The terms ‘weird’ and ‘freak/y’ mean less and less these days, and London trio Ravioli Me Away could teach any number of creepy crawlin’ spikey punks a few things about pushing envelopes, or taking said envelopes and turning them into mental costumes. The phrase ‘art-punk’ also has massively reduced currency, in the years since it transported as a reference from hardcore with more than two chords, to punk with snugly-fitting jeans, to I don’t know where, but punk music made by artists looking to do more or less or something other than cement their own punkness is a rare breed today, too. Nowhere is this more obvious than in RMA’s visual appearance, a struttingly uncanny triangle of highly specific costumes, sublime genderfucking through para-squat bricolage, future feminism, liberation through body paint.
The first thing that Ravioli Me Away’s new LP – titled, of course, The Inevitable LP – does is asks you quite openly, and with good reason, if you’re up to the job. ‘Good team player’ could follow ‘Recruitment Consultant’ (by erstwhile British post-punkers Hygiene) on a dream mixtape about the quiet tyrannies of the labour market, with its insistent shrieks of job interview questions. Most of the songs take a narrative structure and twist is around, reading like strange stories that career wildly from drunken practice room rants to direct challenge, conversations overheard on the street that stick in your head (‘I wanna be a feminist I don’t know what it means’) its always and never impossible (not to) tell. Using whatever’s around to make punk songs. The cascading vocals and bordering on midi-melodies are eerie as fuck. Like a found-object nightmare collage where you’re certain there might be a severed human foot in there somewhere, albeit probably covered in glitter.
Ravioli Me Away is a ridiculous name that goads you into wondering immediately where it came from and the band itself ask the same of their listener. The songs on this record carry that rare ability of letting you view each increasingly mundane subject through the same cracked lens, a broken kaleidoscope that’s psychotropical but still knows exactly what it’s looking at. Cat call, arguably the RMA ‘hit’, with accompanying terrifying/incredible video (check that out as it explains what I am grappling for here better than any number of words) is anchored with the haunting refrain of ‘Why why why why why do you cat call when a woman walks by’ easily holding as much rage as that other song you might know that starts with multiple whys. ‘Romantic Amnesia’ approaches Kate Bush-levels of shouldn’t-work-but-does-really-really-does melodic clamour, with perfectly perverse lyrics – ‘Do you remember the time we booked an AirB&B’ could be one of the most plaintively epoch-defining first lines of any song this decade – love in the time of who-the-fuck-knows-what?
Vying for space against drums, bass and keys, RMA command each line with intensely layered but very much front and centre (not much in the way of effects or masking) vocal interplay that’s – I promise this time – more Slitsy-Delta5ian than any other band out there. Insistent, repetitive, this record is elevated into the sublime by a sneakily conservative fact that’s also unavoidable. Sian’s vocals are crystalline, her range insane, but its determinedly anti-operatic, just reaching and swooping with intent around every perfectly annunciated vowel, and layered up with Rosie’s nasal intonations and Alice’s huskier (tres Modettes) voice, it makes a perfect headache-y earworm soup.
That album was written and recorded in between Good Job and Powerlunches, two of London’s cubbyholes of musical freedom, flashes of small hope in a city whose musical landscape is dominated now by hopeless careering bullshit, barriers to entry, screamingly homogenous brand-fuelled ‘showcases’ and other nodules of grim, flat, forgettable crap.
Good Job is a large, mostly corrugated iron ex-health centre in a working class area of London decimated by aggressive, council-backed scheme of laughably inappropriate private rental units. It has been empty for some years and is due to become, inevitably a block of luxury flats, so since it’s been declared due for demolition, the space has been given over to ‘artists studios’ for its final few months. This nice little arrangement is orchestrated by one of those arts organisations run by radicals, and the building’s pre-rubble paroxyms are all overseen for them by Rosie, RMA’s bassist. In reality this means a lot of precariously employed humans living in spaces they aren’t strictly meant to, but really who’s checking in on these abandoned rat runs, repurposed corridors, half-realised ideas, space to make, space to play, abandoned sculptures, paddling pools, wood, band practice after band practice. The building shares a courtyard with a towering set of mostly empty luxury flats already built, prefiguring what’s to come across the way. The final death date being pushed further and further back, we lug backline across the yard while a concierge at a desk staves off sleep next to a water feature that cascades down the side of the building, some bizarre design feature that nobody asked for. It’s almost too poetic.
Power Lunches is a small can-bar and basement venue across the river from Good Job, owned and run by Sian, RMA’s vocalist and drummer. In the last two years, nearly every show in London has slowly migrated there, being low cost and low hassle and run and staffed by punks open to every permutation of DIY gig, electronic music night, performance and more. NO FORM is a group from West Yorkshire that I caught in the Power Lunches basement last month. They had organised a tour of ten people, none of whom appear to be over the age of 21, making up 4 bands – BAD MANIFEST, a scrappy, catchy raw punk group, ZFE, a Siege-y stompy outfit, JASON AND THE ARGOSNAUT: a thrashier offering, and NO FORM, a hardcore band but filtered through some kind of underwater death machine, pickled and shot through with echoing trumpet noise, booming fractured delayed inhuman vocals. Together this group of people run a small label called Reagent Records and release tapes of their bands. Blame it on location or youth or something else but it seems this is a set of bands driven by enthusiasm rather than ego-feeding, and it stings how refreshing it is. While all the sets at the show were great, NO FORM made my stomach feel weird, and any physical response seems to be worth unpicking, so let’s.
“I just went downstairs and they were all lying on the floor in silence…” I heard some accidental witness of an unknown pre-gig ritual muttering as they skulked back up the stairs from the basement. The gig space at PL is a rectangle with a low stage at one end, sound desk at the other, black walls, floor, ceiling, and a set of facing mirrored walls that drip with sweat and condensation. Three members of the band are stood near, on, around the stage, fiddling nervously. Quite out of nowhere a boy appears with a trumpet, at the other end of the room. He’s wearing a raincoat and swishing the micstand about listlessly. The effect of his positioning is to split the assembled crowd, modestly sized, into two lines of people, only one or two people deep, all facing each other, presented with their own distorted reflections in the wall mirrors beyond, requiring the audience to look back and forth across the room to take in the spectacle. It’s uncomfortable, unclear if it’s intentional, and sets the room on a suitable edge for the duration. Their noise starts like a rumble and seems to hit every surface in the room at once. To say that it’s unsettling is an understatement. Bearing no hallmarks of the boisterous bluster attendant to most hardcore. It stays both, though, by virtue of individual elements: Spluttering, creaky guitar, trebly and fuzz-ridden, it pierces the room further in two. Songs come and go without anyone noticing, applause in moments of silence would feel gauche. The vocals are less voice and more of a loose, textural layer breaking in and out of the music, like the incantations of a, guttural spleen-letting demon as heard from down a well. Frequently the music falls apart to let these noises take precedent, sometimes this sounds like a throat being cleared, suddenly trumpeted noises, not farty or squeaking, but bold, long clear notes that hover over the bass, will push through the static and elevate the gloomy pace to a different set of frequencies. Gone before you’ve become used to it. Glancing back at band members on stage, they’re all deep into a matrimonial ritual with their own instrument, one that involves cradling, breaking, hunching and generally trying to break out of their own bodies, all whilst staring each other out for what seems like minutes at a stretch. It’s not the kind of intra-band look that you sometimes catch when atching a group with a member who might not make that jump into a different part of the song, or who needs reminding that its five times round the riff on this section, no, none of that mercenary raised-eyebrow-I’ll-give-you-the-signal moments, just soul-level staring. It’s almost certainly not intentional but it feels like we’re two lines of peeping toms, avoiding eye contact with each other in the mirrors while these people communicate telepathically, or say nothing, just stare and destroy themselves a bit. The crowd is almost stock still while Callum still in his coat writhes like he’s battling with a possessed spirit. Guitar is moving everywhere, drums sound like they’re about to fall down the stairs, bass is pummelling intently. Normally the standard method of delivering it live is more about playing your part, letting the crowd interpret with the sound that comes out while everyone mechanically does their bit. I’ll watch them again some weeks after this and feel this same uncanny suspense, the crowd are again pushed to the side, subject to some outer vision. This time there is bless water in a glass bowl, primed for an exorcism, and audience members are asked to write on Callum’s coat this time with a chalk marker. In any case, NO FORM are either part of some terrifying youth cult I’m too old to know about, or have just written a set of really cool distorted punk songs delivered with enough power to make me need to construct some insane projected reasons for why I was sure I was going to shit myself for the last two minutes of their set.