Runnybum Records 2013, DD & CC album, 46m 18s
£0+ DD £3 CC
It’s tempting to say that the Hobopope project hasn’t been well documented enough, but I think I’m just saying that I wish Paul David Rhodes would write and record some more songs. This release, from a few years ago, brings together pretty much all the material that I’ve heard, in versions that I think can safely be regarded as definitive. It’s not easy to make much headway with a project like this. Few venues outside of major urban areas are going to want you to make a sound like this on their premises, it’s very hard to find musicians capable of playing such complex, abstract compositions, and although there’s a substantial potential audience, making significant record sales would require intensive, largely unprofitable touring. Given all of these factors, that Rhodes has had the commitment – and sustained the necessary creative vision – to produce the few recordings and play the few gigs that he has is some kind of minor miracle. A small market town in the south of Suffolk is not fertile soil for this sort of endeavour, but avant-garde material like this is, I would argue, important to the health and vitality of culture: this is how we remind ourselves, as creators and audience, that the possibilities are as boundless as the day is long. I don’t subscribe to the modernist idea of the avant-garde as a vanguardist elite, but there are countless examples of experimental work in all media coming to exert a profound influence on the mainstream, and in some cases to transform it utterly. Grunt Gullet Pogrom is not laboratory work, however, but fully engaged in the world, deploying its atonalities the way that metal deploys its distortions, to reclaim the abrasive subversion that long habituation has normalised.
The sound of this record expresses both an aesthetic and an allegiance. The production values are emphatically lo-fi, and the timbres are as raw as possible (although not as distorted as possible – this is noisy stuff, but there is plenty of much heavier music out there). Quiet moments, and the beginnings of songs feature a repertoire of odd noises and squeaks. This is music that quite deliberately eschews polish, and announces itself as a product of the DIY underground. Rhodes has no desire to sound ‘professional’, as though he were a member of special class uniquely qualified to make ‘quality’ music: instead he chooses to sound like a lover of music, an ‘amateur’ in the best sense of the word, who is making the sounds that he enjoys hearing. The music may betray some degree of technical skill – it’s far from easy to compose or perform such unconventional work – but that is entirely incidental to the creative effort. The shambolic aesthetic is not the whole story, by any means, and this is at least as ‘progressive’ as it is ‘punk’. Its lunatic stylings are clearly indebted to Cardiacs, in its atonalities, its additive rhythms, its gently warped (or deeply disturbing) lyrical conceits, and Rhodes’ vocal delivery. This debt is rarely overt as it is in ‘Bag in a bin with a baby in’, which opens with a catatonically slowed-down reading of the manic riff from that band’s ‘R.E.S.’, but even in the least overtly influenced parts of the album (such as the overture from Jesus Christ Superstar) we are in territory that could probably not be traversed had those pioneers not explored it for us. This is not to say that Hobopope is a derivative act, but it is one of few to follow in this set of footsteps – in contrast to the thousands that have followed in the wake of more commercially successful, aesthetically accessible artists. There would be very little mistaking this for anyone else: the textures of Rhodes’ arrangements, with their grinding bass, clattery drums, buzz-saw guitar and churchy organ are distinctive enough, and his musical materials are very much his own. He is very fond of waltz rhythms, presumably for their circus-like associations, but rhythm in general is one of his main playgrounds. Although there is a great deal here that would appear to be in odd time signatures if it were transcribed, for the most part the music is in a straight four, three or two-step, which occasionally flies off on unpredictable additive excursions, where any number of beats may be appended in seemingly random locations. Abrupt and dramatic feel changes are also abundant, as though to wake the listener so complacent as to drift off on any given groove.
That sense, that the music may well turn round and give your nose a twist, unless you watch it very carefully, is a big part of Hobopope’s appeal for me. Although much of it is quite in-your-face weird, it’s always full of humour, and always entertaining. Its unpredictability is both one of its greatest strengths, and one of its most potentially off-putting features: with the best will in the world, some degree of predictability is essential for anyone to understand a piece of music. A record like this, which deliberately strips away many of the conventional manoeuvres that rock music is usually built on, acts as a reminder of just how little variation there is in even quite non-mainstream music. Because Grunt Gullet Pogrom is actually quite conventional in the vast majority of its particulars: the way the instruments sound, the way they work together, the kinds of chords that are used, the kinds of rhythms, the song structures. And yet, most fans of mainstream rock music would find its innovations and aesthetic values utterly bizarre: in all likelihood, it would make sense to them only as comedy. That would be their loss, because although the music is often very funny, that’s not any indication that it is less than serious: I’m sure a lot of fun was had in the making of it, but it’s also obvious that a great deal of effort and careful attention went into it. This is a creatively rigorous record, a work of independent-minded art that plays madcap games with the basic materials of rock and pop. You can laugh with it, but you can also throw yourself around to its vigorous sonic atavism, and if you pay close attention it’s going to stimulate your intellect, whether you want it to or not. Much though Rhodes steers clear of approval-seeking strategies, and deliberately avoids trying to impress us with his musicianship, this is one of the most creatively accomplished, musically innovative albums I’ve heard.