Pigbag: Lend An Ear (Y)/23 Skidoo: The Culling Is Coming (Operating Twilight)

BOTH OF these docile records stand or fall as assemblages: their creators propose to be organisers of sound, something more than itinerant pop musicians. Perhaps they imagine their fishing for the irrational and stirring of the boundaries of song and sonic slab is somehow more enlightened, more dangerous than the tidal wave of abject crap that passes for most popular noise. I want, sometimes, to take their side, but neither recording gives me much heart.

There might seem to be a mile between the jolly tomfoolery of Pigbag and Skidoo’s blistered pillars of eardrum scratch; actually, they are tied by the same inarticulacy. While The Culling Is Coming traipses disconsolately across an arid terrain swept clear of form and relationship, Lend An Ear twinkles around a set of themes that dwindle to a whisper. The energy in Pigbag’s bounce is finally as affected as the curmudgeonly arrogance of Skidoo’s explosion of shape.

About this time last year Pigbag looked like a mischievous, secret promise, a suspiciously chuckleheaded encourage weighed down by saxophones and skins. They were known for a trivially exciting dance record that obscured a dark and threatening swirl which Simon Underwood seemed about the solidify into a unique argument. The bleakest moments of Dr. Heckle and Mr Jive – and there were some desperately bleak moments on that happy boho record – could, if properly channelled, have unpleasantly stained a pop environment high on counterfeit romance.

Yet the sheer aimlessness of the group has denied them their chance. The whole useless paraphernalia of the “new jazz” movement – well, I gave up when I saw a bunch of clowns shrieking and clattering on the Twentieth Century Box profile. All we discovered was that it wasn’t so easy. As spake Mark E. Smith, whose group has a firmer grasp on the momentum of voiceless music than any other over here, you can’t just go up there and do it.

As producer, Underwood has been faced with an unpalatable choice: either he fractures the group sound altogether and mercilessly exposes the limits of the players’ imagination and propulsion, or he soothes the pointy edges with a sheen of keyboard harmonies, primly balanced levels of activity and the sound of singing. That is exactly what he’s chosen.

As it turns out, Lend An Ear has its moments. The muted sound Underwood has boxed his straggling troupe inside allows the music to uncoil in a winsomely charming way. There’s no spitting, no scurvy onslaughts of rabid free speech. Angela Jaeger’s vocals have the wan accent of the pale English rose: but, oh, she should be crying from a garden of sores, not this muskily scented bouquet of pleasantries! When a soloist has a turn, the expected splutter of rhetoric coasts over a rhythm that’s clean and remarkably unsucculent: there is no disturbance.

It would matter less if there was the kind of profound comprehension of melody to be experienced in – choosing almost at random – Butch Morris’ ‘Joanne’s Green Satin Dress’ or Julius Hemphill’s ‘Roi Boye And The Gotham Minstrels’. But that would be to put Pigbag with peers that they themselves would be shy of. The glimpses of insight in ‘No Such Thing As’, ‘Weak At The Knees’ and ‘Ubud’ are interesting, and the record has a curious melancholy about it, like an unhappy hangover of the old Pigbag. Yet it seems only a shade of their earliest hidden spark.

Exactly why 23 Skidoo have collected so much attention and private joy is mystifying. Their “petulant perversion and ambient exoticism” is now reduced from the barely tolerable burnt flesh of Seven Songs to the scattered ashes of The Culling Is Coming, and nobody is better off. Why bother with Skidoo?

Well, their context is mildly arresting. They have an elevated position, as Pigbag once did, because they have a legitimate toehold in pop surroundings while pursuing an abstract course entirely at odds with that standing. There is no pop music on Culling, just a spool of alien intercourse, a conveyor belt of desultory ugliness and stretched, cracked sound. Maybe it is a particularly wilful incarnation of Skidoo strategy, an intentional spotlight on their “difficult” side; even if so, it mostly fails because it displays how unskilled they are in such matters. It whimpers when it needs to roar, clumps when it should float.

The first side is given over to a part of their WOMAD set last summer; the second is drawn from a college recordng. Crucially – for we deal in matters of sound – the mixes are diamond sharp. The older music is disfigured by punctual doses of scabby electricity, taped voices that repeat a phrase over and over until the words are calloused and meaningless, industrial piping that resembles the death rattle of a reactor. The later music drifts serenely across great canyons of nothingness, fairybell tinkling and enormous booming which disregards all forms of rhythm, ideas elongated into an immensely slow drip-feed of sound.

It is less than provocative. Skidoo make great play of their visual dimension, and perhaps these are soundtracks in a void of darkness, but that red herring will not suffice to qualify a dourly pointless barrage. They don’t aspire to be the masterful jugglers of context which Cabaret Voltaire are: this sound is anchorless and must find succour in itself. Yet there is no tension, only release; no genuine weight, only a protruding spread; no concentration of purpose, only an idle meandering, a taking up of time. It won’t do.

They have missed the point of improvised music, of minds and instruments fusing and sparring to create a new world on every occasion, no matter how closely involved with past wisdom. This turgid bracken is only the clumsy echo of old, used knowledge. It might seem radical from a “pop” group like 23 Skidoo until compared – unavoidably – with a furious masterpiece like Peter Brotzmann’s monumental Machine Gun or the infinitely detailed density of Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s Biosystem. And there is no comparison.

Two unhappy records, I fear. Two cases in serious need of treatment. As Cecil Taylor said: “There’s no fucking blood!

© Richard CookNew Musical Express, 12 February 1983

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