Music

Throbbing Gristle: The Taste of TG

Stefan Braidwood

Throbbing Gristle

The Taste of TG

Label: Mute
US Release Date: 2004-05-04
UK Release Date: 2004-05-03
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In many ways, I'm the perfect person to review this "taste" of a band who've been cited as influences by everyone from the Future Sound of London to Nine Inch Nails, as I've been hearing good things about them for some time but could never quite get over my distaste at their name. From the off, however, things took a slight dip for TG: not only is the cover art garishly hideous, like a fetishistic take on The Passion of the Christ whilst the photographer was on LSD, but the CD refused to play on -- and indeed crashed -- my computer, causing me to spend long enough swearing at the bloody machine for my pizza to acquire a fashionable shade of black in the oven downstairs. My mood was not improved by the impression that TG would probably find this amusing.

This collection of tracks spans seven different albums' worth of material by the important collective, including several live tracks, but chronologic jumbling along with TG's tendency to record their music live, performance-art style, mean that there is no real sign of progression; rather they seem to have stayed true to their brooding atmospherics, simple yet infectious grooves, mordant humour and vocals (either spoken or screamed but never really sung), whilst exploring them in different ways over time.

On "Dead on Arrival" warped piano flourishes roll in and out, something distorted echoes wetly, and a noise somewhere between a punctured balloon and a paper comb played at the top of one's lungs roars and squeaks whilst the track's percussion plods steadily on in the background, welded to a nonchalant bassline. "Hot on the Heels of Love" instantly calls to mind Kraftwerk, but then TG bring in seductive female whispering, a seesawing slice of vocoder and the delicate tones of what might be a treated glockenspiel, whilst slightly discordant noises and electronic stabs aid and abet on the fringes, adding to the wandering collage. In general, the music doesn't so much develop as expand slightly over the frameworks of steady grooves, unsettling little sonic tweaks and additions leaking through onto the tracks before they end, usually abruptly.

"We Hate You (Little Girls)" and "Cabaret Voltaire" are the terrifying but unmistakable sound of Digital Hardcore being born, wild, enraged screaming echoing shockingly out of electronic sludge, distortion and bleeping. Aphex Twin was also undoubtedly listening during that period of his that would birth those accompanying nightmarish videos. Of course, "Cabaret Voltaire" was taken as a name by another influential group who would play an excellent contortion of rhythms and grooves around two decades before a washed-out "electroclash" would become a trendy scene that focused more on attitude than the music itself. But that disgruntled story will have to wait for a different retrospective, should they ever get their dues.

"Exotic Functions" tones down the yowling a little and introduces an Asian slant, with small variations on simple melodic patterns getting picked up and carried forwards by the suddenly accelerating track, whilst "Zyklon B Zombie" takes the dark cries suggested by the title and buries them, distant and distorted, behind driving, hypnotic bass guitar and something that resembles an out-of-control laser gun from a bad '80s sci-fi series (stop me if I'm getting tautological), resulting in a deep track that bizarrely calls to mind African tribal chanting. "Walkabout" dilates pleasantly over tilting keyboards but doesn't really go anywhere, "Hamburger Lady" is little more than four minutes of shredded, incomprehensible monologue over the droning of sampled passing traffic, whilst the closing "His Arm Was Her Leg" starts out with the vocalist dedicating the track to the city he was born in (Manchester, in whose legendary The Factory this song was recorded live in 1979), sounding sad and alone, before massive waves of bass, synth, and percussion writhe in, pulsing and wrestling as they bury him. Clearly, this an evocation of the intimidating underbelly of a city that would prove to be so influential in dance music's history, whether dark or joyous.

Judging by the tracks on offer here, Throbbing Gristle made music that was as significant as it is intentionally eerie, unnerving, and innovative. Rather than cause everyone at their shows to start a band, like the Velvet Underground or Uncle Tupelo, they seem to have reached their tendrils far and wide through the realms of electronic music, quietly easing open cracks for the darker subconsious to seep in through, infecting artists world-wide. For all that, their quieter moments hide some music of beautiful fragility, though I have to say that I found my taste of TG to be daunting and impressive rather than enthusiasm-inducing. Whilst their significance should definitely be acknowledged, the average listener will probably decide that their descendants are much more appealing; that some things born in the shadows can remain there.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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