self released 2015, DD & CD album, 37m 53s
£7+ DD £? CD
Ashley Reaks speaks from outside. His work is most obviously ‘outsider art’ if you look at his visual work, rather than his music: his collage-based pieces, deliberately ugly as they are (although they are often richly and decoratively patterned), with their disturbing, and frequently sexually explicit iconography, position themselves unequivocally away from the mainstream, far from the clean white gallery wall (metaphorically, at least – I have no idea what his shows look like!). Aside from the fact that he uses his own work as cover art, Reaks does not refuse socially conventional framing devices for his music in quite the same way, and the aesthetic impact of the songs on Before Koresh is not confrontational: instead, his jaundiced, scab-picking lyrical texts are smuggled through on the backs of insistently grooving, melodically and timbrally pleasing musical textures. Dubby, modal jams are more frequently decorated with the shapely curlicues of Dave Kemp’s saxophones than they are with disturbing vocalisations like those which conclude ‘Wearside Jack’. This is not to say that the sound of his music signals ‘mainstream pop fun’, but it certainly doesn’t tell anyone that it’s not for them, in the way that much of his visual work does. I would guess that this does not indicate a deliberate difference in approach, so much as it does a desire to represent Reaks’ personal perspective in the ways that each medium best affords. Ugly music provokes a far stronger negative reaction than ugly visual art, largely because music envelopes us in its world as long as we can hear it, coercing the unwilling, and constructing its affective meanings in the listening subject rather than offering them to be read out through the active engagement of the viewer’s gaze. An outsider’s perspective on the wall can be ignored: we can look away. Before Koresh does not present an outsider’s perspective on musical aesthetics, just on more or less everything else… And whether or not you believe that objectivity is possible, an informed outsider’s perspective is disinterested and illuminating in a way that those with market or institutional validation find hard to emulate. There is no self-promoting sycophancy in the pleasures of this music, only the appeal of one self-defined voice to the ears of the curious.
The instrumental resources of these arrangements put them firmly in rock territory, but they aren’t saturated with guitar, and there are forays into melodic terrain, from both lead guitar and saxophone, that is clearly indebted to jazz. The gritty, trebly, picked bass sounds that Reaks sometimes favours are reminiscent of post-punk and new wave, but he is also prone to employ a deep, round bass and counterpose it to upper-register delays in a distinctly dubby fashion. These songs are all built around grooves, the kind of steady, methodical grooves that are as characteristic of electronic dance music as they are of rock: they don’t tend to be aggressively syncopated like funk, but they are certainly compelling, and they sound as though their intended audience is one that may well be dancing as well as listening. Several tunes feature keyboard voices that are reminiscent of music boxes or thumb pianos, and Reaks has a liking for layers of syncopated figures (in the guitar as well as keyboards and percussion) that are equally reminiscent of African percussion ensembles (forgive my ignorance, I know that’s extremely general) and of Minimalist art music compositions. Outlining a similar aesthetic, or contributing equally to this album’s aesthetic, which is nothing if not coherent, are the layered vocalisations that Maria Jardardottir contributes at the close of ‘Crystal’; this talented and creative singer’s offerings throughout are as beautiful as they are gnomic, articulated in a language that I am unfamiliar with, and which she gives the impression she may have invented. What sounds like a flute on ‘Hyper-Diseasy’ is presumably the bass recorder that Kemp is credited with, and I mention it simply to indicate the range of resources that Reaks brings to bear. These are complex arrangements, as richly textured as his collages, and though they are far from conventional, they are very appealing to the ear, producing a sense of a habitable space, full of creative agents, a place to which the listener seems to be invited, a place of beauty, communality and play. Such a range of sources and influences, described in the abstract, might suggest something bitty and eclectic, but I am merely struggling to tease apart the threads of a tight-knit fabric, one that feels as solid as the product of a tradition, although to be honest, I’ve never heard anything quite like it. There is a powerful sense of stylistic stability, of meaningfulness, of personal expression in the music, but this is only part of the story.
If the songs have a common theme, it is the antithesis of that sense of the meaningful. I hesitate to characterise them with too broad a brush, as there is a depth and breadth of meaning in play here, and there is more than one voice speaking through the album. Kevin Boniface contributes a spoken word piece, ‘Mr. Barton and the Squirrels’, that neatly encapsulates the territoriality of the little-Englander, and explores the limits of compassion, while Joe Hakim provides two longer and more disturbing poems, outlining heartbreakingly particular (if quite wickedly satirical) scenarios that illustrate (among other things) the absence of hope from the lives of the urban poor. A recurring theme in Reaks’ own lyrics is the point of intersection between despair and the erotic, with ‘Hyper-Diseasy’ and ‘Hell And Back Again’ both riffing on the desperation with which bodies cling together when their minds are alienated and adrift. He is also, as I knew from his earlier Compassion Fatigue 1-8, interested in some of the more disturbing characters thrown up by industrial and post-industrial society. The title tune examines the directionless apathy that makes some vulnerable to the sense of community and messianic promise offered by cults, and ‘Wearside Jack’ psychologises the well-known Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer, whose misdirection is believed to have cost at least one woman her life. Such characters are grist to the mill of some tendencies in death metal and grindcore, but where they are celebrated in those genres, presented for their shock value, or their implicit challenge to ‘decency’ and convention, Reaks knows why he’s interested and what they have to tell us. In fact, if there is a unifying theme to his lyrical concerns (and his songs are certainly too complex to be tied down to a single idea), these nutters offer the key. He is not drawn to these characters as freaks, as aberrations or exceptions, but as symptomatic of the more general sense of affective dis-ease that afflicts his characters, and indeed the society of which he offers such a compelling critique. They are emblematic of social dysfunction, not inexplicable ruptures in the social order as they are usually represented. Common to the people in his songs, and those in the spoken word contributions of Boniface and Hakim, is a sense of inadequacy and exclusion, a blind, desperate hunt for meaning by those to whom none has been given by community or society. The unequivocally beautiful, purposeful and often virtuosic musical settings that act as vehicles for these articulations of failure and despair, are the erotic, self-expressive counterpart to the pain and anomie, the symbol of the broken and marginalised fucking the pain away (to paraphrase Peaches). It happens more than once that the grim apotheosis of a song’s character is followed immediately by the cathartic, self-actualising contours of a guitar or saxophone in solo melodic flight, releasing in sound the potential that many are unable to release in the stultifying routine of their meaning-starved daily lives. The album is a great listen, for all its darkness, but it is also a strikingly perceptive critique of the dysfunctional ways in which our society constructs identity. It might be that these meanings will only become apparent if you listen as closely as I have, but I am very glad that I have done so, because this record is a real creative achievement, on all levels. Ashley Reaks is an outsider very much in command of his materials: Before Koresh shows him to be an extremely skilled musician, and a man with profound artistic vision.