"Set out for obscurity and, without much need for luck, you’ll get there. Afflicted (later Afflicted Man) was the recorded moniker for one Steve Hall, who bashed his way through the ‘70s and early ‘80s with a series of self-released records that would touch on barmy punk, excessive high-power guitar psychedelia, and hometaper lunacy, never settling in one area for too long. Having discarded punk rock’s brevity and entry-level skill barrier by his second release, there wasn’t anywhere for him to go but in, and then right back out.
Even if they weren’t, Afflicted’s records come across as very personal affairs that erect a barrier of historical understanding between the listener and the performer. At one point or another, they’ve got plenty in common with late ‘70s ingénues like Vic Godard or Mark Perry, though the heart of these records lean back to an earlier brand of British rock musician, one caught between the coal mine and the pubs. Of course I’m talking about harsh, proto-punk outfits like the Hammersmith Gorilla and Third World War; the meandering liner notes to this fairly slapped together double-disc reissue mention them, the Deviants, Stack Waddy and Coloured Balls guitarist Lobby Loyde by name, and do so in every instance where it’s attempted to describe the music therein. Which is all fine and good, as there is a progression here from their works, but to figure him out, you have to unpack about a decade or two’s worth of outsider music that led up to Afflicted’s recorded output. The troll is at the foot of the bridge, no doubt, and it’s daunting to a casual observer, but by doing this work, you start to see connections where there couldn’t possibly be any. To say that his I’m Off Me ‘Ead LP has a lot in common with a visionary freak like Michael Yonkers is not so ridiculous, especially when you try to draw sonic comparisons between the two instead of geographical ones. But think of the rigors of obtaining obscure music in the early ‘70s, as opposed to the miracle of blogs full of whole albums ready for download, P2P networks, and the like. Today, influence often means a Frankenstein-style layering of ideas; musicians cherry-picking parts they like and throwing away the rest – more skill than soul. Back then, the effort and the smaller pool of stimulus to wade in asserts that influence was most likely absorbed rather than copped. Listening to Afflicted Man bears this notion out. There are ideas here that had to marinate for a while, and there are others that probably shouldn’t have gotten out at all, but despite the mod cons of an indexed double CD, you can’t understand the entire story if you choose to be selective about the music or its roots.
His songs’ reliance on repetition have as much to do with the limits of one man’s taste and abilities, along with the studio capabilities of the times, as any sort of applied aesthetics. A bare light bulb, a stack of mind-melting vinyl, a guitar and amp, a mattress, and a paint-splattered wooden floor are all the imagery his music affords. From a nearby window, nobody seemed to be looking out for our Steve, and he replies in kind, tape looped bass and unsteady drum tracks starkly bearing down on his effects-heavy, tin-shack blues. The resulting music is left with a miniaturized presence, like there’s no way to listen to it without feeling somewhat isolated from and towering over the product itself. Even when things start to sound a bit familiar, they carry a particular trail of individualism, usually involving a lengthy, substantial guitar solo loaded down with reverb and fuzz.
The Complete Recordings collects three singles and three albums, chronologically sequenced to showcase an exponential distancing from the rigors of ’77 punk rock. General malaise anthem “I’m Afflicted” and skinhead watch track “Be Aware” don’t have much in common with what’s to follow, but they kick up a moderate cloud of street-pounding intensity that will factor in as a crucial component of later works. By the second Bonk single, the lean production values of punk rock are all that connect Afflicted to their era. By the time of the first album, 1979’s The Afflicted Man’s Musical Bag, the songs had mutated into Edge City ruminations on single chords, sonorous vocalisms, a marked dub influence and restless effects abuse remove even the shorter songs’ temporal space, distending each into its own monolith. Most cuts share qualities with the then-current output of the Fall or Alternative TV. But at its strangest – the eight-minute “Musically Insane” – structure is an afterthought, as plunking bass, droning piano, acoustic guitar and a mad tambourine presence place things closer to the crazed horror-folk of Comus than any punker contemporaries. Album closer “Love One” has more to do with Pink Floyd’s heady pop of the day than what you might have found in the Rough Trade shop in that calendar year. However, “142” doublebacks to fit perfectly on those hallowed racks, hoisting the Sex Pistols up on their own petard. The track and its flip, “Senseless Whale Slaughter,” come across as more of a mockery than anything else, snotty and callous, treating pointless lyrics and social politicking for punk’s wasted vigor like some sort of mantra.
By the second album, 1981’s I’m Off Me ‘Ead, Hall had changed the outfit’s name to Afflicted Man; he’d also fashioned his most difficult and engaging record. Released on the Human label, this one had grabbed hold of the vinegar and swigged brazenly, blasting holes in the wide palette of ideas previously documented. Possibly realizing he’d hit a wall with his sound, the record consists of seven raucous blues-punk dirges, restless with anger and dirtier than ever before, a righteous and indignant irritant in the same way that Billy Childish or Dan Melchior would later conjure. Even the master volume fader gets a workout. The final Afflicted release, 1982’s Get Stoned Ezy, makes off like a product of mid-day substance abuse and its attendant mental shredding. Credited to High Speed and the Afflicted Man, its three extended tracks blot up a bucket of severe lysergic noise damage, bringing Hall’s career and inspiration full circle (back to the elevated excess of Hawkwind, or forward to the Butthole Surfers, particularly on “Sun Sun.”) Sheets of thick, wah-infected guitar crush and confound the listener. Maximalist in every way, the tracks play out like some sort of last ditch, fluorescent effort to be noticed.
And then, after all this effort, it was over. Up until now, it remains that way, and even this release raises more questions than it can respond to. Hall’s collected history makes up a few lines of text; little if any mention of his deeds before or since appear in any catalogued Web or zine content. Following Get Stoned Ezy, Hall joined punk outfit The Accursed, an embattled British band with alleged National Front ties. A shady past behind him, he’s been playing music in prisons and hospitals under the name Called, but there’s no further information on that project, either. So let’s focus on what we have here: music too difficult to digest in a single sitting, but a strong and rewarding experience for those of us who insist on reading between the lines."
Quite mandatory indeed. Psyched out punk blues. Wacked out. Link in comments.