychopath / Banging The Door / Bags / Chant / Memories / Annalisa / Religion
Encore: Sun / Rise / Open Up

I have to admit that I am often guilty of deciding in advance what my opinion of a gig will be. With PiL, I even had the basis of a review in mind weeks before the gig happened. I had convinced myself that I would need to use Lydon's famous catchphrase, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" I'm glad that for once, my preconceptions were shattered. With over two and a quarter hours of music, taking in some of the most innovative songs in Lydon's repertoire, I don't think anyone could complain that he had cheated us. Although no new material was aired, there is talk of a new album if Lydon can raise enough money from this tour to pay for the studio time. He clearly still has the attitude so let's hope he also still has the imagination to give us another "Metal Box".