SLUDGE NATION: Monkey On My Back (7″, Rhythm King LEFT48, 1997)

Sludge Nation - Monkey On My Back

Strange one this, as it represents a certain watershed moment in my music writing/reviewing life, rather than being a record that I have any deep affection for (or, indeed, any recollection of what it actually sounds like, beyond vague noisy pop-punk memories).

In the very early 1990s, inspired by the indie-pop scene and some very talented and creative friends of mine, I started to write fanzines which contained, as well as semi-personal ramblings on life, reviews of records, tapes and (sometimes) CDs. Initially, these reviews were purely of things that I had purchased myself, and were therefore likely to be positive and enthusiastically written. Over time, I built up a network of contacts/friends around the world and this slowly branched out into the world of PR companies, ‘professional’ music people and musicians who wanted to spread the word about their work through the fanzine network.

This meant that I began to get completely unsolicited listening materials, and don’t get me wrong, this is still exciting when it happens today. For a while, I eagerly reviewed every single thing I was sent, figuring that if somebody took the time to package up and post something to me, the least I can do in return is to listen to and write about it. This lead to a slight issue: what if I didn’t like things that I was sent? Initially, my feeling – probably influenced by the traits of the mainstream press – was to be completely honest and often humorously offhand, even rude, about records. My attitude was “if they can’t handle a bad review, they shouldn’t have sent me this in the first place”.

Over time, though, it can get wearing, being a remote critic of the work of musicians who generally weren’t U2-level stars who’d already been through the mill and developed a thick skin. A lot of these were up-and-coming, trying-to-make-it-in-this-business artists whose outlook just happened to differ from mine. After trying (and failing) to justify some negative reviews, after the musicians contacted me to pick me up on what I’d said, my attitude changed.

In the context of writing on a small scale, about small-scale musicians, I see little point in writing negative or cruel things. Not reviewing at all is preferable to writing bad things; having been of the receiving end of negative reviews, I understand now that they might be taken more seriously than a reviewer may ever realise. (We’re not talking life and death here by the way – but a negative review can really affect whether a little band gets people to buy their record or go to their gig).

So what am I saying? That all music should be tolerated, no matter if it’s (in my opinion) absolutely worthless? Well; kind of. Not saying anything is my policy these days, when faced with reviewing something that I can’t think of anything constructive or positive to say about. In my own small way, I feel like I’m adopting a ‘live and let live’ attitude that’s better for my karma, soul and general well-being.

What’s this got to do with Sludge Nation? Well, this record, despite being pressed on glorious yellow vinyl, marked a very specific turning point, when I suddenly realised that there’s more music out there than I realised, and much of it is far from what I enjoy listening to. Music PR companies fling this stuff out there with a scattershot approach – they’re not carefully hand-picking reviewers for the most part – and they won’t let up even if you resolutely ignore their advances for years. (I’ve been doing just that in some cases, yet still receive parcels addressed to a fanzine that I wound up over fifteen years ago).

If you’re going to write about music, my advice is just to write about music that you enjoy. Writing bad things about a band won’t make the world of music better; it’ll just make some people feel worse about themselves.

MAHOGANY: In The Presence Of The Crepuscular (7″, Amberley AMY 6, 1999)

Mahogany - In The Presence Of The Crepuscular

A record from what was in some ways an early wave of the instrumental, semi-electronic post-rock sound that came to inform vast swathes of independent music, this Mahogany single is a real ‘prepared with love’ kind of artefact, despite being packaged in a standard 7″ sleeve:

  • The cover artwork is superb – a bit of pseudo-Bridget Riley op art that hints at pixellated imagery, semaphore and all kinds of ‘hidden codes’. It’s the sort of cover one could obsess over for hours.
  • The label, Amberley, was a one-man outfit that had a lot of time and energy put into it (I used to correspond with the guy behind the label, and can vouch for his total belief in what he was doing) – by the time of this Mahogany record’s release Amberley had also put out singles by several other great bands of the time, including A.M.P Studio, Gnac, Navigator and Lazarus Clamp.
  • The record itself is pressed on super-heavy vinyl – and that’s quite a bit more expensive to do than the ‘normal’ weight of seven inch vinyl. Why bother, one might ask? Well, it does make the record sound better. It also makes the record feel better, like a item of intrinsic value that will sit confidently and comfortably on your turntable.
  • Included within is a properly-printed, folded insert with details of Amberley’s releases – something more than a simple cut-up photocopy insert.

Hell, maybe every single released independently is by definition a ‘prepared with love’ artefact. It’s just that not all of them show it so obviously, I guess. To me, I don’t understand why somebody who’s putting in the extraordinary time and effort required to simply get a record made and out there in the world wouldn’t extend that time and effort into all of its aspects – design, presentation, quality and style. Ticking all of those boxes is, for me, as DIY/punk as it gets: so much more so than intentionally presenting things in a scrappy or rough way to create some kind of (perhaps false) idea of ‘real’-ness… Maybe it depends on the kind of music, though. For this kind of music (refined, subtle and stylish post-rock), this presentation works for me.