Archive | November, 1996

November 1996 – album reviews – Various Artists ‘Radio Hepcats’ compilation (“a strong whiff of dark-toned, filigreed, 4AD style introspection… heady, winning underground music”

26 Nov

Various Artists: 'Radio Hepcats'

Various Artists: ‘Radio Hepcats’

Can you can imagine a sort of cross between ‘Friends’ and a pre-job-market ‘This Life’, in which all the characters appear to be played by close relatives of those odd, unclassifiable, button nosed mammals (what the hell were they, then? bear/possum crossbreeds? doughboys?) who got perpetually stuck with the supporting roles in Disney Club comics?

If so, then you’ll have a fair (if reductionist) idea of Martin Wagner’s ongoing graphic novel ‘Hepcats’. Along with its darker and more tragic sister strip ‘Snowblind’, this warm, witty, compassionate and beautifully drawn adult strip – set on the campus of the University of Texas – follows the fortunes of a small group of students (Erica, Joey, Gunther, and Arnie) and their perpetual struggle of balancing friendships and growing maturity with an acceptable level of fun and the freedom to make mistakes. Sounds familiar? In Martin’s hands it’s both recognisable and sparkling.

Currently celebrating a new linkup with Antarctic Press and the consequent release from the headaches and pitfalls of self publishing, Martin’s just expanded the “Hepcats” world by releasing the first in a set of companion CDs: not so much a ‘Hepcats’ soundtrack as just a set of, as Martin puts it, “damn good songs that seem right at home with Erica and the gang.” But if you’re expecting another college beerkeg singalong album, think again.

Despite the tendency of the Hepcats cast to engage in animated chat as opposed to holing up in their bedrooms brooding over a Walkman, there’s a strong whiff of dark-toned, filigreed, 4AD style introspection to this compilation. It’s the tendency of the bands involved to spice their music with a little darkness, a little ornateness: and as a result ‘Radio Hepcats’ is generally closer to the sombre and unsettling shades of ‘Snowblind’ than the lively sun-washed tints of ‘Hepcats’ itself. Green Day’s pogo party this ain’t: it’s more like Ivo Watts-Russell’s children coming home to roost.


 
Explicitly, sometimes. The Curtain Society‘s waltzing Ferris Wheel has that familiar sound of twangling Cocteau Twins bass and grumbling spiky washes of guitar under the melancholic push-and-pull vocals. More of those queasy, giggling, Robin Guthrie-ish guitars show up on Siddal‘s Secrets of the Blind, a two parter that swings unexpectedly from chirpy drunken-fairy pop into one of those Cocteaus alien piano ballads that dislocate you from your own consciousness.

And if you’ve ever wondered what a troubled hermit’s answer to the arresting, barren grandeur of Dead Can Dance might be like, look no further than Soul Whirling Somewhere. Unhittable – utterly isolated and beautiful darkwave – drifts up as if from the bottom of a well: Michael Planter’s ashy, yearning voice floating out from its shrouds of tolling Joy Division bass and dark persuasive ambience, which caress and pull it down like water saturating the clothes of a drowner. It lulls you with sepulchral beauty while draining the warmth out of the room: you can all but see ice forming on the speakers.


 
But let’s not nit-pick. Even if the 4AD pointers can sometimes be pretty self evident, this is – at the very least – an album of heady, winning underground music. They might have some obvious forebears, but the bands on ‘Radio Hepcats’ also possess persuasive and seductive sounds, which are especially welcome in the current atmosphere of half asleep indie and heritage Britpop. With The Red Dots, An April March plunge down into their own thunderous take on guitar heavy dream pop with enough force to squish any of their British shoegazer ancestors (Chapterhouse, Slowdive). This stuff rides on a natural internal dynamic as much as on any phaser pedal setting, and coasts in on a dark thrum of guitar as impersonal and unstoppable as a typhoon.


 
Martin’s offered us the odd surprise, too. Visible Shivers have the sort of name to suggest more of the same chilly darkwave as Soul Whirling Somewhere but prove, in fact, to have the same sort of Southern States nerviness as their near brothers in name, Shudder to Think. Lo-fi country-flavoured twelve-string jangle pop, complete with plaintive harmonica and plonky bass, which on After Glory prances closer to the Appalachian chirp of Robbie Robertson, Dr Hook or ‘Fables…’-era REM than to the stonecarved artiness of much of the rest of the ‘Radio Hepcats’ broadcast. Then there’s William McGinney‘s ‘Hepcats’-themed snatch of filmic lo-fi piano and synthwork, halfway between ‘Knotts Landing’ and Angelo Badalamenti. And to silence any remaining doubts, there’s two more bands on here – the shimmeringly lovely Mistle Thrush and the ever-magnificent No-Man – who transcend genrework altogether.


 
Mistle Thrush open the CD with a soulful seduction, giving us Wake Up (The Sleep Song). First it curls into our hearts like a gorgeously soporific Julee Cruise ballad, and then suddenly expands into a huge cathedralline Bark Psychosis space where Valerie Fargione’s voice strips itself of anxious sugar and powers up into a huge, majestic Patsy Cline alto, as if the lump in our throats has finally gulped them into a place more fit for their bewitching talents. Further on, No-Man provide two wildly different and divergent contributions: the industrial, near incomprehensible clatter pop of Infant Phenomenon (which powers along on a rattling log drum beat, offensively dirty guitars and gasped, abstract lyrics), and the all embracing Steve Reich-ian trance funk of Heaven Taste; a sweetly slumbering twenty plus minute ambient monster with a bellyful of twinkling lights, sky tickling violin, leviathan Mick Karn bass and perhaps a couple of bites of Chartres Cathedral.



 
Martin Wagner’s not only compiled a beautifully-paced compilation album, he’s also given much deserved space to a clutch of very under-regarded bands. And the latest activity on the ‘Hepcats’ site suggests that an even more captivating follow-up compilation is on the way. The whole ‘Hepcats’ affair, both on and off record, is looking like a series well worth tuning in to. Cool for cats and everyone else.

Various Artists: ‘Radio Hepcats’
Antarctic Press, RHCD1 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released:
November 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Long out of-print, rare, and best obtained second-hand. Originally came free with deluxe edition of “Hepcats” #0.
Hepcats online:
Martin Wagner’s Hepcats blog, and online reprints of the original comic at Comic Genesis.
Additional notes: (2020 update) Of the artists on this album, The Curtain Society and No-Man are both still active; Visible Shivers enjoyed a ten year career between 1990 and 2000; Mistle Thrush’s Valerie Forgione was later in Van Elk, while Soul Whirling Somewhere’s Michael Plaster resurfaced in Yttriphie and An April March’s Danella Hocevar later worked as Danellatron. William McGinney has divided his time between film music and academia.
 

November 1996 – EP reviews – Pram’s ‘Music for Your Movies’ (“profundity stretched over that soap-bubble surface”)

18 Nov

Pram: 'Music for Your Movies'

Pram: ‘Music for Your Movies’

A tangible relief. You know when you treasure a band whose very awkwardness is their spur to genius? And you dread the day when they inevitably develop, move on, make that breakthrough? How you torture yourself with wondering exactly how they’re going to sell out, which part of their off-the-wall wonder is going to be sloughed off like an old coat or an outgrown friend? And how wonderful (and how rare) it is, when they make that leap while still swinging all of that weird and precious baggage.

Over four albums and assorted spring showers of invention, Pram have made music which sounds like daydreams captured in rented rooms and played on dolls-house instruments. Tinkly, tiny and exquisite: beautifully fragile songs, with profundity stretched over that soap-bubble surface. Music recorded in the kitchen sink during those sparkling times an hour or so before noon or dusk sets in; dusted by trumpets and cobwebs, and licked by ebbtides of slide guitar. They’ve got only the flakiest of reference points – tranquillised ’50s lounge-music echoes, say; or the ferment of polycultural Birmingham nightclubs; or Can’s immersive and unlikely groove; or the deliquescing pop of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd on See Emily Play (it’s that sustained, wobbly organ, and that obstinate un-rock twitchiness to Daren Garratt’s drumming: free-jazz leanings, or dodgy-but-compelling technique?). They’ve none of the portentousness of yer Sylvians or Cures, and none of the slackitudes of post-rockers: nor the inhumanity of those ambient characters who sound as if they’re wearing their eyeballs back-to-front. Pram’s music has always been winningly human: frail, sensual, intimate, and very lovely.


 
The last time we heard from them (on ‘Sargasso Sea’), Pram had drifted aground and drew wonder even from that, rattling like a wind-harp as they moulded music out of disappointment, sleep and stranded hearts. On ‘Music for Your Movies’, they’ve kept their home-made clatter and every scrap of their inventiveness, but have tightened up their pop. Everything falls into place now instead of merely stumbling together, weaving in delicate threads of dub, drum’n’bass, cinema organ. Rosie’s voice, though still weary conversationalist rather than acrobatic diva, has a new bounce and a lilt to it. And her lyrics (while still existing in the reverie that the white page lends so many poems, crucially detaching them from registering as real life) have a new zest.


 
There’s something celebratory about these songs. The Sargasso that trapped is now a playground for her to transform with enchantment in Sea Jungle’s free-floating love song, while Silver Nitrate celebrates the transforming imaginative power of film as a feminist liberation: “The woman who discovered light / was dazzled by her ingenuity /…With silver nitrate she could make time wait / she could gather all of her hopes and her dreams and make them her destiny / …and spun her thoughts like spiders webs / and with these delicate chains was set free.” On Eggshells it might be Rosie who suffers, locked out from her lover by his own absorption in his past wounds, but she’s the stronger, the more loyal, despite her exposure. Only Carnival of Souls sees Rosie failing to escape the net of her own entrapments, with figures from her past parading through her sleeping head (“feels like I’m living / in a zombie movie”).


 
Pram have already made stagnation seductive. Now, wheels oiled, they’re rolling forward to explore the waking world. Lucky world.

Pram: ‘Music for Your Movies’
Duophonic Super 45s, DS45-CD15 (5024545032727)
CD/vinyl EP
Released:
18th November 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Pram online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Amazon Music
 

November 1996 – mini-album reviews – Bunty Chunks’ ‘Brain Ep’ (“violent eccentricity and an atmosphere of coded warning”)

16 Nov
Bunty Chunks: 'Brain Ep'

Bunty Chunks: ‘Brain Ep’

A bizarre, triple-jointed noise, ‘Brain Ep’ is twenty-two minutes worth of sixteen razor-honed two-minute songs. Any band of indie stoners could copy this note for note, slow it down by two-thirds and still end up with enough music for three years of releases. Bunty Chunks slam it all out at once. They’re probably one of the only groups who could deliver you a full concept album using only a split 7-inch with Napalm Death. And the Ep is short for Epilepsy.

So what kind of band would name themselves after a dismembered issue of a long-defunct girl’s comic? Well, theirs is a sound of seriously intense stunt guitar, twitchy hardcore tub-bashing and voice-of-doom Valkyrie vocals from Lisa Bailey. It’s as if Steve Vai (during his Zappa tenure, not his metal stardom) had skidded on the soap during bathtime, crashed through the window dripping and naked as a newborn, and finally fallen splat through next door’s roof, straigh into the middle of a women-only workshop of opera lessons. (Yeah, well, things like that happen to me most weeks…) I could also suggest L7 doing a jigsaw with Wire, Slapp Happy being forced to speak after being shut away and mainlining espresso for a solid month, or a Public Image Ltd. lineup with a Zappa complexity fetish. Otherwise there don’t seem to be many precedents for Bunty Chunks’ music. Which is a shame, because then life would be a lot more interesting than it actually is.

‘Brain Ep’ delivers a fruit salad stunt-punk, where the guitar weaves ridiculously complicated loops as Lisa vomits up hairball blasts of surrealist rhetoric. These in turn are decorated with scattered ad-slogans, one-liners and dismembered moments of sharp poetry. Seemingly taking as much influence from random cartoons and Rorschach blots as from real life, Bunty Chunks lean heavily into a disturbed world of childlike imagination and often topple into ludicrous playroom weirdness. Songs sport titles like Dog Made of Foam, Kojak Ring of Confidence or Fly Away Sausage Boy. Lisa’s lyrics are full of sinister, comical transformations: feet turn into chickens, stirrup pumps hurl abuse, and even Pavarotti reveals a hideous alter-ego. Yet there are stories in there too (embedded in the word-rashes) even if they do seem to have been tied in knots by a Turkish masseur and forced through a shattered kaleidoscope.

Lisa’s unstoppable voice – iron-hard and utterly committed, with a car-alarm urgency – is key to this. Taking what could otherwise be colourful whimsy, she pushes it out sounding like no-nonsense observation. She can navigate the paranoid mutterings and memories of a vagrant (in Hobo) or hurl out chattering expressions of rage at the demands of scrounging friends and partners (in Pay Up Ape). Similarly, she can also handle the put-upon fretting that sizzles in The Cat Tooth; the feverish dreams of mortality and aging in We Grow Up With Bones; and all of the bizarre characters that these songs suggest are marching in and out of her memory and life like a plague of amorphous, opportunistic aliens. (“Years later I would say I realise then, the only thing you can sell and still own… he was not a cripple, but he could pretend to be like no other.”)

While there’s little variety in her arresting, confrontational tone, its sheer conviction nails Bunty Chunks’ apparent flights of fancy down hard to the tarmac, rendering them as gritty as life in a rotting tower block. Despite the hallucinatory feel of the band’s songs, her edge gives them a visionary clarity. Lisa’s simultaneously the person who urgently buttonholes you for attention in the wasteland, and the woman who’s guarding and watching at the door, keeping a hard eye on the inside and the outside. Balanced between violent eccentricity and an atmosphere of coded warning, ‘Brain Ep’ comes across like a lifetime of very tricky parallel-dimension social work, carried out in a city of grotesques.

Considering that they’re the ones who got us into this, Bunty Chunks make pretty good guides to get us through. This in spite of the fact that they’ve junked verse-chorus-verse, and you’d better come in strapped up for a relentless (sometimes irritating) barrage of storm-tossed notes. But it’s worth the visit. At the very least you get to see Lisa and the other ‘Chunks playing with giddy intent: within sight of a million tunes yet never settling on any particular one, with eyes and ears stretched far too wide open to settle for anything as simple as boy-meets-girl. “Brain ep convulsions.” You said it, Lisa. Fits for a queen. So where’s the sixty-minute triple album, then?

Bunty Chunks: ‘Brain Ep’
Noiseburger Records, NB5 (5019148710073)
CD-only mini-album
Released: 1996

Buy it from:
Long deleted – look for this second-hand.

Bunty Chunks online:
LastFM

November 1996 – album reviews – Labradford’s ‘Labradford’ (“aural massage never sounded so nerve-wracking”)

15 Nov

Labradford: 'Labradford'

Labradford: ‘Labradford’

With two albums already behind them, it’s time to stop lumping Labradford in with Tortoise as the only two notable examples of American post-rock. Post-rock is an uncomfortable catch-all that can’t really adequately describe a spectrum that takes in the noisy Trans Am at one end and the classical minimalism of Rachel’s at the other. And where Tortoise approach from an obviously jazzy direction, Labradford’s methods are ice-cold developments on ambience that now seem to be reaching a creative peak.

When a known band suddenly gives, say, their third album the name of the band (the way one would usually do for a debut), you can generally guess that they’re making a pointed statement of identity and distancing themselves from much of what went before. And – appropriately – ‘Labradford’ is Labradford’s most fulfilling statement so far; showing a fully-developed band consolidating the intriguing (but ultimately frustrating and insubstantial) thumbnail sketches they provided on ‘Prazision’ and ‘A Stable Reference’.

Experiments like the deep sub-frequency bass – straight out of acid house – dropping into the chilling ambience of The Cipher or the dissonant tones that break up the background of Lake Speed are perhaps signs of ears being opened to electronica; although this also leads to a loss of the band’s shared interest in the ancient music and religious plainsong which influenced their earlier albums. And which kept me listening past the point where I’d gotten infuriated by their sheer collegiate lethargy, the way they sounded like something made by people who only got out of bed to turn their Neu! record over.

That spectral and distinctly European quality is missing from this year’s model to be replaced by more obviously technologically produced atmospherics, and better production has separated out the sounds from the claustrophobia of ‘A Stable Reference’. The addition of rhythms, albeit perfunctory and not necessarily conventional drum sounds, makes a big difference to the progress of the pieces. Where previously Labradford songs started, hung in stasis in a foggy air and then disappeared, there is now a definite propulsion, a moving forward. Reassuringly, though, we’re not talking 120 bpm…


 
For a group dealing in mainly instrumental ambient atmospheres, it comes as something of a joy to come across titles that, for once, bear some relation to the sounds being heard. The first track really does sound like a Phantom Channel Crossing – the most nightmarish vision imaginable of a midnight journey in a tin hulk of a ferry. The engines, the chains, the metallic resonances, the emptiness – all there. Maybe I’m imagining things. Painting my own picture for the sounds I’m hearing.

But if that’s not what Labradford’s all about, then there’s no point. This is a gallery of sound, rather than music. And yes, Midrange really does appear to exist all in that spectrum. It’s claustrophobic. While Mark Nelson’s voice mouths more of his usual indecipherable profundities over the group’s ghostly atmospherics, it is noticeable that more light is seeping into the sonic palette – distant violins and, most distinct from the usual swirling morass, a subtly tapped-out rhythm. It still ends with the growing unease of that Labradford noise, however – the closest description being the amplified sound of air ventilation.


 
Lake Speed is underpinned by a metronomic, surprisingly insistent bass drum rhythm, like a niggling thought tapping constantly on the wall of your brain. “Like a clock / In pieces / On the floor / I try to fix it fast / So I don’t lose too much time” – and as the clock ticks, all manner of worryingly gentle alarms go off in the background. It gives the impression of a David Lynch piece that is seeking to add to your feelings of paranoia. Aural massage never sounded so nerve-wracking. One of the track’s twisted and elongated effects sounds like a man giving vent to a low, painful scream. It’s buried deep in the mix… but it’s there. How appropriate.


 
Scenic Recovery retains much of the sound and atmosphere of Lake Speed. But still the thoughts keep churning away inside. The tap-tap-tapping rhythm has altered slightly – suddenly it’s the regular but ineffectual pulse of a coma patient. As the mire of sound envelops you, and tension hangs in the air, a solitary violin carries a melody through the ether. Pico is one of Labradford’s “songs”; rather than just shifting atmospheres. Almost hymnal in its simplicity – a sequence of heartbreaking chords, a melody that is played by a friendly alien on a space-age tin whistle, a barely-there whisper of a vocal and another minimalist, almost endearingly clumsy rhythm. The pace is processional, almost holy.



 
Oh God, how does one describe The Cipher? It is just there. It exists, like sounds exist even in the most silent of nights. Look, this is the sound of digital and analogue air rustling chains. Ghostly. Calming. It is all of these things. But mostly, it just is.


 
Battered, the closer, is almost eventful. Delicately balanced on a hesitant mandolin-like guitar, a brightly melodic riff, and with a beep providing the rhythm – coma patients again, nurse – it hits a Cocteaus-like bliss-out at the end. Perfect pop for Prozac people.


 
The last notes we hear are desert guitars drifting into the night. Death Valley, here we come…

(review by Col Ainsley)

Labradford: ‘Labradford’
Mute Liberation Technologies/Blast First Records, BFFP 136CD (5 016027 611360)
CD/download album
Released: 12th November 1996

Get it from:
(2018 update) CD best obtained second-hand, or download from Bandcamp.

Labradford online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

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