The Flowers of Hell

The Flowers of Hell, Japanese Television, Sterling Roswell (28 Feb 2020)

Being the infidel atheists that we are, we normally only ever set foot in a church when someone gets married or dies, and lately it’s been much more of the latter. So, it is largely thanks to musical events that we get our occasional ecclesiastical hit that doesn’t involve being surrounded by family, whether dead or alive. Bit-Phalanx put on an amazing electronic festival last year in a church in Covent Garden, which you can read all about here. We were not expecting another chance to enjoy music inside a London church so soon.

But, enjoy we did. Last Friday night we were congregated in the small but perfectly-formed St Pancras Old Church just north of the famous station named after it, looking forward to a triple bill of the Spacemen 3’s ex-drummer Sterling ‘Rosco’ Roswell, current BBC6 darlings Japanese Television, and ‘Lou Reed approved trans-Atlantic symphonic psych group’ The Flowers of Hell.

St Pancras Old Church, London

Rosco’s main percussionist had had to cancel last minute – let’s just say it’s a ‘sign of the times’ and leave it there – so Max Peak stood in on bongos, and started tapping away at them as Rosco kicked into his beautiful opening song, “Like Wild Horses”.

Sterling "Rosco" Roswell at the Church

“Heartbeat” was followed by his slightly off-the-wall “Nobody Loves the Hulk”, and then into one the more recent tracks that we fell in love with when we first heard it a few years ago, “Atom Brain Monster”, the lyrics of which Sterling has recently updated to refer to Boris Johnson instead of Tony Blair. We recorded the performance and would like to share it with you here:

However, things sadly were not going well for our Rosco tonight as his string broke right in the middle of his next track, “Venus Honey Dew”. It would have taken him at least twenty minutes to source and fix a new string and, whilst most of us there would have gladly waited to hear his classic “Give Peace Another Chance”, which he was scheduled to sing next, it would not have been fair on the following act.

Close-up on Sterling Roswell

As we therefore do not have much more to add about Rosco’s gig, we’d love you to read an article we wrote for GIGsoup about ‘Being Sterling Roswell’, following an interview with him in his studio last October.

Next up were a very tight band from London called Japanese Television. We’ve been seeing their name a lot in the gig listings over the past year but this was our first chance to see them live. They are so different to everything else out there at the moment, so it is no wonder that they caught the eye of Marc Riley on BBC6. The tracks they recorded last July at the Marc Riley session have made it onto their new double-EP reissue, now available in all good record shops and which we were able to buy that night, the night before its official release!

Tim Jones (guitar) and Ian Thorn (keyboards and taishōgoto), Japanese Television

But what makes Japanese Television so special? Well, for a start, there’s no singer. And we like that, because it’s different. Not having vocals means that the audience can really concentrate on the music, which is very surfy and very psychedelic. Not as surfy as, say, the Beach Boys, or as psych as say The Roaring 420s, but somewhere in-between, and without a singer. I think the best thing we can do here is to share here a bit of video we filmed. Here are two of their songs on one video – “Crocodile Dentist” (which, incidentally, was originally recorded for their EP in one take on an 8-track) and “Tick Tock”.

Before this they played most of their back catalogue, kicking off with “Lizard Moon”, and then their brand new track “Moon Glider”, which is so new it’s not even on the new release! We loved how psychedelic “Mood Glider” was, and how it slowed down towards the end.

Japanese Television, in the Church

“Surfing Saucers” came next, which has a really good organ sound to it which just sounded perfect given the church setting. Which brings me onto the instruments. Tim Jones plays his pale-blue surf guitar in a very unique way, hoisted right up underneath his beard, which must not be comfortable! He plays in a slightly different tempo, it seems, to the rest of the band, which is a truly marvellous effect. Ian Thorn is on keyboards, but also uses a taishōgoto, which is a form of Japanese harp which first came out in 1912, and looks almost like something you would type on (in fact, these instruments are also collectively known as ‘typewriter zithers’). The sound is, as you would expect, very Japanese. Just something else that marks out this band as being pretty unique.

Taishōgoto (or typewriter zither)

Alex Lawton on bass and Al Brown on drums make up the remainder of the foursome. They were buried by the dark shadows at the back of the stage, but kept time immaculately. We chatted both to Alex and to Ian after the gig, such lovely chaps. We recommended they give Young Georgian Lolitaz a listen, and if they ever play a gig in the former USSR republic of Georgia they should get together, as we think they would merge and make some really nice spacey music!

After a short break, it was time for the main event. But first, a bit of background knowledge about The Flowers of Hell. They were formed in 2005 and were mentored by Sterling Roswell’s erstwhile bandmate from Spacemen 3, Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember.

Stunning psychedelic projections during The Flowers of Hell's performance

Their second album was Come Hell or High Water, and the album cover features in the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition which opens tomorrow 4th March at Tate Britain. This is going to be the largest exhibition of the late-Victorian artist’s drawings for over 50 years, and The Flowers of Hell’s album will feature among the exhibits, as an example of how influential Beardsley was, whose life was so sadly cut short by tuberculosis at the tender age of twenty-five. Other artists’ albums featured at the exhibition include The Beatles, Procol Harum and Humble Pie, so The Flowers of Hell are in very good company indeed.

Merchandising, featuring among others "Come Hell or High Water" with the Beardsley cover

Toronto-born band-leader Greg Jarvis suffers from, or in his case is blessed by, a unique neurological condition called timbre-to-shape synæsthesia, which basically means that he sees all sounds as layers of three-dimensional shapes. He went on to found the Canadian Synesthesia Association in 2013.

Whereas many albums from artists on the psych scene are influenced by visions from LSD and other psychedelics, Come Hell or High Water is actually based and arranged on Jarvis’s synæsthesthetic visions, which is what makes his sound so very unique. There were thirty musicians performing on that album, recorded over a mammoth forty sessions in four different countries. Knowing how much Jarvis likes to surround himself with a crowd, we were not altogether surprised that we counted eight musicians on Friday’s small stage – nine, if you include the contribution of Anna-Nicole Ziesche (on the left in the photo below), Hamburg-born visual artist and former alumnus of Central Saint Martins, who got up on stage to read out a German poem from 1955 that her mother had taught her, over a trumpet solo.

Anna-Nicole Ziesche joins the band on stage to read from a 1955 German poem

Jarvis was everywhere on stage. Sometimes playing keyboards, sometimes harmonica and, towards the end, at the front of stage on his trusted guitar. One of the three trumpeters who featured on the original Come Hell or High Water album was our taishōgoto-player from Japanese Television, and therefore was also on stage for The Flowers of Hell, as was a sax player, a violinist, a female singer who had a hauntingly angelic voice, and various other performers, most of whom were lost in the darkness at the back of the stage.

Female singer in The Flowers of Hell

Back in the 90s, before The Flowers of Hell, Jarvis was living, among other places, in Prague, playing in various underground rock bands. They played their version of “Muchomůrky bílé”, a protest song by Milan Hlasva, who was the original bassist and songwriter for PPU (Plastic People of the Universe), who were forbidden from performing this (or indeed any other song!) by the then Communist government, which was one of the many catalysts that spurred PPU fan Václav Havel in 1976 to create Charter 77 which took on the government and eventually lead to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The rest, as they say, is history.

To be honest, it’s not our favourite song of The Flowers of Hell, and certainly the least psych, but we filmed it because it means so much to Greg Jarvis. Here is our footage:

Far more atmospheric was the next song, “Pipe Dreams”, which was truly quite beautiful, it made the hairs on our arms stand on end. The violin intro, the pipes, the singing, the slow introduction of the percussion, it all works so well together. We’ll let you make up your own minds:

“The Joy of Sleeping” came next, which was a fantastic duel between the female singer’s haunting voice, and Thorn’s trumpet sounds, with violins and keyboards and guitar and percussion adding to the quite breathtaking sound. Here’s the footage. Enjoy.

After a couple of other tracks, Jarvis took to the front of the stage, turned around, and literally conducted the band to play his very experimental piece which is largely made up of rehearsed improvisations. Originally, this piece lasts over 46 minutes long (it is a classic example of ‘absolute’ music, in other words, music that is not about anything in particular, and is a term first invented by Richard Wagner to describe this abstract, non-representational form). Jarvis’s synæsthesia is largely helping him direct the band to perform the sound that he is seeing, in a really interesting symbiosis. We did not get the full 46-minute treatment (or else there’s no way we’d have made the tube home), but we certainly got a good crack at it.

Greg Jarvis conducts "O"

The song finally ended on a real crescendo, with Jarvis whirling his arms around like crazy. Imagine Pete Townshend meets Simon Rattle and you’re halfway there.

Greg Jarvis towards the end of conducting "O"

Lou Reed was a big fan of The Flowers of Hell, so it is no surprise that the band always like to fit in at least one Velvet Underground or Lou Reed classic into their set. Their cover of “Heroin” had a great build-up with the drums and the violin, with Jarvis on vocals and playing guitar. As with “O”, it had a really exciting and cacophonous dénouement.

There was something nicely cyclical about the way the evening ended. Sterling Roswell, whose set had earlier been so cruelly curtailed by a broken guitar string, was encouraged onto the stage for the closing encore. He sat on drums and joined The Flowers of Hell on Spacemen 3’s iconic hit from 1988, “Take Me to the Other Side”. This was a real treat for us, and was the perfect end to the evening.

We filmed it and we’re delighted to be able to share it with you here, though unfortunately the drums were right at the back of the stage so you can’t see Rosco, but you can certainly hear his trademark drumming style.

And that was the end of another epic night of great entertainment. Armed with a copy of Japanese Television’s EPs, and with a bounce in our step, we bade our fairwell to the lovely church and the lovely musicians who had entertained us for the prior three and a half hours. We are also looking forward to The Flowers of Hell’s new greatest hits compilation album called 15 Years of Soft Labour, which is coming out this summer. It is going to include a 10-minute extended version of “White Out”, featuring the sadly recently deceased Ivan Král, who was Jarvis’s mentor and ‘rock’n’roll uncle’ for the past two decades. We at GIGsoup would like to also pay our respects to Král, who played with and wrote music for so many musical greats, from Iggy Pop to David Bowie and Patti Smith, among many many more, and who lost his fight to cancer last month. Čest jeho památce.