ROCK ALBUMS / Slack times: Andy Gill reaches Nirvana

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NIRVANA

Incesticide

(Geffen GED 24504)

Incesticide was apparently released 'to combat bootleggers', record-biz-speak for 'if there's money to be made, we want in on it'. Hence this load of old tat, scraped together from band demos, Peel Sessions and the like: it even opens with an old B-side, which more or less sums things up.

Still, that's 'slackers' for you: too lazy to deliver another album and, judging by much of this material, they can hardly be bothered to write a complete song either, settling instead for incessant repetition of one line where two might do. The best songs here are cover versions: Devo's 'Turnaround', and The Vaselines' 'Molly's Lips'; of their own songs, the most satisfying is another version of 'Polly' from the Nevermind album. Even that's shorn of the novelty acoustic element and rendered as a punk thrash.

That's appropriate, since grunge-rock is little more than punk minus the charisma: the same relentless, minimalist riffing, with bored, nihilistic voices singing bored, nihilistic songs. But the nihilism here is transmuted not into appalled outrage but into sullen apathy. Where punk unlocked the aspirations of a generation, grunge confirms it in its resentful disengagement. - FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI

Underground System

(Stern's Africa STCD 1043)

FELA Kuti's working methods - refining a track at live performances until it is 'ripe', whereupon it is recorded, released, and never performed again - make his records sound like occasional tracts from a non-conformist pan- African viewpoint, unmediated by considerations of 'newsworthiness'. This time, the issues are a little more focused than on '89's splendid Beasts of No Nation, which argued persuasively that all our political leaders are, in fact, beasts in human guise. Here, Fela's condemning what he views as injustice and corruption in the Organisation for African Unity, pleading the cause of the late Thomas Sankara, former president of Burkina Faso.

Fela's structures remain constant. First he softens you up for 10 minutes, building up a huge swell of horns, drums and guitars barreling along; this eventually gives way to just rhythm guitars (three of them) bouncing gently along as he unleashes a torrent of syllables, using the steady beat on which to sail call-and-response denunciations of the great and the bad. Sun Ra once said that the magisterial polyphony of the big band was the black man's highest art form. That's evident here in the deep burrs of baritone sax that underpin the song: they're like pure pride made into music.

COME

Eleven:Eleven

(Placebo PILL CD1)

NINE INCH NAILS

Fixed

(TVT/Island IMCD 8005)

AMERICAN outsider rock comes in a variety of forms these days, but it's surprising how hackneyed these would-be avant-rockers are prepared to sound: Come offer a shop-soiled line in Noo Yawk- style art-rock dissipation, a blend of Television's more wasted guitar workouts fronted by a Patti Smith- wannabe called Thalia Zedek, whose parents were presumably the last few Scrabble tiles on the rack. There's a gulf between intention and execution, though. Eleven:Eleven just grinds on and on, in pretty lousy mood. Perhaps it's a concept album about being well pissed off?

Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, another chip off the old Scrabble rack, traffics in cheap and nasty sensationalism: the mini-album Fixed, a remix version of this October's Broken, was recorded while Trent was living in the house where the Manson gang murdered Sharon Tate, and has been well promoted by an unbroadcast video featuring explicit genital mutilation which - surprise, surprise - was refused a certificate, thus ensuring far more coverage than it deserves.

Unpleasant in their original incarnations, these remixes are, if anything, even less approachable, stripped of even the brute appeal of the guitar-thrash samples that gave the group some resemblance to the industrial art-noise terrorists Ministry. NIN's inexplicable popularity will, however, doubtless see this release follow Broken into the US Top 10. It's hard to see, though, what makes this fixed and that broken: they're both part of the same barren landscape, a uniform wasteland broken by outcrops of degradation and revulsion. Merry Christmas, Trent]

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