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Book review of "The Combinations" by Louis Armand for the "2016 Not The Booker Prize"
August 2016
The Combinations is Louis Armand’s eighth novel to date, and undoubtedly his masterpiece. Clocking in at more than 900 pages (including coda), the book is hardly an “easy read” – not something you’d pick up in the airport bookshop to while away the hours. This is literature with a big “L”, replete with arcane references, historical riffing, myth and legend that would require a doctorate in the humanities to fully access. And yet for all this, it is eminently readable, a page-turner, no less. At its heart, The Combinations is a good old-fashioned detective novel – albeit one that has more in common with Eco’s The Name of the Rose than anything by James Ellroy. Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses might also be useful markers, but only inasmuch as Armand’s narrative ambition and breadth of vision – not to mention his erudition – are of a similar stature to those of Pynchon and Joyce. The central character Němec is reminiscent of a post-communist Malone or Molloy, but he also shares a fractured sense of time and space with the anti-hero Blake, from Armand’s 2012 novel Breakfast at Midnight. As we follow Němec’s day-to-day peregrinations around “Golem City” (a vision of Prague as a psychogeographical chess board), we encounter a cornucopia of historical and mythological characters, from Faust and Edward Kelly, to Enoch and Hermes Trismegistus, with Reinhard Heydrich and Rudolf Slánský in walk-on roles. The ostensible grail at the end of Němec’s quest – if indeed there is an end – is the mysterious Voynich Manuscript: a work of Renaissance philology “Composed by an Unknown Author, in an Unknown Language, (which) had, over the course of its moderately long history, attracted the various attentions of occultists, amateur riddlers, pseudoscientists & crackpots of every stripe from the four corners of the globe…” This description should at least give you an idea of the novel’s trajectory, its gallows humour, it’s fascination with the flora and fauna of occult history and literary in-jokes. Two central mysteries remain: how Armand has managed to structure so much learning into something so readable; and why he remains “under the radar” to mainstream literary critics and the reading public in general.

Lizard Pool "She Took The Colours" (Upart-Prod/Brachialpop), 2014
The name Lizard Pool immediately makes me think of those weird, sub-aquatic scenes in Hollywood bungalows that Jim Morrison wrote about on the album LA Woman. It also conjures pictures of Manson Family assassins prowling through the back garden of Roman Polanski’s house, just prior to slaughtering his beautiful and glamorous wife, Sharon Tate. Or then again, what about the opening scene of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, with William Holden as Joe Gillis floating face down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool? Whatever the case, it certainly is an evocative and iconic name, rich in sinister undertones and dark whispers from the edges of the unconscious.
It also reminds me of “gene pool”. And not in the sense of pissing in it, either (to quote another denizen of the Californian night, Henry Rollins). No, this album comes from an exceptionally pure and unadulterated musical gene pool – which isn’t exactly surprising when you learn that the singer and main songwriter of Lizard Pool is one Vincent Oley, son of the estimable Makarios of German post-punkers, Die Art. This isn’t to say that Lizard Pool’s music is in any way similar to Die Art (other than that both bands are high calibre art projects with an international reach). But if music be the food of love, and artistic excellence can somehow be inherited, it may go some way towards explaining this phenomenal debut album, which seems to have sprung fully formed from its creators’ collective brow.
The album starts with the crystalline guitar figure of “Give Me Your Anger”,  before a dark and heavy bass line enters the fray, conjuring classic UK post punk bands such as Joy Division, The Sound, The Chameleons, Magazine and The Cure. Or maybe Crispy Ambulance, that little known and underrated Manchester band which released a few classic albums and singles at the dawn of the 1980s (Tony Wilson of Factory Records once said that while Crispy Ambulance was a great band, they had the worst name of all time – an accusation that certainly can’t be levelled at Lizard Pool). As the slightly Bowie-esque vocals come in, Mr Oley asks the listener to “Give me your anger/I’ll cool it down/Give me your demons to drown/Show me your nightmares/I’ll get you out” – which are ambiguous sentiments, to say the least. Is this romantic empathising, or an invitation to something much darker, a possibly self-destructive and self-immolating flirtation with unconscious forces that may just prove to be too much to handle? As the momentum of the song increases and builds to a climax, the listener is again reminded of the classic era of UK post-punk. But at the same time the lyrics and  atmosphere of this song (and those that follow it) has something peculiarly Deutsch about it, not at all like the atmosphere that pervades works such as Secondhand Daylight or Three Imaginary Boys. I would characterise this feeling as one of “heroic melancholy”: the desire to reach and attain the highest ideals in love and in life, and the simultaneous realisation that any such attempts are finally and irrevocably doomed to failure. I think this feeling is what the Germans themselves call Weltschmerz – which is a very un-English sentiment, in spite of Ian Curtis’s existential despair (now I think about it, Joy Division was probably the most Germanic of UK post-punk bands, notwithstanding the very Mancunian sense of black humour that pervades their outlook).
The Lizard Pool movie continues with “Movie House”, which again has me thinking of Hollywood and the Morrison Hotel. But the robotic drum beat conjures Joy Division and The Cure, who in turn took a lot of their musical inspiration from the “Kraut Rock” bands of the early 70s, trail-blazers such as Can, Kraftwerk and Amon Düül II. At the same time, the vocals emote Syd Barret era Pink Floyd, or maybe Robin Hitchcock of The Soft Boys – at any rate the lyrical vibe here reminds me of classic English psychedelia, filtered through late 70s poets of the perverse such as Paul Roland and the aforementioned Mr. Hitchcock. All of which makes for fascinating listening, as one tries to get a grip on where exactly these imaginary German boys are coming from.
And the whole album is like this, a kaleidoscope of musical reference points that finally evades any easy categorization (though it’s fun to try). Other standout tracks are “A Gloomy Day”, “Faceless King” and “Nacht In Scherben”, with its deliciously shredded guitars. The only reservation I have is the final track, “I Will Not Dance”, which mines the Joy Division seam a bit too deeply for comfort. But this is a small complaint, and it certainly does nothing to detract from the overall excellence of “She Took The Colours”. And the feeling of melancholy which pervades the whole thing, the existential striving-for-the-stars-and-falling-back-to-earth, is a seductive and heady drug, a trance-inducing invitation to collapse into la petite morte and abandon oneself to the vortex of self-annihilating (but elevating) despair. A classic album of poésie maudite with music that evokes the high water mark of post punk experimental rock, while maintaining an atmosphere and approach all its own. A fantastic and inspiring debut album.

Review for Nikki Sudden's album "Treasure Island" (Rockwood 001/2004)
published in "Ptolemaic Terrascope", 2004
Treasure Island, Nikki Sudden's latest musical offering, is a high class affair imbued with the mythology and legends of Blues and Rock & Roll, both metaphorically and literally. This time around Nikki has pulled out all the stops and has surrounded himself with a group of musicians who include such legendary figures as Mick Taylor, Ian McLagan and BJ Cole, to name but a few. Together with regular collaborator Dave Kusworth, and ex-Jacobites Glenn Tranter and Carl Eugene Picot, Nikki and his present band The Last Bandits have cooked up a pot-pourri of musical excellence guaranteed to refresh the most jaded of listeners. Even the humble CD booklet has, in this case, been turned into a work of art. With its stylish reproductions of old Blues labels, comic book illustrations and adventure story scenarios, it harks back to the halcyon days of the gatefold sleeve when the artwork and design were almost as enthralling as the music.
Nikki has been dancing his way down the Rock & Roll highway for over twenty-five years now, starting with independent legends Swell Maps in the mid-seventies and continuing with The French Revolution and The Jacobites through the 80's and 90's. With the new album he seems to have reached a high point in his fabulous and varied musical career, and the songwriting and production values have never been better. My favourite track is Russian River, a magical, romantic tale of the love affair between a Russian Princess and a down-at-heel musician; but really, there isn't a duff song on the whole album. Nikki's ability to create a hermetic world of his own is evident throughout the CD, and he somehow manages to take the murkiest of Blues and Rock & Roll legends and transmute them into his own mythology. A master storyteller, no less, and a guitar player who has been quoted as an inspiration by such renowned musicians as Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Peter Buck of REM.
Other standout tracks include Kitchen Blues (with Mick Taylor's evil-sounding guitar recalling The Stones at their satanic best), and Sanctified, which harks back to Nikki's collaboration with Rowland S. Howard on Kiss You Kidnapped Charabanc. Fall Any Further brings a change of pace, with a Tamla Motown bass line and sexy backing vocals from The Girls, while the song Treasure Island kicks in with a killer guitar riff that is so dirty that you have to wash it out of your ears afterwards.
Produced by the great John Rivers at WSRS in Leamington Spa, Treasure Island is a labour of love from a man who lives it as he speaks it. Whether he's playing prestigious venues in the USA or smoky kellar bars in east Berlin, Nikki Sudden just keeps on doing what he does best-snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, while creating his own magical world of great, kick-ass, independent Rock & Roll music.

Review for Nikki Sudden's album "Treasure Island" (Rockwood 001/2004), published in "Bucketfull Of Brains", 2004
What is there to say about the latest album by a man who has already released about thirty of them (not to mention innumerable singles, compilations, collaborations and limited editions)? Nikki Sudden is nothing if not prolific, but Treasure Island marks a high point in his long and varied musical career, one that has led him from the sonic experiments of Swell Maps back in the 1970's, through the melodic grunge pop of The French Revolution and the Jacobites in the 80's and 90's, up to and including his present outfit, The Last Bandits. Not to ignore his collaborative efforts with artists as diverse as Rowland S. Howard, Peter Buck and Mike Scott, of course.
On Treasure Island, Nikki has pulled out all the stops. The first thing you notice is the booklet, a lovingly wrought artefact that really deserves to be released in its own right. Paying homage to pulp literature, classic record label designs, and the kind of advertisements for 'hot' new records that you might have found in the Melody Maker and Record Mirror of a bygone era, the artwork is a must for anyone with a sense of humour and an interest in the history of popular music.
The music itself is a beautifully produced selection of grungy rockers and heart-wrenching ballads, the kind of thing that Nikki is well known for but elevated here to a new level of accomplishment and execution. Surrounded by a host of great musicians-The Last Bandits, old stalwarts like Dave Kusworth and Glenn Tranter, plus international names such as Mick Taylor, Ian McLagan and BJ Cole-Nikki lives out one fantasy after another as he wends his way down that two lane blacktop to Rock & Roll nirvana. Right from the opening track-Looking For A Friend, a classic Sudden boogie in the tradition of Aeroplane Blues-the album never hits a false emotional note, and is a testament to the man's total immersion in the legends and mythology of popular music.
Standout tracks for me are Stay Bruised-a rich, romantic ballad that could make a navvy break down in tears-Kitchen Blues, Russian River and High And Lonesome. With Mick Taylor on guitar, Kitchen Blues cooks and percolates with the spirit of 666, while Russian River finds Mr. Sudden in mystical, magical, romantic mode as he tells the story of a Russian princess and a penniless musician. This one is a true classic, with aching, yearning lyrics and evocative pedal steel guitar from BJ Cole that grows on you more each time you listen to it. High And Lonesome, by way of contrast, is a brooding low-key blues for those retrospective moments at 5am when the party has ended, all the drugs and alcohol are gone, and the dregs of your life taste like poison. A kind of musical Maldoror imbued with the spirit of Robert Johnson, this is a hymn for all those lost souls who have taken the road of decadence and refuse to turn back, no matter what.
But to be honest, the whole album is comprised of standout tracks, a rare thing these days when most CDs contain three or four good songs at most. Produced by the mighty John Rivers at WSRS, Leamington Spa, and released on Nikki's own Rookwood label, Treasure Island is exactly that-a magical island of excellence in a sea of major label crap. The spirit of truly independent music lives on!