Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 18

Oskar’s Drum – Degenerate Art

Oskar’s Drum appeared in the 2016 Unpopular advent with a track from their ‘A Cathedral Of Hands’ set but this was the year I was undertaking my 50/50 project and so I did not have space or time to write anything about each of my choices. If I had done it is certain that I would have been mentioning how great it was to hear again the voice of Patrick Fitzgerald; a voice I have treasured ever since hearing Kitchens Of Distinction all those years ago (thirty, to be exact, for I cannot quite claim to have had such a finger on the pulse as to have heard their ‘Last Gasp Death Shuffle’ single in 1987).

In truth of course I must admit that, just as with Buffalo Tom, there was a period where I stupidly ignored Kitchens of Distinction. It seems unfathomable looking back now, but that idiotic younger me disclaimed an interest in the group just after Quick As Rainbows and it was not until some time later that I properly listened to ‘Strange Free World’, ‘Death of Cool’ or ‘Cowboys and Aliens’. Indeed it might have been as recently/far back (delete according to particular mood) as 2003’s ‘Capsule’ compilation that caused me to reappraise that particular period in my life and find it desperately wanting, certainly as far as guitar rock/pop records were concerned.

So yes, it has been a marvellous pleasure to have unearthed those earlier records and in more recent times to enjoy Fitzgerald’s work as Stephen Hero and now in collaboration with Yves Altana as Oskar’s Drum (not forgetting 2013 ‘comeback’ Kitchens of Distinction album ‘Folly’). Now I do not know much about Yves Altana but I notice that he has made records with Mark Burgess in the past and there is certainly something of The Chameleons’ epic swoop to Oskar’s Drum, as there was indeed to Kitchens of Distinction. That ill-informed idiotic younger me would often disclaim grandeur in music and art, conflating it as often as not with excess (and all the vile ‘80s consumerist connotations that involved). What I did not see, and which is clearer to me now, is that in terms of art or music this sense of grandeur can often be something which is an illusion of scale, or at least of a scale and luxury that is underpinned by pretence. That notion of the theatrical again. And didn’t we say there was something of the operatic about Folly? Well quite.

‘Degenerate Art’ is certainly theatrical in the Soft Cell sense, and there is of course within the record the flavour of decadent Weimar nightclubs; all smoke, mirrors and forbidden pleasures. There is something of Mr Norris changing trains about this – Isherwood at the Moka Efti or the November Group at the Cabaret Voltaire. Of course the album’s title (Adolf’s denunciation wryly inverted into celebration) suggests this connection and it is certainly continued through ‘Of Their Bones’, which is another one of those songs from 2018 that illuminates the state that we are in. As a nation (take your pick) or as a body of humanity. If it is somewhat simplistic in its evocation of that 1930s European history repeating then that is surely one of its strengths, for the song pulls no punches, hides no sentiment behind poesy. Atop a glooming reverberation that is almost martial in its undertow Fitzgerald sings “Of the men, of the women, Of the boys, of the girls” lost to the horrors of ideologies gone haywire. Unlike The Chills, however, Oskar’s Drum seem to have little sense of optimism for the future, at least in this moment.

Yet if mostly bleak shadowy ghosts inhabit this song, elsewhere on the record there are certainly glimmers of hope. On the wonderful album opener ‘This Dancing’ Altana and Fitzgerald pay homage to the inspiration of Bowie whilst ‘Walker’ captures the simple pleasures of nature (“A kingfisher leaping / A dancing blue jay / Goldfinch in his bright yellow gown”). ‘Walker’ in particular is a song I could see on a ‘Caught By The River’ playlist and that is surely a compliment of the highest order. Finally, album closer ‘Say No’ makes the point that whilst there may be little reason for optimism, acts of defiance are still ones we continue to be driven to perform.

Whilst these glimpses of sunlight serve to heighten the chiaroscuro in ‘Degenerate Art’ it is still from the deep shadows that most of the record draws its power. It’s that battle between light and dark again. That conflict between hope and despair, between whose poles we oscillate in tremulous existence.

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