July 2021 – single & track reviews – Yes’ ‘The Ice Bridge’; Brachmond’s ‘Teufelsdanz’; Brainsqueezed’s ‘My Fears in the Night’

23 Jul

There was a time when Yes defined their own musical shapes, and did it incredibly well. You can quibble about their otherworldly detachment and high pitching, their grandiose poly-stylistic gestures, their lasers, harps and ’70s frocks; but behind all of that detailed prime-prog fantasia was a furious collective musicality in which virtuosity served the music rather than vice versa. These days (minus their original core of creative-spark singer Jon Anderson and recently-passed choral bassist Chris Squire), an ageing Yes seem content to graze, like cosmic cows, on their own long-established tropes. While the band do still revisit some of their former intensity in their concert catalogue, current studio recordings have shown the acrobatic flights of the old Yes replaced by a cruising argosy of pomp as long-term members age, fade and lose focus.

That said, ‘The Ice Bridge’ is a near-heroic attempt by current Yes singer (and de facto songwriter) Jon Davison to pull his lumbering bandmates back uphill. Co-written with keyboard player Geoff Downes – whose fantasy-soundtrack synths and trumpeting analogue leads provide the song with most of its pomp – it’s an attempt at linking our current precarious position of climate threat to the Paleo-American crossing of the Beringian steppe, over sixteen thousand years ago. A survival song, in blurred terms. “With fear of extinction, / we’re pushed to the edge of the ice. / Instinctive direction, / a drive to survive.” 

It’s never precisely clear what Davison’s “Snowflower Elder”, leading his people across the mammoth steppe to Alaska, has to do with our current, floundering status as twenty-first century blitzoid man; but lyrical exactitude has always been rare with Yes. Still, ‘The Ice Bridge’ is a typically Yes-ian melange of ancient wisdom, the past-as-future, and fanfares for spiritual unity. While the music remains as earthbound as a pilgrim caravan, it’s expansive; and after a decade of creative disappointment, it’s good to hear something which echoes at least some of the Yes strengths of old.

While Squire’s soaring Anglican harmonies are much missed, his replacement Billy Sherwood recaptures some of the ex-bassman’s grinding instrumental swing. Rather than winding his guitars into the heart of the music, Steve Howe now flies in stern flaring pronouncements like an occasional god on a cloud. But it’s Davison’s show this time, tumbling harmony cadences against the rolling rhythm, persistently pushing his saga of hope and determination, and ensuring that all of the proggy pennants are backed up with heart – and at least Yes now sound like a version of themselves again, rather than a shadow of themselves.

Mediaevalism has, on occasion, been an ingredient in the Yes stew; for other bands, it’s a raison d’etre. German “mediaeval rockers” Brachmond embrace it ardently, entwining bagpipe, flute, violin and flights of campfire harmonies into their twin-guitar heavy metal punch. Although they’re a product of re-enactment meets and contemporary folk fayres, their old-tyme enthusiasms seem more akin to a heavy sauce-dousing than a faithful immersion. Thanks to extra guitar roar and some surprisingly punky drumming, they’re considerably closer to Iron Maiden than they are to, say, Gryphon, Ougenweide or even fellow fayrists like Schandmaul. Nonetheless, their irreverent gusto overcomes any purist qualms.

Mining the Brothers Grimm and the dark-fantasy TV series ‘Grimm’ (more or less equally), ‘Teufelsdanz’ does what a lot of the more hectic and rebellious folk music does: linking the supernatural with wilder human hungers, and with stuff that goes on behind God’s back and out of sight of the church spire. Passing the pellmell folk-metal guitars, strings and pipes and unravelling the German lyrics reveals some zesty infernality – a Godfather Death playing a song on old bones; an irresistible dance which fires your blood and charges your loins; a hidden and seductive Devil who offers you knowledge and compels your willing surrender, but gifts you back with spontaneity.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that many European folk tales present the Devil almost as one of us – an adversary who must be outwitted and denied but whom it’s ultimately fun to spar with, and who seems closer to actual human feelings than do Christ and the saints. Brachmond understand this and take a full-hearted run at it, while singer Stefanie Schmid’s gutsy vocals and knowing glances make her the perfect cheerleader for a bout of witty wickedness

Drawing on Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, ‘Metropolis’ and Mary Shelley, themes of willingly-mechanised men (or robots with human hearts) have wended their way through futurist prog for ages; from Rush and Buggles to The Mars Volta, steampunk rock and Tom Slatter. In that respect, Franco-Australian prog-pop act Brainsqueezed‘s upcoming album (dealing with a robot attempting to transcend its programming, and to discover a soul beyond its AI) taps into a well-established tradition. But in spite of its ‘Blade Runner’-meets-Asimov video – with its iconic android at work on human tasks, running with the animals, or undergoing significantly cryptic events in Virtualworld or the forests – the lead single is much less story-specific than that.

Rather than directly wading into mechanical-man angst or changeling dread, ‘My Fears in the Night’ concentrates on habits of terror and of self-intimidation; of how childhood nightmares lay the ground for adult insecurities and hangups. Presumably it’s a drawbridge song – a straightforward pathway to lure more resistant people into the looming Big Concept. Since Brainsqueezed’s Sébastien Laloue has a basic, if slick and industrious, idea of creating progressive rock or pop (you take an straightforward song, polish it up with some alternative or electronic rock vinegar, and then escalate the choruses and bridges with layers and layers of guitars, extra instrumentation and guest vocals) this might well work for him.

Still, as with Yes’ Paleo-American, it’s difficult to see quite how the concept ties together yet; and in this case, what separates ‘My Fears in the Night’ from being yet another well-machined bit of 2D sadness-rock. I guess I’ll have to wait a little longer to find out.

Yes: ‘The Ice Bridge’
InsideOut Music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
23rd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, YouTube, Tidal, Spotify, Amazon Music,

Yes online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music, HD Tracks   

 

Brachmond: ‘Teufelsdanz’
Hicktown Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
23rd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
YouTube, Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music

Brachmond online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music    

Brainsqueezed: ‘My Fears in the Night’
DOWEET (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
23rd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
YouTube, (other platforms t.b.c.)

Brainsqueezed online:
Homepage, Facebook, Soundcloud, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Amazon Music  

July 2021 – single & track reviews – Sug Daniels’ ‘Kintsugi’; Jesse D’Kora’s ‘Far from Home’; No Thee No Ess’ ‘Chorus’

16 Jul

“I get broken, I get mended by my love for you.” Yes, things can be fixed, but if what was broken was and is something that runs deep, you need a memory of that fracture. You have to have it that way in order not to get fooled again, or to ensure that justice is highlighted, or perhaps simply to know yourself.

Under her light, knowing blues-y vocal, Sug Daniels‘ ‘Kintsugi’ has gently bouncing ukelele, soft bops of bass and gentle burbling punctuations of Leslie-fied electric piano. It’s also got a name taken from Japanese art. Kintsugi is the practise of picking up a broken piece of pottery and repairing it, but not with transparent glue and the deception that nothing happened.  Instead, the repairs are done with lacquer blended with precious metals – gold, silver, platinum – making burnished veins and patches for the points of damage and the former fractures. Fixed, but highlighted. Mended but remembered.

For Sug, kintsugi serves as a personal metaphor for “the botched relationship between America and a black woman coming into her own.” It’s also a perfect metaphor to build a bruised-yet-hopeful love song around. Here, she does both; and you can read ‘Kintsugi’ as either thing. Sug doesn’t dig too deeply into the hurts, exploitations and callousness doled out, but ensures that you know that they happened and that she’s unbowed. “When you need me, / know I’ll be there, / ‘cos I grew up poor-tough, darlin’, / and I ain’t never, never scared… / When you gonna do right by me? / Glad I’m on this side of history. / I just want a fighting chance, you see. / Don’t leave me here in misery.”

It’s unfooled, it’s mindful and it’s tinted with the lightest shade of blues; but it’s upbeat and choosing a hopeful mutual path. “I‘m willin’ to try, I’m even willin’ to die. / Got nothin better to do, ‘cept I want to do it with you.” Some might quibble at the shortage of killer lines, or that there are jabs left unlanded; but Sug seems to take all such matters as known and read. Instead, this is a low-key plea – and manifesto – for a step away from bullying, from neglect and bad treatment, perhaps from mutual destruction. It’s all there, reading between the cracks. 

Emerging just as Covid-19 takes its third bite out of British life, Manchester singer-songwriter Jesse D’Kora makes his debut appearance via a softly melancholic song about long-distance relationships and break-ups. Topical. However, it’s not Covid-driven capsule pop: not enhanced by quarantine, anomie and angst; not languishing over forced separations. ‘Far from Home’ comes from an earlier, more innocent age – one in which distance was something regularly travelled, even to the point where it became a daily irritation.

“If only you had moved closer to me,” sing-sighs Jesse, as if that had been the straw that broke the camel’s back; and perhaps it was. Love does, after all, founder on mild, cumulative delays; on small over-stretchings; on gradually worn-down patience that can’t be patched. Jesse is soft-voiced, kind-toned, but he’s clearly slipped past the point where he has enough willpower to keep things going. “I’m going home, I need to find another way – / ‘cos I’ve been with you too long now, / and I can’t erase the words that stained us yesterday.”

In terms of tone, ‘Far from Home’ could have emerged at any time in the past twenty years – at any point in which someone felt like blending upbeat jangle-pop with a Milky Way dream-pop swoosh (or imagining what might have happened had Chris Bell foisted a more galactic production style on The Go-Betweens). Gently propulsive narcotism and solipsism turn alienation and numbness into heavy-lidded grace, letting life puff away into car-wakes and distant flame-ups. “I’m driving through a valley just to be with you, / and I’m falling asleep now at the wheel,” Jesse laments over the jangling yearn of his own guitars, a light-bodied baby Glenn Campbell lost in the Pennines. “And I crash and burn like there’s any other way. / Cracks in the windscreen lead me back to home. / It’s where I go and where I’m coming from. / It’s where I feel that I belong. / It’s liberating now you’re gone – / now it’s time that I moved on.”

Perhaps he’s a gentle romantic turning back to his roots; perhaps he’s a plausibly soulful bastard worming his doe-eyed way out of a commitment. Either way, he’s made a good first impression. 

More psychedelic factors bleed into ‘Chorus’, by No Thee No Ess,  although in this case it’s more like eructation than decoration. The Cardiff psychedelicists have recently upped their game by collaborating with onetime μ-Ziq and Rocketgoldstar guy Frank Naughton, who gleefully brings his own toys to the game. Consequently, ‘Chorus’ sounds like a series of dogged mid-air collisions – first Hawkwind smacking into a cluster of seagulls, with the resulting airborne contusion then clipping a seaside amusement arcade, and finally the whole mass exploding through the kind of rootless, genderless ’90s post-rock consciousness you’d get from A.R. Kane. 

No Thee No Ess have put out some driving weirdness before (punctuating and puncturing the clarity of their usual acid folk/acid pop explorations) but never anything quite so gleefully liberated from gravity or from containment. If the history of British psychedelia was a set of sequential smoke rings, ‘Chorus’ would also be the charged and speeding particle stunting its way through all of them. Swamp-bubbling synth bass, white-noise scurf, and little piled-up analogue-electronic foldings all play their part alongside the guttural guitar chug, but what really puts the cherry on the cake is the singing, in which falsetto vocals are bricolaged with carolling voicetone samples in an undulating cable of studded sound. It sounds as if someone’s waylaid and spiked a minor angel, who’s now hurtling through the skies on its own, singing in tongues, blurting out an incomprehensible paean.

I’ve tried to pick out the lyrics and failed twice; first practically and then philosophically, feeling that trying to comb this glorious voice-stream into straightforward sentences would somehow undo its spell. As a phalanx of synthesizers swing into place and then joyously fragment, like Cian Ciran and Tim Blake in a happily turbulent wrangle with a young Vangelis), I decide not to pin anything down any further than that. Sometimes you’ve just got to let things sing away, and be blown ahead of them.

Shug Daniels: ‘Kintsugi’
Weird Sister Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
12th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music

Shug Daniels online:
Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music 

Jesse D’Kora: ‘Far from Home’
doink (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
16th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, Spotify

Jesse D’Kora online:
Facebook, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Spotify, Instagram  

No Thee No Ess: ‘Chorus’
Surk Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
16th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Apple Music, Amazon Music

No Thee No Ess online:
Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music  

July 2021 – single & track reviews – Lizard Brain’s ‘If Our Eyes Were Blue’; Vi. & sam’s ‘Pressure’; Parnell March’s ‘Therapy’

9 Jul

A little parable about bigotry from politically-inclined Cambridge pop brain Lizard Brain lays out the nonsense of segregation, and of Jim Crow racism. ‘If Our Eyes Were Blue’ draws heavily on the educational thought experiments of Jane Elliott, in which school classes were divided up purely on the basis of eye colour and then made to act out rules of discrimination, of social caste and of restricted association based on that distinction.

Via archive samples, Jane’s crisp voice punctuates the retro-synth-pop bounce, buzz and beat in which Lizard Brain have chosen to sheath the song; almost in duet with on/off Lizard Brain vocalist Tony Jenkins as she delivers her satirical edicts. “Brown-eyed people are better than blue-eyed people… You blue-eyed people are not to play with the brown-eyed people at any time.” Meanwhile Tony, dreamy and gentle, provides the emotional content, the empathy which soothes the sense of outrage. “Young girl she cries, / tears crystallize… / Can’t understand / the heavy hand / “look at the things they do, / because my eyes are blue”…”

There’s never any question of where Lizard Brain’s own sympathies lie, regarding Jane and her lessons –“She can see the people we should be / and what we all should do.” This is essentially an adjunct to the original experiment, a pop reduction for a classroom singalong. It even ends with a quick sample of Jane proposing the idea of discrimination as fair to her classful of children, and with them resoundingly rejecting it. Unambiguous in its stance – a spelled-out whiteboard lesson rather than a philosophical trick-bag – this might not be exactly what you or I need as adults; but in its ethical straightforwardness it might be exactly what our kids need (assuming that they’ve not already learnt their civics, and they’re not already way ahead of us).

In contrast, ‘Pressure’ – the latest from Swedish production duo Vi. – deals with the problems in being straightforward. Housed in a softly melancholic deep house pop frame, and helmed by singer sam, it dramatizes the feelings of someone wanting to vent deep emotions but being terrified of judgement. Right from the start, it’s rooted in imminent panic (“blurry vision, voices in my mind – wish I could flow the world around me,”) and building angst ( “I got way too many hours on my own, / and I’m not that good at being all alone.”) While sam sings with the abstract tenderness of many a deep-houser, his words ripple with introversion (“searching for a sign / I never really made an effort, / falling back to square one all the time,”) and slip into a chorus like a soft-shoe landslide – “I don’t want to talk about it, it won’t work. / Can’t you see that I have tried it – it gets worse. / Gets better if I keep my feelings to myself. / I shouldn’t bother someone else. / Keep it all to myself, just talk about something else.”

The soundcrafting does what it can to capture this, too. While Vi. have shaped ‘Pressure’ to be a smooth, gently tear-jerking slice of contemporary dance pop (and while they’ve succeeded in this), small production details and club mix tricks give it an edge of subliminal hysteria. The instrumental hook is a glorious yet tissue-thin synth billow, tentatively overwhelming but pulled back. Other parts sometimes come lurching violently out of the mix only to be yanked back immediately. The effect is one of brittle poise being wrecked by rippling tells – one which breaks down into a silky middle eight of impending collapse. “Please don’t do this right now – I don’t wanna see ya. / I’ve been doing all right, / now I’m gonna leave ya – / tryna find a place where I don’t have to hide.”

All of which should lead neatly into Parnell March‘s ‘Therapy’, a rolling spread of analogue EDM in classic Germanic/post-Boards of Canada style; a serenely ecstatic micro-weir of tumbling electronic tones and melody-pulses. But while there’s a voice is there, it’s tweaked beyond recognition by vocoder into an unintelligible but comforting burble. If there’s a message, it’s muffled and medicated; sunny but slimmed; a minimal, murmuring beehive.

In the accompanying video, meanwhile, a sweet little ginger-haired lad grows gradually more disturbed by online imagery and body anxiety, seeking out the services of a series of slick but shallow counsellors before deciding to take matters into his own hands. A thin film of quizzical irony covers the bright, mundane vistas. Therapists nod along sympathetically while covertly buying stock in anti-depressants; there are cameo appearances from a Joe Rogan video and a Jordan Petersen paperback; and even after he tosses his pills down the toilet and hits the road there’s no clear conclusion as to where our boy ends up. For the moment, Parnell seems content to soundtrack the ambiguous anomie of these states of mind – the strange, shallow elations, the papery calm; the gentle manic high and the buried rumble; the vacant reverb behind the day-to-day noise.

Lizard Brain: ‘If Our Eyes Were Blue’
German Shepherd Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
9th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music

Lizard Brain online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Amazon Music,    

Vi. & sam: ‘Pressure’
ART:ERY Music Group
(no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
9th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music

Vi. online:
Homepage, Soundcloud, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music   

sam online:
Deezer, Spotify  


Parnell March: ‘Therapy’
Uncle Herb Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
9th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify

Parnell March online:
Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify   

July 2021- single & track reviews – 2 Lost Souls’ ‘Qanon’; E Rodes’ ‘Isolation’; Pearl & The Oysters’ ‘Soft Science’

7 Jul

Still rabbiting, joke-ranting and stretching his argumental monologues as if they were chewing gum stuck to his fingers, Ian Moss turns his attention to conspiracy theorising with ‘Qanon’.

Not backing them up, of course. His sense of the absurd is far too amiable, far too easily amused to inhabit those angry warrens. Instead, as 2 Lost Souls turn out a growling, churning, tooting synth-funk groove in the P-Funk tradition, Ian capers across the top like the kid’s-party clown version of Mark E. Smith, Manc-rapping sarcastically about shapeshifter lizards, melting ice-caps, Trump, moonshine and doomsday plots. “…’Ere’s armageddon, that’s a fact. / We deal in truth and won’t retract; / but the day, it gets pushed back, / falls off the edge of the earth, that is flat.” 

He sounds like he’s having a laugh, at least; a cackling veteran who hasn’t let age get the better of his critical faculties, or his mither-detector. It’s sometimes a little disappointing – conspiracists seen merely as a deluded flock, worth little more than a dusting of observational comedy and an eye-roll synced with a tongue-wobble, rather than a phenomenon to be taken apart properly; but if light-hearted fun is all we’re going to get, then so be it.

It’s not as if some of the lines aren’t enjoyable in their custard-pie fashion. Maybe we should be content, for the moment, to see some of these idiots off with a bit of screw-you, laugh-at-you dancing while Ian conducts the singing with a bog-brush. “The living Agent Orange is the golden one… / Is all that I believe a con / but your wisdom I can count upon?… / Are you part of that joyless throng, / or are you going to a fancy-dress party?”

It’s arrived a little later than planned, but here’s E Rodes‘ early-July offering. Over the past year, he’s proved himself to be one of the most reliable generators of psychedelic-tinged guitar pop in Britain. ‘Isolation’ continues to build on that. Built around a ravishing fingerpicked guitar part and a decidedly country-ish rhythm as it sprints down the road, it’s sweetly disrupted by pounces of mad panning and exultant sonic smearing. It’s also got one of his most winning melodies so far; beyond the country, there’s also tinges of classic Glaswegian literary indie (Lloyd Cole, Edwyn Collins, Postcard Records) and of Prefab Sprout. 

Musically, it’s delightful enough that you could just enjoy the play of sounds and ignore the lyrics, which would be a pity. Étienne’s worked out a little personal spiritual conundrum, but he wants to express it in Enlightenment terms: maths, geometry and the self. “Raise a finger, point it to the stars, / and the non-Euclidean plane of the night sky / show two lines meet always, not sometimes. / Show your working out, end it with a clear-eyed summation / so one knows it emerged in isolation. / I’ve found myself, I was right there all along, / just round the corner from a certain nowhere. / It has been years and miles / of near-misses and solitary trials in oscillations.” It’s an agile bit of wordery, smuggling its cerebral play across under the guise of tunefulness.

Call me a smartarse, call me effete, but I like it when that happens. I like it even more when that kind of cleverness merges seamlessly with emotion, with humanity; where there’s no awkward edge. That’s what Étienne manages here, skimming like a brinksman round the curb, choosing not to stay in the conundrum. “Just know it emerges in isolation. / We owe it all to chance and isolation, / orphan idioms and isolation. / And though I may have gone too far with isolation, / I’ve reasoned myself out from isolation. / So take me home.” While still keeping up that light-footed groove, the bridge falls deliberately out of time for a few measures, tossing up some turbulence, ripping some wild guitar fragments and pasting them into a swirl: a bit of welcome, manic joy to counter the reasoning. 

If you feel as if you’re being cheated of a carefree summer (whether its by fires, quarantines, or just holes in your wallet), the latest Pearl & The Oysters single might feel like some kind of compensation, possibly also involving a touch of time travel. Luscious and carefree, ‘Soft Science’ is a loving contemporary cop of any number of 1970s quiet storm sprinklings (think Minnie Riperton, Stuff, even the softer Flora Purim end of Return to Forever) and space age pop.

In essence, it’s three minutes of loving tug-of-war and soft banter, dusted with Rhodes pianos, Omnichord and little psychedelic meteorites. Juliette Pearl’s restless summer-baby coaxes a boyfriend (played with gently agreeable charm by Kuo-Hung Tseng from Taiwanese synth-poppers Sunset Rollercoaster) away from his studies and out to the beach. There’s not much more to it than that. Affectionate worrying from her (in both senses of the word), and polite reluctance from him (“I really should work” / “You’ve studied all night long”… / “Love…” / “I told you I can’t.” / “The sun is hot.” / “I don’t want to know.” / “You shouldn’t stay inside.” / “I’m not nearly done”) until he packs it in. (“Well, I guess I could / close my books for now.”)

The rest is drops of sunshine, all of it welcome.

2 Lost Souls: ‘Qanon’
German Shepherd Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
7th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Spotify

2 Lost Souls online:
Homepage, Bandcamp, Spotify   

 

E Rodes: ‘Isolation’
Don’t Tempt Me Frodddo (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
6th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, Spotify

E Rodes online:
Facebook, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Instagram, Spotify

Pearl & The Oysters: ‘Soft Science’
Feeltrip Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
7th July 2021

Get/stream it from:
YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

Pearl & The Oysters online:
Facebook, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music    

July 2021 – single & track reviews – Franz Yusef vs. David Peel & Friends’ ‘How Lucky We Are’; Fatum Aeternum’s ‘Spiders’; The Academy of Sun’s ‘It is Finished When It’s Destroyed/Ghost Foxes’

3 Jul

Had he lived, Tim Smith would have been sixty years old this week;  but with a wealth of Cardiacs-inspired music still riffling up from the underground like a crop of wheat, it’s almost as if he was still here.

Celebrating Tim’s birthday, Franz Yusef vs. David Peel & Friends are an assortment of his fans – principally Israeli odd-rock maverick Franz Yuzef and half-hidden Liverpudlian talent David John Peel (who’s had stints in The Farm and with a pre-Space Tommy Scott, amongst others), but also Eric Kearns, Johnee Beegood and Bobby Bilsborough and Pocket Gods’ Noel Storey. ‘How Lucky We Are’ is an unabashed tribute, full of open sentiment, but with the words attempting to recapture some of those peculiar, endearing Smith sensibilities – the touch of the maritime, the open and unashamedly awkward emotionalism, the sense of gleeful rampage, and the strange public mixture of schooling and punk idiot savant. “How lucky we are / to have known that man, / to have heard his mind / trample kindly through our own, / tickling through the tar. / How lucky we are.”

It could have been winsome, it could have been embarrassing. It could have been a coy cop of Smith-y sound. In fact (although it’s a close-run thing sometimes) it’s actually none of these. It’s more of an inhabiting; a realisation that Smithworld isn’t something which you should pastiche, but a sensibility which you can slip into. Franz sets up a web of awkwardly-related synth and organ chords over a rattling-door haunted-house rhythm and then turns them all into family, venturing out on a strange, stretched-out harmonic limb that always feels a second away from breaking apart. The feel constantly flickers between mediaeval to the dark recesses of Victoriana to this week’s inspiration; there are fake reeds and a Mellotron, and a sort of sonic flickering, like a swamp at the deepening of the dusk.    

Meanwhile, Franz clambers from point to point on this web, dotting down David’s words as a theatrical incantation and a thanksgiving, replete with that slightly arcane and macabre Cardiacs touch; that fractured grammar; and, for the fully committed, glancing references to Smith lyrics. “How lucky we were to be a part of miracle fun, / to sing the score of heaven, / to hear the brave son, shine on. / To swim the waters there. / How lucky we were…. / How lucky we shall be / to shout the crowns of majesty, / to bring our children to the sea / and hold their heads beneath the waves / of glory not unfound and see / how lucky they shall be… / We are better / for having known him.”

Israeli multi-genre rockers Fatum Aeturnum are playful and theatrical, as were Cardiacs, but they don’t quite swim in the same peculiar seas. They’re a more self-consciously artful proposition – flashy, stagey board-stompers whose avid raiding of heavy metal, jazz, Paganini violin heroics, Goth rock, gypsy dance and even little dollops of Shakespeare turn them into a obvious, omnivorous circus act. But they do what they do with heart, humour and lip-smacking gusto (especially not that they’re lightening up a little); and ‘Spiders’ is heaps of fun.

It starts with swing hi-hat, big-band saxophone riffs and diving violin, only to have them blown up by burly metallic bass and by guitar riffs tossed in like precision cherry bombs. While this is noisy enough to punch out the flap of a cabaret tent, everything that’s been blown up falls slap-bang back into place. Sonically, it could be early King Crimson (the blood-red crunchy big-band jazz sandwich of ’21st Century Schizoid Man’) meeting Iron Maiden, with kooky Muppet Show vocals sprinkled on top: you can toss in the straighter end of Mr Bungle and the weirder end of The Stranglers if you want to. Away from the geeky comparisons, you get a carefully controlled set of romps and explosions. Stunts, but no chaos. Bits of it may wriggle like eels, on cue; but (as ever in the circus) nothing’s left to chance.

It might be ironic, then, that the lyrical targets of ‘Spider’ are those who make a religion out of regulation – and vice versa (“We expect you to be good people / since we erect our holy steeple. / Pay your taxes, live on the edge,/  buy affordable, conquer your rage. / Watch TV, drink some Coke, / give away your life as a joke.”). Fatum Aeturnum’s real target, of course, is structured consumerism; and as I imagine them prancing around in their satirucal marketeer’s masks, I’m reminded of some of the more fantastical Brechtian clowning which popped up at one end of British psychedelia during the ’90s – Sleepy People, Poisoned Electrick Head. Plus, of course, somewhere in counter-culture heaven, Daevid Allen must be grinning a little. “Keep on running, with your blinkers – / we don’t appreciate the thinkers.”

Traces of the Tim Smith spirit also seem to have found their way into The Academy of Sun‘s ‘It is Finished When It’s Destroyed/Ghost Foxes’ single (a limited-edition double-sider cut by Graham Duff’s boutique label Heaven’s Lathe). If so, they’re wrestling with a rabble of Nick Hudson’s other influences – on this occasion, dark British psychedelia, Cramps-y psychobilly, Goth rock and rattling lysergic American garage rock.

It’s typically diverse Academy of Sun in that it’s volatile, ready to shift. At any moment the light could polarise. ‘It is Finished…’ opens with warnings of tainted help, of murder and dysfunction, sailing along as a mystic-urban incantation with a spider-strewn Goth riff before lapsing into an unexpected silence, changing gear, then coming back with a prog boost and a doubled-down sense of doom. (“Lie down, lie down, they all lie down – / the walls are falling in this town.”) It sounds like nothing so much as a fateful, biblical-apocalyptic meeting between the Bad Seeds and long-gone ’90s Britpsych comets Levitation

‘Ghost Foxes’ showcases another side to The Academy of Sun. Gnarling along on a 13th Floor Elevators/Seeds tip, and kicking off on a stop-start guitar slam, it reminds us that there’s more than one meaning to acid wit.  “If I had a book of unhealthy stuff, I’d like to let you read it / but gazing at your fevered eyes, I don’t know if you need it… / If you don’t think my love is true, maybe magic doesn’t believe in you. / If you feel you’re being ignored, maybe change the batteries on your ouija board.” It seems to be bringing a prank perspective into a relationship, although where it’s therapy or some kind of weaving, elusive kiss-off is difficult to see as it ducks and dives behind its off-beat witticisms and peculiar maxims. “Used to be a part of me, / but all that’s left is electricity. / Ghost foxes are best on the periphery.”

Throughout, though, it crackles with verve and interest. “What a curious time to be alive!” interjects Nick, partway through, and apropos of nothing. You feel that it’s that which propels Academy of Sun onwards, through apocalypse and squabbles and failed understandings. A keenness of curiosity.

Franz Yusef vs. David Peel & Friends: ‘How Lucky We Are’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Streaming single
Released:
2nd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud

Franz Yusef online:
Facebook, Bandcamp    

David Peel online:
Facebook  


Fatum Aeternum: ‘Spiders’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
2nd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

Fatum Aeturnum online:
Homepage, Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music, VK


The Academy of Sun: ‘It Is Finished When It’s Destroyed/Ghost Foxes’
Heaven’s Lathe (no catalogue number or barcode)
7″ vinyl-only single (100-copy limited edition)
Released:
2nd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Heaven’s Lathe (vinyl), Soundcloud (stream)

The Academy of Sun online:
Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Instagram

July 2021 – single & track reviews – Colin Moulding’s ‘The Hardest Battle’; ZOLA’s ‘Glitter and the Gold’; Filed Fangs’ ‘Conduit’

2 Jul

Inspired by an e.e. cummings line about the struggle for selfhood, Colin Moulding‘s new solo single turns out to be a song about solidarity. Sort of. While XTC’s impish streak means that they were wilful and rarely that straightforward – and while their former bassist and part-time hitmaker was a big part of this – he was also the warmer side of the partnership. Much of this comes through in ‘The Hardest Battle’: an encouragement to personal integrity, sheathing warnings and assertions in a gently pounding cream-tea arrangement of English brass and Beatles piano. “The hardest battle you can fight / is just to be yourself – / face the dragon on a hilltop shelf. / But you’ll see – /  yeah. that’s a lonely place to be.”

The lyrics might be English underdog poetry writ cosy (there’s a touch of children’s story to Colin’s choices of maxim and metaphor) but the music belies it. This is a confident summery thumpalong, like a march to a rural fete, anchored firmly back in the Ray Davies Anglo-pop tradition but with lashings of organ and doo-wop overdubs, and confident shifts of rhythm and arrangement. It’s pretty trad, pretty veteran in its tradition and indeed much of its execution, but it also gives the feeling of shaking out fine old linen and finding it as good as new.

Ultimately it’s a reassurance, and a heartening one in every respects. A little conservative, perhaps, at a time when that concept’s being tied ever more closely to intolerance and narrow-mindedness; but in this case never reductive, never exclusive, and flipping underdoggery away from sourness. “My guardian angel said to me, / ‘whether a magpie or whether a crow, / whether your plumage might spoil the show – / but you’ll do. / Yeah, there’s room in the world for you… / To thine own self be true, / so let’s stick like glue to our true colours now.”

There are plenty of differences between ‘The Hardest Battle’ and ZOLA‘s ‘Glitter and the Gold’. In contrast to the former’s brassy, ’60s-pop strut and bounce, the latter’s R&B beats cradle gently tinkling arrangements in a slow-dreaming groove (as if ZOLA were lazily rolling a set of jingle toys across the floor) and chopscrews a stray vocal phrase into a muted jazz trumpet line. There’s also a considerable gap between Colin’s endearing, avuncular bloke-singing and ZOLA’s own cautious, conversational soul-girl tones; and while Colin keeps his subject matter wrapped up in a package of universal maxims, ZOLA’s are more explicitly tied to one field, one situation. Nonetheless, this is another integrity piece.  

Colin’s a multi-decade veteran of pop music, but ZOLA’s a relatively fresh starter, still preoccupied with its behind-the-scenes demands and its public masks, still fending off dubious wheedlings from starry-eyed friends and potential managers. “If I don’t move to southern California, / smoke weed on your couch or write a song for Coca-Cola, / if I’m not there when you have people over, / will I miss something big?” she asks, “I asked you what you thought about the words I sew together. / You say I missed the chance to meet this famous rapper…” Swimming uneasily through the glad-handing and the game-playing, she’s unsure of whether resisting it will stunt her (“if I remain somewhere that fits my nature / will there be inwards and upgrowth?”) or whether she just doesn’t have it in her to make the compromises. (“Sometimes I’m not social and I’m shy… / and I don’t like being asked to talk about myself. / Some might think that’s humble but you might think it’s weak. / If I want to make it somewhere, gotta learn to sell my art – / but my art is me…”)

In spite of her trepidations and her skepticism, there’s enough spine in ZOLA to resist; there’s enough perspective for her to establish where her music needs to fall into place; and she can find the right words to describe her own value. “You follow me on Instagram and comment on my pictures,” she comments, pointedly, “but you’ve never seen me spill my heart to a room full of strangers. / Maybe, just to start, we can have a conversation?” By the end, she’s cut it down to the core  – “so maybe, maybe get to know me?” – and corralled the key point of singing, of communicating, of being original enough in yourself to be worth listening to in the first place 

Taking an altogether more abrasive approach, Filed Fangs return with ‘Conduit’. Their glassy squall of post-punk guitar and their dance culture tussles of blipping sequencer and romantic synth are now applied to cognitive behavioural therapy and with routes out of disillusionment. “I was once an enthusiast – it didn’t last,” Paul Morley observes, tartly, over the colourfully melancholy motorik riffs and the drum-machine whack.  

This is a Covid lockdown anthem, of sorts. It’s also another solidarity piece, this one aimed at those whose mental health has swayed or bent during the quarantines (or whose existing problems have been exacerbated). Bits of programmatic psychological jargon are buried, violently echoing, within the mix, but Paul and Boz seem keen to bring out something hopeful. Offering a childlike freshening to (or a highlighted road map out of) trouble, the conduit they’re talking about leads “back to the electricity that is denied us… depression extinguishes that spark.”

For a song connected to the talking cure, however, it’s surprisingly short of words. Paul’s vocal skims intermittently over the top of the instrumental drive, or diffuses into barely comprehensible splinters. Very Manchester, in a way: there are clear echoes and contemporary reworkings of the city’s post-industrial post-punk and its chattering Madchester vocal licks in what Filed Fangs are doing. Certainly any mushy sentiment is barred from the song, pared back to guarded understatement.

The empathy, the message isn’t in the words; it’s in the instrumental cadences and tones, the glinting light bouncing off the top of those freeze-dried guitars, the rippling ascendance of the electronic sequences, the assertive slam of a riff that’s caught artfully between weightlessness and buttressing strength. The rouse-yourself dance imperative, beside which the blips of laconic Mancunian speech are just seasoning, understatements; a refusal to submit to sentiment when there’s proper work to do. With ‘Conduit’, Filed Fangs have honed the understated pick-me-up to a fine point.

Colin Moulding: ‘The Hardest Battle’
Burning Shed, CMCD01 (5060164400530)
CD-only single
Released:
2nd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Burning Shed, YouTube

Colin Moulding online:
Facebook, Soundcloud, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music    


ZOLA: ‘Glitter and the Gold’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
2nd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify

ZOLA online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music 


Filed Fangs: ‘Conduit’
German Shepherd Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
2nd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon Music

Filed Fangs online
Homepage, Facebook, Bandcamp, YouTube, Spotify, Amazon Music 

 

June 2021 – single & track reviews – Obijan’s ‘Ubesvarte anrop’ (featuring Action The Man & Julie); All Cats Are Beautiful’s ‘thought i saw u in the shop last nite’; E Rodes’ ‘Fortune’

15 Jun

As today’s opener, ‘Ubesvarte anrop’ is pretty irresistible. Reformed dream-popper Obijan ropes in both his favourite rapper Action the Man and (I think) Danish pop and media sensation Julie Berthelsen, then lets them loose on something that resembles contemporary electropop merging seamlessly with peak-period New Order dance choruses… but in Norwegian.

The title means “Missed Calls”. I can’t tell whether they’re singing something smutty about area-code hookups, or whether it’s about regretting chances to talk, or whether it’s a tale of ever-mounting farce revolving around phones. Action seems to be rapping about metallophones at one point – and meows – so perhaps there’s some cats-on-glockenspiels action in the story. I can only go by the moods: sparkling syncopations, blue-neon club-night synth jabs, kick beats that tickle your instep, and a bobbing air of keyboard-driven optimism. Bewildered by a succession of London heatwaves and torrential rain, I’m just going to hang onto this one as evidence of a consistent summer falling into place, and I’ll hope for the best.

After Obijan’s retro effervescence, All Cats Are Beautiful sound subdued, but that’s part of the point. As a duo separated by Covid lockdown in different countries, they’ve been spending their time writing songs together over the web about how much they miss each other, blurring them into the world of love-songs (with their own particular femme-queer/non-binary friendship and personal mix adding some interesting ripples to the usual undercurrents).

Elena sings this one on her own, as it emerges from scrappy soul chords to build through layering synth and rhythm parts from a bedroom-studio skeleton to kick drum and a full shimmying pop body. Solo or not, she seems to be singing for both herself and her Cats partner Kyle, separate wishes and memories slotting and merging into each other until it’s just one person again, one combining story. “I wanna show you round my hometown – where I learned to stand up and where I learned to fall down. / I don’t wanna let you out of my sight – the world was pushing me left, but you were on the next right… / I wanna circle back into that place – where we listened to Frank Ocean on the fire escape. / There’s all these moments just waiting in line – I got enough here to last the whole ride.”

What emerges from this merging and layering hints at disco and rave (in those cheerful little keyboard bloops) while homing right on the twee-pop preoccupations of ’90s indie heart-achers like The Field Mice. “Even though we’re miles apart, my mind is playing tricks on my heart. / I thought I saw you in the shop last night but I know you’re taller in real life.” It’s cute, it’s a little solipsistic, but ACAB work affectingly within the fact that love and fellowship are often built piecemeal out of trivia, memento-moments and small, benevolent personal quirks; out of solidarities in parallel; out of finding someone who understands your little flaws and markers, and the sparks that make you think; and that sometimes these little firefly nuggets are tremendously important, and that you miss them inordinately when they’re not there. “You can come around any time / Now would be a good time.”

E Rodes‘ mid-month single ‘Fortune’ sees him back on his own after early June’s full-band Electric Roads outing – and if you felt that that one seemed like a humorous gripe at the pinch of marriage and partnerhood, then you could view this one as a kind of apology. If ‘Soon Canoe’ poked fun at inconsistency, cramped spirits and the apparent impossibility of satisfying someone else, ‘Fortune’ turns it around and focuses on the fonder perspectives of passing time, of gratefulness and thankfulness. “Old, blind, I’m not he who finds gold and silver beneath the sea. / Still, fortune found me. / In her wake, a smoke of memories.”


Easing in on children’s-story countryside ambience (a blanket of gentle hammered dulcimer, birdsong, church bells, street chatter and duck gabble) the arriving song chords build on each other; like worn, wonky granite steps sparkling in the sunlight. As gentle carpeting Hammond organ and winding, wandering bass lead us deeper in, ‘Fortune’ journeys through classic, sleepy-rural English psychedelic cadences. There’s more than a touch of latter-day David Gilmour in here, a sprinkle of pastoral-era Andy Partridge; and, in some respects, answering echoes to the blossoming Italian Anglophilia of Sterbus… but more than anything it feels as if Étienne is finding more of himself in revealing more of himself.

In spite of the sonic beguilement in the loving production and the expansive nature-to-music arrangement – the feeling that this is stepping smoothly from outside comfort to inner reverie – it’s the generosity that stays with us. “Row, row, have no fear / We have weathered far worse storms and stronger wind…. / Song of love, I don’t know? I may be a fool / But it’s the least I could do for you.”

Obijan: ‘Ubesvarte anrop’ (featuring Action The Man & Julie)
Apollon Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
15th June 2021

Get/stream it from:
Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, Qobuz

Obijan online:
Facebook, Soundcloud, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, Qobuz   

All Cats Are Beautiful: ‘thought i saw u in the shop last nite’
Moshi Moshi Music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
15th June 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

All Cats Are Beautiful online:
Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram  

E Rodes: ‘Fortune’
Don’t Tempt Me Frodddo (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
15th June 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify

E Rodes online:
Facebook, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Instagram, Spotify

June 2021 – single & track reviews – Gabriella Smith/Gabriel Cabezas’ ‘Lost Coast III’; Hot Mustard’s ‘Jerkwater Strut; Ada Moreau’s ‘My Shadow Halts’

7 Jun

Following up on last month’s twirling ‘Bard of a Wilderness’ single, Gabriella Smith and Gabriel Cabezas continue to bring voice, cello and found percussion items to bear on the theme of human responses to the wild spaces, and to the destruction wrought on Gabriella’s California home by last year’s wildfires. While building on the pattering jazz and classical extended-playing techniques which threaded through ‘Bard…’, ‘Lost Coast III’ also sidesteps the former’s barely-restrained murmur and its mingled mourning/accusatory wordings. Skipping across a triple-beat, it’s more of a fiery Latinized waltz heading out on an angry roadtrip – its rage barely constrained, its grief turned into a wild chattering momentum veering all over the tarmac.

This time, Gabriella ignores texts in favour of dance chanting and thermal-tossed multi-tracked vocalese. She plays against herself in what sounds like a wordless, impressionistic vocal ballet of fire-panicked neighbours chattering and arguing, sharing fears and concerns as they try to save themselves what they can. Mingling with this is a sense of boiling injustice, a fury at the fact that this is actually happening. Hands and bow beat on cello case and cans, while Gabriel’s rapid string melodies squeal, strum and chop against the rhythms (and the viola of Bedroom Community labelmate Nadia Sirota adds more midrange sinew).

Round about the halfway point, the piece erupts into a frantically hummed-and-sung chorale of overdubbed Gabriellas, the cello casting disaster drones across the voices. Towards the end, everything disintegrates into a tangled mass of cello frenzy, alarms and firebell rattles before soaring out into a finale which combines everything that’s gone before into a thrillingly twisted-up whole. The more times that you listen to this, the more it seems to reveal; as if it’s not just dealing with the impact of the 2020 fires but mining deeper into Californian history for a catalogue of misfortunes, oppressions, mismanagements and outright fuck-ups, giving voice to all of the indignations that came with them but which were brushed under the forest floor. Rousing stuff, in every sense.

The remaining two singles (this time around) are much more relaxed.

Mixing rare groove with early hip hop/boom bap, the debut Hot Mustard single ‘Jerkwater Strut’ is a bit of idealised, retro-fitted funky-sidewalk strolling. At the group’s core, Jack Powell and Nick Carusos create a Chic-ish dynamic of guitar and bass co-leadership, although the group’s rural South Carolina location (and Jack’s taste for softly melting wah-wah trickles and behind-the-beat pacing) locate it in a much lazier groove. Brooklyn’s Big Brass Beats horn duo (with their Antibalas and TV on the Radio connections) phatten it out, but with the outcome being more New Orleans and Memphis than it is Big Apple (though they do cite a little bit of Wu-Tang Clan as an addition to the mixture). I guess Charleston (a boat ride and a bump away from Hot Mustard’s Johns Island hangout) also gets a look in.

Wordless, thoughtful and quietly happy, ‘Jerkwater Strut’ is more urban than island. Yet, if so, it’s a window onto a different kind of city life in which the tourists are gone, the guests no longer need to be impressed, and an early evening can be spent on the stoop and the street at your own, relaxed pace.

We might be being softened up here, or we might be being let in on an open secret. I can’t really tell yet. That title (like a bit of ancient jazz-age mockery) and Jack’s Gilliam-esque animated video (full of fish, cryptids and marine mythology) are laden with clues which don’t ultimately lead anywhere. Eventually, it’s just sunshine, personal contentment, and the subliminal beat of the far-off city as a comfort, all subsumed into a relaxed neighbourhood vibe.

The third in a monthly progression of singles by Stockholm-based semi-ambient composer Ada Moreau, ‘My Shadow Halts’ leaves behind the gorgeous European fogginess of its predecessors. With that former chilly brume replaced by a more evanescent sonic misting, its descending temple-bell arpeggios, distant piano and even more distant mother-of-pearl synth-sheening lead it more into Asian temple haunts.

These days, there’s more of a risk involved in attempting this kind of thing. Even as ‘My Shadow Halts’ nods to the 1980s traveller’s-ambience of Harold Budd or Roedelius, it also risks summoning up the same kind of atmosphere as many a touristy New Age salute to Bhutan or Kyoto (narrowly skirting Chinoiserie and faux-Gamelan as it does so). Fortunately, despite sounds and intimations, Ada’s actual intentions are less to do with evoking place than in fixing a position of grace.

According to her, ‘My Shadow Halts’ is about “the subjective experience of time. When the light is just right, and everything seems to slow down to that moment, frozen in time. A sudden sense of a more elevated and peaceful reality. Your stress and aggression momentarily forgotten and left behind.”

With that in mind, listening reveals something better. By avoiding direct geographical or cultural tags, Ada allows the crass, picture-postcard aspects which can taint this kind of project – that collecting, spiritually acquisitive side of things – to gently drop away from the music. While still a little second-hand, the Asiatic touches become more like a thoughtful, mood-evoking temple print hung on the opposite wall, rather than a wholesale theft of scenery. As with Hot Mustard, I think Ada’s successfully blended her inspirations into something fresh enough to work. I’m also feeling that she’s narrowly dodged a genre bullet.

Gabriella Smith/Gabriel Cabezas: ‘Lost Coast III
Bedroom Community Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 7th June 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

Gabriella Smith online:
Homepage, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

Gabriel Cabezas online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music

   

Hot Mustard: ‘Jerkwater Strut’
Color Red (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 4th June 2021

Get/stream it from:
Color Red store, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Youtube, Spotify, Amazon Music

Hot Mustard online:
Homepage, Facebook, Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music

 

Ada Moreau: ‘My Shadow Halts’
ART:ERY Music Group, ART:ERY20210307
Download/streaming single
Released: 4th June 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Apple Music, Youtube, Spotify, Tidal , Amazon Music, Qobuz

Ada Moreau online:
Homepage, Soundcloud, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music, Qobuz

May 2021 – single & track reviews – Craig Fortnam’s ‘Ark’; Gabriella Smith/Gabriel Cabezas’s ‘Bard of a Wasteland’; LEYA’s ‘ABBA/Mary’ (Christina Vantzou remix)

17 May

“If you are lonely, I’ll be lonely too. / Find yourself a wall and I’ll hang next to you. / It won’t be easier hanging there that way / but we can be a diptych for the light of day…”

Craig Fortnam has spent two decades building a distinct style, both with North Sea Radio Orchestra (leafy, nostalgia-toned English chamber music drawing ever closer to lucid, Canterbury-esque psychedelia) and with Arch Garrison (slimmed-down duo/trio songwriting with more upfront personal concerns and a ranging freedom). It’s not surprising that his first solo material (at least, the first released under his name alone) falls close in tone to both of his previous projects. It’s also still very much a family affair, with the Garrison’s James Larcombe contributing piano and a delicately shrunken raft of other NSRO members adding strings, reeds and vibraphone.

‘Ark’ (the title track of Craig’s forthcoming album) is still redolent with dark walled-garden curlicues of NSRO bassoon and cello, gently astringent viola, bumble-bee monosynth and twinkling glockenspiel; all of it pumping away like steam-workings under the naive strum of guitar and Craig’s unaffected Wyatt-ish drone of vocal. Impacted by his loves and losses in the past few years – not least the death of his mentor Tim Smith – it’s downbeat, uneasy and self-effacing in a particular English fashion (a way that still throbs and flows on beneath current aggressive Brexit blustering). As a song, it’s in part a retreat and an admission of fear in ominous times. Craig’s never looked as vulnerable as he does in the video, fumbling around his rehearsal room, gazing anxiously through thick glasses, gently contorted around his guitar or haltingly reassembling broken-down instruments.

However, it’s also a frail but faithful statement of empathy and loyalty in times of threat – a recognition that trust can be rebuilt in the face of despondency. An unexpected coda with a new hint of furrowed darkness suggests that Craig has swapped some of those NSRO green leaves for a bag of tougher, tarter limes; but he’s shored up the delicate song-line, made strengthening bulwarks to share. “Two by two, I’ll paint the people in” sings Craig, “with all my deepest longing.” The clouds may be fat and dark, the cliffs may be crumbling, lights may be going out in the little houses everywhere;  but community starts with two, and then another two.

When much of California went up in relentless wildfires last year, blotting out much of the Pacific seaboard in a broil of toxic brown smoke, it left scars – economic, geographical, psychic. Singer/composer Gabriella Smith might live mostly in Marseille these days, but her roots are thoroughly Californian, emotionally entwined with the hiking trails through forests and over rocks in the wild places, now little more than ash and scorching. Composed on the hoof as she paced helplessly in the Bay Area, unable to stop the despoilment from the raging fires, ‘Bard of a Wasteland’ is the first part of a fierce lament over the wrecking of her countryside.

Rage pushes at the roots of Gabriella’s soft conversational soprano, beginning to unweave its politeness, swooping through its steel-guitar pitching and murmurs. Meanwhile, her collaborator (the genre-flexing New York cellist Gabriel Cabezas) makes his cello sound like – and do – everything else. Jazz swoops and purring, fretless Mediterranean bass lines of the Mick Karn kind; quivering tremolo ornaments to the vocal melodies; staccato thumps and strums; subtle screeches of desert birdcall; reedy drones and a rainfall pattering of fingertip percussion.

All of this is layered into flexing rhythmical and methodic song-loops, perhaps owing something to Arthur Russell’s cello-beat, to African cycles and Italian tarantellas, in which Gabriel explores the rub and the push of instrumental voices while Gabriella digs into root causes of neglect and responsibility, of strip-mining the future and impoverishing the present. “You left us with fire / and we let it burn / You lined your pockets with the breath of your children,” she sings. “All you leave is a wasteland / And we’re fighting to breathe on.” As music, it’s pretty thrilling, it’s rhythm teasing your ankles and hips into dancing. As a story, it’s unresolved and inconclusive: as it has to be, as Gabriella starts to piece together her own emotions, to find out what her new place is, and where she sits on the chain of responsibility (if not the roster of blame).

“Lost time. / Another lick of the tide, / another loop in a line…. / Far enough from the slaughter, / close enough to the dam, / I lost the dream of a daughter / to be the bard of a wasteland.” It’s a reminder that protection of a landscape comes with sustaining one’s own awareness of and connection to it. Gabriella is performing the start of a war dance on hers, to remind those who failed their duties that this kind of failure matters.

On ‘ABBA/Mary’, ambient-classical composer and onetime Dead Texan Christina Vantzou effects a two-on-one remix of eerie New York post-classical rebels LEYA, whose threnodic conflations of violin, harp, unusual intervals and porously melancholic male-alto vocalising have enthralled various freak-pits, noise-dens, art-porn movies and other liminal performance spaces ever since they formed. The originals sound like weeping shroud-cloths peeled off the sleeping bodies of castrati. They’re disturbingly beautiful, their lyrics indistinct and parched, and they’re also deliciously unmoored from time, from strictness of gender, from tone-temperament. ‘ABBA‘ is a meeting of undulant string fades and detuned harp; ‘Mary‘ is more slanted towards traditional balladry and baroque continuo.

The Vantzou blending produces quite a different hybrid. Swimming in on a tide of fluting, falling vocal samples, its shifting spine is built from gentle alteration to ‘Mary’s harp continuo. Of the vocals, Marilu Donovan’s wispy backings are moved more upfront and given their moment in the spotlight; while Adam Marciewicz’s alto is further detached from its blurred storytelling role, now echoing protracted yearning syllables in distant corridors. Throughout, gentle background interruptions prod and nudge LEYA’s original building blocks as Vantzou mixes in computer blips, finger cymbals and insect chirps and the kind of electronic glissandi you’d expected to hear in vintage psychedelic science fiction.

Building assertively on LEYA’s taste for detuning, Vantzou also brings regular and unsettling shifts in pitching, progressing the music from chord to subtly dissonant chord. You’re never entirely sure where you’re being led, other than down a staircase in which the steps are each of different, treacherous sizes. There is no particular ending or straightforward resolution: the component fragments fray and ghost out together, the last sigh of a spectral tape.

Craig Fortnam: ‘Ark’
Onomatopoeia Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released:
14th May 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp (free download with album pre-order), Soundcloud, Amazon Music, Spotify, Shazam

Craig Fortnam online:
Facebook, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Vimeo, Spotify, Amazon Music, Shazam

Gabriella Smith/Gabriel Cabezas: ‘Bard of a Wasteland
Bedroom Community Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
14th May 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, ‎Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

Gabriella Smith online:
Homepage, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

Gabriel Cabezas online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music

LEYA: ‘ABBA/Mary’ (Christina Vantzou remix)
NNA Tapes (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
17th May 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music

LEYA online:
Facebook, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music

Christina Vantzou online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Vimeo, Deezer, Pandora, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music

May 2021 – single & track reviews – Loud Women’s ‘Reclaim These Streets’; Penelope Trappes’ ‘Blood Moon’; Spellling’s ‘Boys at School’

17 May

The personal, and the political. Flip a coin next time you walk out of doors. If it falls the wrong way, imagine that at some point you’re going to be the target of some kind of abuse while you’re out there – aggressive attention, or being boxed in, or physically assaulted. Possibly murdered.

Loud Women: 'Reclaim These Streets'

Loud Women: ‘Reclaim These Streets’

If you’re male (and if you’re taking this seriously), you’re probably feeling slightly paranoid at imagining this sort of a world. If you’re female, you don’t even need me to tell you that you’re already dealing with it – often the actuality, but always the ever-lurking fear and concern, and the rage that comes because of the way that this situation just grinds on and on forever… and of how it not only stalks the street, but seeps into the home, smothers the protest, blocks the initiative.

Spurred into action by two particular deaths, those of Blessing Olusegun and Sarah Everard (two outcroppings of this collective outrage, the first of which has highlighted the relative dismissal which the deaths of black women receive; the second how gynocidal murder can be dealt out even by those who are duty-bound to protect), a choral swarm of female musicians have come together under the umbrella of the Loud Women collective for ‘Reclaim These Streets’. In part it’s a well-deserved fund raiser for Women’s Aid. In part, it’s a righteous kick against this horrible cloud of threat and complacency.

On top of all that, as a protest song it works both in message and in form. Written by Loud Women founder Cassie Fox (of Thee Faction and I, Doris) it sits tight in the crossover pocket of punk and guitar-pop, with perhaps Deb Googe’s ferocious dragster-thrum bass as its prime component. Pounding along, fiercely and hungrily, it simultaneously finds room for a whole spectrum of female thinking, emoting, flavourings and positioning. The assured and assertive whomp of punk protest to the bruised-but-unbeaten notes of confessional; the hookiness of girl-group vigour and the whisper-to-gale push of the female chorale; the empowered party zest of women in solidarity; through to the roar of collective rallying.

As for the words, they’re forthright in their abraded, angry sketching of trepidations and injustice (“From the age of thirteen / I’ve known the fear of dark streets. / I’ve known my body’s danger / – can he hear my heart beat?.. / From the age of thirteen, / been told that it is my fault. / Blamed for male violence, / better watch where I walk… / Every woman’s got a story, / breaks silence with a whisper… / Text me you when get home; / keys between your fingers; / staying close to streetlights – / fear of shadows lingers…”). They’re equally forthright in their call for something better, something more just. “We have a right to safety / She was just walking home / Too many women share a story / You are not alone… / Daring to tell her truth / Calling to her sisters… / Till every woman’s safe from harm in her own home / Till every woman’s safe to live her truth / Till every woman’s safe to walk on every street.”

Perhaps its strongest impression, though is the coming-together – the commonality – of so many female musicians from across nearly five decades. A tranche of 1990s indie queens include Debbies Googe and Smith, Salad’s Marijne van der Vlugt and journalistic ground-breaker Ngaire Ruth; Brix Smith adds a gawky-but-gutsy rap in the middle;. latterday rock journeywomen Charley Stone and Jen Macro serve as guitar backbone. Elder voices (with lippy and lippiness) include Siobhan Fahey and that steadily-evolving, she-punk/polymath-auntie Helen McCookerybook.

As for the extended hand-to-hand patchwork of the Loud Women community choir, it contains among others MIRI, Lilith Ai, Laura Kidd (of Penfriend/She Makes War), Julie Riley, Lee Friese-Greene, Estella Adeyeri (Big Joanie) and Cassie’s I, Doris bandmate Abby Werth; plus dive-ins from assorted members of fierce female and female-slanted bands (such as Dream Nails, The Pukes, The Tuts, Desperate Journalist, Gender Chores, Slut Magic, Deux Furieuses, Berries, Muddy Summers & the Dirty Field Whores), all of them asserting and persuading together. It’s a reminder that few things are as naturally formidable – as naturally authoritative – as adjacent generations of women in full agreement, and who are forcefully letting it be known.

From material certainties to something metaphysical. In ‘Blood Moon’, Penelope Trappes imagines herself as Isis (protecting goddess of women and children, divine healer) but also as struggling against present-day burdens which have grown too heavy, too deadening. In the Agnes Haus short film which accompanies the song, a silver car pulls skittishly into a multi-story car park at night and Penelope-as-Isis (tumble-haired, teary-eyed, all too human in her distress) drags the unresponsive body of another woman across the concrete. The other woman’s face is unseen. Her leopard-print coat is snagging, her mass a dead weight.

There are flickers of power in Isis yet – she summons lightning and snow from her fingertips, and is dogged in her hauling efforts – but the film ends unresolved. Having dragged her burden all the way to the moon-shrouded docks, and with both the lifeless other body and her own wig of blonde curls now discarded on the roadway, the exhausted goddess stares angrily into the camera in a smear of kohl and sweat. Around her, the world continues, part-asleep, part-unregarding; a freight lorry cruising slowly past as if all too aware of damaged and brutalised women, and indifferent to them.

Visually, it’s all a bit didactic: besides Penelope’s goddess-role, there’s the fact that that anonymous dragged woman is eventually identified only as “societal expectations” (like something out of a mummer play for …feminism) It makes up for this with its mingled air of dread, fear, resolve and resentment as Isis shudders, pulls together strengths and repurposes fear, tries to function in the face of a massive injustice which billows between the mythic and the material. Likewise the song, which sounds as if it’s been stitched together from shreds and rags of weariness and resolve. The beats are like sparse, distant artillery; the piano sounds as if it’s been dropped from a great height before Penelope could pick a tune out of it.

Her own voice is a denatured wisp heard round a corner, delivering shadowy ambiguous lyrics. Groundings and splinterings mingle with prayers and protest and, somewhere, deep down, the shards of a mangled love song.“Centre body and guide, /show me what to do. / Serve grace with trebles eye, / turn must push on through. / I , I won’t lose. / I’ll tear up our love… Blood moon rising above… / Lover remember / repurpose fear within / along heated lines. / Can’t hear if you are fine. / I’m strong enough, / I’m strong enough…” The picture never becomes entirely clear. Perhaps it’s something which is felt over time… or in a pull-back. Too many congregating factors which rip a hole in the side of strength. Too many furious stitchings-up.

Bay Area baroque popper Spellling delivers a clearer message, somewhere between the fulsome protest of Loud Women and the abstracted one which Penelope favours, but hovering with purpose in a place of her own. You’d think you’d know what’s coming with a song called ‘Boys from School’ – either girl-group coo left as it is or flipped over to express rage at classroom and playground sexism. Spelling touches briefly on the latter (“I hate the boys at school / They never play the rules,”) but she has bigger fish to fry.

It’s not just the boy-runts who are failing her as a person. Admittedly, there’s a hint at dealing with disinterest and thwarted desire with “the body is the law and I’m only human after all / Wanted to bе the one that you need…”. But mostly it’s the whole institution that’s failing her as she drifts, purposefully, through its corridors while gradually disconnecting from its expectations and requirements. “Take me to the Lord before the boredom takes me over.” she hiss-whispers. “I am waiting on his move. I’m going under the floor. / What am I waiting for? / Floating down the hall / through all the voices, through all the walls. / Thought you could be the one to set me free.”

As a song, it’s in keeping with the genre-fluid approach that Spellling’s shown before: it’s a theatrical, near-orchestral shape-changer incorporating gusts of New Orleans funeral jazz, Kate Bush keenings, blended-in Chinese motifs, glam-prog riffs and chilly synthpop flourishes while always keeping to the pace and poise of trip hop soul. As a manifesto, it’s playful but forceful – an out-and-out rejection of being shaped, not just from the outside but also by pressures coming from the inside. “Tomorrow I turn sixteen years and I don’t want to grow older” sings Spellling, a black Pippi Longstocking; turning a retreat, rejection and revolt against adult expectation into a biting political resistance, ‘Tin Drum’-style. She’s called this a “step back into my younger self, my teenage self to voice my angst, desires and disillusionments,” and she’s taking this all the way, unfinished edges and all.

There’s ambiguity here, for certain, but she wields it with deliberate intent. Shut out the sun until I’m small again,” she demands, embracing the need for aloneness and self-reliance. “I’m way too tired to climb out of bed. / Four walls is all I need of friends.” Yet there’s also no self-pity here, and she’s always completely clear and centred. “I’m meaner than you think, and I’m not afraid of how lonely it’s going to be./ If I change my mind I’ll go walking outside, / just to see how the law is in place still.” Blending ambitious art-pop with a dose of that original black-girl wokeness, it’s a prologue to further choice and action; a kind of witchy taking-stock. It’s very rewarding.

Loud Women: ‘Reclaim These Streets’
Loud Women (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 14th May 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Resonate, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify

Loud Women online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp, Instagram        

Penelope Trappes: ‘Blood Moon’
Houndstooth Label (no catalogue number or barcode)
Format/other format item type
Released: 17th May 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Deezer, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, Napster

Penelope Trappes online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Vimeo, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music, Napster, Qobuz  

Spellling: ‘Boys at School’
Sacred Bones Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Streaming/download single
Released: 11th May 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, Deezer, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music

Spellling online:
Homepage, Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music   

 


March 2021 – single & track reviews – Dope Sagittarius’ ‘Define Love’; Makandi’s ‘Dum Dum’; BassLord’s ‘Elephant Talk’

19 Mar

Dope Sagittarius: 'Define Love'Backed by cloudy saxophone and slow-jam beat, Dope Sagittarius – a.k.a. Luqman Brown and various New York cohorts – are meditating on meaning and commitment. Their previous fistful of punky Afro/electro/funk numbers hasn’t been noted for its love songs; and while ‘Define Love’ might indeed be a love jam, and an unexpected one, it’s also a subtly introverted one, a song of return and re-evaluation, a big change of course. Luqman himself was temporarily felled by a stroke in between recording this and bringing it to the world, and had to spend a year learning how to walk, talk and live again. That might not have anything to do with how the song came about, but it has a heck of lot to do with how we frame it now.

Timing provides a chance to make changes, and plenty about ‘Define Love’ places it as a way of adjusting matters of the heart, of focus. “How to define love? that moment? that flame?” muses Luqman, while making it clear (via plenty of gospel confessional) that defining it in the past was an unmet challenge. “I made many mistakes and done so many wrongs. / I beg you’ll forgive me for my ignorant shortfalls / and now I’m living anew, conscious of what came before. / Girl, I’m coming to you again, trying to stand tall.”) Classic prodigal smoochery aside, this is mostly about righteousness, doing the right thing, being courageous. “It seems I stealed away to safer harbours and safer lands. / Love is treacherous, so dangerous, unfair – / so ride with caution and try to play fair.”


The video revels in sinous jazz chiaruscuro; the song itself simmers delicately but decisively in a deep vat of sophisticated New York black broth, drawing not just on jazz and soul but also on the musculature of the Black Rock Collective and on Afro-American classical (the last via saxophonist Mica Gaugh). It peaks with a pealing, meditative slowhand solo from fusion guitar giant Ronny Drayton, a gift from his last years before lymphoma took him from us in 2020. As with so much black pop, there’s more than just the surface meaning here, and this is coming at us during a time when we’ve all been sorely tested by pandemic and bereavement; by questions about how we conduct our lives, unthinking, unquestioning, maybe unproductive and full of worthless, passive choices. Live and contribute while you can.

Makandi’s ‘Dum Dum’ lives very much for the moment, and its sincerity is of a much more clipped, matter-of-fact kind. Musically, this is deep house with a riffling blue-seas tropicalia tinge; fluttering synth melodies like inquisitive hummingbirds; a relaxed cool-mood/wise-child female vocal.

A flicker of lyric lets us know what’s going on. This is about a no-strings hook-up as natural as an incoming tide; a gentle warning-off; a temporary joining. She comes like a glamorous thief in the night. A hand softly, sensuously scratches your back. You collude without questioning. You gain from it.

Some of the fans tuning in to King Crimson’s 1981 resurrection had their cages thoroughly rattled to hear that the new, leaner version of the former grand English prog giants appeared to have gone urban New York and funky. There always was more than a touch of go-go dancing to ‘Elephant Talk’; its effervescent minimalist cyclings and Adrian Belew’s post-Talking Heads yelp given some more meat and waggle by Tony Levin’s monstrous itchy-rubbery Stick basslines. Forty years later, this BassLord cover (all layered bass guitars bar the drum track and voice) allows a fresh group of people to rediscover ‘Elephant Talk’ without the baggage.

As much YouTube video joker as he is virtuoso, Basslord waggles and glares at us, and lectures us like a neurotic affronted shock jock. Cameos from Ganesh, newscaster and op-ed loudmouths set against swirling squadrons of busily working hands, third eyes, skimpy shorts and a pair of giant tropical hardwood earrings prove that we’re in a different, fruitier and more indulgent world from the clipped post-punk era into which Belew and co. first brought the song; although BassLord’s linking of Belew’s whimsical yap about rhetoric and word babble to the current world of online news fakery, video hucksters and rabid opinionators reminds us of the turbulence and aggression that’s barely even hiding beneath the window-dressing.

Otherwise, it’s pretty true to the original version… and why shouldn’t it be? Those exorbitant multi-stopped bass riffs (simultaneously galumphingly funky and faux-prissy) are ageless and compelling, a grand applecart-kicking romp both then and now. Enjoy.

Dope Sagittarius: ‘Define Love’
Buddhabug Records (no catalogue number)
Download/streaming single
Released: 19th March 2021

Get/stream it from:
Bandcamp, YouTube, Vimeo, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify Amazon Music

Dope Sagittarius online:
Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram, Amazon Music

Makandi: ‘Dum Dum’
Epic Tones Records, ETR276S (no barcode)
download-only single
Released: 19th March 2021

Get/stream it from:
Epic Tones store, Soundcloud, ‎Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Beatport

Makandi online:
Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Beatport

BassLord: ‘Elephant Talk’
self-released (no catalogue number)
video/download single
Released: 19th March 2021

Get/stream it from:
YouTube, Spotify

BassLord online:
Facebook, Soundcloud, YouTube, Spotify, Instagram

 

October 2020 – single & track reviews – Yeslah’s ‘Trancefixion’; Treasure Gnomes’ ‘Messages’ (featuring Lachi); GMTA’s ‘Forbidden Moments’

9 Oct

Staring boldly out of a welter of digital rotoscoping, Yeslah is a virtual aidoru with teeth – a fierce-girl pop star as a living cartoon, a self-declared “animated rap-bitch queen, hell-bent on summoning the return of the female power, and to every female her power”. Just how much of this is really sensual ghost-in-the-machine and how much of it is just a particularly dedicated image filter is up for questioning (well, not so much, really); but ‘Trancefixion’ is a terrifically assured blend of assertion and body-positive narcissism. Literally a wake-up-in-the-morning-and-masturbate-over-how-great-you-are disco pumper.

There’s more to it than that. Bounding through a massive confection of four-on-the-floor beats, porny come-ons, bustling synth-soul brass, winddowns and speed-ups, Yeslah grabs as much as she can in terms of image control and self-summoned goddess frenzy (“I get decked out and I hit the streets. / Nowhere to go but I like to be seen. / I’ve got glitter in my eyes and my fish-net tights, / period blood dripping down my thigh,”) while simultaneously embracing what seems to be a full-on identity meltdown (“I wake up and I don’t belong / I look in the mirror like there’s something wrong / There’s someone smiling from behind my face / I see stars when I masturbate.. / I’m a princess trapped in a video game / I might be a hologram but I’m no slave… / Boys and girls inside a machine, / I start to see the cameras, they can’t see me.”).

Nothing’s in conflict, though. Everything’s rapped with the same level of slinky, sexual assurance. Yeslah spits (no holds barred) about pussy power and being “older than love”; is equally cheerful and arrogant about her bi-appeal; goes cross-eyed, disassociative and Baudrillardian about her fluctuating image and her virtual presence. Other women have been here before – Nikki Minaj, Madonna, Peaches and Megan Thee Stallion to name a few – but I don’t think anyone’s flung themselves quite as gleefully into the maskwork as Yeslah has. “In dreams I am always appearer,’ she raps, during the breakdown. “Reflected, my body is clearer.” Clarity in confusion. The extended mix offers extra crystallinity – not New Age chimes and twinkles, but more like some club nutter playing serious maracca-shake with a giant pair of chandeliers. It’s all about the subtlety here.

Following this blast of hyper-pop, ‘Messages’ is more down-to-earth: New York singer Lachi teaming up with London DJ/producer/songwriter Treasure Gnomes following a bit of mutual bonding over aggrieved texts and voicemails sent to exes, or to gonna-be exes – “you got me on that hang-up, call-back, sayin’ things that nobody ought to hear.” While ‘Trancefixion’ takes everything (from musical changes to violently altered perspectives) in its lubricious stride, ‘Messages’ hops from mood to mood, accelerates, blows up; follows the dynamics of a building monologue when what were once sad love-diary notes and held-in thoughts become full-on outcries.

Lachi is magnificent throughout – starting off soft and buzzing, (“I saw you talking with your friends and I wonder do you ever mention me? / But what could you really know? / when you don’t take the time to pay attention, though?”) rising through broken R&B rhythms and gut-grunts (both skeptical or wounded), and through swelling protest to full-diva wail with nary a moment that she isn’t controlling and shaping what she has to say, even as the surges and counter-emotions play with her. Treasure Gnomes backs it up with beats switching from sparse and breezy to machine-gun dance bursts, and with malleable synth-strokes like cartoon whale-song, while Lachi tumbles and rebounds from feeling to feeling. “I see the way that you glance at me, but I don’t mean shit on the gram to you,” she accuses, before making confessions about sleepless nights and haunted lovesick meals alone. 

With today’s power plays, entitlements and manipulations being so easily spotted, so easily buried under public scorn, it’s a tougher job to make obsession seem dignified. ‘Messages’ manages it, though; never sullying itself with whines or vindictiveness even as its fever mounts. “I’m aware that it’s crazy – I need you to hear me,” Lachi sings at one point, confessing and asserting. Later, during a musical lull, she’ll reveal “I’m no longer up at all hours, I’m finding my energy.” One chorus later, she’ll be back at the love-call; but although she’s currently stuck, there are signs that she won’t be stuck permanently. They’re there to be picked up. It’s in the tone. At some point soon, those message are going to stop, and they’ll be missed. 

On ‘Forbidden Moments’, the spare, moody, ominous pop of Dutch duo GMTA plays us out by etching a picture of illicit mutual fascination: the pull of temptation and seduction where it isn’t allowed. A drum machine beat like a watching camera, slightly out-of-sync with what it’s supposed to be watching. Dark-toned electric piano and the drag of bass. And the voice, mournfully romantic but stony with constrained intent… “Forbidden moments with your hungry eyes. / Secretly moving my hands on your thighs – / Mind says stop, but lips contradicting… / Forbidden moments, share what’s not mine, / the feeling of guilt and tears in your eyes. / Heart wants love, but body’s conflicting.”

A different kind of horny, then. A different kind of romance. Caught under the gaze of guilt and God (if not a jealous spouse) and the clench of northern European propriety. The strain is there – just there – in the grain of the voice. Like many a tragic crooner before him, he’s enjoying the ache, but he’s masking it with a studied cool.

Or is he? It’s cracking. He bursts out with “but don’t you feel that we could be something else? / and don’t you think that we should be somewhere else? / and don’t you feel like we should be running / and we should be hiding away?” There’s not a change in the sustained forebodingness of the music behind him. It runs on. It fades out. No answer, just a heavy question, finally raised. “We are something of each other – / there are only lines to cross…” Out of shot, decisions will be made.

Yeslah: ‘Trancefixion’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
9th October 2020

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon Music

Yeslah online:
Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, YouTube, Spotify, Instagram   

Treasure Gnomes ‘Messages’ (featuring Lachi)
Be Yourself Music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
8th October 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, Beatport

Treasure Gnomes online:
Twitter, Soundcloud, Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Beatport  

Lachi online:
Homepage, Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Pandora, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Beatport

GMTA: ‘Forbidden Thoughts’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
9th October 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

GMTA online:
Homepage, Facebook, Soundcloud, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Instagram 

August 2020 – single & track reviews – ReMission International’s ‘TOS2020’; Derw’s ‘Ble Cei Di Ddod I Lawr’; The Forever Now’s ‘Reciprocals’

28 Aug

ReMission International: 'TOS2020'

ReMission International: ‘TOS2020’

You can tease The Mission all you like, but you can’t deny that they’ve got heart… not least because Wayne Hussey is usually waving it at you on the end of a long stick. Even during their full booze’n’powders youthful phase, they had an avuncular, endearing air about them, partly due to Wayne’s effusive need to be loved. Over thirty years later, they’re able to settle into the role more comfortably.

Even though ‘TOS2020’ isn’t quite The Mission in itself – it’s performed by Wayne with a small army of friends and allies under the ReMission International banner – it’s pretty much Mish at heart. Tower of Strength was always the key Mission tune, and it stays timeless when it’s building on its key elements: that elegant spidery twelve-string guitar riff (like a slithering slow jig midway-morphed into a belly dance); that knee-patter of a drum pattern; and, finally, Wayne’s voice (showing less of the cavernous keen of old and more of the intimate warmth underneath it). Drawing on mystic Mediterranean drone, its distant kissing-cousin relationship to Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, and presumably Wayne’s childhood memories of old Mormon hymns, it’s a spirit-lifter; an admission of weakness, an expression of gratitude, an affirmation of faith.


 
This particular version is a covid/healthcare fundraiser for frontline workers, with its profits to be spread globally across a wealth of charities. The array of contributors include longtime Hussey boon companions Billy Duffy, Miles Hunt and Julianne Regan (the latter slipping smoothly back into her old Queen Eve role), plus assorted characters from Gene Loves Jezebel, including the long-estranged Aston brothers. Other Goth-tinged old-schoolers contributing are Kirk Brandon, Bauhaus’ Kevin Haskins, ex-Banshees/Creatures drummer Budgie, Lol Tolhurst, Martin Gore and Gary Numan. Also on board are Midge Ure, metal/fusioneer Steve Clarke, Smiths bassist Andy Rourke, Guns N’ Roses guitarists Robin Finck and Richard Fortus (the latter reworking the faux-Hindi string parts), Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell and (representing the neo-dark side of things) both Evi Vine and James Alexander Graham of noise-folkers The Twilight Sad. Various packages include a tribal-Goth remix by Albie Mischenzingerze and a lullaby- synthwave one by Trentemøller.

Most all-star collaborations lumber along like a tired old tailback, and you’d expect this one to be the same. Instead, it manages to coast like a streamlined train; a persistent smooth swap-over of duties from voice to voice, guitar to guitar, kit to kit. In its middle age, Tower of Strength seems to have evolved from an individual prayer into a communal round, from lighter anthem to campfire hymnal. The Mission always wanted to be luminous in the darkness. Despite the Goth-y star cast, there’s less glitz in the glow this time around, and it’s all the better for it.

Derw: 'Ble Cei Di Ddod I Lawr'

Derw: ‘Ble Cei Di Ddod I Lawr’

Having opened up with the expansive piano pop of ‘Dau Gam’ during early summer, Welsh-language chamber poppers Derw are rapidly going from strength to strength. There was a dash of Celtic soul and sophisti-pop to ‘Dau Gam’; they’ve kept all of that for ‘Ble Cei Di Ddod I Lawr’, but have incorporated it into an ornate slow-building confection which suggests a Cymrification of various sources including Clannad, Queen and Brian Wilson, with both a contemporary pop dusting and a hook into the past.

Derw’s particular dynamic remains the creative triangle comprising the songwriting partnership between Daffyd Dawson and his mother Anna Georgina, and Daffyd’s overlapping musical and performance partnership with singer Elin Fouladi: two different definitions of family which seem to have combined into a larger one. The Welsh title for the new single translates into English as ‘Where Did You Come Down’; the core concept is apparently Welsh hiraeth, or nostalgic homesickness.

 
Combining with Elin’s own part-Iranian roots, a sense of place pervades the song: more particularly, a sense of place adrift. Elin’s clear, fresh voice zigzags over rolling piano landscapes, a powerful melody skylarking its own way over plenty of places to land but always restless, as if looking for a new locale in which to renew old feelings and to build anew. Stuck in my limited Anglophone world, I’m probably overcompensating, trying to make up for missing out on the Welsh lyric which unfurls alongside the music; but you don’t have to know the Welsh to catch the mood. This is potent stuff; if it’s Celtic soul, it’s of a new, post-insular, hybrid-futured kind, and it’s very welcome.

The Forever Now: 'Reciprocals'

The Forever Now: ‘Reciprocals’

Mutuality is on the mind of The Forever Now, right now. It’s a little unclear as to where and what they are. Known as Winchester up until last year, previously associated with Toronto but now based across the icy seas in Copenhagen, they’re a duo who seem to be a little reluctant to be a duo. If you take The Forever Now as a solo act, then it’s Monty de Luna; Lauren Austin, however, is the “frequent collaborator” who seems to be something of a fixture and stands to the fore on the cover art. Musically speaking, it’s all a bit friends-with-benefits.

This is probably a bit misleading; but these kind of thoughts are provoked when a song like ‘Reciprocals’ surfaces. With a ruminating electric piano ballad at its core, it’s also a duet with no solo spots (Monty and Lauren sing in strict unison and harmony throughout). Contemporary pop choruses come at us in a rush of synthy planetarium twinkle; but the verses drop, line by line, into bitten-off spaces graced by click and patter, tinkles and rattle-rushes. Monty admits, straight out, that it’s “an honest and naked statement about the end of a relationship” as well as “a metaphor for broader statements about the world”. With his group in flux geographically, nominally and practically, it’s difficult not to read the song as a musing on changing terrain of all kinds.

 
If you’re looking for direct answers in the lyrics, there’s enough here to suggest a rationale for an honest break – “If we’re honest, I’ve been here before. / If we’re honest, I can’t see a way forward. / If we’re honest it’s not worth the fuss, / and if we’re being honest, you know I never wanted this much.” But it’s also about wordplay; masking full disclosure with abstractions and constructions, and (as Monty points out elsewhere) blurring the language of love with those of analytical equations. “So if you’ve got the time, then its time we go, / and if you’ve got the lines, then it’s time we draw them. / Because in another life I’d never let you go, / but I’ve been spending mine on reciprocals, on reciprocals.”

You don’t need to know or think about any of this, of course, and you might be more comfortable not knowing.

ReMission International: ‘TOS2020’
SPV, SPV 243541 LP/SPV 243542 CD-EP/SPV 24354D (no barcode)
Vinyl/CD/download single
Released: 28th August 2020

Get it from: buy/download from ReMission International store or Beauty in Chaos store; stream via YouTube
The Mission online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music

Derw: ‘Ble Cei Di Ddod I Lawr’
CEG Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
28th August 2020
Get it from: download from Amazon Music; stream via Soundcloud or Spotify
Derw online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud YouTube Spotify

The Forever Now: ‘Reciprocals’
Symphonic Distribution (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
28th August 2020
Get it from: download from Bandcamp; stream via Soundcloud, Deezer, Google Play or Spotify. This is also the lead track from the ‘Reciprocals’ EP.
The Forever Now online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud Bandcamp YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

August 2020 – single & track reviews – Jakko M. Jakszyk’s ‘The Trouble with Angels’; Minute Taker’s ‘The Darkest Summer’; Ivan Moult’s ‘What More Could I Say?/Toxic’

14 Aug

Jakko M. Jakszyk: 'The Trouble with Angels'

Jakko M. Jakszyk: ‘The Trouble with Angels’

He’s a great asset to the current King Crimson, but it does often seem as if some of Jakko Jakszyk‘s talents are neglected there. With the band mostly concentrating on reinventing and reworking a fifty-year back catalogue, there doesn’t seem to be much room for Jakko’s original songs. A shame, since there are few better at shaping and refining plangent ballads which keep both their grand pictorial scale and their sense of shared confidences.

Heralding the release of a new Jakko solo album, ‘The Trouble with Angels’ (released via a Sam Chegini pencil-shades video) demonstrates all of this yet again. Jakko claims that it’s about “the innate urge to reach out to a stranger, following a chance meeting in Monte Carlo… combined with the monochrome memories of Wim Wenders’ ‘Wings of Desire’, where a moment of crisis is redefined by something magical.” Maybe so, but only half the story is in there. The song’s aching sadness (expressed through caressing arpeggios, a curving arm of bass, a far-off raindusting of piano and cymbal, and above all by the vast pining space which stretches the song out) contains a mingled looping cord of pain and regret, kindness and guilt.


 
It’s about the desire to do better (“a bruised romantic’s futile plan”) while owning the fact that one might still contain harm, deception and shortfall; still not sure whether the need for a coherent story might override proper self-awareness. (“Fate, vows and happy endings / turn to dust and disappear. / Yet the search for clues is never-ending, / to justify our presence here… You search for signs and keep pretending / that all these moments brought you here.”) All at once, it’s a love song to a passing moment, a hint of wrongdoing done, a confession of fallability continued; and, in that, a archetypal Jakko song. The trouble with angels who have longed to be kissed, / and every mortal distraction that they try to resist, / and the trouble with me and all the signals I missed – / the thing about angels is, they don’t really exist.”

MInute Taker: 'The Darkest Summer'

MInute Taker: ‘The Darkest Summer’

Continuing the stream of singles from his audiovisual fictional-historical ‘Wolf Hour’ project (which explores, in dream sequences, the emotional lives and social position of gay men across time), Minute Taker releases ‘The Darkest Summer’. This time, the key year is 1989 – the year of the Vatican AIDS conference, and one in which ignorance and lack of understanding regarding the disease was finally on the turn. That said, AIDS itself is never once referenced in the song: a haunting ultramarine pulse of Germanic synth pop which rhapsodies memories, swimming in ghostly warmth – “all of the years that went away / carried away with the tide… / When I close my eyes, I find you in the half-light / standing on the sand, your hand in mine.”


 
The key is the video element: a dusk-blue recounting of a beachside romance carried out amongst the sand dunes and amusement arcades, which suddenly slips into a nightmare of loss and haunting down at the waterline. Saturated colours give way to video glitches as if beset by repeated blows: a lover’s features become a screen for static and violent effacement; a man writhes in oppressive darkness as if drowning and trying vainly to beat his way free.

There are shades, though not explicit ones, of The Communards’ For a Friend: the song, especially in its video incarnation, is trip-wired by shockwaves of loss. You can draw your own conclusions about what brought it on (the swathing of a huge impersonal pandemic, or the small cruelties of people’s individual failings) since the song itself is not giving anything more away. Instead, it focuses in on the furious, futile attempts to cling to the brilliance of what was lost; to fix it in time and to fix oneself to it. “I’d stay this way forever / as long as you were by my side. / (Oh) we’ve got the summer, baby / (oh) if you wanna waste some time… / don’t talk about the future, we can leave it all behind.”

Ivan Moult: 'What More Could I Say?/Toxic'

Ivan Moult: ‘What More Could I Say?/Toxic’

Previously known for his own kind of singer-songwriter confessionals (a succession of neo-folk baroque songs in the Nick Drake/David Gray vein), Ivan Moult seems to have been infected with a different enthusiasm during coronavirus lockdown. Already the owner of a dreamy, slightly weightless voice, he’s now bouncing and slurring it around the back of the mix for a decidedly Americanised remodelling.

Behind the reverbing “doo-doo”s of his backing singers and the electric country-telegraph-blues guitar he’s now favouring, ‘What More Could I Say?’ initially seems to meander delightfully within its classic framework, like Glen Campbell coming unstuck at Sun Studios. Once you get past the murmuring slurs, the high flutters and momentary keenings, though, you’re left with a true-to-form evocation of the wobblings of love. Its yearnings and its grumps, its desires and trepidations of settling on what might be unreliable ground. “Is it all in my mind / or are you sending me signs,/ ‘cos I don’t want to be that guy… / The way you turn your shoulders, you’re gonna loose smoulderings in my senses… / Are you staying over? / What I wanna know is / whether this is more than a lie…”

 
Not content with that, Ian dials up the reverb even more for a cover of Britney Spears’ Toxic that’s part slowcore country and part space rock, and therefore pretty much a hundred per cent ‘Twin Peaks’ Roadhouse. Discarding the brassy energy in favour of the high, lonesome sound is a kind of masterstroke, transforming it from a tingling celebration of forbidden fruit and remaking it into a dread-stricken mourning over addiction’s pull. Perhaps it always was, but giving it a touch of the Hank Williamses (or perhaps the Michael J. Sheehys) doesn’t hurt. Well, in a manner of speaking, it doesn’t.

 
Jakko M. Jakszyk: ‘The Trouble with Angels’
Inside Out Music (no barcode or catalogue number)
Download/streaming single
Released:
14th July 2020
Get it from: download from Amazon; stream via Apple Music or YouTube
Jakko M. Jakszyk online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Last FM YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Instagram Amazon Music

Minute Taker: ‘The Darkest Summer’
Octagonal Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
14th August 2020
Get it from: Minute Taker shop
Minute Taker online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Spotify Instagram Amazon Music

Ivan Moult: ‘What More Could I Say?/Toxic’
Bubblewrap Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Released:
14th July 2020
Get it from: download from Apple Music, Google Play or Amazon Music; stream via Soundcloud, YouTube, Apple Music, Deezer, Google Play, Tidal, Spotify and Amazon Music
Ivan Moult online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Vimeo Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

July 2020 – singles & track reviews – Colin Edwin’s ‘First Point of Origin’ & ‘Second Point of Origin’; Bloom’s Taxonomy’s ‘Mount Bromo/United Nations Bicycle Parking’

31 Jul

Colin Edwin: 'First Point of Origin'

Colin Edwin: ‘First Point of Origin’

Driven by the realities of covid isolation and a shortage of live and external inspirations, a couple of new solo standalone pieces by Colin Edwin explore various aspects of fretless bass guitar, percussion programming and sound design. He’s calling them “limited elements” tracks: limited initially by time, place and opportunity and later by choices, although in themselves they’re rich-sounding enough to gainsay the name.

If the ear hints are correct, ‘First Point of Origin’ starts in a sort of shunting yard before heading off somewhere Can-nish, though Colin claims Neu! as a more accurate accidental reference point for a piece made via “heavy use of bass guitar fed through a delay pedal, drones courtesy of SuperEgo and Ebow, and driven by minimalistic “You must play monotonous!”-type rhythmic backing augmented by sliced and processed pieces of the underlying drone.” Either way, the drive forward ends up in a kind of enjoyably dour Krautrock disco space, some of Colin’s basslines wah-ed up into clavinet-style perks.


 

Colin Edwin: 'Second Point of Origin'

Colin Edwin: ‘Second Point of Origin’

If ‘Second Point of Origin’ has a key marker, it’s probably the relentless space rock throb of Hawkwind rather than Neu!. However, that’ll be a Hawkwind stripped down to delay-darkened dub bass and a menacing, grinding ambient purr. There’s also touch of the Blue Mondays to the building kick drum (not that trademark jammed-key stutter, more the build itself). As the track goes on, there’s more of a shift from bass sounds to drum sounds; not a replacement as such, but more an altering of priorities, a shift of emphasis.

Colin calls it “an exploration of inner space conceived whilst outer space was completely inaccessible.” There’s certainly something in that. Echoes bounce around a murky tank; the drone is like a searchlight illuminating nothing; the percussion passing though like a continually-altering blind signal. As the percussion and blocky pulses take over, the bass guitar itself is freed up to do lethargic, lazy marine arcs through the piece’s volume, a whale exercising slow-motion loops.


 

Bloom's Taxonomy: 'Mount Bromo/United Nations Bicycle Parking'

Bloom’s Taxonomy: ‘Mount Bromo/United Nations Bicycle Parking’

The abiding impression which Bloom’s Taxonomy‘s ‘Mount Bromo’ leaves is one of a serene, near ecstatic happiness. The forthcoming Bloom’s album is called ‘Foley Age’, suggesting a trip around field recordings and sound-creating objects. There’s certainly one in ‘Mount Bromo’ – an Indonesian gamelan, which provides the track with its playout sound (as an undoctored field recording, complete with conversation, children and engineer indiscretions); and also, via sampling, rings out the riff that cascades through the main section like a spiritual ice-cream truck.

The man behind Bloom’s Taxonomy, W.B Fraser, usually uses the project to explore urban desolation and science fiction pessimism. For this track, though, he seems to have embraced something more outrightly positive, bouncing it across a bed of unhurried breakbeats and a slow-tide swell of string synths.


 
‘United Nations Bicycle Parking’ is a little closer to standard Bloom’s practise. A little chillier and ambient in its electronica sway, its bass and beats virtually subliminal under its sky-buzz, its orchestrated sirens, its swerves of crowd-chatter. It has the pitch of a great city, one not defined by any imperial form but by the life that swirls through it, and by its optimism. At times this tune is up amongst the heights of the skyscrapers; at others, it’s dipping into the street markets. It sounds hopeful, it sounds accepting. It sounds as if Mr Fraser’s broadening his horizons in more ways than one.


 
Colin Edwin: ‘First Point of Origin’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
6th August 2020
Get it from: Bandcamp
Colin Edwin online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Spotify Instagram Amazon Music

Colin Edwin: ‘Second Point of Origin’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
31st July 2020
Get it from: Bandcamp
Colin Edwin online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Spotify Instagram Amazon Music

Bloom’s Taxonomy: ‘Mount Bromo/United Nations Bicycle Parking’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
31st July 2020
Get it from: download via Bandcamp or Amazon Music; stream via Soundcloud or Spotify
Bloom’s Taxonomy online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp YouTube Instagram Amazon Music
 

July 2020 – single & track reviews – Samuel Travis’ ‘Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep’

18 Jul

Though still only sixteen, Samuel Travis is already showing signs of being a thoughtful, gifted choral composer. While he’s got family roots in strong, flexible musicality (his father is jazz saxophonist Theo Travis, whose creative, interpretative and collaborative talents also stretch across fusion, progressive rock and loop music, and his mother Madelyn is an accomplished amateur classical pianist who immersed her son in classical music from birth), Samuel seems to be pretty much his own man, exploring sophisticated polyphony and the sound of assorted small classical groupings in a way that reveals a sober, constructive talent and the ability to bring out the best of talent in others.

He’s used current lockdown time to reach out and record a choral piece, in order to reflect current concerns and also to fundraise. The text he’s set – Mary Elizabeth Frye’s ‘Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep’ – runs a delicate track between being a perennial and a contemporary chestnut: eminently familiar from radio readings and funerals, it’s also been set in recent by a variety of classical and pop composers from Eleanor Daley, Kevin Siegfried, David Bedford and Howard Goodall to Peter Chilvers, Geoff Stephens, Seanchai & The Unity Squad and Lizzie West. At this point, if you’re working with it, you have to make it sing afresh.

Working with his own Virtual Lockdown Choir (a rapidly-assembled decet of similarly musical classmates from both the Latymer School and the Junior Department of the Royal Academy of Music) Samuel does just that; refracting the text through ten voices, taking it away from its encroaching corral of greetings cards and earnest solo voices, and remaking it as something universal again. Along the way, he explores, incorporates and fuses a variety of traditions and influences. The Anglican a capella choral tradition is there, for certain, as is ancient plainsong; although any lingering pale-male monasticism is minimised by the mixed genders and cultural backgrounds of the VLC decet.


 
While there aren’t many tricks of texture here – no abrasive trills, vocalese, extended techniques, vocal percussion or sound effects – at least some of the more contemporary approaches to choral music also leave something of a mark here. There are echoes of Eric Whitacre’s mixture of absolute melodic accessibility with dextrous, depthful musical touches, and (in the gorgeous drifts and shifting slurs of harmony) something of James Macmillan’s glorious ‘Gallant Weaver’. Given Samuel’s youth, though, it hardly sounds derivative at all: as if he’s drawing from the same sources alongside his predecessors, in command of the language and, crucially, the emotional meaning.

Over to Samuel for some more information on context and fundraising:

“The recent lockdown due to COVID-19, and the murder of George Floyd and other members of the black community, have left many people suffering, either from mental health issues or the injustice to a huge community of people.

“I composed this song shortly before lockdown and have spent over one hundred hours putting this virtual choir together over the past three months. I feel that the words resonate with the current global situation and I would like to use the video to raise £1,000.00 for the mental health charity The Samaritans and Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, which helps young people from diverse backgrounds to overcome disadvantage and discrimination.

“Please help me reach this goal by sharing and donating if you feel able! Thank you.”

Samuel Travis online:
YouTube
 

May 2020 – single & track reviews – Heavy Lamb/Jesse Cutts’ ‘CONFINEMENT-release4’; Jack Hayter’s ‘Let’s Go Shopping’ (Sultans of Ping F.C cover); Billie Bottle sings ‘Ted Hughes – Wind: Upheaval Imminent’

11 May

Jesse Cutts/Heavy Lamb: 'CONFINEMENT​/​release4'

Jesse Cutts/Heavy Lamb: ‘CONFINEMENT​/​release4’

The fourth helping of Brighton psychedelia from the Confinement Tapes series is more Heavy Lamb, and more Jesse Cutts. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. As was the case last time, while Jesse isn’t the only Lamb player the line between what’s him and what’s Lamb is blurring into the inconsequential. Certainly ‘All Dust’ is an actual Heavy Lamb piece at least: revisited, re-arranged and re-seasoned by Jesse and the other remaining Lambkin (John Gee), with Jesse’s mum, frequent collaborator and core Confinementeer Jo Spratley back on lead vocals, as she was for last month’s take on Cardiacs’ ‘Odd Even’.

It’s tempting to suggest that they should make it a permanent arrangement: Jo sounds happier doing Lambwork than she does in any other project, and the song itself is a delightful complication, unpacking plentiful musical material from inside a sleek indie-pop/rock shell. Threes against fours, sudden teases of hot spaces; voice keeping inside the chords but finding any conceivable space to hop around inside there; Propelled by Jesse’s cunning, slippery bass the chords themselves obligingly fold over and flip into new spaces so as to give the melody more space to roam and loop back. The Cardiacs influence is strong, but so’s the love for any batch of raucous goodtime English sunshine-pop. The lyric’s as complicated, digressive and warm as the music; something about fragile hearts surviving on the tide, something about continual replenishment. So far, it’s peak Lamb: not just an ideal bridge between rock disco and broader music, but great fun in its own right.


 
As with ‘All Dust’, the two instrumental pieces also contained in the package are new recordings, all played in their entirety by Jesse; in contrast to some of the more archival odds and sods on Confinement Tapes releases, these were only put together this month. In ‘Gutter Pigeon’, wobbled piano encountered during a downpour switching into orchestrated chord clambering, a lazy little pavement circus. After a shimmery start, ‘Small Things’ compresses and unpacks an album’s worth of development in a single six-minute tune. Lovely. If there’s a prog tone to all of this, it’s in keeping with those leisurely Kent’n’Sussex prog tones from Canterbury, Herne Bay and all of the other Mellow-on-Seas these kind of sunny benevolent English meanders come from.



 
From up the Thames estuary (and following his life-blasted, gutter-country cover of ‘The Dark End of the Street’ at the end of last month), Jack Hayter continues his lockdown broadcasts with a visit to 1990s Irish indie. As he recounts, “in 2004 an American band provided the British with a national anthem… ‘Mr Brightside’. Back in 1992 an Irish band did the same thing with ‘Where’s Me Jumper’. In the time of Corona we’re not dancing in the disco bumper-to-bumper. Neither are we going out shopping much… so this is all a bit pants, really. Dunno why I did this.. and I played bum notes too.”


 
Yes, the bum notes are obvious (not least because Jack lampshades each one of them with a quirk and a chuckle), but his warmth, humour and charm – even via webcam – are so engaging that it’s all forgivable. More importantly, it’s what he brings to the song that matters more than a finger-slip or two. The original Sultans of Ping version of ‘Let’s Go Shopping’ – the product of young men imagining a contented, domestic afterlife for a reformed raver and pillhead – almost vanishes under the sweet conscious hokiness of its string arrangements and its honky-tonk drum click. Jack’s version (basic voice and guitar) gently trims off the hints of irony and any tongue-in-cheek trappings.

As I mentioned last time, few people have such a skill at uncovering the tender core of a song. Watching Jack’s treatment is like watching a great little bit of subtle pub theatre story unfold. In his hands, it’s no longer something simple and jolly, but something grown touching and tender. Love for one’s wife, a nostalgia for wilder times but no regrets of any kind; embracing grown-up responsibilities (and burdens) with a sunny chuckle – “you can push the trolley – and I’ll push the pram.” And then, after this cheerful jaunt, lazy and affectionate, the cloud comes: lockdown bleakness casting a shadow over Jack’s face for a moment as the world shrinks and chills, and even dull everyday pleasures become fraught with peril. “Let’s go shopping, / we can wish away our fears. / Let’s go shopping, / the shops are really… near.” Jack plays this cover down as some kind of throwaway. Nothing he ever does is really a throwaway.

Billie Bottle‘s life has been in flux for a while – the transition from “he” to “they” to “she”, the rearrangement of day-to-day living and bands and dressing and sundry ways of doing things. Still, Billie’s an unfailingly positive and proactive character (as shown in her series of songs with non-binary musician/activist Kimwei – the most recently-aired one being here) and most of the unsettledness had eased down just before the plague blew in this spring.

From indoors, she’s just revealed some multi-layered new work taking on and reflecting both her innate calm and musicality, and the impact of an unsettled world. For now, though it’s just a lyrics video, with Billie announcing “well me lovelies, it feels like the right time to share one of the projects that have been on the go here in Bottledom over seven weeks of UK lockdown. My auntie read me the Ted Hughes poem, ‘Wind’, down the phone and I was struck by its power and pertinence. It blew itself into a kind of song, ‘Wind: Upheaval Imminent’. May you also be filled with its gustiness!”

As a member of Mike Westbrook’s band, Billie’s an heiress to his chamber-jazz poetics as well as to the playful jazzy lilt of the Canterbury sound. Both were well in evidence on last year’s ‘Grazie Miller’ EP, and they’re just as clear on ‘Wind: Upheaval Imminent’, a Hughesian account of a storm which “wielded / blade-light, luminous black and emerald, / flexing like the lens of a mad eye.”). Initially it’s an interplay between Billie’s high androgynous tenor and a sketching, dabbing piano; with drums, subtle blocks of organ, a near-subliminal bass, and a few judiciously-placed sound effects and concrete-instrumental coloration making their way into the mix.


 
Mostly, though, it’s the words and the voice. Billie responds to a setting in much the same way that Robert Wyatt handles a cover, and her carefully-timed leaps from note to note (all with an underlying, broken-up sense of swing) recapture the poem’s sense of awe; its trepidation and exultation, its illustration of the way that fragility shades strength. (“The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace, / At any second to bang and vanish with a flap: / The wind flung a magpie away and a black- / back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house / rang like some fine green goblet in the note / that any second would shatter it.” ) She uses the sprung challenges of jazz – the rhythm eddies, the intrusion of unexpected harmonic currents – to dig into the hinted upheaval in Hughes’ words.

As with the poem, the music ends unresolved – “now deep / in chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip / our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought, / or each other. We watch the fire blazing, / and feel the roots of the house move, but sit on, / seeing the window tremble to come in, / hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.” Structurally brilliant, captivatingly emotive, and an excellent marriage of text and music, it’s one of the best things Billie has ever done in a persistently ripening career.

Heavy Lamb/Jesse Cutts: ‘CONFINEMENT-release4’
The Confinement Tapes, CONFINEMENT_release4
Download/streaming single
Released: 4th May 2020
Get it from:
free/pay-what-you-like download from Bandcamp
Heavy Lamb/Jesse Cutts online:
Facebook Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM

Jack Hayter: ‘Let’s Go Shopping’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Video-only single
Released: 10th May 2020
Get it from:
currently view-only on YouTube
Jack Hayter online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Vimeo Deezer Spotify Amazon Music

Billie Bottle: ‘Ted Hughes – Wind: Upheaval Imminent’
self-released, no catalogue number or barcode
Video-only single
Released: 11th May 2020
Get it from:
currently view-only on YouTube
Billie Bottle online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

May 2020 – EP reviews – Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY’s ‘CONFINEMENT-release3’ (“mysteries which slip into shadowed corners”)

7 May

Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY: 'CONFINEMENT-release3' EP

Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY: ‘CONFINEMENT-release3’ EP

Following their pair of releases last month, Brighton’s Confinement Tapes project is back for a second round – this time with Confinementeers Jo Spratley and Bic Hayes joined by honorary family member Chris Anderson (of Worthing’s Crayola Lectern), who’s also worked with Bic in Brighton kosmische juggernaut ZOFFF alongside what seems like a good half of Brighton’s psychedelic contingent (and, occasionally, The House of Love’s Terry Bickers).

(The third original Confinementeer, Jesse Cutts, has his own follow-up single too, but more on that later…)

Unlike the archived cover versions refurbished for the previous EP, ‘Bright Fivers’ is an all-new, all-original April recording in which Chris contributes as the anagrammatic Cola Ray, collaborating with Bic and Jo’s MUMMY. Initially, it’s his arpeggiating pianos (distanced and tinny, as if pulled from a dusty old 78) which dominates ‘Bright Fivers’; a solemn setting for Jo’s singing, which is loaded with both trepidity and authority. That’s only the prelude, though, and it’s severed from the rest of the piece by a jump-cut edit as loud and merciless as a sucker punch or an axe blow. You even hear the clunk as the mood shifts; Jo switching abruptly into deadpan recitation against a Bic backdrop of guitar static and wind texture, as impassive as the prophetess taken over by the voice of the prophecy.

Whether sung or spoken, the sentences are broken off; dark, punching surrealist gobbets of foreseeing and ruin. “Silence in the air. / Things endure, things evolve. / Between the slopes fivers fly up onto the dream floor. / Fire spreads her text of flame as serious as food / Our towers of graph paper fold up into the silence, / delicate as the girl who leaves the stone and the water – / and the bright moan of the green, / the collapse of a black age. / In the end we never know what we know.” It sounds like something buried deep in peat in order to time-travel; transmitting a warning, or possibly a testament.


 
‘The United Kingdom’ is (mostly) another eleven-year-old recovering from Jo Spratley’s Babyskullz solo project: one which just happens to fit in with ‘Bright Fivers’. It’s another recitation, delivered by Jo to pattering drumbox and orchestrated in minimal, thrifty make-do fashion. Two-finger melodica. Guttural just-picked-it up guitar lines and milk-bottle vibraphone. Cobwebby analogue synth gurgles, dub distancings and dirty blats of fireworks.

Something about the rhythm and chant suggests the cheesy old white-rap anti-classic ‘Ice Ice Baby’. Everything about the words doesn’t, as Jo narrates (in newsprint monotone) a set of disappearances. “A man who hears bells who loves cars” misses his train only to drop out of routine and out of existence; a corporate lawyer vanishes during her solo boat trip; fifty years ago, a cancer specialist who “wraps her dolls in graph-paper by the light of the moon” is last seen in car headlights by the edge of a cliff. All three are obliquely connected by hearts: their rhythms or their interruption, their presence as eviscerated occult trophies or as enigmatic markers; presumably also by the locked-up desires, secrets and clues they contain. All cases are left open; mysteries which slip into shadowed corners of modern folklore or Lynchian dreams. There’s a stress on the regular and on the irregular, but no conclusion on either.


 
As haunting as this can be (and it does build on regular repetition, an inconclusion which nags to be solved), it’s still Bic’s dark-psychedelia project Mikrokosmos which dominates this particular set, providing three tracks out of the five. Two are brief snapshot instrumentals, deliberately left incomplete or brought to dismissive halts. Recorded in 1993 during Mikrokosmos’ cramped early sessions in west London, ‘In the Machine Room’ is an jarring but strangely satisfying hybrid of claustrophobic paranoia and sweet naivety. An uncomfortable electronic hum and weirdly organic rattling (like mice beginning to panic inside a generator housing) passes into a bright nursery march played on assorted guitars, drums and bombastic little synths. For forty-eight seconds, post-industrial grot tussles with twinkly daydream.


 
I assume that Bic escaped from whatever it was that was polluting him: ‘Frag. Familiar’, from 2014, was completed nearly two decades later (long after Bic had quit London), but it missed the boat for Mikrocosmos’ ‘Terra Familiar’ abum. It’s as confusing as its predecessor. A sustained cosmic slam: a huge guitar downchord which is allowed to trail away, while delicate waltzing keyboards come forward to shine over the top. They dance with another brutally distorted guitar line – butterflies courting Bigfoot – before everything hits the wall, topples over and cuts off. There’s a farcical humour to this music. It shows you the stars but then suddenly pulls away the rug, or drops the time-clock on the telescope viewing: almost deliberately crass in the way it brings you back down to earth with a bump. I suspect that there’s a touch of reverse psychology here. To move forward properly, you have to overcome the bumps, denials and trip-ups.


 
Another ‘Terra Familiar’ outtake, ‘Cell by Cell’, is more substantial and developed: a six-and-a-half minute song rather than a peculiar fragment. It’s also a dubbier return to Bic’s Dark Star days: almost a Massive Attack take on that band’s life-scarred fin-de-siècle urban psychedelia, taking in similar elements of Hawkwind space rock and Killing Joke post-punk grimness to offset Bic’s sighing, waify sweetness. There’s a Dark Star-ish sense of resignation too, a voice-of-the-casualty effect as Bic reflects on exhaustion and disassociation, on being swallowed by routine and self-absorption. ‘Just swim, / float to the surface – / as if it’s so easy, you show me again. / But time weighs me down so gently / and all our ideas just drift away, / sinking, / lost in the moment. / Ennui is so easy / and to the end we divide. / Cell by cell to solitary worlds – / undesigned, undesired. / Islands in an ocean of thought / turning inwards defied / to meet with the gaze of impermanence eyes…’


 
The formal Confinement message for this EP is one of “a constellation of songs brought together by this rarefied time. Pulled through the thickness of life and her knowing machine. Mixed and mastered in April 2020 and flung into the dark of these ends of days. Here we are. All alone, together, as one.” As a message of solidarity, it’s an ambiguous comfort: but, as they say, here we are. Questions unanswered. Brutal breaks in expectations. People disappearing, grips gradually lost. Name it, share the names, and perhaps fight it.

Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY: ‘CONFINEMENT-release3’
The Confinement Tapes, CONFINEMENT-release3
Download/streaming EP
Released: 7th May 2020
Get it from:
free or pay-what-you-like download from Bandcamp (As with all Confinement Tapes releases, any money earned goes support care funds for Tim Smith, Tim Quy or Jon Poole of Cardiacs – see previous posts.)

Mikrokosmos online:
Bandcamp Last FM

Babyskullz (Jo Spratley) online:
Facebook Twitter

Crayola Lectern (Cola Ray) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Vimeo Spotify Amazon Music

MUMMY online:
Facebook Bandcamp
 

May 2020 – single & track reviews – MultiTraction Orchestra’s ‘Emerge Entangled’; Stuart Wilding’s ‘Spaces’ and ‘Horns’

5 May

Conceived during coronavirus lockdown, MultiTraction Orchestra is the latest brainchild of cross-disciplinary Sefiroth/Blue-Eyed Hawk guitarist Alex Roth (currently pursuing new avenues and familial roots in Kraków). It’s his way of fighting the entropy, fear and disassociation of the times: part-corralling/part-embracing a cluster of diverse yet sympathetic musicians, recruited via friendship and open-source callups on the web. ‘Emerge Entangled’ is the first result: twenty-seven players working from Alex’s initial two-and-a-half minute pass of treated, multi-layered minimalist guitarwork. If the video accompaniment (a graceful come-and-go conference call featuring most of the players) is anything to go by, Alex played the part of benign/mostly absent god for this recording. There are no solos, no aggressive chord comping. In the few shots in which they feature, his guitars and pedals sit by themselves in a system loop creating the drone with no further intervention. Instead, Alex acts as the invisible mind on faders, reshuffling the instrumental echoes and response which came back from his loop broadcast.

MultiTraction Orchestra: 'Emerge Entangled'

MultiTraction Orchestra: ‘Emerge Entangled’

It’s an eight-city affair; although the majority of musicians hail from Alex’s other base, London (including his percussionist brother and Sefiroth bandmate Simon, trombonists Kieran Stickle McLeod and Raphael Clarkson, Rosanna Ter-Berg on flute, Madwort reedsman Tom Ward on clarinet, drummer Jon Scott and effects-laden double bassist Dave Manington), the MultiTraction net spreads wide. Finnish cellist Teemu Mastovaara, from Turku, is probably the most northerly contributor; Mexico City saxophonist Asaph Sánchez the most southerly; and Texas-based glockenspieler and touch guitarist Cedric Theys the most westerly. (Muscovian tuba player Paul Tkachenko and Lebanon-based iPad manipulator Stephanie Merchak can battle out as to who’s holding it down for the east).

Instrumentally, although there’s a definite slanting towards deep strings, brass and rolling-cloud drones, there’s plenty of variety: from the vintage Baroque flute of Gdańsk’s Maja Miró to the Juno 6 colourings of London soundtracker Jon Opstad and the homemade Coptic lute of Exeter-based Ian Summers. Alex’s other brother, saxophonist Nick, features in the Dublin contingent alongside the accordion work of Kenneth Whelan and cello from Mary Barnecutt. Most of the remaining string players are dotted around England (with double bassist Huw V. Williams and James Banner in St Albans and Leeds respectively, and violinist Alex Harker in Huddersfield). There’s a knot of contributory electronica coming out of Birmingham from Andrew Woodhead and John Callaghan (with virtual synthesist Emile Bojesen chipping in from Winchester), and some final London contributions from jazz pianist/singer Joy Ellis and sometime Anna Calvi collaborator Mally Harpaz bringing in harmonium, timpani and xylophone.

Alex’s past and present work includes jazz, experimental noise, soulfully mournful Sephardic folk music and dance theatre; and while his guitar basework for ‘Emerge Entangled’ seems to recall the harmonic stillness and rippling, near-static anticipatory qualities of 1970s German experimental music such as Cluster (as well as Terry Riley or Fripp and Eno), plenty of these other ingredients swim into the final mix. I suspect that the entanglement Alex intends to evoke is quantum rather than snarl-up: a mutuality unhindered by distance. From its blind beginnings (no-one hearing any other musicians apart from Alex) what’s emerged from the experiment is something which sounds pre-composed; or, at the very least, spun from mutual sympathy.


 
There are definite sections. An overture in which increasingly wild and concerned trombone leads over building, hovering strings and accordion (gradually joined by burgeoning harmonium, filtered-in glockenspiel and percussion, dusk-flickers of bass clarinet, cello and synth) sounds like New Orleans funeral music hijacked by Godspeed! You Black Emperor; the first seepage of flood water through the wall. With a change in beat and emphasis, and the push of drums, the second section breaks free into something more ragged and complicated – a muted metal-fatigue trombone part protesting over synth drone and subterranean tuba growl, which in turn morphs into a double bass line. Various other parts make fleeting appearances (a transverse flute trill, Alex’s guitar loops bumped up against jazz drumkit rolls; a repeating, rising, scalar/microtonal passage on lute, like a Holy Land lament). Throughout, there’s a sense of apprehension, with something ominous lurking outside in the sky and the air and elements; the more melodic or prominent instruments an array of voices trying to make sense of it, their dialects, personalities, arguments and experiences different, but their querulous humanity following a common flow.

Via touches of piano, theme alternations come faster and faster. A third section foregrounds the tuba, moving in and out in deep largo passages while assorted electronics build up a bed of electrostutter underneath. During the latter, watch out in the video for benign eccentronica-cabaret jester John Callaghan, quietly drinking a mugful of tea as his laptop pulses and trembles out a gentle staccato blur. It’s not the most dramatic of contributions, but it feels like a significant one: the mundaneity and transcendent patience which must be accepted as part of lockdown life, an acknowledgement of “this too will pass”. For the fourth section, a tuba line passes seamlessly into a bass clarinet undulation with touches of silver flute; accelerations and rallentandos up and down. Initially some spacier free-jazz flotsam makes its presence felt – electronics and cosmic synth zaps, saxophonic key rattles, buzzes and puffs, fly-ins of cello and double bass. The later part, though, is more of a classical meditation: beatless and with most instruments at rest, predominantly given over to the dark romance of Teemu Mastovaara’s lengthy cello solo (apprehensive, heavy on the vibrato and harmonic string noise, part chamber meditation and part camel call). The finale takes the underlying tensions, squeezes them in one hand and disperses them. An open duet between Jo Ellis’ piano icicles and Asaph Sánchez’s classic tenor ballad saxophone, it becomes a trio with Jo’s glorious, wordless vocal part: hanging in the air somewhere between grief and peace. A moving, thrilling picture of the simultaneously confined and stretched worldspace we’re currently living in, and a small triumph of collaboration against the lockdown odds.

* * * * * * * *

Although ‘Emerge Entangled’ has a number of masterfully responsive drummers and percussionists in place already, it’s a shame that Cheltenham/Xposed Club improv mainstay Stuart Wilding isn’t one of them. His Ghost Mind quartet (three players plus a wide world picture woven in through field recording) have proved themselves to be one of the most interesting listen-and-incorporate bands of recent years. However, he’s continued to be busy with his own lockdown music. ‘Spaces’ and “Horns” are personal solo-duets – possibly single-take, in-situ recordings. Both created in the usual Xposed Club home of Francis Close Hall Chapel, they’re direct and in-the-moment enough that you can hear the click of the stop button. Stuart’s apparently playing piano mostly with one hand while rustling, tapping and upsetting percussion with the other. By the sound of it the main percussion element is probably his lap harp or a zither, being attacked for string noise and resonance.

Assuming that that’s the case, ‘Spaces’ pits grating, dragging stringflutter racket against the broken-up, mostly rhythmic midrange exploration of an unfailingly cheerful piano. Sometimes a struck or skidded note on the percussion prompts a direct echo on the piano. As the former becomes more of a frantic, swarming whirligig of tortured instrumentation (as so frequently with Stuart, recalling the frenetic and cheeky allsorts swirl of Jamie Muir with Derek Bailey and King Crimson), picking out these moments of congruence becomes ever more of a game: while in the latter half, the piano cuts free on whimsical, delighted little leaps of its own. About half the length of ‘Spaces’, ‘Horns’ begins with the percussion apparently chain-sawing the piano in half while the latter embarks on a rollicking one-handed attempt at a hunting tune. The piano wins out. I’m not sure what became of the fox.



 

MultiTraction Orchestra: ‘Emerge Entangled’
self-released, no catalogue number or barcode
Download/streaming track
Released: 1st May 2020
Get it from:
download from Bandcamp, Apple Music or Amazon; stream from Soundcloud, YouTube, Deezer, Google Play, Spotify and Apple Music.
MultiTraction Orchestra/Alex Roth online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music

Stuart Wilding: ‘Spaces’ & ‘Horns’
self-released, no catalogue number or barcode
Download/streaming tracks
Released: 5th May 2020
Get it from:
Bandcamp – ‘Spaces‘ and ‘Horns
Stuart Wilding online:
Facebook Bandcamp
 

April 2020 – single & track reviews – Jesse Cutts/Heavy Lamb’s ‘CONFINEMENT_release2’; Godcaster’s ‘Serpentine Carcass Crux Birth’; Kryptograf’s ‘The Veil’

17 Apr

Heavy Lamb/Jesse Cutts: 'CONFINEMENT_release 2'

Heavy Lamb/Jesse Cutts: ‘CONFINEMENT_release 2’

Following up Jo Spratley and Bic Hayes’ disinterring of interesting outtake/buried gem cover versions for the first of the Confinement Tapes releases, Jo’s son Jesse Cutts offers his own familial reinterpretations.

Firstly, his intermittent Brighton odd-rock band Heavy Lamb (a deliverer of “loud demented pop” since 2014 and currently a duo, victims of persistent lineup changes and self-induced social media wipes) breaks cover again for a cover of a Cardiacs tune, ‘Odd Even’. Bar a dew-sprinkling new proggy midsection, it’s pretty true to the original: perky acoustic guitars, psychedelic organ crunchiness, and a happily teetering stack of chords. They even reproduce its Very Happy Caterpillar of a keyboard solo, down to the last charging feint and twiddle. Jo herself guests on lead vocals, and is less of a punk sphinx than usual – although with a tune as bouncy as this one, that can hardly be helped. Like the best Cardiacs songs, it defies easy comprehension. Odd Even embraces life, death, weeping, burial and trust, and flies to you and away from you like a friendly sparrow that can’t quite make its mind up.


 
Jesse’s other offering is a solo track: his version of ‘Carefree Clothes’, originally by Cardiacs-family folk-poppers The Shrubbies (the perky precursors to North Sea Radio Orchestra). In all honesty, there’s little to tell the difference between Jesse and Heavy Lamb anymore. It’s all a fresh rejuvenation of the bouncy, wilful noisy Anglo-pop line which takes in XTC, Supergrass and Two Door Cinema Club, and which sneakily conceals its sophistication behind its enthusiasm and hookiness.


 
It sounds as if Jo may be on board for this one too, which features vocals recorded on Brighton beach “just after the world flipped on its side”. That’s the only hint of Confinement Tape lockdown blues in the whole effort, which is otherwise a springtime hit. Or, to be clearer, a glittering sun-tickled hit of springtime, romping in the garden and throwing concern to the wind. It’s like a little Deist singalong, pulled into raptures by budding daffodils, and not in the least bit embarrassed. As with the previous Confinement release, you can pick this up for nothing, but any cash that you do chuck into the hat goes to support various seriously incapacitated Cardiacs, so try to give generously.

Godcaster: 'Serpentine Carcass Crux Birth'

Godcaster: ‘Serpentine Carcass Crux Birth’

Since their emergence at the start of last year, Godcaster have spat out a sequence of songs like technicolour hairballs. Sometimes they’ve been wild-haired funk followers, a set of white wastrels getting high off the Mothership’s exhaust; or tuneful noise-botherers in the vein of Mercury Rev or The Flaming Lips. At other times, they’ve been fiddly post-Zappa freaks hiding their own sophistication behind a clattery mask.

‘Serpentine Carcass Crux Birth’ pins them to the more complex corner of their freak flag for now. It wouldn’t be out of place at a Cardiacs celebration: a garage knocking-out which won’t be constrained to basics. A hammering kinked (and Kinked) riff starts off immediate and direct, but then ladders off through far too many chord changes: just because it can, and because that kind of triumphant harmonic parkour is somehow just what it takes to con fleapit-venue punks into yelling bebop licks.

The lyrics fit admirably, wrapping themselves around delusions of grandeur and escalating through a violent shower of weirdness. “When I think about how I was born, / the tearing flesh and scales blow my horror horn… / Circumcision of my eye. / Widows cry, / punctured it was by Satan’s arrow. / Sic Red Sea Pharaoh – / Leaving all my wives to bear my children while I / die to my flesh, die to this world, eating the flesh, drinking the wine. / My soul the divine.” You get two minutes of jarring fireworks, and then that’s it; a micro-epic that does its job and then evaporates, like a ancient temple which suddenly explodes.


 

Krypograf: 'The Veil'

Krypograf: ‘The Veil’

No such flightiness for Kryptograf. The Norwegians give you heavy guitar psych in the late ’60s vein of The Groundhogs; and that’s what you get, seasoned by just a little Motorpsycho and Black Sabbath. It’s heads-down, well-trodden non-nonsense oogly for biker blokes who know what they like, their old acid trips hanging like brooding firefly sparks round their craggy brows.

If you know what that’s like, you’ll have no surprises with how ‘The Veil’ is. A ride around a well-trodden circuit, spinning a well-tended wheel; a journey in which no-one ever really gets off the saddle.


 

Jesse Cutts/Heavy Lamb: ‘CONFINEMENT_release2’
The Confinement Tapes, CONFINEMENT_release2
Download/streaming single
Released: 8th April 2020
Get it from:
free/pay-what-you-like download from Bandcamp
Jesse Cutts/Heavy Lamb online:
Facebook Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM

Godcaster: ‘Serpentine Carcass Crux Birth’
Ramp Local (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 13th April 2020

Get it from: download from Bandcamp or Amazon Music; stream from Spotify
Godcaster online:
Facebook Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Spotify Instagram Amazon Music

Kryptograf: ‘The Veil’
Apollon Records, no catalogue number or barcode
Download/streaming single
Released: 17th April 2020

Get it from: download from Bandcamp, stream from Amazon Music or Spotify
Kryptograf online:
Facebook Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music
 

April 2020 – EP reviews – MUMMY/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos – ‘CONFINEMENT/release1’ (“the triumph of love over fear and torpor”)

10 Apr

Family. Extended. Play. For life partners Jo Spratley (she of Spratleys Japs) and the elusive/ubiquitous Christian Hayes, a.k.a. Bic (who’s played howling, whirling, stuttering textural/post-punk/psych guitars for Dark Star, Cardiacs and Levitation, as well as adding extra noisy or unearthly touchs to projects by Julianne Regan, Heidi Berry and Pet Shop Boys) – plus Jo’s son Jesse Cutts (Spratleys Japs bass player and Heavy Lamb mainstay) – coronavirus lockdown is providing an opportunity to get their musical lives in better order.

M U M M Y/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: 'CONFINEMENT​/_release1'

M U M M Y/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: ‘CONFINEMENT​/_release1’

Being stuck at home on the Sussex coast means the initiation of the Confinement Tapes. They’re unearthing sundry old recordings from hard drives, biscuit tins, gutted harmoniums or wherever else they may have stashed or forgotten them. They’re polishing them up, and getting them out into the world, while simultaneously raising a bit of money for the ongoing care of various ailing Cardiacs members. (All cash raised from this is going into the support funds for Tims Smith and Quy, as well as the recently beset Jon Poole – if you want to save the Confinementeers a bit of trouble, you can always donate directly via the latter links and just download this lot for free afterwards).

Clearly the Confinementeers see this as something of a resurrection – Jo, in particular, has kept a very low profile for the past year (despite the Spratleys’ triumphant return to action in 2016) and for the past decade or so Bic has been more noted for low-key backups within (or behind) other people’s projects, rather than his own. In their Bandcamp text, they make metaphorical allusions to pregnancy and labour, to inward journeys, the delivery – in all senses – of a new world, and the renewal of loving connections. In many respects, what they actually seem to be talking about is the triumph of love over fear and torpor, and the way in which music embraces and enables this. What you get as this process begins is a window onto the particular, vivid field of English psychedelia which the Confinementeers belong to, both separately and together, and the sense of rootedness and inspiration which offsets emotional paralysis and impels action. I guess that that’s one of the reasons why the first Confinement release is a trio of cover versions – drawing on inspirations and altered perspectives both English and American, and on the soothings, sympathy and compassion behind apparent nonsense and weirdness; and then providing their own synthesis.

Microkosmos is Bic on his own. I could argue that Bic’s work reached a luminous plateau during the short brooding mid-‘90s life of Dark Star (with their atmospheric tales of vision casualties and burnout cases) but he’d be entitled to argue back. Since then, he’s put out three Mikrocosmos albums – scattered meditative space-dust to Dark Star’s supernova, they shucked off the full-band musculature and had Bic revelling in wan-boy spindliness and a ghostly tenderness. In fact, Mikrokosmos both post- and pre-dates Dark Star. This EP’s echoey cover of Pink Floyd’s Matilda Mother dates back to half-forgotten tapes from 1993, when Bic lived and recorded in London’s skinniest house. It’s pretty much a note-for-note cover: while the fey precision of Syd Barrett’s tones have been replaced by Bic’s drowsy starveling keen (and the Floyd’s pattering remnants of beat-band rhythms have been replaced by drumless harmonium roll and wasp-buzzing noise effects), the melting sleepiness and neediness of the original are absolutely recaptured, from the dusky organ washes to the glissando acid harmony vocals. It’s still centred on childlike wonder, and the pang of interrupted sensation; a door-opener.


 
MUMMY is Bic with Jo. They brought out a couple of EPs three or four years ago; strange, slowed-down skeletal garage-goth songs, like the workings of a pair of fasting spiderborgs, or like a distracted feminised/de-brutalised Swans. In this 2015 outtake, they’re reworking an early Breeders song, Oh! (which also happens to share a title with a Spratleys song). The strumming spass-country feel of the original (melancholy fiddle, close-ups, and of-the-moment neophytery) is replaced by MUMMY’s use of drum machine, Gothic reverb and distant angle-grinder guitar sheeting. Jo’s abstracted alley-queen vocal, emotional but enigmatic, is also very different from Kim Deal’s just-rolled-out-of-bed slur. What can one do with the peculiar original lyric, apparently the words of an insect urging others to run and live despite overwhelming and incomprehensible perils? Relate it back to plague fears and to resilience, I reckon.


 
Babyskullz is Jo on her own: and although this is the first we’ve heard of this particular project, Abade is an eleven-year old track, so Jo’s been incubating her skulliness for a long time now. A 2009 take on a song by the Cardiacs psych-folk spinoff (and Spratleys Japs precursors) Sea Nymphs, this is the most directly familial cover on here. While the Breeders and Floyd covers may be the more familiar songs – and carry more of the psychedelic/indie kudos – this one is the most directly satisfying. Reinvented here as a trio of electronic harmonium, bossa-flavoured drum machine and throaty-to-celestial Jo chorale (punctuated by the surge of waves on Brighton beaches, and with a flurry of suspiciously Bic-ish feedback at the end), it keeps faith with the gentle walking pace and sympathy of the Sea Nymphs original. Its fractured lyric keeping step with the wounded, offering solidarity and – like Oh! – an offbeat encouragement. “And though he walks the mid-day sun / he carries his own vile dungeon around / with him and he’s of / all the more reason to be full of life, full of sound and fury. / Don’t be long, / where were we? / Where we belong.”


 

MUMMY/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: ‘CONFINEMENT/release1’
The Confinement Tapes, CONFINEMENT/release1
Download/streaming EP
Released: 8th April 2020
Get it from:
free or pay-what-you-like fundraising downloads from Bandcamp. (Update, 9th May 2020 – these tracks were made available in the short term and are currently unavailable – if and when they’re restored, I’ll also restore the soundclips. Other Confinement Tapes items are available in the meantime.)

MUMMY online:
Facebook Bandcamp

Babyskullz (Jo Spratley) online:
Facebook Twitter

Mikrokosmos online:
Bandcamp Last FM
 

March 2020 – single & track reviews – Jack Hayter’s ‘The Dark End of the Street’; Bijou Noir’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’; Holly Penfield’s ‘Diggin’ It’

31 Mar

“This old earworm in my head while I take my lonesome walk in the time of Corona. A very rough and ready recording and, sorry, got some of the words wrong. Stay safe and stay well.” Warm, self-deprecatory sentiments from Jack Hayter; under voluntary lockdown in Gravesend, broadcasting via webcam, and toying with his pedal steel and with this venerable “best cheatin’ song ever”.

As ever, he plays himself down. Certainly he can’t complete with the deep Southern soul tones of James Carr from the original version: so regal that they transformed the Penn/Moman tale of stolen backstreet fumbles into the tragedy of a king felled by love. Jack’s voice, in contrast, sounds as if it’s been on the sticky end of about a hundred too many bar fights, losing a lung along the way. As ever, though, it’s a strength – a magnificent, humanising flaw which lends his originals and his interpretations a battered and compassionate humanity.

Compared to the majesty of Carr’s pair of cheaters, Jack’s pair of illicit lovers may be past their best; possibly ignorable shunt-asides in the game of life, perhaps stuck in wrecks of marriages, but neither age nor circumstances kills off instinctive passions. Jack’s rendition tempers the tragedy with an air of flinching defiance: his lovers are going to feel the weight come down on them eventually, but they’re going to drain these moments for whatever all-to-rare life savourings present themselves. “I know time is gonna take its toll / We have to pay for the love we stole / It’s a sin and we know it’s wrong / Oh but our love keeps coming on strong…”

 
Bijou Noir‘s Eurotrance version of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (originally broadcast as part of the Give|Take label’s COVID-20 Live Streaming Series) really ought to be laughable, but it isn’t. The original Beatles version was a benchmark, their front-and-centre pop suddenly kissed by raga and the avant-garde with none of any of the elements involved being diminished. Four decades of airplay might have dulled its impact, but that’s no reason to deny that impact: the feeling of a song curling up at the corners like a magic carpet, of time running every whichway; and beyond that, the ‘Book of the Dead’-inspired call for the death of ego and the willing surrender to the journey beyond it.

Staying true to his own methods, Bijou Noir’s Augustus Watkins sacrifices much. He ignores the original’s specific psychedelic dislocation; he strips the song back to the melody line; and then he refurbishes it with layer upon layer of blushing skirling synthwork, of the kind mined by Simple Minds back in the start of the ’80s. In many respects, it’s the clean edit, and we know what kind of butchery that can involve.


 
Augustus gets around this by tapping into a different egolessness: that of the communality of the dancefloor, where hundreds of solipsistic experiences can merge into a collective spiritual one. What’s left after all of the 1960s sonic wizardry is removed? Lennon’s instinct for tune and directness; a set of instructions which need no technology and, indeed, next to no culture; added to this, Bijou Noir’s knack for the triggers of clubland and the transcendent post-humanity of electronica.

In contrast to the two songs above, ‘Diggin’ It’ might be original, but perhaps it isn’t the best song that a revitalised Holly Penfield has to offer these days. The chorus is pure, hoary corn and it doesn’t have the tango grace of last year’s ‘La Recoleta’. Still, there’s a winning exuberance to its roadhouse rock swagger and its brassy flourishes. Further evidence of Holly’s ongoing trip into roots rock, it’s happy to be a simple celebration of love and contentment, and it brims over with the fulfilment that was missing from the angsty synthpop of her Fragile Human Monster years.


 
With time having added a little extra whisky grain to her gorgeous, gutsy voice, Holly’s spreading the satisfaction – “Never thought I could get this far, / but if love is all then that’s what you are. / With your secret smile and forgiving eyes / your laughing style makes you Buddha-wise / Drank from cups of tears and trust, / paradigms of pain. / Thirsting for / something more -/ and now my glass is overflowing in the pouring rain.” In the spirit of sharing, this is a free download from here, and you can cop a direct quick listen here

Jack Hayter: ‘The Dark End of the Street’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Video-only track
Released:
28th March 2020
Get it from: view on Vimeo and YouTube
Jack Hayter online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Vimeo Deezer Spotify Amazon Music

Bijou Noir: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’
Give|Take, GT012 (no barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
28th March 2020
Get it from: free download from Give|Take online store oy pay-what-you-like from Bandcamp
Bijou Noir online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Spotify Instagram Amazon Music

Holly Penfield: ‘Diggin’ It’
Raymond Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only free single
Released:
31st March 2020
Get it from: free download here
Holly Penfield online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

February 2020 – single & track reviews – Gallery 47’s ‘I Wish I Was’; Wugo’s ‘Océan’; The Powdered Earth’s ‘Blossom’

28 Feb

Gallery 47: 'I Wish I Was'

Gallery 47: ‘I Wish I Was’

From the land of drifting day-jobs and lo-fi song nights, Nottingham’s Jack Peachey, a.k.a. Gallery 47, moves into his second decade of music. As ever, he sounds like a slacker Jon Anderson; one who never left the shared flats and scruffy bedrooms, nor left the airy space of ’60s pop: there’s the high birdy voice, the elevated melodies, the melancholia that only faintly tinges the carefree tunes (cloud shadow on a fine afternoon). His drowsy electric folk-pop is fragile without being brittle or vulnerable: he’s a blade of grass in the breeze, capable of bending in the unwelcome currents.

 
Look a bit deeper, though, and there’s existential horror, treated with a feather-light touch, belying the Andersonian falsetto with a touch of Elliott Smith. Even more, perhaps, a shade of Love’s ‘Forever Changes’, in which everything under the sun also has an ominous shadow. Launching from a tabla zing but immediately settling for drums which flap and billow like a pair of antique flares, ‘I Wish I Was’ shows Jack gently adrift in a world of options, finding in each of them a nearing ghost of entrapment. “Did you know you can search for conditions online? / Read a graph of relative norms and real lives? / How close or far you are from the day you’re gonna die?” The gentle disappointments mass, almost imperceptibly, into a pall, neither family nor travel a solution, with escape into a spliff the only temporary remedy. “See, the jail we’re going to has no get-out card at all…” Throughout, though, the shrug is a gentle-spirited one. Jack doesn’t rail or sulk about things, just gently regrets them and lets them slip over him.

Wugo: ‘Océan’

Wugo: ‘Océan’

‘I Wish I Was’ is about helplessness settling around you like the flapping wings of a friendly pterodactyl. ‘Océan’, the latest song from French bedroom-popster Wugo, is apparently about “a sea change in people, a hope of a collective conscience to set things right.” It’s in his native French, so I can’t quote him directly. Translated, though, it’s a sighed state-of-the-world lament for a literal and figurative sea that’s been polluted by human short-sightedness and greed.

Wugo’s not slow to lay the blame, but he’s not quick to stagnate in despair either, travelling backwards in memory to honour how things once were, hoping that things will be in a better state in future decades, gently dropping a simple ultimatum. To catch the feeling for how it is, bask in the music: powder-blue puffs of synth and wriggly electronic lines like a kite-tail in the sky. Chillout minus the complacency.


 

The Powdered Earth: 'Blossom'

The Powdered Earth: ‘Blossom’

With their third single (after the curtain-raising instrumental of ‘The Atlantic‘ and the illustrative folk testimony of ‘Hold Your Breath‘), The Powdered Earth feel as if they’ve found their centre with ‘Blossom’. Neither of them men in the first flush of youth, they’re well aware that not all lives end in crashes or operatics: that some longer lives will fade delicately instead, like old watercolours.

While instrumental half George Moorey provides misty piano, gently lagging guitar and a touch of synth cello, vocalist Shane Young comes to the fore with a gently narrated observation of an ageing widower’s rituals as he gathers tree and hedge flowers for his empty house; male and meticulous, understated but kindly. If you’re looking for it, there are parallels with Wugo’s chillout in the overlaying of memory with the present (“he chuckles into space / at her disapproving face / as he takes the crystal glassware from its ornamental case. / Along the window sills, / beside dispenser packs of pills, / are the fragrance bottles salvaged from the sale. / She would joke his perfume was brown ale…” ), plus the overlapping of times and promises altered. What’s different is the matter-of-factness about the protracted aftermath of someone’s death, its quietus and continuance: “he ties each sandwich bag / with a disused Christmas tag / and documents the scent with studious care. / Then he shuffles round the house / that he once shared with his spouse / and he fills up every piece of crystalware.”).


 
The spoken poetry is deliberately workmanlike, relying on its sober intimations rather than on over-flowering, and it’s all the more effective for that. Last time around, I mentioned Arab Strap as an unlikely comparison; if Moffat and Middleton stood as witnesses and recounters to dirty realism and damn well made you care about it, Moorey and Young could be said to be doing the same thing for a more genteel and understated strand of realism. You could picture the lyric being spelled out on a bereavement card, or a silver-surfer web meme, but that doesn’t take anything away from its understated compassion. “So precious quick the petals start to brown – / once more into the fields in dressing gown…” Logging the quiet and unspectacular dignity of carrying on. Someone needs to do it.

Gallery 47: ‘I Wish I Was’
Bad Production Records/AWAL (Kobalt)
Download/streaming single
Released:
28th February 2020
Get it from: download via Bandcamp or Amazon Music; stream via Soundcloud, Deezer, Apple Music, YouTube, Google Play or Spotify
Gallery 47 online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Spotify Instagram Amazon Music

Wugo: ‘Océan’
Echo Orange (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
24th February 2020
Get it from: download from Amazon Music; stream via Deezer, YouTube, Spotify
Wugo online:
Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Amazon Music

The Powdered Earth: ‘Blossom’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
28th February 2020
Get it from: now part of the ‘Singles’ EP on Bandcamp
The Powdered Earth online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp YouTube Deezer Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

January 2020 – single & track reviews – The Powdered Earth’s ‘Hold Your Breath’, Broads & Milly Hurst’s ‘Happisburgh’, Lifeboats’ ‘Hurt’

31 Jan

The Powdered Earth: 'Hold Your Breath'

The Powdered Earth: ‘Hold Your Breath’

After their gently atmospheric piano overture earlier in the month, it’s proper debut-single time for Gloucester’s The Powdered Earth: time to find out what they’re actually about. Their ethos is apparently one of writing “little fictions… bringing storytelling to the fore” with a backdrop of “minimalist, melodic melancholia”. With a spec like that, and the previous evidence, you’d expect something like a more genteel piano-based Arab Strap.

Well, not quite… or not yet. Initially, ‘Hold Your Breath’ goes for what seems to be a much bigger and non-fictional story – that of the struggle against deforestation in Brazil – but they tell it in an understated way. In Brazil itself, this tale would probably have come through first-hand, via rap consciência or funk carioca, or possibly as some kind of mournful retro-fado. In the United States, it would probably been plunked or punked out over a banjo as a raucous post-Seeger tale of injustice visited on the working man. From their quiet corner of England, The Powdered Earth tell it in their own soft and sober way, trying to stay true to their instinctive sound while letting the story tell itself.

It sounds like a minimalist piano lieder, sung by Shane Young in a small, precise, discreet voice. George Moorey’s bolstering of synths (squashed brass, mechanical choirs) is similarly small and discreet. The lyrics, too, have the simplicity and directness of a pared-down folk song: “there were many of them. / They were gathered near the wood. / We had only handmade tools / and the clothes in which we stood… The ruling party wielded / the means to terrify, / but evil only triumphs / when we good men stand by.”

Listening to this is an odd experience, since it’s both detached and authoritative. You’re pulled into the gaps in the arrangement, into the void where the anger should be raging, as The Powdered Earth clarify that this is an outrage that occurs over and over again. “Miners brought the mercury / that made the river bend,” Shane pronounces. “Bolsonaro’s loggers / will leave nothing to defend.” The title itself is never mentioned; an unspoken warning to be decoded once you move out from the local outrage and start considering it as a small sign of a bigger problem.


 

Broads & Milly Hurst: 'Happinsburgh'

Broads & Milly Hurst: ‘Happinsburgh’

Over on the other side of England, Norwich ambient ramblers Broads have teamed with kindred spirit Milly Hurst for an album of music inspired and partially built from field recordings made throughout the county of Norfolk. Named after a coastal village, ‘Happisburgh’ is a preview of that work; in itself, with its emphasis on widely-spaced reverberant piano, not too different from what The Powdered Earth are doing.

It’s wordless, though – their own sparse Debussian piano part backed up with a little glitch-static and a growing sweet, subliminal agreement of harmonium. The video is a sequence of slow pans across, and sustained shots of Happisburghian scenes: tumbled groyne stones on the sand, the red-banded lighthouse, blue-brown breakers under the wide Norfolk sky; a solitary cliff bench. The second part picks up speed with a rolling piano arpeggio, the sound of feet running through sand and gravel picked up, glitchified and looped. Towards the end, the footstep loop corrupts and stutters, becomes intermittent, vanishes.


 
Probing gently into location and inspiration, like an archaeologist with a fine brush, unlocks some of the messages. Like much of the Norfolk coast, Happisburgh is eroding, dropping fragment by fragment into the sea. It’s shored up by groynes and by its inhabitants’ reluctance to let it go; but has now been abandoned by government, its support withdrawn. It’s a vanishing village which also happens to be the oldest human settlement in Britain, with ancient flint tools in its earth strata, and with the earth’s oldest human footprints outside of Africa once discovered on its beach. Knowing this, the meanings of the sounds come into sombre and beautiful focus – the currents and tides in the shifting piano; the recorded footsteps, once clear as a bell, becoming obscured by time and processing, ultimately disintegrating out of the picture. Our history, even our deep history, vanishes in front of us.

Lifeboats: 'Hurt' (featuring Rena)

Lifeboats: ‘Hurt’ (featuring Rena)

While Lifeboats‘s ‘Hurt’ doesn’t share much musically with either ‘Happisburgh’ or ‘Hold Your Breath’ (being a piece of noisy post-shoegaze guitar pop) it does sort of fit in here by dint of a shared initial and a shared theme of loss, relinquishment and resistance. Lifeboats are a new teaming of Prod Pritchard (main songwriter for Oxfordshire bands Flow and Airstar, as well as being a right-hand man for Owen Paul) and Austrian singer-songwriter Rena (the latter listed as a guest on this single but, so far, very much part of the sound and craft).

‘Hurt’ bustles along on ahead-of-the-beat guitar thrums, not a million miles away from Ride, the Velvets or from Bowie’s “Heroes”. The last, in particular, serves as inspiration, since Rena’s vocal sings out a weathered but hopeful anthem of taking the blows but remaining resilient – “hurt is just a part of living / just like breathing. / We ache before we are – / and fate is beyond all reason; / and then, every season, / above what we control… / This life / we are born to live in, / and the darkness hiding / but the morning’s coming.” She imagines herself propelled, strengthened, along the airwaves, singing “though I’m cracked and shaking, / I will not be broken. / When life is taking its best shot, / say “is that really all you’ve got?” It’s a simple, solipsistic resistance compared to those implied or required in ‘Hold Your Breath’ and ‘Happisburgh’, but it’s there.

 
The Powdered Earth: ‘Hold Your Breath’
The Powdered Earth (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 31st January 2020

Get it from: now part of the ‘Singles’ EP on Bandcamp
The Powdered Earth online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp YouTube Deezer Spotify Instagram Amazon Music

Broads & Milly Hurst: ‘Happisburgh’
Humm Recordings, HUMM08 (no barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 31st January 2020

Get it from: download from Bandcamp or Amazon; stream from Deezer or Spotify
Broads online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Tumblr Bandcamp Last FM Deezer Instagram Spotify
Milly Hurst online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Vimeo Spotify Instagram

Lifeboats: ‘Hurt (featuring Rena)’
Nub Music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 31st January 2020

Get it from: download from Qobuz or Amazon Music; stream via Soundcloud or Spotify
Lifeboats online:
Soundcloud Spotify

 

January/February 2020 – upcoming London folk/singer-songwriter/experimental gigs – Aga Ujma, Yoni Silver, Yael Roberts, Merlin Nova and Sophie Le Roux at Mortal Oil 2 (24th January) plus Aga Ujma and Nina Harries at PinDrop Session (28th February) and Aga Ujma and The Sages at SOAS (21st February)

22 Jan

Mortal Oil 2, 24th January 2020

More new-ish performance territories; this time down in south London by Nunhead Green, where a somewhat battered but much-loved and independent-spirited shopping local parade currently hosts the Strange Parade venue. The latter is hosting “a night of low-voltage experimental acoustic performance and visual art” at the end of the week, co-curated by Merlin Nova along with filmmaker and photographer Sophie le Roux. This is the second night in the series, which aims to “use no electronic machines (apart from a kettle) and aim to curate acts which have used as little electricity as possible during the processes of their practices.” Tea, whiskey and pom bears are provided as an extra audience incentive; and the last event, back in November, featured (in addition to Merlin) performances by avant-garde double bassist Otto Willberg, all-forms free dancer Sofia Filippou and visual artist Flora Hunt.

Merlin’s been in here several times before as a boundary-hopping singer-instrumentalist, sound artist, poet and monologuist who plunges her imagination and thirst for performance into any opportunity and shapes her art and the situation to fit. Initially a radio broadcaster and soundscaper, she’s the possessor of an unsettling vocal range and a ravenous perspective which she uses for everything from imaginary dronefolk music and the weirdest of weird pop to solo audio dramas…. here’s a selection of what she gets up to.


https://soundcloud.com/user-615512661/to-the-sun

 
Of the two other musicians featured this week, ‘Misfit City’ has previously crossed paths with bass clarinettist/saxophonist Yoni Silver while he was backing Charles Hayward in twisty groove ensemble Timestretch Alarmsong during October last year, and as part of the Ashley Paul Ensemble back in 2017, although he’s also noted for his work with the Hyperion Ensemble. He also sings and plays violin, piano and computer, sometimes simultaneously, so his options for noisemaking are pretty varied. Here’s the A-side of his recent ‘Nethertongue’ cassette, one of his Denis D’Or trio tracks and a solo…



 
As for Aga Ujma, I’ve been hearing about her for a while: a young Polish singer-songwriter and composer also enthralled by English and Indonesian music forms and the connections she makes between them. Though she can quite happily make her way as a singing guitarist with a nice line in Joanna Newson covers (an artist she sometimes resembles, not least in the reedy glory of her vocals) she’s a committed ethnologist who creates art in accordance with her extensive studies, and is as much likely to accompany herself on a quiverful of rarer instruments – the Javanese gamelan-related gender barung xylophone and plucked siter; or the Indonesian sasando, “a gorgeous thirty-two-string, butterfly-winged zither”.




 
The remainder of the evening’s visual art component comes from Yael Roberts, who “hand-prints from found wood to create large scale installations (exploring themes of death, mortality, repetition, and presence.” While she’s got a parallel line in performance art (much of which is captured on video and stills here), her contributions to this particular evening appear to be static art: a set of ceramics made in collaboration with Goldtapped Gallery’s Juliet Fleming.

* * * * * * * *

Aga Ujma + Nina Harries, 28th February 2020I should also mention that Aga Ujma is also playing a couple of other London gigs in February. One is a LaLa Records’ Pin Drop Sessions in Peckham where she’s in a double bill with double bass player singer-songwriter Nina Harries.

As a player, Nina follows in a family tradition (her father Tim Harries has double-bassed prominently for Steeleye Span, Bill Bruford’s Earthworks and Brian Eno, amongst others). That said, her musical development and appetites are very much her own; formed not just by parental example and extensive classical training but by immersion in dance theatre and in work with “story telling star gazing ukulele agit-pop” band The Burning Glass, gonzo bluesman John Fairhurst, folk-punkers Barbarella’s Bang Bang, electro-classicalists the London Electronic Orchestra and Symphonica. Her technique’s impeccable and her songwriter voice wide and unfettered, as happy with the whimsical as the mesmeric.




 
The other concert, a week earlier, is a SOAS music showcase in the centre of town which also features world fusion band The Sages (previously The Seven Sages), featuring Yijia Tu, Peadar Connolly-Davey and Gregor Bauer, and blending music strands from East Asian folk music and Chinese Sizhu with those of western forms of folk and indie rock.

The Sages + Aga Ujma, 21st February 2020

More about them here – “as a diverse cosmopolitan generation growing up under an age of globalization and other social changes, the band aims to explore to break through concepts such as “East” and “West,” cultural identity, and musical “genres” through both original composition and adaption of traditional folk music. Indeed the “The Sages 竹林七贤” is a reference to a group of seven literati, artists and scholars in ancient China who chose to escape mundane and hypocritical secular life and status to live in the remote natural countryside with the companionship of music, poetry, art (and wine) in search of a higher spiritual fulfilment.”

Some examples of what The Sages play are here:

 
* * * * * * * *

Dates:

Mortal Oil 2: Aga Ujma + Yoni Silver + Yael Roberts + Merlin Nova + Sophie Le Roux
Strange Parade, 123 Evelina Road, Nunhead, London, SE15 3HB, England
Friday 24th January 2019, 7.30pm
– information here

SOAS Concert Series presents:
The Sages + Aga Ujma
Brunei Gallery @ SOAS, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, Bloomsbury, London, WC1H 0XG, England
Friday 21st February 2020, 8.00pm
– information here and here

LaLa Records presents
PinDrop Session: Aga Ujma & Nina Harries
One & All Cafe, 28 Peckham Rye, Peckham, London, SE15 4JR, England
Friday 28th February 2020, 7.30pm
– £10 or pay-what-you-can event – information here and here