Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Unfocused thinking

To coincide with his recent exhibition Ynyshir 25 Mile Radius at the Workers Gallery, Buzz's Rhonda Lee Reali had the pleasure of speaking with David Hurn. In the course of their conversation, he took particular pains to talk about money, which in his view is currently "going to the wrong places" within Wales in that it is being used to support neither Welsh photographers nor photography taken in the country.

Hurn did, however, single out Glenn Edwards' biannual Eye Festival in Aberyswyth and its sister event the Northern Eye Festival in Colwyn Bay for particular praise - just another thing to nudge me into heading over to the west coast in October for a line-up that already includes Martin Parr and Vanley Burke.

And what about Hurn's advice for budding documentary photographers? "Take lots and lots and lots of pictures" first and foremost, and by doing so gradually discover your own voice - and certainly don't think of it as "some esoteric art thing that's not for you".

Sadly, I wasn't able to get along to the Workers Gallery for the exhibition, but am eagerly awaiting the event in Hurn's honour being held on 15th February - billed as the last time he'll speak in public.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Support act

The annual Independent Venue Week (IVW) kicks off next Monday, its message as important as ever: grassroots music venues are vital and in the current climate need all the help they can get. Such support should come not only from music fans, whose footfall is essential on a day-to-day basis, but also from those with the power or capacity to make the environment in which the venues operate more conducive to long-term viability.

That's why one of IVW's ambassador, Anna Calvi, is absolutely right to argue that live music is undeservedly neglected in comparison with art forms perceived to be more high-brow, such as ballet and opera. That much was evident a couple of years ago, when Arts Council England decided to reject an application for just £500,000 from the Music Venue Trust but happily approved awarding a mind-boggling £96 million to the Royal Opera House. Time and again popular music is treated as an afterthought or overlooked by the powers that be - most recently, in my experience, at a Learned Society of Wales event where the panel featured representatives from the worlds of literature and TV and it was left to audience member Huw Stephens to argue that musicians are often more significant cultural ambassadors than authors and actors.

In a sorry coincidence, the value of continuing to fight for grassroots venues has been underlined close to home today. Cardiff lost BuffaloGwdihw and the Transport Club in 2019, so the news that 10 Feet Tall and Undertone also look doomed made for grim reading. Expressing their disgust that a planning application was submitted without any communication or consultation from the landlords or directors, the venue's "entire team ... including the management, bar staff and sound technicians" have decided to resign in protest.

That declaration was subsequently removed from the venue's website and an "official statement" has since been issued insisting on "business as usual" and criticising those who have resigned for not helping "this current crisis situation". But it's hard to see how it can come back from this - all of which makes a mockery of Cardiff's status as a "Music City" and the council's stated aim to "incorporate music into its city structure" in response to the Sound Diplomacy report. If they're genuinely serious about those ambitions, then 10 Feet Tall and Undertone should be protected and promoted rather than turned into yet another city-centre restaurant.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

False advertising

Twitter can so often be an awful cesspool, but without it I wouldn't have learned about (for instance) the bizarre phenomenon of Ghanaian film posters, created using old flour sacks stitched together as a canvas and painted by artists who may well not have seen the movies in question but who certainly had a thing for well-defined muscles and copious gore.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Homage to Catalonia

I'm not alone in eagerly awaiting the line-up for this year's Green Man - it's always reliably good - but, let's face it, it won't compare to the multitude of riches that Primavera has on offer.

Last year I was a bit of a curmudgeonly indie-rock gammon about the Barcelona bash's bill (especially as I wasn't even going), but subsequently came to my senses. This time around, there's probably less emphasis on pure pop and R&B and more on the kind of stuff that gets the likes of me instantly salivating, but, as the Guardian's Laura Snapes has pointed out, the organisers haven't compromised on their principles, ensuring the sort of gender balance to which most other festivals can only (and certainly should) aspire.

Take a handful of typical Primavera stalwarts (Dinosaur Jr, Yo La Tengo and of course Shellac), some big-name reformed bands (Pavement, Bauhaus, Bikini Kill, The Strokes, Jawbox), a smattering of legendary extremists (Einsturzende Neubauten, Napalm Death, Lightning Bolt) and plenty other of tasty acts (Black Country New Road, DIIV, black midi, Beck, Tropical Fuck Storm, Kim Gordon, The National, Les Savy Fav, Shame, Iggy Pop and Fontaines DC to name but a few) and you've got the perfect recipe for a festival that will have even those lucky enough to be there suffering from the fear of missing out.

Dad's Mammy's army

As if Trump in the White House, merrily ordering the assassination of high-level Iranian generals from afar, wasn't enough of a tinderbox. Now Brendan O'Carroll - that renowned master of refined, nuanced comedy - has shelved Mrs Brown's Boys to wade into the Arab-Israeli conflict with a sitcom called The Lebanese Outpost. Honestly - no joke. As fellow comedy writer Robert Popper put it on Twitter, "Daddy, how did World War 3 begin?"

Friday, January 17, 2020

Look to the future

As I wrote earlier this week, Birmingham's plan to ban through traffic from the city centre is certainly bold, but its success hinges on significant prior upgrades to the public transport network. Cardiff Council have since announced their own ten-year strategy (similarly prompted by concerns over air quality) and, while a proposed £2 congestion charge inevitably made the headlines, it also includes a raft of planned improvements to a public transport infrastructure that they readily concede is "creaking".

New rail stations, new tram-train lines, swifter bus routes, cheaper bus tickets and segregated bike lanes are all in the mix - as is the long-awaited new central bus station, though that won't open until 2023, eight years after its predecessor (in the ideal location, adjacent to Central Station) was demolished.

All laudable proposals, but the council must now deliver - and to do that, they need to commit considerable financial resources. The general environmental imperative is clear, as is the local justification, but the severe budgetary constraints within which all authorities are having to work mean that realising the plans will not be easy. All of the money raised by the congestion charge would be ploughed back into public transport - but the council are proposing to exempt those who live within the city (at least initially), an overly generous move that will deny them additional much-needed revenue.

It's also worth dwelling on their acknowledgement that the existing infrastructure is no longer fit for purpose, designed to cope with far fewer people than it currently does. The danger is that the council constantly play catch-up and that the ten-year strategy results in a network that only meets today's needs rather than tomorrow's. With the city continuing to expand east and west and new housing estates springing up all over, demand is only going to increase and the council must make sure that their plans are futureproofed.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Regional accent

There's been a lot of bashing of the Beeb recently - even as an ardent fan, I'd concede that they haven't done themselves any favours with their political coverage. But hopefully they'll get the credit they deserve for continuing to pursue an agenda of decentralisation.

BBC director general Tony Hall - speaking yesterday at BBC Wales' new headquarters in central Cardiff, appropriately enough - announced the latest phase of the strategy, which will involve a brand new tech hub in Newcastle, BBC Sounds moving to join other divisions at MediaCityUK in Salford and an expansion of the Bristol base.

Cynics might be inclined to suggest that Hall's talk of "inclusion" and "diversity of thinking" is merely gargling buzzwords, but it can surely only be a good thing for the country as well as the corporation itself that our national broadcaster's central operations are no longer concentrated almost exclusively in the capital.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The kids are alright

The first Lesson No. 1/Cosmic Carnage gig of the year was a cracker - not least because openers Haq123 are a bit special, even if they did leave me and many others questioning our parenting abilities. Machiavellian Art, Squalor Fan and Horrible Men also featured on a bill that was served up to a Friday night audience for free, such is the Moon's generosity of spirit at this bleak time of year.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

"Just jokes"?

Stewart Lee hasn't shied away from having a pop at Ricky Gervais before - a man who has previously sung his praises - but in his latest Guardian column the gloves really are off. Lee begins by attacking Jeremy Clarkson for the latest politically correct opinion he's expressed for money, but soon tires of effectively shooting fish in a barrel (and the danger of repeating himself) and moves to train his sights on Gervais.

Lee is generous enough to refer to his fellow comic's "pitch-perfect contribution to the groundbreaking Office sitcom two decades ago", but otherwise concentrates on drawing parallels between Gervais' now infamous Golden Globes speech and the way in which both Clarkson and Boris Johnson have made literal capital out of "exploiting the notion that they are lone voices of sanity against a politically correct snowflake cabal intent on silencing normal blokes like them". The trio, he argues, are "narcissistic populists, all clever enough to know better, who continue to court the attention of angry impotent people and take no personal responsibility for the consequences of their words, other mortals merely collateral damage, rabbits churned up in the combine harvester blades of their ongoing ambitions".

As with neo-Nazis backing Trump and Britain First urging its members to join the Tory party, Lee observes that what was most telling about Gervais' comments was the friends they earned him: hardened right-wingers all too eager to pile on political correctness, most notably Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, who (in the article's most memorable turn of phrase) "ripped the lid off the rotting kitchen food waste bin of her mind to retch forth some choice owl pellets of praise for Gervais' performative outrage", hailing him as the "Wokefinder General".

Lee's reaction is scathing and merciless: "In the Wokefinder General's mawkish sitcom After Life, the Wokefinder General's character considers suicide because his wife dies of a terminal illness. But in real life, the Wokefinder General has been praised by Sarah Vine, which is worse than losing a loved one prematurely."

Lee once wrote a whole routine with the deliberate intention of crafting a joke that Joe Pasquale couldn't steal (the resulting creation ended with the sentence "I vomited into the gaping anus of Christ"). His message to Gervais, clearly, is to stop performing material that people like Vine can lap up.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Roadblock

If Birmingham does follow through on a proposal to ban private cars from driving through the centre, then it'll be a continuation of the radical transformation of a city infamously remodelled for the sake of road traffic flow in the 1960s. Positive changes were already afoot when we lived there in the early noughties, when pedestrians were finally prioritised over motorists, walkability was the watchword and dank, badly lit underpasses were being replaced with above-ground crossings.

The Labour council's apparent commitment to cutting carbon emissions through decisive action is laudable. It would be a bitter pill for many, but one that needs to be swallowed - not least by Tory councillors like Robert Alden, who moan about their political rivals being "out of touch" when in reality they'd be precisely the opposite: in tune with those who realise the scale of the environmental crisis we face and the urgency with which it needs to be addressed.

However, the council's scheme will only work with substantial improvements to public transport infrastructure. The proposal has grabbed the headlines, and rightly so, but there is much preparatory work to be done - work that will involve significant investment - before it can be implemented and stand any chance of success.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

"The hands of God"

Not for the first time a major musician dies and my almost complete ignorance is exposed. As for many music fans of my generation (I imagine), I first became aware of Rush as the butt of a jokey line in Pavement's 'Stereo' - but the reaction to the death of drummer and principal lyricist Neil Peart suggests that I should have been paying more attention since then.

Dave Grohl has called him "a true giant in the history of rock and roll" and his Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic, Geezer Butler, Brian Wilson, Dave Lombardo, Chuck D and Billy Corgan (whose own band were also on the receiving end of Stephen Malkmus' mockery, of course) have also paid tribute, as well as members of Metallica and Kiss. John Stanier of Helmet and Battles has previously identified Peart as his drumming hero and inspiration, and named not one but two Rush albums among his favourites for a Quietus' Baker's Dozen feature in 2015.

Time for my listening habits to take a prog turn, perhaps?

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Indies rock

Brexit looming large on the horizon, an unfettered Tory majority in the House of Commons, tensions between the US and Iran threatening to explode into World War III, environmental apocalypse in Australia - but let's just grasp at one tiny ray of light in the gloom of early 2020: despite the general woes of high-street retailers and the market hegemony of Amazon, the number of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland has risen for the third year in succession.

Like record shops, they offer customers things that the major online retailers can't or don't: the opportunity to browse and leaf through potential purchases at leisure; personal recommendations from familiar, friendly faces; regular literary events that bring new publications to life, often involving the authors themselves; promotions of books about the local area, or by local writers.

Space restrictions can actually be a blessing rather than a curse because they demand a carefully curated selection of titles - though this can also be a deliberate strategy, as in the case of Round Table Books, which features in the article. (It's staggering that just 1 per cent of the 9,000-plus kids' books published in the UK in 2017 had BAME main characters - and encouraging that the likes of Round Table are doing what they can to change things.)

The trend also goes to show that, contrary to many predictions, the advent of e-readers hasn't rendered physical books obsolete - far from it. When it comes to a good page-turner, there's simply no substitute for actually being able to turn the page.

Perhaps you'll need to excuse my ignorance, but to my knowledge there are no independent shops selling new books in Cardiff city centre (Troutmark in Castle Arcade is great, but only deals in second-hand titles). By contrast, Abingdon - from where we moved - is a small town but boasts two: The Bookstore and the excellent Mostly Books. Surely there's scope for one in Wales' capital city?

On the road

An anonymous roadie (well, tour driver) has busted a few myths about their day job for Nottingham's LeftLion. Cocaine dwarves and Turkish hookers to unwind after a long day's work? Nah - just the odd beer and some Netflix.

Given that part of the role involves having to "Tetris" all of the band's gear into the back of the van, I do hope they're a fan of Low's Alan Sparhawk and his Twitter packing reviews.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Street fighters

Hear a reference to the Mods and the Rockers and you're (quite understandably) likely to think of the mid-60s, of Quadrophenia, of pitched battles on south-coast beaches. However, in the late 70s and early 80s, when punk was the youth subculture dominating the headlines and generating moral panic, there was a Mods and Rockers revival - and Janette Beckman was on hand to capture it, in photos that have recently been collected in one of Cafe Royal Books' weekly publications.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Cutting the cost

Credit to Coldplay for kicking off the conversation about live music's environmental impact, but Massive Attack are taking things a step further. The band announced in November that they were teaming up with experts at the University of Manchester's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research to analyse the carbon footprint of their tours and to set out strategies for minimising or even eliminating it.

As Robert Del Naja noted in the Guardian, regardless of their stature as an internationally renowned act, on their own they would be unable to make a meaningful difference: "Any unilateral actions we take now would prove futile unless our industry moves together, and to create systemic change there is no real alternative to collective action." Wholesale changes are needed; "business as usual ... is unacceptable".

Artists have a measure of control over the emissions created by their own travel and tour production, and could therefore make changes relatively easily. However, it will be significantly harder to effect a fundamental shift in the behaviour and habits of audiences and venues - but it's imperative that the recommendations that ultimately emerge from the research project address both, given that together they're estimated to "account for as much as 93% of all the CO2 emissions generated by major music events".

Sunday, January 05, 2020

A year to remember

The London Street Photography Festival asked five street photographers to pick the ten most memorable images they'd seen in 2019. The selected photos, taken all around the world, are indeed largely excellent, often because of their creators' sense of timing and appreciation of serendipitous aesthetics - take, respectively, Andreas Katsakos' picture of a young girl apparently levitating down the street and KinWing Edas Wong's photo of a building seemingly vapourising into cloud.

Some images have a hint of the comical (such as that of sea-bathers shot by Yiannis Yiasaris), but others are dark and unsettling - none more so than Sakis Dazanis' photo of a small unsmiling boy staring straight down the lens as he is led by a shadowy figure past a drab caravan, with the glittering lights of a fair in the background.

(Thanks to Robin for the link.)

Friday, January 03, 2020

"Our crutch and our beacon"

Sleaford Mods: the band of the last decade? It's a grand claim, but one that I think is justified. Louder Than War's Simon Tucker has certainly made a good fist of it, highlighting the pair's commitment to kicking back against austerity (both on record and on tour) and Jason Williamson's way with words and ability to "spit[] out the truth all surrealist and brutal" without resorting to "lazy sloganeering or obvious self-righteousness". Sure, they divide opinions - but most importantly they provoke a reaction.

And another thing: having seen them in Oxford in 2015 and in Cardiff in April, I can well imagine that seeing them in the cramped confines of the Moon must have been very special indeed.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Been there, seen that

In case you didn't notice, I went to a lot of gigs in 2019, and reported back on them just for you:

!!! / Bandicoot, 20th November, Clwb Ifor Bach

Algiers / Silent Forum / New Haunts, 3rd July, Clwb Ifor Bach

Audiobooks / Ani Glass, 9th March, Clwb Ifor Bach

Black Flag / Total Chaos, 12th October, Tramshed

Blanck Mass / Frans Gender & Violet Grace, 3rd December, Clwb Ifor Bach

Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard / Shoebox Orchestra / Rainn Byrns / CVC, 5th May, Clwb Ifor Bach

Charlotte Church's Late Night Pop Dungeon / Gwenno & Gruff / Astroid Boys / Boy Azooga / Los Blancos, 15th February, Tramshed

Cloud Nothings / Human Heat / Enouement, 10th July, Clwb Ifor Bach

The Futureheads / Novacub, 28th May, The Globe

Imperial Wax / Gindrinker / Alex Dingley, 7th June, Clwb Ifor Bach

Jeffrey Lewis & The Voltage / Quiet Marauder, 26th September, Clwb Ifor Bach

KEYS / Los Blancos / Sock, 17th July, The Moon

Man Forever / Jaxson Payne, 12th December, The Moon

The Physics House Band / False Hope For The Savage / Death Cult Electric, 19th July, Clwb Ifor Bach

Plastic Mermaids / Goo Lagoon / French Alps Tiger, 20th September, Clwb Ifor Bach

Right Hand Left Hand / Quodega / HMS Morris / Cotton Wolf / My Name Is Ian / Sock, 14th December, Clwb Ifor Bach

Sleaford Mods / LIINES, 5th April, Y Plas

Spare Snare / Jemma Roper, 13th January, The Moon

The St Pierre Snake Invasion / Cassels, 2nd October, Clwb Ifor Bach

Threatmantics / Silent Forum / Joel Hurst, 22nd February, Clwb Ifor Bach

Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats / Blood Ceremony, 24th January, The Globe

The Wedding Present / The Flatmates, 2nd May, Tramshed

And that's not to mention the ones I haven't (yet) written up: Drahla, The Ex, Elvana, KEYS and Mclusky, and the not-so-small matter of my first Green Man for nearly a decade.

A few five-starrers in there, but I'm going to name my favourite gig of the year as Mclusky at Clwb on 20th December. Call it having a short memory if you like, but it was bloody marvellous.

Here's to another year (or, dare I say it, decade) spent largely in gig venues...

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Shutting up shop

You have to suffer for your art, or at least be prepared to risk ridicule. Walking around Leeds clutching a camera and a stepladder must have made Peter Mitchell seem like quite the eccentric - but the images he captured on his perambulations fully justify any sacrifice of dignity.

Mitchell's prime concern was to take pictures of soon-to-be-derelict buildings - not "for nostalgic reasons", he insists, but because he "enjoyed it from an architectural perspective". At the same time, though, and like Martin Parr with the Point Of Sale series, he was (knowingly or otherwise) chronicling shifting retail habits. The photos are memorials to proud independent businesses long since physically erased - a process that is most strikingly captured in the image of Mr and Mrs Hudson's newsagents/tobacconists. The couple stand in the doorway of a building that is already half-demolished and, as Mitchell observed at the time, apparently propped up by a ladder.

RRB Books are publishing a new book of Mitchell's pictures in the spring - an enterprise you can support by buying a signed, limited-edition print of the fantastic image Rave On, Elford Place, Leeds, 1983 by 31st December. Ours - a mutual Christmas present - is awaiting framing.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Steel pulse

Anyone who, like myself, enjoyed the Sheffield-centred chapter of Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up And Start Again should have a read of Daniel Dylan Wray's Guardian article on the city's fertile late-1970s/early-1980s music scene. Prompted by Cherry Red's release of a new box set, Dreams To Fill The Vacuum: The Sound Of Sheffield 1977-1988, the piece finds a host of significant players reflecting on that vibrant decade-and-a-bit and what made the Steel City so special.

As it turns out, the decline of its major industry was critical - and not just in a vague, metaphorical, non-specific way. I'm So Hollow's Jane Antcliff-Wilson notes that "the environmental influences were very strong" - "Industrial and austere - steeped in working-class history. Imagination and vision were left to run wild in this bleak landscape" - and Richard Hawley talks of "beauty [coming] out of some very difficult situations". But the collapse of the cutlery industry in fact created precisely the sort of physical environment in which underground music could flourish: a wealth of cheap post-industrial buildings ripe for conversion into studios and performance and rehearsal spaces. Sheffield artists not only looked east to Germany (Kraftwerk and Can) and west to New York (The Factory) for inspiration, but crucially had the means at their disposal to make those visions a reality.

The article is full of great detail - Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H Kirk declaring "We went out of our way to pour petrol on the fire", for instance, and Martyn Ware talking about the Perspex shield behind which The Human League used to perform: "Paul Morley wrote it was some extemporisation around alienation in contemporary society. No, it was to stop skinhead gobbing on the synthesisers." Perhaps most remarkable, personally speaking, was the revelation that Pulp formed as long ago as 1978. For Jarvis Cocker and company, the success they deserved was a very long time in coming.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

"It's so hard for me to not overthink things"

How better to mark Christmas Day than with a post about the greatest gift the world of music gave to us this year? I've said it before and I'll no doubt say it again: Angel Olsen's All Mirrors is an astonishing record, and her reflections on and insights into each of its tracks makes for fascinating reading.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Know Your Enemy

"I have been processing this movie for the last 24 hours trying to understand anything as terrifying and visceral a trainwreck as Cats. ... Cats defies belief because it exists and yet at every turn, it is very obvious that Cats should not exist."

Tom Hooper's movie adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical receives a firm shoeing from Gizmodo's Alex Cranz. As this helpful round-up from the Guardian's Stephanie Convery proves, he certainly hasn't been alone in panning the film.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Gwrandewch!

No surprises that Manic Street Preachers, Gwenno, Cate Le Bon and The Joy Formidable appear in Wales Arts Review's playlist of the best Welsh music of the last decade - or that Gruff Rhys features no fewer than three times (as a member of Super Furry Animals and Neon Neon, as well as for his staunchly pro-NHS solo track 'No Profit In Pain').

But it's good to see that lots of the current up-and-coming crop are also represented: Silent Forum kick it off with 'Spin' , Libertino labelmates and Welsh Music Prize winners Adwaith follow soon after and there are further contributions from Boy Azooga, Accu and a couple of the acts who impressed at Bubblewrap's tenth birthday party last Saturday, Cotton Wolf and HMS Morris.

In terms of variety and diversity, any playlist that incorporates Audiobooks, Islet and Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard is surely worth your time.

Los Campesinos! are no longer considered Welsh, I guess - but at least there's no Stereophonics either.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Picking up the pieces

That there is a crisis within the NHS caused by years of underfunding and mismanagement is common knowledge, even among those who seem to believe that the Tories are the right party to clean up a mess they themselves caused. Less well documented is the fact that the education system is also at breaking point - and it doesn't have anything to do with teaching.

Liz Lightfoot's Guardian article on the bleak realities of life on the front line is essential if horrifying reading, detailing as it does the devastating consequences of austerity measures for the nation's children and the unbearable strains that schools and teachers are under as they find themselves forced to deal with the fall-out of Tory policies. It's just a shame that the piece wasn't published before the election.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Narrow focus

I don't doubt that most - maybe all - of the photography exhibitions that made the Guardian's "best of 2019" list were great. After all, it features big hitters like Don McCullin, Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman - and the display of 60-odd previously unexhibited Diane Arbus pictures was always going to attract a lot of attention.

However, as has been pointed out on Twitter, the list implies that nothing of note happened outside central London. On the contrary, it did. Surely there might have been a place for Martin Parr's Return To Manchester, for instance?

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The price of success

When Galley Beggar Press posted a desperate plea for financial support on Gofundme yesterday, it underlined a cruel irony of the book trade: rather than generating much-needed revenue as you might expect, publishing a book that wins (or indeed is nominated for) a major award can actually put small independent publishers in financial peril.

Galley Beggar's plight perversely owed everything to the appearance on the Booker shortlist of Lucy Ellmann's novel Ducks, Newburyport - something that should have been the cause for unalloyed celebration. As a consequence of the nomination, however, they had to promptly design a hardback edition and supply The Book People with 8,000 copies, for which they would be recompensed to the tune of £40,000 - "a sizeable undertaking" for a small company, but nevertheless "part of the schedule and the competition". Then, when it was announced that The Book People had slid into administration, Galley Beggar were left staring into the abyss - hence the urgency of the request for donations.

Their experience will be familiar to another publisher closer to home, Seren Books. Scooping the Costa Poetry Award in 2006 (with John Haynes' Letters To Patience) and again in 2014 (with Jonathan Edwards' My Family And Other Superheroes) brought the Bridgend-based imprint considerable attention and acclaim - but it also threw up a lot of challenges and came at a significant cost.

Galley Beggar's tale has a happy ending, at least: their plea was shared far and wide, and met with such extraordinary public munificence that they raised the £40,000 within the day. But other blameless victims of The Book People's collapse - and of the conditions attached to major prizes, so blatantly disproportionately burdensome for independents - may not be so fortunate.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Bragging rights

After the election horrorshow, Bubblewrap's tenth birthday party, and a line-up showing off the quality and diversity of the label's current roster (including Right Hand Left Hand, Quodega, HMS Morris, Cotton Wolf, My Name Is Ian and Sock), proved to be the perfect tonic. Hats off to Rich Chitty - and here's to the next ten years.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Marching to their own beat

MAN FOREVER / JAXSON PAYNE, 12TH DECEMBER 2019, CARDIFF THE MOON

Jaxson Payne is proof that, with a little bit of forethought and imagination, electronic musicians can offer audiences a more engaging visual spectacle than merely the sight of a man (and yes, it's almost invariably a man) bobbing his head and tweaking some knobs against a projected backdrop of rudimentary graphics.

Dextrously triggering an array of pre-programmed samples using an electronic drum kit, Payne constructs complex drum 'n' bass that makes a mockery of anyone who would draw a rigid distinction between recorded product and live performance.

When John Colpitts aka Kid Millions picked a name for his solo project, his choice - Man Forever - was eerily prescient. Not only did he cheat death in a serious high-speed car crash in Los Angeles in March 2018, but he has gone on to make a full recovery from his injuries.

Colpitts begins by explaining that the first half of tonight's show will see him recount the incident. Sadly, though, his talents as a storyteller fail to match his fabled skill behind a drum kit, and he doesn't really do much more than gesture ineffectually at the profound impact that the experience has had on him.

In the second half, however, Colpitts lets his hands and arms do the talking, accomplishing feats with sticks and skins that mere mortals could barely dream of. It's a virtuoso exhibition of his inventive, expressive, nimble style, and the wide repertoire of drum faces underlines how completely he loses himself in the creation and sustenance of rhythm.

Nevertheless, as a founder member of Oneida and someone for whom collaboration appears to come naturally (the most recent Man Forever LP Play What You Want boasted a real ensemble cast), Colpitts does arguably work best as part of a team - even when, as is often the case, he's clearly the most valuable player.

(An edited version of this review appeared on the Buzz website.)

Market forces

Let's have a quick look at some of the top stories on the BBC News site yesterday, shall we?

1. Travellers reliant on Northern and Transpennine Express have experienced (and no doubt will continue to experience) rail chaos as both companies implement new timetables.

2. Water firms have been borrowing enormous sums but then using the cash to pay dividends to shareholders rather than to improve the service they provide to users or to combat pollution and leaks.

3. Two former Serco executives have been charged with fraud by false representation and false accounting following a Serious Fraud Office investigation into the electronic tagging service that the company provided to the Ministry of Justice.

If only there had been a party contesting Thursday's election that was proposing to curtail the corporate takeover of public services and indeed to take some back out of private hands, eh?

Monday, December 16, 2019

Giving voice

Congratulations to Benjamin Myers, whose book Under The Rock has earned him a place on the Portico Prize nominations list - where he finds himself in the familiar company of his wife Adelle Stripe (for Black Teeth And A Brilliant Smile). I haven't read either Under The Rock or his latest novel, The Offing, but The Gallows Pole certainly left a lasting impression.

Last year, Myers and Stripe were commissioned to produce responses to Martin Parr's Return To Manchester exhibition (which I saw and reviewed back in the spring). Here's Myers performing Salford 1986, the superb monologues and dialogues he wrote inspired by the images from Parr's Point Of Sale series. He brings the photo's subjects to life, often comically, though the pieces are never far from taking a darker turn.

As someone who finds it incredibly hard to write creatively from scratch and who has been falling increasingly in love with photography in recent months, I'm tempted to follow Myers' lead and try my hand at something similar.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Nook of love

If the landlord of the Victoria Park has any decency, they'll be paying Nook commission. Even on a Monday night, the restaurant's front-of-house staff are sending a steady stream of people to the pub to while away the time until a table becomes available.

Nook's no-booking policy might be the source of frustration to some, but it's a perfectly reasonable pre-emptive strike against the contemporary scourge of the small restaurant: no-shows. Indeed, the fact that they're even open on a Monday does them credit, prompted as it is by the generous desire to ensure that the staff of other eateries can have the opportunity to enjoy fine dining on their day off. Nook's popularity on any day of the week is unsurprising, though, given the pedigree of some of those involved behind the scenes, whose previous ventures include Ember, Hoof and Dusty Knuckle.

Considering ourselves extremely fortunate to have bagged the last available table (whose wonkiness is immediately corrected by our attentive waiter in time-honoured tradition, with a well-positioned piece of folded cardboard), we marvel at the wall of wine and the fact that there are a further five different natural wines on tap. One melt-in-the-mouth bread roll and butter and one plate of blistered-to-perfection, salted padron peppers later, and we're ready for the main event.

As always with a small-plate restaurant, the dilemma is not only which dishes to choose but how many. In three of the five we plump for, the leading lights aren't quite upstaged, but the quality of the supporting cast certainly makes the overall show sing. Spicy harissa mayonnaise gives a trio of light arancini some zing; a gooey ball of burrata is brought to life with vibrant chimichurri; Middle White sausages from celebrated rare-breed butcher Huntsham Court Farm sit on a rich bean cassoulet. Best of the bunch are the pressed potato - a herby, garlicky but surprisingly non-creamy cousin of dauphinoise - and Nook's signature staple, tempura battered enoki. I've never quite understood it when people have talked of mushrooms as a meat substitute, but this magnificent specimen is juicy and flavoursome and genuinely has the texture of pulled pork.

As befits a menu that simply lists the components of each dish, avoiding pretence and superfluous adjectives and adverbs with all the stringent rigour of an Ernest Hemingway novel, our dessert is not referred to as a deconstructed lemon and ginger cheesecake - though that would be one way to describe it. "Lip-smackingly delicious" would be another.

A word of warning: even if the sound of stainless steel scraping on earthenware crockery sets your teeth on edge, Nook's chefs will drive you to it. If only licking the plate wasn't considered undignified in polite company.

At around £65 for a meal for two excluding service, Nook isn't cheap and as such is one for special occasions. But there's no doubt you get what you pay for and after your first visit you may find your definition of "special occasions" becomes rather more relaxed.

(An edited version of this review appeared on the Buzz website.)

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Damage assessment

Like many others, I'm still in a complete daze, but the post-mortems need to start - and here's the Guardian's Gary Younge kicking off with a careful, considered reaction.

Corbyn may have been widely disliked (though how he was perceived as a worse leader than Boris Johnson remains mind-boggling), but Labour's crushing defeat can't be attributed solely to him. Neither can Brexit. On the contrary, at the heart of Younge's article is the acknowledgement that there was no single factor - more a perfect storm.

What gives some hope and heart, though, is his plea for the party not to abandon the progressive principles of its manifesto - he makes a good case that retreating back to the centre would be knee-jerk folly.

(Thanks to Simon for the link.)

The A team

By a curious quirk of fate, the names of all of the bands whose albums I reviewed for the December/January issue of Buzz begin with A, so they appear together right at the start of the round-up. Hotly tipped duo Alffa's debut Rhyddid O'r Cysgodion Gwenwynig is good; ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's first LP for six years, X: The Godless Void And Other Stories, is better; and Algiers' There Is No Year is stunning, fully delivering on what July's gig at Clwb promised.

In addition to evaluations of new releases from The Flaming Lips, Throbbing Gristle, Ben Frost and Yann Tiersen, there are assessments of albums by two of south Wales' best bands, Silent Forum and KEYS, both out on Libertino.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Stunned

It will never cease to amaze me the things that traditional Conservative voters are prepared to endorse (whether actively or tacitly, by ignoring them) through backing the Tories out of their own narrow, short-term self-interest - most recently, the misery and thousands of deaths caused by callous and ideologically motivated austerity measures, the wilful neglect and underfunding of the NHS, deliberate and cynical attempts to mislead the public and spread fake news, and poisonous rhetoric and actions with respect to minorities that have created a culture in which racism and homophobia can thrive, to name but four.

But what has really left me stunned is the fact that so many traditional Labour voters - some in constituencies in the north-east that I know well - have looked at the party's bold, progressive manifesto and leadership and somehow decided that their lot would also be better under a Johnson-led Tory government and outside the EU. I fear they're going to be proved very, very wrong.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Rise and shine

A mouthwatering addition to the festival calendar in 2020 is Wide Awake, a one-day event taking place in London's Brockwell Park in early June. Presumably named after the marvellous Parquet Courts song/album, and brought to us by the founders of Field Day, it seems to be very much in the same vein as the extremely good value but sadly shortlived 1-2-3-4 Festival that I had the good fortune to go to in 2010 and 2012 , both in terms of eminently affordable ticket prices and line-up. The bill already features black midi, Crack Cloud, Daniel Avery and Dream Wife, with more to be announced. It's just a real shame that it's on a Friday rather than a weekend.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Drum machine

Man Forever is John Colpitts, better known as Kid Millions: drummer extraordinaire with Oneida and Ex Models, and collaborator with everyone from Boredoms to Black Mountain and Spiritualized's Jason Pierce. A bookish figure offstage, he transforms into an octopoid superhuman behind his kit. A good job, too, given that Oneida's legendary Ocropolis performances lasted for ten hours.

Man Forever's last LP, 2017's Play What They Want, was ironically titled - the music it contained wasn't in thrall to anyone's preconceptions or constrained by any kind of convention. Neither was it consciously designed, Colpitt instead allowing himself to be led wherever the compositions took him. "I didn't want it to be dismissed offhand with something like, 'Oh yeah, this is Kid Millions messing around with drums'", he told one interviewer. "I really wanted it to be surprising."

Play What They Want WAS Kid Millions messing around with drums (to great effect, it should be added), but it was certainly also surprising: a heady cocktail whose ingredients included freeform piano, choral passages, playful patterns and hypnotic non-Western rhythms and chimes, drawing on contemporary classical and avant-garde influences that took it way beyond standard rock tropes.

Contributors to the album included Laurie Anderson, Yo La Tengo and Trans Am's Phil Manley. Don't expect any of them to pitch up onstage in the Moon tomorrow night, but do go along with an open mind.

(An edited version of this preview appeared on the Buzz website.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

In the national interest

Another weekday evening, another opportunity to take a few short steps from my office and enjoy a stimulating, thought-provoking event for free.

Last week it was Assuming Gender's Christmas lecture, which saw historian Justin Bengry of Goldsmiths talking about queer books and the early twentieth-century publishing industry - the meat of the first chapter of his forthcoming book on the emergence of the pink pound.

This week it was an event entitled The Role Of Arts And Culture In Developing Wales' International Profile, organised by the Learned Society of Wales. David Anderson, Director General of the National Museum Wales, gave the main presentation and was then part of a panel featuring representatives from the British Council Wales (Rebecca Gould) and the worlds of television (Wildflame's Llinos Griffin-Williams), publishing (Helgard Krause, Chief Executive of the Books Council of Wales) and literature (poet and professor Mererid Hopwood).

Given all the talk of collaboration/co-creation, distinctive identity, the value of the Welsh language, building bridges and showcasing Wales for the wider world, it was disappointing not to have someone from the music industry on stage. Thankfully, though, Huw Stephens was on hand in the audience to point out that Welsh musicians like Manic Street Preachers and Super Furry Animals arguably do more than those in other art forms - or indeed any arts strategist - in performing a (perhaps inadvertently) ambassadorial role promoting the country far beyond its borders. After all, Gruff Rhys inspires people to take up learning the language pretty much single-handedly.

Anyway, this seems like an opportune moment to repeat my recommendation of Stephens' film Anorac, which takes the temperature of the contemporary Welsh music scene and stresses how important it is that the current crop go further than merely preaching to the converted.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Sold down the river stream

I'm glad I'm not alone in finding it very odd that in recent days music fans have been using social media to tell artists they love how many times they've streamed songs.

Take ex-Pavement guitarist Spiral Stairs, for instance, who tweeted: "why am I getting everyone's spotify decade bullshit in my feed everyday? don't you realize they don't pay fuck all to the bands you love?" Fucked Up opted for a sarcastic response: "thanks to everyone who listened to our music on spotify this year and made us poor".

Kid Congo Powers, meanwhile, revealed the results of a little experiment he carried out: "my favourite spotty-fy artist of the decade was ME because i spent seven of those ten years playing my own songs (with sound off) to see if i could make more than 5 bucks.. i made less than that... grand times!"

Boasting to bands about the extent of your Spotify usage seems in bizarrely poor taste. As this recent BBC interview with music industry bigwig Jeremy Lascelles underlined, illegal downloading prompted "total and utter panic", with the big labels in danger of being wiped out, but help was at hand in the nick of time: "The record industry was incapable of thinking its way out of the trouble, and then music streaming just fell like a gift from the gods." Streaming may have saved the industry from extinction, but what Lascelles euphemistically referred to as "a different business model" is very evidently not working for artists.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

The Eyes have it

The second Northern Eye International Photography Festival took place in Colwyn Bay this autumn, using everything from council offices to a former greengrocer's shop as exhibition spaces. Lin Cummins managed to take in much of a diverse programme and her report for Wales Arts Review has further convinced me that I really must try to get over to Aberystwyth for the festival's big sister next year.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Know Your Enemy

"Despite LP1's effortful attempts to cast Payne as a sexual piranha, the 26-year-old generally comes off as an uptight scold. ... Such are the accidental highs of an album empty of intentional humour, heart, or anything much human at all beyond base carnality. ... Perhaps this leg-crossing horror show is another sign of Payne's prudence: LP1 is a terrible pop album, but very effective contraception."

The Guardian's Laura Snapes reviews former One Direction man Liam Payne's new solo album. The lyrics she quotes are beyond-painful accidental Partridgisms that you could imagine Alan saying to Jill or Sonja.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Dark matter

Three days on from the Blanck Mass gig at Clwb, I'm still not fully recovered - and I'm not just talking about the consequences of excessive consumption of Tiny Rebel's finest brews. Here's my Buzz write-up of an evening that began with a crash course in catty insults from a pair of drag queens and ended with staring into the abyss.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

"Document it before it's too late"

With a selection of images from his self-published book A Different Country being reprinted in South Wales In The 1970s, a new title in the Cafe Royal Books series, I spoke to Robin Weaver about how he got started, why he turned his back on documentary photography (and why he's now returning to it) and what he makes of the pictures four decades on.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Journey's end

Following the closure and demolition of Gwdihw, more depressing news for the local music scene: the Cardiff Transport Club is to shut down permanently on New Year's Eve.

The venue only threw open its doors to bands in April 2017 - at a time when Womanby Street was under serious threat - but one of the first shows it hosted saw Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard (then just Buzzard) make their live debut alongside Boy Azooga, who went on to film the video for 'Loner Boogie' there, with Kliph Scurlock playing the part of heckling punter.

I wasn't there for that, sadly - but I did see Sacred Paws play there in September 2017 as part of Swn (their second Cardiff show of that year) and then Sweet Baboo three months later.

The place has a no-frills working men's club vibe perfect for small-scale gigs, which were clearly seen as a means of generating revenue and keeping the struggling venue afloat - so it's a real shame to learn that it's going under.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Black magic

Sunn O))): "the most influential metal group of the decade"? Nah, that would be Black Sabbath - as it would be for any decade.

Facetious pedantry aside, in this article for the Guardian John Doran does genuinely make a good case for what might initially seem a rather bold and contentious claim. "Like the giant celestial body they share a name with homophonically", he writes, "they exert a massive amount of gravity on the culture that surrounds them, drawing more into their orbit while radiating giant waves of creative energy back outwards." What is striking is that that impact extends far beyond what might be conventionally considered as the outer limits of metal - Doran refers to SWSL favourites Blanck Mass and Marissa Nadler as well as The Bug and Anna von Hausswolff as artists whose work carries Sunn O)))'s imprint, even if only subconsciously, and also cites the soundtrack compositions of Nick Cave, Warren Ellis and Geoff Barrow.

Doran's argument is that since the band emerged in the late 90s it's culture that has changed, partially through their influence. While I don't really buy the claim that "metal has, for the most part, always been modernist and avant garde" (as Doran himself admits, throughout its history it's been associated with regressive and reactionary attitudes), it's certainly true that it is now recognised as "a valid art form" in the right hands - no longer the laughable, childish preserve of nerds.

Seeking to identify the secret of Sunn O)))'s appeal, though, Doran is less convincing, suggesting that listening to them is a transcendental experience not dissimilar to that enjoyed through yoga or meditation. And I wish there was some acknowledgement among Sunn O))) acolytes that the monks' habits, the copious quantities of dry ice and the raised claw-hands threaten to push the live shows from drama into pantomime. Metal has always had an element of excess and ridiculousness about it - and Sunn O))) are no different, even if po-faced beardstrokers refuse to recognise it.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Out of this world

It's worth remembering that Canton boasts not one but two arts centres. Chapter inevitably garners the most attention for its contribution to the artistic and cultural life of the area and the city as a whole, but Llanover Hall is also a real asset to the local community. While the former is more of a showcase for the work of professionals, the latter is where amateurs go to try things out and get their hands dirty.

Given that Llanover Hall was founded in 1969, a pop-up screening of Apollo 11 to mark its fiftieth birthday made perfect sense. I'll admit to going along more out of support of the venue - but I came away open-mouthed at the film.

Beautifully edited using footage shot at the time, and without any obtrusive/overbearing narration, Apollo 11 tells the story of the first successful manned mission to the moon, from the moment the rocket trundled along to the launch platform to the moment the astronauts - Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins - touched down back on Earth.

Even for someone well versed in the history and detail of the mission, I suspect that the film would hold plenty of interest - and for someone who wasn't, it was an eye-opening experience. I had no idea, for instance, that the trio were kept in quarantine for 18 days after arriving home, due to paranoia that they might have brought hitherto unknown and deadly diseases or germs back with them. The way they ignored the warning lights on lunar descent was much like the way you might casually ignore an unfamiliar warning light on your car dashboard. Armstrong's reticence to step off the ladder and subsequent detailed description of the moon's fine-grained surface, meanwhile, made more sense in light of the theory that it would be akin to quicksand (hence the landing module's large flat feet).

Most remarkable, of course - even more so than the astronauts' self-discipline in not swearing - was the magnitude of the feat itself, achieved with less computer processing power than each of us now routinely carries around in our pockets. Had there been any tiny fault or minute miscalculation - and let's remember the problem with a valve immediately before take-off and the insane difficulty of the docking manoeuvre - and they would have been totally screwed. To put that level of trust in others takes serious guts.

For me, the real hero of the mission was Michael Collins. Left circling the moon like a taxi driver with the engine running, waiting (hoping) for his companions to get back from the surface and dock safely, he went out of radio contact and into the most terrifyingly complete solitude imaginable every time he passed behind the moon. Having the psychological strength to deal with that is incredible.

Much like 'The Other Side', Public Service Broadcasting's masterful track about the Apollo 8 mission, Apollo 11 succeeds in creating and sustaining dramatic tension despite having a basic "plot" that everyone knows.

Friday, November 29, 2019

The price isn't right

What better time to tour an album inspired by the dangerous excesses of capitalist consumption than in the run-up to Christmas? By way of a preview for the Blanck Mass show at Clwb Ifor Bach on Tuesday, I asked Benjamin John Power about the LP in question (Animated Violence Mild): its intensity, its subject matter and how it translates live.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Damage limitation?

To the list of those musicians who lost material in the devastating 2008 fire at Universal Music Group's Building 6197 we can now add Beck. Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, he said that the flames "probably" destroyed a large quantity of unreleased material, depriving us of (among other things) an LP of Hank Williams covers, a 1995 album-length collaboration with Jon Spencer and a pre-Odelay indie-rock record "that sounds like a Pavement, Sebadoh kind of thing".

Aside from the intriguing list of destroyed recordings, what was most striking was that use of the word "probably" - explained by the fact that his management "still won't tell me what was lost". He suggested - perhaps rather charitably - that this might be because "they can't bear to break the news".

Beck has subsequently issued a classic forced-smile gun-to-the-head statement on Instagram: "I wanted to clarify some out-of-context quotes regarding the Universal archives fire. Since the time of that interview we have found out that my losses in the fire were minimal. Another point I want to clarify: I have had a wonderful and very close relationship with my management for 25 years through to working on my current album. x" No elaboration on what survived and what was actually lost - just that the losses were minimal. A claim that is remarkably similar to UMG's own party line...

Quote of the day

"All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light. There was a time when I got hot under the collar if the critics said I had nothing new to say. Now I realise that they had a point. My field is the self-evident. Everything I say is obvious, although I like to think that some of the obvious things I have said were not so obvious until I said them."

One thing that now seems obvious is that I should read some of the late Clive James' books. I only really know him as the wry voice on late-night TV that managed to attract and hold the interest of even my dad - someone not normally drawn to critical commentary on culture and the arts.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Going underground

Most people travelling on the Tube try to avoid all eye contact with their fellow passengers, preferring to ignore or block out their immediate surroundings. In the 1970s, though, photographer Mike Goldwater did the exact opposite: traversing the capital's subterranean network with a camera and an inquisitive eye that enabled him to capture fleeting moments in the lives of complete strangers.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Party hard

Back in 2007, I  saw !!! twice on two different continents: first hosting a woodland rave in the Glade on the Saturday night at Glastonbury, shortly before The Stooges hit the Other Stage; and then bringing the Toronto Opera House to life four months later. It gave me great pleasure to report that, more than a decade on, they're still peerless party-starters - as Wednesday's appearance at Clwb proved.

Ignore the bit about Nic Offer's natty suit - we were stationed too far back in the crowd, unwisely, to realise that he was actually wearing shorts. It was either that or we were simply dazzled by Meah Pace's dress.