The Ultimate A To Z Of Album Reviews By Gary Steel – F

Gary Steel is slowly compiling all his album reviews in one place. This is a work in progress, or what we call a “live document”. Today is the letter ‘F’.



?Fog – Fatman With A Big Dork (self-released 7-inch EP)

1986/Wellington City Magazine

For this noisy bunch of beats, punk and garage are just words to signify the stylistic dissonance that moulds the sound. What we really have here is devil-may-care as a way of life, a cartoon of contempt in a lance of the living bored. Four cheap and nasty stabs at songs, the best of which is indisputably ‘Move Your Brain. Play it to the one you love. ‘Fatman With A Big Dork’ is plagued by shards of unplanned feedback and Sam’s (a woman) deadpan mean aside: “Look where it got him/Cancer of the scrotum”. Whew! There’s life in the old fridge yet. 8/10


Marianne Faithfull – Dangerous Acquaintances (Island)

Not as immediate as Broken English, but the long-awaited newie shows that Faithfull has staying power now that she’s back in the race. Sensibly, DA relies on self-written material which, although not bristling with the classic lines of the covers on BE, do have an effective, affecting melancholy presence. It won’t strike you full in the face, but if you give it the chance it’ll grow with each listening. 6/10


The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace (Beggars Banquet)

1986/Evening Post

The Fall sound self-satisfied and disinterested. At their best, Mark E. Smith’s realisation has created some of the best dada anti-rock and explored artlessness in art to the very limits of music-making. When Smith’s senses are not betraying him, his brand is a busy bee, a killer machine of simultaneous percussion on all available instruments. On the evidence hereby presented I would posit a notion The Fall have lost their maverick spirit. Fans are acclaiming the album as a return to form. I think of it more as the same and less of the same; the direction, the sense of purpose and the anger seems to have trailed away. Has marriage turned Smith into a career man? While ‘Spoilt Victorian Child’ could have featured on one of the better Fall albums, doodles like ‘LA’ are gruesome failures and diversions such as ‘I Am Damo Suzuki’ are just that – diversions, not new directions. 6/10


The Farmer’s Boys – Muck It Out (EMI)

This 12-inch is kinda nice. As much as I despise the whole pop revival fashion thang dispensed by NME, there are gems in most slag-heaps. ‘Muck It Out’ is an extended version which dubs it up without losing the song’s essentially pop feel. The only qualm is with the vocals which, as good as they are, fall on the wrong side of precious. ‘Funky Combine, John’ reminds me of the whimsical Monochrome Set, only more posey, less prissy. The short version of ‘Much It Out’ offers, appropriately, less than the extended version. 1983 got off to a slow start. Can I detect an improvement? 7/10


Fetus Productions – Fetus Product (self-released)

April 1982/In Touch

This oddity out of the blue is heady, heavy stuff. It’s the sort of album that occasionally springs up from nowhere and really turns your head around.

No band details, just a strange monochrome graphic on the cover. White label. It begins with a resounding THUMP and grating. The first song is totally hypnotic and textural in a not dissimilar way to that seminal German group, Faust. Then it’s straight into free-form avant noise. Violins sawing away with a background of earth-shaking bass thumps. A mantra-like voice reciting over synthesised sounds. Distorted, treated voices. The side finishes with weird voices in the runout groove.

The second side has conventional and strange moments. One track is a series of fright-evoking scream-type sounds. Truly exploratory stuff.

What a surprise to find that this brilliant, Sydney-recorded album is by three ex-Features (they being the near-legendary NZ raw nerve anti-rock band) Jed Town, Karl van Bergen and James Pinker, plus Sarah Ward and Mike Brookfield. And word has it they’ll be touring NZ at some stage. Can’t wait! This record stuns. 8/10


Fetus Productions – Perfect Product (Flying Nun)

1986/Wellington City Magazine

Auckland’s Fetus Productions are an under-recognised success, having lived in and found acclaim in both Japan and England. Their music is avant shock sabotage rock of frightening proportions, a nihilistic goodbye and good riddance to societal order as seen through the jaundiced eyes of the sons of corrupt and emotionally bankrupt systems. This 4-track EP begins on a recognisable chord with ‘Flicker’, the sort of melody you’d hear the day after the lobotomy when the morphine’s still surging through what’s left of the brain. ‘Backbeat’ is ugly, with wedges of sax and vocals that sound like Phil Judd gone psycho. “Here it comes again” it intones as the noise comes crushing down. ‘Anthem’ and an unlisted track are even stranger. And this record represents the commercial aspect of the band? 8/10


Fetus Productions – Luminous Trails (Flying Nun)

1986/Wellington City

Luminous Trails commits a cardinal sin by including practically all the material from Perfect Product, an EP released earlier this year. The second Fetus album is a patchy affair with some stunning pieces that compensate for its more meandering moments. NZ’s only experimental rock conception, Fetus Productions have, on the evidence of this album, limited what seemed a truly frightening vision to a mere subplot in someone’s horror movie. The method employed means a sound level that is augmented with overdubbed stabs of sound; a technique that proves very effective at high volume, but one that seems over-employed here. Not as special as it could or should be, Luminous Trails has some utterly captivating moments. 6/10


Tim Finn – Big Canoe (Virgin)

1986/Wellington City

Ex-Enz Finn has mercifully lost all traces of the tweeness that characterised his first solo attempt, A Fraction Too Much Friction. His big shot at the bigtime, Big Canoe is a mature work, and the songwriter hasn’t lost his touch. The lyrics are co-written with playwright Jeremy Brock, but the advantages don’t manifest themselves over the project. The hi-tech production job does, however, and to the record’s detriment: melodies and vocal lines get lost in a mass of overdubs and ectoplasmic excess. This new production methodology has blighted dozens of releases recently, and makes the concept of performance redundant. The positive effects include consistent use of sweet violins and some rare contributions by former cohort Phil Judd, whose sitar playing on ‘Hyacinth’ is positively unsettling. 6/10


First XV EP (Ashtray Records)

December 1982/IT Magazine

NZ single of the year, no less! The First XV’s recording debut is as good as the potential suggested by their recent rough’n’ready performances. Superficially, there is a Fall influence at play – listen to the cynical, deadpan vocals, especially. But their attitude reminds me more of The Damned, a group who would never lay a claim to be the world’s greatest virtuosos/’musicians’ per se but display a pleasing aptitude for playing around with music and fun.

In one sense these guys don’t give a fuck. But unlike others who pretend to fit this category, they’re moving forward, they have an appreciation of their own intrinsic worth, and the comparative simplicity and humour in the sound belie an intelligence and slyness in strategy.

The four songs on their EP are representative and well-recorded. ‘Fascist Tango’ comes the closest to a Fall-type approach, and features a typically NZ pleb protagonist and a persistent sense of humour. ‘Ashtray’ and ‘Staff Car’ are my favourites. Both have jumping rhythms (remember Shoes This High?) and ranting lyric lines full of mirth and derision. ‘Boots’ is a hilarious – and monumentally successful – rewrite of the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra song.

First XV may never release another (worthwhile) record. (I think they will). But they’re indicative of the current strain of NZ bands which are getting their initial great flashes down on vinyl before they can go stale, break up or move onto something else. This is great stuff. Give it to Aunty Flo. 8/10


Fischer Z – Word Salad (United Artists)

1979/Evening Post

Suffering from the same syndrome as 10cc – lots of interesting, quirky ideas melded to pop music does not necessarily great music make – Fischer Z’s album is a clean-sounding, sterile cross between that group and the new wave. Only ‘Lies’ and ‘Remember Russia’ have a certain menacing factor. 5/10


Fishschool – Present Time ‘83/Past-Times ’81-’82 (self-released cassette)


Fishschool, currently back to being three-quarters of Shoes This High (albeit many light years removed in some respects) have promised a single for some time now. No-one, however, prepared me for this 90 unrelenting minutes of Fishphilosophy, much of it totally freeform, and the rest of it heading in that direction.

There’s a considerable diversity here, which makes enforced (ie. deadline-rushed) assimilation impossible. Although I usually prefer hearing experiments with song format attached, most of these bits’n’pieces don’t aspire to obscurity; they are appreciable as expressive and interesting sounds.

This tape is a kind of summary of the group’s explorations since Fishschool was born. Side 1 is recent, while Side 2 covers 1981-’82. Fishschool as represented here are basically Jessica Walker (bass), Kevin Hawkins (guitar) and various friends. Chris Plummer, Shoes This High drummer who rejoined recently, is heard on only a couple of tracks.

These three are phenomenal musicians, capable of incredibly forceful, physical and rule-breaking musical creation. Unfortunately for me, the more formal side of the group barely gets a look-in, although it is to be found on a few tracks. The one actual gripe I have is with the sound quality: it could be better! You might get it from IMA HITT, Box 407, New Plymouth, or 6 Valley Rd, Mt Eden, Auckland. 7/10


Flesh D-Vice – Secrets Of The Estranged (Jayrem)

1986/Wellington City Magazine

Nah, no secrets divulged. Just more songs about dead women, dead film stars (‘Legend Of Lugosi’) and other acrid, acid imaginings; strictly comic-book adolescent, naturellement. This album has a monstrous sound. It’s extremely well-recorded and makes fine aggro fodder for noisy drinking moods. The bass graunches, the drums bang and snap and sizzle, the guitar gnarls and the voice growls. No mean feat. Somewhere, secreted in a place no man can find, there is a core to this music. The core is empty, void, a dumb chewy centre locked away in a heart of stone. Explain? I can’t be bovvered. 5/10


Focus – Focus On Focus (EMI)

1980/Evening Post

Dutch band Focus represents all that is good and bad about that dated genre some call ‘techno-rock’ or ‘art-rock’ or ‘classical-rock or…

Virtuoso musicians from classical backgrounds, the group first played together in the Dutch version of Hair in 1969, and subsequently practised their own formula on some six albums before biting the dust in 1977.

Their music was a somewhat polite amalgam of formalist classical, jazz and rock influences. Unfortunately, the jazz content is in this case a ‘style’ rather than the real jazz definition – improvisation. The rock influence is some cutting, repetitious riffs, electrified instruments and little else.

The influences combined produced a sometimes exhilarating blend, but most often sound not a million kilometres away from that awful piped Muzak heard in so many office foyers.

But shame, shame – it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Focus On Focus is an obituary ‘best of’ compilation. Criminally, it’s a Dutch-compiled release with eight of the 14 tracks from the group’s waning days in 1977. Only six tracks are from their height of popularity in ’72-’73. Another grumble is the shoddy packaging, including badly translated liner notes on the back sleeve.

But Focus On Focus makes for enjoyable background music, and your mother will like it, or at least some of it.

The best tracks are the classic novelty ‘Hocus Pocus’ (Euro heavy metal yodelling ditty), the early Jethro Tullish ‘House Of The King’, ‘Tommy’ and ‘Sylvia’, both relaxed, lush pieces with lovely lyrical guitar.

The rest are very pleasant but the novelty quickly wears off. ‘Haren Scarem’ tries to repeat ‘Hocus Pocus’ and fails dismally, while ‘No Hangups’, ‘Focus IV’ and ‘Focus II’ cross the dangerously thin line between good taste and easy listening pap.

The worse moments come on the last-made material. The effete ‘Mother Focus’ can only be described as cheap twaddle, while ‘Brother’ (presumably PJ Proby on vocals) goes for sheerly embarrassing melodrmatics. Cringe.

It’s a shame. How could a group of such exceptional instrumentalists as Thijs Van Leer (keyboards, flute), Jan Akkerman and Philip Catherine (guitar) so so low?

When it worked, the formula worked well, but they failed because their combination of different musical forms was calculated and shallow, and the group had limited feeling for the rock idiom, despite their (mistaken) choice to work within the popular music field. 6/10


Ellen Foley – Night Out (Epic)

1979/Evening Post

Ellen Foley does the Phil Spector wall-of-sound technique on Night Out. 5/10


Foreigner – Head Games (Atlantic)

1979/Evening Post

Foreigner was contrived to fill the gap left by Bad Company during their years of slumber. This latest finds them wallowing in a stylish production with nothing to sing about, or play. 3/10


Foreign Press – The Great Divide (EMI)


Mancunian five-piece with synth-generated (incon)sequential riddums, slight wisps of songs, and everything plus the kitchen sink production by a New Order person and an A Certain Ratio person, seeks undiscriminating hi-fi buff or disco floor bunny. Guaranteed non-toxic and non-addictive. (Contains many artificial ingredients). 5/10


The Fourmyula – The Most Of (EMI)

1993/RTR Countdown

Leaving aside quibbles about cheap packaging, this is an essential greatest hits collection that clearly shows the importance of The Fourmyula in NZ’s pop history. A huge success in the late ‘60s, they started out sounding like a Kiwi Monkees and ended up with the classic sound heard on the still fresh-as-daisies ‘Nature’ (successfully covered last year by The Muttonbirds). Charming, innocent and funny. 8/10

John Foxx – Metamatic (Virgin/RTC)

1980/Evening Post

John Foxx is no Numan clone. His Metamatic may sound strikingly similar on initial listenings, but repeat plays reveal a depth of vision lacking in Numan’s posturings. Numan acknowledges Foxx, former leader of Ultravox, as a major influence. Try ‘Underpass’ and ‘No-One Driving’ for starters. 8/10


Foxy – Hot Numbers (Epic)

1979/Evening Post

Heavily percussive Cuban-influenced disco with weak vocals. 5/10


Free Radicals – Polarities


Free Radicals are a Wellington trio comprising composer Ross Harris (synth, flugelhorn), Jonathan Besser (synth, bass, vocals), and Gerry Meister (flute, guitar, effects). Polarities was independently produced and recorded at the Victoria University Electronic Music Studio. The sound quality is very good.

The title track takes up the first side. It begins with muted atmospherics with flute to the forefront and affects a quick shift of pace to accommodate spacey guitar work, whizzing synths and drum machines.

Three tracks span Side 2. ‘Water Music’ again begins with prominent treated flute. Unlike water, though, it doesn’t flow freely, and is gleefully insubstantial. ‘Space Music’ has computerised voices beaming down informing us that “We can see through the roof of your house, see you breathing… it’s alright, it’s space music!” Well! It bursts into fast compu-drums and a flurry of noises. This song at least shows the band have something approaching a sense of humour. ‘Summer Rain’ concludes the LP and is, within its own terms, probably the most successful track. Its refrain (carried by synthesiser) could almost be described as ‘jazzy’ and one supposes could sit quite nicely as the soundtrack over the opening credits of some warm romantic French movie… gentle rain on city streets, fond embraces, moving cars, etc.

This largely synthetic music must be some kind of first for New Zealand. As such, Free Radicals must be commended. I must add though, that such a notoriously sterile medium won’t titillate the casual music fan. People still require strong emotions and imagery that’s more than decorative afterthought. Essentially, there is (correct me if I’m wrong) nothing here that pre-Autobahn Kraftwerk, Klaus Schulz and other German synth technicians weren’t working on in the early 1970s. Available from Box 4065, Wellington. 6/10


Freur – Doot Doot (CBS 45)


The first 45 from German-influenced British synth group Freur is, in the opinion of CBS, the outer limits of weirdness. It is, in fact, derivative, harmless fluff; a non-descript song with weak vocals and passable synth backing. Perhaps the album will reveal more substance in Freur. In the meantime, CBS could afford to look a little further, if it’s weirdness they’re after. 5/10


Robert Fripp – The League Of Gentlemen (Editions EG)

1981/In Touch

Fripp’s certainly explored the terrain since those wonderful King Crimson LPs of the early ‘70s. Since his first solo Exposure in ’77, which displayed him as an eclectic musician, he has narrowed his interests down to one area per album.

The League Of Gentleman has no great pretentions. It is simply a document of the touring band of that name Fripp had under his wing for the duration of 1980. The songs are cute, funky little musicianly exercises, fairly mild and definitely listenable. The memorable components of the sound are, predictably enough, Fripp’s own guitar and Barry Andrews’ (ex-XTC) keyboards. The one annoying sound factor is the drumming of Kevin Wilkinson. It could be the mix, or perhaps due to the NZ pressing, but the drum sound is ‘orrible.

So, what we’ve got is none of the heavy riffing or the tape-looped guitaring Fripp is famed for, but rather a selection of pleasantly bizarre little ditties.

Unfortunately, some spoken passages totally ruin sections of the album, and generally taint the whole exercise. Some of the spoken asides are quite humorous on first listening, others are just embarrassing, forcing one to skip tracks.

Frustrating, because Fripp did the same thing on Exposure with far greater success. But he’s just far too British and academic to ever do a believable ‘Zappa’.

Hey, but King Crimson are back together again! Now that’s news! 7/10


From Scratch – 3 Pieces From Gung Ho 1, 2, 3D (Hit Singles 12-inch EP)


Here is an example of the music I least like to review under deadline pressure; that which has to be understood in order to be appreciated. From Scratch are Geoff Chapple, Phil Dadson, Wayne Laird and Don McGlashan (remember Blam Blam Blam?), playing unusual percussion instruments on a record that is unsurprisingly highly rhythmic. Unfortunately, the concept on this record uses a theoretical base (with a visual structure) – a common practice in avant garde circles – which means to the uninitiated that without express effort, the music will not reveal itself as intended.

The instruments used by From Scratch are weird and wonderful – giant racks of pitched plastic tubing, PVC pipes, etc. The special sounds, tones and textures produced take a while to be heard; the truly unfamiliar always takes time to impress. I’m now becoming quite prone to the more varied textures of Side 2’s three tracks, while Side 1’s extended 10-minute cut will take a while more.

RCA’s Kiwi label Hit Singles (what a misnomer!) must be congratulated for beginning on such experimental terrain. 6/10


From Scratch – Pacific 3.2.1 Zero (Part 1)/Drum Sing (Flying Nun)

1986/Wellington City Magazine

Resounding emptily down the noble halls of failed academia, the previous From Scratch recording, 3 Pieces From Gung Ho 1, 2, 3D quite failed to match its avowed intentions in actual music. Hitting various found and formed objects, subsuming individual egos to work together in highly disciplined polyrhythmic harmony, Philip Dadson, Wayne Laird and Don McGlashan go some way towards capturing the collective spirit sought on these two pieces. ‘Pacific 3, 2, 1, Zero’ and ‘Drum/Sing’ at a side per piece (time: 49 minutes) are best played at substantial volume to capture the ringing resonance to full effect. At best, From Scratch are highly original, mesmeric and liberating. At worst, their architectural aesthetic allows music which on cold vinyl aptly echoes the sounds of several big fat rubber bands being slapped. These sides, though, have atmosphere, and come complete with the added dynamic benefit of group singing. 7/10

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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