Context is everything. According to his biography Ashley Reaks abandoned academia at an all boys public school after hearing the Ramones “Rocket to Russia” album and seeing Gee Vaucher’s artwork for Crass. After failing his art exam by tracing the cover of the first Ruts album, he embarked on a number of disparate projects including making music, collages and Dadaist poetry. Claims to fame include playing bass on “Take That’s” Mark Owen’s solo album and forming electro-pop outfit Younger Younger 28, who, within 6 months of forming, were playing the main stage at Glastonbury. Spending 2000 to 2009 on a variety of exhibitions, art and poetry tours; including stage appearances in a sheep’s mask making moaning noises, and producing a number of album releases from this tapestry of experiences, including experimental music and spoken word “Melancholia” in 2008.
Now 2012/2013 sees Ashley Reaks release a number of divergent albums including the one under consideration here “Power Failure”. The cover artwork itself displays his obvious love of collage, and reflects perfectly the variety of influences apparent on the music within. ‘From Egg to Worm to Fly’ has a striking refrain which skims briskly over a majestic bass line that any fan of Jah Wobble or Bill Laswell would be delighted to hear.
A lifetime’s interest in poetry is evident on ‘Lucky Gordon’ which, whilst having a naive, child like quality, is brought to maturity by authoritative bass and brass. Then we see the collage effect as ‘No Wonder Camels Spit’ changes the mood to one of introspection through repetitive piano phrases and delicate vernacular that are at times evocative of a possible movie soundtrack by Philip Glass and other minimalist composers. By gradually building layers of texture the piece gathers momentum, whilst still retaining an elusive enigma.
Raising the mood slightly ‘Bulldog Grace’ skips gracefully, whilst ‘Karma Bonfire’ grabs the listener by the lapels with stark, pragmatic poetry, read by Joe Hakim over a disquieting mixture of bass, brass and eastern influenced instrumentation. Here we now see the true spirit of the album, where the aesthetic finds its true voice. ‘Miss Holy Holy’ is electro a capella with a sting in the tail, whilst ‘The Glance of Mercy’ is a further nod to experimental, minimalist music but augmented now with bold percussion and brass lines.
‘Jesus in a Manger’ illustrates entirely the influence of Crass and Gee Vaucher, with its confused, feverish spoken word introduction and unsettling soundtrack. Careful listening reveals the spectrum of influences already acknowledged, from dub, improvisational and experimental jazz through to ambient washes of sound. The barbed vocals become breathless and urgent before fading unsympathetically....
It is quite a disconcerting fact, for readers of a certain age, to realise that it is more than 30 years since the breakup of the Dead Kennedys. Since that time Jello Biafra has engaged with a variety of projects, including Lard and NoMeansNo amongst others, as well as a prolific spoken and written word catalogue. Apparently the Guantanamo School of Medicine project was motivated by Iggy Pop’s 60th birthday party concert at Warfield in San Francisco where Jello decided it was time to form a band of his own for his own 50th birthday party. After “The Audacity of Hope” in 2009 we now have another opportunity to listen and learn from the master of candour on their latest release “White Man and the Damage Done”. One look at the album cover and title will be a relief to long term fans of Jello’s aesthetic.
This assortment opens with a fanfare of tightly produced vigour in “John Dillinger”, which features a frenzied guitar riff that is not only exhilarating enough to bring a smile to the face, but unforgettable enough to fix that smile there. The vocals are dementedly earnest and delivered with the trademark styling that we all know, hopefully, and love so well. “The Brown Lipstick Parade” is equally calculated to be heard and stick into some corner of the imagination to be brought out when the listener needs reminding of certain political truths. Lines such as “We are the Illumi-Nazis, You’re the food chain we devour, laughing all the way to China, Giving you the golden shower”, are vintage Biafra and should be considered carefully and with tongue in cheek.
“Road Rage” is reminiscent of the Dead Kennedy’s “Buzzbomb from Pasadena” with Biafra adopting an almost farcical vocal which helps draw the listener in to the lyrical content and underlying message. “Mid-East Peace Process” has a furious momentum which feels as if it could collapse at any moment but is reined in with precision, whilst “Hollywood Goof Disease” is characterised by a gorgeously vintage surf guitar sound that fans of Biafra’s earlier work will be contented with.
For the listener in the right frame of mind, the title track “White People and the Damage Done” will bring tears of nostalgia and elation, and possibly cause the most belligerent old fan to secretly air guitar along, whereas “Burgers of Wrath” is a slice of insurgent electric country. The album closes with four remixes including a brass version of “The Brown Lipstick Parade” and a version of “Crapture” which develops, as the title suggests, into a “Flight F.I.N.A.L Space Blast Extension”....