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17 October 2006 @ 09:53 am
Fact Magazine - Issue 16 (Current)  
Belgium's Eclectic Musical Underground

Invisible Nation

Overlooked and often undervalued by its neighbours, Belgium is Europe's forgotten nation, an elusive ghost state hidden in the heart of the EU. But forget the weary stereotypes, the Belgian underground is a colourful, eclectic mash-up of musical and visual styles.

August 28th, 2006 and Me Noas'n hit the stage at Live in De Living in black wedding-dresses, toting homemade cellos made from animal bones and a horses skull. The music is a garishly dissonant fusion of Doom Metal and 20th century-orchestral drone that sounds like Penderecki playing in a squat. As the performance builds to a skull rattling conclusion, one of the group uses a Bunsen burner to heat up popcorn in a wok. Welcome to Tienen, Belgium: please leave your preconceptions at the door.

It's not easy to misplace an entire country, but Belgium sometimes seems blurred and ghost-like, an invisible, almost conceptual nation worth of a J G Ballard novel. The rest of Europe treats it like a Drive-Thru McDonalds, an autobahn service station that you pass through on your way to Holland, Germany or France. But Belgium's unique geographical location make it a musical Interzone, a cultural where the best (and worst) of the EU have collided to create an eclectic network of underground artists and labels. For years they have endured bad jokes about Plastic Bertrand and being boring, but now the Belgians are having the last laugh.

"The Belgian 'fuck-you' mentality makes each of us a mini anarchist," laughs Wim Van Gelder from the infamous noise label ManGenerated, as he gleefully inverts the cliched stereotype that Belgians are staid, humourless and conservative. These days, Belgium is hot-wired into a DIY circuit of unconventional venues such as living-rooms, art-spaces and record-stores like Antwerp's Freaks End Future.

Artist Jelle Crama organies anarchic jams in his studio, while the Live in De Living shows are fuelled by crates of Cara Pils in a flat above Cafe De Aflaat in Tienen. Wim explains: "It makes more sense to set up in a private house or record shop, then ask the audience for a donation, or sell a beer for a euro. De Living has a drink-till-you-drop formula for seven euros. The bands get 25-60 euros, depending how far they've come.. beer, free food, a place to sleep, friendly locals and a chance to trade CD-Rs."

Dennis Tyfus is another Belgian 'mini-anarchist' who has torn up the rule book. His Ultra Eczema label refuses to be constrained by genre tags, releasing Chinese industrial music, manic Finnish musique concrete and the lo-fi faux '80s funk of local uber-dude Bobby Colombo. Says Dennis: "I started Ultra Eczema about nine years ago as a horrific retarded crust punk fanzine, written in the worst possible English, spiced with PC bullshit and cut n paste artwork. These days, it's basically a stupid label name for anything I wanna put out: a roll of toilet paper, a shirt, vinyl, a book, a sticker. The only constant is that it has my artwork on it. All the music I release is because I strongly wanted to make art for those bands.!

similarly, the Flanders-based Funeral Folk collective have created their own unique visual signature, using smeary photocopies of mediaeval wood cuttings and WW1 imagery. Silvester Anfang is a Funeral Folk act whose origins lay in the rural Flemish town of Maldegem. Inspired by a delirious brew of Scandinavian black metal and murk-encrusted outsider folk, their music is endearingly ramshackle and earthly, built from Bontempi organs, kettle drums and drunken trumpets.

Funeral Folk's Per Oystein neatly sums up their philosophy: "Everything related to the label has one thing in common: it all sounds crappy or evil. There's a cool word in Vlaams (Flemish Dutch) that we often refer to, which is 'Brol', meaning everything that is crappy, cheap or easily broken. Normally, it is used in a pejorative sense, but we see it as something positive, 'Brol' is the concept that we base everything on: you don't need perfect musicianship to make cool music and you don't need expensive instruments. Releases on Funeral Folk are never mastered, just edited, and the artwork is always xeroxed black and white."

Other FF projects include the visceral noisepaw of Chainsaw Gutsfuk and the new signing Hatanaka Creatures (aka Waterloo-based Venezuelan wunderkind Ernesto Gonzalez). Ernesto, who abuses fuzz-pedals for a living, says of his adopted homeland: "Man, if you're looking for seriously psyched out sounds and overall crazy retardedness, then Belgium is the place to check out." He's not wrong: if Belgian labels like Bread and Animals, Sloow Tapes or Veglia share a common vision then it's the sheer exuberant diversity of their output, from the free-rock field-recordings of R.O.T. to the spectral dreamdome collages built by Orphan Fairytale, using broken Casio keyboards.

Occasional Anfang collaborator Bram Devens plays twisted subterranean blues as Ignatz, a project named after the brick throwing mouse in George Herriman's surreal 1930s comic strip Krazy Kat. Bram's unique take on the blues is typical of the Neo-Belgian pick 'n' mix approach to making music: he disinters musty delta-blues songs and wraps them in a hazy shroud of warm analogue FX. Bram also hangs out with Paul LaBreque from US psych-rockers Sunburned Hand of The Man; the pair hooked up at the (K-RAA-A)3 Festival, which, like its fellow Pauze, Dramarama and Death Petrol fests, has been vital in instigating a two-way counter-cultural dialogue between the Belgian underground and its Euro-American counterparts.

"What I think is special about Antwerp," enthuses Dennis Tyfus, "is that age doesn't seem to matter. People in their sixties come to the shows that we, the younger 'crew' organise, and we go to the stuff they organise. I think the main reason for that is Radio Centraal." FOr 26 years, this radical radio station has operated an open-ended, non-commercial playlist, broadcasting specialist music, sound-art and experimental theatre from its HQ near Het Steen. Centraal is advert-free, run by a co-operative of enthusiasts who pay 5 euros a month to sponsor its alternative agenda. Explains Dennis: "Young people get the chance to experiment with radio and play their own music live, and this, in turn, puts them in touch with people who have been involved in the underground network for the last 30 years."

In the '60s, Belgian first-wave mavericks and outsider artists like Wout Vercammen, Hugo Heyman and Panamarenko blurred the distinctions between visual art, music and film, often getting arrested during art interventions and madcap street happenings. Ludo Mich is an Antwerp Fluxus artist who is still very much active and has been adopted as a lucky mascot cum mentor-figure by the younger generation, of whom he says: "I think they're doing a great job. I sometimes have the feeling we're in Warhol's Factory, but less pop and more noise.

Ludo's own back-catalogue explores a dizzy vista of artistic possibilities, from sound-sculpture and Afro-poetics to tape manipulation and pre-punk primal noise. His musical actions in the '60s included playing the 'Michofoon', rubber snakes with holes that made strange extraterrestrial tones when the wind blew through them, and playing in a silver suit with 36 bicycle light-bulbs attached while being driven through town in a carrier-tricycle. A recent Ultra Eczema comp collects Ludo's outrageous homemade soundtracks for garage-psych films like 'Saturnus' and provides a convenient entry-point to a genuinely mind-boggling body of work.

In the mid-'80s, Belgian dance floors moved to a mix of Italio-Disco and local outfits like Front 242 and The Neon Judgement until DJ-producers Marc Grouls and Maurice Engelen dropped the bpms and invented New Beat. Now, Bobby Colombo, Antwerp's king of anologue keyboard bling, has single-handedly taken electronic music back to a pre-Acid era when teutonic machine-funk ruled the world, creating vivid lo-fo re-imaginings of obscure Giorgio Moroder cuts.

Taking time out from his day-job directing radio-plays, Bobby C's alter-ego explains his musical strategy: "20 years ago, even mainstream pop music was more radical than today. Now it's just stupid commercial bullshit in the hit-charts.. it's hopeless.. just disastrous," he starts laughing and the preposterousness of it all, at how culture across Europe has become sanitised, dumbed-down, flattened.. "These days, it is forbidden to be an intellectual, so we all get together and try to entertain each other: young people, older poets and artists, even guys who played in jazz groups after the war, it's an incredible mix. Belgium is a strange country," he chuckles. "All countries are strange. But Belgium is very strange."

Words: KEK-W