Author: Thomas Phelan

Writer and film-maker, and music lover.

LICE ‘WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear’

“Destroy the cult of the past, the obsession with the ancients, pedantry and academic formalism” reads point one of 1910’s first Manifesto of Futurist Painters. Bold declarations of visionary intent are a distinct feature of the futurist movement, an avant-garde collective of artists and thinkers born in Milan and conceived by poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, eschewing social and artistic tradition to forge work that would upheave the very foundations of society as well as shun the archaic aesthetics of old. From the British Vorticists, Dadaists, and Russian Constructivists who followed, the many challenging and unorthodox pieces unleashed on to conservative society were routinely accompanied with manifestos proclaiming the ills of the cultural world and their noble crusade to rid of the obsolete and enter liberated modernity (despite some early aligning with fascism on the Italian part).

In a barren wasteland on the edges of reality, a hapless character known only as Paul discovers that his penis has become sentient, growing teeth and whispering snide remarks at it gnaws through the front of his jeans. Taking the drastic measure of removing the cognisant member, it grows further among the hospital refuse, eventually reaching humanoid shape and imitating the likeness of its previous owner. Like a twisted retelling of Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose were it written by William Burroughs, the ‘imposter’ walks on its testicles in the moonlight to Paul’s house, killing him and assuming his identity, replacing him at his workplace and coming into success before arousing the suspicions of the sinister R.D.C…

Talking genitalia, shape-shifting and shadowy committees are just a taste of the many surreal exercises in satire in Alaister Shuttleworth’s science-fiction short WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear. Both a journalist and frontman for experimental post-punk act LICE, Shuttleworth has been on a one-man mission to smash complacent music coverage and champion the potent avant-garde s̶c̶e̶n̶e̶ community currently seizing Bristol out of its trip-hop nostalgia. Taking cues from the litany of crusading proclamations of the futurists, Shuttleworth’s music magazine The Bristol Germ and the aforementioned fantastical text are replete with manifestos, with almost revolutionary rhetoric, urging the curious reader to free themselves from the shackles of stagnant artistic consensus and idle, surface participation. Caring not for the arbitrary peripheries of the album format, LICE’s debut LP via their own Settled Law Records encompasses iconoclastic music, puzzling prose, and a bizarre new instrument of their innovation called the Intonarumori.

The whirring clangour of the mysterious machine which opens the first track ‘Conveyer’ establishes the character of the record immediately: dissident and curious. WASTELAND… is an amorphous trip that veers between industrial abrasion and brittle minimalism with total ease, often within the same song. ‘Espontáneo’ weaves in and out of deep, cavernous disquiet akin to the sonic nightmares of Scott Walker’s The Drift, an eerie expanse of flickering vocals and phantom whispers percolate around Shuttleworth’s hushed recounts of time travel given greater introspective wrestle with Silas Dilkes’ exotic guitar picking. Hypnagogic trance grooves on the synth-based ‘Persuader’, a crisp drum machine anchors the dreamy haze that submerges midway in a mist of frenetic percussion and subliminal, numbered motifs, all deep-diving together similar to Radiohead’s ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’. LICE display a true feeling for emotional scope on the haunting ‘Serata’ an intimately epic cut which is probably the most moving song about a robot’s friendship with a spider you’ll ever hear, while LP closer and epilogue ‘Clear’ is pure Lynchian lounge, foggy keyboards and sultry guest vocals from Katy J. Pearson and members of Goat Girl scoring the final collapse of the Wasteland, each line intriguingly sung as stage directions for a play.

For all of LICE’s cultural reference and intellectual rigour, they never let cerebral fancy stand in the way of rocking. Like Howard Devoto’s canny ability to marry philosophical esotericism with direct, unpretentious punk rock, LICE know when to throw a strike of urgent post-punk attack, albeit with proggy leanings. Gareth Johnson’s mean bass rattles along with Bruce Bardsley’s primal drums on the thrillingly raucous ‘R.D.C.’, a volatile pummeler which filters Louis Althusser’s heady marxism in a satisfying blast of SANS style noise. Their industrial inclinations hammer with Einstürzende Neubauten levels of heft on the bruising ‘Pariah’, massive guitar hack and chops while the Intonarumori cranks amid the din, Dilke’s heavy riffing against Shuttleworth’s metallic and acrid vocals beautifully alien and beefy.

“Elevate all attempts at originality, however daring, however violent” reads point three of the Manifesto of Futurist Painters. In their quest to produce work that is vital and radical, LICE have dropped an extraordinary record that successfully combines journalistic endeavour, a dynamic range of aural exploration and honest-to-god rock ‘n’ roll with impeccable harmony. WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear is an eternally fascinating and electrifying debut that resoundingly honours their crusade against the banal and derivative.

Sistema de Entretenimiento ‘Sistema de Entretenimiento’

“I think they prefer to see us die” is a statement that feels lifted straight out of some sci-fi, B-movie thriller. Are ‘they’ the evil, faceless corporate giant that rules over the future fascist state, marvelling at their profit margins as the citizens breathe in the polluted fumes of its mega-factory? Perhaps it’s the roaring crowd of a dystopian gladiatorial arena where contestants fight to the death for a cash prize? A lesser, more blunt line would simply have been “we’re all gonna die!”, but the subtle twist of evocation adds an infinitely more mysterious dynamism.

Sci-fi at its best works when holding a mirror up to society and revealing our collective anxieties and fears for the future. “I think they prefer to see us die” could just as easily be speaking to the crumbling economic order which would sooner ferment fascism than risk its capital, and the increasing sense of a civilization nearing collapse is potent to anyone paying attention. El Prat artist Victor Echeverri seems to know well enough. Opening his latest EP for Spanish synthpunk outfit Sistema de Entretenimiento with the track ‘Creo que Prefieren Vernos Morir’, the arcade electro trio (including Guixi and Anna Bananna) have beamed a pulpy, comic book of an EP depicting tales of virtual suicide, lunar warriors and robots.

The self-titled EP takes cues from the rich heritage of synthpunk from Aviador Dro to Sigue Sigue Sputnik (the sleeve striking similarities with their ’86 debut Flaunt It) but inject the pacing of hardcore to create a frenzied, ticking bomb of fizzy keyboards and stinging drum machines. Errechevi’s (or to give his alias, Spiker) snotty vocals against the chewed bubble-gum production ensures that the tech-noir doesn’t teeter into total nihilism, and its choppy eleven minute length means the electro-snot whizzes past with ephemeral urgency, never outstaying its welcome. Lean, sinewy, and glowing with radiation, Sistema de Entretenimiento is a feverish and gloriously trashy little piece which wields a sci-fi front to channel the uncertainty of tomorrow.

Heads on Sticks Town Centre German Christmas Market Songbook

I’m delighted to present to you a festive collaboration between Heads on Sticks and the Bristol German Market!! Originally due to DJ a set in the plastic Bavarian village (next to the vape store), I’ll instead unleash the festive magic in a special one-off show!!

The annual tradition of U.K. based entertainment companies propping up tacky Munich beer halls with underpaid, bored looking staff in lederhosen goes all the way back to 1999 which no one remembers. The obligatory traipse through a drizzly, sleet filled Broadmead and zig-zagging tat merchants and drunkards with a microphone singing Bing Crosby out of tune really kicked off about five years ago, and has enchanted us ever since!

So in its absence, allow me and the authentic German Events Ltd. (based in Bournemouth) to transport you to those enchanted evenings, sat huddled with friends freezing your tits off, struggling to get through the flat lager you spent £6 on and hearing the robot oompah band playing for the eleventh time that hour!

Heads on Sticks 2020

What can one say about this year that isn’t stating the blindin’ obvious and centred in every end-of-year appraisal across every blog and publication out there? The COVID pandemic has dominated all spheres of life in such a profound way that even the cast-iron doctrines of unbridled capitalism screeched to a halt, the free-market fanatics themselves enforcing half the nation’s workforce to pause their labour extraction. After years of Brexit bludgeoning and its resulting social division, the Coronavirus was an oddly unifying experience, cutting through the dichotomies of Leavers and Remainers and inadvertently ushering a feeling of collective experience and responsibility, a shared duty to each other long felt dormant after decades of Thatcherite atomisation. Everyone’s lives have been struck with deep uncertainty, many stung by the painful losses of loved ones and near-unanimous despair at the political ineptitude causing further chaos.

Spending months in your own company, or trapped in problematic living environments, demonstrated just how vital a lifeline music is. The arts, long been neglected in the austerity wasteland and held with contempt from a grey and joyless, right-wing faction who abhor the empathy and imagination it fosters, was suddenly held up as the indispensable joy it always was, the deep, human need for creative expression and escapism breaking through the hollow priorities of a society dictated by unbridled capital. The sudden absence of live music and events wrought some urgent perspective on the preciousness of our creative spaces and independent venues, and did make one ask the question: had we taken it all for granted?

Late-stage capitalism rarely affords the time to stop and think, and the lockdown, so alien to our daily routines and established orthodoxies, unleashed a major space for deep contemplation. The cultural reckoning against racial injustice spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement inspiring direct action against authority on a scale unseen since the civil rights era, but to be vigilant against clumsily wading into ineffectual social media campaigns that solve nothing (Heads on Sticks was guilty of this). The grim stats on streaming revenues for artists in light of the Spotify Wrapped rush have raised much-needed awareness as to how we can responsibly consume music that the artists we love spent time and money on, and to keep an eye on the venues who missed out on Arts funding and staying afloat on Crowdfunders. The systemic failure that enabled Trump his ascendency, and an emboldened Far-Right in the U.K., cannot be considered put to bed now that Biden is the president-elect, to quote Ocasio-Cortez, “you’re not going back to brunch”.

When artists have been the soundtrack to such a tumultuous year, the relationship one has with their work takes on an even deeper significance. The songs collated are the hopelessly personal, utterly subjective. Not some hierarchal ‘best-of’ or exclusive document of heavy rotation, but simply the 25 tracks which rattled around The Head’s static ridden box. I hope you enjoy as much I did!

Here’s to a fortunate 2021, and thanks for the music!

Tom (a fan)

Check the Heads on Sticks 2020 list here!

Spit ‘n’ Static! 1020 Radio #20

“The whole thing, I think it’s sick!”

Well ain’t U.S. democracy great?! Another four years of lively debate as to who gets to manage the rotten orthodoxy marginally better!!! A celebratory American election special of Spit ‘n’ Static! hit 1020 Radio, a full hour of fuzzing, slimy mutoid punk and tumorous electro scoring societal implosion, seething anger and Nancy Pelosi’s ice-cream!!! IT’S BRUNCH TIME!!!!! 🇺🇸 🍳 🥂 💅🗳 ✝️ 💵 📡 👽 👌

Starz ‘n’ Stripes by Sarah Zucker

Aigue Morte ‘Aigue Morte’

The historic commune of Aigues-Mortes in the Occitanie region of Southern France has inspired writers from Boccaccio to Hemingway, its centuries-old fortifications circling the city and the towers still standing from the days of Charlemagne relics of medieval heritage imbued with a special, arcane energy. The original fortress entrance, the Carbonnière Tower, is surrounded by salt marshes and swampland, ‘Aquae Mortuae’ Latin for ‘dead water’ and the etymological source of the city’s name.

Taking her name from the quagmires of the region is French ’emo pop’ artist Marie Barat. One half of ‘triste’ duo Palavas, Barat has been crafting a hazy and introspective string of swamp-pop cuts as Aigue Morte on SoundCloud before finally releasing her debut EP with Metz label Le Syndicat Des Scorpions, an intriguing eponymous tape of lo-fi synths and bedroom production which feel drifted ashore along the stagnant canals of the Rhône à Sète.

Aigue Morte harmonizes the dreamy and warm electronica of acts like Group Rhoda with an air of melancholy contemplation that injects a subtle trepidation to her sonic enrapture. ‘Carrément’ is a perfect example of this enveloping traverse, muffled drum machines and weathered bass ripple around Molly Nilsson like xylophone that softy lulls into you to a meditative state, its reflective mood serving the ‘mirror’ theme aptly. Barat’s flair for post-punk adds a touch of grit to the vaporous, instrumental ‘Bermuda’ wouldn’t feel out of place as an early Cure instrumental on Faith or Seventeen Seconds, whereas ‘Fantoir’ takes melodic cues from Joy Division’s ‘Decades’. Moments of drama pull you out of the languid fog in thrilling detours, ‘Fruit Show / Waiting Room’ a choral reach for divinity powered by propulsive electro before the EP finale of ‘Choco Pie Shy’ soaks up some of the mystical residues of the namesake town with ethereal strings and haunting keys to a stirring conclusion.

Every one of Aigue Morte‘s eight songs are expert exercises in celestial expanse yet refined with a pop rigour that anchors the tracks and avoids floating off into a pointless meander which can befall her bedroom peers. Enchanting and pensive with a sombre wistfulness at its heart, Barat has delivered a promising debut which soundtracks the collective rumination and uncertainty that plagues the confused contemporary.

Greathumour ‘Choose the Obsolete’

Will the internet ever die? It seems impossible to even contemplate the web’s hypothetical demise, its impact on every facet of humanity so profound that the emerging digital age it ushered is considered as fundamental a turning point as the Industrial Revolution. Evolving and growing in ways light-years beyond what was originally envisioned at the birth of the World Wide Web in 1990, the Internet’s eventual obsoletion seems as distant as Earth’s destruction during the Sun’s red giant violent fatal expansion.

“Flash Player will no longer be supported after December 2020” didn’t you know? Are we so distracted in our slavish worship of Silicon Valley and the great social media deity sat atop the data cloud that the malignant necrosis killing off parts of our beloved Internet eat away in plain, pop-upped sight? This Cronenberg style mortality is a concept viscerally explored by North Carolina noise artist Max Eastman. Curator of Tribe Tapes and the culprit behind power electronics act Körperlich in addition to joining Lasse Jensen in avant-pop duo LongSatanInViolence, Eastman has been busy cutting an uncompromising blast of harsh sound collages under the moniker Greathumour. The third in his ‘Choose’ series, following Forceps and Speculum, Choose the Obsolete is a paranoid implosion of computer grindcore and digital mutilation.

“You’ll be amazed at the unexpected dangers” gurgles a corrupted speech synthesizer at the end of tape finale ‘var Stay = 0; // Number of seconds to keep window open function index1(){ setTimeout(“openFull(‘index1.html’,’_blank’,0);”,Stay * 1000); }’, to give its full name. Each title a dense string of defected embeds and dead URLs, the baffling bewilder of impenetrable code perfectly reflects the glitched mania within the degraded tape. A four and a half minute assault of bit-crushed samples and virus ravaged electronica, Eastman takes a dose of musique concrète as pioneered by Stockhausen, speeds things up by 1000000000000%, processed via a dodgy DAW crack and spiked with hellish evocations of 4chan nightmares, Pepe the Frog swastikas and meme nihilism. This unrelenting act of cyber terror is mercifully brief, each track a ‘microsound’ of bursting electrical fire which keeps the exercise in sonic affliction from losing its punch, but also touches on our collective attention spans dulled by the soup of infinite and instantaneous content, yellow tongue firmly in rancid cheek.

Long after man has blown himself up or the last corner of land finally lost under the rising ocean, the artefacts left behind studied by the evolved entities that follow probably won’t be The Mona Lisa or David, it’ll be The Golden Arches laid ruined on the beach à la Planet of the Apes, and frankly, it’s what we deserve. Choose the Obsolete captures this doomed farce with stinging precision, a time-capsule of the confused and uncertain milieu that hangs in the air and a potent document of the current end of history destined to be discovered in the next millennia underneath a rubble of Bee Movie DVDs, right-wing bumper stickers and MAGA caps.

Liquid Face “Crumbling Structure”

“…Indulgence, anger, impending doom, confusion, finding your place in the world…” lists Aussie weirdo rocker Cal Donald as to his recurring themes. Easily cataloguing the arduous struggle universally felt by humanity wading through a quagmire of rampant authoritarianism and societal implosion, Donald’s casual ticking off of motifs touches a natural and perhaps accidental profundity that belies his irreverent front.

Originally in garage-pysch band Draggs along with fellow scuzz thrasher Kel Mason, Donald has been cutting a similarly warped slice of lo-fi synthpunk with new project Liquid Face, unleashing a string of fuzzed-out minimal dreg choked with rubbery keyboards, murky vocals and acerbic snot. Dropping new EP off the back of pandemic turmoil and isolated rumination via trusty Italian label Goodbye Boozy Records, Crumbling Structure, as the title suggests, soundtracks the rotting orthodoxy that’s inching towards collapse.

“Is this the Police? Fuck you!!!” yelps a cartoon Adolf Hitler from martial arts comedy Kung Fury, opening the album on first track ‘Power Trip’, a seething diatribe against fascistic police and the tiny little men intoxicated with their unearned authority, Donald’s lyrical spits of SS door knocks and WWIII giving disorientating charge with fizzy drum machines and warbling synthlines. The polluted congeal of abrasive guitar attack and acrid sonics doesn’t let up across any of its four songs, buzzing its way violently through ‘Lobotomy’ and ‘Impending Doom’ before the final poisoned invective against the apathetic wealth hoarders in ‘2083’, Donald’s tirade puncturing through the fetid, lo-fi broth with the repeated split-lip of “money, power, less by the hour” stinging with queasy familiarity to any overworked and underpaid millennial/Gen Z.

Saturated with all the punk swagger and derisive humour one expects from the distinct Aussie eggpunk scene, Liquid Face hides an affecting and personal exposure beneath the grime which sets him apart from his freaky contemporaries singing about mutant rats and alien game shows (as great as it is). Crumbling Structure is a gloriously corroded ten minutes of caustic feculence smouldering with radiation burns that perfectly scores the current disintegration of Western Civilisation.

RRS ‘Tonight’

Cardboard is not immediately what comes to mind when seeking inspiration. Perhaps the heavy-duty, paper-based material is unfairly forgotten, a major resource for many budding creative, be it a primary school nativity play to the avant-garde peaks of Hugo Ball’s Cubist costume worn while delivering his Dadaist poem ‘Karawane’.

It’s also a perennially a recurring motif for Bristol artist Robert Ridley-Shackleton. Spending the last decade releasing an exhausting amount of tapes under Cardboard Club and the now-defunct Hissing Frames, RRS has been unleashing a deeply offbeat mesh of idiosyncratic performance art, surreal stand-up and lo-fi tape experiments. Describing himself as “the cardboard simulacrum of the artist formerly alive and known as Prince”, RRS takes the brittle and primitive minimalism of Suicide but infuses the frangible vibe with warped humour and a thoroughly weird take on pop.

Tonight, being the soundtrack to his titular film exhibited at Tusk Virtual Festival, is another fuzzy collection of atonal synths, crude drum machines and stream of consciousness lyrical oddities. RRS’s affection for funk plays out on the title track and EP opener, a skewed and muffled murk of ‘Being Boiled’ style basslines and preset beats which sputters along to the Cardboard Prince’s proclamations of looming stardom, his repeated line “tonight I’m going to be” like a particularly warped episode of Stars in Their Eyes. This congealed slop of bedroom DIY production and RRS’s jocular incongruity never lets up, the roiled pop twisting and turning throughout save album centrepiece ‘Dusty Feeling Vs TJ Laser Face’, a commentary on a wrestling match between the two aforementioned prizefighters strewn with witty musings. RRS is smart enough to keep the EP at a lean length, never allowing the unorthodox nature of the music and delivery ever becoming stretched or testing to the listener.

With RRS being an ‘outsider’ artist in the truest sense of the word, Tonight further cements his reputation as one of Bristol’s most radical and hilarious dilettantes, a gloriously misshapen and absurd piece of work that enthralls with its precarious improvisation, hissing decrepitude and upside-down humour.