By Martin Smith | 29 January 2017
I was sitting in the library reading Donald Trump’s biography, Trump: The Art of the Deal, the other day. A woman sat down next to me and, out of nowhere, said: “The devil came to earth when Donald Trump won the election.”
It was a brief encounter of the bizarre kind. I’m not a religious person, but there is a kind of prophetic wisdom to her words. Trump’s victory represents a tipping point. The old world and its certainties have gone.
One week into Trump’s presidency has already brought with it a carnival of reaction. But the protests we have just witnessed at his inauguration present the possibilities of a new era of revolt. I don’t profess to know what will happen, but one thing is certain: Trump has and is going to have a profound impact on music and culture.
All four albums this month have at their core the struggle for humanity. To steal a line from one of the tracks I’ve reviewed, they are about “the freedom from want and fear”.
Run The Jewels, Vol3 (Run The Jewels Inc. 2017) CD/LP/Download
Run The Jewels (RTJ) is comprised of Killer Mike – an activist based in the US city of Atlanta, protester against police violence and Bernie Sanders supporter – and Brooklyn indie-rap veteran El-P. This is the third and in my opinion best album by the political rap duo.
First off, Vol3 isn’t a reaction to Donald Trump – it’s the first musical strike in the cultural wars to come.
It packs a powerful political punch. “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost),” is a song about riots as a response to violence. It samples Martin Luther King’s powerful 1967 speech, “The Other America”, warning: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” On the track “2100”, RTJ put forward their strategy for defeating Trump: “You defeat the devil when you hold onto hope.”
It is also a personal album displaying great skill and musical drive. “Call Ticketron” shows Killer Mike at his best with his double-time rhyming.
If this is not enough to whet your appetite, then the knowledge that Kamasi Washington plays sax on “Thursday in the Danger Room” and there are guest MC spots for Danny Brown and Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha should do the trick.
This is a soundtrack for Trump’s America.
Jóhann Jóhannsson, The Miner’s Hymn’s (BFI 2010) CD/DVD
The National Union of Miners (NUM) and the Miners Federations that came before it formed the most powerful and class-conscious trade union Britain has ever seen. Not only that, they built their own social clubs and halls, set up workers’ libraries, etsablished annual galas and proudly backed their brass bands.
Brass bands have played a huge role in working class life. By the mid-19th century bands and choirs could be found in most working class communities, especially in mining areas.
This is still is on display for all to see at the annual Durham Miners Gala. It has been held every year since 1871 and attracts crowds of over 250,000. The Gala is both a political rally and a cultural event. And it also used to provide an opportunity to honour miners who had died at work over the previous year. A pit brass band would head the delegation and the NUM branch banner would be draped in black cloth.
This is where Jóhann Jóhannsson’s The Miners’ Hymns comes in. It’s the instrumental soundtrack to Bill Morrison’s documentary about the history of coal mining in northern England.
This six-part suite is composed for a brass band, which is joined by an organ and Jóhann on electronic keyboards. The sound is like a cross between brooding Nordic Jazz and Renaissance sacred music – but all the while maintaining its link with traditional northern brass band music.
With the exception of the last track, it is mournful, slow and haunting music. It requires serious attention but will eventually creep into your body, mind and soul.
Bonobo, Migration (Ninja Tune 2017) CD/LP/Download
This is a beautiful, thoughtful and at times uplifting electronic album. It has echoes of Four Tet and Burial.
Bonobo’s sample of Brandy’s recording “Baby” is simply beautiful. The track “Grains” features layered samples of Pete Seeger’s harmonies. Bonobo even introduces the listener to Gnawa Music, a rich North African repertoire of ancient Islamic spiritual and religious songs.
Bonobo claims Migration is not about the current political situation but about his life as a nomadic musician. I’m sure this is the case. But there is one problem: we live in a world where migrants are demonised and portrayed as terrorists and scroungers.
So Bonobo will have to forgive many of his listeners, me included, who when they hear such beautiful music sampled from all over the world and when they read the titles of many of the tracks – “Migration”, “Break Apart”, “No reason” and “Figurers” – will draw the conclusion that this is a powerful musical defence of the world’s most dispossessed peoples.
Les Rallizes Denudes, Flightless Bird (YODO-GO-A-GO-GO) (10th Avenue Freeze 2006) CD/LP/Download
It was a big day for the Japanese band Les Rallizes Denudes – it was 31 March 1970 and they were about to record their first album. The band members were all present in the studio – all except the bass player.
While they waited for him to arrive, the producer turned on the TV. It was broadcasting live footage of the hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 351. The nine hijackers were members of the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction. They had released all the passengers and crew in Seoul and had just landed in North Korea, where they surrendered to the authorities.
The band watched the news footage of the hijackers walking across the runway. To their shock and amazement they spotted that one of the hijackers was none other than their bass player, Moriaki Wakabayashi.
The album was never recorded and the band spent the next few months in hiding from the authorities.
Les Rallizes Denudes – and all their other incarnations – went on to record many great albums. One of the best entry points into their work is the compilation album Flightless Bird. The cover of the album is a picture of the hijacked plane. It even opens with a track from the aborted first studio recording.
Les Rallizes Denudes were idealistic communist sympathisers out to change the world. Always dressed in black, they produced a sound that is a total cultural assault on the senses – waves of sonic guitar, dense bass, thunderous drums and a vocalist who seems to be possessed. Their sound is a cross between Velvet Underground, early Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer.
Flightless Bird is a reminder of the power and adventurism of late 1960s early 70s psychedelic rock and that is why it is my curve ball album of the month.