TOM OF ENGLAND
Thomas Bullock is a wanderer. A Cambridge man who came up alongside DJ Harvey as a member of the Tonka Sound System, he'd flee the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and end up bringing rave to San Francisco in the early '90s as part of the Wicked crew. After moving to New York a few years later, he'd launch two projects—A.R.E. Weapons, a downtown free-jazz punk band that, after some stylistic twists and turns, eventually signed to Rough Trade—and Rub N Tug, his DJ duo with Eric Duncan known for their hedonistic take on disco.
He's done about a million things since. He recorded an album of psychedelic boogie-rock with DJ Harvey as Map Of Africa. He then released a low-key Balearic classic,
Laughing Light Of Plenty, made with Ed Ruscha. He also wrote a book about mezcal. Bullock's discography is the handiwork of a messy genius who becomes fixated on a project, makes something beautiful and then moves onto something else.
Tom Of England, the project Bullock has been focusing on for the past five years, has its roots in a mad tea party involving psychedelics, thick fog and a visit from the police, as well as a reconnection with his punk roots. Over the years, Bullock has navigated a personal tug-of-war between punk and dance music. "I needed a bit of aggro," he told Andy Beta in 2008. "Disco is always there. And punk rock is always there! It's like, new kids step into the shoes. The outfits are all the same. Pants are black and tight, shoes are pointy. After you've done that for a bit, you want your trousers loose and shoes all round. You step from one to another." Tom Of England (and the related The Hankins Mountaineers project) strives for a middle-ground. He's edited The Fall and Kissing The Pink, as well as a campy Sex Pistols cover. Tracks for some dance floor, somewhere—perhaps a tea party in New York City.
His first album as Tom Of England, Sex Monk Blues, feels like the culmination of these efforts. Combining Suicide, post-punk, krautrock and ambient with the lessons Bullock has learned DJing and producing for the dance floor, the album is cohesive yet anachronistic. You're never sure how to classify Sex Monks Blues' six tracks. If handed the record blind, you'd even be hard-pressed to pinpoint the decade in which it was recorded.
Sex Monk Blues also continues Bullock's partnership with Rene Love, with whom he recorded four EPs as Bobbie Marie back in the mid-'00s. They met back in the Wicked days in San Francisco. "I was a young kid on a full head of LSD when I snuck in to hear Thomas at this small spot near the Bay Bridge," Love explained in a 2009 interview with Vice. "He was playing rock/dub/disco that night. A week later, I came around his house, had a meal, smoked a spliff, etc. He asked me where I was living, I told him I was kinda homeless, so he asked me to move in and the rest is history. We've been friends for about 15 years."
While his snotty, unhinged vocals are polarizing, Love is a perfect counterpart, the Alan Vega to Bullock's Martin Rev. On "Sniffin' At The Griffin," Love affects an inebriated whine over a unique brand of widescreen synthpunk. The Rapture's Gabriel Andruzzi eventually adds sax to the maelstrom. Various characters from Bullock's past pop up throughout the record, like friendly faces materializing during a hazy night out. Ed Ruscha lays down a Jah Wobble-style bass line on "Neon Green," while Harvey plays kick drum on "Be Me," a track that combines Suicide's rigorous aesthetic with the psychedelic energy of mid-'00s New York bands like Oneida.
But the centerpiece is "Song Of The Sex Monk," a nine-minute comedown incantation. Here, Love's vocals are mostly indecipherable, more of a chant, as the title would dictate. Subtle production touches from Bullock and studio engineer Chebon Littlefield—like a breakdown consisting of distorted wind chimes—add trippy, expansive touches to the beautifully understated song. At just over 30 minutes, Sex Monks Blues is a slight LP. Perhaps it's because of all the miles Bullock has walked, the lives he's lived then abandoned, that it feels epic.
Resident Advisor / October 2019